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Flatheads

By drakevaughn All Rights Reserved ©

Horror

Chapter 1

A knock punched the door. Iago rolled over and glanced at the blankets huddled beside him. Amaya didn’t stir, but she could sleep through almost anything, one of the few traits Iago didn’t share with his wife. He was such a light sleeper he’d sometimes jerk awake to the rumble of the refrigerator switching on. But not tonight. The vast preparations for the dry season had left him so exhausted that the blanket had smothered him like a layer of wet cement.

“Go away,” he attempted to yell, but it emerged as a garbled snore. Choked by fatigue, he closed his eyes and drifted off, even as the knocking persisted.

“Don’t they realize you need sleep?” Amaya said, but her words echoed as if from a distant void, even though she rested right at his side. The exhaustion yanked him deeper, burying him in a slushy haze. Amaya pressed closer and warmed his body like a baked potato.

“They can wait,” she continued in that ethereal voice. “Perks of being in charge. They have to wait. Leadership requires a clear mind. One rash decision and we all plunge into that damp abyss.”

The blankets shifted. A blast of frigid air fluttered down his side. Iago attempted to roll over, but an invisible hand gripped him, holding him in place. He gasped, but no sound emerged. Amaya hummed, singing in a spectral chant.

Boxes, boxes, tower high. Crimson mist chews the sky. Tides, tides, scouring rush. Drain away, drain away. Flush. Flush. Flush—

She stopped short, her voice plunging into a vacuum.

And they all slide down, Iago thought, finishing the nursery rhyme. And they all slide down.

He waited for her to continue, perhaps with another verse from their childhood, but the chanting ceased. He felt a snug grasp against his shoulder and rolled toward her. Then he saw the man standing at the edge of the bed.

“Sir, are you awake?” In the haze, it took Iago a moment to recognize him.

“Carter, what are you doing here?” Iago jerked up, glaring at his young trustee. Carter released his grasp and stumbled back. Iago turned, noticing the bed was empty. “And where’s Amaya? I was just talking to her.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Chairman.”

“Stop apologizing and tell me where she went.” Iago scanned the room, but saw no sign of her. All her possessions had disappeared. No hairbrush. No vanity mirror. Not even that mermaid statue remained. The barren top of her nightstand rested blank, as if her entire existence had been scrubbed away.

“Oh,” Iago muttered, rubbing his head. He could almost hear her voice still chiming in the rear of his mind, but the unavoidable truth rang louder. Amaya would never sing any more nursery rhymes. She would never cuddle at his side. Nor would she ever exist anywhere outside of his dreams.

“S-sir, you need to get d-dressed,” Carter stuttered, clearly shaken by Iago’s outburst.

“Is this normal?” Iago asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. Normal had no real meaning and only offered a vague reassurance against the tremors of daily life. Routines, standards, customs, all facades to shield from the ugly truth of death. Nothing was more abnormal than the idea of normal.

“What’s the emergency?” he asked Carter, peeking at the clock. 2:14 a.m. The time indicated a seriousness far greater than the usual power failure or food pantry break-in. Iago prayed it wasn’t another riot, or even something worse, such as the reappearance of that underground laundry service.

“A leak on 52. The entire floor has been locked down, but the contamination is from a window on the east side.”

“Not from the roof?” Iago did the calculations. If a leak seeped down from the top of the building, three entire floors would be exposed. Still, only eighty people or so lived up that high, mostly the foolhardy who ignored the inherent risks in exchange for a larger living space. They were a rowdy bunch, defiant and contrary, so Iago hoped to avoid riling them up with a full quarantine.

“Initial reports state it was a window. Of course, we won’t know for sure until daylight.”

“Any fatalities?” Iago assumed the obvious. No way Carter would wake him in the middle of the night for a simple lockdown. If all standard procedures were being followed, there’d be no reason to rush the cleanup until morning.

“Zero. Better yet, only a single room is occupied in that hallway. And it’s four doors away from the leak.”

“Children?” Iago puzzled through the possibilities. He enjoyed his trustee’s optimistic nature, but for once, he wished Carter would cut the good news short and get to the point.

“No, only five adults. Plus, they all work as gatherers, so they’re acquainted with the risks. I doubt any would chance a wider exposure. Even so, they’ve been transported down to the quarantines. To be honest, I think they’re enthused about a two-week paid vacation, even if it’s in a cell.”

“If only I could be that lucky,” Iago muttered, rising from the bed. “Ensure they get whatever they desire–movies, fresh food, maybe some booze if rations permit. Anything to keep them calm.”

“I doubt drinking will keep them calm.” Carter chuckled to himself.

“The way gatherers sauce, if they don’t have a drink, they won’t be calm for long. Damn it, just take care of them. We can’t make quarantine sound like a gulag, otherwise nobody’s going to cooperate. Understand?”

Carter nodded, his laughter cut short. Iago hadn’t meant to use such a sharp tone, but being woken in the middle of the night had a way of souring his mood. With all the other possibilities exhausted, he had a pretty good guess at the reason for this nettlesome interruption.

“Who’s demanding a flush?” Iago crossed the room, running his fingers through his nappy hair. God, what he’d give for a shower, but it’d be many months before he was allowed such a luxury again. He loathed the dry season and the tangles of dandruff-crusted dreadlocks that accompanied it.

“His name is…” Carter shuffled through a handful of papers, dropping some on the floor as he did.

“Doesn’t matter,” Iago interrupted. “Did he have contact with the leak or is this just paranoia?”

“He claims he touched the leak.” Carter paused again, picking up some of the papers from the floor. “If I can find the note, I can tell you what clinic reported the direct contact.”

Iago flipped a switch, illuminating the floodlights for the outer deck. He peered out the window, but the layers of translucent Visqueen lining either side of the glass panes obscured his view. Even in the bright sunlight, his visibility was confined to a couple feet, so now, he could only see the small metallic ledge situated on the other side.

“This happened tonight? It looks bone dry,” Iago said, scanning the ledge for any signs of precipitation.

“According to the mopper logs there was a light misting around midnight. No more than a tenth of an inch.”

“How could that even produce a leak? This is the last thing we need right before the dry season.”

Iago threw on a crusty shirt, fastening the four remaining buttons. He tucked it into a pair of khakis, which were frayed at the bottom. He hoped his fairly-intact sports jacket would conceal these obvious flaws, but knew better than to complain. Most in the Company couldn’t even afford clothes as shabby as these.

“How many damn lives is this going to cost us?” Iago complained, not really seeking an answer.

Carter answered anyhow. “I guess that’s for the board to decide.” He held open the door, and Iago shuffled out into the brisk hallway. Two in the morning and a man’s fate rested in his hands. Still, he’d had far worse starts to the day.

#

All but two chairs were filled by the time Iago entered the boardroom. The eight-story climb to the 34th floor had left him winded, and he did his best to hide his panting. After first being elected Chairman, he’d been offered the usual luxurious three-bedroom apartment down the hall from the boardroom. On nights like tonight, he felt foolish for declining the perk.

Still, he had his reasons. The official one revolved around a fond nostalgia for the place he’d once shared with Amaya. True in a certain sense, but the empty apartment also worked as a harsh reminder of his wife’s death. Tonight was far from the first time he’d dreamed about her only to discover an empty bed upon waking. Moving anywhere would help in letting go.

No, the true reason was the apartment’s balcony. Eleven others also connected to this extended deck, but those windows had been secured, boarded up and sealed beneath a layer of concrete. His alone peered outside, ideal for keeping an eye on the water level, at least that was how the excuse went.

In reality, Iago enjoyed the fresh air. And sometimes in the dry season during his fits of insomnia, he’d dare to climb outside. A single huff of a crisp breeze calmed him more than a lingering bubble bath. A rare indulgence, but a grave one if discovered. So he conceded to the daily eight-story trek up to the boardroom in order to protect these secret outings.

Iago plunked into his chair at the end of the conference table and Matias shot him a glance, signaling the dapper lawyer was representing the case. No surprise, considering his history. Matias had a long list of moppers and gatherers who ran to him anytime they needed a favor. He’d been instrumental in opening the top floors for settlement and argued constantly for increased rations. All in all, a harsh thorn in Iago’s side, but a respected one nevertheless.

Unlike the degenerates he represented, Matias held to the highest ethical standards. Always virtuous and proper, he followed every regulation, even while working tirelessly to overturn them. These principled attitudes reflected all the way down to his dress. Never lacking a tie, his shirts appeared spotless and pressed. A remarkable feat considering the tight regulations on washing machines and steam irons. Iago guessed his gatherer clientele paid him in clothing they’d scavenged from the outside.

Even at this spur-of-the-moment meeting, Matias wore a sleek striped shirt and black wool trousers. The only indication of anything amiss was from his slightly ruffled hair, which lacked its typical not-a-strand-out-of-place appearance. He sat straight in his chair as if a plank was nailed to his back. As Matias scanned the room, he tapped at the oak table.

“Relax.” Nolan placed a hand over Matias’ strumming fingers. Unlike his husband, the bearded Nolan sported a more casual air with a gray hoodie and torn blue jeans.

Matias pulled away, shooting Nolan a dismissive scowl. Iago recognized that look. Identical to the one he’d displayed anytime Amaya had chastised him for fussing too much. And Iago had dismissed her just the same as Matias did Nolan. Still, what’d once seemed justified felt quite the opposite while watching it manifest in this young couple seated across from him.

