|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 10||October, 1999|
[NOTE: Continued from Part One, which originally appeared in Volume 1, Number 8. -Ed.]
"Um, hello," said the tiny, plump shopkeeper. "Good morning." He backed away. They always backed away. They might not realize it consciously, but they always backed away.
Free Citizen Mordred Kunst smiled at the man as best he could. He'd been coming to the comic book store called The Junction for a while--since the middle of May, 6133, which Beta had taught him was...the middle of Autumn, 1934 by Terranovan timekeeping, which was about a season and a half or so--
"Are... Are you okay?" asked the human.
Kunst looked up from his hands into which he had been staring, each finger arranged in just such a way as to be used as a simple arithmetic computer, another trick his Isaac friend Beta had taught him. "Hm?" he asked.
"Oh, I was just wondering if your were okay."
Kunst blinked, trying to comprehend. Ah. He had been so wrapped up in trying to convert his way of keeping dates to their way, he had forgotten to move into the shop: The door still stood open. "Yes, fine, thank you, shopkeeper. I apologize." He stepped through and let the door shut slowly on hydraulic hinges.
The little shopkeeper did an admirable job of pretending to smile. "Oh, you can call me Thomi, you know."
"Yes," Kunst said after a long moment of silence. "I know. But I cannot." Beta--Free Citizen Isaac Dowls--would have had no problem calling the man by his given name. Free Citizen Morgana Kress, too, would have had no problems. To Kunst's mind, though, it wasn't proper. Humans called other humans by their names. GRELs called them by their rank; it was all they ever had to know about a human, and it was only necessary to know the rank in order to decide whether new orders overrode old orders given by a different human.
A civilian human's profession was often as good as rank, and "shopkeeper" had the advantage of actually implying rank: A "cashier" was obviously of lesser rank than a "shopkeeper."
A sad look crossed the human's face, to be replaced hastily with his usual cheerful demeanor. "Okay, that's fine. Ah, what were you looking for today?"
Kunst smiled. The uncomfortable ritual was completed, and now they could get down to business. "The Jolly Rogers," he said. "And...and Ferretzookie." He withdrew a slip of paper on which he had carefully written his list of books. "Jolly Rogers #2 and #3, Ferretzookie #156, #157, and #158, and... Leather Kitten. #37." He felt his face getting warmer, a sign of embarrassment. He hoped the human wouldn't notice his skin turning a mildly darker purple. "It is not for me," he tried to clarify.
"Oh, that's okay. We don't judge people on their choices, you know." The human nevertheless looked pleased somehow at the indecency.
Kunst moaned inwardly, silently. He wished Kress would just come along with him and buy her own comics. Leather Kitten, indeed.
She had tried to explain it to Kunst several times. He understood the words she used, and he understood that the ritual response was to admit to understanding her problem, but he really couldn't understand it. She had said she found it difficult to walk out among human who weren't CEF military personnel. "Whenever I look at one of them, Kunst, I don't see the people we're supposed to be living amongst. I see targets. I see weak points. I see the shortest routes to vital organs. I see a map that tells me where to apply pain and where no pain will be felt. I hear voices that tell me to kill this one swiftly, to let that one live long enough to betray his comrades, to let another one last for days and days." She had looked up at him with her intensely beautiful eyes. "I can't do it. I can't be near them."
"That's okay," he'd said, concluding the ritual. "I understand." But he didn't, not really. The best he could do was think that maybe it was like his inability to address humans by their names. Or like Beta's need to hurt himself.
"Um..." The shopkeeper coughed nervously, trying to get Kunst's attention.
"I apologize once again." Kunst stuffed the scrap of paper into his fatigues. "Perhaps we could start with The Tales of the Jolly Rogers," he suggested.
"Okay." The shopkeeper stepped out from behind the glass counter and lead Kunst to the proper section. Kunst had the vague impression that the shopkeeper couldn't understand why Kunst needed to be shown where to go each time he came to the store. It was a perfectly natural thing to expect, he thought, for a human to take control and show where something was. It felt more comfortable that way; Kunst was more relaxed when following.
