Behind the door is a small dingy apartment. It’s cramped and depressing, the green wallpaper peels onto an ugly yellow tile floor. An old kitchen with rusty pans and a yellow half-open refrigerator rots in the back corner. There is nothing else in the apartment besides a solitary bed with a broken metal frame and a cheap wooden table not too far from the side of it.
A small boy sits on the creaky bed with his mouth half open as he stares at a blank TV. He wears worn-out overalls, taped sneakers, a red bandana around his forehead and headphones around his neck that are way too big for his ears. I’m relieved; he looks clean and well nourished, not that much different from the last time I saw him.
“Hey kiddo,” I say. He looks up and immediately springs off the bed and runs at me. I get down to my knees and pull him into a big hug. “You need a haircut, man,” I say as I brush his too-long bangs from his eyes.
“We can talk later, right now we really need to go,” I grab his hand and he follows me back to the stairs. Unfortunately I’m looking at him and not where I’m going. So when a massive, menacing figure completely blocks the one way out of the apartment, I screech to a stop and block my face with my right arm. With the other I drag Eli behind me and try to cover him with my small frame.
“Eden,” the man says. “I’ve been expecting you.”
“The name’s King. And these theatrics are extremely dumb,” I reply. “I don’t care about what you have to say to me or what you were trying to do here. I’m taking Eli and going home.”
“Not if I can help it,” he says ominously. I’ve had enough of this shit, all these self proclaimed war-lords living in their own damned worlds, making it my job to fix their mistakes and remind them what reality is.
Fix walks inside the room and the door swings shut behind him. There are no windows, no fire escape, no way out of the apartment but through him. He’s terrifyingly large, although everyone seems that way when you’re 5′4. But something is different about him, something unnatural.
The way his arms hang by his sides with the veins bulging through the skin, the dark circles around his eyes, the patches of scalp on his head where his hair used to be, as if something tore it out. His breathing is uneven, like he can’t match it with his heartbeat, or with the rhythm of the room. His skin is patchy with oozing yellow sores. I shiver as I remember how they felt on my skin a few months before. I’d heard how his condition had become more and more unstable over the years, but this is different. There’s something wrong with him and he knows I can tell.
“You look terrible,” I say as I back towards the middle of the floor.
“So do you,” he says, and he takes his hand out from behind him, his fingers wrapped around a small pistol.
I glare at it. “You’re really going to shoot me in front of my son?”
“I have no intention of things going that way.”
“Then put down the gun,” I say, even though I know that there’s not much I can do. I’m half starved to death; dizzy and dehydrated with a fucking metal bar for a weapon. I’ve already lost. Still, he lowers it to his side, but doesn’t let go.
“Sit,” he gestures to the crooked table in the kitchen area. I obey and walk over, keeping Eli close to me. “The kid sits there,” he points to the seat on the right side of the table. Eli climbs up in the chair, completely unfazed. He’s always been like that, after what he’s seen nothing seems to bother him anymore. It gets to me; I feel like I’ve messed up my kid already. I just want to give him a comfortable and safe life, but these sorts of assholes keep ruining it.
Fix sits directly across from me and places the pistol on the table, close enough to his hand in case I try anything. I’ve never seen him so nervous. I set down my own weapon, I don’t want to do anything that could put Eli in danger.
“I know what you’re trying to do,” I say. “Stalling for time, waiting for them to get here. You reported the city for infection didn’t you?”
Fix smiles and nods. “So, you figured out my plan.”
“I did, and it’s a damn shame. You’re pathetic, all these senseless casualties. Just because you couldn’t man up and face me yourself.” I can feel the anger swell in my chest; it takes all my energy to stay in control. I glance at Eli, who responds by putting on his headphones so that he can’t hear us talk. He knows exactly what that look means.
“How much are they paying you to kidnap my son?” I ask.
“They’re not paying me, they’re giving me something far better. The Elite want you dead, Eden, and they will go to any means to be sure of it.”
