The car pulled up in front of the school. Todd looked out of his window towards the main entrance of Horace O’bryant Middle School. It had been a just over a week since he had been released from quarantine and given the all clear, two weeks since the incident at the house. This was his first day back at school and he was a little nervous. He got out of the car and turned to close the door. “Todd,” his dad said leaning over to the passenger-side window, “are you sure this is what you want?” Sam had tried to convince his son to take Uncle John up on his offer of arranging a place at Cody’s school. He had been worried about his son’s safety and if he’d had his way, Todd would have gone to school surrounded by armed guards. In the week he’d spent on Sentinel after being released from quarantine, Todd’s dad had spent nearly every minute with him. It was understandable though, he had almost lost his son that night. But Todd was adamant that he wasn’t going to hide for the rest of his life, nor did he want to be shielded from the real world like his cousin. Somehow, he had managed to convince his dad to let him return to his normal school. He was a little suspicious that his dad had acquiesced so easily.
“I’ll be fine, quit worrying about me.” Todd said a little too sharply and shouldered his backpack. Taking a deep breath, he walked through the main entrance and towards the playground. He received more than a few strange looks from the other kids as he walked onto the playground. Several people pointed at him and whispered to their friends. He started to wonder if this was such a good idea, maybe dad had been right, maybe he should have waited another week but Todd had been eager to get back to school. He’d already had a rough start to the eighth grade and missing two weeks near the start of the school year probably wasn’t going to help.
He was about to turn around and head back to the gate when he heard voice cut across the playground noise. “Todd, you’re back!” Todd looked up and saw a boy his own age running towards him.
“Hey A J.” Todd had joined the school at the start of the school year after moving to Key West earlier in the summer. He hadn’t had much time to make friends but thankfully, most of the other children in his class hadn’t made it too hard for the new boy to settle in. Todd had been lucky enough to find himself sitting at a desk next to Andrew Jarvis on his first day and once the usual adolescent awkwardness had passed, he had made his first friend since moving to Florida. “Did I miss much?” He asked as A J skidded to a stop in front of him.
“Never mind that,” A J asked him, his eyes wide open, “is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“Billy Taylor’s dad’s a cop,” A J explained, “and he said that his dad said that you got shot, that there was blood everywhere!” Several of his classmates were also starting to move over towards them, forming a small group around him.
Todd sighed inwardly, so much for the cover story that Uncle John had drilled into him. If A J knew then it was a good chance that half the kids in school knew as well; things like that spread quickly across the playground. He could try to deny it, stick to the cover story, but that would be difficult if half the school was already convinced of the truth. Besides, he hadn’t been comfortable about having to lie to his new friend in the first place. “It’s not as bad as Billy’s making out,” he said hoping his dad wouldn’t be too mad about this.
“Are you calling my dad a liar?” Billy said from behind Todd.
“That’s … that’s not I meant.” Todd stuttered, more than a little intimidated by the larger boy.
A J asked him again. “Well, did you get shot or not?”
Sam watched his son enter the school before driving off. As well as being impulsive, his son had a stubborn streak a mile wide. Todd got that stubbornness from his mother. Like her, once he had his mind set on something, there was very little that could be done to change it. He could have put his foot down, sent Todd to that boarding school whether he wanted to or not but for some reason he didn’t. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to take any steps to protect his son. As he stopped at the intersection waiting for the lights, he reached over and switched on the dashboard mounted GPS unit. The LCD touch screen lit up and displayed a map showing the car’s current location. Sam pressed the little magnifying glass icon, activating the “Find” function, and an onscreen keyboard replaced the map. He tapped on the keys, spelling the word “Todd” and pressed the “OK” button. The map reappeared centred over the school where had dropped his son off. A blinking yellow dot appeared over the school; Sam pressed dot and the screen blanked for a second. A live satellite feed appeared and zoomed in on the school playground. Sam could see Todd standing with a group of other children, oblivious to the fact that he was being watched from space. Last night, he had given Todd a present. A brand new digital watch, crammed with features, half of which he knew the boy would probably never use. Todd had rolled his eyes at the gadget but had taken the present nonetheless; it was a cool looking watch after all. What Todd didn’t know was that Sam had placed a GPS chip in the watch; a chip that Sam could use to track his son’s whereabouts at all times using one of Overwatch’s satellites orbiting over the US. Sam had effectively “lojacked” his son, something he knew Todd would be furious about if he ever found out. The car behind him beeped its horn, the lights had turned green.
