He should’a gone and listen to his ma and gotten the hell out of there when things started happening. But Sascha called himself a big boy now, out on his own in the streets, no one tying him down except his partner in crime and the few skirmishes they had with other street walkers. A few bloodied fists fixed those problems real quick. Just Max and he. No professional crime lords, no gang, just a couple of fellows who liked to get their fun the rough way. A beautiful, sinful life. The kind where you could pummel a fellow’s face for looking at you wrong, and take whatever pretty slim thing you found without need of charm or money.
Ma told him bitterly, when she was sick with plague, that this was just the way things should be for him. Everyone dying and disgusting, things all turning to chaos. Suited her big boy just fine. Sascha had believed her indignantly at first, refusing to accept her sarcasm. Why not? All the panic was a breeding ground for the sort of fun he and Max enjoyed. Wasn’t hard to rob from the sick. Wasn’t hard to beat the shit out of them either, when it came down to it. When Ma died, shoving her little black book at him and telling him to read the damned thing (in Russian, really quiet like, ‘cause Father would have slapped her if she swore, sick or no), he’d almost spat on the thing.
But his ma was dying. So he didn’t.
Didn’t mean he was going to read it. Didn’t much care to hear about the punishment and hellfire that would reign down on his head for all the sins he’d committed. Didn’t right believe that this plague was a sin for him either. Father caught it quick and died too. Then it was just a whole world of fun and games for he and Max.
Until Max got sick.
It had been a damned long time since Sascha was alone. He couldn’t, in fact, remember so much as pissin’ in a grungy urinal without Max right there grinning crudely at him, making lewd jokes about the one little thing that got Sascha’s knickers in a twist.
He’d almost killed himself after Max kicked it. He pressed the barrel of the gun against his head, finger tight against the trigger. It was loaded. Always was. Didn’t let any of his guns run out of ammo. Always one bullet left, just in case. He stood right over Max’s body, covered in blankets and shoved in the corner of some kid’s bedroom. The room stank of sex and sweat, and the deep, dirty smell of plague coming off of Max’s pretty face. Sascha sank to his knees, curled his fingers in Max’s pretty straw-colored hair, pride of his life, and cocked the hammer on his revolver.
He dropped it. It went off. Shot a hole straight through Max’s face.
It was the only time Sascha could remember weeping.
He moped for weeks. Wandering around the house, forlorn and ashen. Ate a little, but mainly kept to smoking and drinking. Did a little pot in the beginning, but he didn’t like the hazy feeling it gave him, clouding his mind and make him giddy. Couldn’t be giddy with Max’s corpse rotting just a few feet above his head. Lord, did the house stink something rotten. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been sitting in his own filth before the kid showed up at his door. Wasn’t anyone he’d seen before. Just a young fellow, maybe eighteen. Said he heard some noise and came to investigate. Seemed he was just as lonely as Sascha was.
Sascha sat him down and gave him a can of beans, slipping his gun in the seat of his pants. It came natural, to entice the kid. Didn’t even notice something was missing from the picture. Kid said his folks had died, and his girlfriend. Didn’t know what he was going to do. He’d been sneaking into stores, stealing food. Felt guilty about it, even though there wasn’t anyone around to stop him or eat it anyway. Said something about principles that had Sascha barking out loud with laughter. He took out the gun then, shot the kid in the shoulder, before bending him over the table and taking what he wanted. Shot the kid in the face right after.
Hurt him more than it did the Kid.
He couldn’t breathe afterward, something that never, ever happened to him before. Never got queasy after playing something, consensual or no. Killin’ or no. His chest was constricted, his heart all hard and beating strange, like it was going to explode…or implode…or something. For the first time he felt the real emptiness of the city around him. He hadn’t seen another living person for weeks, and he’d shot the first kid to show up on his doorstep. Wasn’t that something a person needed, some ‘need’ for living? Companionship? Shit. Fuck. Sascha was going to kill himself. He was...very much alone now, wasn’t he?
The house was stifling. He could smell the stink, the death, now, and even his kitchen was covered in blood and guts and crap. He couldn’t stay. It only took a moment to shove a bag together, take a couple knives, what little canned food he had left. Took the cigarettes too. Not the booze. Booze would be a bad idea out in the heat and the stink. Not much room for anything special, a couple changes of shirts, some goop for shaving, his cross that Ma hated so much. He brought Ma’s little book. Cut a chunk of Max’s hair out to stick in it too. Didn’t take nothing of Father’s. Didn’t mind forgetting him so much, after all.
He slapped a big floppy Australian hat on his head to protect himself from the sun, a pair of crooked sunglasses, tossed his stolen cross around his neck.
