I met up with Amy upstairs near the entrance, and explained what he said. “I have an idea, but you’ll probably kick me just for suggesting it.”
Amy cocked an eyebrow, and put a very grim look on her face. “Probably. So what is it? Talk to my father again?”
“Hah. Hardly. No, I need to find this guy’s sister, and ask her for her help. It could be bad, or it could be worse. Either way, I’m going to need your help convincing her it’s the right thing to do.”
She pondered the idea, clearly uncomfortable but not totally against it. “Sure. But no more problems, ok? This could end poorly no matter what, and we don’t need more bodies.”
I agreed, then got into the taxi and paid him to take us to the edge of the city, where the ones who barely made the cut would live until they ran out of money or lost their job, and only had to move a few kilometers to the slums. Colleen would be living here, in her brother’s apartment most likely. A man like that would never let her out of his sight for long. When we found the building in which he’d been living for the last few years, I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t a low-rent complex on the edge of the city; it was actually a nice building nearer the core than most. Only a little over 200 stories, it was far from the tallest building in the city, but it was also not one of the old century buildings one was likely to find in these parts of the city. I found apartment 20157 on the registry and made the call to the intercom. The girl that answered wasn’t the one I was expecting, weak and small. She looked healthy, strong, and very annoyed. “What do you want?”
“I’m Marshal Ryan Darrow, the last of the US Marshals. Your brother was arrested in connection with the bombing at the capitol police station this morning, and I wanted to talk to you. He needs help, Colleen, and he needs you.”
Her voice leveled off and her face went soft immediately. “Oh my god, I told him not to do anything with those people, but he wanted to help... ok. Come on up.” The door opened and we walked to the elevators at the back of the expansive and beautiful lobby, far too nice for this area it seemed. It occurred to me that the Sons had bigger connections, and may have built this place as a home for the people who worked for them. It was nice enough, that’s for sure. Once at the apartment, I saw Colleen better than I could over the video comm. She was taller than I expected, but still fairly short from a lack of bone growth; her raven hair fell around her shoulders in a beautiful cascade of waves and curls, and her deep purple eyes gave her away almost immediately. Only two kinds of people had those eyes: the people who paid for them and the ones who had grown up in the wrong end of the galaxy. They were human, to be sure, but they grew up on a planet with a weak gravitational pull and a strange but beautiful sun. It caused humans whose eyes would have stayed blue to slowly adapt a pair of deep purple eyes that allowed the right amount of light through. It also explained why her bones were so weak; her family was from the planet of Alfheim, a beautiful planet settled by early explorers from Scandinavia named for the home of the elves of Norse mythology. They had set out long before proper FTL gates had been built, using stasis chambers to slow their bodies’ processes long enough to reach their destination. The colony had been established over 20 years before the construction of the first gate in the region, which came as a surprise to the construction crew.
“So, what happened to my brother? Is he ok?”
My head sunk for a minute when I remembered what I did, but I just answered “Yeah, he’s fine. The problem is that he was guarding the bomber who blew up the station, and he is likely going to get a summary execution if he doesn’t cooperate. Only he refuses, since he said that the people paying for your treatment are the ones who paid him to do it, and he’s afraid of what would happen to you if he talks.”
I saw the wheels in Colleen’s head turning, trying to absorb the information. She had shock and disgust written all over her face, with fear and anger showing up in her eyes. “He did what? He told me that he was working security for the hospital, and that the doctor who had put me in the treatment program owed him a favor. Now you’re telling me he worked for a bunch of terrorists, and they’re the ones who’ve been paying for my treatment? I’m going to kill him if you don’t...”
I raised my hands defensively. “I’m not going to do it. I don’t want him to get killed for protecting his little sister, especially when he didn’t know what they were planning. They lied to him, to get him to do it. Told him it was going to be a broadcast, not a bomb. But that doesn’t matter, not to the Coalition attorneys. They want him dead, and they’ll put him through a farce of a trial to guarantee it. But if I can get him to cooperate, to get the ones who planned it, I might be able to help him. Get him put into a witness protection program on some far off planet. Both of you. You’d be able to start over, and you’d be safe. But this only happens if he agrees. And for that, I’m going to need your help.”