It struck him that the shopkeeper's inability to understand why Kunst needed to be shown what to do over and over was the same as Kunst's inability to understand why Kress couldn't walk among humans without wanting to kill them. Humans, of course, were programmed differently than GRELs. That probably accounted for the situation. He would discuss it with Kress and Beta when he returned to their quarters--their home--in the evening.
"Here we are," said the shopkeeper. "And here's Ferretzookie over here."
"Thank you, sir," replied Kunst. He waited until the shopkeeper had returned to his proper place before picking up the comics. The first time Kunst had grabbed a comic, tore away the protective plastic envelope, and forcibly handled every page he had touched, the shopkeeper had paled dramatically. Kunst thought it was unhealthy, but the man had been seemed relieved enough when Kunst had paid for the book. Another mystery for Kunst: The books were meant to be read, to be enjoyed up close, not to be sealed away behind plastic and hidden from sight.
And Mordreds are meant to fight and fight and fight, he reminded himself. To waste themselves on the battlefield, to clear a path for the next Mordred, who would do the same for the one to follow him. They weren't meant to read comic books. Maybe there was an important lesson somewhere in there. Perhaps the comic book could be expected to rise above its purpose, too, on occasion.
Kunst stared up at one of the fluorescent lights that illuminated the shop, his brow knit in thought. No, that seems absurd, he concluded at last, retrieving the books from their white cardboard boxes.
He squatted down on the floor of the shop, neatly hiding himself from view in the trench between two rows of tables. Making no noise, he tore open the packages and started reading. He laughed inwardly at the stories, admired the heroes for their bold actions and brave deeds, but never made a sound. He didn't consciously know why he was silent and hidden--subconsciously, though, his earliest memories screamed and howled at him from the dark, secure place where they'd been lodged while he was still in a glass womb on Caprice: Stay hidden. Stay silent. Only when your commander--your god--orders you to engage the enemy is it okay to yell, to be as large as you can be, to attract attention. Only then.
Kunst stared up at the figure who stood over him. It was a young human, large, but not GREL-large, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail, and he carried a single comic book. The human looked terrified, as they always did when Kunst's kind showed up unexpectedly. He hated it. He hated being hated and feared. He hated everything about it...
He caught himself frowning, which he had discovered tended to make humans even more uncomfortable. He glanced down at Ferretzookie #158; Kunst always found the levity of the book to be relaxing. He glanced back up at the human, who stood staring and unmoving.
Kunst wasn't sure what to do about the situation. Over the years, he had found that his attempts to calm panicking humans in such situations usually only made matters worse. So instead of trying to help out, he simply stood up. It was probably best, he thought, to let the human make the first move.
As Kunst rose to his feet, the human raised an arm in a gesture of self-defense. It was a strange thing to do--after all, if it had been truly necessary for the human to defend himself against Kunst, the gesture would have been largely useless. Nevertheless, Kunst kept his guard up. Fighting with humans--especially Terranovans--was a matter not to be taken lightly. He and some of his fellow Mordreds had long ago concluded that the New Earth Commonwealth's Colonial Expeditionary Force had been defeated because they had taken the Terranovans too lightly. The Jan-stock GRELs scoffed and blamed bad intelligence and native Terranovan luck, but the Mordreds--the GRELs who were most in the thick of the actual battles during the War--thought it was arrogance and carelessness on the part of the NEC that had been their final defeat.
The human made no additional move beyond his first. He wore an expression of dread, like he was awaiting a deathblow.
Kunst forced himself to relax again. The store was mostly quiet, except for the shopkeeper's strange, atonal music. "Fear not, citizen," Kunst began. Thinking that the moment could not probably get much worse, he decided he might as well try to calm the human with the ponytail. "Our collision seems to have left you thankfully uninjured. You are safe."
The human remained strangely silent, still in shock. His eyes darted around, but he stood otherwise perfectly motionless.
