Chapter 1: Arkhangelsky
My name is Innocence Smith. I am nineteen years old, and I am about to die. This here is the story of my life.
I was born in Shadowlair, in the tangling mess of corrugated steel buildings and red dirt tracks that makes up the capital of Aurora. My parents were good people, engaged in the community and working hard for a better life. My dad ran a small shop at the first floor in our house and my mom was an electrician, she was good with everything that ran a current, instantly feeling when something was wrong and how to fix it. I guess they met around town at one point in their youth but I don’t really know, anyhow, they loved each other very much.
I was born at dawn, in the minutes before the sunrise, not that we see much of it here. The sky in Shadowlair is almost entirely covered with sheets of metal, protecting us against the corrosive radiation of the sun. Below we carry out our lives in the half dusk, stepping carefully around the few patches of light when sun is at zenith. Even like that, most wear dark tinted goggles and protective clothing all their lives.
I love Mars, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that sometimes the planet is a bitch to live on. Yet, even if you cannot see the dawn it still holds a special place in people’s minds, like a promise of better things to come.
Anyway, my dad had held me and apparently I had smiled, only seconds old and it had melted my old man’s heart. They named me Innocent after that, hoping I suppose I would stay that way. They were wrong of course.
The first fifteen years of my life is not much to tell you about. I was a regular kid, not much going on in my life, something I realize now was a good thing. I lived and it was fine most of the time, school and helping my parents with the tiny vegetable garden at the back of the house.
When I look back now I feel a calm sense of happiness remembering those days. When I close my eyes I can still smell the dry earth and remember how carefully I would tilt the pot to let a few drops of water fall down, glittering as they rained down over the plants.
Water, the ultimate luxury here on Mars. There are old stories told in hushed whispers on dark evenings about Earth. That there used to be gatherings of free water so big a person could walk in them. I’m sure they are just stories though. No one would leave that much water just lying around getting stepped in. With all the sun we get here energy is not really a problem, it is water that is rare.
When you think about it like this I suppose everyone always knew that it would be water that caused the war.
I’m still not exactly sure how it started, perhaps nobody is. I think it was Abundance, but it might as well have been us—Aurora—who tried to claim a hydroponic farm of the opposite side. Then all hell broke loose, likely it had been a long time coming. The war, I suppose that’s where my story really begins.
The war began when I was thirteen, about to turn fourteen. I was laying on the floor at home, head bent over homework. It was a hot afternoon and the metal sheets cooled me. The radio was on and the news was broadcasted into every single home and even in speakers out on the streets.
Someone named Wisdom was shouting about courage and union but I didn’t listen much. I was putting all my attention on the little stick figures I was drawing all over my homework. They were small, small astronauts riding rockets going off to explore the universe. In short, I missed much of the things the general was saying.
My parents were talking in slow cut off statements behind me,
“This could change everything,” my mother said.
“Hopefully,” my dad added, “Something better could come from this.”
They had clasped hands below the table; I saw it from my position on the floor. I remember wondering briefly why they would do that before my interest lapsed and I started to draw something else.
The war started slow, so that you had time to get used to the idea of it. At first it was only apparent in the news and in the conversations people had on the streets. At this point it was something that happened somewhere else and likewise concerned someone else.
Then half a year or so in the randomised drafting by lottery started. I guess they had realised that the tiny army we kept was not going to cut it.
Dad's name got pulled straight away and he went gladly, he was so proud of his uniform. Mom was too, although a bit miffed that her work at the water plant was considered too important for her to be part of the lottery, she was not even allowed to sign up voluntarily. I remember dad stroking the rough fabric of the jacket, his fingers equally rough from a life of hard work. It seemed so exciting and good. He was going off to make our world a better one, we would defeat the enemy and we would do it together; like one united nation.
We waved him of, him and the other first recruits, thinking they be back within the month, shining from glorious victory. I can’t believe I was ever that Innocent. Yeah the old pun about virtue names, I know, cheap. In Aurora, everyone got virtue names; it is just the way things are. My mother’s name was Moderation and my dad was called Consideration, so there you go.
We didn’t see him for seven months.
By then the realisation that the war might last for a while had begun to sink in along with the brute realities of it. Life on Mars is not simple, death rates are high and injuries common, people starve, thirst, and are the victims of crime. There are also many sicknesses without cures, like the poor fuckers who are sensitive and suffer from the high levels of radiation from the sun and turn mutant; shunned by everyone and forced to live as pariahs. Yet, none of this had prepared us for war.
Anyway dad came back one day. The uniform he had been so proud of now crusty with dirt and dried blood. It was torn and badly mended. It didn’t hide his leg either, mangled to shreds below the knee by a grenade. One of ours gone astray I learned later.
He came back missing more than the function in his right leg my dad, he came back without hope.
I didn’t notice at the time though, I was fifteen and dead to anything but my own life. Dad was alive and back, that was all I cared about. He and mom stayed up late at nights, I could hear them talking through the cracks in-between the steel sheets that made up our house. It felt good, to have them both back and I paid no more attention.
By the time strange people started coming round the house at all hours having meetings in the back of the shop I had other things on my mind.
