Ren scratched at the tattoo on his neck—a circle with an arrow pointing up and to the right, the universal symbol for male. If he could, he’d scratch deep enough into his skin to erase it.
Inside the second-floor office, the two lanterns had burned out and left the room in shadows. Outside, it was even darker. Ren needed a few moments for his eyes to adjust. The cement sidewalks were first to come into view. Next were the streetlights, which were no longer functional, but were never removed.
Motion appeared far down the road from the office building. Ren eyed an allo rolling down the street, which surprised him at this time of day. Anyone who wanted to drive an allo at a time like this was either determined or crazy. Come to think of it, Guru Macaab was both. Ren now realized how long his nap was—it wasn’t night anymore, it was early morning.
Like a canoe on wheels, Macaab’s allo must have been traveling at forty miles an hour. Macaab came racing toward the building, making the same full body movement as a rower. In doing so, the large band extending from his hands to the wheels rotated with so much speed that if Ren opened the window he would hear it whipping through the air. The guru decelerated to a stop in front of the office, and his robust stature became evident. When Macaab stood up to exit his allo, Ren stood more erect, as if he gained confidence and power from standing in close proximity. Ren alternated daily between advisor, friend, and fan of Guru Macaab—an honor only he possessed in the world.
Guru Macaab looked up into the second-story window where Ren was standing. Unable to determine if Macaab made eye contact or not, Ren stopped staring and got to work. There were less than two minutes to spare before his idol arrived inside.
It took three attempts for Ren to light the lanterns again, and the sudden brightness hurt his eyes. By the time the guru made his way up the stairs, there would be barely enough lighting for the two of them to recognize each other. Plus, Macaab would not be as shocked to find someone in the room if there were still lanterns lit.
When he heard footsteps coming from down the hall, Ren feared he wouldn’t be presentable. He had already adjusted his tie and combed his hand through his hair, but did so a second time out of habit. There was only enough time to shake out the nerves before the office door opened.
“Ren,” Macaab said with a hint of surprise. “I didn’t expect to see you here this early.” He ambled to his chair as he spoke. Ren stared at the guru’s matching sex identification tattoo as he strolled by. “No one ever beats me into the office in the morning. I admire your dedication.”
A giggle escaped from Ren as he thought of his response. “Would it be more or less admirable if I told you I fell asleep, and was here all night?”
“You don’t need my approval, Ren,” Macaab said with a comforting grin.
“Thank you, sir.”
Ren spun to leave the room. The sun would be rising soon, which meant it was time for work.
“Ren,” Macaab said, catching him before he left. Ren turned back and noticed the man was waiting for something from him.
“Oh, right,” Ren said, straightening his back and sticking his chest out. “Shall we make history today, my friend?”
“We shall make history every day, my friend,” Macaab said.
A few minutes later, Ren returned to the guru’s office. “I know it’s not for a couple weeks, but I think we should talk about the appearance we’re supposed to make at the hospital in Vera.”
“What about it?” Macaab asked.
“You know what.”
Macaab’s smile dissolved. “Ren, when have you ever known me to be convinced to change my ways?”
“I’m not asking you to change your ways,” Ren said defensively. “I would never ask you to do something like that. All I’m saying is Vera has the highest percentage of epicenes in the world. The subject is too sensitive right now to make an argument for secondary assignment research. The epicenes in Vera will want to hear you say you will fund secondary assignment research; but if you don’t deliver, they’ll think you were exploiting them. I know you’re a man of the people, and it’s going to be tempting, but you need to keep everyone in mind, not solely the audience in the moment.”
“I do keep everyone in mind. But the way people are treated when they aren’t a man or woman is horrible. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I can’t help but think of the fact that these people need my support more than I need theirs. Remember, it’s not about politics and it’s not about power. It is about survival.”
“It was about survival,” Ren said, considering taking Macaab’s hand then deciding against it. “You know I support you whole-heartedly, but the world is adapting faster and faster with time. I think it’s as much our duty to adapt with it.”
“Why don’t we leave the adapting to the next generation. They’ll be responsible for this world soon enough.”
Either the calm tone, the strong argument, or the realization he wasn’t going to win, caused Ren to take a deep breath and give a conciliatory nod.
“Do you smell that?” the guru asked, perking up and lifting his nose into the air.
Ren looked up and around the room as if he would be able to spot the object causing the scent before he was able to sniff it out. “No,” he said, “smell what?”
“I’m not sure,” Macaab said, shaking his head. He furrowed the skin at the bridge of his nose. “Smoke, maybe.”
“Smoke? Like cigarette smoke?”
The second question felt out of place. The government decriminalized cigarettes fourteen years earlier once the country’s population had reached its minimum requirement. Ren had been in his late teens when it happened, but neither he nor Guru Macaab had smoked even to this day. Macaab fought to ban cigarettes again four years prior, but failed to do so. There was an unsaid understanding they should not mention it too often. Even so, associating smoke with cigarettes instead of fire seemed foreign.
“Not like cigarette smoke,” Macaab said. He waved the thought away. “I can’t really tell. If you can’t smell it, it’s probably nothing.”