Kunst started to worry. He and his friends Kress and Beta had been ordered to live among the humans of Terra Nova, to live long and happy lives. It had seemed like a strange assignment, and at the time, he had thought he could think of more unpleasant ones. A few years later, though, after having been run out of town after town, Kunst had realized it was really the hardest job he had ever had to perform. If the encounter in the comic book store meant the trio would have to leave yet another town, he wasn't sure what he would do. He forced himself to smile, hoping that irrevocable damage had not been done. "You are okay, citizen. Fear not."
The human backed slowly away.
"You're okay," Kunst repeated. He needed the human to be okay. He couldn't bear the thought of having to find yet another town in which to live, of having to tell Kress and Beta that he'd once again ruined their chances for "long and happy lives."
"Y-yes. O-okay," the human said softly, finally overcoming his fear.
Kunst was relieved. He smiled at the human and said, "Good. You're okay."
With the possibility of conflict averted, Kunst focused his attention on the comic that he had noticed the human carried. It was one Kunst had never before seen. It featured a Heavy Gear on the cover that looked unlike the giant robots he had fought years ago. It had a more utilitarian look to it. It struck Kunst as an odd cover. Gentle Sara, it said, #10. "Is it good?" he asked.
The human didn't or couldn't answer.
"The comic," Kunst said, nodding towards the human's book. "Is it good?"
The human glanced down at his own hands and at the book. "Uh, y-yes. V-very, um, g-good," he stammered.
Thinking that it might be best to retreat while he was ahead, to leave the human in relative peace, Kunst concluded, "I will give it a try, then. Thank you citizen." He marched briskly to the back of the store, where he knew the new comics to be. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the shopkeeper and another human quickly glancing away from him, trying to pretend they hadn't been watching the scene intently.
Kunst shook his head slowly, sadly. As he reached the racks of new books, he realized that he'd left the Ferretzookie and Jolly Rogers books on the floor where the human with the ponytail had interrupted his afternoon reading.
He returned to that aisle, to where the human stood with his back to the shop and to all potential threats, the books held gently in his pale hands. Kunst was briefly concerned about interrupting the human and scaring him again, but he pressed on nevertheless. "Ah, thank you again, kind soul," he said loudly, hoping to provide the human with enough warning of his presence. "I left those there by mistake." He reached over the human's shoulder and snatched up the books. He strode across the shop immediately, not pausing to hear the human's response, hoping he'd be okay.
There it was, Gentle Sara #10, with that utilitarian Heavy Gear on the cover. Kunst grabbed it off the shelf and sat on the floor in the corner of the store, ready to dive into the story. By luck, issues #1 through #9 were stored in the neat, long, white boxes on the table behind which Kunst had chosen to hide, so he could page through the entire saga.
He stretched out on his back behind the table, using his knapsack as an impromtu pillow, and started reading. It soon became apparent that "Sara" was the name of the Heavy Gear on the cover, and that it was a Groundhog "Work Gear." Kunst scratched his hairless head. He had heard of such vehicles and even seen a few during his years as a free citizen, but had never really given them a second glance. Homesteaders in the Badlands often used them. Sara had the distinction of being one of the few Heavy Gears that was capable of learning behavior beyond its functional nature.
Kunst's smallish ears perked up at the cry. It had sounded like the shopkeeper, and he had sounded distressed.
The GREL sat upright, closing Gentle Sara #2 and setting it beside his knapsack. His hand drifted to the bag almost on its own, a conditioned response to sounds of distress. He didn't complete the motion, didn't reach into the bag, didn't withdraw the thing his pounding heart half-feared, half-hoped he would have to use. Best not to rush into action, he thought, especially when the consequences of using the contents of the bag were so dire. Kress'd beat the hell out of me.
He peeked over the tops of the boxes of comics that covered the table behind which he hid. A tall, lanky human was at the counter, talking to the shopkeeper. Kunst's eyes narrowed; he didn't like the looks of the customer, even from his current distance, even though the human had his back to Kunst. His general unkempt appearance was part of Kunst's immediate distrust, but the expression on the shopkeeper's face was a larger factor.