And he was on the road. He didn’t know for how long. Didn’t see a single soul and that was really starting to grip him something crazy. Started talking to himself, real quiet like, not in English. Never in English. There wasn’t anyone around to hear him, but Sascha didn’t like taking chances like that. No sense it letting people think he’d gone mad. People did crazy shit to mad fellows. Imaginary conversations made up most of his days. Talking to ma about old stories from her little book. Being kind to her, like he wasn’t often. With Max, sordid tales said most bawdily. Things that would have had him hard and aching normally.
Weren’t nothing getting his blood going out here though. Not much to eat, nothing to drink. Just huge, empty parched streets, filled with the stinking scent of rot. He’d lost his stomach a couple times on the way. It just made things worse. It was hard to eat with month-old corpses rotting beside you. Easier once he’d managed to get out past the city, but gas stations appeared at regular intervals, and they were just as bad. Smelling to high heaven. Sascha began to think that that smell would get stuck up his nose for eternity. Maybe he’d really have to blow his brains out then.
Once such place happened to have a little convenience store stuck up against it. Not so many cars to stink up his way, and perhaps a bit more fresh air, and, hell, some ice to cool off with inside. Being the prag-ma-tist he happened to be, Sascha waltzed himself right off the road without a second thought. If nothing else, there might be people in there. The first people he’d see for damn near three fucking weeks. He could do with a bit a company. Some that weren’t dead.
Weren’t much in the mood for killing people now, either.
The convenience store was cooler, but not by much. Mainly it was just a reprieve from the awful stench of death outside. No rotting corpses out here. Whoever ran the place obviously took himself outside to die. Convenient, just like his little store. Might have been a damned mess, but at least it didn’t have no bodies in it. Looked like a lot of that mess was usable food, too.
Sascha paused against the door, jerking the god-awful floppy hat off his head and wiping the sweat from his brow. The backpack was the next to go. He dropped it from his broad shoulders, leaving it to thunk hard on the ground before pushing off the wall and going to sort through the rubble. He ripped open a couple chocolate bars, down them quickly and without thought, tossing wrappers back into the heap. An unopened razor peered up out of the mess and Sascha was quick to grab it, and the goop from his pack, shuffling to back of the store.
He needed a good shave. Head was getting awfully bristly under that hat of his. Using the glass doors of the freezer as a make-shift mirror, Sascha began to scrap the bristles off his scalp, taking the time to swipe his eyes over the selection of frozen goods. Didn’t seem that any of the meat made it.
God awful. He could do with some real food.
The bell chimed for the door.
Sascha whipped around, ripping a chunk of skin from his head with a hiss. The razor flew to the floor, blood splattered. His hand reached back toward his gun.
Didn’t seem like he’d need it though. Scrawny fellow looked almost anorexic. Mind, Sascha had lost a bit of his brawn on the trek, but he’d never let himself stop eating. Christ, fellow looked like he’d been living off of air like a goddamn chameleon. Sascha could make two of him…mayhap three. (He was often two of most people on their good days, big fellow like him.) No challenge there. He relaxed his arm, face pulled in a sour grimace.
“First living fellow I’ve seen in damned near a month, and the bastard makes me bleed,” he eyed the stranger, flicking brown eyes up and down his form. Not much to look at, really. But a damned sight better than those corpses.
And, if he were truthful, he’d admit his heart was ramming a mile a minute at running into someone breathing. Might smell a bit, but not so bad as those dead folks.
“My site. Found it first. I get first picks. Understood?”
Not that Sascha would take ‘no’ lightly. Hopefully the fellow wouldn’t be too apt to putting up a fight. Didn’t look like he had much of anything left in him, and Sascha’s near seven feet of filled out height ought to make him think twice. But desperate people did desperate things. He kept his hand near his hip. Ready to draw.
Could be a crazy.
“Pack your bags!”
The door burst open without warning, slamming hard against the opposite wall with a reverberating bang. Friedrich lurched back at the noise, sending his chair off-balance. A startled grunt had him clutching uselessly at his papers, sending them flying to the floor in a scattered, yellow mess of parchment and ink. But wood was heavier than words. They couldn’t keep him on his feet this time. The chair careened to the floor with a booming thud, sending Friedrich tumbling out with sharp curses littering his tongue.
“They’ve gathered at Luxembourg. God’s holy name, they’re almost he-…what are you doing?”
Friedrich wrenched himself to his feet, a scowl twisting his lips, and jerked his hands over the front of his robes. He twisted sharply and bent himself double to snatch up the fallen papers, smothering his fingers with fresh, wet ink as he did so.
No hope for getting them back to any state of decency.
“I’m listening, go on, Armin.”
It wasn’t the boy’s fault, after all.
England wanted the world. It was not Armin’s fault that English aristocrats had drug some poor excuse concerning peasants out of the dirt, polished it off, spattered it in blood, and marched off to war to trampled the already trampled. It wasn’t Armin’s fault that Friedrich shoved his nose into the political workings of his country and wound himself so tightly into its net that he became the eyes and the ears of Hanover. It wasn’t Armin’s fault that Germany cared enough about Germany to protect her, but not enough to want her.