My best friends name was Caution, and despite her name she was anything but. She was the one who always got me in trouble and the one who convinced me that her absolutely mad schemes were actually very sensible and the right thing to do.
Since the war started we had begun hanging out on a small rise overlooking the train station. For some reason many of the more important events of my life has taken place in or in close proximity to trains and train stations. Occasionally it makes me want to believe in faith.
Today was no different from any other day, except that it was the day before Caution was turning sixteen. She was four months and 26 days older than me, through our childhood she never failed to remind me that she was the oldest. Sixteen might not sound like such a big deal, but it was the age at which you could sign up.
I was lying on my stomach, head resting on my hands. My hair was not yet sheered short and a lock of blond hair kept falling down into my eyes where I made futile efforts of blowing it away, too lazy to bother lifting my arm.
“I’m signing up, tomorrow” Caution said.
I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular so it took me a while to realize she had spoken. It was however clear what she meant.
I rolled over and looked at her; I could practically feel my blue eyes go wide in wonder.
“Really?” I asked.
She looked at me, seriousness and what I at that point mistook for adultness on her features. She nodded gravely.
“Yep, I listened to General Wisdom speaking yesterday on the radio. He said we should all do our bit for Aurora and that this will lead to increased equality for all.” She went on for a bit but she had already lost me, politics were not my strong side.
I looked at her, she looked so convinced, so strong. She wanted something, she believed in something and it fascinated me. I had never really believed in anything or cared much about stuff like this. Not the way I could see she cared. Her brown eyes blazed as she talked, her hands gesticulated wildly in the air. For a second I thought that maybe I was a bit in love with her.
When we turned seven we had sworn an oath that once we grew up we would marry and then explore the world. That clause about exploring the world had been mostly her, I just agreed. If she wanted to explore the world, then I probably wanted it to. But since then I had always assumed that was how it was gonna go; love had not really been a part of it. Like so much else I seemed beyond caring about it.
“Innocence, are you even listening?” She looked angry, hands at her sides, staring at me.
I tried smiling, it usually helped with her. She always told me I had a beautiful smile.
“But are you really going to sign up?” I asked again when my smile proved ineffectual, and because I really wanted to know.
“Yes, of course.” She said and I saw her become serious again.
“Does that mean I won’t get to see you anymore?” I asked. I want to think I was sad at this prospect at the time but I can’t seem to remember much beyond a certain sense of curiousness and misplaced envy.
That made her smile at me, “Course not, once you turn sixteen you can come after me and we will fight side by side.”
I nodded; clearly that’s what was going to happen.
She didn’t really wait for acquiesce, she knew I was going to do what she said, I always did. She edged closer instead, suddenly looking uncertain.
She raised a hand tentatively and placed it on my bare arm, it was feather light and made me swallow in a way her hand never had before.
“So I’m leaving tomorrow, and it might be a while until we see each other again. Besides, I’m almost sixteen today.” She moved closer still and I suppose my name must have really clogged my brain because I had no idea what she was doing.
Then she bent down and kissed me and I started to get the drift. I think she had been waiting for me, as the boy, to make the first move. Sometimes Aurora is still a bit stuck on old ideas like that. Her lips were warm and very soft on mine, it felt curious but also exciting, I had been kissed before, but never with any real intent of anything more. This though, I could feel had more behind it.
In the end we made love there on that little hill. It was a lot of fumbling and embarrassment but we did it. Afterwards, as we held each other while the noises of the busy railway station surrounded us, I felt grown up for the first time.
The next day Caution signed up, she was shipped off for a few weeks of training almost instantly. The front needed recruits and needed them yesterday.
I never saw her again.
A long time after that day I met a guy who had fought with her. She had been a young sergeant by then, respected by the soldiers under her command. He told me she had died at Green Hope, that last gruesome battle at the very end of the war that claimed so many, many lives. I remember feeling sad then, both for her and for the fact that in all those years I had not thought of her more.
Chapter 2: Babakin
I didn’t wait those last five months to turn sixteen. One month after Caution left I walked up to the military recruitment office, wielding a really bad fake ID claiming I was 18 brandished like a weapon in my hand. I never even had to show it. Ever since General Wisdom had become President Wisdom a few months back signing up had become a lot easier.
The woman behind the desk was already a veteran, and the war hadn’t really been at full speed for two years yet. She had no left arm, only a dull metal construction ending in a hook. Her eyes were hard and cold, as if she had seen too much, I guess that should have warned me.
I told her I was signing up and she only hummed and typed my name into her computer. It all took less than five minutes, I remember being disappointed. I was off to defend Aurora, seeking glory and all that, I had expected trumpets or at least some handshaking and congratulations.
I stepped out of the office and into the dirt street, the railway lay to my left, it was boiling with soldiers and civilians unpacking and packing trains on their way to the front. Off came wounded soldiers and black, oval bags. Body bags I understood later. On the trains went bright-eyed and rosy cheeked youth off to replace the wounded and dead.
I looked down at the paper slip I held, recruit it said in fat, black letters and then my name, Innocence. Recruit Innocence Smith, age 18. I looked at it for a long while, unaware of the mass of people shuffling about around me. I had thought I would feel like an adult holding this, but I felt no different from before.
