Chemicaust: A Short Story in the Mad Element Saga by Daniel T. Moore - HTML preview

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Chemicaust

A short story in the Mad Element Saga

By: Daniel T. Moore

Dedicated to my family,

And to my mother who keeps telling me to ‘write the damn novel already.’

A flicker of time passed. The stars were smudged with blood, like a camera lens capturing pictures in the crimson-smeared hands of a weary photographer. Another flicker; the world was ending, the atmosphere was wrong, the sun shone through too intense, too yellow even through the blood. It was painful to keep eyes opened, stinging with blood and with sweat, his mouth boiled dry of spit, his throat parched. He lay flat on his stomach. It was painful to stay awake against a light like that. Another flicker and it was dark again. The wind whipped at his hair, long by army standards and a darker black by contrast to his pale skin.

Somewhere nearby a rat scurried about, digging in the dirt, gnawing on bones and devouring bits of burnt flesh. The sand beneath him was a dark grey, and cold, like powdered granite. The smell of burning and the heat of the explosion were already gone, had been gone for a while. It felt too soon for the noise and the light to be left behind. The rat emerged in the dark, red eyes and pointed teeth, a demon in the cold. The moon was a deep yellow unfamiliar to the soldier’s eyes, but kinder than the sun. Luke didn’t remember any time passing, but it flickered again.

He couldn’t move, something in the explosion had done him harm, there wasn’t pain, but there wasn’t movement either. The vermin froze as it sensed a predator – the trees were gone – the sand had bled into the wilderness. The two animals – soldier and rat – watched one another until the wind kicked up and Luke’s concentration broke. His eyes snapped shut to preserve sight against the closing storm.

The scurrying of claws moved away, little gusts of sand kicked up behind a flurry of sharply pointed paws. Luke’s mind cleared. He remembered everything sharply for a moment and then the images flitted from him, wandering away into a desert which once was green. Wandering the night his vision snapped around the clearing. Everything was sand for miles where earlier a forest had grown. The explosion had caused it, the change. Luke was adjusting. It wasn’t easy.

The whir of gold and copper servos in his arm was sickening; they whined meaninglessly in places and failed their adjusting procedure. Vents shifted opened and shut of their own accord like metal gills striped vertically along the length of his forearm. The metal flaps squeaked from lack of oil when they opened, and clicked when they closed – it was an annoying repetition and Luke willed it to stop. It wouldn’t stop, nor would his heart. It wouldn’t stop until sand drifted over him, the servos stopped turning and the bare essential systems stopped functioning. The drive would keep him alive until it ran out of energy, started feeding on fat, and then on blood, and then ran dry. The sky promised a storm, but the moisture in the air seemed not to touch Luke, his skin was dry and cracked, his back already seared red. He felt nothing.

He heard the rat again; it had come back, scurrying over the dunes. The blood was dry, the sweat which had beaded at temples and on a back exposed to the sun was gone. Aperture eyes clicked shut and flashed opened. The fear was gone from the animal. It perched regally on two feet and stared down at the fallen boy, whiskers drooping nearly to the sand. The storm had died down. It wasn’t the same rat. This one was larger, more intelligent; its eyes gleamed a horrid human blue, its hair floated in wisps about its head. Its fur was the dark grey of the sand it stood upon, and where it fell away in patches the skin beneath stood out starkly. Blue eyes seemed to float in the air above patches of rat-flesh. Paws poked at his back, his arms and his face. The rat scurried around his body inquisitively. Luke would have cried out had he been able. The miniature golden gears in his arm screeched for a moment as if in harmony with Luke’s desire, clicked and then hummed. The steel gills on his left arm stopped flapping meaninglessly. The wind howled and the sand kicked up, there was a tension in the air.

The rat bared his teeth and its tail writhed behind it like a snake in pain. It leaned in close to Luke’s head and smiled. It got down on hands and knees to examine him. It wasn’t a rat. Luke couldn’t scream. The sensation of flinching rolled over his body but Luke didn’t flinch. He couldn’t get away. The rat bit into his eye. There was no pain but half of his vision turned off like a snap and a moment later blood fogged the camera lens again. He lay still as the rat enjoyed its meal, with his remaining eye Luke saw white flesh held between paws, dangling optical nerves. The steady hum of the drive reassured and terrified – it promised renewed strength but also the return of pain. He couldn’t scream. Time passed and more vermin came, and he couldn’t scream. Steam vented from his arm and granted a reprieve from the teeth and then the rodents returned, and the not-rodent with the blue eyes and the scalpel-sharp knife. He couldn’t scream. Finally the storm that had been promised broke; thunder seemed louder in the desert where it didn’t belong. Rain began to fall.

Luke felt the knitting of his spine, almost instantly after so much motionless. He felt shocking cold drops on a badly burnt back. He felt the warm of blood and then a serene pain, in his head, along his spine, and rippling out through his limbs. It felt like acid in his veins as his nerves switched back on, motivated by chem pumped through his body. Injected into his blood-stream by the drive in his arm. He screamed and the rodents leapt away, except for the rat with blue eyes, and hands, and the knife. The blue-eyed one only backed up and watched him. Luke moved his hands, curled his fingers into fists, tried to get his arms underneath his chest, push himself up, roll himself over. His skin was dry and cracked, it hurt to move.

The rat startled backwards at the show of life. It was terrified, and then calm and then smiling.

It leapt on him, the blue-eyed rat with the scalpel, and with an animal ferocity drove the knife into Luke’s back. The acid in his veins spilled from the wounds and soaked his back and then his entire body in pain. The rat kept stabbing, the remains of Luke’s strength ebbed with the flow of blood, the scent of which brought the vermin back. The rodents only came close enough to watch; they recognized the scent of death. Luke was surprised there were no birds – there were always birds where there was blood.

Luke refused to die, or rather was forced to remain living. As fast as the rat slashed holes in his skin, the fallen soldier’s drive sought to repair the wounds. Skin stitched back together almost instantly as it was torn apart, the sight of which turned deliberate stabs into frantic tearing, the rat’s knife leaving ragged wounds instead of clean cuts. Luke didn’t scream anymore, the pain was too much for screaming, and yet, he was not dead, and even against the assault of the creature the drive was prevailing. The whirring servos in his arm repaired the damage to his eye and with it his sight. Tissue regrew and his eyes reformed. Simultaneously chem pumped steadily into his veins to rapidly generate scar tissue. In the instant Luke thought he could bear no more pain, the drive restored strength to his muscles, tension to tendons and ligaments.