Colleen considered the idea for a while, sipping a cup of tea and swirling it around a few times before answering. “I’ll help. I don’t want to see my brother suffer or die because he wanted to protect me. I’d never be able to forgive myself, for that and the new bone treatments that his terrible job paid for. I’d live knowing that his crimes paid for my life. I can’t do that. So please, take me to him. Right away.”
I knew she’d see what he had become, not just the facade that he put up for her every day. I didn’t really want her to see it, to see him the way he really was. I knew the look, the look of shattered reality and a broken ideal. After I got out of the slums of San Martelos into the military, I met a girl. A wonderful girl, and we were lovestruck, like little children without a clue. It wasn’t until we went back to Earth on holiday that she found out who I was. I had just run into an old friend from the militia, an old man who trained me when I first joined, and after hearing the stories that we had, the things that we did, she didn’t love me any more. She had a perfect idea, one that was totally wrong, and in five minutes her idea of who I was broke. And she hated it. I never saw her again after that. Now I could only hope that Colleen didn’t see Johr that way, and lose her nerve. I needed her to believe that her brother, the boy that grew up with her and always protected her, was still in there. That he was still capable of being the man she needed him to be. In reality, though, I needed to believe that things could change for people like us. That the darkness and the violence that shaped our existence could be discarded and replaced with a much more beautiful soul, one not interested in pure violence and hate. But that was a dream, an ideal held up only in fairy tales and childrens’ books. Not in the real world.
We arrived at the prison, and were escorted downstairs so Colleen could meet with her brother. Thankfully the prison was outdated and had very little surveillance equipment; there was no telling what could happen if the Sons knew that they had met, and that she had convinced him to talk. They might not leave here alive. She ran to her brother, and demanded that his cell be opened. She certainly wasn’t the frail little girl her brother had described; but I guess he was just being her big brother. Even if she was the older of the two. Her bones were weak because she grew up under that special sun, his weren’t. And his eyes were a piercing blue, not purple as they would have been if he had been raised on the same world.
“Johr! Johr, what have you done? They told me you were involved, that you’ve been working for a bunch of terrorists, and that they tricked you into helping kill hundreds of people. Tell me it’s not true, brother. Tell me they’ve made it all up.”
Johr lowered his head, considering each word carefully. “It is, sister. They... they wanted me to do a job for them, to protect their people, and they offered to help you, to help both of us. I couldn’t turn it down, not if it meant you’d be able to walk, and run, and play tennis again. You love tennis. It was your favorite game, but after mom and dad died and we moved here to live with uncle Alexander, he knew you’d never play until you got the treatment. And I figured it out, too. But it was so expensive, and even working 80 hours a week I couldn’t afford it. So I turned to the people who wanted me, wanted my skills, and were willing to pay for them. I was supposed to make sure he got to the station, then run from the scene. Didn’t want me dying, I guess. I got picked up before I made it 20 meters from the door. They threw me into their car and went to go inside when the bomb went off. They died, but I lived. Their damn cop cars are armored and have some sort of reactive armor; when the phosphorous hit, it boiled off the outer layers but didn’t get me. When the fire control team and other cops came back, they found me in the back of the car. Figured out pretty quickly that I was involved.”
“Ok, so why aren’t you helping the police? Tell them what they want to know, and they can protect us!”
Johr scoffed at the idea. Clearly, he didn’t trust me. I wouldn’t either. “Is that what they told you? You think they’ll just let us walk away, after what we did? That’s ridiculous, Col. They won’t let me leave. Everyone will be calling for my head within a day or two. They couldn’t let me go.”
