And the next segment is up! The meeting with Grizelle isn’t what Scout expected, but it’s useful all the same…
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Last week’s story fork…
1. Continue to Grizelle’s to see what Crypto had lined up.
2. Forget Grizelle’s and force Caleb to take us back to Kat’s.
The group chose #1 and here is how that played out…
The trip through the marketplace wasn’t anything like I’d expected. For that matter, the marketplace itself wasn’t either. Maybe it was because I didn’t know what to expect and so had no expectations to meet or confound in the first place.
In any case, we openly carried our rifles with Caleb trotting along ahead, clearing a path for us to follow.
The marketplace appeared to be one enormous cavern packed with narrow stalls that themselves were packed with every possible thing one could imagine. As long as the imagination was limited to things that had seen better days long ago.
One minute, we were in a narrow corridor with people shuffling by in the opposite direction, and the next we’d left the steel and structure of the bunker behind.
Caleb looked over his shoulder and noticed our surprise with a grin. “Welcome to the marketplace. It’s something, huh?”
Martinez snorted. “Something is right.”
The smooth sloping sides of the nearby cavern walls suggested it had formed through water erosion or some other natural process. The ceiling was sixty feet above and stretched out into the distance. Both where it ended and the actual height were obscured by a thick layer of smoke hugging the under surface. Small wisps of smoke rose here and there. The heavy scent of cooking and spices hung in the air.
“Stay close,” he said. “It’s easy to get lost in here. And the locals might not be so friendly without me around.”
He wasn’t kidding.
Every pair of eyes we passed regarded us with, at best, suspicion, and more frequently, open hostility.
I wasn’t too worried about it. They were shopkeepers and customers for the most part. Not the kind of people that were accustomed to dealing with trained and determined resistance. That was the soldier’s way.
We expected resistance and spent a lifetime of training to hone our response to it.
Then again, there were a lot more of them than us.
We filed down the middle of a cramped corridor with shop stalls lining each side. Each store appeared to be constructed of whatever its owner had on hand during the time of building. Fabric here, thick cardboard there, sheet metal in other places.
The shopkeepers sat or stood in the deeper recesses behind shelves filled with used clothing, carved figurines, toys assembled from the flotsam of refuse that the bunker created.
A young boy that looked like he hadn’t seen a bath in longer than was healthy or sanitary reached for a toy soldier made of bits of hardware. Bolts for the arms and legs that were articulated with universal joint sockets at the shoulders and pinned hinges at the elbows and knees. A series of variously sized nuts that tapered toward the bottom formed the torso. It carried an oversized battle rifle made of other metal bits glued or welded together.
The boy’s eyes were wide with wonder as his fingers closed around it.
His mother dressed in tattered blues noticed and smacked his hand. She pulled him away and the two disappeared in the crowd.
The shopkeeper chuckled and then caught my eyes. The smirk morphed into a scowl as we passed.
I leaned closer to Martinez. “Have you been here before?”
“Nope. Never even knew it existed. And I grew up with my mom on this level. At least until I joined the Grays and moved quarters.”
“When was that?”
“Thirteen years ago. I was nine when I passed the selection exams. Failed the first time.”
“Nine years old? Did you to have to move?”
She gave me a strange look. “You really got your brain scrambled.”
“Yes, I did. Everyone does. Being a Gray is a life commitment. You live, eat and work with the other people in your unit up on level one. I’m sure you did, too, before you got into politics. Politicos don’t live by the same rules as everybody else.”
“Why did you decide to join them?”
A man passing by bumped her shoulder and she snarled at him, sending him scurrying away. She shrugged. “I wanted to join my father and brother. They got to come home on the holidays and other times, but we didn’t see them that often. I missed them. Besides, what kind of future would I have had otherwise? Can you see making it as a Pink?”
She saw my confusion and understood without my having to say it for the hundredth time. Which was nice because it was easy to feel like an idiot when you didn’t remember things. It wasn’t that you were an idiot. It was just easy to both be perceived and feel that way.
“Pinks work on the Recreation level.”
I nodded, still not understanding.
“On their backs. They work on their backs.”
“You mean like prostitutes?”
She shook her head, pitying me. “Yeah, like that only they don’t get paid by their clients. They work for the good of the society like we all do. They get paid with a place to live and food to eat. I’ve heard they can get tips though. Word is the higher class ones serve only the top level politicos and live pretty cushy lives. Aside from all that time on their backs, that is.”
I took it all in, trying not to betray my feelings one way or the other. I felt like a stranger in a strange land.
And yet this was my home.
“Yeah, I don’t see you making it as a Pink,” I said.
