“You are one crazy bitch you know that?”
Thief’s voice swims from one ear to the other and I’m convinced I’m submerged in water. I can’t see anything, I hear a high pitched ring and I can’t tell if it’s inside my head or not. I open my eyes and I see her blurry face leaning over my chest, a cigarette between her teeth. Her chocolate skin shimmers in the bright light of the room, the deep scars on her left eyebrow catch the light and give her a menacing visage. I blink several times to clear the cloudy picture of her face but to no avail.
The walls of the old Capitol welcome me home. Once more there is no ceiling, a thick piece of fabric covers the tops of the rafters and feebly attempts to keep out the rain that lightly taps against its face. The room feels moist and humid, not the best place for a hospital.
I am the only patient here, the other tables and beds lie empty lazily covered with curtains. Beside each bed is a large upright tank where the bodies of unconscious infected hang delicately from metal bars and black hoses.
“Wh-what are you doing here...” I say weakly, the words burn the inside of my throat.
“Don’t talk,” she says. “You’ve got one hell of a burn on your neck. That shit must hurt like a motherfucker.”
“It does,” I whisper. I can’t feel my body at all, but this paralysis is different. It’s a gloopy- sleepy stillness, as if my veins had been replaced with Orajel. Oh man, drugs are nice.
I can’t feel anything below my chest, but I can lift my head a bit to see that I’m a total wreck. My skin is covered in red blisters and scars that starkly contrast the black undertone of my natural color. My entire midsection holds bandages, stitches and staples that poke through the white layers. My legs are shredded with deep gashes that criss-cross from my hips to my shins hastily pulled together with wires and thread. I haven’t been this bad off in a long, long while. But it’s not the worst I’ve ever been, at least I still have all my limbs this time.
I so badly want to rip out the tube shoved in my nose and the IV in my arm, but even if I hadn’t been drugged into a vegetative state I couldn’t have done so. Almost every single pore has a needle in it connected to a black hose. Each one pumps a strange sludgy fluid into my veins; even though I’m paralyzed I can feel it move through my skin. It feels cold and thick like peanut butter. Damn I could go for a pbj.
“How much are you giving me?” I ask her, and she glares at me for not listening. I can barely whisper but I’ll be damned if I’m just going to sit here while she scolds me.
“Trust me, you don’t want to know,” she says. “Enough to cause mutation for sure. If you weren’t such a freak you’d be ripping this place apart by now,” she talks around the cigarette in the corner of her mouth, accentuating her southern drawl that much more.
“Mm,” I said. “If I told you why that was you’d never believe me,” I say. She scoffs and smacks down the end of the bandage she was wrapping around my stomach. It shoots a lightning strike of pain through my nerves and I breathe sharply, momentarily breaking out of my sloth-like state. She sees me cringe and pushes a button on the hologram next to her; my insides are washed with another dose of sweet numbing bliss.
Thief disappears from view and I can hear the scrape of a metal chair as she takes a seat beside by my hospital bed. She leans back, crosses her legs and laces her fingers behind her neck, a second and much smaller cigarette glowing from her lips. She breathes deep and exhales a sweet smelling vapor into my nostrils, and I realize it’s not nicotine. Bastard I think. I gave up smoking when Eli was born nine years ago, the one thing I ever did for someone else. Now all these assholes go out of their way to tempt me.
“So,” she says. “How much do you remember?” I roll my eyes and look back to the ceiling. The rain is so peaceful, it puts me in a trance. I force myself to go back to that dreaded city, back to the subway, the streets, the apartment, Eli...
I take a moment to collect my thoughts before I reply. “I was in Colossus. That’s where Fix was, Saint told me about it.”
“I know, I was there,” she says. “Ele too. We were the ones who found most of what was left of you in that park.”
“I knew you guys were following me!” I exclaim. “I specifically told you not to...”
“Right. And where would you be if we hadn’t?” she asks.
I shoot her a bone chilling glare, and she stifles a laugh. “I was handling it fine without you,” I say.
“Oh-ho okay,” she says. “I’ll just tell that to the crisp disaster I peeled off the desert last week.”
“LAST WEEK?!” I exclaim. My voice cracks in a million different directions and I swallow the mucus and acid that rises after the fact. “I need a drink...”
“No, I’m forcing you to dry out,” she says. “You’re not immortal King, you can’t just live off of alcohol alone.”
“Watch me,” I say. But she’s right, I was gone for a month and I remember hardly any of it.