“Why not?” I asked. “No one, outside this room and the one out there know you’re here, or who you are. Everyone was told it was a suicide bomb, not a two man operation. We told the press on purpose. Because we need you. We need you to be safe, to be helpful. But the Coalition’s prosecutors are getting anxious; they want a head on a pike, a public show of strength. They want to put the Sons of Kalia on trial, but they’ll settle for you if they don’t get more names. Help us bring those men in, the ones who lied to you and ruined your life, so that you and your sister can live. Otherwise, you go to prison and your sister gets sent back to wherever they feel like. You don’t want her to go back to some slums somewhere, do you? That’s not how you want to go out. And that’s not what I want. I want to help her, and I’m willing to help you. If you tell me what I need to know, you’ll both end up on another planet somewhere, out of the reach of the Sons, and you’ll get a living stipend and a chance to work a job that won’t put you in harm’s way. You’ll be free from the life that has caused you both so much pain. Isn’t that what you want? If you can’t do that for yourself, do it for your sister, at least. She deserves better. And she’ll get any further treatment she needs. All you have to do is tell me who tricked you into helping kill over a hundred people. Who screwed you over and ruined your life?”
“I’m loyal, Marshal, something you clearly know nothing about. Loyal to people who were good to me. I’m not telling you anything, and they’ll make sure Col is taken care of, don’t you worry. They promised.”
“Like they promised it was just going to be a broadcast? Listen to yourself! You’re choosing the scum of the system over you and your own sister. She will end up in the slums, unless you help; I guarantee it. And they won’t give a damn about it. They’ll laugh and joke about how gullible you were, how useful. They won’t put themselves out on a limb, not even for someone like you. Someone worth something to them. Why do you still want to protect them?”
“Because, Marshal. I don’t tell on my friends. Even if they’re jerks.”
I stood up from the table, locking my hands behind my head and breathing a deep sigh. He wasn’t going to break, not even for his own sister.
I walked over to the door and knocked, and two guards opened the door and came in. “He’s not helping. Process him and call the prosecutors. They’ll want a crack at him before the trial starts. And process his sister, too. She’s not involved, but she’s not in the system much either. Also, tell the chief inspector there’s a loft, in the Madison towers near the edge of town, that he’s been renting with blood money. They’re going to need to confiscate it. Hell, the whole tower is likely owned by a mob of something or other. Just take care of it.”
With that, I turned and looked them both in the eyes. “You guys had your chance. You could have walked away. But now he’s going to die and you’re going to end up in the slums, or worse. Not really what I want, but hey. Apparently, your life is worth less than nothing to your brother.” To Johr I said “And you’re going to die. Summary execution within a month. They’ll make an announcement about your involvement in the attack, saying that you helped facilitate it. Then since you and your sister will be in the records, no one is going to have a hard time finding her to bombard her with questions. Hell, who knows; somebody might just be angry to want to hurt you. But hey, it’s not your fault; you’re just trying to be a good terrorist.”
Amy dragged me outside and into another cell where we couldn’t be heard. “What the hell is wrong with you? That’s messed up! You can’t do that to her!”
I smiled, and simply replied “I know.” When we went back they were gone, but the chief had come down. “Chief, do me a favor,” I said, “and keep her out of city records. She knew nothing, and punishing her for her brother’s crimes is just cruel. She might end up in a piss poor place, but at least she’ll be healthy and no one will know they’re related. And keep him overnight before you hang him out to dry. I still think there’s something left of him in there. He just might not know it himself yet.”
Amy followed my back to the front of the temporary station, where we took a cab back to our hotel. “So, you never intended to hang her with him, you just wanted to scare him. Cruel, but I see how it might help. Hopefully he loves his sister enough to do it.”
“He’ll do it. I did it once, and we both survived. I joined the military, but not so willingly. They rounded up the militia, a “hearts and minds” exercise that backfired horribly. They told me I could join the military, give up the leaders of the militia, and me and my brother would be taken care of, or I could go to jail. I chose the former. I can never go back to the San Martelos slums because of it. Johr may hate the idea, but he’ll make the right choice. I know he will.”
