This story was generously and helpfully beta read months ago by both Jane Lebak and Allison Bailey-Laronge. (Sorry it took so long for me to get around to finishing it.) Thanks so much for pointing me in the right direction guys; any remaining glitches are my fault.
On with the show!
by Heather Lynne
Freedom! When you're twelve years old, one of five kids, and have a foster father that's fixated on lessons, training and teamwork, an evening with the house to yourself is a special privilege. Joe hovered in the foyer as the rest of his family debated the all-important matter of who would get to ride shotgun in the ISO car. The decision as to what movie they were going to see had been a snap compared to this.
"You're sure that you don't want to come with us?" Hakase had asked earlier while struggling to put rubber boots on an uncooperative Jinpei. "Maybe I should just send the driver in with the other guys and stay here to keep you company..." //What!? No, No, NO - Oh.// Hakase hadn't smiled, but the slight lift of his eyebrows had reassured Joe that he was only joking.
One by one, the movie-goers trooped outside into the rain. Joe could hear part of Ken's excited conversation with Ryu, something about a new fighter jet simulation game at the theatre arcade. Joe figured the game held more appeal for Ken than the movie, especially since there was a good chance Hakase would spring for the money to play.
Hakase began to follow the other kids, then paused and turned to Joe. "We'll be home by eleven o'clock at the latest. Try to stay out of trouble till then." He held Joe's gaze for an instant. "My cell phone number is on the notice board. In case you get nervous about anything." With that, he walked out to the car, unhurried in spite of the rain pelting down on him.
Joe shut and locked the door behind them. Cupping his hands to the window, he watched as Hakase ended the shotgun argument by belting Jinpei in beside the driver and taking the front passenger seat for himself. Ryu, Jun and Ken were left to scramble into the back. Ryu looked triumphant at having snagged the window seat Joe usually grabbed; Jun just looked resigned at her seat in the middle. All three turned and waved goodbye as the car started down the drive.
Joe watched as the car snaked down the driveway, rain beading off its newly waxed finish. He stayed at the window until the taillights winked out as the car turned left at the entry gate, and they were gone.
Woo-hoo! Joe careened down the hall, his shouts echoing through each empty room as he passed. No dumb family movie for him (//Benji's Big Adventure? Over my dead body!//); tonight he had plans for some serious fun.
One quick trip to the video store had netted him both "Alien" and "Nightmare on Elm Street". The clerk only asked for the spelling of his last name and a phone number - a good thing since Joe hadn't thought to swipe Hakase's membership card. And they carried junk food too - the kind of stuff Hakase never allowed in the ISO kitchen - real sugar and caffeine-filled pop; preservative-stuffed, artificially flavoured potato chips; and those pre-packaged cake and cream things, whatever they were called. It was gonna be a good night.
**Ripley's eyes went wide as she realized what was dripping behind her; visibly trembling, she began to turn slowly around as another set of protruding fang-filled jaws emerged from the alien queen's coated maw.** Joe hunched forward, intent on the screen as the background music shrieked to a crescendo...
And the TV screen flared and went blank while the lamp beside him snapped off. Soda flew as Joe started, and the abrupt surge of his pulse threatened to blow his head off. The TV crackled into silence. The transition to darkness was sudden and complete; he couldn't see a thing.
One heartbeat. Two. Joe took a deep breath, and wiped the coke off his forehead. //It's just a power outage, moron! Do I need to do anything? Call maintenance maybe?// The maintenance office was at the north end of the compound, a good ten minute jog from where he was. The nearest phone was in the kitchen, across the hall.
All ISO hallways were fitted with regulation emergency lights, but there weren't any in the TV room. From his sprawl on the couch, Joe could now see pale blue light seeping in around the doorframe, but it didn't do much to illuminate the room. Instead, the faint glow only accentuated the room's shadows, changing familiar objects into fantastic looming forms.
