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Happy reading!

Will

Last week’s story fork…

CHOICES:

1. Go on the attack. Press the advantage. It is better to act than to react.

2. Try to talk to him. He’s my brother. Maybe it doesn’t need to turn into bloodshed.

3. Claim that I am Skain and the real Skain is me trying to free Martinez. (Added by the group!)

The group chose #3 and here is how that played out…

 

Chapter 52

The other me grinned wickedly, as if knowing and wanting this to go one and only one way. He nodded toward Crypto. “Is this him?”

Is this him?

That wasn’t the question I wasn’t expecting. Not that I was expecting any kind of question. A demand seemed more likely. Or perhaps skipping the verbals completely and moving straight into violent action.

To find out who could put a bullet into the other first.

I kept the rifle by my side, muzzle to the floor.

For now.

His hand rested on the grip of the pistol holstered at his hip.

Who would be faster?

My weapon was free, but it was more cumbersome. That and I could already feel the synthetic adrenaline draining away, leaving behind a heavy lethargy. A numbing disconnection.

All the weighted factors came together with clarity. The deep intuition of knowing when a choice wouldn’t turn out well. This was one of those.

I would not win this gun fight.

I glanced at the Watch Sergeant and noticed his confusion as he looked back and forth between us.

Back in the corridor, he’d already accepted that I was Skain. It had become an accepted piece of his reality. To now have that turned upside down had him on unsure footing.

And that was the answer.

I pointed at Skain with my free hand. “Place this man under arrest, Sergeant!”

The two other soldiers sitting behind the desk didn’t say a word. They clearly didn’t want to get involved, especially when a superior was there to take charge and face the repercussions of making the wrong choice.

Skain’s brows bunched together. “What?”

I jabbed my finger in his direction. “Do it, Sergeant! Now! He’s impersonating me and has come to break out Corporal Martinez.”

The sergeant still looked unsure, though I saw his hand moving toward the pistol at his hip as he watched Skain.

“What are you doing?” Skain asked me, genuine confusion now contorting his face.

“I’m stopping you. That’s what!” I looked to the sergeant and bellowed an order. “Now, Sergeant!”

The bark of command stiffened his spine. He was a soldier and had long grown used to the chain of command and his place in it. His hand wrapped around the pistol as he circled around the desk toward Skain.

“Stand down, Sergeant!” Skain shouted, his threatening tone of imperious command equaling my own.

The sergeant stuttered to a stop. His body trembled, as if caught between two magnetic forces tugging him in opposite directions.

A wave of weakness washed over me and my knees nearly buckled. I locked them straight to stay upright.

Crypto cleared his throat while raising his bound hands. “Um, I can’t help but notice that I’m the only one without a gun here. Call me a stickler for equality, but that doesn’t that seem fair.”

“Quiet, prisoner!” I told him, doing my best to play up the role. “Look Sergeant, I’ve captured and brought the infamous Crypto in to face justice.” I motioned toward Skain. “And Scout here has come to attempt to free Corporal Martinez.”

Skain’s eyes brightened with malignant glee as he stared at Crypto. “So it is him.”

“Scout, I’m going to need you to move your hand away from your weapon,” the Sergeant said, his pistol now drawn and pointing at Skain.

The muscles in Skain’s jaw flickered under tight skin. “This is your last warning, Sergeant. I am Skain and I order you to stand down.”

The sergeant’s pistol wavered in the air, the external manifestation of his internal doubt.

Another wave of debilitating weakness overcame me. Like a suffocating blanket. The exertion from climbing to this level and escaping the smoke had burned through the added energy. And yet, below the weary exhaustion thrummed a nervous tension.

The surreal feeling of starting a new day after staying up all night. The brain and body ready to shut down but also following the ingrained program and trying to go forward.

The conflict. The confusion. The numbing weight mixed with a brittle, faltering drive to keep going.

The Watch Sergeant continued toward Skain with the gun pointing at his chest.

I dug into my pocket and found the two remaining pills. Swallowed them before anyone noticed.

In a flash, Skain’s pistol was drawn and aimed at the sergeant. “Lower your weapon, Sergeant! Or I will shoot you!”

The sergeant froze, weapon still held high.

