“Twenty-two huh? You’re starting to run out of room.”
I hide my face in the crook of my arm and try not to wince. The muscles along my spine spasm as a razor sharp animal bone pounds black ink into my skin one tap at a time.
“Hey, I’m just glad both sides are even now,” I respond as I blink back tears. The bone graciously finishes its journey at the top of my lower back, I bite my tongue as cold antiseptic splashes over it and a stiff cloth pats the droplets into my pores. I slowly sit up on my mat and stand to stare at the rays in a long mirror at the front of the room.
The old penthouse looks out over my capital city; a large canopy covers the open space where a window used to be. An industrial skyline now devoured by an ancient forest rolls over itself into the distance. Merchants litter the streets below, children wreck havoc in the alleyways as they should, livestock wander where they please and travelers haggle for rich produce they can’t afford. A slight drizzle dusts the old buildings and nourishes the trees that grow within them.
Every bare piece of brick, asphalt, concrete, or wall is covered in lavish paintings, each one different from what it was a day or so before. Jazz music pours from every street corner, the one eternal entity that the old humans left for us and my favorite aspect of the city. My homeland is vibrant and electric, a small sliver of vitality hidden under a great forest of oak trees that are centuries old. It’s all at the bottom of a great crater left by the wars of our predecessors; the walls of greenery rise to meet the sun above us, protecting us from invaders. An artistic masterpiece made up of ancient industrialism and nature herself--all of it painted by my hands.
Pharaoh helps me into my tattered flannel shirt as I contemplate the city, gently sliding the ripped fabric over the scars on my arms and the tender rays of sunlight that drip down my ebony back. He’s an interesting looking fellow, everything from the left side of his nose over is covered in wires thinly veiled by chestnut skin, the right side is coated in beautiful Egyptian designs, all inked by his non-dominant hand which makes them even more impressive. His head is shaved and he stands tall and lean with multiple pieces of wood, gems, metal and bone stuck in the edges of his ears, tongue, nose, and eyebrows. A master of his craft, people come from far and wide to carry his work on their skin, even I wear his sun rays with a sense of pride.
“I’m worried about these, Eden.” he says as he touches the yellow boils that creep up my neck. “They make it hard for me to do my work.”
“Hah, funny,” I reply and I brush his hand away. “There’s nothing to worry about, they’re already going away.” I walk from the mirror and stand at the edge of the penthouse to observe my city and wonder if I’ll ever get to come back to this look out again.
“As happy as I am to see you dear, I know you haven’t come just for a new piece, or to deceive me again about your increasing illness,” he says as he walks to the back of the shop where a glass of freshly-brewed coffee awaits. Its bitter scent mixes with the smell of rubbing alcohol and acrylic paint that still dries on the branches of a leaf infested wall.
“Oh come on Pharaoh,” I protest. “I don’t always have underlying intentions. I can’t come by just to see a master at work from time to time?”
“You flatter me, as always,” he hands me a round hand-made clay mug. I sip and relax, urging the caffeine to take away my burgeoning withdrawal symptoms. “But you’re a terrible liar,” he says.
“Maybe so...” my cheeks feel hot and I try to hide them behind the lip of my cup.
“Why don’t you tell me about this new mission of yours that you’re so secretive, yet obviously not-so-secretive about, and have clearly come to ask me for advice?” he asks. “Since I would have never seen you otherwise, you waited six months last time to add another piece to your collection.”
I click my tongue. “How did you--did Saint tell you I was leaving again? I only just radioed her about it an hour ago.”
“I heard your transmission,” he says. “Only the part about your departure in the morning, nothing else.”
“I thought I warned you about eavesdropping last time. I forgive you, however I won’t tell you where I’m going. You’ll be pissed.” I stop and bite my lip, realizing too late that I had failed to come up with a good answer to his questions.
I promised him years ago that I would never go to Mars--for both his sake and the sake of my people. Now I have to break that promise to one of the only people in the universe I don’t want to have on my bad side. There are three people in your life that you should never piss off: your cook, your mechanic, and your tattoo artist. I’m about to add that last one to my list of deep regrets.
“Oh come now, how could I ever be mad at you?” he replies. “You can tell me anything, I’m only here to help. You can’t upset me.”
“I think I just figured out a way--” I say just loud enough for him to hear. He thinks for a second, and then clenches his fists at his side in brunt realization. His eyes narrow into slits; they look terrifying inside artificially colored yellow scleras that he brutally inked himself years ago.
“Oh,” he says in a threatening tone, and I flinch a little. “Alright, maybe you have.”
“They have my son, Pharaoh. I have to go.”
“You’ll never make it,” he says.
“I have to, I don’t have a choice,” I say, trying to ignore the lump in the pit of my throat.
“Yes you do, you can stay here,” he says. “We don’t live in a world where you have the luxury of keeping everyone you love, Eden. You of all people should know that.”
“This is different and you know it,” my voice rises a little bit and I let it. “Eli is the reason why I am still in control after all these years, after all these altercations. And I’ve lost him...”
“You’ve lost countless of your own children before, what makes this one so special?” He suddenly asks aggressively. “I’m telling you, he’s just like all the rest. He is not worth risking yours or anyone else’s safety.”
I challenge him, knowing that I shouldn’t. “I was a different person then, and those kids weren’t mine, I took them in and they turned out to be pathetic on their own. They did that to themselves. Eli is my son, he has powers like you could never imagine, he’s something that we as a country should be willing to give our lives to protect. I’m not going to be around forever, Pharaoh! Who’s going to take my place when I’m gone?”
“You’re not going to be around long enough to make him your successor if you try and rescue him,” he replies. “You won’t admit it, but we both know that this is hopeless. No one will join you, not even your own men, no matter how loyal you think they are. Even they know that this is just some futile suicide mission. There are some things that you just have to let go.”
“That’s why I’m going alone,” I say. “No one gets hurt but me.”
“You can’t. They will capture you and they will torture you, mercilessly. They hate you, they’ve been waiting for decades to make an example out of you, they will execute you publicly and force your son to watch. I guarantee it.”
“I will do whatever it takes, fight whoever gets in my way, kill as many people as I have to in order to protect Eli,” I say trying to control my increasing frustration. “I don’t care about who I was back then, I don’t care who I am now, and I don’t care who they are or what they have waiting for me. I will BURN their planet to the GROUND if that’s what I have to do to get my son back.” I clench my fists as well, ready to take him down. I know he didn’t mean any harm by his words, and in a way he’s right. But I don’t have the strength to listen or agree.
“Calm down,” he says as he raises his hands to my shoulders. “Calm down Eden--” but it’s too late. As I prepare to strike he catches my wrists in both his hands. I drop my cup and it shatters all over the floor, sending shards of hardened clay and hot liquid into the cracks between the intricate paintings on the concrete.
“ASSHOLE!” I yell, “I needed that!” I look down at our coffee-soaked boots but I don’t pull away. He looks me dead in the eyes, lips pursed, desperately searching for some sense of apprehension. Having found none he lets go and presses the inside of his palms into his eyes.
“Sit,” he says blinking, then gestures to a small chabudai in the middle of the room. “There’s no reason to get so angry. I’m just trying to protect you. Let’s talk.”
I flick the last droplets of coffee off my fingertips and cross my arms once more. Finally I walk over to the table and sit cross legged, still brooding. He slips a second mug of coffee in front of me and takes the seat at the other end, both of us still fuming internally as if we were two teenage lovers trying to argue like adults.