If you ask me now I could not tell you why I signed up. It was not something anyone had expected of me, least of all myself. Perhaps it was in search of something to believe in or some direction in my life; I was still envious of the devotion I had seen in Caution. But I think I have to disappoint you; there was no great epiphany, no overarching noble reason why I did it. I just woke up one morning and decided to become a soldier. Sometimes people just do stuff, real life happens and that’s it.
I didn’t tell my parents. They were busy these days anyway. I packed a small bag, wrote a letter and then I left, off to see the world.
Training was brutal, dirty, and demeaning. We were jam packed in barracks stinking of every body fluids on record and some that could have been anything. Every day we worked hard, marching, running, shooting, fighting, and then doing it all some more. There was never enough food or enough sleep to go around.
I got along well with the others. I had feared my name would be a problem in the army but we had this one guy in my company actually called Peaceful. I don’t think I have to tell you he had to grow a thick hide pretty quick.
After a few weeks basic training was over. Not that we knew all we needed by then, far from it, but we had learned not ask questions and shut up unless spoken to directly. It was not how to fight that they actually though us, but how to obey; a much more necessary skill for a soldier.
On our last night in training we got to shave our heads, a sign that we were actually soldiers now. We were all eager. I remember feeling alive as my hair fell from my head and down on the ground. I was so excited I might have been shaking, but then so were all of us. Someone, I cannot remember who, slapped my shoulder and told me I was done, I jumped up and ran to the polished bit of metal on the wall serving as a mirror. I pushed in between two other boys and took a first look at myself as a soldier.
The face looking back at me did not look like a grown man at all; I had thought that removing my hair would somehow hide my youth. It was the other way around; I looked even younger, eyes huge in my face, cheeks obviously not needing to shave more than once a month. I turned away, something like shame in my throat. Someone had managed to smuggle in some homemade brew and the bottle was passed along with the trimmers. It tasted like acid and burned on the way down but I gulped it down anyway. It took the edge off and soon those pale eyes in the mirror were forgotten.
I killed my first man the day I turned sixteen. I’m almost sure it was a man at least, Abundance don’t allow women in their army for some reason. So, like I said, almost sure.
It was a small skirmish out on the northern front, my first. The recruits I had trained with all got shipped up there. Some weeks before we arrived there had been a confrontation here which had decimated our forces and so new troops were transferred as rapidly as possible to not leave the place weakened.
Once we arrived they mixed us up with the more experienced soldiers, I ended up with a bunch of guys from another part of Aurora along with Peaceful and Modest from my training days. The three of us got along well, they, as me, were from Shadowlair and so felt superior to the country louts. It almost made up for the fact that they had seen battle and we hadn’t.
My mission that day was supposed to be pure reconnaissance; look, report, and go home. Afterwards they said we were lucky, I just think we were unlucky.
A small group of enemy soldiers had creeped up along a small ridge, probably moving at night and digging in during the day. They can’t have moved more than a couple of hundred feet per night, erasing every trail of their progress and creating elaborate hiding structures for the day time.
My patrol of six just sort of fell on the enemy encampment. We had taken a wrong turn in our patrol and were following the ridge in an attempt at getting back on track. We were half running, sweating like pigs in our heavy military getup; it was supposed to protect us from the sun as much as from bullets and energy weapons.
I was looking back across the wide expanse of hard sand that we had come across, our footsteps still clearly visible when suddenly the ground gave away under me and I fell down to my knees. My leg was suddenly buried to my hip in what had looked like solid ground just moments before.
As I said, they had put an awful lot of effort into this, only to be accidentally found just a mile from our camp perimeter. Had we not been bad at map reading, we might never have seen them coming. But that’s war for you, all random destruction and unnecessary death, winning is as much about luck as it is about strategy. The fact that we as a species has managed to colonise the solar system but not managed to do away with the process of killing each other in this sloppy, useless way makes me fear for the galaxy.
Someone next to me, unsure who really, pulled my up with a firm hand. I stumbled back and as I regained my footing I realized what we had found. The ground fell away, the hiding structure weakened by my breach. Up came Abundance soldiers, weapons aimed and shooting at us. From there it was just a matter of trying to kill them before they killed us.
It was incredibly intense my first experience with close combat. As soon as it ended it was just a haze of red fog, exhaust from weapons mixing with red blood and red sand tinting it all in the colour of death. But it was so clear when it happened. I remember lifting my weapon as in slow motion and shooting at a big black shape and seeing my bullets rip holes as big as my fists in clothes and flesh. I guess there was a lot of sound, but I don’t remember it. Adrenalin made my heart beat so loudly in my ears that I could not hear anything else.
After the dust settled and no one else was shooting we took stock. Three of them dead and one of us. That was a win according to the logic of war.
After that we were told to fall back and we did a hasty exit back. We left Frugal there, she was dead anyway. Some elite squad came and cleaned it up and we never saw the sight again. The higher-ups worried the infiltrators might have carried some new tech or explosives that they were gonna use to take down our base.
That evening we celebrated my transition to adulthood. More due to the kill than for the fact that I was now of legal age to be in the army; I was not the only one who had lied about my age. In another company stationed at the camp was a girl named Courage who swore by oath that she had turned fourteen but I very much doubted she was more than thirteen.