Luke rose to his feet with the rat still on his back, the animal still stabbing while scar tissue knitted over the damage. Hunks of skin lay at his feet. Blood drenched his body and that of his assailant, but Luke lived and his strength had returned. The rat was tiring, clinging to the soldier’s back, and Luke healed more quickly than injuries could be inflicted. With a jerk of his arm Luke brought his elbow up and rammed it like a piston into the rat’s ribs. A crunch. The creature cried and let go, falling onto its back and pushing itself clumsily away from the soldier. The rat healed too. Luke turned to watch as ribs popped back into placed and the caved in chest swelled outwards, healthy and whole.

With a snap fire jumped from Luke’s fingertips. Gouts of flame sprouted from each finger and dove into the sand, melting the grey into glowing red on contact. The rat cried out and steam vented again from Luke’s arm. The heat from his hand burrowed towards the rat and as the creature turned, fumbled, managed to gain its feet and start to run, the ground beneath it opened up. The rat plunged into boiling stone and was instantly consumed. Luke fell to his knees. The vermin were gone, and where it had been the sand was turned to stone, solid granite, smooth as ice. The rat was gone; Luke had known him. In front of Luke laid the knife of a friend, a fellow soldier and a rat. From the now-cooling granite steam coloured yellow by the moon; rain hissed where it hit the stone slab.

There was very little chem left; Luke ejected the vial from his arm, vent flaps receding like a shutter to reveal the mechanics of the drive. The vial was a finger’s length long and filled with a vibrant purple liquid. Two fingers in diameter and four times as long. It was rounded at one end and capped with a rubber tip at the other. A hypodermic could punch through the rubber end, or the pin of a drive for injecting the liquid manually or feeding a drive respectively. The container popped out, the sound hanging in the air; maybe a half-ounce remained. Luke grinned – it was more than enough. A little chem went a long way in the desert. His throat was still dry, and he choked on the dusty air but recovered quickly and reinserted the chem-vial. A smile lit his face. The only injury that wouldn’t fully heal was his eye. His sight was permanently damaged. There was a slight blur when he closed his right eye, and his left only saw in black and white, not a single shade of grey. When the two images captured by right and left eyes merged in his mind it created a photo with too much colour saturation, too much contrast.

Luke closed his eyes. His sight was one more thing that would take adjusting to, but now all he need do was walk. He needed to find industry, and with it, chem.

Luke headed north. The compass of his memory was shattered and the decision was based purely on instinct. For the first time in days Luke’s mind wandered from pure survival and focused on a change he had noticed, but ignored earlier. His thoughts were free, and he was free of the voice and the commands which haunted him. He retained the memory of the soldier, but was no longer bound to the army fate. For the first time in Luke’s life the neural control exerted by the corps was gone, and he hadn’t shattered, not like the rat who had attempted his life. That was a shattering, the reversion to animal instinct which his fellow soldier had experienced. It was preached by the army that all of those freed from the neural synapse were shattered, but either this was untrue or Luke was incredibly blessed.

It was rare for an individual to gain the title of soldier for the corps and then regain thought-freedom.

Luke was a precedent. Time flickered forward again and Luke stepped from the desert into what remained of the woods. It was no longer raining, but the forest was lush and wet. The birds were immediately soothing in contrast with the silence he had left behind; sound was always more calming then silence.

Luke’s mind fled to thoughts but his pace didn’t slack as he crossed the border between sand and dirt. He was thought-free, but he fled the realization. Especially he fled from choices, understandings of right and wrong. Possibilities assaulted him and freedom was not the haven he had expected, not the blessing he had been lead to believe, by the radicals and by the old ones in the small cities, and by the children who chased him in the streets. Like a rodent under the eyes of a predator, Luke’s mind froze, paralyzed with possibilities, but his body kept moving. The forest stretched on in front of him, the desert a haven behind. His mind was empty and lonely, there was no voice whispering where to go. The surety of action, the clear understanding of the next course that had been assured him as a soldier, was gone.

It was spring, movement filled the forest, and the sun beat down on what remained of a tattered lieutenant’s uniform. It wasn’t black, or crisp, nor was vibrant and ragged like the street gangs the corps fought to keep down. It was red, bright and clean, and had once been a resplendent dress-shirt and suit-jacket. Now strips of dyed silk hung in tatters and left an already badly burnt back dangerously exposed. The burn brought with it a harsh pain, but Luke’s will held at bay the drive’s compulsion to repair the damaged tissue. Instead water blisters formed and as Luke unthawed his mind and stepped forward bits of skin were torn wetly away by clawing trees.

Bird-sounds were not all that chased him through the forest, the crunch of his boots on fallen branches, the healthy snap of wood, and in the distance the sorrowful howling of gibbons, each of these contrasted painfully with the silence in Luke’s mind. He got lost in the forest, turned around and disorientated. It was a new experience, and he sat for a moment to clear his thoughts, to understand where the city had gone, where the floating map in his mind had erred. It was a painful recognition, a loss of faculties once taken for granted. When it grew dark again, his bad eye increased the contrast so that barely-flickers of moonlight became bright streaks of sun and everything in the shadows turned solid black. Luke dare not move in the darkness, the forest now a labyrinth, no compass and every direction as likely as the other to lead to civilization.

As he stand quiet and still, sharpness clawed at Luke. Hunger pains, which Luke understood, but from which the corps had previously protected him. He had felt hunger before, had gone days without nourishment, the corps refusing him time to eat, but he had never understood the feeling of hunger.

The pain was easily ignored, all physical pain was easily ignored for a soldier and the pain in his gut was no different, but as he sit with his back against a tree, wet from burst blisters, his red silk dress-pants smeared with healthy black dirt, the hunger spread through him, not as pain, but as an imperative to feed. Always before the imperative had been supressed mechanically, but outside of corps influence his body worked against him and Luke lost the fight to remain still. It felt good to be brought out of contemplation by an imperative. Starvation bore many similarities to corps control – it brooked no resistance and manifested as a desire rather than physical coercion. Hunger was as much a trick of the mind as thought-slavery, and in his despair, his grasping for a purpose that had been robbed of him, Luke rose and began to move.

Flickering from his hand rose a fire of the same type which had banished the rat. All about him trees were thrown into saturated detail. The first fireball flickered momentarily and then shot off into the woods, singeing branches and leaves where it flew too close. It moved like an insect, though with more purpose and more intelligence. It darted through the overgrowth, out of Luke’s sight, and careened into a grazing doe. There was no physical impact, no momentum behind the fireball, and though startled by the light initially the deer felt no pain, and dashing away, returned to grazing only a few yards further on.

Luke followed the scent of the fireball, the mental understanding of the fire’s whereabouts.