The two soldiers behind the desk jumped up and drew their pistols on Skain.

Skain scowled with rage. The white knuckle of his curled trigger quivered.

Crypto laughed maniacally. “Wow! This is crazy. Am I the only one that didn’t see this coming?” The cackling laughter subsided. “Would anyone mind if I scooted over to the side there? If everyone starts blasting away at each other, I’d prefer not to be caught in the crossfire.”

“Shut up!” I said, and meant it. Things were balanced on a knife edge and Crypto’s general instability could send it tumbling down.

“General Curtis is going to have all your heads,” Skain said. “I’ll give you three seconds to comply, Sergeant. Three.” He stared with cold hard eyes at the Watch Sergeant. “Two.” His upper lip curled into a sneer. “One.”

“Wait a second!” The Watch Sergeant shouted as he held up both hands, the pistol now aimed at the ceiling. “Nobody has to die here. We can figure this out.” He looked between Skain and I. “First, I’ll need you both to surrender your weapons.”

I had no intention of doing that, until I felt the hard metal of a muzzle tapping the side of my head. One of the watch soldiers had snuck around the other side of the desk and I hadn’t seen her coming. I should’ve.

But I didn’t.

It was all I could do to remain standing. Peak tactical awareness wasn’t remotely feasible.

“Give me the rifle, Sir.”

The Watch Sergeant’s small mouth twisted into a scowl. “Surrender the weapon or I will order her to shoot you.”

“Okay. Easy now,” I said as I handed it over, biting off and stowing the self-reproach for the moment.

“Your turn,” the Watch Sergeant said to Skain.

“I’ll expect this back in the very near future,” he said as flipped the pistol around and handed it over.

The sergeant tucked it into his belt. He held out the free hand and spoke over his shoulder. “Corporal Hook, bring me a DAP.”

The other soldier grabbed one off the counter and hustled over. He dropped it in the his superior’s hand before beating a quick retreat.

The sergeant turned toward me with the DAP held out. “I’m going to need you to log in to your personal account.”

Oh no.

Not good.

Everyone knew identical twins had different fingerprints because the patterns are not solely determined by the shared genes. Numerous environmental factors such as blood pressure, physical positioning and nutrition also play a part.

And that meant this charade was coming to a close.

I walked over, my brain whirring through possibilities. Trying to find the one that would succeed.

Either I wasn’t thinking creatively enough or there weren’t enough steps to afford sufficient time to consider. Whichever the case, I arrived next to the Watch Sergeant and hadn’t come up with anything.

He flicked the screen on. “Place your thumb on the screen.”

I wasn’t going to do that. There would be no point. But I still hadn’t come up with anything. So, I went with the next best thing to a well-considered course of action.

An ill-considered one.

Maybe not exactly the next best thing. But it was something.

And something was all I had to offer just then.

I sprang at Skain. Reaching for his head, with every intention of ripping it off.

 

Chapter 53

Unfortunately, I didn’t see the fist heading toward my temple until it was too late.

I tried to slip to the side, out of the path of a lightning fast right cross. It blurred more than it swung. It went from point A to point B directly, skipping the wasted motion between.

I managed to turn my head, a little, so it hammered into my skull behind my ear instead of directly on the temple.

Not that the outcome was any better.

His strike landed like a sledgehammer.

A bright light flashed in my vision.

The next thing I knew I was on my back on the ground with Skain on top of me, two big hands twisted into my shirt, shaking me violently.

His eyes burned with rage. Spit flecked from his lips as he shouted. “What’s wrong with you, brother?

I fired a punch up at him, but he batted it away and slammed my head on the concrete floor.

White flashes popped in and out of my vision. My body felt far away. I didn’t miss it. It was simply a thing I used to own but no longer needed.

“We’ve got ourselves a proper fight, ladies and gentleman!”

Crypto. Who else?

“I’ll put fifty credits on Skain Number Two! Anyone take the bet?”

Skain Number Two?

Wasn’t that my brother? As in not me?

Was he betting I was going to lose?

“Brother, we are on the same side here,” Skain said as he held me pinned down. “You’ve brought him to us, just as you said you would.”

His words reached me. My body pulled me closer, dragging me back with a buzzing energy.