She hammered a fist into my shoulder. “You don’t think I’m attractive enough?”
I shrugged off the sting. “No…”
Her eyes blazed and her nostrils flared.
“I mean, I don’t see you passively accepting a role like that. I think you’d knock out the first guy who laid a hand on you in a way you didn’t like.”
The anger dissolved and she grinned. “You’re right about that.”
We continued following after Caleb, winding through a seemingly endless maze of stalls filled with worn, reassembled and recycled goods. There must’ve been a food alley somewhere nearby because the spicy scent soaking the air had my mouth watering.
“Here we are,” Caleb said as he stopped in front of a particularly dim and dingy stall. Half as wide as the normal ones and stacked from floor to patchwork metal roof with electronics that looked like they’d been made when the concept of electronics was invented.
I sifted through the nearest pile and didn’t see anything that would be in the slightest bit useful. If I was researching a dissertation on the ancient history of electronics, then sure this place would’ve been a gold mine. But as far as having anything that would be remotely useful for the predicament I was currently in, no. Not really.
Martinez cast a raised eyebrow my way and she didn’t have to say anything to make it clear she was feeling the same way.
This little side adventure was a complete waste of time.
I tossed a rusted DAP back onto a pile of rubbish and turned to Caleb. “I don’t see the point of coming here. This is all junk.”
A voice drifted out from the deeper shadows within.
“Maybe you shouldn’t trust your eyes.”
A hunched form shuffled out of the shadows, leaning heavily on a warped cane that looked like it needed a cane of its own to stay upright.
She -an assumption of gender- had long, silver frizzy hair that had forgotten what a brush was decades ago. Her face was wrinkled to the point of exhaustion. There were wrinkles criss-crossing over the top of other wrinkles. It looked like a stack of transparent topological maps laid on top of each other so that all the lines were visible at once.
Like a map of all the ups and down of her entire life.
Her withered figure covered in thick, layered garments completely hid any identifying characteristics of body type that might’ve supported the gender assumption.
She was old.
Older than old. Ancient by human standards.
The extremes of the age spectrum circled back to each other with respect to gender distinctions. With a diaper on, a baby could easily be mistaken for either gender. The same went for the other end of the spectrum.
From birth, the body launched like a rocket toward the full blossom of peak reproductive health. It then clung to that state for an admirably long time. But eventually, as with all flowers, the fullness of the leaves and petals slowly slipped away. If a person survived the decline long enough, the physical form eventually returned to androgynous anonymity.
“You must be Grizelle,” I said.
“Oooh, we have a smart one here.” She stepped forward and ducked under the dim light hanging near the front of the stall. She brushed a bushel of hair out of her face and looked up at me. Her unseeing eyes were filled with milky white. “Are you sure you don’t see anything that looks useful?”
I sifted through the piles of junk to verify I hadn’t missed something. I hadn’t. “No. Not unless I was thinking of opening a museum of ancient relics.”
At least, I was pretty sure that’s what the jagged crack spreading across her face was.
“And he has a sense of humor to boot.”
“My sense of humor is fading rapidly.” I turned to Caleb, grinding my teeth in frustration. “Crypto didn’t seem like the type to send us on a useless expedition, but perhaps I misjudged him. Take us back to—”
“Perhaps you misjudge a great many things,” Grizelle said.
I turned back to her with growing irritation.
She spread her arms wide. “Take my humble business, for example.”
“What about it?”
I wanted to tell her that it was a junkyard that had somehow skipped the incinerator, but didn’t.
“You probably think it’s just a giant pile of junk.”
I wasn’t going to refute her.
“Am I right?”
“The thought crossed my mind.”
Martinez leaned over and whispered. “I don’t think she’s working with a full deck of cards.”
Grizelle arched a brow as she turned to face her. “And you must be the buddy. The one that tags along and probably dies at some point.” She held her hand up to the side of her mouth in an exaggerated whisper. “I’ve got news for you, honey. Nobody cares.”
Martinez’s grip tightened around her rifle.
“In any case,” Grizelle said, “this isn’t the good stuff. This is the window dressing.” She swept a pile of junk onto the floor to reveal a waist-high swinging door. She shoved it open and gestured for us to enter. “The good stuff is in the back.”
I nodded at Martinez and accepted the invitation before she could say otherwise.
“Come, come,” Grizelle said as she waved her hand in a circle.
Martinez marched in after me.
Caleb tried to slip in but the door slammed shut.
“Not you, boy.”
She shuffled past us and threw aside a tattered curtain to let us into the back.
I looked around, deflating like a balloon with a nail punched in it. If this was what she called the good stuff, she was blinder than the simple physical disability indicated.