God, what Iago would’ve given to experience Amaya’s contempt one more time. This was the last thing he’d ever expected to miss, but her scorn had capped his ego. And in her absence, his anger and cynicism had boiled into a nonstop rage. He could feel the explosions rising, knew it was wrong, but couldn’t help seething at everything and everyone.

As Chairman, Iago loathed the exact people who’d elected him to lead. Every day, his hopes for an orderly society imploded as the citizens of the Company revealed themselves as self-serving misers, unwilling to make the most basic sacrifices for the greater good. Sometimes, he wondered if they were any better than the flatheads—just selfish parasites willing to destroy the world for a bigger bite.

“Can we begin?” Matias pounded the table. Nolan shook his head, swiveling away from his husband. Iago motioned toward the lone empty chair.

“Come on,” Matias said. “According to the bylaws, we can proceed as soon as we have quorum.”

“We wait for Korban,” Iago said. Unlike him, Korban lived next door to the boardroom, so close he could probably hear the ruckus through the walls.

“A man’s life is at stake. I see no reason to delay this any further.” Matias pounded again to emphasize his point.

“I understand,” Iago replied, wishing the table was made of rubber instead of the thick reverberating oak. “But another minute won’t hurt anyone.”

Matias growled a protest, bashing both forearms into the table, but Iago sat undeterred. When it came to a flush, best to have the entire board involved, since the sense of exclusion could spark conflict between the floors.

Nor did it help any that Korban represented the most wealthy section in the entire Company, the north side of the 34th floor. Sure, they weren’t inclined to riot, but the “North Fourth,” as they called themselves, did possess alternative means to achieving their goals. Speculation had them behind last year’s fire and subsequent gouging of water prices. Iago didn’t buy into these conspiracy theories, but feared beginning without Korban would only work to ignite more insidious rumors.

“Unanimous attendance has never been a requirement. For every second that passes, the chances of my client’s death grow exponentially.” Matias stood up, spreading his arms wide. “Therefore, if you refuse to proceed, I must lodge a formal complaint. And damages will be sought over the mistreatment of my client.”

“It’s two in the damn morning. Give it a rest.” Iago motioned for him to sit. Matias hovered for a moment, but when Nolan clutched his shoulder, he plunked back into his chair.

Iago stared at the door, doubtful he could delay much longer. Of all the upright qualities Matias possessed, patience wasn’t one. He recalled how Matias had organized the mopper strike after only a few hours of stalled negotiations. Thank goodness it’d been the dry season, otherwise ration increases would’ve been the least of their worries.

Iago held out another few minutes and was just about to begin when Gavin, Korban’s chubby trustee, marched into the room. He huffed choppy breaths and appeared winded from the short hike down the hall. But again, Gavin wheezed even while standing still. How he’d managed to become so massive with the limited rations was a mystery, but being Korban’s trustee must’ve entitled him to quite a number of perks.

Gavin dodged past Carter, who appeared startled by his rapid appearance. Before Iago’s trustee could dart out of the way, the door flew open a second time as Korban barged inside. Unlike Gavin, Korban made no attempt to avoid Carter, almost toppling him as he stampeded through the room like a bull. As Korban passed, Matias jerked his chair out, blocking the path.

“Good morning,” Korban said, stopping his charge. He eyed Matias and snickered.

“Good morning, indeed. And don’t you look handsome. No worries about making everyone wait as you shaved and cleaned up.” Matias waved at Korban’s immaculate black suit. “Perhaps you need some more time to eat breakfast or have a smoke. This is only an emergency meeting, no need to rush.”

“I see no emergency.”

“My client’s life hangs in the balance. I’d sure call that an emergency.”

“For him, not me.” Korban nudged Matias from his path and stomped toward the empty chair at the end.

“Selfish jerk,” Nolan whispered as he passed.

“Listen, boys.” Korban swung back toward Nolan and Matias. “I’m not the one asking the entire Company to sacrifice for me, so I’d be damn careful who you call selfish.”

“Someday you’re going to be the one asking for help and I can’t wait to see you beg,” Nolan snapped. This time, Matias was the one who shot the scornful glance, tugging at Nolan to sit.

“Yes, because you’re run by emotions and can’t wait to see me suffer. But unlike you, I was elected to be objective. That’s the reason for my delay; I’ve been gathering facts about your client. I find this to be much more constructive in decision-making, rather than relying solely on the word of a cretin.”

“So name-calling is what passes for facts nowadays,” Matias replied. “But again, if anyone is an expert witness on cretins, it would be you, Korban.”

Iago motioned for Carter to pass him a bottle of water, wondering when he should interrupt this little fracas. He took a large swig, almost downing the entire bottle. Scientists assured that drinking at a leisurely pace was now safe, but Iago still couldn’t bring himself to do it. Plus, he loathed the oily infused taste of ginger and garlic, seeing no reason for it to linger on his tongue. What he’d give to go back to the pure uncut rainwater of his youth.

“Not my words,” Korban said. “I was paraphrasing your client’s work manager. The exact remark was, and I quote, that cretin is about as useful as a broken condom and twice as gross. As a character witness, he will confirm your client’s record when it comes to production delays.”

“Yes, being bad at one’s job is crime enough for a death sentence. If you’d point out the exact section in the bylaws that states this, I’d gladly allow it into evidence.” Matias grinned. “Or perhaps, we could spend the entire meeting discussing rumors. Might be fun, considering all the things people say about you behind your back, Korban.”

“Don’t be smart. People will starve this dry season, precious bylaws or not. Do we really want to waste scarce resources on this loser? If so, why don’t you be first to volunteer your rations.” Korban waved his finger at Matias.

“Goodness, I’ve overlooked how I’m the one on trial here. If you have a personal vendetta with me, I suggest we settle it in a more appropriate venue where a man’s life isn’t at stake.”

“That’s what I thought. The only collateral a coward puts up is someone else’s.”

“Enough.” Iago launched to his feet. “This is unbecoming of the board. Everyone take a seat.”

Korban parked himself in his chair, but before Iago could continue, he pointed at Nolan.

“Last I checked, he isn’t part of the board. Considering the seriousness of these proceedings, I call for a closed session. All trustees, assistants, and boys need to leave.”

“I second the motion,” Darcy shouted from the opposite side of the table. Iago didn’t know what hold Korban had over the normally mild-tempered Darcy, but he could always be counted on to be one of his most sycophantic supporters. The two of them could almost be as much trouble as Matias.

“Objection. We’ve always allowed guests. Iago, even your wife used to sit in at the meetings,” Matias protested.

“The board meeting is now closed. Anyone who is not a Director must leave,” Iago ordered. At any other time, he would’ve ruled for Matias, but he disliked the way he’d invoked Amaya, fearing this made him appear weak. Still, Iago longed for the days before he was Chairman where she’d been right there at his side.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for streamlining this delicate process.” Korban smirked, waving a goodbye to Nolan.

“And to streamline it further, I’m limiting discussion to those with direct knowledge of the events. Character witnesses and extraneous evidence will not be permitted.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Korban shouted. “Without character witnesses, how can we decide on the defendant’s value and whether to permit a flush?”

“Director Korban, those issues are unrelated. If the bylaws dictate the defendant is entitled to a flush, no outside circumstances will change that.”

“If you want to legislate us into extinction, fine. Just realize people will die. Good people. Healthy people. Strong people. The same people who elected you to lead.”

“And lead I will.” Iago pounded the table, signaling to begin the proceedings.

#

A pair of guards, both in crimson biohazard suits, entered the boardroom. The practical suits were colored that way to obscure the inevitable bloodstains of a purge, yet Iago wished it wasn’t such a blunt reminder of the flathead pestilence. The guard on the left announced, “Lucas Carney,” while marching the defendant into the room.

Unlike the guards, Lucas wore a black fly-fishing bib and attached galoshes, the traditional uniform of the moppers. He staggered a bit with his hands cuffed behind him. The guards failed to assist him, keeping their distance, yet remaining close in case he attempted to escape. Or worse, attack a board member. Not that he would, considering his life rested in their hands.

Lucas must’ve sensed this, since he grinned and nodded to the assembled members while striding across the room. He probably figured this would increase his chances for a flush, but to Iago, it only made him appear phony and insincere.

“Mr. Carney, you’ve invoked your right under Article Thirty-Two of the Charter, so we’ve called this emergency meeting. I’ll waive all the formalities to expedite this process. Let’s begin by informing the board of your request.”

“I wanna use Old Clawy to get the bugs out of me.” The grin dropped from Lucas’ face and he shifted his weight as though annoyed he had to answer any questions at all.

“Yes, of course. Let’s get down to the details. What time were you exposed?”

Lucas chewed his lips and his eyes bounced. “Not long ago.”

“Be more precise,” Korban shouted.

“Director, you will have a chance to address the defendant. Until then, please refrain from any further interruptions.” Iago shot Korban a look.

“Like I said at the clinic, it was somewhere around eleven. I went up to 52 for a gander outside and when I put my hand on the sill, it got wet. Nothing much else to say.”

“The current time is 02:48, so that puts the exposure at four hours. Would you estimate that to be correct?”

“I guess,” Lucas muttered.

“Please answer with a clear yes or no.”

“Yes, but what’s with the third degree? I’ve done nothing wrong and I want Old Clawy as is my right.”

“I sympathize this must be difficult, but the board needs to understand all the facts before proceeding. Just in case something should happen during the flush.”

“What’s gonna happen? Flush makes you better, don’t it? What’re you implying?”

“Mr. Carney, your well-being is one of our utmost concerns, as is the prevention of a full-blown outbreak. To assure everyone’s safety, you must answer the questions honestly in order for us to trust you.”