It was not Armin’s fault that Friedrich was going to get thrown into the middle of this blood soaked war and come out just as imbued as the rest of the soldiers.
Friedrich set the papers on his desk, fiddling jerkily with the stained edges of the parchment. Armin shuffled to his side, and a weight was slid over his shoulder. The boy shuffled backward, hands folded, monk-like, before him.
“Will you make it?”
He would have to, wouldn’t he? Germany couldn’t fight a war divided as she was. And he would not lose her.
Friedrich shoved the papers into his bag and nodded,” I’ll be fine. You be careful.”
Armin would. Armin always was.
Friedrich wasn’t quite so positive about himself, though.
Minna’s sweat-soaked flanks heaved beneath Friedrich’s thighs. He could feel her exhaustion, her skin trembling beneath saddle, her raspy breath rattling the bit. Her limbs shook with every step, and Friedrich suspected he would have better luck leading her by foot. But he couldn’t do that. Minna would get her rest soon.
The English fortress loomed ahead of him, magnificent and cold. He had seen similar sights before, but none quite so impressive. Even at the edge of war, the English wealth was displayed with finesse and confidence to the poor folk who trembled and wandered beneath its gates. The dark stone of the castle was a cool contrast to the fading life of the grass, withered into sun drenched coils that danced to the quiet, growing wind.
Friedrich slid his hand down Minna’s neck, urging her forward with a solid kick of his heels. She let out a rasping snort and forced herself forward. Perhaps she understood what Friedrich needed her to do, or perhaps she had grown unconsciously accustomed to entering the presence of men proudly. Some subtle, silent training that passed between them. Minna arched her neck, shook her mane proudly, and closed her lips around the bit in her own façade of pride.
Let the English pigs face German pride, German virility, German power. Let them see exactly what they will have to fight, should they force their way through Luxembourg and into the heart of Germany herself.
Their entrance into the courtyard gates was unspectacular to anyone but themselves. Friedrich was conscious of that. A pale man perched atop a sweating horse, his clothes mud stained and tattered, hair askew and beard ungroomed did not make for an impressive figure. But it was not difficult to hold himself high and proud, his back straight and his chin above the Englishmen carrying their duties around him. He gripped Minna’s reigns loosely, holding his hand high, and looked down upon the peasants that scattered themselves about his feet in curiosity.
Confidence would be his most valuable weapon here.
The entrance into the main hall was blocked off by a set of guards, dressed in the décor of their kingdom and holding their swords beneath their hands. One had been leaning against the wooden doors, his eyes turned toward his partner, voice rumbling quietly in the foreign tongue of English. Hearing it was like a splash of ice water across Friedrich’s face. He jerked backward, earning himself an irate whinny from Minna who planted her hooves firmly in the dirt. Too tired to go on, the sweat of her labor driving her into stubbornness.
Friedrich whispered an apology to her, patting her mane softly before swinging himself over the side of the saddle. He landed with as much panache as he could manage, sweeping his robes to hide the stumble in his gait. He tested his English on the tip of his tongue, a few muttered greetings to half-parted lips, before lifting his gaze to the guards and leading Minna the last few steps toward them.
They had ceased their chatter, raising eyes and shoulders to block him off. Friedrich swept his fingers over the bridge of his nose, before busying his nervous hands with the folds of his back. Fingers touched parchment, and he slid the sealed message out. Chin high, hazel eyes narrowed to alertness, he held the scroll toward guards, the waxy red crest of his King gleaming in the light of the Prussian sky.
“I am here to speak to his majesty, King Pippin.”
I am here to save my country from English imperialism. I am here to drive you back before my land is further divided.
“I am here as an ambassador. No arms.”
They searched him, as he knew they would. Quick, thorough, rough. Perhaps he would find a few trinkets missing when he retired for a bath. But it didn’t matter. No arms were found, the crest was accepted, and with a forlorn look in Minna’s direction as she was led away by a peasant to lie with English steeds, Friedrich entered the King’s hall.
Luxembourg hall. Invaded by English greed.
He felt like he was greeting an unfaithful bride.
Mission Log: Entry 001
Starship Heimdall departs for mission #024: Retrieve and analyze plant specimen Sanctus Vigoratus for future use on earth.
Earth. What was left of it. Once beautiful and green, but now nothing more than villainous wreck harbouring disease which spread from population to population like a snake winding its way through a rat’s nest. A population of billions reduced to a couple million sickly individuals. Earth was no longer welcoming. It was no longer a home, a sweet loving mother, giver of life and nourishment. Now she was a black sepulchre of filth. The only remaining resources of any use where the computers, who, unaffected by any disease, continued to run cities and outposts. The wealth of humanity’s information, it’s legacy, was stored here.
But even that would be wiped out once that last man bit the dust.
