He can remember flying, soaring beyond cloud and mountain when it happened. No, people insist; any of those he dares to confide in. He must have been falling, they say, maybe parachuting or sky-diving. Still, he remembered. One moment he soared, the next he plummeted to the earth with his head on fire. He remembered crawling out of a crater of his own making before passing out. He didn't know how he was still alive until he realized later he couldn't be killed.
In the years that came after, they called it the Pulse. In its apocryphal fullness it became one of those shared touchstones, an event that, when asked, every single person remembered the detail of the instant it happened.
Except for one.
Kal didn't remember where he came from. He didn't remember where he was going, or where he'd been. All he remembered was the fragment of a name he was not even sure was his to begin with.
Kal roused at the touch of furtive fingers, insinuating into his pocket with deft accuracy. He watched the intruder through slitted eyes for a moment, keeping his heartbeat calmed at sleeping-rate and a leap of recognition stirred all through him at the sight of the man crouched over him, head turned until his profile was limned briefly by light. Richard? the thought licked through him like a tongue of flame, then he opened his eyes fully. He didn't remember who Richard was.
"What are you doing?" he spoke aloud, in a conversational tone, and the man leaped back faster than a normal human reflex would allow.
"Oh, uh...sorry..." The man glanced over his shoulder, poised to flee.
Kal put out a steadying hand. This was the first inkling he'd ever gotten that there was anyone out there like him. The way the man moved, and his reaction time -- they were almost on par with Kal's own, which he'd found through trial and error were much faster than any typical human could dream of.
"Thought you were dead," the man replied, edging toward the limit of the makeshift shelter in the alleyway. He turned his head again, Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed, and as the light touched his face again Kal could see he was young, much younger than Kal would have thought by the mature deep timbre of his voice.
"No, you didn't," Kal contradicted matter-of-factly, because he could read human body language, temperature, and other physical cues like fine print. "You knew I was sleeping, but you tried to pick my pocket anyway." Not like he had much to steal, in any case; Kal performed enough labor at fringe towns to get by, then moved on. He didn't make a habit of staying in one place.
"Then why did you ask?" snapped the young man in return.
Kal shrugged. "Had to break the ice somehow."
The young man eyed him warily. "Well, I'll...I'll just be going now," he said, making a more decisive move for the edge of the alley. There was an old-style gas convertible car at the curb, Kal could see now, so the young man had stopped, thinking to take advantage of an easy mark.
"Don't go," Kal said in low entreaty, and unfurled himself from his makeshift shelter. He still had questions to ask this young man who could spring back fast enough to evade Kal's hand moving for his wrist. As he stood, he got the full measure of the young man's height, who fell short only by an inch or so. Perhaps it was because the young man reminded him of someone, which gave him the impression more than anything in the past decade and change that he was finally getting somewhere in his aimless search.
The young man's eyes turned on him again, wary as a mountain lion poised to spring. "Why not?"
He used the truth as he always did, because anything other than that had always seemed distasteful and anyhow, he could avoid negative consequences just by moving on to the next town, and the next. "Because you can move almost as fast as me," he said forthrightly. "I noticed."
"Yeah, you shouldn't even be able to see something that fast," the young man replied with a half-smirk. "So? You Manticore, too?"
Kal blinked. This meant nothing to him. "I'm Kal," he said.
The young man's eyebrows raised, and he tilted his head reflectively. "Alec," he said after a long pause, holding a hand out.
They shook, and Alec made a brief play for the knuckle-crusher, which he reluctantly conceded with a wince. "Damn, that's a strong grip you've got," he commented, shaking out his hand once they released the clasp. "You have got to be Manticore."
Kal tilted his head in inquiry.
Alec looked at him, eyebrows raised once more. "You're kidding, you don't know?" He turned, pulling his jacket collar down, exposing a black bar code on his neck. "That's not a tattoo, it's a genetic imprint. Means I'm property of Manticore, a transgenic soldier. Or I was, until they went up in flames a couple of nights ago."
Kal's fingers rose to his nape, touching the skin there. Would the pads of his fingers detect an imprint, genetic or not? He'd never had occasion to have the back of his neck checked out and no one had ever mentioned it. There was a strong sense to him that he was 'other,' though; he was something else. He turned, showing his neck to Alec, who tsked softly.
"You're not Manticore," he confirmed. "Or...hell, you still could be, you know; I knew a guy back there, a dog-man, he must've been one of the first. He didn't have a bar code. If you were the first of the X-5 series--"
"I don't remember," Kal interrupted this litany of things that meant nothing to him. "I haven't remembered anything from when I was younger. Not since before the Pulse."
Alec turned a reflective scowl on him, stepping closer to him in the alley. His body language was conflicted, part of it conveying the sense that he didn't give a damn and would be happier leaving him to his fractured memory and the mystery he represented, self-interest urging predominance. The rest of him was curious and the intrigue was currently winning out. "Really? So, what's the first thing you do remember?"
"Flying," he said. Alec's expression registered immediate disbelief. "Falling," he amended, because he recalled it now: the ground, rushing up toward him. Flying was a faint recollection, a dream; the reality had been the agony of an electronic shriek that played over every raw nerve and synapse. Sound and light twisted around him in one gigantic painful contraction that went on forever. Then he'd crashed into the ground.
Alec's brow creased. "Hang-gliding, maybe? Or parachuting into an operation."
No, was on the tip of Kal's tongue, but he shook his head and said nothing.
"Whatever," Alec said, and glanced over his shoulder again. "Not my problem. Look, I have to get out of here, and with White's men on the loose, I can't afford to have anything slow me down."