“Trust me?” Lucas tilted his head. “How ‘bout me trusting you? How do I know you aren’t gonna fake the flush and just take all the water?”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“I got eyes, don’t I? I see all you dressed in frills and fancy-pants here. That’s from hard work and savings, sure. I’ve worked my entire life and never seen one bit extra. So what’s so absurd ‘bout wondering how this come to be?”

“Rest assured, every member of the board was duly elected,” Iago answered. “Now just a few more questions.”

“Rest assured, if I was one of you, I’d already be sitting in Old Clawy, not answering the same silly questions over and over. Shit, what else do you need to know, my dick size?”

“If you prefer, we can bypass these proceedings and send you to the quarantines, where I guarantee you’ll be free from questioning.” Iago pointed at the door. Even Matias shook his head at his client’s recalcitrance.

“Ask your questions.” Lucas shrugged, snapping his cuffed hands to his back.

“Did you have contact with anyone, including pets, after the time of the exposure?”

“Pets? You got enough food up here for pets?”

“Answer the question.”

“No. No contact with nothing.”

“Good. Did you wash your hands or use the bathroom after the exposure?”

Lucas shook his head.

“Did you eat or drink anything afterwards?”

“I ordered a pizza, but the delivery man didn’t show. Of course not, straight to the clinic like the rules say.”

“Thank you for your patience, Mr. Carney. I’m now opening the floor up to the board.” Iago hadn’t even finished the sentence before Korban stood. Most times, he’d call on a more tempered Director to begin, but after that performance, Iago couldn’t wait for Korban to start his shredding.

“Before beginning, I’d like to make a brief statement. In this treacherous world, anyone of us, at any time, could find ourselves in this exact position. It takes a truly courageous soul to admit exposure. To stand vulnerable and be judged. To potentially sacrifice all for the greater good of the Company. So, I thank you, Mr. Carney, for your bravery.”

“Welcome, I guess.” Lucas stood a bit straighter as Korban shot him a salute.

“Every second counts, so let’s zip through this and we’ll have you on your way to Old Clawy. When you touched the water on the windowsill, did you happen to notice any on the ceiling, walls, or floor?”

“No, only on the sill.”

“Good. Were there any fissures?”

“Say again?” Lucas asked.

“Chips or cracks in the window. No worries if you missed any. I’m sure you were in quite a state of shock.” Korban flashed a congenial grin.

“No cracks.” Lucas smiled back, believing he’d found a friend.

“Perfect. I see no need to bother with any further questioning. Summing up, you were exposed around 11:00 p.m., likely the result of the recent rain, correct?”

“Yeah, the rain. Unless somebody pissed there,” Lucas began to chuckle, almost expecting others to join in. Korban, alone, howled a deep laugh.

“Well, I’m ready to cast my vote.” Korban began to sit, but paused, hovering just above his chair. “Still, there’s one discrepancy. According to the mopper logs, it didn’t rain until two minutes past midnight. Some might fuss over that difference, but you were just panicked. In your turmoil over being exposed, you misread the hour, correct?”

“Maybe it was midnight. I don’t got a watch.”

“Or perhaps the clinic was mistaken, since they recorded your arrival at 23:18. Forty-four minutes before the rain.”

“I said I don’t got a watch.” Lucas shifted from side to side, perhaps realizing Korban was anything other than a friend.

“No worries, probably a clerical error. Since previous to the midnight sprinkling, there hadn’t been any rain for forty-six hours. Not one single drop. And if there wasn’t a massive leak or large fissure, I mean, crack, any puddle would’ve evaporated in that time.”

“You saying I’m lying?”

“Of course not. An honest man such as yourself wouldn’t have waited that long to report an exposure. No, it happened as you said–tonight at eleven, up on floor 52. Though, it is curious why you’d be up there so late when the apartment you share with your wife is five stories below.”

“I like my space.”

“Yes, I understand that feeling firsthand. Wives can be demanding. Arguments over who has to clean up and take out the garbage, or in your case, over seeing another woman.”

“Objection.” Matias launched from his seat. “Iago, you stated this was only going to focus on the pertinent facts. I see no direct relevance to this line of questioning, only a personal attack.”

“Oh, I’m not judging Mr. Carney on his proclivities. All I’m trying to do is establish whether or not somebody else might’ve been with him. And a history of philandering would do exactly that.”

“Enough,” Iago interrupted. “Were you alone?”

“This is bullshit,” Lucas replied. “But yes, I was alone.”

“So Director, unless you have some hard evidence indicating otherwise, I suggest you refrain from any further accusations.”

“Evidence? I barely had time to gather the rain logs. And due to the silly union rules, the moppers won’t inspect the contaminated area until sunrise. There’s no evidence a leak even exists outside of this cretin’s confession.”

“This is your final warning. No more name calling or personal attacks. Period. Or you’re out.” Iago pointed at the door.

“May I add something constructive?” Matias asked and continued before Iago could reply. “I’d never imagined I’d say this, but Korban is one hundred percent correct. We don’t have any evidence. But again, according to the bylaws, we don’t need any. A confession is proof enough for a flush. And I remind you all, the assumption should always be innocence unless proven otherwise. That’s the fundamental basis of our society.”

“The basis of our society is survival,” Korban snapped. “Are we willing to condemn others to die on unverified claims and peculiar discrepancies? Would you sacrifice the life of your mother? Of your child? For him.” Korban waved his finger at Lucas like he was gripping a gun.

“Yes, others could die in the future. And maybe the waters will rise to the top of the building, drowning us all. Or perhaps a meteorite will crash down upon us. I see no crystal ball here. That, my Directors, is called speculation. But we must deal in the tangible, in facts. And the fact is that Lucas Carney has been exposed and asks for our assistance. If the bylaws weren’t written to protect basic human life, why obey them at all?”

“I agree,” Korban said. “But let’s obey all the bylaws. I insist on collateral.”

“Come on. That barbaric practice hasn’t been used since the Great Purges. It’s a relic. No longer applicable.”

“It’s still the law. And it hasn’t been overturned precisely because of situations such as this. Perhaps, Director Matias, your bylaws aren’t so sacred after all.”

“Iago, please. Isn’t it enough that one man’s life is at stake?” Matias pleaded.

“Nobody’s life is at stake if he isn’t lying,” Korban added.

Iago stared down at his shaking palms. He didn’t understand how things had spiraled so out of control, but nothing was ever easy these days. And every time he had to pull the levers of power, he felt like a fraud. As if he were only a jester playing king in the court theater. What made him so damn special to order who was to live or die? He tapped twice and peered up.

“The law is the law. Collateral will be granted as an assurance of the defendant’s honesty. If there are no objections, I offer up his wife.”

“Outrageous,” Matias yelled.

“Then we vote on it.” Iago pounded the table.

The vote was almost unanimous, with only Matias and one other Director objecting. Guards were sent to collect Lucas’ wife. The proceedings continued, but were quite tame in comparison to the heated exchange between Korban and Matias. Most of the others only parroted what’d been previously stated. So when Lucas’ wife Belen arrived, Iago tabled the discussion. Before closing, he turned back to the defendant.

“Do you understand the meaning of collateral? If your infection exceeds the fifteen count, your wife will be executed along with you. You can amend your testimony now, but once we step outside, there’s no turning back.”

“It happened the way I said,” Lucas replied.

Iago signaled for the vote. The room split into two polarized camps, roughly half siding with Matias, the others with Korban. When Iago raised his hand in support of the flush, the final stragglers joined him, pushing the tally in their favor. Iago knocked three times, closing the meeting.

The flush would proceed.

#

Iago staggered on the stairwell, the biohazard suit catching between his legs. He steadied himself against the railing as Carter reached to help. Iago clutched his trustee’s hand for a moment before releasing. The last thing he needed was to appear weak heading into a flush. He continued down the steps unassisted, thankful he wasn’t climbing the other direction.

A few years back, the engineers had done an assessment on the elevator shafts, wondering if a mechanical flat could be crafted similar to the ones used previous to the floods. And passing the sign for the halfway mark, Iago wished the project hadn’t been scrapped. How nice to magically float downward, but even if they could rig such a contraption, nobody would use it. Not with the chance it might break, plummeting into the flathead-infested waters below.

Really, it didn’t matter. The majority of people never ventured far from the floor where they were born. And when they did, mostly it was to cause trouble. As for the elevator shafts, the only time they’d ever been used was by that gang on 31 who’d climbed down a rope ladder after burglarizing some apartments in the 40s.

Iago first noticed the thumping somewhere in the mid-twenties, but as he broke into the teens, the noise grew unbearable. The stairwell vibrated as if the flatheads were banging right underneath the steps. And the thick walls only worked to amplify the racket. Iago kept gazing at his feet, waiting for a flathead to slither across the floor.

The fear was absurd. Flatheads rarely ventured more than a single floor above the washout line, preferring to remain hidden within the damp recesses of the floods. During the day, even the flood’s surface remained clear, as most dove deep to avoid the sizzling heat of the sun. Still, at night, they coiled free, wheeling up like frenzied piranhas.

Through the noise, Iago had to remind himself that the smallest never left the floods, so the only ones that might appear would be easy to spot. Bloated and up to six feet in length, these flatheads crawled like wet toilet paper, thumping a warning if anyone should creep too close. Only a blind dolt could end up entwined within the worm’s moist grasp.

Iago was old enough to remember when the flatheads were just an annoyance. As a child, the only fatalities came from the those unfortunate enough to be submerged and carried off into the floods. And with the abundance of fresh rainwater, using Old Clawy for a simple exposure was never an issue. As long as they remained on the upper floors, any danger was negligible. Of course, that all changed with the eggs.