Long before he arrived where the doe had been grazing he saw smoke drift into the air, picked out by the light of an enormous flame. A few seconds after it had returned to grazing the doe had felt a warmth in its chest as of blood pooling in a bruise or hands warmed at a fire. Its eyes widened momentarily, but there was no way of fleeing from the sensation, and the same as hands thrust into fire on a cold night, for a brief second the warmth was golden and appreciated. The nights were cool, and magically the doe had found warmth. Then there was pain and the animal froze. Sprouting from the heart of the creature came fire, flowing through the network of veins like the warmth of blood it pooled in the animals legs, in its arteries, and behind its eyes. The animal’s nerves tingled, the pain subsided and then returned like the lapping of water and still the doe didn’t move. Finally fire erupted from the animal, worming like a snake out of the creatures eyes and bursting from its hide in patches. The smell of burnt fur filled the air and then the doe was completely obscured by flame. When Luke arrived the fire had done its work. The animal would have looked terrified had its eyes remained to dart about in fear, but all that was left after the fire was steaming meat and organs, perfectly cooked through and still clinging to an intact skeleton.

Hunger sated, and stomach bloated, the deer’s corpse collapsed a few feet away, Luke sat to wait the morning, the darkness wrapped around him comfortably. For the first time in his life, he slept without being willed to do so. When he woke, there was no imperative to make it to the city, no orders and no hunger. He ate anyways, more deer flesh, and conjured a flickering blue flame to remove what remained of the corpse. Bones, organs and grinning, flat, white teeth destroyed. Liberty was still a new sensation, but Luke was better equipped to deal with it now. It certainly wasn’t a necessity, rather it seemed more of a delicacy. Not a luxury, which everyone desires, but a delicacy only appreciated by the few. Decision fell on Luke and he decided to return to the corps. He would submit himself to their punishment.

Conjuring air currents to support his ascent, Luke leapt with wind beneath him, high above the tops of the trees. After finding the city in the distance he landed gracefully, leaves fleeing his feet as they would the descent of a helicopter’s whirring blades. It wasn’t a long walk, but is seemed that way in the silence, with no crackling radio calls, no neural encouragement, no sound in his mind, only the furious chirruping of birds in the forest. The sun shone strong above him, the scar tissue which striped his back wasn’t yet burned and made white stripes across the red and black of tortured skin and dried blood.

The city was one known to Luke, though the name and the map of these familiar strees so easily conjured before was lost. He still felt comfortable. It only took a moment for his comfort to fade. Half-torn posters littered the streets blowing up against the cast-iron fence which pretended to bar his way.

It stood no more than five feet high and hours ago Luke had leapt ten or higher. He should have been able to measure the exact height in his head, but that was lost to him too. The gate was wide enough if opened fully, to admit a single vehicle. The posts were iron half an inch thick and cemented into the ground, rusted and old. A sound kick would have thrown the gate from its hinges, already it hung heavy, but Luke resisted the temptation to flex his muscles.

Frustrated by the need to restrain himself and attempting a semblance of proper appearance, Luke tore away the defaced upper-half of his uniform as he approached the gate. His boots crunched on stones, let-loose from the asphalt by poor maintenance and he felt dwarfed by the crowd beyond the gates. Dirty strips of red silk fluttered to the ground behind him as the guard looked him up and down. It wasn’t safe for a soldier alone in a city like this, a squad or even a pair of soldiers might traverse the streets unmolested, but what Luke represented was an opportunity to seek revenge on Michael’s holy regime. The dress-pants were a liability, as were the red leather boots, but less-so. For a moment Luke was thinking like a soldier again, and then it was lost.

As the civilian guarding the gate let him through with a creaking of rusty hinges, Luke realized that he could let himself be killed, a possibility that had not occurred to him earlier. He couldn’t force the drive to stop repairing his tissues or maintain his life, but he could discard what chem remained to him and let the villagers beat him, or hang him, or butcher him for meat. He stood, barely within the city. The south gate clanged shut behind him with a sharp metal twang. There was a crowd on the main street, dealing what little wares they possessed from vehicle shells and dilapidated store-fronts.

The road stretched for miles and then turned in the distance, disappearing from sight. Buildings towered in the distance, shining with glass. Very little of the city was occupied, it had been built to support a population in the hundreds of thousands and the squatters who called it home took up fewer than sixty houses, though each of those might play host to a large extended family. The majority of the city was at the market, the stands of which took up only two lanes of the highway’s four. They were silent and stared almost uniformly in his direction. Except for a few children who ignored his presence, screaming at one another as they played ‘seeks’ in the ruins that constituted store-houses and homes, the entire population of the town, those on the street, and those peering from windows above, were concerned with his presence. A dog, hairless from acid rain, went to barking as he walked closer. The children stopped their games so that it became the only sound. There was a definite tensing on both sides – Luke had no weapon except the drive, which was running dry, and he noticed with horror that many of the men and quite a few women had shifted hands to hip-holsters, or moved closer to rifles leaned at ease behind shop counters. In the windows above Luke noticed the glint of glass rifle-sights.

Luke felt out-gunned and concerned for his well-being. Each of these feelings was new to the soldier and the shock of such realities did nothing to help the structure of his pace. His well-conditioned walk broke into a light-footed and unsteady lilt; his face broke from a lack of emotion into a grimace. He looked drunk, stumbling and furious.

There was a dull thud and the warmth of blood lit his vision again, a second blow followed the first and his vision went black for a moment, but he remained standing. The drive would not allow him to lose consciousness. Chaos ensued, those unwilling to fight a soldier of the corps ran for shelter, further into the city, or ducked into hiding nearby. A gunshot whistled by his ear, another round entered above his kidney and exited his body on the other side. Of course, as long as the drive functioned such trivial wounds would be repaired in a matter of moments. There were men running towards him, and the guard at the gate who had levelled the blows from behind was grasping at him, tugging on his arm, prying open the gills of the drive. Luke didn’t resist as the drive in his arm was forced open and the chem vial removed. He expected to die; his grimace turned to a smile. The guard at the gate brought his shovel to bear once more, this time smashing it into his good eye. With the chem gone the damage wasn’t repaired.

Luke woke with ropes around his hands and chains around his feet. He was standing, held up by two men who looked underfed and unwilling to continue their current occupation. Luke forced his weight onto his feet and stumbled back, his back hit something cool and metallic, he looked from where he was to where he had been and gathered that he had been dragged and tied to a streetlight. Not much time had passed. Luke hadn’t noticed the gate-guard when he entered, he had acknowledged him, but hadn’t seen him clearly. Now he saw.

The man was deeply tanned from the sun, he wore rough cotton pants dyed a dark black and pock-marked from chemical exposure. Around his head he wore a bandana which had once been red, but was now black with age. Luke new what it meant and had overlooked it, accidentally, or sub-consciously, he didn’t know which. Over his eyes the man wore protective goggles, large and round for keeping out the sting of a sand-storm, but tinted red with a solution meant to prevent damage to the glass from strong acids. He was physically fit, well fed, and like the clothing he wore, his exposed torso was pocked with damage from chem rain. In one hand he held the violet chem which had fed into Luke’s veins, and in the other, a hypodermic. The drives on the civilians who surrounded Luke would all be empty – for ages the corps had prevented civilian access to heavy-chem with moderate success. What the man in the black bandana did now, taking the chem for himself in front of so many who hungered for its possession, was reckless. No one moved against him. The two holding Luke let go and moved away.