Across the road from the school sat a grey utility van with the logo of a local cable company plastered on its side. A worker sat in front a nearby utility box, a rugged laptop on his knee as he ran a series of connection tests, occasionally cursing. To the casual observer, he appeared to be nothing more than a technician trying to track down a fault within the area’s broadband or cable TV connection. However, the act was a lie; his work with the utility box was merely a cover for his real job.
He watched the young boy that he had been ordered to spy on get out of his father’s car. The last time he had seen Todd Marshall, he had been lying in his father’s arms bleeding to death after he had nearly emptied an entire clip into the boy. With their mission complete, they had returned through the portal only to learn a few days later of the boy’s miraculous survival. Part of him was glad that he had survived, he had never been comfortable with shooting the boy. Still, you don’t argue with orders given by a man that orders the death of a child merely to underscore a point he is trying to make.
The man tapped a series of notes in coded shorthand on his laptop as Todd entered the school. He hoped that he wouldn’t be ordered to finish the job; this Todd seemed like a good kid. Looking up from the laptop, he saw Todd surrounded by a group of school kids and lifting his t-shirt up. “What’s that all about?” He wondered.
“Brutal,” A J whistled as Todd lifted his t-shirt. He had been browbeaten by Billy into showing his chest after admitting that he had been shot. Todd had learnt on his first day that Billy usually got what he wanted and he didn’t want to have to explain to his dad again why he had black eye. Although the nanobots had repaired most of the damage caused by the gunshots without leaving any marks, a knot of scar tissue had been left behind on the right hand side of his stomach where several bullets had hit close together. The flesh had been torn ragged by the entry of the bullets but the nanobots had been able to knit the flesh back together making it appear as only a single gunshot wound. “Did it hurt much?”
“Dunno,” Todd lied, “I woke up in hospital a couple of days later. Don’t remember anything about Sunday night.” He tried to downplay the situation, make it sound less serious than it actually was. Then Billy just had to pipe in with the fact that Paragon had been present at Todd’s house. If this had been New York, where Todd had lived for ten years before moving to Key West, no one would have cared about the presence of the super. Super-battles were so common there that they barely made it to the traffic reports, never mind the nightly news. However, here in Key West, supers and super-battles were rare. Todd thanked God that no one had any idea that Paragon was his uncle or that his dad freelanced for Overwatch.
“You met Paragon?” A J said wide-eyed. “That is so awesome, what was he like?”
“Er … did you miss the part where I said I was unconscious and I don’t remember anything.” Across the playground, he saw his homeroom teacher walking towards the classroom block. “Hey, I’ll catch up with you guys in class.” Todd picked up his backpack and jogged away from the group towards his teacher. “Miss Gunderson!”
Sarah Gunderson turned around at the sound of his voice and flashed a kind smile when she saw him running over. “Todd, I didn’t know you were back at school today. How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay Miss,” Todd said smiling back. He liked Miss Gunderson, unlike many of the teachers he’d had previously, she didn’t make him feel stupid when he asked a question in class or didn’t understand something because of his dyslexia. She also had the patience to deal with him fairly when he acted up in class and made sure that if he needed extra help because of his problems that he always got it. She was a new teacher, having only started at the school at the start of the year and she was still enthusiastic about teaching.
“That’s good to hear. Now, what can I help you with?”
“I missed the math test on the 21st and I was wondering if there was any way I could take it during lunch?”
Miss Gunderson raised an eyebrow, “I thought you hated maths, it always seems to bring out your most colourful language.”
Todd blushed, it was true that sometimes he got so worked up in math lessons that he occasionally cursed out loud in frustration without meaning to. “I know, but I studied really hard for it and I’d like to at least have a go. I’ll probably fail it anyway but I want to able to tell my dad that I tried.”
She laughed softly, “I’m sure you’ll do your best. But perhaps during third period would be a better time to take the test, I wouldn’t want you to miss lunch in order to do some algebra sums. That would be cruel.” The school bell rang and children began to filter towards their classrooms. “I’ll have a word with Mrs Willis and see if I can arrange it for today.”