Even now, within the coveralls and gas mask of the biohazard suit, Iago was inhaling thousands of their microscopic eggs with every passing breath. Thank goodness, unlike their larger brethren, these miniature parasites didn’t stand a chance within his acidic stomach. They required water to grow and survive within the harsh conditions of the human body.

If only they hadn’t evolved. Somehow, the flatheads learned that by smacking their elongated heads against the surface of the floods, they could launch their eggs up into a mist. From there, winds and evaporation carried the microscopic parasites into the sky. And as soon as they came in contact with any liquid, from an uncovered glass of water to even the rain itself, their explosive growth cycle would begin.

At first, nobody in the Company realized the potential dangers of the mist. But as the flathead population grew unchecked, with more and more banging at the surface of the floods, the entire sky became showered with their nasty progeny. And as their eggs spread into the clouds, the rain transformed into a series of flathead bombs. It grew so terrible that the chance of survival after being exposed to a single raindrop grew to over one in five million.

This chaos gave rise to theGreat Purges, which claimed over 90% of the remaining human population. Sixteen of the eighteen Companies who’d survived all these years after the floods were instantly destroyed. And the final two merged when travel between the buildings became too perilous.

Humanity appeared doomed, until the great Dr. Callum discovered how a thin layer of oil worked as a barrier against the flathead larva, blocking them from taking root. And the addition of garlic and ginger decreased the risk to the point where rainwater could be consumed once again. The crops returned, but only after starvation and internal unrest had dwindled their numbers into the thousands.

Iago squirmed within the biohazard suit. He’d lathered his entire body with freshly pressed olive oil, but still loathed descending this close to the washout line. A visible layer of dew covered the visor of his gas mask. He grimaced, realizing how much water would be needed for the delousing alone, forget the flush. Still, positioning Old Clawy down here was the only way to avoid the contamination from the runoff.

He heaved a deep breath upon reaching the doorway for the 12th floor. After spending a minute inside the delousing station, he popped off his gas mask and crossed the dank hallway into the Flush Office. A massive cast-iron tub sat smack-dab in the center of the room, known colloquially as Old Clawy.

The nickname for the tub sprouted from a pair of ornate steel claws situated at its base. Two drainage pipes shot out from either end, leading to opposite sides of the building. That way, there was always a backup in case of any blockage.

Korban strode up to Iago, while shouting commands at the moppers readying the tub. They scoured with thick brushes and poured a couple buckets of water to ensure proper drainage. The flow was slower than Iago would’ve preferred, considering the rapid multiplication of the parasites once they hit fresh water. In less than a minute, a single flathead could spawn a horde of writhing worms.

“Right before I woke, I was dreaming about that Old Clawy nursery rhyme. You know the one–Boxes, boxes, tower high. What do you make of that?” Iago asked.

“Not a thing.” Korban’s eyes remained locked on the scurrying workers.

“Don’t you think it’s odd how children sing that as if it’s a game. How do you think that started?”

Korban didn’t reply. He signaled to a mopper next the cisterns, who was pouring water into some buckets.

“Maybe it’s a way for children to handle the horrors of life in a safe song.” Iago offered his best explanation. “Helps them learn about death and not be scared. Sound right?”

“I think kids are no different than adults. They enjoy hearing about pain and death as long as it’s not their own. Little sadists, if you want my honest opinion.” Korban held up his hand for the mopper to stop.

Iago turned his attention to the other side of the room where Matias was assisting Lucas to undress. Every item that’d touched Lucas’ body was bagged in a thick canvas sack. Once filled, the sack was deposited into one of the dozens of slots situated on every wall. Each dropped into the floods, only a couple stories down. Shame to trash such good clothing, but again, the water necessary to cleanse them would be a far greater loss.

“Want a shot of dilaudid?” Matias asked, reaching into a medical bag.

“I’m no addict,” Lucas said, as if that had been his lawyer’s implication.

“For the pain,” Matias clarified, but Lucas still shook his head. “At least take an oxycontin.”

“I said no drugs. The infection’s not big,” Lucas said, as if he was addressing his wife on the other side of the room.

Belen stood in the corner, a cable tie pinning her arms behind her. A trashy tattoo wound around her shoulders and though her hair was nappy and dyed a ratty blonde, Iago sensed a dignity in her stance. She held herself frozen, even as Lucas waved and flashed a hollow grin.

When Lucas turned back to Old Clawy, the smile disappeared and he shivered. He took a stutter-step back, appearing ready to bolt. A nearby guard straightened and reached out to prevent him from escaping.

“Back off. I’m no criminal,” Lucas yelled and the guard lowered his arm. Lucas turned back to Matias and whispered, “I’ll take one of them pills. Two if you got ‘em.”

Matias handed him the pills and Lucas started to chew, clearly unaware he was supposed to swallow them whole. Most in the Company weren’t afforded the luxuries of medicine, so this surprised Iago little.

Lucas climbed into the tub and the guards secured his hands into the iron bracelets welded into either side. Lucas kicked up his legs, which were likewise shackled. A narrow piece of rubber tubing slipped into his open mouth, but before the guards could snap the catch, Lucas began to gag. The tubing hurled free along with a mouthful of vomit. White chalky speckles lined the grime.

“Oh my God, flatheads,” the guard on the right-hand side of the tub yelled. He staggered back, tripping into a nearby mopper and tumbling to the floor.

“Those don’t count, those don’t count,” Lucas repeated, bucking within his restraints. Nobody attempted to calm him; instead the guards all lurched back. The one on the floor scrambled away, not even taking the time to stand. Indeed, the entire room seemed to wrench back from the tub. Everyone except Korban.

“Moppers, prepare a stick,” he yelled, pressing up to Old Clawy. “Two buckets over here, pronto. And open that damn hatch already. I don’t want this shit slivering free.”

The room reversed directions as a pair of moppers rushed in, both clasping pool cues. A rag was tied to the end of each cue. Another mopper galloped in, carrying a bucketful of water. Splashes dribbled over the side, dampening the path behind him. A guard snapped open one of the slots in the wall and sounds of slapping flatheads from outside reverberated through the room.

“Come out, you little fuckers.” Korban peered into the tub as a mopper bolted to his side, pool cue in hand. The mopper was just about to submerge the rag-covered end into the bucket, when Korban grabbed his arm.

“No, let him do it.” Korban pointed at the guard who’d first yelled the warning. He was still on the floor and gave a wary peek in Korban’s direction. The others in the room stepped away as the guard staggered to his feet.

“What’s your name?” Korban asked, and the guard motioned at himself while shaking his head.

“I’m not a m-mopper,” the guard stammered. “I don’t know the f-first thing about flathead disposal.”

“Then it’s about time you learned.” The guard hesitated, but inched forward as Korban gestured to come closer.

“I don’t think—”

“Lesson one,” Korban interrupted. He grabbed the guard, yanking him to the side of the tub. “Identification.”

“Please,” the guard whimpered, but Korban clutched the nape of his neck, shoving him closer. Another push and the guard would be joining Lucas inside the tub.

“Point out the flathead.”

“I-I don’t see it,” the guard stuttered.

“Does this help?” Korban rammed the guard’s head down, forcing him to grab the tub to keep from falling.

“Please don’t.” The guard shivered, almost losing his grip.

“Answer the question, yes or no. Do you see a flathead?”

“N-no. I don’t see any.”

“Fantastic.” Korban released his grasp and the guard sprang back. “So now that’s settled, maybe you should get your eyes checked before inciting a panic over a chewed-up painkiller.”

“I’m sorry. It was white and I thought I saw it moving.”

“Lesson two. You can’t throw up flatheads, otherwise we’d just give everyone some syrup of ipecac and be done with it.”

“I didn’t know, really. I had no intention of causing a panic.”

“But you did. See that water all over the floor?” Korban pointed at the small puddle which had spilled over the side of the bucket. Two moppers were on their hands and knees, scrubbing it dry. “Some child won’t be able to drink that because of your ignorance.”

“It won’t happen again, I promise.”

“No, it won’t. You’ll get all the education you need while spending the next three months outside as a gatherer. Have fun on the open seas. Bon voyage.”

“Please, I have a wife and three daughters.”

“You can bring them along with you for all I care.” Korban turned his back and flicked a quick wave.

“I’ll give up some rations. This isn’t fair.” The guard rushed over to Old Clawy and grabbed the dangling rubber tube. He inserted it into Lucas’ mouth and snapped the catch taut. “See, all good. Just like before.”

“Can you tell me the time?” Korban asked.

“What?”

“The time. What’s the time?”

“I don’t know. A little past three in the morning?”

“No. It’s time to shut the fuck up and go. Otherwise that assignment as a gatherer will be extended to a full year.”

“Yes, Director.” The guard scampered through the exit.

“What’s everyone standing around for?” Korban yelled, shooting a volt through the crowd. The guards raced over to ensure Lucas was locked in place, while the moppers readied a handful of additional pool cues and buckets of water. Iago shot Korban a look.

“What? Did you want me to give him a raise?” Korban asked.

“He’s scared. We all are. Can you cut him a break?” Iago replied.

“Actions have consequences. Otherwise we live in chaos.”

“I don’t think it’s a good precedent to have involuntary gatherers. Not as a punishment. Too much is at stake.”

Korban motioned for his chunky trustee and the others gathered around to take a hike. He leaned close and whispered.