“But you’re not from Mars, you’re one of us. So why are you doing their dirty work?”
“Because I want you dead, too.”
I ponder some of the things I’d done in the past as a leader, then shrug. That’s fair.
“Alright, fine. Sounds like something personal. But why go to all these lengths? You kidnap my son and take him to a city that’s not infected, send in a false report and give the Elite a reason to blow this place all to hell, and then use Eli as bait to bring me here and watch me burn with the city. Why couldn’t you have assassinated me like a normal person? Cowards have a knack for elaborate plans, I see.”
He nods. “It may be elaborate but its not cowardly. If I had assassinated you, what would become of Eli? Or your homeland? The Elite would have destroyed it the moment you turned up dead. They’ve been waiting for the opportunity to take the shot, you are the only thing that’s gotten in their way.
“In return for your head I will be granted safe passage to Mars, where Eli and I can live among the Elite in safety from the horrors you force upon him here on Earth, and your kingdom will be left alone. That was the deal they offered me. You should be grateful, Eden. I’m doing you and your son a favor. You have to die eventually, this is the method that shows the most kindness to your kin and your kingdom.”
The air shakes with the sound of airships as they approach. It can’t be much longer now.
I pause to think for a second before I reply. “It’s a good plan. Sounds like something I would do.” I clasp my hands together and stretch them over my head; he instantly tenses when he sees me move, his pupils grow wide. “Tell me though, since they’re coming to destroy the city, how will you collect your prize without a body to show for it?”
He just sits there in silence, but his chest stops moving for a second.
“Ahah, didn’t think about that did you?” I ask.
“So, here’s what I suggest,” I cross my hands and place them on the table. It’s so flimsy it bends even under my weight. “If you’re just trying to get to Mars, I will gladly pay your way. In return you let me have my son back, you leave, and I never see you again. I’ve arranged to have the residents evacuate back to my district through a transport on the edge of town. You can come with me and we can finalize the deal there. What do you say?”
He begins to bounce his right knee, shaking the floor as he does so. He takes a deep breath, then leans forward to take the same pose as me. “I’m sorry Eden--”
“Call me that one more time I dare you.” I spit back at him
He stutters. “K-King. Look, I’m just a simple man who is trying to survive. I’ve wondered the Earth infected for decades now, trapped between human and beast. The Martians are the only ones who can save me. When they offered me and Eli safe passage and treatment in exchange for...well...you, I couldn’t say no. You’re not a bad person, you’ve just done a lot of bad things. Now it’s time to pay the price.”
I swallow my anger and try to respond calmly, then close my eyes and take a deep breath. “Okay,” I say calmly. “I understand.”
“You do?” he asks.
“I think so.”
I grab the edge of the table, push it with all of my might and slam him into the opposite wall. The old sheetrock cracks with the force of impact as white dust clouds fill the air, which is no surprise to me. The fat bastard could bring down the whole damn building if I’m not careful. Without a second to lose I reach over and grab the pistol, upend the table and push it on top of him.
I punch the center of it with my right hand, still holding onto the gun, so that it cracks in half right where the wood meets his stomach. I grab him by the shirt with my left hand, lift him out from the broken table pieces above me and slam him back into the wall, it takes all my strength to hold him there because he’s so goddamned heavy. I pin his arms so that he can’t move. His own illness has made him weak; he hardly resists me.
It’s uncomfortable being so close to such a sweaty and disgusting man, he smells like someone tried to put Old Spice on a rotten corpse. I glance back at Eli to tell him to leave the building, but he’s already out the door. He knows what’s going on, almost as if we’ve been here before. I turn my attention back to my victim.
I want to keep talking, to tell him how much I’m looking forward to putting him down after kidnapping my kid and making me cross half the earth to get him back, but his breath is so damn awful I can’t take it anymore. I bring the gun to his forehead, click the safety and pull back the hammer. The moment I squeeze the trigger however, my vision goes completely white.