The guard filled the hypo from the vial and held it point up, flicking it with one finger to remove air he pushed gently on the plunger, careful not to waste a drop. At his feet lay a blood-stained shovel.

The hypo full, and his prisoner contained, the man stooped to retrieve his tool and one of the men beside Luke broke into motion. Charging the man with the shovel while his head was down, Luke’s guard threw a shoulder into the man. From behind Luke and above a bullet whistled and put an end to both men struggling on the ground. There was a scream from the man who had first claimed the vial, and a gentle spurting of blood. From his attacker there wasn’t a sound, the bullet had gone directly through his spine, near the neck, and ended his life immediately. The man with the shovel was drenched in his own blood, his shoulder torn apart by the rifle round, and blood gushed still from the man on top of him. There was silence, Luke’s second guard stood stock-still. Smart man.

The man with the shovel coughed, expelling his own blood and that of his attacker, and pushed the corpse off of him so that he could rise. He tried to right himself and struggle to his feet but using his arm was a mistake, pain shot through his shoulder and all he could manage was a slight roll away from the corpse of his attacker followed by compulsive vomiting. It was a liquid vomit, mixed with blood. The man had been drinking, but hadn’t eaten for some time. Luke kept still. He understood what would come next. The hypo was broken, crushed under the weight of the two men. The purple chem was quickly soaking into the dry asphalt. The magic cure-all was gone, only the man on the ground hadn’t realized it yet. The guard to Luke’s left was crying silently, tears streaming down his face. Behind him Luke heard footsteps.

A woman in a brown leather trench-coat appeared in Luke’s peripherals, a cloud moved over the sun and shade fell along the street. There were other men and women appearing from the store-fronts along the street, approaching cautiously. “Lucas, you damn fool!” The woman spat at the wounded man, a hiss of curses snaked from her breath as she approached the two on the ground, kneeling, using a long rifle held in her right hand as support. She tested the pulse of the dead man automatically, her left hand came away covered in blood. It wasn’t spurting anymore but it would take time for the blood to quit draining from the dead man’s wound. The vial of chem could have saved either of them.

Lucas was barely alive. He rolled onto his back again, his face smeared with the dust of the highway, with blood and with vomit. Luke closed his eyes; he heard the whispering footsteps of the guard to his left leaving. “Lucas!” he imagined the woman turning on the wounded man, “You asshole Lucas!” Luke opened his eyes, the wounded man had closed his and lay as if sleeping, in the middle of the street. The woman leaned close over him, her deep brown dragged through the blood and mess of his face. She had both hands over his wound, applying pressure, and was yelling at the man, her face barely inches from his own. “If you keep ignoring me Lucas, you’ll never hear the end of it! You’ll hang for this! They’ll tear you apart! You wake up dammit, you wake up!” She took her hands from the wound and slapped his face. “You wake up damn you! Wake up.” She made the last words a demand and then rose as if expecting him to stand up as well. She spun on her heel, quickly enough to cause her jacket to flare about her waist. Luke smiled, now, he thought, I will die.

The barrel of the rifle rested on his forehead. It was cool against sunburnt skin, the smell of gunpowder sharp in Luke’s nostrils. Luke had faced death on many occasions, but this was the first where instincts weren’t suppressed, where, if he wanted to, Luke could be afraid. He wasn’t. He grinned and said quite clearly, “pull the trigger lady.” The muzzle of the rifle went away, Luke blinked and the butt of the rifle came hammering home.

Luke hadn’t expected to wake up, but his head was pounding hard enough to rule out contemplation of the events which had just unfolded. He focussed on immediate realities. It was dark outside, and he was inside, so time had passed, and he’d been moved. He was calm and cool, starring out of a window at the back of the streetlight he’d been tied to before. The bodies had been moved, the blood was too difficult to see in the dark, or cleaned away while he was unconscious. He was tied now, tighter than before, his hands behind his back, a rope looped uncomfortably around his neck and another cutting the circulation off at his heels. Behind him there was the smell of smoke, and slowly Luke’s hearing returned. There were voices, telling a joke about a blonde and a turtle. Luke cracked a grin. He’d never thought about life humorously before, though he’d understood jokes made around him, he’d never been affected by them before now. The smile created warmth in his chest, it relieved the edge of pain which kept furrowing into his brain, and made him less upset over his failed suicide. He started to laugh and found once he’d begun, that he couldn’t stop. Laughter made everything lighter and it took over Luke’s body, continued even after he heard the movement behind him, and felt the rope around his neck tighten. The laughter continued until there was no air, and then it died slowly into a whisper. Luke coughed. The rope burned, and he shut his eyes. He didn’t sleep and the headache didn’t recede, but the rope loosened again and the air from the broken windows cooled his sunburnt body.

Luke heard, “you can leave, Benjamin, your mother will want you home – looks like fog tonight,”

and then, “explain.” The voice of the woman shattered Luke’s serenity just as the tightening of the rope had choked away his good humour. There was only anger left and when Luke’s eyes snapped opened, they shone with it. His words were slow and hoarse from the damage done to his throat, the anger in his words was obvious, the sincerity behind them unrelenting:

“I won’t explain, unless you are willing to go get that rifle you toted about so willingly before, bring it back here, press the muzzle against my head, and pull the trigger. For that price, I’ll tell you my story, and for no less.”

“Your price is your death?”

“Yes.”

“You killed two men today, one a friend of mine and father of a boy I consider brother of my own child. I should think granting you the same gift a very easy thing.”

“Thank you.”

“But you’ll excuse me if I hesitate to hold a rifle for the duration of our conversation, which I want to keep short as much as you seem to.” She drew a silver revolver from a deep trench coat pocket and pressed it into a clump of Luke’s short-cut hair. The dark curled around the polished barrel of the gun deeper black when measured against the sheen of the weapon. His hair insulated him, he couldn’t feel the cool of the barrel as he could before. “Now talk,” she breathed, her weary eyes locking with Luke’s.