We were all a bunch of kids, dressed up and playing war. Sure there were older men and women around but they tended to keep to themselves, leaving us ‘cannon fodder’ to our own business as long as we stayed out of their way. However, once the war spread properly to our little nook that all stopped.
The main part of our army was slowly but surely kicking the shit out of the Abundance troops down south, and while that was a good thing in general it meant that the main battle front spread and things got heated in the north. The days of small patrols were over and we dug in and started a trench war.
I have a hard time putting things back then in any sort of chronological order. I remember always being tired, hungry, and dirty. Each sleep cycle I would drop dead wherever I was, my automatic rifle as a pillow and my hand pressed to my chest where under layers of camouflage canvas the only letter from my parents that had managed to get to me resided. I kept thinking I was going to write back as soon as I had some time to spare. I never had.
It was hard always physically being on the verge of what you could handle. To save energy your mind seem to slow down, thinking was after not something encouraged either. You ran where they told you, shot in the direction they pointed, and slept and ate when you could. Every day was the other alike. We were set to defend a stretch of land that someone, somewhere that was not here had decided was important. I cannot tell you how many times I fought back and forth over that place. Sometimes we were occupying it and building fortifications and the next day we were evacuating burning what we had just build behind us.
The only event that I remember clearly is when Peaceful died. Had his head burned off due to an electrical overload by a Technomancer. It was the first one I had ever seen in action, these men and women who are born with that much extra electrical potential in their bodies. We are all charged, it is what’s keeping our atoms from falling apart. Some, however, can take this charge and create electricity that bends to their will. We have our own Technomancers in Aurora, but I had never seen one in battle before, and I can tell you it scared the shit out me.
The man was almost glowing, his hair standing on edge and you could see the electrical charge between his hands. I learned later that they wear special gloves that helps them concentrate and also protects them from the electricity, but to me it simply looked like magic. I stared, thinking how beautiful that blue orb was, the first non-ugly thing I had seen in months.
The next thing I knew it is flying towards us and hits Peaceful straight in the face and his head sort of melts until there is nothing there, just a smoking neck and a smell like cooking meat and burnt hair all rolled up in one. It felt like a lifetime before his body realised it was dead and toppled over. I think I threw up; at least I seem to remember the taste of sick in my mouth.
The event really freaked me out. I was so sure I was going to die, perhaps that’s why I remember it so clearly. The next I knew the Mancer was moving away from me, burning as he went. You could see the ripples through the fighting and follow the screams. I turned my back on Peaceful, not wanting to see him like this.
Besides that one day the rest just floats together in my memory, we fought and I for some reason lived on.
I spent around a year and a half as a soldier in the Auroran army. I celebrated two birthdays, had twelve confirmed kill, and buried many friends. I saw soldiers get shipped home and new ones arrive. It wasn’t long until I was the one looking down on the new arrivals with distain, calling them green rookies with no experience from war.
Surviving or managing to stay injury free for over a year makes you one of the seniors, regardless of your age. Had the war gone on for longer and I stayed put then I would likely had been raised sergeant before I turned eighteen. Experience sometimes trumps age.
The last six months the rumours started; the war was apparently not going well for Abundance. We had started slightly ahead and they had never managed to catch up. Ever so slowly we were winning from pure perseverance. Talk about a stop to the fighting seemed to increase by the day.
The men and women station with me slowly started to dream about going home to their loved ones and starting their lives over again. Many hoped for better days ahead, they had joined the army as my old friend Modesty for the promises from General Wisdom that we would be one great nation after this, inequalities would be purged by the war and all citizens of Aurora made equal.
I couldn’t help notice that the Technomancers seemed to stay out of the discussion. Historically they had always had a huge influence on the powers of all the guilds on Mars, not only in Aurora and Abundance. Would they really relinquish power and help Aurora turn into a functioning democracy? I had my doubts.
Chapter 3: Cassini
Soon all those dreams of home and family came crashing down like the house of cards they were. How it happened, I’m not sure. Maybe people started to relax now that it looked like we were winning, or maybe we had all been run down to the core, too tired to pay enough attention.
What happened was that our outpost got cut off from the rest of the supply line. As more Abundance troops swarmed north we found ourselves surrounded and outnumbered. Home base just said there was nothing they could do, no reinforcements were available; all forces had already been redirected south, for the final stand. No one cared about our little shitty outpost.
We ran out of food first now that our supply lines were broken. Had it lasted a few more days we would have run out of water as well. Now it never came to that. The only thing I remember from those days is the feeling that my stomach was slowly gnawing on my ribs, I dreamt of food when I could sleep and was constantly nauseous, even though I had nothing to throw up.
In the end we didn’t even put up a decent fight, the officers just gave up. Hoping our lives would be spared I guess. Or maybe they just hoped Abundance would feed us.
The enemy soldiers came at night, simply blasting through our make shift defences, sending guards and unlucky soldiers standing or sleeping too close flying. Then they poured in, line after line of well-armed and well fed troops, quickly and efficiently shooting anyone who resisted and disarming the rest. It was over in a heartbeat.