There was nothing.
But not anything useful.
I’d expected to find a hidden cache of modern weapons or armor or the latest counter surveillance gear. Expected was too strong a word. Hoped was more accurate.
Hoped for something, at least.
But there was none of that.
We entered a small round room with a sheetmetal ceiling that arched like a dome in the middle. The puzzle of pieces looked like it had been fitted together by a child because there were holes here and there where the pieces didn’t quite fit.
I had to crouch a little to keep from banging my head.
In the middle of the cramped space was an old wooden, circular table with a pair of rickety chairs on opposite sides. A squat candle burned atop a large mound of melted and hardened red wax in the center. A stream of hot wax spilled over the rim and raced down the side and onto the table before slowing. It would soon cool, adding to the ever-growing topography. Several previous flows hung off the edge of the table like stalactites. Partnered stalagmites sprouted from the floor in several places. A few had bridged the gap and created a solid column of hardened red wax. The candle infused the air with a cinnamon scent and left blackened soot on the roof above.
And that was it. Nothing more that I could see and no place to hide anything I’d missed.
“Let’s go,” I said as I turned around.
Grizelle sat in one of the seats with a loud exhale, like maybe she’d given her all to get that far and she’d never rise again. “Go if you must. But leaving now means you will learn nothing.”
I cut the exit short and spun to face her. “What can I learn by staying?”
“Only what the candle reveals.”
I stared at the flame and noticed another scent. Below the sharp cinnamon. Her. The rotten smell of an unwashed body. It permeated the place. Like she’d become a part of the shop.
And then it hit me.
“Are you a mystic?”
She chuckled softly. “I once thought I was.”
“Were you right?”
She scowled and her lips drew back revealing a mouth missing most of its teeth. “No. I was never a mystic because I was never a charlatan. They wear wraps atop their empty heads and employ dazzlings lights and gaudy finery. All to convince simpletons that they have the gift.” She turned and stared right at me. Her blind eyes seeing straight through me like I had never felt before. “I require no such artifice. Now, sit! Or leave!”
I handed Martinez my rifle and sat down in the other seat.
And cold fear cascaded down my back.
“You are brave,” Grizelle said. “I’ll give you that. Why have you come to see me?”
“Because Crypto sent us here. I thought maybe you’d outfit us with some weapons or gear or something. Something useful.”
She stared off to the side. “And now that you know I have nothing like that to offer? Why are you still here?”
“Because I want to know.”
I swallowed. Revealing my memory loss wasn’t something I wanted to do. It was like playing poker and explaining one of your tells to an opponent. It was a voluntary admission of weakness. And anything this woman learned would presumably find its way to Crypto’s ear shortly after.
But the draw of discovery was too great to ignore.
“I want to know things that I currently don’t.”
She snorted. “You’re starting to sound like a mystic.” She turned her head and seemed to stare at something on the ceiling or beyond. “But what if you don’t like what you discover? What if it’s better not to know?”
“From where I’m sitting, knowing is better no matter what.”
After a long moment, she nodded. “Okay. The girl must wait outside.”
“I’m not going any—” Martinez said.
“Martinez, please.” I said. “It won’t be long.”
She blew out an annoyed breath. “Fine. But check your pockets when you’re done.” She brushed the curtain aside and returned to the front of the store.
Grizelle extended her hands across the table. “Give me your hands.”
I did as instructed, reaching across the small table so she wouldn’t have to meet me halfway.
Her skeletal fingers wrapped around my wrists and turned my palms up. She settled her icy palms onto mine. “Now look into the flame. Don’t try to see anything. Don’t project into it. Just be. Just observe the flickering light.”
The previously still flame began to dance and twist back and forth.
“Hold it. And now breathe out.”
“When thoughts arise, acknowledge them and then release them. Let your mind drift. Letting go, while continuing to breathe, in and out.”
The connection between our palms began to warm.
“Watch the flame. Let it surround you. Become you. Breathe in the warmth. Let it fill you.”
She led and I followed, deeper into the light.
Warmth, growing into heat.
Surrounding and penetrating.
The flame became me, or I it.
From far away, a voice whispered. “What does it say?”
I dropped the single sheet of paper that was the daily threat report and pushed back from the desk.
Over the past several weeks, they had become carbon copies with wording that rarely changed.
Imminent threat. Recommend martial law. And then all of the suspicions and justifications to enforce a crack down on the bunker.
And it went without saying that the heavy stick wouldn’t land evenly across all the levels. No, the lower levels would feel the brunt of it. Of that, I had no doubt.