“Alright,” Ren was unsure of how else to respond, concerned Macaab could smell something he coudn’t. “Did you hear, a scientist in Tuershen claims to have solved the hormone responsiveness problem? We may have to start thinking of a new currency if testosterone and estrogen can be—”
“Okay, I definitely smell it now. And it’s not the lanterns. Do you seriously not smell it?”
“No, I don’t.”
Guru Macaab rose from his seat and marched to the window. As Ren watched him, the distinct smell finally reached his nose. “Oh, wait, now I smell it. Yeah, you’re not hallucinating. So, that’s good.” Ren couldn’t understand how Macaab was able to detect the smell so long before him. Once again, the guru appeared to be superhuman.
“No, it’s not good,” Macaab said as he reached the window. “We need to figure out where it’s coming from. If there’s a fire and it’s not somewhere else…”
A high-pitched crashing sound rang out as a projectile hurtled through the window, flying inches away from Macaab’s head. When it hit the floor, another crash bathed the office in amber and gold flames. The bright flash hurt Ren’s eyes. A split second later, both men dashed to the office door. Once it was open, the haze of smoke became apparent outside the office room. It hardly looked any different from what was inside the office. Macaab took the lead without a word, and Ren followed close behind him, trying not to panic. They ran in tandem to the staircase. Reaching the top of the stairs, the two of them peered down to see it was not safe to go down to the bottom floor. The ground level was already saturated with the conflagration. The stairs could not hold up to the high temperatures, which meant the building might not last much longer, either.
Smoke entered Ren’s mouth and lungs. He coughed uncontrollably as his leader spun him by the arm and pushed him back toward the office. The hot air burned his chest and throat, and he wished he could hold his breath. But every time he tried he started to cough again. The vicious cycle would have brought him to his knees if Macaab hadn’t run ahead and pulled him by the arm.
“Come on,” Macaab said, his voice hoarse. “Hurry! We. Need. A. Way. Out.”
Ren couldn’t figure out how Macaab was even able to see. Whenever he opened his eyes the sting from the smoke forced them to shut involuntarily. Tears from his eyes dried before they could run down his cheeks. He never knew fire could spread and cause damage so abruptly.
Flames filled the office they were in just a minute ago. Farther down the hall, the two broke through a door and into another office where death did not yet reside. Macaab coughed up and spit the harshness out of his throat. Ren attempted to imitate as they shifted toward the door, and he could see blood mixed in with the saliva. Unsure of how much longer he could survive before his body burned from the inside out, he choked out a single word. “Window.”
Macaab grabbed the edge of the window and pulled. The window made a screeching noise as it slid open, drowning out the roaring flames at their backs. Ren watched as Macaab contorted his body through the window and wondered if he felt fear. The man hung from the sill before letting go and dropping to the ground. Ren peered down only to see moving figures through the smoke, which was growing thicker and darker. There were no painful shrieks, so Ren assumed Macaab made it down without injury. He stuck his feet out of the window and sat on the sill, trying not to overthink his predicament.
“One, two, three,” Ren whispered between coughs before pushing himself from the window.
His feet reached the ground before he was expecting, and his right knee buckled. Ren tried to get up, but his leg was not cooperating. Once he glanced down and saw his knee bent in an irregular angle, he realized the only reason he wasn’t in pain was an adrenaline rush.
In search of Macaab, Ren looked out to the street. The smoke was above them now, so his vision was not blocked. Now he was able to see not only Macaab, but also some other people. Macaab sat on his bottom, with his elbows resting on his knees. He appeared calm, which did not match with the rest of the picture.
In all, there were five men surrounding Macaab in a semicircle. Behind them were two bicycles and another allo. Each of the men wielded at least one weapon. Axes, crowbars, and baseball bats made up the lot of them. Baseball had not been an organized sport in centuries, but these bats appeared to have seen a lot of action—although not by striking baseballs. In the middle, a man held up two weapons toward Macaab, like they were offerings. In his left hand was a baseball bat. In the other hand was a machete. “Blunt or sharp?” the man asked.
As the picture became clear in his mind, the grave situation also began making sense. Ren had feared this infamous group ever since he started working for Macaab—and rightfully so; The Fire Men lived up to their reputation. The man in the middle, who Ren assumed must have been this group’s leader, was not offering the weapons to Macaab. He was letting Macaab make one last decision: how he would prefer to die.
Macaab remained silent, refusing to play into this terrorist’s games. “One last chance, Guru Macaab. I’m giving you the option; I think you should take it.” During a few more tension-filled seconds, neither the man nor Macaab budged. “Sharp it is, then.”
The pain of what unfolded next overwhelmed the growing pain in Ren’s leg. If he could have picked himself up, he would have interfered. But there was no hope with his leg shattered. The man threw the bat to one of his minions, who caught it in the air. He then walked to Guru Macaab’s side, stretching and shaking out his shoulders.
Guru Macaab and the leader of The Fire Men simultaneously took a deep breath. The guru turned to Ren. As The Fire Men’s leader gripped the machete with both hands, like an executioner with a long sword, Macaab began speaking. He was able to speak the full sentence before the man brought the machete down on his neck.
“Shall we make history today, my friend?”