“Let’s say that guard is assigned to a boat and goes aboard, all shivers and nervy. And right before they sail, the mission is canceled for some unspecified weather. After that, a shortage of guards forces him to be reassigned somewhere safely indoors. He thanks the heavens for that canceled cruise. Six months down the road, he’s back, but now itching to prove himself and a little flathead no longer scares him.”

“That was your plan the entire time, wasn’t it?”

“No way, I have a reputation to keep. Don’t want the rumor getting out that I have a heart or something.” Korban flashed Iago a grin. “Come on, we have a flush to coordinate.”

#

It took only a few minutes for the moppers to prepare. Four stood around the tub, each clutching a pool cue with a rag tied to the end. Another three stood just behind them, holding empty buckets for the disposal. And an additional safety was situated next to the far wall, likewise holding a pool cue, just in case any of the others fumbled and a flathead should scramble free.

Korban gave the signal and the moppers dunked their pool cues, soaking the rags on the end. Iago was a bit perplexed at the gusto Korban displayed while organizing the flush, considering his previous opposition. But again, Iago guessed if he asked, Korban would say even misguided jobs needed to be done correctly, if only to avoid any waste.

Iago was presented with a bucketful of water, but he motioned to Korban. “Do you want the honors?”

“Did you even have to ask?” Korban replied, snatching the bucket.

Iago took a step back, worried Korban might dump the water over Lucas’ head. If that happened, the flatheads would burrow straight into the brain and prematurely end this horror of a night. Iago realized this was less of a fear, and more what he secretly desired. Korban began in the normal way, by pouring the water over Lucas’ legs.

“More. I don’t feel nothing,” Lucas said, rattling within the chains. Korban refrained from reacting to this comment, which Iago respected, considering both of them knew the truth. Any trace of an infection and Lucas would be feeling quite a bit. No painkiller would prevent that.

Korban poured out the remainder of the bucket and motioned for another. The guards stood lined all the way to the cisterns in the rear of the room. The one closest to Korban passed a fresh bucket and the empty was returned down the line. The chain moved at a speedy pace, but steadily enough to avoid spilling a single drop. Mostly because every guard understood that if a flathead should escape, it would dart toward the nearest water. And heaven forbid it be at their feet.

The screaming began about halfway through the third bucket, and Iago heaved a deep gasp. For a moment, he’d almost believed this was nothing more than paranoia. That happened on occasion, though the harsh penalties of extra overtime and cuts in rations deterred all but the most crazy. Not only that, but the criminal gangs had a tendency to deal with anyone carrying the stigma of a false flush. It wasn’t right, but again, it wasn’t a cause most Directors dared to challenge.

As Lucas howled through the rubber tube, sounding hollow and distant, he writhed within his shackles. His legs bulged against the restraints, but without any slack, his movement was limited to a spastic pulse. The water splashed up the side of the tub, but by design, it came nowhere near the top.

“Stay still. The more you move, the more they chew up your insides.” Korban’s words settled Lucas for almost a whole two seconds before the writhing began anew.

“I think there’s one,” a mopper yelled as the skin underneath Lucas’ left knee pulsed. A thin line bubbled to the surface, wriggling back and forth underneath the skin. Korban dumped an entire bucket on the spot, attempting to lure out the flathead.

For being such insidious and destructive parasites, the flatheads followed a ridiculously simple logic. Seek out water. Once wet, the flatheads laid their eggs, hoping to spread to new hosts through the drinking supply. So, when submerged in a bath, the worms would race up and break through the skin. And by tricking the flathead to grab onto a wet rag, a mopper could wind it around the pool cue, yanking it free from the host.

Simple, if discounting the damage from the parasites as they chewed to the surface. Anyone could survive a single flathead wound, even one over a foot in length. The problem was their rapid multiplication once within a host. After an hour of exposure, usually one larva hatched into a full-grown flathead. Beyond that, the rate exploded exponentially with every ticking second.

By six hours into an exposure, the average spawning rate was over a dozen flatheads. And after twelve, it mushroomed into the hundreds. And considering the human body could barely survive ten wounds, Old Clawy had to be used within eight hours after exposure. And even then, the bylaws dictated only fifteen removals before throwing in the towel.

“Did I say to stop?” Korban reached for another bucket, but the supply line slowed as the guards stared over at the emerging flathead. Lucas’ leg was submerged, but his knee kept bubbling up like an inflating balloon. The flathead was so close Iago could spot the parasite’s teeth gnawing just below the surface. A splash of purple radiated out as blood spilled from the wound.

“Contact,” a mopper yelled as the flathead burst through the skin. It smacked across the knee, sounding like a bully flinging a wet towel. An explosion of blood dyed the water pink.

“One,” Iago yelled, almost forgetting his role as the official count.

“Drain and catch,” Korban ordered. A mopper opened the valve, voiding the water from the tub. Another nudged the end of his pool cue underneath the worm’s flopping head. A swishy plup-plup-plup chimed out as the flathead beat against the moist rag.

A moment later, the flathead snapped into the rag, suckling like a newborn baby. The mopper rolled the pool cue slowly, winding it in a circle. The pale worm slithered out from the hole, seeming to stretch for miles. By the time its wiggling tail launched free, Iago guessed it to be at least two feet long. Odd for such a massive one to break out first, but not unprecedented.

“Ready for disposal.” Korban motioned and a mopper held out an empty bucket. The pool cue swung through the air with the flathead’s tail flapping like a propeller, but its head remained buried deep into the rag. The pool cue sawed against the side of the bucket until the rag dropped free. As soon as it plopped inside, a wooden lid was secured over the top.

“Let’s launch this fucker.” The mopper crossed over to the wall, where another held open a hatch. He dropped the bucket through the slot, but any splash was overpowered by the smacking noises of the flatheads outside.

Before anyone could celebrate, Korban dumped another bucket of water. He aimed for the exact spot where the first worm had crawled free, since sometimes this lured them into using the same route, minimizing the damage. It didn’t work and the next bubble pulsed on Lucas’ left ankle. Still, being positioned so low, the tub only had to be filled a quarter of the way before the flathead burst free.

Iago gave the audible two count, but was distressed at the size of this second worm. Just as massive as the first, perhaps even larger, it defied all logic. Most times, the initial worms were the puniest of the bunch, desperate to spawn before their bulkier brethren.

A pencil-size hole gushed blood from the side of Lucas’ ankle, staining the porcelain a murky pink. If the other flatheads were even half as large, he’d bleed out before the ten count, forget lasting to fifteen. Lucas wailed through the rubber tubing, convulsing within his shackles. His screams pitched louder as Korban doused him again.

A bubble brimmed across the side of his right thigh and Lucas pressed into the tub as if he could ram the creature back down. His efforts backfired as the flathead exploded out like a festering abscess. It flopped around like a piece of wet spaghetti and Lucas pressed again, forcing it back down. Korban just chuckled, splashing more water. The flathead reappeared, digging a hole about an inch away from the first.

The shock must’ve hit Lucas, since his convulsing steadied into a mild shiver, allowing the mopper to snare this third flathead. And by the time the next one was removed, his screaming had all but disappeared. Lucas maintained a mild tremble along with a couple spats of gurgling, but his eyes grew listless, making Iago wonder if he was even still alive.

Korban, on the other hand, barked orders with a military-type precision, aware of every wriggle underneath Lucas’ skin. Iago glanced at the massive cisterns in the rear, noting that one had been completely drained. Just a single thunderstorm would refill it to capacity, but it hadn’t poured in weeks, only spitting a drizzle here and there. Soon, there wouldn’t even be that much.

According to the projections, the current reserves would barely satisfy their most basic needs through the dry season. And that was only if everyone committed to the rations, a near impossibility considering the four months of brutal sun and unending heat. If only the floodwaters could be filtered, they wouldn’t be at the mercy of the erratic rain. What an irony, so many dying from dehydration in a world flooded to the brim.

And forget dehydration; if the dry season ran long similar to the way it had three years ago, the riots would likely return. The tribalism between floors had only grown worse, despite Iago’s every effort. His worker swap program ended within a week after the first “accident” maimed a welder. And the local basketball games had to be cancelled as fights erupted at almost every match. Korban saw no problem, saying this “allowed the animals to thin out themselves,” but Iago refused to allow any more blood on his already well-stained hands.

“Nine,” he yelled as another flathead spurted from Lucas’ shin. His shaking had ceased on the last one and a brief flutter of eyes was the only indication of life. And from the faucet of blood oozing from the nine wounds peppering his body, Iago doubted he’d remain alive for much longer.

Korban dumped another bucket and almost immediately a pocket of skin bulged in the middle of Lucas’ belly. Instead of reaching for another bucket, Korban motioned into the air. Someone brushed Iago’s side, shoving to the front. Before Iago could register this stranger’s identity, a gunshot blasted off.

Iago stood frozen. The bitter stench of gunpowder smacked his nostrils and the discharge reverberated in his skull like a sledgehammer. Iago glanced at the shooter as he rammed away through the crowd. Though hidden behind a gas-mask and inside a biohazard suit, his chunky frame was a dead giveaway. The shooter was Korban’s loyal trustee, Gavin.

#

Dumbstruck, Iago stood rigid as Gavin disappeared, moving at a surprising pace for such a portly fellow. Someone to Iago’s left yelped and the paralyzing fog snapped away. Iago spun back toward the tub where blood spurted from a dime-sized hole in Lucas’ cheek. The restraints seized twice before going limp. Lucas drooped, his life draining along with the water.

“Check for a leak,” Iago yelled.

