“You can’t be serious,” I say. “Why would they...”
At the back of the room is a tiny child. She leans against the moldy white tile wall with her knees to her chest. I can’t tell if she’s sleeping or dead, she sits so still. Her limbs are skeletal, her bloated stomach pokes through her filthy white hospital clothes. She has a receptor already stitched into her back, the wires slink down her neck like tiny streams, but no spider on her chest and no tubes connecting her to the fluid in the walls.
Why would they assimilate a child? I think to myself, then I notice the yellow patches on her arms. She looked to be about Eli’s age, not quite lucky enough to carry the new genetics.
I swallow the anger that rises from my stomach and focus on getting her out of here in time. I was miles below ground, far away from the exit, but I knew I had to try.
I walk up to the child and squat down, trying to ignore the lump in my throat. Seven years ago I would have walked away and not risked losing that much time, leaving her at Titan’s mercy. And part of me wants to abandon her, I can’t afford to have a kid hanging around. But I find myself unable to push down the horror and rage; the world fades away and all I want is to rescue her. I just want her to be safe and I want to avenge what they did to her.
Hm, I think to myself. Empress was right, I have grown soft.
“Sweetheart?” I whisper quietly as I place a hand on her bony shoulder. She smells like the oil that they pump through the warehouse walls. She jumps with a start and meets me with wide amber eyes, edges rimmed red from tears. Her breathing is heavy and ragged, and she opens her mouth to scream. I slam my palm over her nose and look around frantically.
“Hey hey hey, shhh,” I say, although holding her down really doesn’t help. “Calm down, I’m not one of them. I’m going to get you out of here.”
She opens her mouth and sinks her teeth into my palm, resulting in a loud crunch. I bite my lip and blink away my tears, but I don’t take away my hand.
“Okay...” I reply and I grab her tiny body, sit down and pull it close to mine, wrapping my arms around her in a big bear hug and holding her mouth shut. She tries to writhe away from my grasp, gasping and squirming and squeaking under my hand but to no avail. Whatever the Elite did to her made her weak and she looks like she’d been starved for days. It’s like holding down a sack of dead twigs. I know this isn’t helping, but I can’t think of another way to get her to listen.
“Honey stop, you have to stop or I can’t help you,” I say, but she continues to thrash, trying to wriggle out from underneath my arms. I can’t struggle much longer, if I waste anymore time then I’m never getting out of here. Begrudgingly I reach to the wires in the back of her neck and press in the green one. She slowly slumps and relaxes in my arms, her voice dimming to a tiny whisper, and then nothing at all.
I don’t activate it enough to put her to sleep, I just barely give her body what it needs to calm down.
“There we go, that’s better.” I gently unfold her, pick her up and place her against the wall. She moves in a daze to come to her knees, ready to sprint the moment her sedation begins to fail. I slick back the loosened pieces of my hair so she can see my face. See that I’m not one of them.
“Listen, I don’t want you to be afraid, I’m not here to hurt you.” I reach forward and take her tiny hands into mine, meeting her amber eyes with my gold irises. She doesn’t pull away, just sits and breathes quickly, eyes darting around the room.
“My name is King Eden, but you can just call me Eden if you want. I’m from the syndicate. My job is to beat up bad guys like the ones who brought you here,” I say, and she finally focuses on just me. She stops hyperventilating and begins to listen.
“I’m so sorry, I know they’ve done awful things to you. But I’m here to take you away where you’ll be safe and you won’t ever have to come here again, okay?” I shake her hands as if to emphasize, trying to send energy from my body to hers.
“I know you don’t feel good, and I can take you someplace where we can make you all better. I can take that thing out of your neck, and you can go back to your family. How does that sound?”
After a few moments she blinks, and I can tell that her paralysis has worn off. I stiffen, I can see the thought of dashing out the door wash over her face for a moment, but she doesn’t move. She just looks at me and nods.
I smile in relief. “You want to come with me?” I ask, and she nods again. “I promise I’ll do whatever it takes to get you home. I do this sort of stuff everyday and I’m really really good at it. I’ll take you far away where these men can’t hurt you anymore. But I can’t do that if you fight me, and you have to listen to everything I tell you. Understand?” And she nods again.
“Good. You are so, so brave sweetheart. I just need you to be brave a little longer, and I need you to trust me so I can get you home. Got it?” I ask.
She finally speaks. Her voice is light and sweet, innocence filtered through the fear installed by the monstrosities she’s seen here. “I don’t have a home,” she tells me, and I notice a small mark on her wrist. It’s an incomplete circle colored in red.