My body feels hot, like every fiber and every vein is boiling from the inside out. My mouth tastes like burning metal and my skin is on fire. It feels like something is peeling it apart one layer at a time. There’s absolutely no sound at all, I can’t feel blood in my ears or my limbs, I see only white and red and yellow and black. My heart completely stops beating for a moment and it takes me too long to register that I’ve completely lost control of my body. I have no idea where I am, I can’t feel the ground beneath my feet anymore, the walls of the apartment have given way to the flames. Every sense is overwhelmed and overstimulated, I can feel pieces of debris rip through my clothes and stick straight through my skin to whatever’s underneath. In the moments of confusion all I can see is fire and chaos. And then it all succumbs to darkness, just as quickly as it came.
One of two things happened here; Fix had rigged the apartment to blow, or the Legion had shown up a whole 10 minutes early. Somehow I went from being completely in control of the situation to being completely fucked.
I slam back into myself and it seems like an eternity has passed. I feel nauseous as my environment slowly comes back into view as if trying to get a camera to focus. Above me is a burning building, pieces of ash and debris float to the ground with no wind to carry it elsewhere. The apartment is completely devastated, engulfed in flames that slowly begin to devour the rest of the skyscraper. I still can’t hear anything but the relentless ringing in my ears and I’m not totally sure if the rest of my organs are still working properly.
Despite the fall nothing feels broken, actually, nothing feels like anything at all. There is no pain, only numbness, as if my brain is too traumatized to reconnect with the rest of my body. I have no idea how long I was out, or how far I fell, or how I’m still alive.
“What the fuck,” I say to myself. I look over at my right arm to check that it’s still attached and to my relief it is. I’d assumed I’d lost it since I have absolutely no feeling in it whatsoever. “Move,” I whisper, but my fingers don’t respond. Goddamnit, I think. I just want Kill Bill to be real. I look back up at the sky and take five deep breaths, counting the seconds it takes to force the air through my sore and aching lungs. I’ve been here before so many times. Nowadays it doesn’t hurt any less, it’s just boring. Maybe one day someone will blow me up and it’ll actually stick. But here I am again, intact but unable to move, waiting for something else to happen.
The city is in an absolute uproar. Above me are four starships, massive white stingray- shaped machines with Legion logos painted in red all over. Dark glass hides hundreds of troops inside, all ready to drop to the ground and begin the massacre. On the sides of each ship are two large canons ready to fire at will. Legion guards are ruthless killing machines, all it takes is one infected person to give them the right to wipe out entire nations. The Elite don’t care about us, the faster we die out, the faster they can come home. They’ll do whatever they can to get rid of us without starting a revolution, or losing their precious source of free slaves.
Speaking of which, the 20 or so men I saw earlier, I see at least twelve of them herded into one of the star-ships and I don’t see any of the rest. I guess they were supposed to guard the residents, but this is no-man’s-land, no syndicate or tribe or cult around to invade or protect these people. I feel awful for those men, all peaceful civilians, volunteers from the underground who stepped forward to protect a city that was already doomed. They never stood a chance.
As I lie here thinking about how shitty everything is, I notice that my hearing has partially returned. In the distance somebody revs an engine. I lift my head as high as I can, trying to peek over my chest. “Holy shit,” I say. A few feet in front of me a bloody and broken Fix climbs onto a bike that’s much too small for him, clutching Eli to his body. He looks back at me, puts the bike into gear, and takes off. How did he survive? I think.
“I fucking swear Fix!” I scream. “You won’t get away with this! You hear me?! Every goddamned Syndicate on the planet will be after you...” I let loose a string of expletives as they both disappear into the thick layer of ash and smoke. I try desperately to pick myself up off the ground but nothing happens. I’m completely helpless, unresponsive, broken and exhausted. For the first time in my life, I’ve failed a mission, I’ve lost a fight. But its not all over yet.