General Curtis had become a rabid dog straining to break the leash and sink his fangs into the enemy. As much as I’d tried to make him see the folly of such an approach, it was no use. He was a hammer and all he understand was how to pound a nail.
He was a problem.
One I hadn’t come up with a solution for.
And we were running out of time.
Speaking of the general, I glanced at the clock on the far wall of the Oval Office. He was nearly ten minutes late and he was never late to anything.
As much as we found ourselves on opposite sides of the table lately, I respected his dedication to the security of the bunker. Hard-nosed, unforgiving men like him were a necessity in troubling times. In all times, but especially in the troubled ones.
I tapped the intercom on the desk to page my secretary.
“Yes, Mr. President?”
“Have you heard anything from General Curtis? He was supposed to be here ten minutes ago.”
A brief pause.
“I’m sorry, but we haven’t received any communications about the delay.”
I gritted my teeth but made certain not to take my frustration out on the wrong target. “Let me know when you hear something.”
I clicked off the intercom, interrupting the courteous reply mid-sentence.
Was this some kind of power play? A response to our last argument? That one that ended with us shouting and coming close to blows.
He just didn’t understand. Force and violence were not going to solve the social unrest. It would only add to it, accelerate it. It would be throwing gasoline on a fire, while thinking that it was the best way to extinguish it.
Only meaningful reform would diffuse the ticking bomb.
But getting others in the ruling elite to understand that was proving to be a monumentally difficult task. They’d grown so insular and blind to the suffering of the levels below, it was almost like they were incapable of understanding it.
In some ways, I couldn’t blame them.
They hadn’t seen what I’d seen.
They hadn’t survived what I’d survived.
Shouting outside and then the door burst open.
Special Agent Barrow charged in with my secretary trailing behind. “Mr. President! You’re not supposed to be here!”
Something had him on edge.
I circled around the desk and he grabbed my wrist and tried to pull me away. I smoothly shifted the angle to break the lock. “What’s wrong with you?”
“We don’t have time, Sir! I have to get you out of here!”
I folded my arms across my chest. I wasn’t about to be dragged anywhere. “What are you talking about?”
His eyes were wild, like a trapped rat deciding whether to chew its leg off to escape or wait to be squashed under a boot when the exterminator arrived. He glanced at the clock on the wall. “You’re supposed to be meeting with Crypto right now!”
How did Barrow know about that?
No one was supposed to know about that.
“I decided not to go.”
“There are bombs about to go off, Sir!”
“What? Where?!” I grabbed his shoulders and shook him hard. “Where?!”
“Here! In the White House!”
“Get everyone out! Now!”
He stood there staring at me in a daze.
I shook him again, so hard his head jiggled.
“Move out! Now!” I spun him around and shoved him toward the door.
He disappeared and voices erupted outside as word spread and the chaos of immediate evacuation ensued.
I circled behind my desk to gather up a few critical documents. Documents with information that no one outside the Executive Committee knew about. And it had to stay that way, no matter what.
I finished fishing them out of a secret desk drawer and shoved them into a folder. A last look around and I was about to join the evacuation when I saw the framed drawing on the desktop.
The one Hannah had done for me so long ago. A picture in crayon of the two of us. I couldn’t leave it. I grabbed it and turned—
The first bomb went off, lifting me into the air and throwing me against the wall. My head whipped to the side and bounced off.
My cheek on the carpet. Blood oozing out of my mouth and ear.
The frame bent and glass shattered. I dusted off the pieces and touched the stick figure girl.
Another bomb exploded and the lights blinked off.
My ears rang and a searing agony lanced through the center of my brain.
Several more bombs went off and everything went dark.
I sucked in a quick breath and yanked my hands back. My palms burned like they’d been roasting inches over an open fire.
How did Barrow know about the meeting with Crypto? And the bombs?
He must’ve been working for Crypto. A man of divided loyalties, at the very least.
The old crone left her hands flat on the table. The candle had sputtered out. The flame now a wisp of rising smoke that would add to the layers of soot on the ceiling above.
“Saw something, didn’t you?” she said.
I was still reeling from the memory, trying to piece together what it meant.
A booming voice vibrated in the air. A loudspeaker turned up so high that it was painful.
“This is General Curtis. There are two fugitives hiding in this marketplace. They are known terrorists and will face justice. Either bring them to me or we will burn this entire place to the ground!”
Automatic rifle fire echoed through the cavern.
“Anyone trying to escape will be shot. Bring the fugitives to me! You have five minutes or you will all die!”
1. Surrender to save everyone else.
2. Stay hidden and let the situation play out.
3. Go on the attack and hope for the best.
What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!