“Anyways,” I continue. “Fix planned the whole thing out. He was the one who reported the infected and brought in the Legion.” She nods, then motions for me to continue.
I inhale and resume. “Z was waiting for me when I got there, I gave him the transporter. Did he make it out?”
She nods again. “He brought the whole lot of them. You did good King, you caused enough of a distraction to keep that Martian scum busy. We all escaped through the transporter once we rescued you.”
“Good. What’d you do with the citizens?” I ask.
“They’re shacked up in the west district. None of them are sick, some might actually be useful.”
“Any kids?” I ask
“A few, about 10. Drift is testing them.”
“Huh,” I muse. “If they all come back immune, bring them here and begin their training.” Most children are not susceptible to the virus. This makes them excellent soldiers, and a constant target for the Martians and enemy clans who kidnap and sell them to one another to make antidotes. My son included.
“I’ve already arranged for that,” she says. “So, did you find Eli?”
I just let the silence answer that question. Finally she sighs, then flicks her roach on the floor. “You got enough for a ticket?”
“How’d you know that’s where he took him?” I ask. “Wait, how’d you even know they escaped?”
“I saw him myself, but I was too busy fighting off guards to get to him. As for your first question, well, it’s the only place where he’d be safe from you. So of course he’d go there,” she says. “You got enough for a ticket?” She asks again.
“I’ll get enough,” I reply. “And I’m going alone. If you all follow me this time I will personally deliver you to Mars and take the bounty for myself.”
“You have my word,” and she bows her head, returns her hands to their comfortable position cradling her neck.
I turn my head to look away from her, trying to hide my tears. I focus on the glass tank next to me, the hoses connecting from my body to the poor mutated bastard inside. This one is completely drained, nothing but greenish, yellow splotchy skin is barely attached to the brittle bones. It must have taken all its juice to put me back together this time...I stare at it in silence and lose myself in thought, wondering who the beast in the tank used to be.
Do you know who you are, Beast? I think. I know it can’t talk back, but the drugs make it seem like he can. Do you know what happened to you, why you’re in that jar? It’s okay, I’ll tell you.
See beast, centuries ago there were these assholes called the Elite, the wealthiest people of Old World. After the nuclear war they escaped to Mars and left us to mutate and die out at the hands of the same radioactive virus that put you in that tank, hoping to claim the earth for themselves once we were gone along with the disease.
Over time we managed the unexpected; we evolved. We learned how to take the mutated bodies of the unfortunate, I guess that’d be you, and blend them into our own. The procedures gives us powers of resilience, healing, and strength. It is extremely dangerous however. Every modification brings me closer to mutation myself, every single drop of infected blood brings me closer to hanging in a tank just like yours. The Elite see us not as examples of evolutionary progress but dangerous barbarians, and now they go through great lengths to try and wipe us out.
But here’s the difference between you and me, you lost the fight with natural selection. Not only am I winning, I’m dominating. Those who rule carry the most monster blood in our veins; as per tradition we tattoo the number of procedures endured on our skin in symbols that become the emblem of our tribes. The greatest warlord of all boasted eight, I’ll never forget the way he looked at me when I killed him, forcing him to count the rays of sunlight I’ve etched into my back: twenty-one. I wish you could have seen it...
“Um, King?” Thief says, and I snap out of my drug-induced one-sided conversation. I turn my head too quickly and my vision dims. “You alright there?”
I nod. “Yeah, fine just got to thinking.” I close my eyes and start to count my breaths once more, trying to force the peanut butter out of my veins.
I reach to the needle in my neck and rip it out, fully coming back to reality. I grab the tube running down my nose and aggressively rent it out of me, then do the same with the IV in my arm.
“Wait how did you--WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” She exclaims as she springs up to hold me back. I glare at her and hold out a drippy needle-infested arm, silently warning her not to intervene. She slams back into her chair and just watches me come back to life, my dark skin pulsating and oozing fluid and goo through countless slits and gashes. I sit up in bed, push myself over the end of it and with a big exhale, pull the black hoses out of the tank where I was once connected to the monster inside. They hiss and complain, spilling black gunk all over the dirty floor. I walk towards the exit rubbing out the excess needles as I go.
“AND WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?!” Thief yells, frantically trying to control the mess on the floor and attempting to catch up with me.
I look back at her as I pull back the fabric that covers the door. “Like I said,” I casually throw one more hose back at her. “I need a drink. Also a peanut butter jelly sandwich.” I step into the humid rain; leaving her alone with my mess like countless times before.