We were striped of our uniforms; vests, trousers and shoes were left to us and then we were pushed onto a cargo train. Dozen upon dozen men in each carriage, stacked like chickens. It was hot and cramped with a depressing sense of despair and failure in the air. I slid down against the wall, knees tucked against my chest to fit. I was tired all the way into my bones but I could not sleep.
I’m not sure how long the train ride lasted; could have been hours and could have been days. Twice they stopped and small buckets of water were passed in to us. Some of the older guys took to distributing it between us, keeping the angry and scared ones at bay. I’m sure they sneaked in an extra sip but I didn’t mind, everyone got something to drink.
When the train stopped a third time and when no sunlight tried to blind us as the train door opened I realised we had reached our goal. I had to massage my legs awake, they had fallen asleep. I was not the only one; we stepped out of the carriage slow and with a sense of trepidation. It wasn’t until I got outside I realised how bad we all smelled and how infested with sick and human waste the cart had been.
We lined up outside, some men crying openly, some just standing passively, too shell shocked to care. To our side we could see men unloading the other carts of the train; they were dressed randomly, seemingly in whatever they had found. They were guarded by tall men with electric prods wearing Abundance uniforms. A prison camp, I realised and looked around me, wondering if that mean they were gonna let us work instead of killing us?
The ones too tired or to despondent to get out of the train on their own accord were being dragged and kicked out by two uniformed men while three others kept our sorry lot under guard. It was five of them and about a hundred of us, had we not been so tired, hungry, and beaten we could have taken them in a second. As it was now, nobody even though about it.
The man in front of me suddenly fell down, his legs just crumbled and then he was lying there. I fell down beside him, shaking his shoulder.
I didn’t get a reply so I turned him over, his face was grey and pasty, covered in a layer of sweat. He seemed unconscious, breathing shallowly. Before I could check him closer a guard spotted us.
“You there, get up!” he shouted. I ignored him; head down and whatever you do, don’t talk back. I just had to assume soldiers were the same everywhere. I looked at the fallen man, his hands were wound tight across his stomach, I pried one loose and almost lost it. Where his stomach was supposed to be was only a red mess of wounded flesh, I could see his intestines and I realised that it was a miracle he had lived so long. He must have panicked and tried to hide his wound.
I was almost glad when a boot connected with my face. The kick was not hard enough to drive me unconscious, merely enough to force me to fall over and loose contact with the wounded man. I rolled over and tried to get up, looking dimly at the guard above me, electric rod raised in case I tried to fight back.
“I said, get up,” he said calmly.
I did rise, he hadn’t said be quiet though, more than a year as a soldier and you learn a thing or two. I got up quickly.
“He is dying, he has the right to last water,” I said quickly, taking half a step back and into the line, obeying at the same time as I spoke.
“If you are trying any funny business I will beat you so badly your mother won’t recognise you,” he raised his arm perfunctory, just to make sure I had understood.
“Sir, no sir,” I added for good measure and repeated, “He has the right to last water.”
The guard looked down at the glistening mess of intestines and he grimaced in disgust but I knew I had him. Everyone on Mars will think twice before denying a dying person the right to one last drink, its universal. That’s how important water is.
He nodded at me, then called for someone to bring him water before walking away. I let out my breath, not knowing I had held it all this time. I do not know why I had done that, risked my life so that a dying stranger could get his water. Maybe because it could as well have been me, maybe because that was the person I was slowly growing up to be.
After a head count we were ushered on, away from the train and into the camp proper. I learned later that is was one of the largest facilities in Abundance, population measured in thousands with many more prisoners than guards. It was named Camp 19 and had been around since the very start of the war. Before it had been a high security prison. As the war broke out they had simply sent the inmates out as soldiers.
The train station was actually inside the camp, to make it more secure, with a tunnel leading out. The camp was built half inside a mountainside and half out. A large chunk of the mountain had been blown away, making a plateau. So the camp had a several hundred feet drop on one side and a well-guarded tunnel as the only entrance on the other side. It was genius.
We were given a half-hearted welcome speach boiling down to, do the task you are assigned, do not seek trouble, do not attack the guards and if you are good you can all manage yourself. I know I said prison, but there were no locked cells and all prisoners had some very restricted freedom of movement. After all, there was no escape so no point in trying and it was cheaper if prisoners managed themselves and worked. We were split up into smaller groups and sent to different parts of the camp. My group of ten were sent straight off to the nearest sand shower to get rid of the worst of the smell.
That was where trouble really found me.
I kept my head down walking into the dingy shower room; badly lit with sand showers along the walls. I tried my best not to draw any more attention to myself, turns out I was all out of luck on that one.
“Check it out guys, fresh meat,” the man who spoke was a big slab of meat. It was hard to tell if he was only fat or if there was muscle underneath it all. He had the body composition of a barrel, chest round and a tiny, bald head on top.
I was tired and I think I looked too long because he noticed me in the line of bedraggled prisoners. I could see him elbowing a tall man standing beside him and nodding in my direction. I looked down and tried to melt into the floor
“Aren’t you a pretty little thing,” I felt more than saw the room quickly emptying as the tall guy pointed folk at the door. He must have had a weapon of some sort, but I couldn’t see around the frame of the fat man, who had moved close and was standing way inside my personal space.
