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Underground - A Merfolk Secret / Ch. 3

M.N. Arzu

bkt_underground_ch_3.jpg

It's never a quiet day when you're a Brooks. Here's chapter 3, as we get closer to the release date for Underground - A Merfolk Secret.

Read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.


3
Trade Off


Scott’s hunger never seemed to recede. As inescapable as the tides, it threatened to drown him if he wasn’t constantly eating. He could go as much as three hours without food, but everything after that was just a painful black hole eating at him from the inside out.

   He’d known hunger before. His short stays on the streets between foster homes had taught him how to live with it, how to survive. But this hunger, this ever-present need for constant feeding, it had to be wrong somehow. Everybody around him assured him it was perfectly normal, and Scott had no way of prodding into their memories to confirm if it had been like that. Without his telepathy, he was reduced to trusting their word—and reading their body language.

   For years, he’d relied on his ability to read humans to survive, so it was back to the basics even among his own kin. Sitting in front of the penthouse pool, Scott ate chips from a large bag—the kind of food that Chris didn’t approve of—and watched Matthew practicing his butterfly style. Privately, Scott thought it was stupid a merman was trying to be a butterfly in the water, but out loud, he just opened his mouth to let more chips in.

   His new family was so weird.

   Matthew trying to be a swimming butterfly was actually the least puzzling aspect of all his siblings. Alex had been avoiding the pool for weeks now. At first, Scott had thought that Alex didn’t want to be in the pool where Scott spent half of his free time trying to regain any spark of telepathy he could. But eventually, he’d realized Alex was avoiding it no matter who was—or who wasn’t—swimming. If Scott wanted to be really suspicious about it, he’d argue that Alex was hiding something. Among merfolk, avoiding water was the safest way to keep any secrets intact.

   “You know, there’s a lot of real food in the fridge,” Christopher said behind him, suppressing a yawn. Wordlessly, Scott walked to the kitchen, the bag of chips in hand. Chris had been sleeping more and more during the afternoons, too. His oldest brother—and newest food policeman—was having trouble sleeping. He’d been tossing and turning at night for months now, practically since their escape from ORCAS.

   Scott could relate. He’d been dreaming about Wallace since becoming a Brooks, but for the past few weeks, he’d actually fallen asleep for entire nights, only to be woken up at dawn by a gripping hunger. Free of Wallace’s mind and menace, he actually slept deeply and soundly. But Chris wasn’t sleeping at night, a fact that Julian was increasingly noticing.

   And that might have been the greatest surprise of them all: Julian’s quiet interest. Scott had caught him staring at his brothers when they were not looking, and Julian would usually smile or wink at him. I see you watching me, it seemed to sheepishly say as Julian wasn’t used to being caught, and Scott never knew how to answer that.

   As he ate the last chip and trashed the bag, he heard their father coming home. Two months ago, Scott would have sensed Julian coming from a mile away, but now all Scott had left were his ordinary senses. He refused to be anything less than an extraordinary merman, though, so he squared his shoulders and chinned up. He was going to figure out how to fit in with the Brookses one way or another. He just had to find what exactly his place as a silent merman was in this family.

   * * *

Matt woke up with a start. For one agonizing moment, he thought he was trapped inside a fish tank, with twenty faceless doctors pressing their gloved hands against the glass, all hungry to touch him. With his heart still pounding, he buried his face against the pillow. Chris was having another nightmare, and Matt had been going along for the ride.

   For weeks now, Matt had been getting more and more attuned to Chris’s mind, which was cool in the waking hours of the day, but not at 3:19 a.m. on a school night. He guessed that since he’d connected to Chris’s and Scott’s minds so often and so deeply to spy on the Council when Wallace was still alive, he’d been left with a hypersensitivity to Chris’s thoughts.

   Thank God I can’t hear Scott, he fleetingly thought as he tried to get back to sleep. Granted, the kid didn’t deserve losing his telepathy in order to get justice, but Scott’s mind was a place better left to the imagination. His little brother had issues that Matt was wholeheartedly happy to leave untouched.