When did I say that?

“What do you mean?” I asked. The words came out hoarse and stuttering.

“This was your plan, brother. General Curtis and I were with you from the beginning. It was brilliant. To become a fugitive. To make contact with the criminal under lord known as Crypto. To gain his trust and to eventually bring him in. You’ve succeeded, brother. Once again.”

Despite his equal size and strength and appearance, I saw the adoration in his eyes. The look a younger sibling has for the older.

I saw the truth of the words in his eyes.

“Lies,” I said.

Our eyes locked, his gaze hard and heavy. “You know it’s the truth.”

What I knew was that the hollow emptiness in my core once again burned with feverish intensity. The final two pills having stoked a smoldering fire and brought it raging back to life.

And I also knew that his words gave my building anger more fuel. A rage that required expression.

I shot out a looping hammer fist that he managed to partially block as it landed.

But it still landed. And hard.

His head snapped to the side and he tumbled over.

I rolled over on top of him and came down with an elbow, aiming to drive his head through the floor.

He covered up and parried away.

A few more elbows, but none broke through.

I roared like a wild beast, a predator in the throes of the hunt. Of the kill.

Hot blood surged through my limbs. Like fire. Like lava. Air entered my lungs in great billowing gasps that made my body crackle with energy.

With power.

It was intoxicating.

And distracting.

I paid for that instant of inattention.

A knife hand chop shot up at my throat and I only just tucked my chin before the glancing blow sent me into a spasm of coughing.

Skain bucked and shoved with both hands and I flew off and rolled across the floor.

We were both on our feet and circling an instant later.

His eyes gleamed. His nostrils flared as he sucked in oxygen. Two huge hands held out in front, a wrestler’s stance ready to go high, go low, go wherever was needed to win.

I realized with a start that I mirrored the posture.

And the anticipation.

We’d done this before. Many times. Though perhaps this time had a deadly edge not present in the past.

Skain’s legs tensed as he launched himself at me.

I did the same, with equal speed and fury.

We crashed together like two boulders. Both hitting and getting hit. Opposing and implacable forces. And both refusing to back down.

Hands grappled for position. Straining shoulders and biceps. Sculpted backs tight with contraction, exerting pressure and resisting it.

Our heads nearly touching. Our eyes connected through an invisible cord stronger than the thickest bone. A searing intensity that demanded the other’s submission, and yet longed for defiance.

A surge of power with whiplash force exploded in my chest. The sensation so intense my breathing stuttered.

The pills.

The last two that Tanaka said would were three too many.

Skain flashed a jab, but I batted it away with ease. He drove forward locking his hands around my torso.

I dug in the double under hooks and dropped low to spread my base.

He let go only to drop lower and regain the hold. He lifted and arched backward while turning at the same time.

I went along for the ride. Because there was no way not to.

The move concluded with the expected outcome.

He slammed me to the floor and drove down into my gut with his inside shoulder.

The move ended as physics demanded, but the result still came as a surprise.

I should’ve been stunned, out of breath, weakened for an instant. But I shrugged off the thunderous impact like a trifle, pulling him down and spinning to the side at the same time.

I landed on top and even before I’d established position, I hammered down an elbow at where his face would soon be.

It arrived as expected, just as the blow did.

The hard corner of my elbow smashed into his cheek, splitting the skin wide open. Crimson red poured out like a garden hose. Pale yellow bone shone through.

But that didn’t faze him.

A blow that would’ve killed most men did little more than earn a brief hitch in his rebuttal.

But I was ready this time.

I parried the upcoming fingers, rigid and straight and spearing for my throat.

A parry can be more than a simple defensive move. It can be the beginning of the next attack.

Already behind his guard, I smashed another elbow into his face. This one bouncing his head off the unforgiving concrete.

I postured up and I dropped a bomb that smashed through his flailing defenses.

Lit gasoline scorched through my veins as I rained down blows.

Left.

Right.

Left.

Right.

A reciprocating machine of devastating effect.

I didn’t stop.

I should’ve. But I didn’t.

His face was a pulp of torn flesh and gushing blood.

I didn’t stop until a lightning bolt hit me in the chest. A devastating shock that arced through my limbs, fingers and toes.

