Chapter 4: Child Psychology

“Uncle Mel, what’s wrong?” Carla poked her uncle in the chest. The hamburger hat on her head mirrored her movements, nearly poking Mel in the eye with its meaty little fingers. Shock can be paralyzing, but a good way to get over it is to have a hamburger hat puppet thing poke at you. That hat had never been Mel’s favorite when Carla was a kid, but it was worse now, drawing way too much attention to his niece now that she was a young woman. It was also sort of unnerving, between the cartoonish eyes and the fact that it often mirrored its wearer’s movements. Thus Mel shook himself out of his daze and forced himself to answer.

“This is not the best time.” Mel gasped, realizing he had been holding his breath for some time now. “In fact, I don’t think there could be a worse time. Where is your mother?”

Carla had not inherited her mother’s competitive spirit, or her focus, or even her rebellious streak. Perhaps it was because Paula had been pushed so hard by their parents that she’d made up for their strictness with laissez-faire parenting, or maybe it was the genetic influence of Carla’s deadbeat father. Whatever it was, Mel had come to the worried conclusion that his niece was something of a slacker.

Despite her problems with concentration, Carla had recently graduated high school through a combination of natural smarts and sheer luck. But now she didn’t seem to have any idea what to do with her life, content working part-time at a local fast food joint. Whenever Mel bothered her about her lack of goals, Carla would point out that he had never gone to college either.

And now, apparently, her mother had been sent to Massachusetts in a military investigation of the recent airport massacre. “So apparently my mother has been sent to Massachusetts in a military investigation of the recent airport massacre. You’ve seen the news, right?” Carla did not waste time expositing the situation. “Probably only about a week or two, but until then I thought I’d hang out with you. Quality time, like when I was a kid.”

“You cannot be here tonight. There are- there’s murderers here!” Mel had to focus to keep his voice down. “There are rapists and drug addicts and all sorts of nasty men in these cells! It’s no place for a young woman. And as the last Okabe, it’s my goal to protect you.”

Carla rolled her eyes and turned her back, folding her hands together behind her head. “The last? What about Mom? What about me? Face it, this is just another of your he-man crusades. I’m not a little girl anymore, Uncle. All of those people you just described are behind bars, and I don’t plan to chill with them anyway. Just let me hang around here and I’ll stay out of the way, I promise.”

Mel scowled. “No. I’m sorry, I’m putting my foot down. We can hang out when I’m not at work, but there are circumstances outside of my control going on here. I’m not letting you get hurt. Go out and do something more with your life.”

Carla took off the hat, loosing her short black hair. She had always been pretty, getting the good looks of both parents. Japanese and white heritage gave her skin a light tan evenness dotted with freckles and kept her looking younger than she was. There was no way Mel was letting her roam around a prison full of lonely men. But when she turned around Mel saw Carla wearing a scowl matching her uncle’s.

“I’m not just whining here, Uncle. I’m old enough to make my own decisions, whether you like them or not.” She let the hat drop on the ground and it winced with the soft impact. “I’ll see you around.”

And she left.

Mel hardly ever worked the night shift, but he couldn’t just let Warden Genkai guard the new kid by herself. Sure, there were other guards, but none of them had half the training he had. Most of them had taken some self-defense courses in the last few years, but Melchizedek Okabe had been raised to fulfill his family’s legacy since he was a child.

So there he was, nightstick in his dominant hand and flashlight in his right. Maybe it was the caffeine content from fourteen mugs of orange soda, or the paranoia stemming from the warden’s story, but every now and then came a noise that made Mel jump. He’d shine the light and see a rabbit outside the fence or a piece of garbage rolling on the ground and tell himself off, but just a minute later he was tensed up and swearing there were ten ninjas hidden just out of his line of sight.

He chuckled to himself. Ninjas. I’m the closest thing you’ll find to a ninja in this city. Sure, Mel could be overpowered if somebody snuck up on him, but then they’d have to sneak up on him first, now wouldn’t they? He checked his watch. 11:30 at night, pitch black already and still nothing to show for all his preparedness.

The fence shook a few meters behind Mel and there was a rattling boom. He turned around to shine a beam of light where the noise had come from and saw a huge hole in the crisscrossing wire of the fence, like a hundred years of rust had just destroyed the thing in seconds. Turning toward the ground, Mel saw that the circular section of fence stuff had fallen down cleanly. In the time it would take to open a door, someone had made a clean cut through thick steel mesh.

Then there was chaos. At least three men came running through in the dark, charging blindly past the prison guard. None of them seemed tall enough to be Hammerstein, but if what Genkai had said was true, the Redshirts had more than enough mooks to spare. Mel stepped forward and raised his baton to catch at least one of the intruders in the stomach. As he keeled over, another guy slammed into Mel’s side and sent the flashlight spinning into the air. In the light of the spinning bulb Mel saw a naked foot sliding past his shoes. Rather than a sliding tackle, it seemed the guy was trying to trip Mel. Thinking quickly, Mel pushed the balls of his feet down into the solid earth and hopped over the enemy’s sweeping leg.

The rest of the ground was dry.

By what could not have been coincidence, Mel’s feet landed in a patch of mud. He slipped backward, and losing all control of his momentum. Mel threw his arms in front of his face and dropped the baton, landing hard on his elbows.

It all happened in the span of a few seconds. All Mel could see was the flashlight on the ground several feet away from him, and by the time he picked it up, the other men were gone.

He needed to follow. Not just follow- they’d gotten the lead and who knows what they could do before he caught up. He had to cut them off.

Every cell in the prison had an open door and none of the prisoners were anywhere in sight. Cursing his inability to be in two places at once, Mel ran the rest of the way to Smith’s cell.

Mel arrived to find three people in the small room, but none of them were the men who’d attacked him in the yard. Hammerstein was there. He was holding Smith by his collar, the terrified criminal visibly shaking. And Genkai was there, tied tightly to the cell’s bars and coughing violently.

“This guy, huh?” Hammerstein chuckled to himself. “You’re all muddy and beat up, so I’m just going to go out on a limb and say you ran into Joshua. That distraction team was a success after all!”

He took out a gun and pointed it at Smith’s temple.

And then Genkai… just sort of exploded?

There was a pulse of tingling differentness, wind that nearly knocked Mel down again, great heat and unbearable blue light.

Barely visible against the backdrop of an enormous, blue-green thing, Genkai was holding what looked like an ordinary rock above her head. The thing was like a hole in the fabric of reality. Just looking into it made Mel’s head hurt, not because of the light, but just because something about it was fundamentally wrong for this world. Mel’s brain rearranged itself into a Rubik’s cube and solved itself fifty different times in the span of half a second.

Over the rushing wind, the tiny old woman was shouting. “Dammit, Melchizedek, you wannabe-heroic asshole! I told you I had this covered!”

Despite his head expanding and contracting inside his brain, Mel found he was able to respond just find. “You were tied up just a second ago!”

Apparently, Hammerstein had regained himself and started shouting as well. “A ley stone! You wily old biddy, how the hell did you get one of those? That’s Redshirt property, I’ll have you know.”

“Alright, take it back!” The warden chucked the stone at the tall man, bashing him in the nose. He spat out a mouthful of blood.

“Fine, if you won’t let me kill this traitor, something else will!”

He threw Smith into the tear in reality. Mel expected screaming, or a big light show, but nothing of the sort happened. One second, the guy was there, and then he was just gone.

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