   The curious thing was that Chris didn’t remember his dreams, or the fact that Matt was in them. He often dreamt of being trapped, sometimes in tiny cells, sometimes behind glass walls. Matt always shook them off after a few minutes, and kept them to himself. He was not going to tell his older brother about this, because then Chris would freak out about disturbing poor, little, innocent Matt.

   It would take more than a few scary dreams to disturb him, for sure, and without a second thought, Matt went back to sleep.

* * *

“Dad, I need to tell you something,” Alex said for the hundredth time to the mirror. Close to eight weeks had passed since his classmate Gill had figured out he was a merman, and yet Alex couldn’t bring himself to tell Julian.

   Between Scott’s fried senses, the aftermath with Major White, the fragile trust with Veritas Co., and the UN talks, the last thing Alex wanted was to bring one more trouble to the table.

   Besides, Gill is not a problem. She’s not.

   No, the problem was that he had no idea what Gill believed at this point. She’d told him she didn’t want to know anything regarding merfolk so she wouldn’t betray him—words that still echoed in his head every time he saw her—and so far, she’d been true to her word.

   By this point, Alex was far more concerned with her affiliation with the SWIMMERs, the fanatics around the world who had all these crazy ideas about merfolk. Ideas like magic was involved, castles were built underwater, and mermaids wore shell-bras. The whole thing was insane, but Alex couldn’t forget that those same crazy people had helped him find Scott when it mattered the most. Yet the more he delayed on disclosing this, the worse it was going to be with his father. He tried again with the mirror.

   “You know how I was able to find Scott so fast when Wallace shot him?”

   “Yeah, what about it?” Matt answered as he entered the room, nearly giving Alex a heart attack.

   “What the hell are you doing here?”

   “You just asked me if I knew how you found Scott two seconds ago,” Matt answered, completely confused. “I was on my way to grab something to eat, if that matters,” he added, looking at Alex as if he were crazy.

   “I wasn’t talking to you,” Alex said, prompting Matt to look around the empty room.

   “Right.”

   “I was just practicing how to ask Dad for something, okay?”

   Now this got Matt’s attention. “Is it something risky?” If someone had any experience asking for risky things, that sure was Matt. From parachute classes to driving fast cars, he had a knack for getting Julian’s blood pressure to the roof. But…Matt usually got what he wanted.

   “Maybe,” Alex answered, thinking about Gill, and their secret, and how he was already in over his head.

   Matt sat on the bed. “Okay, the first thing you need to do is to plan for the right moment. He needs to be sufficiently distracted with work, so the first time he hears it, he won’t automatically say no. He’ll think he heard you wrong, and ask for a repeat.”

   Alex sat down as well, now intrigued.

   “So, the second time,” Matt went on, “you start with a story of how you found out about it, and why in the end it makes sense for you to do it.”

   “He won’t shoot you down at that point?”

   “No. Julian likes to listen. He goes in as if you were negotiating. You go in thinking your life depends on it, and that no is not an acceptable answer.”

   Alex’s stomach sank, but he still managed a somewhat strangled, “That easy?”

   Matt arched an eyebrow. “Who said anything about easy? It all depends on how much you want it and how confident you come to the negotiation table. Remember, you have everything to lose, he doesn’t.”

   Alex looked at Matt. We all have everything to lose, he thought. He would talk to Julian tonight. He couldn’t keep waiting for everything to fall apart.  

* * *

The elevator doors opened to the hall leading to his home, and Julian took a moment to collect everyone’s thoughts. He didn’t have the special skills that tracers like Drake did, but he had a father’s intuition that had been honed after years of dealing with teenagers.

   Surprisingly, Matt’s mind was the smoothest of them all. His red and orange colors shone brightly in Julian’s mental currents, in a general good mood. Not two years ago, this would be a cause for celebration. Teenhood had certainly been a volatile time for his son, but with a little luck, he hoped those days were gone.

   Alex’s greens and yellows were muted. They had been for a few weeks now, and although Julian had dismissed it as Alex trying too hard to catch up on school work, he wasn’t so sure anymore. Something was weighing heavily on his introspective son’s mind, and Julian was growing concerned at the prospect of what it might be.