The shopkeeper, facing Kunst's position, looked both angry and surprised. He pointed at the lanky human's bag and repeated his previous outcry. "That's my bag!"
The lanky human backed away from the counter, his arms upraised. Kunst couldn't hear what he said, if he said anything at all, but he did note that the man's physical response was one of fear.
Kunst frowned, massaging his chin in thought. In situations such as the one before him, fear often implied guilt. He snatched up his knapsack and crawled around the tables, trying to get closer to the humans so that he could hear what the lanky one was saying and properly Judge him. The significance he had unconsciously placed on the word "Judge" was not lost on Kunst as he caressed the contents of his knapsack. He knew he would have to use those contents, and damn the consequences. He regretted that it would almost certainly lead to his having to move on, to having to leave the city of Canterbury, but if his suspicious were correct, and if the lanky human had to be Judged, then there would be no other acceptable reaction.
Perhaps the next town would have a good comic book store, too.
He reached a position from which he could listen to the shopkeeper and the suspect. Suspect. Kunst nodded to himself. The lanky human's status had already been bumped to "suspect" in Kunst's mind.
As he started to peek up over his new hiding place, Kunst slowly became aware of another human nearby. Expecting to see the one with the ponytail, he was surprised to find someone else. The human looked just as surprised. Kunst realized it was the man who, along with the shopkeeper, had pretended not to notice him as he spoke with the human with the ponytail.
A witness, thought Kunst. What luck! He reached up one enormous arm and dragged the man forcibly to his knees beside himself. "Explain the situation at the counter, citizen," he whispered.
"Bil," was the man's only response.
Kunst narrowed his eyes. "This is no time for introductions. Explain."
"Er..." began the man. "Well..." He gulped.
Kunst released his hold on the man. "Forgive me," he said. "I don't mean to be rude, but I do need to understand what happened just now. You're in no danger. Unless, of course, you're a Villain, in which case you're in more trouble than you ever knew." Kunst shook his head. That's not quite right. The excitement of the situation was starting to get to him; he was starting to make mistakes. "Sorry, make that 'More trouble than you will ever know again.' How's that?" Kunst thought it was pretty ominous sounding, a good challenge to issue a Villain.
The man blinked, not comprehending.
Kunst sighed heavily, and heard the store's bells jingle. He peeked up over the tables and found that the shopkeeper and the suspect had left the store. He reeled on the witness. "Hurry," he hissed. "Tell me what happened. Lives may be at stake." Kunst wasn't sure how lives might be at stake, but he didn't want to take any chances on the shopkeeper's safety. Besides, it sounded good and kept his own adrenaline pumping.
"Mamoud," cursed the man who called himself 'Bil.' He sat on the floor and looked up at Kunst, somewhat forlorn. "Okay, listen. Just calm down. Thomi--the guy who owns this store--his hovervan was just broken into. Jami--the guy you accosted earlier--he made the discovery. The guy Thomi just left with, he came in here with Thomi's bag, claiming he just bought it from another guy, the guy who actually broken into the van. That's all I got before you grabbed me."
"Hm..." said Kunst, stroking his chin and hefting his knapsack. Within a few moments, he had pieced together the crime: The suspect had broken into the shopkeeper's vehicle and stolen valuable property. Then he had entered the store carrying some of the stolen property; his cover story, that he had bought the property from someone else, was an obvious attempt at misdirection, as was his entering the store in the first place. Who would suspect such a person?
Judge Kunst, that's who.
Kunst reached a decision. Kress wouldn't be happy with him, and neither would Beta, but it was something he had to do. He owed it to the shopkeeper and to the constant struggle of Good versus Evil.
"This is a job for the Judge," he said.
Kunst looked back at the human who still sat on the floor. "Which sounds better? 'This looks like a job for the Judge,' or, 'This is a job for the Judge'?"
"What?" the human repeated.
"Never mind." Kunst looked around the store for a good place from which to use the contents of his knapsack. The way he understood it, a personal communications booth was traditional, but the one time he had tried using one, he had caused such an uproar that the Villain had gotten away in the confusion.