“Well, I hope your right.” She squeezed my hand before getting out of the car, a little sign that she was behind me no matter what happened. I needed a little support at the moment; I may have acted confident, but I had no idea what was going to happen. Still, I needed sleep before I passed out from pure exhaustion.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of the ocean; piped in from the sound system built in to the room. It was supposed to be calming for most people, and I had forgotten to tell the desk to turn it off. The beach never held good memories for me; every trip to the beach was another trip that I would regret, since it usually ended with someone buried in sand. I heard a knocking at the door; Amy with a tray full of food and coffee. I swear she’s the worst kind of person: a morning person. It takes me several minutes to go from asleep to fully conscious, then about a dozen more to get from conscious to ready to go. Amy, though? She’s up and out the door in five minutes, a combination of a miraculous level of preparation the night before, quick application makeup, and a general sense of optimism about the day. Me? I wake up every day thinking the day might end with me in the hospital; or worse, her. But that doesn’t enter her mind until about five seconds before it happens. We sat around for a few minutes eating breakfast and talking about the night before. I checked my PDA for messages, and saw that I had a few from the Chief. So, did Johr cave? I popped the first one, and the chief’s voice came to life, explaining that Johr was expressing “deep regret” for his actions, but hadn’t given any names. The second was worse; he had apparently stonewalled for a few hours, not saying a word to anyone. The third was exactly what I was looking for. He gave up one name, the guy who gave him his orders. Didn’t surprise me; most organizations, from terrorists to spies, work in cells. They work with only a few other people, never meeting others outside their cell and carrying out very specific tasks. In this case he worked for a propaganda cell, spreading misinformation and broadcasting the “truth” of the Coalition to whoever would hear. At least, that’s what he was told. Unfortunately, the cell was efficient at limiting information of the rest of the organization; only the leader of the cell had any contact with anyone outside, and even then he only communicated in one way. They sent and received money and information through dead drops and anonymous transfers to fake names and addresses; an old system, but still an effective one in the right areas. The slums, with almost no video surveillance and even less police presence, is a favorite meeting spot for terrorists, criminals, and the rest of the worst.
I called Amy from the lobby and she came right down, looking as chipper as she did every morning. It was a nice thing to see; she was often depressed or just incredibly somber by the time we finally went to bed, from exhaustion and dealing with everything every day. But every morning, without fail, she wakes up with the biggest smile on my face. At first, it annoyed the hell out of me. I just didn’t think people should ever be that happy about waking up on days like this. But now, after everything I’ve seen, it is about the only damn thing that keeps me going on some of the worse days. She knew it, too; every time she walked in a room, beaming, I saw that subtle hint that she wasn’t just doing it because she truly felt it, but because she wanted to feel good in spite of everything else. And that in itself, that strength, helped. We got into the taxi and headed back to the station, only to find that it had been taken down and moved. Two cops were standing near their squad car in uniform, obviously waiting for me to show up looking for prefab buildings and officers, instead of an empty lot. The larger of the two cops, a young man of about 25, standing a hair over six feet and on the wrong side of 200 pounds.
“Marshal? I’m Officer Johnson, this is Officer Sanchez. We were left here by the Chief and told to look for you. We cleared out early this morning, moved back to the main precinct building.”