   Further down, Chris’s usual vibrant blues were also muted. Like Julian, Chris worried about the big picture, about diving into The City just to be met with hostile politics, and the situation on the surface with the UN and Major White. But lately, sometimes, Julian thought he caught glimpses of something else, something more insidious and subtle that he couldn’t name. Until he was sure, he didn’t want to bring it to his eldest son’s attention.

   And through all three of them, he got a picture of Scott. His mind was as silent as ever, but through the lenses of his three sons, he got a sense of what was going on in Scott’s life. His youngest was still finding his place in his new family, sometimes by claiming too much distance and space, sometimes by overreacting to the slightest transgressions. At least school kept him busy, and slowly—so very slowly—he was starting to take an interest in family activities. The fact that he was mentally blind was a hard adjustment for all of them, and Julian had to keep a check on his parental anxieties when he couldn’t find Scott with a flick of his mind. If Scott had been a challenge before, now Julian had graduated to the professional league of parenthood.

   As he opened the door, he fleetingly marveled at human parents. He had no idea how they could manage their offspring when they had to rely on their sons and daughters talking to them.

   “Spying on the younger generation?” Drake asked from the living room as Julian entered the penthouse.

   “Spying is such a strong word,” Julian said with a smile, undoing his tie. “And you’re one to talk. I didn’t sense you at all.”

   “I can’t shake the feeling that someone’s watching us,” Drake said, looking strangely unnerved. Wallace had played a hard one on his best friend, and nothing would shake his conviction that someone else had been involved with Wallace two months ago. Someone who hadn’t made a move ever since, if he was even real.

   On the other hand, whoever attacked Chris has been equally silent, and that was seven months ago.

   “Well, do what you need to do. These are dangerous times to be unguarded.”

   “I liked it better when our biggest concern didn’t involve the Pentagon and the next news cycle.”

   “Can’t argue there,” Julian said with a smile. “I certainly liked it better when The City didn’t blame our children for their problems.” Anything with “The City” and “our children” in it made his skin turn into scales. Ever since Jason had so honestly told them that The City blamed surface kids for a sudden need to migrate, Julian’s distrust had skyrocketed. If he could, he would forbid Chris to go down for his own safety.

   But I can’t, and he will go, no matter what.

   “We’re getting old, Julian,” Drake said with mirth. “We’re already nostalgic for the good old days.”

   Dad? Alex asked tentatively, and both Drake and he turned to look in the direction of his room. Are you busy right now?

   Drake looked at him with a raised eyebrow. Whatever Alex had been mulling over was apparently about to come out.

   I have about ten minutes before the Council session starts, he said, looking at his watch. He also yearned for the time when Council meetings were once a month, not every other day.

   Oh, it can wait, then. Alex sounded half relieved, half hesitant, which only puzzled Julian more.

   “Ace used to do the same,” Drake said, a rare mention of his son. “He would work up all this drama, bottle it up for weeks or months, and then just casually spill his heart out at the most inconvenient times,” he said with fondness.

   “It’s probably something to do with school. It’s the only thing that gets him like this.”

   Drake frowned. “Alex is fourteen—”

   “Fifteen. Almost sixteen, actually. He’s just short for his age, but he’s catching up now.”

   “Almost sixteen is usually synonymous with girl trouble. You might have dodged the bullet with Christopher, but Matthew and Alex are still fair game.”

   “You know what? With all we’re dealing with? That would be a welcome problem.”

* * *

“It all starts with one gift, and then it cascades into us losing control,” Aurel warned on the screen, the bright Tokyo skyline looking impressive behind her. Drake had seen the colors of dawn change into the blue skies of midday on the other side of the world, and there was no sign this meeting was going to be over anytime soon. He thoroughly disliked long meetings.

   “It’s not a gift,” Drake said, “it’s payment for helping us keep the kids safe and dealing with Wallace.” There was something that unnerved him about Aurel, but it seemed to change from day to day. And right now, it’s not that she’s absolutely right, but that you don’t like how it sounds coming from her.

   “There are no guarantees they won’t keep asking for more,” Aurel said, her face hard.

