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Last week’s story fork…
1. Take the gun and use it to get out of there.
2. Tell him to keep the gun and I’ll help him in the fight.
The group chose #2 and here is how that played out…
I touched the wrap covering the drain tube and my patchwork shaved hair. It must’ve looked ridiculous. And the fact that I hadn’t anticipated him asking about it was yet another sign that I still wasn’t mentally sharp.
And now he was peering at me with suspicion, waiting for an answer.
For half a second, I considered lying. But the second half of that second reminded me that this guy controlled this level or some section of it for a reason. No one got into a position like his by being stupid. Or by being overly trusting or gullible.
He would know the lie the second it slithered out of my mouth.
So it had to be the truth.
But the truth existed on a spectrum because it derived from life and life was a continuous brush stroke from the purest white on one end to the deepest black on the other.
The truth lived in the grays. The ones that mattered did, anyway.
I watched him as he watched me. We both knew what had just happened.
The opening round of the game.
We each knew our our own cards, but not the cards of the other. The truth of the cards would come out sooner or later as each was laid on the table.
But the sequence and timing of the revelations would determine who walked away the winner.
So it had to be a partial truth.
The smallest viable truth to begin the betting and bluffing.
Martinez watched me in silence. She was obviously wondering which direction I’d choose to go.
I found the end of the wrap and slowly, carefully, unwound its length and let it drop to the floor.
“Wow!” Crypto shouted. “And people say I’m a freak!”
I bowed theatrically to give him a better view of the drain tube and stitched wounds, aiming to engender a sense of companionship between us.
He swung his legs down and let his feet dangle from the edge of the chair. “What did those monsters do to you?”
His voice had softened. There was empathy behind the question.
Already, the first card played was paying dividends.
“I had an injury,” I said.
He waited but I didn’t offer more.
“And how did you sustain said injury?”
“Lost my balance and cracked my head on the edge of a desk.” I wasn’t positive that was true, but it definitely could’ve been.
He stared at the drain tube sticking out. “And what’s that pipe sticking out of your head supposed to do?”
“It drains fluid to prevent any pressure building inside my skull.”
“You have a hole going through your skull?”
“Have you ever heard of Mary Shelley?”
He jumped up onto the seat and raised his hands in the air as if he were a god calling down the storm. “A writer from a long time ago. She wrote a literary masterpiece called Frankenstein.”
He waited for me to agree.
I’d never heard of Frankenstein or Mary Shelly. Or at least, couldn’t remember if I had.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
His eyes widened in surprise, feigned or otherwise, I couldn’t tell. “It has everything to do with everything!” He laughed maniacally and, for the first time in our short introduction, I began to wonder if he was all there. The cackling laugh cut short and he pointed at me with an accusatory finger. “Are you the monster?”
He was making no sense. Not to me anyway. I glanced at Martinez and her expression made clear she was wondering about Crypto’s sanity as much as I was.
“Am I the monster? What are you talking about?”
The maniacal laugh again. Again abruptly cut short. “You have to admit. It was a reasonable question. I mean, look at you. You don’t have bolts sticking out of your neck, but you are quite the horror.”
“I didn’t come here to be insulted or to amuse you.”
He frowned. “I’m sorry. I know all too well the feeling of being the object of another’s misplaced amusement. You could say it’s been my life’s story.”
“What did you mean when you said the coming war?”
His eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Damn. I’d unknowingly laid a second card on the table.
“No one reads the classics anymore,” he said. “No one reads much at all, if we’re being honest. And we’re being honest, aren’t we?”
He stared and waited.
The bluffing game.
A wait to see if the silence draws one of the players into making a mistake.
He finally continued. “I appreciate your candor and show of trust. I’m not against lying on principle, especially when it adds a bit of flavor to a story. Had you said you’d created a new fashion trend and it was becoming all the rage, I would’ve, of course, known it was a lie. But I would’ve approved all the same.”
“I’m not big on making up stories.”
“Indeed. Even a blind man could see that you are the no nonsense type. And as your friend, I see much more.”
“So we’re friends now?”
“I hope so. Because we’re either friends or enemies. There’s no room for middle ground in between.”
I stuck with a simple, open-ended question in the hopes that it would prompt him into a more comprehensive explanation.
“Because when war comes, the only thing left in the middle are the victims. The people on either side are soldiers of their respective causes. Their deaths are meaningful and a necessary contribution to the cause. But the sad people in the middle. The victims. They are too often ravaged by both sides and lose no matter the final outcome. But you are no victim.”
“Is there a reason you’re forcing me to listen to a treatise on the cruelty of war?”
“I’m not forcing you to do anything. You may leave at any time,” he said as he gestured toward the entrance.
I wasn’t going anywhere.
I was finally in a position to get some information. Leaving was the last thing on my mind.