Damn, that was fast. The beauty of nanobot construction and a ridiculous government budget. With half of what they spent on the building they could have built half a dozen stations outside the city where they’re needed most. But instead, they get a office ten times larger than what they need and all the bleeding edge tech a cop could want, if not need. Fucking pathetic, if you ask me. Most of these cops wouldn’t know what to do with muggers, murderers and rapists; they’re better at yelling at the vagrants that mistakenly wander into the core and patting each other on the back for providing security for the rich folk. The Chief was different, though. He gave a damn about doing his job instead of making himself more money and free time. Instead of letting murderers and rapists off the hook for a few thousand and a nice car, he dealt with things the way they needed to be done. He even tried to teach the rest of his people, for all the good it did. A few even tried to do their jobs in spite of all the crap and red tape they had to cut through. But they were held back by the cops that didn’t care, the ones who would rather collect a paycheck and sit around than do nothing. The Chief had tried to straighten things out in his precinct; fire the cops who were being paid off or just plain incompetent. The commissioner, though? He was a right bastard, always managing to screw it all up one way or another. The Chief tried to take his job, but that wasn’t going to happen any time soon, at least not with the way the city worked. Since the attack, though, the Chief was given run of the place, and the commissioner couldn’t do a damn thing about it. I smiled at the thought of that human pus pocket getting irate at the police doing their jobs. I knew this could cause a huge issue, bring down corruption in a big way if the right people saw it, but I doubted it. Nothing ever changes, as they say.
We pulled up to the station and got out, and immediately I noticed a difference in the station. It was... well, less gaudy. The sign didn’t look like it belonged on the Vegas strip and the doors weren’t glass made from the finest sand in the world, hand blown to perfection. They were metal; solid, strong, and completely without embellishments. Inside was just as refreshing; the desks were still all real wood, a luxury, but they weren’t mahogany like the last ones. The chief sat in an office separated from the rest by a electrochromatic glass partition; simple, but useful. With the click of a button the glass became totally opaque, and sound dampers prevented even the slightest whisper from escaping. A few of the cops were bitching, but most of them were new, or beat cops that were promoted after most of the station officers were killed. Johann had managed to promote the good ones, I bet, and put the fear of God into the new guys. As if the bomb didn’t do that. The press was calling for someone’s head in the total mismanagement of the situation, as always. A bunch of people with advanced recording devices and the ability to make the news, people who know nothing about the situation, calling for the head of the one guy who is trying to make it all work. Windbags, all of them except a few like Amy who give a damn, and those types definitely aren’t out here scrambling for a story.
Chief Johann waved us in, and in his office sitting in front of his desk were Johr and Colleen. They both had been crying, quite a lot, but they looked happy. I wasn’t exactly tickled pink that one of the guys who made the bombing happen was getting off with witness protection and strict parole, but I let it slide. God knows Johann was probably feeling ten times worse. But he was doing what he had to do, and so did I. Johr regarded me with a combination of fear and anger, a mix I’m all too familiar with. Colleen smiled at me, beaming beautifully in this depressing situation, just like Amy. She knew what I had done, and that I did it all to help. Amy sat down next to her and started ask her questions, just getting her mind off things in the moment.
“Marshal, Johr gave us a name, Steven Carlson. An incredibly bad man, to be sure. We have a limited file on him, but up til now he’s stayed in the slums, so we don’t have enough. Damn it, this is annoying. We should seriously have better records on the slums... Anyway, he’s wanted for a few break-ins, a protest turned violent, and inciting a riot. But he hangs out in the slums and no one really wants to deal with it. I’ve been given clearance by the commissioner to take a dozen of my guys into the slum and find him. But the slums stretch for ten miles outside the city, and there’s just so damn much to search through. So we’re sending Johr back into the slums to make contact. He’ll find Carlson and give us his location.”
With that, Colleen flew into a rage. “NO! You can’t do that! He already helped, now let us leave. Let us get out of here. You promised!”
Johann was taken aback for a second, but regained his composure. “This has to happen. Johr has agreed, in exchange for placement on a proper planet where you can get treatment and he can find a good job. You have to understand what a huge deal this is for him, how lucky he is to get the deal at all. Don’t worry, we’ve got help. He’ll never be alone, not really. The Marshal here is going to go into the slums with Johr, since he knows the way things work in there and he can avoid detection better than one of my men that doesn’t know the Southwest slums from the North. As far as overwatch, the military is loaning tactical assistance with squad deployment craft and a few skilled marksmen. When we need to extract Johr and the Marshal, we’ll drop a team in to provide cover. Getting them out via aircraft would be fairly difficult; the buildings are old and were not designed for flight lanes. We’ll extract from the roof if necessary, but hopefully they’ll be able to walk out. Johr will leave as soon as he can confirm that it is Carlson, then the Marshal will extract Mr. Carlson as soon as possible, or interrogate on site if necessary. But we’re getting them both out alive. And hopefully the target, but who knows. As long as he spills his guts, I don’t care what happens to him. Got that Marshal?”