   “There are no guarantees they won’t storm my home and take us all prisoner,” Julian said, looking grim. “All that is between freedom and prison is Mayor White’s word that they won’t, as long as I and my family stay exactly where we are. Those are the terms we agreed to.”

   When Drake had sat down at that table in Higgs’s apartment, he’d worked out a deal with White: Keep his family safe, no questions asked, and in return, Drake would give a practical technological advance. Nothing big, but substantial nevertheless. White had agreed with one condition: Julian Brooks and his family did not disappear. A show of good faith, the major had called it, while offering to reduce the surveillance operation significantly.

   “I’d have disappeared the very next hour after he asked you to stay,” Aurel said, an old argument by now.

   “They would’ve hunted us down, all of us, with no hope of ever doing this right,” Julian countered, “and we need to do this right, for the sake of the future generations and those already on the surface.”

   “Okay, we all know what happened,” Mireya said, always the voice of conciliation. “White offered protection for your children, and in exchange, Drake offered to share a new shiny toy. However we feel about this deal, it’s done. White has kept his word, and we have kept ours. But I’m with Aurel on this one.” That made Drake groan inwardly. It never helped when the ladies rallied against the gents. “They won’t stop asking for more, so we have to be smart about this.”

   “What do you have in mind?” Julian asked.

   “Right now?” Mireya said. “Let’s see what they do with what we have to offer. We can keep them happy for a long while with relatively low-impact technology. It’s when they get greedy that things will start getting sour.”

   “White’s a smart man. He’s been making smart moves,” Drake argued.

   “But White is not the man at the top of the chain of command,” Mireya said with a pointed look. “He’s a glorified secretary most of the time. A smart one, sure, but we need to follow up on who’s calling the shots here.”

   “If we’re talking about chains of command,” Lavine said, speaking for the first time in the discussion, “shouldn’t we be making an active attempt to contact The City?”

   All four of them groaned in one way or another. Lavine was the only one completely against the UN talks, the deal with the Pentagon, and anything and everything related with talking to the human race, basically.

   “Lavine—” Aurel started.

   “No. We are five people. Five. And you want to make decisions that affect ten thousand individuals in the depths of the ocean.”

   “We want to make sure the five hundred who are up here are as safe as we can, and you’re not helping when all you bring to the table are fears and signs of doom!” Aurel countered.

   And there was no turning back. This was going to be a long meeting indeed.

* * *

Alex looked intently at the kitchen door, waiting for the right moment to talk to Julian and spill his darkest secret.

   “Don’t,” Matthew said behind him, as he raided the fridge. “Whatever they’re discussing behind closed doors, it’s bad news. Now is not the moment to ask.”

   Alex turned around, stunned. “How do you even know I was thinking about it? Are you pulling a Scott on me?”

   Matt closed the fridge door, half a dozen eggs balanced in his hands. “I don’t know what you’re thinking about, but I can sure feel your anxiety creeping all over my brain.”

   “Is that how you know Julian got bad news?”

   Placing a pan on the stove, Matt frowned at him. “You don’t feel it? For real? The whole house is vibrating with…that. How can you not feel that?”

   “Maybe because Scott didn’t ninja-train me like you two,” Alex said, narrowing his eyes. He still held a grudge against the three of them for not letting him in on spying on the Council.

   “Well, trust me. You don’t want to talk to Julian tonight, especially when you’re so anxious. Sheesh, even your scales are showing,” Matt said, pointing an egg towards Alex’s hand. Surprised, Alex looked down as the scales disappeared, leaving a fleeting rash.

   “Weird,” he whispered as he lightly scratched it.

   “Stress is going to kill you, Squid.”

   Alex glared at his brother. “How come you’re not spying on the Council right now?” he asked instead, while Matt started scrambling his eggs.

   “Can’t without Scott. He was the one who would sneak us in, but I’m nowhere near his skill level. Plus, Julian kinda made me swear, with blood, that I would never do it again.” Matt shrugged nonchalantly, leaving Alex wondering if Matt would eavesdrop if he could, regardless of if he should. “Anyway, I’ll let you know when the right moment to talk with Julian comes.”

   Alex nodded, dejected. One more day. Just one more day.


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