“You’re a ghost?” I tell her, and she nods. I pull back the sleeve of my uniform and hold my wrist up to hers where a faded enso sits underneath my thumb. “I was one too, a long time ago. What clan are you originally from?”
“Pan,” she answers. I can detect a small bit of trust in her voice.
“Ah, I remember them, Eastern shore right? The Legion did a number on your homeland.” She shrinks away and curls her hands up under her chin, she looks as if she’s about to cry.
“Who did you travel with after you became a ghost?”
“Riah,” she answers.
“Oh, I don’t know him. I was with Z before I became the leader of my own group. You probably don’t know him either, I’m from the South district.” She shakes her head.
“Are there anymore of you here? Anymore children?”
“No, they took the rest of my friends away from me because they weren’t sick. I’m the only one here.”
I swallow down more fury. “I see.” I glance back nervously at the door, but the hallway is still quiet. Somehow I’m still in the clear.
“Why don’t you come with me. I will do whatever I can to get you out of here, and when we’re gone I can have Saint take you to my home and heal you. How does that sound?”
“You promise?” she asks.
“I promise.” I take my pinky and offer it to hers. She takes her index finger and just touches the tip of mine, then grabs the rest of my fingers, uncurls them and observes my palm. The Legion soldiers have oddly colored veins in their hands, it’s a tell-tale indication of their identity. I open my palm so that she can see it better in the light, her small brown hand delicately holding mine. I feel a twinge in my chest when I see that ours match perfectly in tone, except mine is scarred and calloused and hers is soft and bony. Every tendon pokes through the thin layer of skin and you can see her tarsals move beside each other. I swear if I get you out of this, I’m going to make you the best damn meal of your life.
“I’m not like them, see?” I tell her, and I trace the empty lines of my palm and then the faded red circle. “I’m just like you. You can trust me, I swear.”
She looks at me and cracks a smile, her teeth black and misshapen, many of them missing. “Okay.” And that’s all I needed to hear.
“Are you a good climber?” I ask
“I’m pretty good I guess,” she says.
“I can’t wait for you to show me, I bet you’re amazing at it. Can you climb onto my back?” I jab my thumb towards my shoulder. “If you hold on really tight, I can run as fast as I can and we’ll be out of here in no time.”
“You won’t drop me?” she asks.
“Never! I’m big and strong, see?” I lift my arm and point to my bicep. “And when we’re out of here I can teach you how to be big and strong too, so much that the bad guys will be too afraid to bother you. Just like they’re too afraid to bother me.”
She nods. “Okay,” and she weakly climbs to her feet, her legs are thinner than a deer’s. I reach down to grab her forearms and pull her to stand on the silver table beside us. She doesn’t weigh more than a house cat, she stands only a few feet taller than me even on the table. She has beautiful cinnamon-colored skin hiding under a thick layer of grease and sludge. Her hair has been shaved down to the scalp and painful yellow sores decorate her shoulders and neck. I pause when I see them.
“Honey, when did you get those spots?” I ask.
She tenderly brings her hand to rest on the largest one eating up her shoulder. “My polka dots? I’ve always had them.”
“Do they hurt you?”
“Sometimes they’re itchy.”
“Back at my home, I have some medicine that will make them better. I can get some for you if you’d like,” she looks at me almost in wonder, then nods.
“I have polka dots too you know, but they’re almost gone now, see?” I pull down the top of my skin-tight suit to show faded pink scars, a far cry from the angry pustules they used to be. “Like I said,” and I put back my shirt. “You and I are the same.” She nods and I feel that twinge in my chest once more.
A loud BANG echoes from outside, followed by what sounds like a generator turning on. Someone’s coming, someone found me out. I frantically undo the strap I have wrapped underneath my body armor, yanking it from the bottom of my vest.
“We gotta go, climb on.” I turn around and offer her my hands. She gently wraps her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist. I hoist her up where she can rest on my shoulder blades.
“Take this,” I hand her the strap. She’s a smart kid, she helps me secure her legs and upper body to mine, almost like she’d done this before. I push down memories of my own son; their resemblance is bleak and distracting.
I walk to the door and stare up at the long ascent to the top, the walls covered with nothing but wires and sleek metal plates to help me get there. “Alright kid, I really need you to work with me here.” She nods her head, brushing her cheek against my neck. “Are you afraid of heights?” I ask.
“A little,” she says.
“Okay, if it gets too scary you can close your eyes and count to ten. That always helps me when I’m scared. Just tell me if it gets too much for you, and I’ll count too. No matter what we have to keep going, we have to be quiet, and we have to be brave. We don’t want the bad guys to find us. Got it?”
“Got it,” she whispers. I’m already proud, I can tell she’s strong.
I unsheathe my swords and slam the first one into the reactor wall.
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