“Thank you,” Luke said again, his anger fading, “I won’t keep either of us waiting. When I was young, a short year after I was born, I was given to the army by my parents. Each of them belonged to the cult of Michael and had faith in his revolution. I was processed for the corps, my left arm was cut away and I had a drive installed, the clockwork, the servos and vents within my arm were upgraded as I grew, unlike those retrofitted at adolescence. The drive, of course, repaired my arm and the tissue regenerated over-top of the implant. My arm grew around the drive and from year one the drive was a part of me.” The woman blinked, she knew all of this. Luke continued, “I was incorporated into the army; I received psychological conditioning, and emotion repressing implants which have ceased functioning. I was attached to a network of free officers and far beyond them like a spark in the depths of my mind, Michael himself, the living God. The neural connection was established the day my arm was severed. Several days ago I was freed from corps control; thought-freedom was thrust on me. Never have I had my own decisions to make, and the choices that assault me now are something I do not understand and cannot face. I was – I am not human and it is a role I am not prepared to play. I am a soldier no more. That is why I want to die. But you would know why I came here? You would ask how a soldier of the corps was freed from neural control? And how I survived the shattering.” The woman nodded wearily, the pressure of the revolver against Luke’s skull lessened.

Her eyes were green and old beyond their time, glazed with cataracts. Her skin was pale, her brown hair graying, but on her person glowed carefully cared for trinkets. Around her neck she wore a cross from some long-dead religion. It was polished silver, like her revolver, each stainless steel and well cared for. In each ear she wore an earring, simple loops of copper. The rings varied in thicknesses around their circumference making them interesting to view, shimmering in the fading light. The last piece of metal on her person was a belt buckle which Luke couldn’t see clearly, but which he saw was inscribed. The belt wrapped around the outside of her trench-coat and held the cloth warmly against her body.

Luke went on, longing for the click of the hammer, the shattering sound of a gunshot at close range: “I was a sergeant with a common unit. We had been re-tasked from a simple patrol to a political retrieval; we were the closest unit available for retrieval of a prisoner from a merchant airship called the Question. We were meant to receive the prisoner at Cassius, the only city in the area with the equipment to accommodate an airship of the Question’s size. The ship never arrived at port and we were re-assigned to find the wreck and the prisoner. In Holos forest we found the individual we were looking for and one other survivor. The other survivor was unconscious, a work-hand from the ship. It was a fog night. The political prisoner had lit a fire.” Weariness faded from the woman’s eyes, replaced with a light of understanding, a look tempered by fear. Lighting a fire in the wilderness, in the open air, was a special kind of insanity. In the upper atmosphere there flickered the ever-changing currents of oily chem. On some nights, with the cool air, the chem drifted down and formed a sort of fog on the ground.

Outside the window such a fog crept from the sky, unhurried fingers reaching towards the rubble and pot-holes of the street. Unable to resist, she turned to watch it creep down, removing the revolver from Luke’s head, her hands dropping to her side.

Outside the broken windows of the building a low cloud of luminous chemical was forming, the consolidated chem which was barely visible during the day shone brilliantly when darkness fell. Luke spoke as the woman watched the fog. “As I approached, a soldier in my unit at my side, the chem drifted close to the flame and a spark flitted as if with intelligence, towards the lowering cloud of chemicals. The explosion was enormous flames spouting from the fire to the rainbowed cloud, settling for a moment and then expanding outwards. The entire colour spectrum pulled my skin from muscle, tore at my body and burned my lungs. Like sweat the heat clung to my body and flame like acid melted its way to bone. I don’t understand how I survived, but I was not the only one.” The fog outside billowed gently in the wind, and glowed with a soft spectral intensity. The cloud was like the aurora borealis, or like sun reflected in a pool of oil. It was beautiful, but intimidating. Both woman and soldier stopped to admire the sight. There was no sound except her breathing and the beat of his heart.

She turned back to her prisoner, not quickly enough to splay her coat out as it had when she was angry, and weakly she returned the revolver to his head. She pulled back the hammer and he continued: “When I woke, my drive had died. It repeatedly attempted its self-repair procedure, and each time it failed. I was paralyzed from the neck down. I couldn’t speak. The explosion had warped the forest, destroyed the trees, and removed the life from a large area around the campfire. Vermin crawled over my body, but I couldn’t feel them. The majority of my unit was gone, disintegrated or dead. The one other soldier who remained recovered more quickly than I did. The rat thought me a corpse, and the other man’s intelligence, his humanity, had shattered with the explosion. The rats wouldn’t eat me until I had died; my comrade had no similar concerns. He took my eye from me, though now it seems repaired, and I see only half what I once did. Colours are too dark and too light, they aren’t brightly coloured, but washed together. Everything I once saw is closer to grey, but I survived. My comrade’s disturbance of my body must have jarred the drive, renewed its self-repair sequence. I remember the sound of gears grinding and the sound of wind when they stopped. I was revived and empowered. I had chem, it flowed through my veins, and I rose in anger. I destroyed my fellow soldier, I cast him into fire.

It wasn’t something I could control. Anger was new to me, as was hunger, regret, guilt, shame and vengeance. I’d never desired vengeance before, but I did then, and I wrought it on the rat, the soldier who sought to take my sight and let loose my soul. I came here hoping to find an end to the limitless possibilities of my life. I wanted to find soldiers and turn myself in, be reintegrated, or else be killed. You have promised me this last escape. Take choice away. Pull the trigger.” The gun came away from my head; it rested at the woman’s side and she held it by the grip as she wrapped her arms warmly around herself. For a moment there was nothing, then her empty hand rose to her face; she rubbed her eyes with thumb and index finger, pinched the bridge of her nose. Her eyes closed against the stress that could be seen mounting in the faint lines of her face. She was made uncomfortable by indecision. Time ticked away.

“Daniel!” There was a sound from the story above. The fog had begun to spill through the window behind the woman. “Come quickly,” she called again.

Soft but clear, the young man spoke from directly behind Luke, “I’m here.” It was a man’s voice, drained of air.

“Cut him free,” the woman said. Luke moaned, but didn’t struggle as they turned him about, took him between them, and forced him upstairs. He turned his head to look behind, was helpless as they muscled him up the stairs. He gave little attention to his movement but listened to the ragged breathing of the young man and was transfixed by the slivers of light, dancing with the colours of death in the room below. The chem fog would have taken his breath and the skin from his bones, but along with it, the choices he did not want to make – human, conscious choices – hard choices. Luke had never made a hard choice. Dying in service was preferable, Luke thought, to misunderstanding the direction of his life and somehow damaging Michael’s cause through misperception. It would never do to harm Michael’s vision.

The stairs faded from his view, though he strained his neck towards release, the fog would not follow them up the stairs. He imagined the chem filling his lungs, the release of the grave.

Daniel was not gentle; when they reached the top step and Luke finally snapped his sight away from the ground floor, he was pushed harshly towards a bed in the corner and told to sleep. The woman paid him no more attention. The boy was no more than twenty years old. He gasped for breath and sat heavily in a chair between the woman and Luke. Luke did not close his eyes, nor did he sleep, but remained where he was. He was unwilling to make an escape, down the unguarded stairs and into the chemical embrace. Luke could wait to die.