“Really, thanks Miss, you’re the best.” With that, he turned and ran off to join his classmates, waving as he ran. The teacher watched as Billy came up behind Todd and said something that made the smaller boy scowl. Todd clenched his fists as his face flushed red but to his credit, he managed to control his anger and turn back to A J. Miss Gunderson could see what has coming and she quickened her step to try to intervene. Billy cuffed the back of Todd’s head and she could visibly see the moment that Todd’s patience snapped. The smaller boy span around yelling “LIAR” and struck the side of Billy’s face. The bully leapt onto him sending both of them to the ground where they started kicking and punching each other.
That afternoon, Sam was in his study sitting at his desk. Piled next to him was a stack of unmarked coursework. As well as his research position, Sam also taught a couple of classes, something which gave him a great deal of pleasure. After spending two weeks off work with his son, there were a number of assignments that needed marking and he had decided to work from home so he could clear the backlog. Yet try as he might, he found it hard to concentrate on the mysteries of molecular engineering. His eyes kept wandering across the desk towards another stack of papers, Todd’s test results that he’d brought with him from Sentinel. He started flicking through the test results, hoping inspiration would strike, anything to take his mind off the appointment he had tomorrow with his lawyer about the possible charges he might be facing for injecting Todd with the nanobots. Even though it had been a desperate act done in order to save his son’s life, the Advisory Council had decided to go forward with the charges. On top of it all, earlier in the day he had received a most unwanted phone call from his son’s school.
The front door opened and Sam heard his enter the house noisily. “Baxter, is dad home?” He heard his son yell from the hallway.
“I’m in the study son,” he said answering for the computer, “can you come in here for a minute.”
Todd ran into the study. His face was red, as if he had ran home all the way from the bus stop. His t-shirt was dirty with a small tear near the bottom and there were a few spots of blood on its front. Despite the state of his clothes, Todd was grinning. “Dad,” he said breathlessly while holding a piece of paper, “you’ll never guess…”
Sam looked at his son sternly as he interrupted him, “Todd, the principal called. He said you were fighting again with Billy Taylor.”
Sam pinched the brow of his nose and sighed. “No buts Todd, we’ve talked about this before. I know you find school difficult, and that Billy Taylor is a little thug, but you have to learn to control your anger better. Do you want to get kicked out of another school?”
“Billy Taylor said you were making drugs in the basement and selling them to college students and the bad guys found out and were angry that you were stealing their customers and they came to our house to threaten you and I got shot because you wouldn’t give them a cut of the profits.” Todd said quickly without taking a breath.
“And that’s why you punched him?”
“He started it,” Todd whined defensively, “was I supposed to just stand there and let him tell lies like that.” But his dad wasn’t listening, he kept on talking about not using violence to solve his problems. As he spoke, Todd just got angrier and angrier. He looked down at the piece of paper in his hand, which until a few moments ago had seemed so important.
“Well, what are we going to about this?” Sam asked, looking at his son across the desk.
Todd screwed up the paper was holding into a ball and looked up at his father. His eyes were red and he was holding back tears as he glared angrily at his father. Why couldn’t he make his father understand, why couldn’t he just see that it wasn’t his fault? Why did he have the ruin everything? Dropping the ball of screwed up paper to the floor; he spoke quietly, barely above a whisper but loud enough for Sam to hear. “I hate you.” Todd turned and ran out of the room, not wanting his dad to see him cry.
“Todd wait,” Sam said getting up as his son fled. “Damn,” he thought, “that didn’t go well.” Maybe he had come on too strong, been too hard on him. After all, his son had been provoked into the fight. Sam had so much on his mind; maybe he should have cut his son some slack. Walking around the desk, he picked up a photo frame and sighed. The photograph was the only one that he had of the three of them together, Todd, Helen and himself. It had been taken only a few weeks before the crash in which his wife had died. “I’m a terrible father.” She would’ve known what to do, he was sure of it.
Putting the photo frame back on the bookshelf, Sam noticed the screwed up ball of paper that Todd had left on the carpet. He reached down and picked it up, smoothing out its crumpled surface. It was a graded test paper and in the top corner, circled prominently and with the words “well done” written next to it, was the grade; an A plus. Todd had gotten every single question correct. Sam scanned the paper, all the working out was there, all in Todd’s handwriting. “Wow,” Sam said to himself, “his first A.” No wonder he had been so happy when he came home, he thought, all that hard work had paid off. Then it hit him, Todd must have rushed home to tell him and the first thing that happened is that he received a lecture from his father over a silly playground brawl.