And so the search had begun to find some cure, some way of healing the planet and its inhabitants. Earth’s rainforests were reduced to a few scattered clumps of trees, all young and green. Millions of potential medicines wiped out from deforestation: Fuel, timber, land, agriculture.
Humanity had decided upon suicide, thousands of years before earth began to die.
Mission Log: Entry 213
Sanctus Vigoratus collected from planet002452AG22. 134 specimens found and taken for transport and analysis. Plants have been collected successfully.
Sanctus Vigoratus was a fluke. A re-colonist team had been sent out to discover a suitable home and begin terraforming operations. They were unsuccessful in this regard. The most suitable planets were hostile or unstable. Many were lost in the attempt to find new earth, but such was the risk humanity had to take to ensure its own survival.
The plant was discovered on an otherwise useless planet. Atmospheric gasses were far too extreme. The planet, itself, far too small. Resources were lacking. And humanity still lusted for them: gold, timber, oil, precious metals. Need. Greed.
Sanctus Vigoratus was a small, cruel looking plant. Brown, not green, with leaves that appeared curled and dead. Thistle-shaped protrusions grew along its stem as blackish boils, each equipped with a hundred stinging pricks. The first experience with its healing properties occurred entirely on accident: a young, inexperienced crew member grasping the specimen too roughly. He scrapped his skin against the thorns.
Two days later, his sickened, asthmatic lungs were clear and healthy.
It was a miracle plant. Earth needed it.
Mission Log: Entry 521
WARNING! WARNING! HULL BREACH.
PEROGITIVE: SAFETY OF SANCTUS VIGORATUS.
PEROGITIVE: ARRIVAL OF SANCTUS VIGORATUS TO EARTH.
DISPATCH ALL SPECIMIN CONTAINERS
WARNINGWARNINGWARNINGWARNINGWARNINGWARNINGWARNINWARNINGWARNINGWARNING User Image
After seven long months (awake) aboard the wreck of the Heimdall, nothing surprised Lt. Carrol Baird anymore. The ship had been malfunctioning pretty hard since the original hull break, and she wasn’t about to cut it out just to give Carrol his forty winks. While he and what was left of the crew managed to patch her up as best they could. Welded off the cock pit and locked all levels heading up to it, just in case. Without access to navigation, Heimdall’s crew was hooped : And Heimdall herself seemed adamant on making their lives a living hell.
Nav was out of the question. Mechanics malfunctioned off and on all day long. The ship spent most of the day (Day? Week? Hour? It was impossible to tell time here) drifting between absolute stillness, in which Carrol feared she’d finally given up and life support was about to go down the drain; and shaking so hard you had to lie on the floor and cover your head in hopes of getting through her tremors alive. Maintenance deck was all but completely destroyed. Machines and piping had been ripped from their brackets and were now laying in piles of rubbish on the floor. No one went down there anymore. It was a death trap.
Carrol had already lost two of his remaining crew members to it.
Life basically consisted of sitting on your hands and praying. Anything else would kill you.
Heh. Even that wasn’t entirely safe.
Heimdall lit up like something was poking hot coals up her ass, screaming “warning” at the top of her lungs. White lights flashed above Carrol’s head, while the stilted, distorted voice of her mess-up majesty squalled around him.
“Yeah, yeah. I know there’s something wrong. Shut-up.”
Carrol slammed his fist into the wall above his head. Heimdall’s voice stuttered a moment. Hesitating… Coming to a decision…
“Alright, you stupid cunt, I’m up,” with a grunt, Carrol dragged his legs off of his cot. He laid like that a moment, back swaying the flimsy linen of his bed, bare feet spread on the cold floor. His heavy brows furrowed, thin lips gnarled in a grimace. Damn. He squeezed his eye shut and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
Damn. Damn. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t want to have to deal with that bitch again today.
Snarling, Carrol rolled off his cot,” You win, goddammit, shut-up!”
A ratty pair of black boots were all he had to protect his feet from Heimdall’s debris. They were scuffed, missing one lace (he’d used it to help patch together a broken pipe), and grayed and bitten around the edges where they’d caught fire during one of her majesty’s fits. Carrol shoved his feet in them unceremoniously, not bothering to tie the one lace he did have.
His stomach growled.
Being hungry was a way of life, now. Rations had to be distributed very, very carefully. There were only two of them left now, but they didn’t have enough food left to last them another month. And god knew how long they were going to be out here.
The rest of our lives, thought Carrol bitterly, slipping a torn flak jacket around his shoulders. It hung off of his arms, and didn’t have any buttons left to do up.
User ImageHe’d lost a lot of weight since the mission’s unceremonious ending. Once fit, muscular, powerful, he was reduced to a few stringy muscles and pale skin hanging ugly from his limbs. Carrol was a mess. His face was a bedraggled rat’s nest of salt and peppered beard, his hair long and stringy, wet with sweat. There wasn’t enough water left to clean with. His lips were parched and cracked, his hands reddened and blistered. His face bruised.