There! In the far corner of the store, right beside where he had been reading Gentle Sara, he spotted a door marked "Employees Only." It would suffice.
He sprinted across the store, his knapsack clutched tightly in one hand. He threw open the door, finding what he had hoped to find: The small door lead to the store's one-man latrine. Perfect. Kunst stepped inside, slammed shut the door, and eagerly tore open his knapsack...
Judge Kunst, also known simply as "the Judge," kicked open the door and strode with pride and grace from the latrine, then ducked back inside for another quick look at himself: He looked magnificent. His spandex bodysuit was as black as the hearts of the Villains he stalked. The white silhouette of the beautiful Lady Justice adorned his chest. His white gloves and white boots were symbols of purity, and a casual glance would tell all who cared to look that the Judge's hands--and feet!--were spotlessly clean. The white cowl that covered his head was but an aerodynamic White Hat, and all Good Guys wore White Hats. The blindfold he wore mirrored Lady Justice's own blindfold, and was symbolic of the impartiality of Justice, though he had to cut holes in it after his very first foray into the world of superhero-dom.
The cape was just icing on the cake, as far as the Judge cared.
He ran back out of the tiny latrine, the darted back once again to fetch the knapsack from which he had extracted his costume and into which he had stuffed his regular clothes.
At last, his preparations complete, the Judge ran to the front of the store, then stopped himself. I'd better pay for the comics, he thought. Through the store windows, he could see the shopkeeper and the ponytailed-human. They stood beside what the Judge assumed was the shopkeeper's hovervan, and they appeared to be safe. ...And paint the van black, give it a suitably dramatic, white hood ornament, and I'd have myself the ideal JudgeMobile. JusticeMobile. Mobile Justice Battle Van. Eh, worry about it later.
He pulled a fistful of the local currency from his knapsack and dropped it on the counter. He hoped it would cover the price of Gentle Sara #1 through #10, as well as the other comics he had picked up.
While he stood at the counter, contemplating the money, the Judge found his initial rush of adrenaline-spawned excitement diminished. Once he stepped out through the front door, he would mostly likely never see the store again. The shopkeeper would become a distant memory; maybe, regrettably, he would even forget about him entirely. The thought saddened him.
I'd better leave a note, he decided.
He found a yellow piece of paper on the counter, advertising what looked like an upcoming Mekong Dominion animated cartoon festival. He shook his head sadly. Kress liked those, but the trio would probably have to be long gone by the time the festival started. The Judge flipped over the advertisement, which was blank on the back, and wrote his short note of thanks to the shopkeeper.
Just as he was signing the note, the Judge caught sight of the suspect--the Villain--sauntering up to the shopkeeper and the human with the ponytail. So, return to the scene of the crime, eh? he thought, placing the pen and the note carefully beside the pile of money. Wasting no more time, he rushed for the door that lead outside--
--Which utterly failed to open in time.
Judge Kunst staggered mildly after the impact with the door. The door itself was destroyed in the process; fortunately, the shopkeeper was probably insured against such mishaps.
A gust of wind grabbed the Judge's cape, spreading it out like the wings of a Greater Toussain preparing to swoop down upon its prey.
"Freeze, Villain!" cried the Judge, an alabaster-gloved hand outstretched towards the lanky Villain. "Your scourge of crime is over, foul wretch."
The Judge noted that everyone looked awe-struck by his entry. Perfect, he thought again. "You have plagued these good citizens for the last time! You have wrought your final crafty lie!" Yes! "No more shall you trouble them!" Perhaps that was a little bit too much. I'll have to make a note to keep heroic challenges to a minimum.
The Judge stepped from the wreckage of the comic book store's doorway and advanced upon the Villain. The Villain was about twenty meters from the Judge when he started to run, but it was no use: Justice would prevail.