I jolted over and fell to the ground next to him.

I lay on the floor, paralyzed, clutching my chest, staring up at the ceiling. An invisible vice squeezed my chest. So tight I knew the ribs would soon splinter.

“Drop your weapons!”

Muscles still locked up, I glanced over and saw Crypto holding my rifle, pointing it at the Watch Sergeant and his two subordinates. The weapon looked almost comical in his hands. But he moved it with an easy grace.

“Do it or now or you die!”

All three soldiers laid their guns on the floor.

Air seeped into my chest, a quick shallow breath, easing the crushing force, a little.

Crypto retrieved the sergeant’s pistol and walked over, standing above me with a look of pain and anger twisting his face. “So this was all a ruse?” He shook his head. “We were partners. I trusted you. My mistake.”

The muzzle of the rifle left the soldiers and rotated over to my forehead. The cold metal ring pressed into my skin, burning like a brand.

Crypto’s colder eyes, unblinking as he prepared to fire.

Then, they blinked.

“I should kill you.” He pulled the rifle up and back to covering the soldiers and set the pistol on my chest. “But I won’t. You saved my life. I have now given you yours. Consider the debt paid.”

He moved toward the exit to the rest of the Security level, and then paused at the threshold. Without looking back, he spoke. “We could’ve been a good team.” He shook his head slightly. The barest acknowledgement of my betrayal.

“Goodbye, Scout.”

 

Chapter 54

The Watch Sergeant’s eyes opened wide with the slow pace of his dawning reckoning. That I was Scout. That I was a wanted fugitive. But that maybe that was the plan all along. Which meant what? His decision-making finally reached critical mass and he pointed at me. “Arrest him!”

His subordinates didn’t move.

That was because I had the pistol covering all three as I struggled to my feet.

The pressure in my chest had lessened the tiniest fraction. Just enough to sip air as if through a miles long straw.

I pushed up, my back scraping against the wall.

Was that a heart attack?

My chest hurt and it was a battle just to breathe. But battle I would. I pointed the gun at the sergeant. “Grab their weapons.”

He looked confused. “Why?”

“Do what I say and you’ll live longer.”

He snatched the guns off the counter.

I kept the pistol leveled at his chest. “Don’t try anything stupid.” I fanned the pistol toward the corridor leading to the cell block. “Take me to Martinez.”

I didn’t care if what Skain had said was true or not. I’d come for Martinez and that hadn’t changed. I

“You won’t get away with this,” he said.

“Walk,” I said as I lumbered over and jabbed the barrel into his back.

He led us down the hallway, passed the cell where this all began, and kept going. All the way to the end of the block.

We stopped at the thick plexiglass front.

My heart squeezed tighter, a sinking sadness in the pit of my stomach.

Martinez was strapped to a gurney. Black bands restraining her at the ankles, the thighs, the waist, the chest, the neck, the biceps, the wrists. Completely immobilized. Unable to fight back against the barbarous torture.

Her upper half bare and beaten. Dark purple bruises wrapped around her ribs like dappled cloth. Her head limp to the side. One eye swollen shut. Lumpy bruising disfiguring her face.

And the lines.

The criss-crossing lines.

Like pen strokes crossing off tasks on a to do list.

Cuts from a fine blade. Hundreds of them.

Like the hatched strokes of an artist. One who had skill and enthusiasm for the work.

“Open it,” I said.

He thought for a second of refusing, but then wisely complied.

I shoved him inside and to the back corner. “Sit!”

He sat.

“Stay!”

He nodded.

My chest trembled. From rage, or anguish. From both and more as I took in the extent of her brutal treatment.

What we do to one other.

For real or imagined gain. For being on the wrong side of another’s right. For a system where cruelty becomes the norm.

For whatever reason justification requires.

The ensuing horror. The evil that lurks in the shadowed corners of our souls. The fall from our better selves.

I set the pistol on the gurney and then leaned on it for support like a feeble old man. I circled around and gently touched her misshapen cheek. Her lips split open and open mouth revealing the jagged edge of a cracked tooth.

There are people that deserved such treatment. But she was not one of them.

I began to undo the straps, one at a time, my heart breaking for this woman who had become my friend. My protector. And here she lay having given everything.