"White?" Kal prompted, lifting his head in confusion, trying to place the tug of familiarity that came with that name. I'm Richard White...nice to finally meet you. He frowned at Alec, opening his mouth to tell him that he reminded Kal of...someone. He stopped at the look Alec turned on him, all keen appraisal that told Kal without words he was about to be left behind.
"You really don't know anything, do you?" Alec said, and there was a note of pity buried beneath the steel of a young soldier's bravado.
In the distance, a car roared into town. Kal's hearing extended well beyond the range of anyone he'd ever known - well, so far as he could recollect. "No," he said, marking the sound for monitoring. He was acquainted with the notion of leaving town quickly. "At least tell me about White, before you leave?"
"Now, how d'you know I'm leaving?" Alec said, giving him an uneasy grin, but he talked on as if preparing to override any response that Kal might make. "Agent Ames White has been given the charge of disposing of all the evidence of the Manticore project. He's going to kill us all - if he can. I, for one, plan on being far out of his reach and deep underground."
"Oh," Kal replied, disappointed that this didn't prod any shards of memory. He glanced up when the shriek of Jeep tires cleared a corner.
Alec's head snapped up. "Ah, shit," he uttered, a complex look layering his face for a moment with fear, anticipation, resignation.
He broke for the mouth of the alleyway, but a shot from a high-powered rifle drove him back. "That way - go back that way," Alec urged, abandoning his car with one last longing glance in its direction. "Is there an exit that way?"
Kal jogged alongside him, scanning ahead through brick and mortar to seek out a steel fence around the bend, twelve feet high, barbed wire. Scalable for Alec? He didn't know. "There's a high fence," he said.
"I'll risk it," Alec said, picking up the pace as three men appeared behind them at the mouth of the alleyway. "They've got guns, we can't stand and fight."
Kal noted that there was a 'we' now that there were armed men in the equation, shrugged, and shoved Alec ahead of him as bullets whistled through the alley. They scrambled around the corner and Kal stumbled as he took a few rounds to the shoulder; he was thrown forward with the high-velocity impact and collided with Alec.
"You hit?" Alec asked him urgently, clamping onto his wrist and hauling him along.
"I'm fine." Kal glanced behind them, shooting a smoking glare through the empty building, a deserted warehouse, and charring the rifle barrels to uselessness.
There were angry shouts and heels pounding on the pavement as Alec and Kal came up against the high length of steel chain-link fence. "Damn," Alec said with a grimace, then put a hand up to begin scaling it.
Kal caught him by the waist when the men rounded the corner brandishing handguns. He seized Alec and vaulted upward. The young man grunted in surprise, then let out a yell as they soared above the fence and kept going, shooting like an arrow beyond building-height. The ground dropped away and Kal flew.
"You can fly!" Alec yelled, holding still as a stone in his arms. "Don't drop me, man!"
"I've got you," Kal replied, low and reassuring. He picked up speed, marveling over how smooth and very natural it felt, soaring through the air. He'd been right. It hadn't been the falling he truly remembered, at the beginning of the memory left to him.
They made a shaky landing in a stand of trees beyond town and Alec staggered away, putting one hand to the rough bark of a tall evergreen and shuddering. Kal cast a glance around, ear cocked for trouble. All clear for now.
"You all right?" Kal said, aiming a curious look at the young man.
Alec gulped, grimaced, nodded and gave him a weak but sincere grin. "I'm always all right," he replied. "That was amazing. You sure you're a transgenic?"
Kal shrugged and gave him a guileless smile. Since it had been Alec who assumed from the start they shared a common origin, Kal had no means to refute it.
"Aw...damn it, my car," Alex complained, casting a devastated look town-ward. "That was a classic. Damn White's goons, anyhow."
Shaking off the reflexive twitch at the use of that almost-familiar name, Kal turned city-ward and squinted. "Don't worry," he said, then turned a small but decidedly feral smile on his companion. "They'll impound it, and we can retrieve it by nightfall."
"Thanks again," Kal said, pausing with his hand on the door's handle as Alec's convertible idled at the side of the road.
"Nah, thank you," Alec tossed right back at him, waving a casual hand. "If you hadn't been there, those guys would've given me a heck of a lot more trouble." He raised his brows and grinned as if daring Kal to dispute the point that he'd have gotten out of it, period.
Kal nodded and let it drop. Before he could crack the door open, though, Alec interrupted.
"You sure about this?" Alec said, trying for laid-back and overshooting the mark.
"You said it yourself," Kal reminded him. On the drive, he'd made it clear through repetition that one person with transgenic powers was bad; in groups, they risked exposure at twice the rate. "Better off by ourselves, remember?"
"Heh...yeah." Alec looked away. "It's going to be hard enough to get an I.D. for me; I can see why you stick to the small towns, you big galoot."
"Goodbye," Kal said earnestly, and Alec's gaze returned to him.
"Where are you going?" Alec asked him.
Kal shook his head, brow creasing. "I don't know," he confessed. "I'm looking for someone. If I look long enough, I know I'll find them."
Alec favored him with a brief scowl, then pushed his lips out in a reflective sort of pout. "Well, be careful," he offered. "Keep your head down."
Kal nodded, thinking of his reaction to that name, White, and Alec's profile, and trying to knit together enough of a recollection to be useful. He would go east, he thought, because he certainly couldn't get much further west and it hadn't done him any good so far.
Alec added, "And for all our sakes, don't let anyone know you can fly."