Strangling this meandering fool, on the other hand, was rapidly climbing the list of my priorities.
“Why do you think war is coming?”
I’d already laid the card on the table. There was no sense letting it go to waste.
“Because this bunker is a powder keg about to explode. One spark and the whole thing goes up in flames.” He reached low with both hands cupped together.
“Pkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk,” he said as he lifted them wide into the air, like a bomb going off.
That wasn’t as detailed of an answer as I would’ve liked. But it was a start.
“What’s the spark?” I asked.
The maniacal laugh again. This one went on twice as long as the others.
How did he get so much air into such small lungs?
The laugh ended just as abruptly as before and he pointed at me like lightning was going to shoot out of his finger tip.
He was sounding crazier and crazier by the minute.
Martinez groaned as she turned to me. “Would you mind if I kick this little dwarf in the stomach? The sound of him wheezing for breath would be so much better.”
“Little dwarf?” Crypto said. “That’s all you’ve got? I’m not even insulted at your insult. I’m insulted by your lack of creativity!”
Martinez took a step forward and the enormous meathook of a hand clamped down on her shoulder, dragging her back into place.
Crypto waved the guy off before it turned into anything more.
I glared at her to keep her mouth shut and it looked like she got the message. Then again, it looked like that a minute ago, too.
“Why are you here?” Crypto asked.
“Didn’t we cover this? You asked me to come. I’m on your turf so thought it would be respectful to oblige.”
He rolled his eyes. “Remind me to play poker with you someday because you’re a terrible liar. And that was a boring lie. I am not entertained.”
Stupid. I’d strayed too far from the truth. He knew I didn’t give a damn about showing him any respect.
“And anyway, that wasn’t what I meant. I meant, why are you not with the other overlords in the upper levels?”
“You already know that. General Curtis has labeled me a dangerous fugitive and has soldiers out searching for me. We figured escaping to this level was the best move to buy time.”
“A reasonable course of action. What any logical person would do.”
“What are you getting at?”
“I’m trying to help you understand what’s happened.”
I waited, letting the silence fill the space between us.
“You’ve been played, Scout.”
I’d been surviving by quick-thinking coupled with an admittedly helpful serving of good luck. I knew how I’d gotten this far. I didn’t need some enigmatic, potentially insane, criminal under-lord to spell it out for me.
“You doubt me?” he asked.
“I doubt everything. It’s an occupational best practice.”
He chuckled. “I like you, Scout. I really hope I don’t have to kill you.”
“Threatening someone’s life is not a good way to make friends.”
He threw up his hands. “What can I say? While I’m a dreamer, a romantic, at heart, I work in a practical world that doesn’t often reflect my naturally delicate sense.”
I was beginning to understand why people called him Crypto. Everything he said could either have no meaning or several meanings at once. Cryptic didn’t come close to covering it. Getting him to answer in a simple and straightforward manner was going to be the true test in the game.
“Let’s not dwell on unpleasant possibilities. I apologize for bringing it up.”
“You’re sorry for threatening to kill me?”
“I didn’t threaten you!” he roared and the bush clinging to his head swayed as his head shook with rage. He wiped his face and smoothed invisible wrinkles in his black uniform. “I merely reflected on an undesired outcome.”
Was I going to feel bad when I put my fist through this maniac’s face? I mean, was it fair to beat the blood out of someone so much smaller than me?
“Anyway, I see that you’ve missed the forest for the trees,” he said. “I thought you were smarter than this.”
I could get over the guilt. A single blow to the temple should satisfy my need to hurt him while hopefully not causing permanent damage to his torqued spine or neck.
“Let me put it in simple terms,” he said. “You’re here because General Curtis wants you here. Whatever you think you did to get here happened because he wanted it to happen.”
The room shifted under my feet.
A dizzy spell that I fought to keep under control. I couldn’t show weakness now. Whatever value he saw in me as an ally wasn’t going to survive my crashing to the floor or, worse, admitting how I couldn’t remember anything.
“Why would he want me here?”
“Because you are an enemy of the state and must be hunted down for the safety of every citizen in the bunker.”
“Why does that help him?”
Crypto stared at me with suspicious eyes.
I probably should’ve understood that part already, but I didn’t.
“Because now he has a reason to step on our throats for as long and as hard as he wants. A reason that everyone, even those in the middle that will inevitably be innocent victims, will agree with and support.”
“Why am I an enemy of the state?”
The cards were starting to spill out of my hand and onto the table. I no longer cared. The truth was within reach.
Something I needed to know.
No matter the cost.
“Because the network says that you are a terrorist. That you bombed the White House.”
The room wobbled off axis again. It was all I could do to keep still.
Crypto shrugged. “I didn’t say I believed it. But I’m sure most will. After all, why would the network lie to us? It reports the news. Impartial. Unbiased. Objective narration of the important events of the day. All to inform and educate the grateful citizenry.”