She stirred.

A groan.

I undid the last strap and circled around to her head.

One bloodshot eye fluttered and found me. “Scout?”

“Yes. I’m here. I’m so sorry they did this to you. I’m going to get you out of here.”

The single eye glistened with a wet sheen. A tear leaked out of the corner and pooled in the hollow there.

“Can you sit up?” I asked.

The slightest nod.

I ripped my shirt off, buttons bouncing across the floor, and laid it over her. Then carefully helped her up.

Facing each other, eyes connecting. Both of mine to the one of hers.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “This is my fault.”

The extent to which she didn’t yet know. And I didn’t want her to ever discover.

She shook her head and groaned. “No,” she replied in a whisper. “My choice. Mine.”

I wouldn’t have thought it possible for my chest to squeeze any tighter, but it did.

“Let’s get you out of here,” I said.

One corner of her broken mouth curled upward. She looked to the side, behind me.

“Well, what do we have here?”

A voice I recognized. A man that deserved to die. Or worse, deserved to live and be treated like Martinez had.

The unmistakable click of a safety being released.

“Move slow if you want to live.”

I caught Martinez’s eye and glanced down at the side of the table while raising my hands.

Her gaze didn’t move, didn’t flinch in the slightest, but I knew she understood.

“Easy now!”

I turned slowly around.

General Curtis stood there with a pistol pointed at my chest, a satisfied smile squatting on his broad face.

“You didn’t have to do that to her,” I said.

“I did what I had to do. I will stop at nothing to ensure the security of this community.”

“So I’ve discovered.”

His head tilted to the side. “So, it’s true? You’ve actually lost your memory?”

I didn’t answer.

“Because I couldn’t tell if you were improvising this part of the operation or not.”

“Skain said it was our plan all along. The bombing. Me going undercover after Crypto.”

“It was,” he said with satisfaction. He nodded over her shoulder. “I saw what you did to your brother back there. I must admit to being impressed. In the state that you’re in to accomplish that. Bravo. You were always just a little bit more than him. You stood a little taller, fought a little harder, went a little further. It’s part of the reason I chose you for the operation. If anyone could pull it off, you could.”

He looked around me to Martinez. “And don’t think I’ve forgotten you, Corporal Martinez. You were not randomly assigned your role. Your deep appreciation for Scout’s actions surrounding your brother’s death is well known to me. And you played your part perfectly. Even here at the end with the information you’ve given.”

The Watch Sergeant started to rise. “Sir, I’m sorry to—”

Two shots and he crumpled to the floor.

The pistol was back on me before I could act.

“An unfortunate necessity,” the general said.

The floor lurched under my feet.

My knees buckled and I grabbed onto the gurney to stay upright. The air whirled with visible currents that tried to knock me down. It took a minute to get my bearings, for the floor to stop swaying.

“Who planted the bombs in the White House?”

He laughed. “Forgive me, but this amnesia of yours has created such a curious case of misunderstanding. It’s hard not to be entertained, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Scout, it’s simple. Obvious, even. You did. You planted the bombs. You designed the security and so knew better than anyone how to circumvent it.”

“So I’m your prized pupil?”

His expression saddened. “Unfortunately, you’re a failure in the end. We had Crypto and you’ve let him get away. Though what we gathered from Martinez will certainly help us to succeed where we previously could not. Still. You let him get away.”

“Sorry to disappoint you.” I wasn’t sorry and he got that.

The general frowned. “I’m afraid I have to make another tough decision. It appears your medical condition has put your loyalty in question. I can’t have that.”

His finger curled inside the trigger guard.

“You’re insane.”

“I’m what I need to be to get the job done. Nothing more. Nothing less. Now, I’ve enjoyed our little chat. I think you deserved some explanation for what you’ve given up for me. And for what I’m about to take.” He raised the pistol higher, aiming it at my head. “Thank you for your service, soldier.”

A single gunshot.

Tendrils of smoke drifting higher in front of me.

General Curtis stood there, expressionless.

A dark hole in his cheek. A second that stretched out to forever before a trickle of blood raced down and spilled off his jaw.