He grabbed a pool cue and poked Lucas. A dark trail of blood oozed from the hole in the cheek as Lucas’ head sagged forward. Unlike the tidy hole on the front, the rear was torn away as if hacked by a cleaver. Flaps of loose skin were sprinkled with gravel-sized pieces of gray-colored skull. Bits of mushy brain stained the tub and Iago spotted a small knick where the bullet had collided.

“Doesn’t appear to be penetrated.” Iago poked the tub, smearing a bit of grime from the chipped surface.

“Of course not. That was a .22 and Old Clawy is solid cast iron,” Korban said. “Now everyone get back to work. We need to wrap the body for disposal. And we need to do it quick. As soon as those flatheads realize their host is dead, they’ll scurry free in search of a new one.”

“Wait a second,” Matias interrupted. “That’s evidence and this is now officially a crime scene.”

“The only criminal here is in that tub.” Korban motioned at Lucas’ bloodied body.

“The count was nine. Not even close to fifteen.”

“The one in his belly makes ten. And if we fail to dump this body soon, the count will be in the thousands. We have about five minutes before this becomes flathead Grand Central Station.”

“Let’s test that theory and leave him in the tub. If six more emerge, fine. Otherwise, I’m charging you with murder.” Matias waved his index finger, shooting Korban an icy glare.

“That’s enough,” Iago interrupted. “We’ll discuss this later. Our first priority is to dump the body.”

“Come on, we’ll just flush any more down the tub,” Matias protested.

“No, I’m not wasting another single drop on a man who’s already dead,” Iago ordered.

The moppers sprang into action, unwinding a roll of plastic Visqueen across the floor. A drizzle of blood seeped from the body as they hoisted Lucas into the air. Heaving him onto the plastic wrap, the body landed with a squishy thump.

“Don’t seal it yet, we also need to dump the collateral.” Korban pointed across the room at Belen. She displayed no expression, but a slight welling of tears stood as evidence of her dismay. Iago didn’t have to imagine the horror of watching a spouse being slaughtered. He’d experienced that firsthand.

“Keep away from her.” Matias stepped in front of Korban, who appeared ready to fling him from his path.

“You saw the extent of that infection. No way it was only a few hours old. And if he’s been contagious for days, she’s already a goner. Best to claim the collateral before others get hurt.”

“We’re talking about a human being. Her name is Belen. And if anyone here needs to be put down, it’s you.”

Korban lunged, but stopped short as Matias flinched. He spat a warm chuckle. “Okay, hotshot. I’ll back off, but only if you give her a big sloppy kiss.”

“This isn’t right.” Matias glanced at Iago.

“That’s what I thought. Now stand back and let the grown-ups take care of business,” Korban said.

“Fine, I’ll do it.” Matias tore off his gas-mask and stepped toward Belen.

“Stop, both of you,” Iago yelled. “I’m ordering a one hour cooling-off period. And for the rest of you, wrap up and dispose of that body quick.”

A couple swells began to rise underneath Lucas’ stiffening skin as the moppers secured the Visqueen in place. They hoisted the body into a nearby chute. Belen watched in silence, her blank expression never once breaking even as the body slid away with a sweeping whoosh.

“She will die. It’s only a matter of time.” Korban turned and marched toward the door.

“And you’ll be tried for what you’ve done here. It’s murder, I say, murder.” Matias repeated the word, shoving an accusatory finger into the air. Korban didn’t even glance back.

#

Iago sat at his desk, pondering Belen’s fate. Massive repercussions would result no matter his decision. And she was only one of the handful of issues he’d have to deal with this dreadful morning. He glanced over at his bed, wanting nothing more than to snuggle back underneath the covers. But until he could muster up a solution, sleep was the least of his concerns.

There was no answer. At least one which didn’t involve more killing and death. Still, this didn’t prevent him from mulling it over and over. His eyes wandered again, locking onto the photograph propped in the corner. Amaya. If only she were still here, she’d point him in a direction.

In the photo, Amaya’s grin ran cheek to cheek—the enthusiastic result of that day’s scavenging score. At the time, she’d been the only woman in the entire Company working as a gatherer, so when their boat discovered a cache of high-end fashion on the upper floors of a long-abandoned warehouse, she had the pick of the lot.

She’d come home that evening modeling a lacy gold gown and twinkling heels. Not that Iago really cared, since Amaya radiated beauty even while dressed in rags, but she adored the outfit and that was good enough for him. So when she’d appeared in that glimmering dress, he’d insisted on taking the photograph right then and there, exorbitant costs be damned.

He spent an entire month on minimal rations, but it was the best money he’d ever spent. Every time he gazed at the three-inched framed Polaroid, he was transported back to that night, dancing under the moonlight. That was before the flatheads had gone airborne, when the younger members of the Company could march all the way to the rooftop and party.

Tensions were looser back then, lacking those floor-to-floor rivalries that claimed so many lives today. Hell, they could even stand out in the rain, which they had that night, as a thunderstorm rolled in after eleven.

Most of the revelers had scurried back into the indoor ballroom, but he and Amaya stayed. They adored how the rain allowed them privacy, unlike the mobbed ballroom. And they’d sloshed around, giggling and cavorting, that fancy dress soaking up the rain like a sponge. And when thoroughly drenched, they’d tossed away their clothes entirely, frolicking buck-naked in the drizzling showers. Warming each other in a cuddling embrace, just like magic.

The good news came a month later. Though the math didn’t work out precisely, Iago tended to believe Amaya had conceived on that marvelous rainy night. Truth could be pliable back in those days, as a shining optimism sparkled in the air. Humanity had survived the disastrous warming, rebuilding through the flooding and droughts. They’d decided on the name Luz for the baby, whatever the gender, cherishing the idea of a rising light.

But then the somber clouds of winter rolled in, this time subsumed with flathead larva. And when they began to germinate in the sky, the horrors of the Great Purges showered upon them. The riots for clean water surged through the floors and Amaya was caught in one and trampled. She barely survived, but the baby wasn’t as lucky. Still, even within the violence disintegrating the community, they kept trying. The clean water eventually returned, settling most of the chaos, but Luz never did.

More than anything, Iago attributed the failure to Amaya’s constant absences. With the onslaught of infested rains, the gathering missions had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Where they could once sail through all but the most foul weather, they became limited to skipping from one safe harbor to the next. A slow puddle jump that extended their trips by weeks. Not only that, but the sudden appearance of an unpredicted storm could likewise add days to these already lengthening trips.

And for the brief periods when Amaya was home, too much time was squandered in petty arguments. She agreed to quit if pregnant, but until then, she refused to be trapped inside, always living in fear. Iago kept reminding her about the growing number of gatherers who’d sailed out never to return, but this only seemed to cement her resistance. The more who died, the greater she believed her duty to continue in their memory.

After six months of constant quarrelling, Iago relented, resigned to maintaining a steady peace. He became accustomed to the empty bed and pacing the nights away. With every delay, he couldn’t help worrying, but the gatherers carried weeks’ worth of extra supplies. And no matter what, they always eventually returned.

He’d been anxious as usual that morning, but sensed nothing amiss. A brutal storm had delayed Amaya’s arrival for three days, forcing her crew to hole up inside a church steeple, of all places. Iago had been overjoyed when he heard the humming roar of the boat in the distance. And how Amaya had sparkled in the blazing sun while climbing onto the dock. He’d rushed in to hold her, but that day had been different. On that evil day, she’d flinched.

She told how she’d slipped prior to the storm. As they’d approached a building uptown, a small wave had rolled over the lip of the boat. She’d jerked her foot back, even though the waterproof boots would’ve protected her. This awkward kick combined with the rocking boat had toppled her over. Her suit had torn, allowing for a dribble to come in contact with her arm.

That alone wouldn’t have been a death sentence, especially considering how gatherers were given top priority when it came to Old Clawy. But when they’d raced back to the Company, the blue skies had darkened into a murk. Some insisted on continuing, but Amaya demanded they stop. She’d refused to risk the entire crew for her own ineptitude. So the selfless behavior that had drawn Iago to her in the first place, was the same that’d now whisk her away.

To think, she’d even told Iago she was lucky. That she’d been blessed with the opportunity to visit him one final time to say goodbye. That most gatherers weren’t even afforded this luxury. Not that it made him feel any better. Only after her death, did he realize how correct she’d been.

He’d wasted those four protracted days inside the muggy quarantines trying to convince her this was all a mistake. Exposure didn’t guarantee an infection. All they needed was to wait for the all-clear. He kept living in this delusion, pretending not to worry.

Amaya, on the other hand, had spent those ticking minutes reminiscing and remembering their love. She shared her description of that rooftop dance in such vivid and affectionate way that Iago could almost feel them twirling, even down in the quarantine dungeon. She was just beautiful like that.

Still, he couldn’t let go of his insistence she was fine. He kept repeating that, pestering to the point where she broke down and cried. And though the mood had been hampered by a mopper team called to dispose of the mess, she still managed one of her radiant cheek-to-cheek smiles. She told him she felt no pain, not a single itch of the infection, but that a woman knows. They just do.

Of course, she was correct. On that fourth evening, she’d shrieked as a flathead writhed across the thin skin of her elbow. And the purple blotch left in its wake likewise confirmed this death sentence. An arrangement was made, and though unusual, her final wish was granted.

Iago had marched behind her as they’d climbed to the roof. He’d stomped over every bitter step that seemed to wind on forever, half hoping they might. But they did end, and as he and Amaya paraded out onto the roof, a brisk gust swallowed them. They’d trudged past the solar panels and collection barrels, coming to a stop at the edge.