Just pieces of a man stitched together without skill.
At least he couldn’t smell himself anymore.
Carrol approached his room’s door with some trepidation. He twisted his lips in a scowl and smudged his boots across the floor. Face wrinkled, he leaned toward it.
A gargled whirr attacked his ears.
CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK, DRRRRR
Steeling himself, he threw his shoulder at the door. It clicked again, the metal dented a little more, and finally slid open with short, noisy, jerks. Carrol kicked it while he passed, for good measure. Probably didn’t help the matter, but it sure made him feel better.
Heimdall’s displeasure was more evident in the hall. Her lights were flashing rapidly, and the sound of irritation became a deafening cacophony. Carrol winced at every clank and rapid succession of broken clicks. Something was seriously pissing her off tonight.
Hopefully it wasn’t anything in maintenance. Carrol’d be buggered with a baseball bat before he went down there, and he wasn’t sending his last remaining tie to humanity to his death either.
But he’d cut his own throat if he had to live with Heimdall’s squalling for his few remaining days.
Heavy footsteps lead him down the steel corridor to a second door. This one in no better shape than his own, and, currently, the home of his only companion. Carrol didn’t need him to help find the problem (and probably not to fix it, either. The most either of them could do was bang the piece of machinery around until it decided to cooperate. They had a handful of rudimentary tools left, most of them in pretty poor shape.)
Mostly, he just didn’t want to die alone. For himself, and for his crew mate. If one of them died, the other mind as well off himself too. Maybe the food would last longer, but who wanted to live in solitude, with only this crazy bitch of a ship for company?
The wall behind him clanked and shuddered.
Bang! Bang! Carrol slammed his fist against the door,” Get up! Her Majesty’s having a bitch fit again. Need your help!”
“Goddamnit, Joaquin!” Slam. Fist smashed into hard wood. “You’re not authorized to make those kinds of decision. Do you know what you could have cost us? This company is too goddamn important to me to let you fuck it all away trying to grow some balls.”
Could have, Briggs wanted to say. Didn’t. The decision to trade patents with Juleco wasn’t made lightly – but the company had a lot to offer in return for a few measly ideas. They had advertisement and popularity on their side, experienced technicians who knew how to work out bugs his father’s company had been toying with for months. The first release had been a success. Sure, they made a smaller percentage than customary, but in terms of raw numbers they’d been paid back tenfold. Less overhead than normal, better customer reception, more product purchased. What little risk he’d taken had clearly been worth the effort.
Briggs was thirty-three. He wasn’t interested in playing yesman to daddy any longer.
Unfortunately, if he wanted to keep his house and his job he had to bite his tongue. Damn lucky he didn’t get the strap over that old mahogany desk. Daddy’s face had turned red, his lips were curled back in a snarl, eyes flashing. If Briggs had been twelve, or even twenty, he’d be cowering by now. Apologizing. Grovelling.
It’d been too many long years of doing that. He was tired of it.
“The patents worked out. I don’t regret my decision.”
“Not yet you don’t!” Daddy snarled and slammed his fist on the desk once more. He jerked away, back to Briggs, and snatched a cigar from his breast pocket. It was a flurry of hurried, angry motions to light the thing. His shoulders slumped a little at the first drag. The smell of it was sweet and smoky, but not calming.
“We’ll see, Joaquin. But if one of these goddamned deals go sours, one of them, I will kick your ass out of this company and you’ll be lucky if you have a gutter to sleep in,” ash flicked into an ornate brass tray,” Get out of my sight.”
Briggs offered no audible response. He refused to acknowledge the slow, cold sweat that began to creep up the back of his neck. The quickening of his pulse, even as his blood turned to ice in his veins. The house. The money. The job. With his father’s back turned to him, he allowed himself a moment to squeeze his eyes shut. No deep breaths, nothing for Daddy to hear – just a moment to collect himself. The patents would do fine. Everything would be alright. This wasn’t the first time he’d toed the line and it wouldn’t be the last. Lady luck liked him.
And he was smart.
Briggs turned slow and deliberate toward the door. The carpet was deep shag and muffled the sound of his footsteps. His hand was on the doorknob before Daddy spoke again.
“Did you see Julia last night.”
Oh for fucks sake, not this. “Yes.”
“How did it go.”
Briggs didn’t answer. He twisted the knob and strode through the doorway, letting the mahogany fall shut behind him. Loud, heavy, purposeful.
Julia left, of course. They all did.
Fuck. He didn’t need this. He really, really didn’t. Stress he could deal with. This wasn’t him. This wasn’t something he needed to be. Not one single part of it. Prostitutes? What the hell was he doing.