Instead of think, choices bombarding Luke’s mind, he chose to observe. He would not think on why he had chosen to let the woman take him, rather he reflected, he would focus on the gilded footboard not ten feet away where the woman slept, and the small wooden chair between Luke and her, where Daniel sat watching him. Rather than contemplate speaking to the man on the chair, he watched the dust drift in the air currents generated by an oil heater. It was too hot by far, but the soldier didn’t notice. Sweat dripped from Daniel’s forehead and his eyelids drooped. The windows were sealed against the chem fog, boarded with wood and made air tight with copious layers of tar. Tar didn’t cover the walls shared with the adjacent building, and areas already tight against the intruding chemicals in the air. Luke noted bright pink where survival permitted. Perhaps, he considered, the room had once belonged to a child or to a woman in her youth. Perhaps it had been painted pink by one who still enjoyed the feel of vibrant colour in her home. It didn’t look a bedroom to Luke, but he knew little of these things and just feet from him there stood a great four-poster bed. Who was he to argue but a soldier, ignorant of human things. There was a hallway he noted leading off to his left, but from where he sat at the top of the stairs Luke couldn’t see where it lead.

In truth, it was curiosity which saved Luke’s life that night. He had not yet learned the woman’s name. It was tempting he admitted to himself, to throw himself at the stairs only five feet away, to suffocate himself in the fog below. Surely the man on his chair, half asleep, could not prevent Luke diving down the stairs and either snapping his neck or burning in the chem. He didn’t know her name though, and that made the difference. Eventually, he did rest, despite himself.

When Luke woke his eyes were tight with sleep. He blinked to clear them. Daniel came into sharp focus above him holding a dry loaf and a tin cup of water. Luke took the provisions he was handed and then rose. He rocked forward and stood without use of his hands, loaf in one fist, tin cup in the other. Daniel smiled. It was not at all what Luke had expected.

“Join us at the table?” He asked, and walked down the hall and into a small kitchen beyond. The linoleum on the floors was a bright white as if new-washed; the walls were a pale blue. None of the chairs matched, the folding card table was worn and the plastic cover was ripped. The light which hung from loose wires above flickered and the paint was peeling, but that was all which detracted from the feel of the home. It was a home, and Luke discovered over his first shared meal, that the woman who had spared him the night before was named Katelyn Orange. Daniel was her son and shared her name.

She was older than Luke had originally imagined, and Daniel as well, but none of this bothered him. The man asked for Luke’s last name, after he had given his first, and when Luke admitted to having none, Daniel told him to choose one. It was a simple choice, and so Luke made it.

“May I take your name?” he asked of his company, biting in to the last half of his loaf, letting crumbs spill down his chin.

“No you may not,” Katelyn gave back sharply, long finished her own bread and water. “You should be ashamed of yourself for asking. Choose your own name; pick something which has meaning to you.” Katelyn’s words somehow made the choice more difficult, so much so that Luke shied away from making it and gave his hosts no more answers, and no more conversation. He stood and walked away from the table, down the hall. He loped down the stairs, thought fuelled his pace, and Luke stepped into the sun resolved to avoid contemplating his situation. His clothing was worn and dirty, but he ignored the fact and looked about quickly, wanting to leave before he was called back. He found a rundown church to Michael, a blood banner hanging limply before the door, and entered unceremoniously. The priest who kept the building was dressed all in black, though the clothes were frayed and worn and blind as custom dictated. The grin with which he greeted Luke spoke to the madness his eyes couldn’t betray.

“Housing with the Katelyn woman? Staying with the oranges in their tree? The crazy oranges.”

He spoke with a drunken slur, but with the speed of a meth addict. It was hard to follow and Luke stopped trying. The man rambled in the background moving dirt to and fro with a broom as sparse of bristles as the man was of hair. Luke laid down to pray, flat on his back, his neck straight and proud, his eyes closed and his breathing slow. Once or twice he heard the broom whisk past his head, but he ignored the movement and the sound. He prayed to Michael with the voice of his mind, he asked for relief and reintegration and more chem. The priest babbled in the background: “Katelyn with her child, the oldest orange picked from the tree, the baby orange on its way, and Daniel not but a sickling. Sweet blood oranges those three, to be fed to the guards, lit aflame, caught by the crows and left to their sleep. Give them to Michael I say.”

Sleep seemed a sickness to he who had scarce needed it. Luke’s eyes twitched opened. He’d dosed. The priest was still hovering about the small hovel; he was still rambling, but now no words passed his lips, only whispered sounds that hovered menacingly in the air like the hiss of a tom-cat echoing in a well. Luke was disconcerted, but maintained courtesy as he left allowing the ragged old man to kiss his forehead with a mouth empty of teeth, and bless his blood – a prick of the priest’s finger, a drop of blood dabbed as if perfume on Luke’s upturned wrists.

Luke felt no better for his prayer, the walk in the cool wind had helped more than the ramblings of the priest. Even the rest he had gained in the mad-man’s presence seemed empty. He was still weary, and weary he returned to Katelyn’s building, walking through the streets like a man in trance. He saw very little, the worrisome lean of buildings, the walls singing with graffiti, the road ruined and pitted and unfit for vehicles. Luke frowned out of his trance, snapping back to reality at the door to Katelyn’s home, an old thing that hung from a single hinge. He realized he was angry at the lack of colour, at his lack of name, at his emotions and at Katelyn who had spied him through a window at the church of Michael and watched him now from a narrow alley not far down the street. The city was all blacks and greys; the door was faded to a dull brown, and burnt black in places. The street no longer bore yellow lines to marks the lanes, and the street signs which stood sentinel despite the years had lost their coloured sheen. They seemed to smile at the decay, rusted and old. Luke’s colourless eye did nothing to improve the vision, turning the grey-scale world into a blur of black-white contrast. The only colour that remained to him was the dried blood of the priest marking his wrists. As he pushed the broken door aside he licked a thumb and rubbed at one wrist and then the next to remove the irritating redness. He saw Katelyn lean out of the corner of the alcove, rifle clasped in hand.

Daniel lay asleep on the four-poster when Luke mounted the stairs and came to the second floor of the house. A moment passed in silence, Luke standing stock still and watching the rise and fall of Daniel’s breathe. The door downstairs creaked opened and banged shut noisily. Katelyn had not wished to be noticed following him, and so Daniel wouldn’t raise the subject. They sat at the table, leaving Daniel to his rest and Luke recalled the words of the priest. Sweet blood oranges those three, to be fed to the guards, lit aflame, caught by the crows and left to their sleep. Give them to Michael…. Luke would have liked nothing more, and so he started a conversation, driving questions at Katelyn like weapons. He placed the woman on the defensive as she came up the stairs. There was a cruelty in his questioning which had not been wielded against him that morning. He spoke like a red-guard: “You hide your pregnancy well, the thick cloak, and the stooped walk. It’s difficult to see the curve of child, harder for your lack of acknowledging it. And your son, he keeps his sickness out of the way – you both act the strength which you lack.” They entered the kitchen as they spoke. Luke opened the fridge and retrieved a bowl of food. He sat down and paused to bite into a hardboiled egg. The woman said nothing, but reached to the counter where her rifle lay and placed it to lean gently on the table at her side. In the next room Daniel coughed in his sleep. “Is it authorized?” He laid the question on the table like a warrant for search and seizure.