Taking a deep breath, he slowly walked up the stairs towards Todd’s bedroom. Sam knocked on the door. The only answer he got was a muffled “go away” which he ignored and opened the door. Todd had been lying on his bad, his face buried into his pillow. He sat up quickly as Sam came in, wiping his eyes and nose on the back of his sleeve. “What do want now?” Todd said glaring at him from under his fringe.
Sam sat down on the bed next to him handed him the test paper. “You left this downstairs.” His son took the paper off him, sniffing slightly.
“I just wanted you to be proud of me for once,” Todd said quietly, a tear he couldn’t hold back falling onto the test paper.
“Todd,” Sam said in surprise, “I’ve always been proud of you.”
Todd shook his head. “But, you’re like the smartest person in the world, how can you be proud of someone like me. I’m always in trouble at school and I never get good grades. I’ve never got above a C in my life. If I was good at sports that’d be something but I suck at that too.” As he spoke, Sam began to realise that this wasn’t something new; Todd must have been bottling these feelings up for weeks, months perhaps even years. How long had he been hiding these feelings and how could he have not seen them? “My seventh grade teacher was right, I’m a moron.”
“Todd Marshall,” he said turning his son around to face him, “you are not a moron, you are my son and I am proud of you.” Todd opened his mouth to interrupt but Sam kept on talking, saying something he realised he should have said long ago. “You’ve always had difficulties at school because of your problems. But unlike other kids, you’ve never used them as an excuse to just give up. You’ve always tried your hardest to overcome them, and it’s not been easy; it’s been hard but you never stopped trying. That’s why I’m proud of you.” A small smile appeared on his son’s face.
“Really?” Todd asked him.
“Of course,” he answered, pulling his son into a hug. “Just do me a favour, no more fighting to protect the family honour. One superhero in the family is enough.”
Todd awoke in the early hours of Tuesday morning with a thumping headache and a mouth more parched than the Arizona desert. Bleary-eyed, he stumbled out of bed and shuffled his way towards the bathroom. He winced as he switched the light on, temporarily blinded by the sudden light, even though he should have expected it.
“Is everything all right?” Baxter asked quietly from a speaker in the ceiling, the volume of his voice lowered because of the early hour.
“Just a headache, and a bit thirsty,” Todd grunted, “I’ll live.”
“There is a bottle of headache tablets on the bottom shelf of the medicine cabinet.” The computer said helpfully.
“Thanks.” He reached over to the medicine cabinet, having to stand on his tiptoes to reach it, and felt around for several seconds for the bottle before finding it. Todd read the instructions before tipping one of the tablets into his hand and swallowing it along with a gulp of water from a glass. “We’ll see if it’s fast acting or not,” he muttered rubbing his temples in front of the mirror. He stood there for a couple of seconds, looking at his reflection. The weather had been warm and he had gone to bed without a vest or t-shirt. In the glass of the mirror, he could see he could see the knot of scar tissue. Despite how “awesome” his friends at school might have thought it was, to him it was an uncomfortable reminder of just how close he had come. His headache took that moment to send a stab pain rippling across his head. “What sort of alien nano-thingies,” he hissed through gritted teeth, “can heal a dozen gunshots but can’t do anything about a simple headache.”
He was about to leave the bathroom when something strange happened. Grey static washed over his vision, blinding him for several seconds. Todd stumbled towards the sink in panic and was about to call out to Baxter when his vision suddenly cleared. Staring at his reflection in the mirror, and panting heavily with beads of sweat dribbling down his face, he became aware of something very disturbing. Floating in the bottom left of his vision were a series of glowing green characters. Todd didn’t recognise them and he had a feeling that they belonged to no earthly alphabet. Another series of characters appeared in the upper right that changed rapidly; an ever changing sequence of alien letters and pictographs which only stopped when they read “LANGUAGE SETTING: EARTH/HUMAN/ENGLISH.” The characters in the bottom left of his vision changed at the same time to read, “OPTICAL SHUNT ESTABLISHED – BEGIN BIOHOST INTEGRATION PROCEDURE YES/NO?”