Standing across the road from a posh looking hotel and appearing incredibly suspicious. Incognito. He was the heir apparent of a multi-billion dollar company. People knew his face. They certainly knew his name. He didn’t the paparazzi informing the people of his nightly habits as well. Briggs was not dressed poorly, this wasn’t the place for that. His suit was tailored fit, tasteful black, Armani. Kid leather gloves clinging deftly to his large hands, boots shined and polished to perfection. His face was obscured only by a pair of thick sunglasses. It was decidedly too warm out for any sort of hat or scarf, so he had to hope this was good enough.
Pacing across the street was going to attract attention, though.
He didn’t want to go in. He didn’t need this. But… but… fuck it all. He deserved it. Just a taste. Something to tide him over. A break. It had been a goddamned horrible day, after all. He could enjoy a few hours of relaxation.
That’s all it was, he told himself, a retreat.
Briggs cast a nervous glance on either side of the street before adjusting his glasses and loping swiftly toward the hotel entrance. The place was posh and cool, decorated extravagantly, but not distastefully. There were a few people in the main lobby, mostly women dressed in low-neck gowns, attending to businessmen. He didn’t need a greeter.
Briggs pulled a slip of manila from his pocket. Embossed logo. Simple instructions. A room number and a name – probably not a legal name either. Briggs himself had already decided on an adequate pseudonym. The establishment was happy to accept cash, after all, and as long as you paid up they didn’t care what you chose to call yourself. His original appointment had consisted of an interview – to make sure he was clean – and a glance through some profiles of their current staff. He’d lingered over several of the women – perusing photos, asking questions, hoping to hell someone would catch his attention and be worth the $1000 an hour.
It wasn’t until he’d been left alone to look that he’d made his decision. He hadn’t really meant to pick up the profile for their boys. Just curiosity. That was all. No harm in looking. Brigg’s appraisal had been quick, hurried. But even rushed one of them had caught his eye. Goddammit. Some smooth faced kid with lips to die for. Soft skin, strong chin, hard eyes. Just feminine enough that Briggs could fool himself.
So here he was. Heading up an elevator to room 403. Not that he wanted to of course. He just needed to relax. That was all. That’s all this was. Nothing more.
Briggs stepped off the elevator and made his way down the corridor. The numbers ‘403’ stood out like a bad dream against the polished, glossy wood. He paused in front of the door and smoothed his fingers through his hair. He held his breath, hiding it behind gritted teeth, and rapped his knuckles against the wood.
Here goes nothing.
Those sunglasses were a little unnerving. Julio was a man who focused on faces, expressions. He enjoyed people. One of the reasons he so readily agreed to join in this twisted experiment. He didn’t like seeing faces obscured. Never-the-less, if someone was going to speak to him – even one of the designated ‘guards’ – he wasn’t going to stick his nose up to them.
Despite his current state of dress and the embarrassed flush in his cheeks, Julio split his lips in an easy, toothy smile. He dropped his slippered feet to the cold floor and shuffled over the bars.
“You’re lucky you flipped heads,” he gripped his baggy ‘dress’ and fluttered it around,” At least you get to wear pants. I’m not sure I’m going to survive the draft!” Better to make light of his situation. Laughter was a great defense mechanism.
“Mind, it probably wouldn’t be easy to get all that hair under one of these… things either,” he wrinkled his nose in distaste and fingered the end of his headcap pantyhose. His flush deepened. Not the way he wanted to be seen by anyone – women’s hosiery stapled to his skull.
All in the name of science, right?
Hungry for company, Julio slipped a hand through the bars and leaned as casually as he could in his current state. The air was chilling his legs. Wasn’t terrible warm in these quarters.
“Did the make the guards go through any of this to get in?"
The city seemed to be in an eternal cloud of fog. Emery felt as if he hadn’t seen the sun in months, always overcast cloud cover and dark, choking smog. Humidity clung to the air, grasping at clothes and prickling skin and hair. Nothing stayed dry. Nothing stayed clean. Why should the city be left in peace when its inhabitants were suffering? Maybe it was done on purpose, perhaps the council of villains had someone with weather manipulation powers on their side. Keep the city in perpetual gloom so the citizens’ hopes were quashed. Hard to muster a rebellious spirit when the weather nipped you into depression.
Emery wasn’t cold. He could have allowed himself to be, if he wanted, but why bother? He’d long since given up the notion of self-sacrifice. Nobility was dead, here. Emery had frequently had his own shelter ransacked, any scrap of useful material absconded into the alleyways. He’d lost a few sets of clothes, plenty of books, most of his rations, and all his cooking supplies. So what was the point? He allowed himself some small usage of his powers – warming the damp air just enough to keep comfortable and dry. It wasn’t his fault he’d lost his tinder.
A man couldn’t stay cooped up in a dingy apartment forever.
Freedom didn’t come cheap in this city.