I nodded. “I’ll get the information we need, as quick as I can, Chief. Just get me near him.”
Amy spoke up, obviously irritated and wanting to kill me, but God bless her she was holding back. “Chief, you can’t expect the two of them to do it alone. Send someone, anyone, with them. A soldier or something.”
I responded, and she flashed me an angry look. “Sorry, Amy, but this won’t end very well, not for everyone. I’ll try to make it out, but I have to provide security for Johr and deal with a particularly evil man. Getting him out alive will be damn near impossible, and keeping him in there alive long enough to find out what I want to know will be harder. I might fail completely and have to pull out quick. Adding anyone else makes it problematic, especially someone as obvious as a soldier. He’ll be spotted right away. It’s got to be me.”
“I don’t like it. We’re basing a lot of it on you coming through. I’ve seen what you can do, but can you really do all that? I don’t know, Ryan. You’re not superhuman.”
“We don’t have a choice, and I can do it. Don’t worry. I’ll live, and get it done. This is what I was trained for in the military, anyway.” I said it, but I didn’t feel it. The military felt like a hundred years ago, and this might have been considered a suicide mission back then. I didn’t care, not really. I was too tired to give a damn. I just wanted this thing to end. So I said what I knew Amy wanted to hear, and she knew it. Or she just didn’t believe me. Didn’t matter, though, because it wasn’t her choice. This job nearly killed her, and it had nearly killed me half a dozen times. I didn’t want her to be in that kind of danger, not again. So I would do what I had to, because no one else could.
The Chief spoke back up, reassuring her as much as he could. “It’ll be fine. We have surveillance that’ll be watching them both the whole time, with air support on standby. If anything goes down, we can be in and out in two minutes, tops. They’ll be fine. I’m more worried about Carlson. Do we have a way of tagging him once someone gets eyes on him?”
I tapped my temple, indicating the implants embedded in my head. “I’ve got my optic implants; they’ll record anything I want so we can do facial recognition. Give me a tracker, something to put in his food or drink and that might help. Otherwise, we’ll have to tag him with surveillance.”
We discussed ideas for a while, none of them any better, so I left. Not even ten feet from the Chief’s door I was accosted by a very angry Amy. “What the hell? You know as well as I do all that was crap. Things go bad in there and you’re dead. And you don’t have a problem with that?”
I looked Amy in the eyes, and dropped the smile. “I don’t know, Amy, but this is about the only chance I’ve got. We need to get this done, before it all comes apart. It’s breaking, Amy. I’m tearing at the seams, and I can’t stop it. I’ve been doing this for too long, and I can’t do it much longer. I need to end things, and end them quick. I’ll come back, alive, I think. Hell, the only reason I know I’m alive and not in hell is because hell doesn’t have people like you in it, unless you’re a plant sent to torment me. You’re not a demon, are you? Cause, that would be just my luck...”
Amy laughed at that. It was good to hear her laugh, maybe for the last time. “I’m not a demon, but if I were, would I tell you? I doubt it. I’d have to be more devious, I think. Still, you’re not dead, and you won’t be after you’re done here.”
Her confidence always was a boon; she was sure of things I couldn’t even imagine happening, and they happened. Most often because she made them happen. It scared me, made me think that she was going to get hurt or killed. But it also helped, having that trust in me that I often didn’t even have. Especially not at times like this. “Thanks, Amy. That helps, knowing at least someone has faith in me. For now, I need sleep. We leave tomorrow for the slums, and I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen. It won’t be good, that’s for sure. But I’ve got to do it, and I’ve got to do it alone. Sorry, but this is one adventure you can’t join me on. Next time, I promise.”