He collapsed, pelvis hitting the floor, then teetered over and flopped onto his back. One leg under him and twisted at an awkward angle. A deep red pool of blood forming next to his head.

I glanced down, feeling the heat of the metal barrel on my hip. There was the pistol, positioned and fired by Martinez. The last curl of smoke lazily climbing higher.

“Thank you,” I said as I turned.

Started to turn.

A violent shudder and searing pain punched me in the chest.

A crushing pressure like being buried under a mountain.

I collapsed as my body went numb.

Only the agonizing pressure remained.

And then it went away too.

 

Chapter 55

A city of endless ruin.

Stretching to the horizon in all directions. Devastation draped over the surface like a camouflage net. A drab gray filter that sucked the life out of everything within view. No movement to be seen. No breeze to ruffle leaves. No trees to have leaves.

No living thing anywhere.

And the silence.

The impossible, unbearable silence.

An insufferable wave of solitude.

                                                             .

                                                                 .

                                                                  .

                                                               .

                                                          .

                                                  .

                                         .

                                .

                      .

               .

           .

          .

            .

             “Daddy!” a voice called out.

Hannah.

My Hannah.

My daughter.

Out there!

Alone!

Alive!

With every fiber and tendon and muscle in my being, I knew it to be true. The certainty of it permeated my skin and settled into my organs, saturating my heart.

My daughter was out there.

Alive and warm despite the chill.

She needed me. Needed help.

And I had not returned.

All hope fading

With the

                 l

                i

              g

            h

         t

      .

   .

.

Dark things lurked

With flashing razor beaks

Smothering inconstant warmth with flapping wings

Their number overwhelming

And Irresistible

They swallowed the light

And the unbearable cold returned.

 

Chapter 56

I didn’t dream after that.

There was nothing but the inchoate darkness.

Until it began to fade.

And the truth with it.

My eyelids parted and the hospital room blurred into view. Blinking clarity eventually resolved into Dr. Tanaka standing above me, his mouth pecking out words but making no sound.

Was I alive?

Had to be.

Surely no god would doom a soul to this eternity. To be trapped for the rest of time. Clipped wings and broken hollowed out bones. It was hard to imagine a greater horror.

His mouth stopped moving and he stared with concern.

A keening buzzing noise. So loud I winced as it took roost inside my head.

I realized it had been there all along, but I only now noticed it.

Tanaka spoke again and this time the words filtered through the buzzing.

“Can you hear me?”

I nodded and the minute gesture caused a terrible pinch in my chest. My hand moved, almost of its own accord. It stopped on the thin fabric of a hospital gown.

The tips of stiff, scratching thread poked through the thin cloth.

My finger traced a line of crisscrossed stitches up the middle of my chest. A puckered wound sewn together.

The buzzing died away as the doctor continued. “We had to open your chest to get to your heart. You had a massive heart attack. It caused an aortic rupture. You were dying when we found you. During the surgery, you flat-lined for a few minutes and then came back. You’re very lucky to be alive.”

I wasn’t sure if lucky quite described it, but I nodded anyway and thanked him for saving me a second time.

He pushed the glasses up the bridge of his nose while staring at the chart in his hands. “I know I’m just a doctor and you will end up doing whatever you want, but I highly recommend that you take it easy for a while. Your body needs rest.”

A distant sense of urgency stirred in my chest. Like the ripples on the surface of water indicating something had been there just a moment ago. But it had ducked below, leaving only the fading clues.

What was it?

I focused on it, but it was gone. The surface again smooth and calm and reflective like a mirror.

“Hey there, tough guy,” a voice said from the doorway.

I looked over and saw Martinez leaning on a pair of crutches. Draped in a baggy hospital gown like my own, though smaller to match her frame.

She must’ve noticed my noticing it. “Yeah, I keep telling them I’m fine, but they won’t let me out yet.” She hobbled over to the bed and touched my cheek. “You look terrible.”

I laughed and winced at the resulting sting in my chest. “You look worse.”

That wasn’t a certainty because I had no idea how I looked. But the odds were still in my favor because she was a wreck.

The bruising had settled in for the long heal. Mottled yellows and purple browns covering her face and neck. The gown obviously hiding more.

She shrugged. “I’ve been worse.”

“Have you?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No. Definitely not.”