“Smells fantastic, Shelly,” Emery juggled a bag of steaming food in one hand, bottle of water in the other. He pressed his hip against the cracked glass door of Lee’s Chinese, shoving it open an inch,” I’ll be back next week.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Dickerson!” the young gal at the counter beamed. Her faced was bruised, one eye swollen shut, but she still managed a smile. Poor dear.
This city wasn’t meant for folk like her.
Emery offered her an awkward salute, juggling his supper, then strode out the door to greet the muggy street. His sunglasses fogged immediately. A quick bout of concentration and he’d heated the area sufficiently to chase away the water. It was a pain in the ass wearing sunglasses in such dismal weather, but Emery couldn’t risk being recognized for who he was.
Who he had been. He’d long since hung up the cape and the mask. Once upon a time he’d been known as Celsius – protector of mankind and upholder of justice. He was far from the most powerful superhero around, one of the reasons he’d escape exile or death when the rebellion took place. His abilities were limited to temperature control (hence the name), able to manipulate temperatures to inhospitable freezing all the way up to burning heat. Useful in driving criminals to their knees. This, combined with indestructible skin, made him a formidable force where defense was concerned. He’d never been a spectacular fighter, but so many lifetimes ago he was eager to put himself between civilians and danger.
Emery chucked his Chinese over his shoulder and started down the sidewalk. His apartment, shabby as it was, was just a few block away. A convenient location, if nothing else. Lee’s Chinese was available for a warm meal when he had the money, a rundown old convenience store across the corner if he didn’t. There were plenty of liquor stores in between, and more than a couple shady bars. No one cared about drunks here. No one intervened in a fight.
Emery kept his guard up as he turned the corner. Gang active was rampant everywhere. The smog extended the shadows from wall to wall. Emery tipped his head back, brow furrowed. His glasses didn’t afford him much night vision. Couldn’t hear anything, apart from the scurry of stray toms. He pressed his lips to a thin line and strode into the shadows.
“Smells good, mister,” a voice hissed out of the dark.
Emery paused for a heartbeat, coked his head to the side to listen. No footsteps. Couldn’t even hear breathing. No ida where the stranger was. He squared his shoulders and kept forward.
“Got to have some money to get hot food, huh?” A different voice this time, closer, to his left.
Emery set his jaw, clenched his teeth, but didn’t slow his pace.
Suddenly there was real, organic warmth at his side, and something sharp and cold pressing above his hip. A knife?
Emery stopped, swinging his food to his side. He let out a long, trying breath,” That’s right. Nothing’s free.”
“For sure, for sure, mister,” the first voice this time. Sharp and spitting. It circled around him.
“We want your food and your wallet, or it’ll cost you a kidney.”
“And we’ll eat that too!”
Emery let the bag of Chinese fall from his grip, landing with a wet thud on the pavement. He balled his hand into a fist, fingers flexing, before flicking his sunglasses off and tucking them almost too-neat against the v-neck of his vest. “It’s not easy making legitimate money in the city, my friends.”
“That’s right. The wallet now.” The sharpness dug into his skin. It was going to mark his jacket, for certain.
“I don’t think so.” Emery swept around and slammed a fist into the shadows. His knuckles crunched against flesh, and the second voice let out a savage curse. He didn’t have time to recollect his balance. The hissing stranger was on him in seconds. Fingers snagged the edge of Emery’s jacked and jerked. He tipped, ankle bumping against his Chinese, sending it spewing out into the puddles.
Strong arms slashed across his torso and dragged him backwards.
The knife wielder was up again, his footsteps clashing against the puddles. Emery felt the tip of the knife smash against his stomach… and stop. It couldn’t penetrate him. Fucked up his clothes something fierce though, that’s for sure.
“The fuck?” one of them growled.
“He’s a super,” the other hissed. Emery struggled against his grip and earned himself a punch to the solar plexus. That hurt. He wheezed, and grit his teeth, before cocking back an elbow and slamming it into the body behind him. The grip loosened. Emery wrenched himself free and went spilling into the gray light of the street.
His assailants slid out of the shadows behind him. One was tall, bald, dressed in ragged gray and slack jeans. The other was bulkier, sporting a slick, crooked toothed grin and black webs tattooed across his face.
“Now this is really going to suck.” Glasses off, they’d seen his face. They could identify him. Emery didn’t want to end anybody’s life, but he was going to have to do something to protect his identity. Supers didn’t last long when they were ousted in this city.
He clenched his hands into fists.
The tattooed assailant hissed under his breath and darted forward. Emery aimed a punch, but the fellow was too fast. He ducked under Emery’s arm and swung out with his own, catching Emery in the ribs. Never-the-less, the man let out a yelp and jerked backward, shaking his hand. His knuckles were blistered and red.
Emery surged forward, his gut twisting in circles, and slapped a hand over the tattooed fellow’s mouth. The man jerked back immediately, blisters forming a bright handprint across his lips. This on wouldn’t be saying much for a while.
“You fuck!” the second man snarled and lunged toward Emery, the knife outstretched. The blade slashed through Emery’s jacket but left his flesh untouched.