Katelyn smiled stiffly and shook her head no. “Should I give the boy to the guard?” The question saved her. Had she told him she would not give the child to Michael, he would have taken her to the guard. Had she called Daniel, he would have killed them both. Had she made a decision, Luke would have reacted. Luke’s indecision protected her, didn’t know how to answer. Yes, his training told him, yes, the neural network would have supplied, but he could say no. Instead, he gave the woman no commitment, just as he had when told to pick a name.

“I do not know.” He offered. Her face softened and the demeanour of the Red Guard was lost to Luke. Conversation flowed again but the interrogation didn’t end, power simply shifted sides.

“Did you enjoy the army?”

“Yes, it is simple and complete. Nothing lacks in life.”

“Did you sicken?” Katelyn spared a glance towards the room where her son lay asleep.

“Never. They gave us more chem then we had need for, we needed no sleep, no food, and little water.”

“Where can I go-” she considered her question, “can you take me, to enter my child,” she glanced down at her stomach, the first Luke had seen her acknowledge the pregnancy, “and my son? To enter both?”

“Enter them in the corps?”

“Yes.”

“I could do this, it would be better.” It might not be better, but it would be right. If what the corps, and what his God Michael had taught him, if these things were hollow, then what was not? He knew nothing else. “Yes. It would be better – it is a short trip from here, just deeper into the city.”

“Sansolace is not a safe city. How deep?”

“Two miles? Three? I cannot judge as well as I once could. We might ask the priest.”

“Yes. And your God will grant my boys safety?”

“Yes.” I must believe that he will.

Then we will leave, soon. First you can rest, and we can prepare. We need not go until the child is further along. Luke smiled. It was what he wanted, and she had decided the course, a relief to his muddled mind. Time flickered forward. The moments he shared with the oranges were ripe, sweet and delicious; food and conversation. He gave them stories of the corps, of hunting and victory, of freedom from sickness, and from weariness and hunger. Freedom from freedom. Luke taught Katelyn and her son that freedom was not sacred, not a blessing, but rather a curse given to the world by the false-gods, the Benefactor and others – false gods which the corps hunted and killed. Time flickered forward. Luke talked to the priest, mad and unable to lead. With Katelyn’s rifle in hand he questioned the mad man, he found a map of the city and was given details which would lead him to the corps recruitment center.

Luke killed the priest, held the rifle to the side of the blind man’s head and pulled the trigger.

There was a toothless smile on the old man’s face when he died, and as word of the priest’s death spread, so did word of the man who killed him. Luke began giving sermons from memory, and crowds gathered, such as Sansolace could offer. Time flickered forward, and Katelyn’s late-month came, and the time to leave. Luke blessed those who heard his last sermon and brought a man forward, the first after Daniel and Katelyn who had woken to Michael’s word. Cutting his palm in a sharp ‘x’ Luke blessed this new priest, and bid this man continue the word of Michael in his stead. One more day flickered by, and halfway through Katelyn’s eighth month, they started the move further into the city.

Sansolace was a jungle. Where the buildings that Katelyn and the small community on the outskirts of Sansolace lived in stopped at three stories, there seemed no limit to the height of the buildings within the depths of the city. The buildings towered with shining mirrored glass and shattered doors. Here electricity was inconsistent – the outskirts had been blessed with limited power, but for blocks at a time within Sansolace no man-made light would be glimpsed. The going was slow and the time seemed short. Already Katelyn complained that the child would be born soon. The city was overgrown, a jungle had invaded the urban space, but rarely had the growth overtaken the road, and so going was easier. The danger lay not in their pace, but in their weakness. Two men and one pregnant woman; stops at night left them in the dark or in the flickering light of a dying lamppost while glowing eyes watched from the tree-line. Whatever lurked beyond was loathe to enter the open street, a blessing Luke counted amongst many.

Daniel would be little help in a conflict; when forced to walk at a strong pace he would often be over-taken by coughing. Katelyn would not allow a forced march, and often stopped the journey on his behalf. Luke was unimpressed by the son’s lack of ability, but also pained that his sickness grasped at him, held him back. It will be better when he is part of the corps. As the journey continued, the sun above fading and returning and fading again, Luke renewed the woman and the boy’s spirit, making promises, buoying their humour with talk of health and chem. Katelyn he knew, was mistrustful of chem, but when the boy’s cough didn’t plague him the smile in her eyes spoke to a willingness to embrace anything which would calm the boy’s storming lungs. It was greater than three miles. Even at such a slow pace they claimed three miles at the end of the second day, but there were no blood-banners to be seen. There was no sign of the corps or of red-guards, only the eyes in the forest beyond the road, and other more intelligent eyes. Bright with understanding Luke felt them glaring down from the mirrored glass above and looked to the sky each night for a sign of fog. If the fog came then they would be forced to confront those eyes – the buildings offered the only shelter from such a death.

Time flickered by, a wash of pavement and grey buildings and green, verdant forest. There was a flickering once, the grey of wolf-hide. It moved beyond the tree-line, a group of three with yellow eyes; another flickering, the white of gulls and several times the crunch underfoot of red snail shells. High above time ticked in the moving of constellations, but nothing befell the travellers and after days of walking, at the falling of dark, the three came upon the first blood-banner. The flag marked the beginning of the city core.

The core of Sansolace was a fortress. High walls of solid steel stretched between the skyscrapers of an era past, and atop these walls patrolled officers of the red-guard. Above the core rose a dome of clear glass more than a foot thick. It was pocked and acid-stained by chem, but it kept the night-fog out and let the sun shine in. The door stood looming in front of Luke, an airlock for keeping the fog out on nights when it clung to close to the fortress. To either side of that fluttered the Michael’s flags, a face with no eyes on a red sea, reflecting the gold of a setting sun. It was an ill looking banner, but to Luke it spoke of home, structure and liberty from pressing decisions. The banner was release from decisions and from the need of a last name.

The door was opened after Luke gave his number and identification, and the three companions were permitted entrance. Some little time passed before they were admitted to the recruitment center.

Luke was welcomed back to the ranks of the Red Guard; he was dressed in a new uniform and given a full chem vial which shone bright purple and snapped comfortingly into his drive. Luke’s return to the neural synapses of the corps could not be accomplished in the city, but the commanding officer of Sansolace promised reintegration at Mikaelgard to the far west, or if Luke was impatient Lenossa to the north.