We went back to the hotel to sleep, but both of us were too anxious for that. Amy came in to my room, wanting to talk more I guessed. I didn’t want to talk. I was too tired, too anxious. “Hey. You doing ok?”
She sat on the end of the bed, staring out the window at the city that she had come to hate. “I’m just worried about tomorrow. I know you’ll be fine. I’ve been through hell and back and I’ve seen you survive it all. There’s no way that you’re going to die now, not when we’re so close. But I just don’t like it. I don’t like you in there, alone, against it all. It’s just too much. And what happens if you get there? Get your man? You have to get some information out of him, and do it quickly, and I don’t know what’ll happen if he doesn’t give up. Will you go there again? Will you do whatever you have to? Because I hate to see you do that to yourself. You’ll survive; you always do. But at what cost, Ryan? Will you still be you?”
I reached over and grabbed her hand. “Amy, I’ll be fine. No matter what happens. If I have to do something I can’t live with, that’s on me. That’s just another thing I’ll fight to forget. God knows that it’s not the only thing I’ve done in my life that I’d regret. And with a little luck, it won’t come to that. I’m not one of those idiot cops, after all.”
Amy smiled, and squeezed my hand. “Yeah, thanks. I know, it’s not like this will break you. But it won’t be good for you, that’s for sure. Will you be able to sleep at night?”
“Hah. I don’t sleep now, why would I sleep after this? I have to have a biomed chip in my head to help me get to sleep, so I may have to kick it a little bit, but hell, what does it matter? Until I get out of this damn job sleep isn’t going to come easy. Period.”
Amy squeezed my hand again and looked in my eyes. I saw there the same thing I felt whenever I looked at her. That need for intimacy. I couldn’t, though, so I just let my eyes drop and pulled my hand away. She stood up, her eyes turning red, and walked back toward the door. I just wanted to get to bed and try to sleep, but it wasn’t happening any time soon. So instead I just lied back down, thinking about what I should have done, what I might have done in any other situation. I know what she wanted; hell, I wanted it too. But I couldn’t. Not right now. Getting attached, especially at times like that, never turns out well. Still, I hated myself for making her feel bad, so before she walked out I called for her to stop. “I’m sorry, Amy. I just can’t be what you want me to. I can’t let myself go there. You should understand: I was married once, back in San Martelos. It ended poorly, as it usually did back then. It was a living hell, and we did what we had to just to stay alive. Casual sex was far from safe, and not nearly as common as it was in the city. Without proper medication to prevent disease and sickness, any risky behavior was minimized as much as possible. Except for wanton violence, of course. With blood and vomit sitting in the streets for hours, viruses and infections were common; the only clinics in the area, started by various charities, were robbed almost daily without militia protection. Medication was almost non-existent.
Her name was Maria; a beautiful girl, with an indomitable sense of compassion and optimism. Drove me insane. I loved her, though. She was my whole world down there, and she died. She died because I was gone. Because I was in the militia, I wasn’t there. I couldn’t protect her. I failed her, and she died. She was pregnant; at least, she thought she was. She was going in to the clinic to find out when it was robbed. It turned ugly quick, but she had tried to convince them that they were wrong; it didn’t work, obviously. Instead of a pregnancy test, my wife caught a bullet in the shoulder; a bullet that probably would have been removed without a single complication had she been in a city hospital. But in the slums things were not so simple; she died on the doctor’s table after he fought to save her for six hours with criminally outdated equipment and no support staff. After that I just fell apart. I killed half a dozen people in a week, all the worst of the worst, but it was still technically murder in the eyes of the ‘law.’ Well, whatever law they had in the city. It sure as hell didn’t apply there. Not anymore. So when the militia asked me to do some unpleasant things, I volunteered immediately, even more quickly after they said they thought the guys who robbed the clinic would be there. They died by my hand, both of them; I made them hurt, and I wanted to do it slowly. Thankfully my commander didn’t let me get too far. Their screams, Amy. I hear those screams every day, and I hear my own, the screams of a husband dying of grief and helplessness. Every second, from when I wake up to when I go back to sleep, I hear it in the back of my mind. The voice that tells me I fucked up, that I’m a failure, that I got her killed because I didn’t want to go with her. And the other voice, the conscience, it just gave up a long time ago. Now I’m not sure what’s right and wrong anymore. That’s why I became an officer of the law; I couldn’t be sure what was right and wrong, so I just let the law decide. Even then, I realize that there’s a big difference between what’s right and what’s lawful sometimes. Yet I live in those grey areas so much, I work in them so much I go to sleep every night worrying that what I did was really wrong. After your first dozen executions without a real trial, things become iffy. And I hate having to make those decisions; that’s why I want to be done. Because I’m afraid I’ve damned myself, and there’s no redemption from that. Not from what I did.”