Tanaka cleared his throat. “I also recommended that Ms. Martinez remain in her bed, but who cares what I think. I’m only a trained expert at repairing the damage you people do to yourselves.” He attached the clipboard to the end of the bed and let it smack against the frame to emphasize his point.

He looked between us, back and forth. “Nothing? Not even a hollow promise to take care of yourselves better? Not even the most superficial reassurance to throw your doctor a bone?”

“Whatever you say, doc,” Martinez replied.

Tanaka let out a long sigh and left the room.

Martinez flashed a grin that barely made it through the swollen flesh of her face. It was more obvious in her eyes, but it was there all the same.

“How long was I out?” I asked.

“Three days.”

Three days.

It was a blink. Eyes close. Eyes open.

“Where’s Crypto?”

“Haven’t seen him since your brother nearly split my skull in half and dragged me away.”

“How is he?”

“I saw him leaving the infirmary yesterday. Face covered in bandages. I thought it was you at first. Until he looked at me. Once I saw the eyes, I knew.”

“General Curtis?”

“Dead.” She hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “The incident is being investigated. There are no formal charges yet, but we’ll see.”

I looked past her and saw the two Grays standing guard outside the door.

“You and I are under twenty-four guard.”

I reached for her hand and found it. Fingers more slender and delicate than my own. But just as strong at the same time.

“You did the right thing. Don’t doubt that.”

She shrugged. “I did what I had to do.”

“Thank you, for saving my life. Again.”

“It’s becoming a real problem. This dependency you have on me,” she said with a smile. “And you’re welcome.”

A knock at the door and the person knocking strolled right in.

“Toothpick Waist, get clothes on already. Trying to show off skinny little boy body by wearing thin paper bag is getting you nowhere. Men want woman with something to grab onto.”

Kat blew me an air kiss. “Hello, Mr. Scout. You look terrible but alive and that is something.” She turned back to the door and dragged in a cleaning cart filled with supplies.

She stood next to it, hips cocked to the side, one hand resting on rounded, prodigious flesh. “You remember our deal, Mr. Scout? Yes?”

I must’ve looked confused because she answered my unspoken question.

“How quickly we forget. The date you promised. Kat hasn’t forgotten.” She tapped the side of her head, presumably emphasizing the point that her brain was like a safe in which anything could be stored and never lost. She gestured at me. “And because you are stuck here for a while, Kat brought date to you.”

Martinez chuckled and tried to cover it with a cough.

Kat cast her an annoyed look. “Goodbye, Toothpick Waist. You are not invited.”

Martinez held up one hand in surrender. She turned to me and laid it on my shoulder. “We’ll talk more later.”

“Okay,” I said, wondering what questions she might have. Wondering if I would have answers.

Would she understand that I had changed?

I was no longer the man I used to be. Whether from the brain injury or from our journey together or some other cause, things were different now.

I was different.

And it would take a while yet to figure out who the new me was and what I stood for.

Martinez leaned down and kissed my forehead.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Kat said. “Already competition heats up.” She grinned and wiggled her ample bosom. “I like it.”

Martinez rolled her eyes. “You two have fun,” she said as she headed for the door.

Kat waited for her to leave and shut the door behind her.

Through the window, I noticed that one of the guards followed Martinez as she went away down the hall while the other stayed posted at my door.

“Alone at last, my handsome tough guy,” Kat said. “Kat has special treat for you.”

My heart skipped a beat, which was probably a dangerous thing at this point.

Was she about to wiggle out of her working blues?

She returned to the cart and removed a pile of towels from one side. Behind the stack was something that completely out of place.

A bottle of what appeared to be dirty water and a silver cooking pot sitting a top of an oven mitt.

She pulled them out and set them on a nearby counter. “I have hot borscht and homemade grog for you.” She lifted the lid of the pot and a rich, savory, slightly sour scent permeated the room.

My stomach grumbled.

Loud enough for both of us to hear.

Kat grinned. “You’ll never get better eating garbage they serve here.” She retrieved a bowl and two shot glasses from the interior of the cart. After filling the glasses, she ladled out a full bowl of steaming soup and carried everything over to the table next to the bed.

“It smells delicious,” I said.