Luke was impatient: to be gone from Sansolace, and return to active duty. Despite his anxiety he waited to make sure that Katelyn’s boy, and her child, would be accepted into the corps. The baby was born, screaming and pale and red in the surgical tent of Sansolace, delivered by a Red Guard medic and wrapped immediately in warmed white cloth. The child was blessed by a priest of Michael; the old weary man pricking his finger with a black dirk such as was unavailable in the outskirts of the city, and smearing a blood-blessing on the child’s lips. All this Katelyn watched and smiled as the child was returned to her. David Orange his name was given, a name for his father. The priest recorded only the name David, and beside it in blocky script he wrote down a red-corps I.D. number.

Luke had intended to leave after the child was born, but he found himself distracted. He was pronounced Daniel’s mentor, tasked with instructing Daniel in Michael’s teachings along with a cursory understanding of drive manipulation. Luke found it hard to describe to the boy how the drive was bent to your will, but sometimes acted on its own – how fire, and ice, water and earth might be manipulated through the drive. He described to Daniel, alongside the teachings of Michael, how flesh could be healed by the drive, and how the drive would take over if harm came to the body. He explained how the drive could not be prevented from maintaining its user’s life. “Short of taking the chem vial out of the drive,”

Luke explained, “or running dry of chem, your drive will sustain you through grievous injuries, self-inflicted or otherwise.” Luke explained how you needed less food while you had chem, and how chem could be used to quench thirst – “a drop of chem,” Luke said, “is like drinking from a stream, pure and cold and refreshing.”

Time flickered onwards, a year passed. Daniel was accepted into the Red Guard, given his uniform – red suit, red tie, red dress pants and red dress shoes. He didn’t look a soldier, but a businessman. He was sent to Lenossa with another group of Businessmen, Red Guard recruits to be retrofitted. Luke watched them go. He would wait, he told himself, until the baby David was given his drive. The infant needn’t be retrofitted, and the day came quickly. David was carried in his mother’s arms to the administration terminal wrapped in pale red cloth, a quiet red – almost pink.

The terminal was a butchers shop. Blood soaked a counter, fresh spilled over-top of dried black.

Katelyn stood in line behind dozens of mothers, each of the babes wailed until they entered the tent, then the crying stopped and the mother returned empty-handed. Some mothers left bright-eyes and smiling, but more seemed to leave with looks of horror on their faces. One mother ran from the building tears streaming down her cheeks.

All the women stood alone except for Katelyn with Luke and as they neared their turn, they had to watch. Babes were placed one at a time on the counter, their pale skin dyed by the blood of the child before them. They squirmed horribly, crying and reaching for their mothers. Two red guards stood nearby, ready to stop the mother from interfering, and then a huge man in the black cloak of Michael’s high priests held a cleaver to the child’s arm, slightly above the elbow. With a small push, the large man forced the blade down to sever the limb. Always the crying stopped and the child stared stunned up at the priest’s uncaring face, unable to weep. The high priest never met the child’s eyes, but turned away and reached to a shelf behind him for a blow-torch, the type used in welding. With a flip-top lighter the priest lit the flame, and then cauterized the wound, stroking the flame back and forth over the stump of the limb. He would finish by closing off the flame and handing the infant to an assistant. Scraping the cleaver across the counter he cleared the severed limb into a waste basket. Luke was horror-struck by the cold efficiency and by the waste basket, as high as a man’s hip, filled with the left arms of babes.

They still dripped blood, pink and alive at the top, white and used beneath. Luke and Katelyn stood still in the line.

Third from the front. Luke looked to his right and down at Katelyn’s face. Her hair drooped over her eyes, and he couldn’t be sure. Second from the front. Luke turned Katelyn to him, grabbing her by the shoulders and swivelling her to face him. He brought his hand gently to her chin and lifted her head to look in her eyes. Front of the line. The smile which greeted him as her brown-grey hair fell away, and the truth of that smile in her eyes, broke Luke’s heart. She was genuinely happy.

Fear and pain. Hatred and anger. Emotion filled Luke as only humans can be filled, and motion grasped the soldier dressed head to toe in red-silk business attire. He tore the babe from Katelyn’s arms.

She didn’t resist immediately, she didn’t clutch the child closely, only let David go and looked to the Red Guard on either side for help. They moved, but they weren’t fuelled with fire as Luke was, their movements seemed cold and slow against the heat of Luke’s passion. He wrapped his hands around the infant protectively, as Katelyn should have, and took a knee as the guards approached. For a second he looked into their faces, and then away, down at the ground. Hard asphalt met his gaze, and then he closed his eyes and the world went away. When he opened them again he was elsewhere, baby David still clutched in his arms, a cold wind whistling through his hair. It had grown long, uncut since he had arrived on the outskirts of Sansolace more than twelve months prior. Snow fell in gently twirling arcs and the infant cried out with all its voice.

It was natural to cry Luke thought as he rose and stepped into the white, natural to call for a mother or a family. It was not a peaceful sound, but neither was it an ill song. A cave ahead called to Luke, opened and free of cold. Inside the sharp spark and hiss of an arc welder could be heard. It was the only place he had to run, the only man Luke knew who was not Michael’s. Cryos. Luke looked down at the child in his arms. He felt the cold seep into his bones, the snow well over his army shoes, and the red of his uniform darkened by wetness. The boy in his swaddling screamed and writhed in Luke’s embrace.

Luke stopped, a few feet from the shelter of the cave – he raised the boy in front of him, hands under arms he smiled and brought the child close kissing him on the forehead and whispering in his ear, hugging David to his shoulder. “Quiet, young David,” Luke had never spoken so gently, used to speaking with adults and soldiers. Used to being quiet. Luke frowned inwardly, stern for a moment, and then a smile lit up his face and the soldier-no-more was laughing. “Let it all out then, boy! Scream until your face is blue, and let no one say that David Orange’s lungs are those of his elder brother.” Luke stepped into the cave, warmth, and for a while, peace. David Orange stopped crying.

About the Author:

My name is Daniel Moore and I live in Hamilton Ontario where I attend McMaster University. I am a writer in my spare time, dreaming of sometime ‘making it big’ and I am a full-time student working towards a B.A. in English and History. My favourite books (I don’t like everything from any one author.) are George Orwell’s 1984, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and William Gibsons Mona Lisa Overdrive. I am the Warhammer Executive of the McMaster nerd club and love to talk about writing. If you are interested in what I have been writing, or what I plan on writing in the future you can contact me directly at DanielThomasMoore@hotmail.com. I’d love to hear from anyone who enjoys my work and PayPal Donations are appreciated.

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