She sat down beside me this time, her eyes filling with tears. “Mercy isn’t deserved; it’s given. Forgiveness isn’t something you earn after doing the right things, or saying the right things; it’s earned when you feel sorry for what you did. What you did was horrible; there’s no doubt. It was messed up. But you did things that you knew in your heart you had to in order to protect your family and friends. You did the only thing you could, and no one could blame you for it. Still, you did some seriously messed up things back then. But you’ve been the picture of restraint, minus one slip up, since I met you. You have some fucked up morals, that’s probably true. But you have your own ethics, ethics that follow the law and keep you from doing things you’ll regret. I don’t know if that’s as good as morality, but it’s close enough for me. You’re a good man, Ryan. You’ve done things you regret, but who hasn’t? I’ve killed people since I’ve started working with you, Ryan. I’m still not sure how you dealt with it the first time you killed someone, but damn I’m pretty sure you dealt with it better than I did. You might not have seen it, but I was torn up. I felt terrible, knowing that I’d taken a life. But it’s just the way things have to be, sometimes. And damn it all if I don’t still think about it every day. You see me smiling, right? Those half-assed smiles that I put on for show. I know you’ve noticed. You know why I do that? Because I want to imagine feeling that way, I want to remember what a smile feels like. Every morning I wake up, and smiles just don’t come. They’re buried beneath layers of dust and death, and I can’t get them back. So I smile, I smile so hard it feels like my face is going to get frozen that way. Because the other option is a long face and a bad attitude, and that won’t work. So I’m struggling too. I don’t know what I want from you, Ryan. I don’t. But whatever it is, you want it too. I see it in your eyes. I know casual is the norm for most people, but we’re not most people. So tell me, what do you want? What will let you feel right, in this moment?”
I tried thinking about it, but that didn’t work. I couldn’t think. I’d had enough talking, enough dancing around the idea and feeling guilty about having what I wanted. I reached over and pulled her close, wrapped her up in my arms and just stared into her eyes for a moment before she reached up and kissed me. I felt it, the same thing I felt every day when I wasn’t avoiding bullets or causing pain. The hunger for another person’s touch, the need to feel that warmth, that we’ve all had since we were born. We shared a deep kiss for what felt like only a moment, but I pulled away slowly and just held her tighter. I released whatever I had in me at the moment; all the tears, the pain, the frustration and the exhaustion. I felt myself melt into her arms as I sat there crying like a little baby. Everything I had managed to suppress for so long came flooding back, and all I could do was sob. She held me tight, never losing her grip and just pulled me in as tight as she could. My heart was beating like a drum, fast and hard, and I just couldn’t control it anymore. I felt her heart beating against my chest, slowly and steadily, and I focused on it like a meditation. I allowed my mind to forget my body for just a little while, to feel the connection with another person that I needed so badly. We sat there for what felt like an hour, holding each other, crying into each others’ shoulders. After enough time had passed, we stopped crying and just started drifting off. I lied back down, her arms still around me as my head hit the pillow and I fell asleep, a deep peaceful rest I hadn’t felt in years. And I knew there was no doubt I would need it for the next day.