He broke into another spell of surprisingly long-winded laughter. Tears streamed down his cheeks by the time he finally stopped. He huffed in air until he caught his breath. “That’s the story, anyway.”
“I’m not a terrorist. And I didn’t blow up anything.”
Crypto fished a black handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face dry. When he finished folding and putting it away, he looked up.
“Are you certain of that?”
I was as certain of that as I was of anything, considering my condition. Which was to say that it didn’t feel like anything I could possibly do, but I wasn’t one-hundred percent absolutely positive that I hadn’t done it.
That level of certainty wasn’t possible until I could remember more.
I ignored the accusation for the moment. The cards were coming out quickly now and I wanted to see all of his hand. “Why does Curtis want to launch an attack down here?”
Crypto stood in the chair. He closed his eyes and began swaying back and forth, moving his hands like he was leading an imaginary orchestra. Maybe he was. It went on so long I began to wonder if he’d forgotten we were there.
“Crypto!” I shouted.
His eyes shot open in surprise. He may have actually forgotten we were there.
“Why does General Curtis want to attack this level?”
“Why does one man ever attack another man?”
I could think of quite a few reasons.
“Yes, you’re scrolling through a list of typically adequate reasons. But they all boil down to one and only one thing. A simple thing.”
“One has something the other wants. Be it gold, or water, or oil, or food, or a woman, or a man, or a piece of land. One man covets what another man has and he decides to take it, if he is able.”
“What does General Curtis want from the people down here?”
“He wants what he already has, but is becoming increasingly difficult to retain.”
“Which is?” the edge in my voice grew harder every time I had to prompt this idiot to get to the point.
“Well, not mine personally. Not by itself. But you’d better believe it’s at the top of the wish list. He wants the lower class on the lower levels to continue our subservience to him and his kind. He simply wants to continue the status quo.”
“Is the status quo changing?”
His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Are you toying with me? I know this is a grand game, but I don’t like to be toyed with.”
I could tell him about the memory loss. A part of me wanted to. But the much smarter and larger part knew that was an unnecessary and foolish gambit. “I have my own opinion on what’s happening.”
That was true. The opinion being that this was all news to me.
“But I don’t live down here and I’d like to get the perspective of someone like yourself who knows everything that happens on the lower levels.”
That last part was a guess.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “And it’s smart of you to ask.”
A good guess, then. He controlled more than just this level.
“The folks who spend their lives in the upper levels have no clue what happens down here. We are simply part of the machine that keeps everything going. Gears that make their comfortable lives possible. But that is a dynamic that has never withstood the test of time. A thriving middle class is the guardian of a civilization’s future. And that is something we no longer have. They eat real meat that the Greens raise for them while the Greens themselves eat watered down porridge. Many on this level subsist on watery gruel and a weekly ration of textured soy that isn’t enough for a single meal. The Lowsiders are getting ground under the heel of the Upsiders. The more we give, the more they take.”
“You there we’re heading for a rebellion?”
“I don’t think. I know.”
“How do you know?”
“Because, one, history proves it to be inevitable. When a society develops a divergent class structure, there comes a point on the path where the growing disparity becomes untenable. And, two, because it is my fondest desire to see General Curtis and those like him brought to their knees. You see, it makes it easier for me to look them in the eye, then.” He started laughing again, absolutely unhinged madness.
I stood there in stunned silence.
I wanted information. I wanted to know what was going on.
But now that I knew, I wasn’t sure I was any better off for it. And then it hit me. His certainty of coming war. His absolute conviction.
“Crypto!” I shouted. I yelled a few more times before he finally heard and listened.
“What have you done? What have you done?”
His eyes blazed with light. He jumped off the chair and landed in a roll and then back up to his feet and walking in one smooth motion. He marched over and stopped in front of me. He craned his neck to look up. “I’ve prepared for the inevitable. That’s all.”
He snapped his fingers and one of the brutes circled around me and got on all fours like a dog on the ground. Crypto climbed up his leg until he was standing on his broad back like a small table. “Better,” he said now that we were closer to eye level.
He reached down and grabbed the strap of the submachine gun and pulled it up. His makeshift table lifted an arm to free the strap and then returned to all fours.
Crypto checked that the safety was off and pointed the weapon at my chest.
Martinez growled but I held her back with one arm.
“My question to you, Scout, is a simple one.” He turned the submachine gun around and held it out, both hands holding the barrel and trembling from the weight.
Or from the fear?
“Who’s side do you choose? You’re not the type to land in the middle. So, will you stand with us, the oppressed? Or will you stand with them, the oppressors?”
His argument seemed compelling. Then again, he sounded absolutely insane.
1. Take the gun and use it to get out of there.
2. Tell him to keep the gun and I’ll help him in the fight.
What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!