“I’m Fatso,” said the man, a grin showing a row of bad teeth, slapping his stomach like it was the best joke this side of Thursday.
“I don’t want any trouble,” I started but was cut short as Fatso put one of his broad sweaty palms on my chest.
“Well pretty thing, you and I are going to be such good friends.”
I pushed his hand away, my skin creeping. I guess that was a bad move as the next thing I knew my face connected unpleasantly with the steel wall. My head was turned sideways and a rivet kept digging into my check bone; I could taste blood in my mouth. The sharp iron tang on my tongue made me nauseous.
Then I could feel his fleshy hand pawing my thigh, far too high up and with far too much intent for me to believe this was a joke. I tried to get away, arms waving aimlessly behind me but I had no strength left in me. After weeks of starvation and the trip in the train this felt like that final straw which broke the camel’s back as they say, whatever a camel is.
He just laughed and banged my head against the wall a few times, not hard enough to do any permanent damage but hard enough I got the drift. My vision swam and I could hear a constant ringing noise in my ears. His other hand started pulling at my waistband, forcing my pants down over my hips.
I was fucked, I realised. No way out and had I not been so damned scared I might have laughed at that horrible pun. As it was I just gave up, so this was how I was gonna spend the rest of the war? I almost wished I could have changed place with Peaceful, then I would not have had to be here feeling some fat guys dick grow hard against my ass.
Can’t say my heart was in it though; guess my will to live was too strong. I bit down hard and decided to just take it as a man. It was about then that it got through my foggy head that the hand forcing my face into the wall had let go a bit. I looked up as Fatso shouted at someone standing in the door.
“Yeah, what do you want? Your share? This one is mine. If you wanna check out the scenery, just set yourself down. I am nothing if not a helper.”
I couldn’t hear any reply, but there must have been one ‘cus the idiot let me go and I think I might have shed a quiet tear of relief as he pushed away, no longer touching me.
“Looking for trouble, or what? Fucking retard,” Fatso shouted.
I’m not sure what happened next, I was too busy pulling my pants back up and trying not to cry. In the background the threatening voices died down and then Fatso and friend were leaving, a string of profanities thrown about them in a feeble attempt at saving face.
I straightened my back and had a look at my rescuer. He was taller than me, at least ten years older, perhaps more. Hard to tell on Mars, people grow old fast. He was dressed in a piecemeal outfit, all brown and grey mismatched items that only vaguely managed to give the impression of a prisoner’s uniform.
He didn’t bear his clothes like it either. He had an air about him. Like he was only here because he choose to. It was then that I saw his eyes. One pupil blue, one green; almost brown. It startled me.
“Uhm , thanks for helping me out...” I let the last bit drift in the air.
He leaned his head slightly to the side and lifted an eyebrow towards me.
“You’re not scared I’m after what he was?”
To be honest, the thought had crossed my mind, and the longer he met my stare the less certain I became.
“Are you?” I said, beyond scared at this point.
He shook his head, a smile almost hinting at the corners of his mouth.
“Toughening up already are we.” It was a statement, not a question.
“You realise this is not the end of it? If I were you I would watch my back very, very careful from here on. Fatso got more power here than you would think.”
I only nodded, to ground down for any other response.
Anyway,” he said, “We should get out of here.”
“Thank you,” I said again, more heartfelt this time.
I followed him out, not knowing where, still dirty as hell and now that the adrenalin was wearing off, so tired I was about to fall down.
He didn’t speak at first and I just trailed behind, had he walked out over a cliff I would have followed, that’s how much attention I was capable of.
When he stopped in front of me I stopped and looked up. We were in a steel barrack, bunk beds lining the walls. Some had raggedy sheets hanged in front of them to create at least an illusion of privacy, all I could see unoccupied; it was still early.
“There,” he pointed at an empty bed; a bare matrass on a steel frame, nothing more. It looked like the most inviting thing I ever saw. I hesitated anyway.
“Goodness killed himself last week, no one dared take his cot so feel free to have it.”
I sat down heavy on it.
“Thanks.” I said.
“You seem to say that a lot,” He said and I was not sure if he was mocking me or not.
“Sleep, the camp will be in chaos absorbing all the new prisoners from today, they won’t notice that you skipped for a few days and before then we can just slide you in.”
I was about to say thank you again but stopped myself, lips already formed around the first syllable, mouth hanging open. I think he saw because he half snorted, half laughed.
“What’s your name?” I said instead, “Mine’s Innocence.”
“Just sleep kid,” he said, and I did.
Thus ended my first day at Camp 19.
Chapter 4: Da Vinci
When I woke, things felt better. My rest had been undisturbed and I had slept like the dead for the first time in a long while.
It felt like the middle of the day and the sleeping quarter appeared to be empty. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had been alone. Private space is considered an unnecessary luxury for a soldier at war.
I found a bucket of sand under my bed and someone had tucked a cleanish vest under my head while I slept, I suspected my strange benefactor. So I scrubbed down and felt like a new man once the blood and sweat was off me.
I did eventually manage to go to the showers without being paralysed by intense waves of shame and fear, but it took a while. Right now shame was quite high on the list of feelings running amok inside me but hunger was at the very top and, at least for me, pure physical need trumped my wounded mental state.