With the TV noise gone, Joe could hear the previously unnoticed heavy fall of water from the rain outside. The evening's earlier drizzle had transformed into a full-fledged storm, complete with distant rumbles of thunder and faint flashes of lightning on the way. //I guess that explains the power.//
Skkritch. A sound stood out against the background pounding of the rain.
Joe sat bolt upright as a spurt of adrenaline fizzed through his veins and dissipated, tingling, in his fingertips. The noise came
from beyond the doorway, further down the hall. Toward their bedrooms. A scratchy shuffling, then...nothing.
It sounded like...like a slime-covered creature slithering across the floor...like Freddy Kruger's metallic talons gently closing around a doorknob... He swallowed, trying to replace the images with rational thoughts. //Get real. It's something mechanical that has to do with the power. The fan or something.//
That was definitely NOT mechanical. Was it closer than it had been before? Joe pulled his feet from the floor and curled himself into a crouch.
//...Galactor?// The ISO compound had impressive security features...but Joe knew that the main reason for all the security was the growing threat of Galactor. Hakase had dropped a few references to the terrorist group, enough information to fuel many late night whispered sessions between the older boys.
Wasn't sabotage one of their specialties? And assassination of key targets? //Shit-That makes sense.// Joe didn't know exactly what Hakase did for the ISO, but he seemed to be important man, judging from the respect the other staff gave him. //Maybe Galactor knows Hakase lives here. And I'm not supposed to be home. No one is supposed to be home.//
It was hard to breathe evenly. Each inhalation got hijacked by his hammering heart.
Rubbing at his chest with one hand, Joe ticked off the room's contents in his head, seeking something, anything he could use to defend himself. The floor lamp? Snap off a table leg? His gaze darted around the room. Hakase was a practical man; heavy, decorative artifacts were not one of his priorities. There were no wrought-iron candle sticks or antique swords conveniently displayed. //Nobody's stupid enough to leave anything dangerous in a room that's used by kids all day, anyway!//
Except for himself, apparently: eyes now accustomed to the dim light caught sight of a familiar shape half-hidden amid the jumble of comic books and junk food wrappings on the coffee table. Hakase had confiscated all Joe's shuriken earlier in the day when he and Jinpei decided to act out the old William Tell legend, but he'd obviously missed this one.
Deceptively graceful, the shuriken was a dangerous weapon. Hakase had introduced the feathered darts in martial arts training three weeks ago. Shuriken were difficult and unwieldy but Joe had found he had a natural affinity for them. Although he hadn't paid much attention to Hakase's detailed explanation of how balance and momentum came into play, his body just seemed to understand how to throw the shuriken with any direction and force. In the short time they had been
practicing with them, Joe had mastered a target-hit ratio of ninety percent - even better than Ken.
He snatched it up, fingers curling around the spine, seeking their accustomed holds. Light as it was, the shuriken's familiar feel in his hand brought a measure of comfort. //I could...I could take this guy down.// He had the weapon, the skill, and the element of surprise. The rush of adrenaline this time was welcome. He lifted his chin. //Galactor'll learn not to mess with Nambu Hakase and me!//
Carefully, silently, Joe unfolded himself from his perch on the couch. Holding the shuriken close, he crept around to the back of the couch where he had a clear view of the open doorway from the hall. Tensed up on the balls of his feet, he waited for the noise to come again.
//He's right on the other side of the wall!// Joe exhaled, mentally counting to three, trying to focus all his energy on the slender shaft in his hand. He peered into the gloom. //C'mon, c'mon, you can do this.// He fixed his stance and drew back his arm.
Something stirred in the bottom corner of the doorway. Now!
The next morning was Saturday; so the stores opened early. By seven-thirty, Joe had wheeled his bike out of the storage shed, and was pedaling his way to Pets-R-Us to buy Jinpei another hamster.
(This is a work of fanfiction. No hamsters were injured in the production of this story :-)