The Judge easily caught up with the human and hauled him back several meters through the air to come crashing down upon himself, bones snapping and joints popping. The human made no sound, no motion as the Judge hauled him back to his feet and delivered a solid verdict of Guilty, shattering the man's jaw. The human flew a few more meters back towards the shopkeeper and the human with the ponytail. The Judge grabbed him again, once more pulling him to his feet, and stared icily into his empty, expressionless eyes.
The muscles on the back of his own neck straining, his own body shaking, the Judge stopped himself up short from killing the man outright. He could see that the man was still breathing, that he was merely unconscious and not actually dead. This isn't right. This isn't right. This isn't right, he thought over and over, mouthing the words silently. He was in danger of becoming as Evil as the Villain was.
Kunst dragged the limp body to the shopkeeper and deposited it gracelessly at his feet. Panting from the exertion of the Judge's battle, he managed to force out the words, "I have subdued this Villain." Kunst dropped to his knees and continued, "He... He won't bother you again. Not again. He was crafty. His misdirection almost worked, too." He breathed deeply, relaxing himself, calming down. "Luckily for you, the Judge was on hand." He stood up, towering over the shopkeeper and the human with the ponytail, and noticed that they looked terrified. Damn, he thought.
In the distance, he heard the sounds of emergency vehicles, no doubt the local police forces. Someone must have called them in. Good. Let them take care of the rest of this situation. Kunst returned his attention to the shopkeeper. "And now I must go. The police will be here shortly."
He turned on his heel and briefly looked for an exit route. The police would arrive in the parking lot, so that was out of the question. He glanced at the wall of the building that housed the comic book store. That will do, Kunst thought. He snatched up his knapsack and began climbing.
As Kunst reached the top of wall and climbed over the lip onto the roof, he glanced back down at the shopkeeper and the human with the ponytail. The latter was staring up at him. Kunst tossed him a salute, deciding that was both heroic and appropriate, then scuttled across the roof. The police sirens were getting closer, and he had to get away quickly.
The back end of the building wasn't too far from an adjacent building, which was an office complex of some kind. Kunst leaped across the several-meter gap between the two, landing on an emergency exit stairwell and startling a cat. He climbed the wrought-iron assembly, making for the roof. As he climbed, he noticed that the one of his hands--the one he had used to hit the villain--was covered with blood. With his legs wrapped around a support beam, Kunst tore off both of his gloves and stuff them into his knapsack. He did the same with his cowl; while it looked pretty neat, and was a necessary part of the Judge's costume, it also restricted his vision somewhat.
He continued climbing. The office building was four stories tall, so he reached the top swiftly enough. Fortunately, the day was a Sunday, so the building was probably unoccupied. He surveyed the roof and the nearby buildings. Hiding atop the office building wasn't a good idea, since he had left a trail of blood to the fire escape.
One of the adjacent buildings was taller than the office building, so he ran to that. Another leap across a narrow alley brought him to another fire escape. Clutching the ladder, he paused, breathing heavily. He felt pretty good, full of energy and life. In fact, he felt great: He had been able to live as a Mordred-stock GREL was meant to live--loud, large, and powerful in battle--and he had been able to help out the shopkeeper in his time of need, to uphold the cause, to fight for Justice. He laughed out loud and glanced down the alley towards the main road. A caravan of police vehicles screamed past, heading for the shopping center. Kunst continued climbing.
He reached the roof of the building and rolled over the lip, keeping low. He pulled off his cape, rolled it up into a ball, and stuffed it into his knapsack. His white boots and his black bodysuit followed, and he spent a moment in silence, lying on his back, staring up at the afternoon sky, wearing only his underwear. He would be able to evade pursuit, he thought. Sighing wearily, he dressed himself in his regular fatigues and continued on his way.
While escaping the local police would be easy enough, escaping Kress' anger wouldn't be nearly as easy. He wasn't looking forward to telling her they had to leave before sunset.
To Be Concluded...
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 10||October, 1999|
Heavy Gear is © 1999, Dream Pod 9, Inc. All rights reserved. APAGear is not affiliated with Dream Pod 9 in any way. Submitted material remains the property of the creator.