I set out to find food and try to figure out where everyone were, working I supposed, wasn’t this a work camp after all?
During my stay in Camp 19 I did indeed learn that we were supposed to work. The problem was just that no one seemed really clear on what we were supposed to work with exactly. The primary reason to keep us was of course as bargaining chips in the war and to weaken the enemy, that being us, by reducing the number of soldiers. Most of the prison guards had no genuine will to make life hell for us, I said most, not all. Maybe because they all knew someone in a camp on our side, I think that was what really kept the delicate balance.
So we produced our own food, took care of our own waste, built our own accommodation. We also ran a water plant, water that we used and some that was transported away with train. Most of the things the army needed, food, weapons, and so on they never trusted us enough to work with. There were some things going on of course, production and recycling plants, but all in all we were not worked to our bones. Sure we had too little to eat, were beaten often both by guards and by our own. The social hierarchy was a minefield with no safe path.
Yet it was possible to survive.
So in order to find food. I ventured out.
I didn’t get more than a few steps until someone called me over.
“Kid.” More like a statement than a greeting.
I turned around, even if I had already identified my new friend by the sound of his voice.
“Morning,” I said.
“Hungry?” He said and I remember thinking that he was not much of a talker, as it was gonna turn out that was only partly true.
“Starving,” I replied.
He took me to the cantina, a low ceilinged building placed quite central in the camp. This was where all the prisoners got their food, guards ate somewhere else, probably not much better though. It was some complex system of points that you punched into a computer to get a slip of paper that you could trade for food. He told me the points came from working, or you could steal the paper slips from others, so I should be careful. Like I hadn’t been to that lecture already.
The point system was what was supposed to motive us to keep coming to work and keep the order ourselves. It was all designed so that the guards would have to do as little as possible themselves.
Anyway, since I had no points yet, I hadn’t been registered after all, he bought me some mushroom stew and we sat down at an empty table. It smelt like heaven, I hadn’t had a proper meal in weeks. I was careful though, after this long eating too fast could be bad for you. So I took my time with it, savouring every bite as it went down.
It was in-between meal times so the place was sparsely occupied. Some guys on the other side playing cards and another one just loitering around the entrance.
“That’s Jay, you ever need anything he’s you guy. If you can pay that is.” My new friend pointed at the guy at the door, he looked older than most, tufts of greying hair sticking out under a cap the colour of dirt.
I nodded and listened, I had figured out that if I wanted to get out of this camp alive then I would have to learn and learn fast. And this guy, he was my road to knowledge.
I finished my meal with my benefactor siting quiet most of the time, sometimes looking at me, sometimes looking at people coming and going. I could sense when his eyes fell on me, penetrating. I couldn’t decide if his gaze seemed older than he looked or if it was just the oddity of his differently coloured eyes that threw me off. It made me nervous to be around him, yet I did not think he wished me any harm, although I was sure he wanted something. Everybody always wants something.
I carefully wiped up the last of the sauce with my finger, thinking that whatever happened, at least I had gotten food out of this. I pushed my plate away and steeled myself to ask what had been on my mind since I woke.
“Why did you stick your neck out for me?”
He turned fully towards me, ice cold gaze weighting me, taking my measurements. I felt as if he was searching for something in me and that it would be bad for me if I came up short. So I straightened my back and looked back defiantly.
He nodded slightly and took a drink from his cup as if thinking something through. He finally spoke,
“I saw what you did for that dying man.”
It took me a second to remember the wounded soldier by the train, it felt like a lifetime had passed since then. I didn’t say anything back, didn’t know what.
“You don’t see that kind of decency, and bravery often here.”
I think I actually blushed at that, as if I really wanted him to see exactly how young I was. It’s just that being called brave is not something that had happened to me often; never was in fact more accurate.
“I didn’t really think about it, it just seemed like the thing to do at the time,” I said lamely, as if I wanted to diminish what I had done.
He looked up and again I could feel him taking stock of me. To be honest it was beginning to freak me out.
I licked my lips nervously, “What is it you want with me?”
“You assume I want something?” He replied, voice steady.
“Everyone wants something,” I replied.
He sighed, actually sighed, then said,
“I suppose you’re right. I don’t know, maybe your name is playing tricks on my mind but the fact is that I need someone to trust, someone new to the camp and you seem the most likely candidate.”
I let it sink in, so he wanted me to, what, listen, do something for him, or what? In the end I had no idea what he was talking about.
“I don’t suppose you know anything about electronics do you?”
He half rose as if to leave and I could feel that whatever he had been about to trust me with he had decided against. My survival in this camp was lying at his feet and I could just feel it slipping away.
“My mom, she was an electrician, so yeah I do know stuff,” technically that was not a lie, however, how much I actually knew was a very good question.
It had the desired effect though, he stopped in his track.
“Huh,” he said, “maybe this can work out after all.” He beckoned for me to follow and we walked out of the cantina.
He took me down a cleared road, away from the sleeping quarter and I feel into step with him. He didn’t look at me when he started talking.
“I need someone working at the power plant, if you tell them you know electronics they put you there straight away. Once you get there, just keep your eyes open, ok?”
“Yeah sure, I can do that,” I had no idea what he was after, but that I could do.