“Of course, it does. I make it.”

My stomach gurgled again and I tried to sit up, but was stopped by the needle pricks of pain running down my chest.

“Take it easy.” She said as she pushed a button on the bed, causing the upper half to rotate up. She let go when I was up in a reclined position.

My mouth watered with anticipation. The saliva glands kicking in so fast it hurt. I wanted to eat more than anything. It was like a physical pull toward the bowl of soup. I reached for a spoon.

She gently smacked my hand away. “No. I feed you. No one will take care of you like Kat.”

I wasn’t sure that was necessary, but it seemed to make her happy so I went with it.

She scooped into the dark soup, through the tiny puddles of oil floating on the surface, and withdrew a full spoon. Carefully, slowly without letting a single drop fall, she fed me like a child.

The thick broth landed like an explosion in my mouth. I gulped it down, ignoring the near-scalding temperature, and waited for the next bite.

Not long, as she already had another spoonful on the way.

I swallowed again and the delicious warmth sunk down into my belly.

She kept feeding me and I kept eating until half the bowl was gone. “Take break for a minute. Time for toast.”

She took one of the shot glasses and handed me the other. She made sure I had it before letting go.

“To this unpredictable life and taking pleasure in small things that it offers,” she said.

We clinked glasses and then knocked back the clear liquid in a single go.

It was like swallowing fire. The blaze hit the back of my throat and sizzled down into my core, cranking up the heat a few degrees.

My eyes watered and Kat laughed while pouring herself another. “Tough guy will get used to it after few more drinks.”

I handed the glass back. “Maybe another later. I’d like more soup if you don’t mind.”

She grinned like I’d just given her a long-stemmed rose. “Darling, of course I don’t mind.”

The spoon clinked in the bowl as she picked it up.

And then the lights cut out.

Pitch black.

Until the view screen on the opposite wall blinked on.

 

Chapter 57

The screen flashed white and then darker as a face appeared, filling it.

Crypto.

A wild gleam in his eyes.

A dangerous and unpredictable fever burning in their depths.

“Hello, Citizens. You do not know me, but you know of me. And more importantly, I know you. I know your suffering. I know your sacrifices. I know the miserable lives you endure so that those above us are afforded unearned luxury. Unmerited leisure and opportunity. This is a system founded on inequity.”

He pointed at the camera, short fingers almost coming into the hospital room.

“No more, I tell you. No more. We have lived off their crumbs long enough. And we will not accept it any more. I am hereby taking control of the facility until such a time as free and fair elections can be guaranteed. Until we, the working class who make this entire community possible, are heard and represented in the government that decides all of our fates.”

“You will have noticed all the lights are out. They will come back on when this transmission has ended. This is a simple show of power to those elites who would oppose me. Do not attempt resistance to this necessary and inevitable evolution. I control all of the systems on every level. I could cut off your air and seal you in a suffocating tomb.”

He sniffed, as if the thought nearly brought him to tears. “But I do not wish to harm anyone. Only to bring equality to those who deserve it.”

“I know what many of you may be wondering. You have heard of me. The dangerous criminal named Crypto. How can he be trusted? Is the rule of this man any better than the rule of the elite?”

He held his hand up to emphasize the solemnity of his pledge. “I promise you that I will relinquish all power the very minute that fair and equitable governing bodies are in place. But that will take time. Corruption has overrun our community and it must be ripped out by the roots.”

He held his palm to his chest and bowed ever so slightly.

“Until then, I will humbly accept the duty of guiding us toward a brighter future. You can trust me. I have your best interests at heart.”

He smiled reassuringly, and it was the scariest part yet.

“Again, my name is Crypto. Welcome everyone, to a new beginning.”

The screen went dark as the lights in the ceiling clicked back on.

Kat turned to me with her lips puckered to the side. She shook her head. “I don’t trust him. New beginnings are sometimes worse than old endings.” She knocked back a shot of grog and shook her head clear. “Care for another?”

I nodded. “Yeah, for a start.”

THE END OF BOOK 1

CHOICES:

1. This story was awesome! Let’s get going with book 2 already!

2. This story was okay. Maybe the next one will be better.

3. This story sucked. Let’s never do this again!

What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!