Iago had stared down, unable to spot the floodwaters in the dark. From this height, even the clatter of the flatheads was muted into a low-pitched static, almost ignorable. Almost.

Amaya had begun to hum, swinging her arms wide. As she spun around, she lifted her face toward the sky and the dazzling stars appeared to gaze back down at her. The dance was short and sweet. And as she slowed, Iago had approached, almost willing to join her in a final embrace.

But she’d motioned for him to stop. He did, and she told him to never be afraid. To become the brave leader the Company required. Then she made him promise to name his first child Luz for her. He’d nodded and she’d closed her eyes.

As Iago stared at the Polaroid, he wondered why he hadn’t told her she was the brave one. That he lacked the courage to step out on that ledge. That her sacrifice would dwarf any of his pale attempts at heroics. That in a just world, he would’ve been the one riddled with the infection. Or at very least, he could’ve said he loved her. Instead, he’d just stood there nodding like a rube.

“What an amazing view, Iago,” she’d said, perched at the edge. “Even after all this, it’s still beaut—”

He’d fired three times. He’d said later he wanted to ensure she was dead before the fall, but that wasn’t the truth. No, he’d been afraid of missing and lacking the courage to pull the trigger again. Still, the first shot was enough and Amaya’s head had jerked forward as if an invisible string was tugging it toward the ground. The next two bullets had landed in her back as she crumpled and lurched over the side.

Even in death, her prediction had been correct. Word of his story spread through the Company’s walls faster than the bullets that had killed her. This worked as the perfect propaganda, boosting his image as the self-sacrificing leader willing to make the tough choices needed for survival. Still, he knew this was all bullshit. He was no different than all the other selfish misers vying for power in this decaying world.

Iago peeled back the plastic lining that covered his window. He cracked it open and took a deep breath, allowing the tainted winds to fill his lungs. He was just about to climb outside when a knock rasped against his door.

“Mr. Chairman, it’s time,” Carter said from the other side.

Iago shut the window as quietly as he could, taping the plastic back around the edges. He paused and stared at the window for another moment. The knocking continued. Amaya would’ve told him to make them wait while he ducked out to clear his mind. Iago turned and answered the door.

#

Matias started up as soon as Iago entered the boardroom. “The charge is murder. And if we fail to convict, Mr. Carney’s won’t be the only death here tonight. Justice must live. Do you hear me? Justice will live.” Matias began to chant as if the board members were going to join in. The only one who did was Nolan, who stood at Matias’ side.

Iago motioned for silence and the protest ceased. He took his seat at the end of the table and Carter placed a glass of water at his side. Iago took a sip and the rancid taste cut his tongue like a razor.

“Mr. Chairman, must we waste the board’s time answering these absurd charges? Don’t we have more pressing matters?” Korban stood with his arms crossed.

“We all saw you kill him. Do you deny this?” Matias also jerked to his feet.

“And who precisely did I kill?” Korban asked.

“Gavin may have pulled the trigger, but you gave the signal,” Matias replied.

“Of course, I don’t deny signaling to end the flush. But make no mistake, Mr. Carney was dead long before he arrived tonight. And due to his vast negligence, I’m afraid many more are doomed to share his fate.”

“So, for the record, you agree that you signaled to murder Mr. Carney after a nine-count, even though the bylaws demand fifteen.” Matias leaned over the table like a child reaching for his first Christmas present.

“I stand by my actions,” Korban replied. “But do you? I recall you agreeing to collateral.”

“Isn’t one murder enough? Mrs. Carney isn’t a piece of meat to be fed to the flatheads. Iago, in light of current events, I demand Korban relinquish his directorship until a full investigation can proceed.”

“Flatheads are already feeding on her, you dolt.” Korban slammed his fist against the table. “But fine, put her in quarantine for all I care. What really matters is enforcing a level 8 lockdown before everyone gets up for the day.”

“Come on. How many of these are we going to have before the entire populace loses complete trust? Lockdowns are already considered a joke; hardly anyone follows them,” Matias said.

“We’ll have as Goddamn many of them as we need to ensure the Company doesn’t go extinct,” Korban yelled. “Has this ever entered into that thick skull of yours, Director? How did you fail to see your client chewed up like a ripe tomato?”

“If sacrificing every law is the only way to avoid extinction, then perhaps this is not worth saving.”

“I can’t believe you just said that. And you say I’m the one who should step down.” Korban shrugged, shaking his head.

“Level 7,” Iago interrupted. “I see no reason to confine everyone to their apartments, but in light of the possible outbreak, I believe a floor-wide lockdown is prudent.”

Iago tapped the table once. Unlike all the other nonsensical procedures, this was all it took for a lockdown to proceed. The board could call to overrule him, but staring out at all the blank faces, Iago doubted there’d be any dissent. A pair of guards turned to exit and Matias swirled in their direction, but said nothing.

“And what about my motion for Korban to step down?” Matias asked as the guards disappeared through the door.

“Denied. Way I see it, either Mr. Carney lied about the length of his exposure or the flatheads have evolved to grow at a faster rate. Either way, an investigation up on 52 will clarify things.” Iago motioned for everyone to sit.

“I can’t believe you’d sanction this murder, Iago.” Matias said, still hovering above the table.

“Face it, your client lied.” Korban took a seat. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if there are visible flatheads up on 52.”

“Korban is right. I’m ordering a level 10 containment for that entire floor. And I don’t care about the rules, wake up every mopper right now. I’m declaring this an official outbreak and all further action will be directed from the Command Center.” Iago tapped the triple knock, ending all discussion.

As the board members shuffled from the room, Iago glanced at his reflection in the polished oak of the table. Deep sagging lines crusted his eyes and he wished for a ten-minute break. He doubted he’d receive even half that amount before the first hurried knocks would arrive at the Command Center. He stood to make his way down the hall when Matias cornered him.

“You never give up, do you?” Iago asked. “You saw the size of those flatheads. I made up that evolving stuff to save you some face, so I expect a little respect in return.”

“Hey, I agree,” Matias said. “Lucas was most likely a goner, but I have to put on a show, politics and all.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Iago replied.

“Hey, nobody’s going to come to me for a flush if they’re afraid of getting prematurely shot. I do feel it was the wrong call, but all of that can be dealt with later. Right now, I need you to place Belen in protective custody.”

“She’ll be fine in quarantine.” Iago started across the room.

“Don’t be naïve. Forget all that collateral stuff, if it comes out that Lucas was lying, she’ll be murdered just for being married to him. No discussion, no trial.”

“I’m saving my concerns for the people doing the lockdown. Even if there’s no contamination, I doubt this will go over without some skirmishes. And let’s pray no moppers are injured during the cleanup.”

“She’s not safe down in quarantine.”

“She’s not my concern.” Iago shoved past Matias.

“What’s happened to you?” Matias grabbed Iago’s arm, pulling him close. “Listen to me,” he whispered. “There’s another girl. Perhaps even two.”

“Are you kidding?” Iago snapped. “Who?”

“Belen suspected something and moved out to live with her mother over a month ago. So if you send her to quarantine, you’ll be condemning an innocent woman.”

“Why didn’t you bring this up before?”

“Because I chose to believe Lucas.”

“And why would you do a stupid thing like that?”

“I live by a simple code–to trust people unless proven wrong, because the alternative isn’t a life worth living.”

“Cut the platitudes and give me some names.”

“I think Belen might want to use the names as leverage.”

“I think you’re the one who wants to use it as leverage,” Iago replied, knowing Matias’ political show had only begun.

“Either way, the only plan to find out is to ask her. Just don’t be surprised if she wants something in return.”

“Don’t you realize there’s an outbreak?” Iago shook free from Matias’ grasp.

“I’m not the one lacking realizations.” Matias smirked. “Flatheads are far from the greatest threat to the survival of the Company.”

Iago turned and stormed out the door. His coordination of the outbreak containment was primary and he didn’t have time to waste on Matias’ insinuations. Still, he proceeded past the Command Center, entering the stairwell on the far end. He stared down, calculating the number of steps to the quarantine level. His legs throbbed, already sore from all the night’s activities, but he took a deep breath and started the descent.

#

The guard’s biohazard suit crinkled as he stepped up to the cell. His gloved hand slid open a small Judas port situated in the center of the steel door. And even though this hole was protected behind a piece of translucent plastic wrap, the guard warned Iago to keep his distance.

Iago demanded to open the door. The guard refused, stating Belen could be questioned just as easily from outside. But answers, not questions, were Iago’s primary concern, and steel doors had the tendency of getting in the way of them.

Iago suspected the guard’s reluctance stemmed from a fear this was some sort of test. As if the Chairman would walk all the way down to this dungeon for a surprise inspection. When Iago insisted on the severity of the situation and demanded to open the door again, the guard folded. At times, being the Chairman did have its perks.

Still, even that had limits, since the guard refused to allow them privacy, insisting on standing present for the entire conversation. Iago didn’t belabor the point, knowing full well the guard would be watching for any contact. Chairman or otherwise, the slightest graze would sentence him down here. And once inside the quarantines, a flush was no longer an option.

The guard reminded him those were the rules, as if Iago wasn’t fully aware of them. He nodded and the guard cranked open the door. Belen sat on the far end of the cell, hunched across a small wooden desk. Iago removed his gas mask and approached. Belen straightened a bit as he entered, but not by much.

“Hello, Mrs. Carney, I believe you know why I’m here.” She motioned at a bench attached to the wall, but Iago remained standing. He didn’t dare touch anything in the room.

“I never thought you’d actually come,” she said, tilting her head to the side. “Maybe Matias is worth something.”