Emery squeezed his eyes shut, resisting the urge to vomit from his own actions, and snatched the assailant’s face. His fingers curled into claws, gripping hard. The man screamed and thrashed, jerking the knife toward Emery again and again. Finally the blade gave out and bent. Emery let him go and stepped back.
The man’s face was a mess.
“Get the hell out of here,” he snapped.
The two stumbled to their feet and disappeared down the safety of the shadows.
Emery counted to ten. Ten deep, slow, steady breaths, before collapsing against a wall behind him. His knees felt weak. His throat closed, choking. He dropped to his ass on the cold pavement and clutched his face in his hands.
What had he turned into?
The android’s silence was somewhat unnerving, but not unexpected. Most models, even functioning, were fairly polite and unassuming in their actions, but Colby could feel this one’s presence, the steady hum of electronics right behind him. Offbeat. He plucked a screwdriver and a small soldering tool off his work bench and swung back around to the robot, just in time to see it wrench an arm out. Colby suppressed a wince, squeezing his eyes shut.
This thing was in such rough shape…
Colby forced himself to take a glance at the proffered limb. A serial number, that was all. Not even a name. Whoever owned this android before obviously didn’t see fit to raise it to the station of a dog. Even pets were given monikers.
Well, Colby wasn’t going to contribute to the abuse.
“L-6 is it? I think we can shorten that down,” he dropped to one knee and snapped his goggles in place, “Would you mind if we shortened that to Lex?”
Don’t get attached, Colby. This thing couldn’t stay here. A quick fix and he’d send it on his way. Yes sir, absolutely.
Man, he was weak.
Colby pressed a button on the side of his goggles, causing the lenses to extend outward, intensifying the magnification. Another little switch turned a light on, soft rings illuminating the android’s busted joint. He wrenched his gloves from his pocket and snapped them in place. There were often corrosive materials involved with these older models, no need to put his hands at risk.
“This doesn’t look so bad,” Colbly flipped his screwdriver in the air and caught it deftly, before surging into his work. The joint was, as he’d expected, merely dislocated. He loosened a bolt here, tightened another, and the metal snapped into place. It would need some oiling, and the casing could do with some welding to keep the delicate gears inside from being exposed, but that should do it for functionality.
“There we go,” he rocked back on the balls of his feet and grinned toothily up at the ‘bot,” Try swinging it for me?”
With the facility’s primary doctor occupied by a gunshot wound, Miguel had little choice but to grab his medkit and suit up. He wasn’t fond of the helicopter at the best of times, and this… this was far from the best of anything. Two dead, apparently insane, Norwegians and an injured staff member? Lady Luck had turned her back on him.
Miguel’s steps were a little too heavy off the helicopter, sinking his boots deep into the snow. He let himself pause just outside of it, recollecting himself with a long breath – one he immediately regretted. The stink of the place was overwhelming. Nothing out here rotted, just as nothing out here grew, the temperatures just didn’t allow it.
This was the first time Miguel smelled death since he’d set foot on the continent.
“It’s not cold anymore for them, my friend,” said Miguel, frowning. What a waste.
He set off across the snow, pressing the back of his hand to his nose to muffle the smell; wool only accomplished so much. Only the basic infrastructure was left of their facility, a few walls clinging to life here and there, the edges charred to ruin. Only the smoke obscured their visibility. He stepped over the fallen remains of metal shelving and into the mess. There wasn’t much left to be seen. Debris everywhere, but it consisted only of ordinary equipment.
“We should try to stay together until we know what happened here,” he shot over his shoulder. Miguel was no weapon’s expert, but if the Norwegians had grenades available to them to hunt down a dog, he was wary of the potential for more. Or worse.
He made his way gingerly through the rubble, squinting through the burning bite of smoke.
A body! Miguel rushed forward, bounding between charred desks and research equipment, the first aid kit hammering his thigh as he went. There was no hope that the Norwegian was alive, he reminded himself. No need to get himself worked up.
The body was a mess. Charred to black along its left side and contorted in agony – but even worse, worst of all, was the expression. These eyes bulging from their sockets, strained and bloodshot. Mouth agape with red staining the teeth, jaw jerked to the side, clearly broken. And it stunk, far beyond what any normal human body ought to.
Miguel grimaced and shook his head at the sight,” A waste.” He dropped to one knee beside the body and gripped a handful of snow, pressing it over the Norwegian’s eyes. Frozen open as they were, he would not have been able to shut them… but he didn’t wish to see them, gazing out in horror, as he inspected the body.
The hem of the man’s sleeves were stained red. Miguel pinched the edge of the stiff cloth and peeled it up his arm. Haphazard gouges slashed up and down the flesh, some deep, to the bone. This man had wanted to die.
Miguel covered his mouth and squeezed his eyes shut. “What in God’s name happened?”