“So you understand the situation.”

“What I understand is how my lying shit of a husband sold me out. I’m glad he died like that. Better than he deserved.”

“You claim you haven’t had any physical contact with him for over a month, is that right?” Iago asked and Belen nodded. “And I don’t mean just sexually. Once infected, flatheads can spawn through sweat, so even a kiss or hand-holding counts.”

“I’m clean, I swear.”

“Then you have nothing to fear.”

“Oh, don’t play me. I remember last time. Everyone down here was slaughtered. And how many people did you punish for that, Mr. Chairman?”

Iago’s eyes locked with Belen’s as they froze into a standoff. His every instinct wanted to scream how they’d spent months investigating, placed countless citizens in the quarantines, and even consulted with the crime bosses to discover a single name, but nobody would talk.

He wanted to tell how he’d gladly trade places so she could deal with the ever-devolving chaos of an outbreak containment. How she’d break under a single minute of that kind of pressure. That, unlike her, he’d never withhold any information if it meant saving a single life. That he’d gladly offer himself up so the Company could endure. A sacrifice someone like her could never hope to comprehend.

“The past is the past,” he replied instead. “Now we must focus on the present. I need you to tell me the name of every woman who might’ve been intimate with your husband.”

“I despise those girls, but I can’t condemn them. Lucas had his faults, but he could be quite charming. If they were with him, they’ll die, but not because of me. Maybe that’s wrong, but I don’t think one of your types could ever understand something like that.”

“We can hole them up somewhere outside of the quarantines. You have to trust me.”

“Just like I trusted a fifteen count for the flush.”

“That wasn’t my call, but here,” Iago paused, removing one of his gloves. He held his exposed hand to her. “We’ll shake on it. Is that trust enough?”

“Sir, I can’t allow this,” the guard replied. In the flurry of emotions, Iago had forgotten he was standing right behind him. Belen chuckled as Iago rolled the glove back over his hand.

“I’ll give you the names, don’t worry. But first, I want you to know the truth. Lucas didn’t die tonight. Well, at least not all of him.” Belen raised her shirt and tapped at the exposed portion of her belly.

“How far along?” he asked.

“Twenty-one weeks. So I hope you understand that even if I don’t consider my life worth a whole hill of beans, I’d do anything to save this baby.”

“Sir.” The guard tapped his shoulder.

“Yes, I already put the gloves back on.” Iago stared at the slight bulge, attempting to discern the truth. “Give me those names and I guarantee both you and your baby will be safe.”

“This is urgent, sir.” The guard tapped him a second time.

“I said, not now.” Iago spun to reprimand the guard, but paused, spotting Adan. The chief mopper stood with his arms crossed and Iago knew if Adan had trekked all the way down here to find him, the news wasn’t good. Iago apologized, leaving the guard to attend to Belen. He joined Adan in the hallway.

The conversation was brief, but Iago instantly recognized the meaning. He ordered Adan to brief everyone in the Command Center, promising to join them as soon as he was done here.

“I need those names now,” Iago shouted, returning to the cell.

“Of course, just as soon as you get me to a safe-room,” Belen replied. “And I want Matias present.”

“Then we’re done here.” Iago grabbed the guard, shoving him out the door.

“I need you to assemble all the guards,” Iago ordered.

The guard shivered, bouncing on the balls of his feet, clearly shaken by the situation. It wasn’t every day that both the chairman and chief mopper dropped by for a chat. The guard knew something was amiss, but hesitated as Iago gestured for him to head into the furthest recesses of the quarantines.

“Wouldn’t it be better to meet up front?” he asked.

“I never said what I’m going to say now, especially when they come to ask questions later. Understand?” The guard nodded and Iago continued. “There’s going to be a flush, but not one involving Old Clawy. And if you’re up front, who knows what might happen. Back there is not only safe, but out of sight, so you’ll have plausible deniability about what’s going to happen.”

“Oh my God, yes, I understand.”

“Good, now get everyone and stay out of the way.” Without another word, the guard disappeared down the hall. And just as Iago predicted, the guard failed to notice the door to Belen’s cell remained cracked. Iago pressed it open.

“People are going to die. I need those names.”

“I’ll wait for Matias,” Belen said, leaning back in her chair.

“He’s not here, I am.”

“But I don’t trust you.”

Iago stormed across the cell, but Belen didn’t even flinch. He raised his hand, motioning to strike, but she just kept staring. Instead of hitting her, Iago tore off his glove. He pressed his palm to her cheek.

“Do you trust me now?” he asked, reaching out to her. She grabbed his hand.

#

Iago waited for the stomping footsteps of the guards to recede before emerging. He paused for a moment, anticipating a straggler or two, but when none appeared, he motioned for Belen to follow. It remained clear as they reached the staircase. Iago flung open the door, peered up, and began to ascend.

“Hold on. Won’t it be safer going down? Nobody’s going to be looking there.”

“I’ve ordered a level 10 lockdown. They’ll be looking for you everywhere. But there’s a hidden room near my apartment where you’ll be safe. I use it sometimes when I need to clear my mind.”

“Perks of being in charge,” Belen said, following him up the steps.

It didn’t take long to reach the 26th floor, but Iago could barely catch his breath as they staggered out. He breathed in deep pants, but couldn’t hear them underneath the blaring alarms. Still, no matter how winded he was, he forced his wobbly legs to sprint down the hall. They rounded the corner and stopped in front of the old elevator shaft at the end.

“I thought you had a hiding place?” Belen asked, scanning the rust-covered doors of the elevator.

“Don’t worry, it’s right—” Iago paused as a thundering boom echoed somewhere nearby. He hoped the noise had come from upstairs, since he needed a bit more time to pry open the doors to the elevator shaft. Either way, it wouldn’t be long before the rioting found them.

“It was stupid to order a level 10. You politicians don’t understand how things work,” Belen complained, but pressed closer to his side. Iago ignored the comment. He hadn’t ordered a full quarantine, but kept this tidbit to himself.

“Come on, open up.” He clutched the rusty elevator doors and yanked with what little strength remained to him. They creaked before shaking loose. A smattering of dust showered down as he heaved them apart. It was pitch-black on the other side.

“Isn’t that a hole?” Belen asked, staring into the black void.

“There’s a service room situated on the side. Just need to open them a bit more.” Using his body weight, he rammed the doors, sliding them open with a sharp squeal.

“Okay, I got you here,” he said. “I need those names.”

“I can’t see anything.”

“Listen, I trusted you. Now I need you to trust me.” Iago pressed his back to the open door, hitching it in place. He motioned for Belen to step closer and she did. He grabbed her arm, pressing it into the open shaft.

“Feel that? No wall. Only a single step and you’ll be safe. And I’m going to be here the entire time.” Iago wrapped his hands around her waist. She burrowed into him as her legs inched toward the edge.

“You sure there’s a room there?” Belen reached past the blobby shadows and into the darkness.

“I guarantee it. If you want to wait until you get to the other side to give me those names, that’s fine. But you’ll have to lean back over the hole, since I won’t be able to hear you through the sirens.” Iago tugged her closer. “In different circumstances, I’d be the first to join you in there.”

A boom rocketed off and Belen slipped for a moment, but Iago steadied her.

“Do you have a name for the baby yet?” he asked. “If not, I think Luz would be beautiful.”

“If you help me survive, I’ll give you naming rights.” She quivered and he placed a kiss on her forehead.

“You don’t know how happy I am to hear that. Can we trade names now? Before those booms come any closer.”

“Fine. It was Ruby Sullivan or her skanky half-sister Zara. Or maybe Lexi Wimmer. Those are the only ones I know for sure. I also think there was someone up on 52, which was why he was going up there.”

“I love you.”

“What?”

Iago shoved. Belen tumbled a step forward and he released his grasp. She flung out her arms, but made no noise as she plummeted into the elevator shaft. He hoped the lack of a scream indicated she hadn’t realized what was happening. It’d be better that way. He rolled back and the elevator doors snapped shut.

Iago took a deep breath and reached into his back pocket. He snapped his gloves back over his wrists. He had to do his best to prevent anyone else from being infected.

Rounding the corner, he reached his apartment and shoved open the door. Adan’s news still chimed in his head. Not only had full-grown flatheads been discovered up on 52, but when Belen’s mother had been confronted, she’d poured a glass of water over herself to protest being quarantined. As if that would prove anything. And when her skin bubbled, she appeared genuinely surprised. For a single glass of water to induce any flatheads meant the outbreak was beyond severe.

Iago reached over for a pad of paper and scribbled the names Belen had mentioned across the top. He tore off the piece and shoved it underneath the door. Carter would find it after Iago failed to show up at the Command Center. He hoped this bit would help and it wasn’t already too late.

He grabbed the picture of Amaya from his desk and made his way over to the window. He tore away the plastic wrap, dropping it to the floor. As he climbed outside, he took a deep breath of fresh air. He closed the window behind him, muting the blaring alarms by a little. Still, they pounded a steady rhythm, almost musical. He flung his arms and swung around the deck.

As he danced, he stared into the horizon, waiting for the warm rays of sunrise to spark a new day to life. As Chairman, he hoped his final sacrifice would work to calm the inevitable upheaval, perhaps inspire a few others and limit the damage. A change in leadership would likewise help to calm tensions.

He just wanted his final dance with Amaya. And when he heard the thunderclaps, he grinned, knowing the cisterns would be refilled once again. As the rain crashed down, he kept twirling around in his magical pirouettes. He whooped a holler of joy and raised his face to the sky. His mouth filled with fresh rainwater. It tasted delicious.

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