“Good. Name’s Roy by the way.”
So I became an electrician in the camp, working the power station. I’ll admit, in the beginning not much made sense but I got along by sheer luck, being quiet, and listening. On my third day I traded a bottle of moonshine that Roy gave me for a couple of homemade copies of basic instruction guides to advanced electronics. I’m also quite smart, that helped.
Chapter 5: Escalante
A week passed, then two, the bruises on my face healed and I stopped looking like a beat up puppy. The work was ok actually, I got to do something and I learned a lot, I almost liked it.
There was also food around. Mostly high processed mushroom and energy goo that we made ourselves, but it had calories and kept you full. After all those months in the trenches with never enough food it was like a feast. I think I even stopped looking so much like a skeleton.
We were maybe thirteen hundred prisoners in the camp and a hundred and fifth or so guards on rotating duty. It was like a small village. Although, there were no women in the camp, apparently the ones taken prisoners from our side were taken to a different camp, one with all women.
I saw Roy every day, he always showed up for the evening meal and we ate together. We either did not talk much or he gave me instructions in how the camp worked, but there was something comfortable with his company.
I didn’t really make any other friends, some people chatted with me and some made, let’s just call them offers, but none were unpleasant. I think they knew Roy had taken me under his wings and he seemed to enjoy a certain amount of respect around the camp. He was even friends with a couple of the guards. That air of what in another man I would have called superiority but with Roy came across as something good lifted him above petty divisions such as prisoner and guard.
It was likely Roy’s presence that kept Fatso from stabbing me to death in my sleep. I slept with a homemade knife under my pillow which I wore strapped to my ankle during the day. Everyone had a shiv though so that was not something unusual; they are not hard to make after all.
The camp ran surprisingly smoothly. There was us the prisoners, them, the guards and then there was the camp warden and his staff. All three groups kept to themselves as much as they could, although the guards were always around; keeping order or selling things on the covert black market that seemed to exist.
I only saw the warden once, at a general announcement. He was a Technomancer. How he had come to be the chief of a prisoner of war camp I never understood and no one seemed to know. The theory was that he had done something very bad and since you don’t really put mancers in prison, this was as good as.
All in all, my first time in a prison camp was not that much different from being in the army. Work hard under bad and dangerous condition, there is always someone out to get you and the entertainment is crap. However, that Fatso had not made his move yet made me nervous, I had no illusions he was gonna let it rest, the question was just when he was going to strike.
Three weeks in I was sitting on an upturned box looking over a small social area close to the mushroom farms; Roy was sitting next to me. We were passing a flask back and forth, I had no idea yet where he got the moonshine but he always seemed to get hold of some. When asked he just said some guy owed him, a lot of guys seemed to owe him stuff. Like me I suppose.
“What’s your real name Roy? I mean you are from Aurora so what’s your virtue name?”
He took a long time to answer, I watched him in the corner of my eye. He had some faraway look in his eyes, then he shook himself.
“I’m from Shadowlair, used to be called Temperance.”
“Huh. I’m from Shadowlair as well.”
“It’s a big place,” he answered, just the tiniest slur from the moonshine at the end of his syllables.
I hummed in agreement and shifted to grab the bottle he was passing me. I was a bit drunk so let my gaze stay on him a bit longer than usual. There was something about him, something I could not place, like a secret. It was not such a hard stretch; I knew almost nothing about him after all.
“How did you end up here?” I asked to keep the conversation going.
“Just like you, was the wrong grunt at the wrong place.” He took the bottle back before I even had time to take a sip, his fingers brushing over mine as he did. I flexed them after, thinking it was weird how they felt all electrical and warm now. I dimly thought I wanted him to do that again when he said something that made me stop.
“Anyway I’m leaving soon.”
I looked up at him, “You mean ‘cus the war is coming to an end?”
He looked at me and I mean really looked. I felt naked and unprotected under that glare.
“No, because I am leaving.”
“Escaping?” I whispered, because that was not something I wanted to say out loud.
He simply nodded and kept looking at me as if to gage my reaction.
I thought about it, the war was coming to an end; everyone seemed to agree on that. It wouldn’t be too long before I was out of here anyway. It seemed ridiculous to try and escape, our people would come and pick us up and all would be well.
But I, of course, knew all through this that I was going to beg Roy to take me with him. Why? I had no idea, it went against every sensible thing I knew. I guess the simple reason was because I wanted to.
“Take me with you,” I said at last, voice breathy.
Even in the dusk I could see him smile that weird half smile of his and my heart lurched, he would say yes.
“Of course,” he said and I grinned at him.
“You are part of the plan so, only seems fair.”
“I am? I asked even if I was beginning to understand what he meant.
“You can disable the defensive shield from the power station,” he paused for dramatic effect and even if I was beginning to understand where he was going it still hit med full in the face, “And then we will steal a train.” His eyes glittered, and I had to grin wildly back.
The trains, besides flying, were the only way out so it made sense.
“How? The train I mean, it’s guarded.”
“I got some guns stashed away, you and me, two well-trained soldiers, it will be easy. Besides, I got a guard going with us as well. You figure out a way to disable the shield and let me worry about the rest.”
It was a good plan, solid in its simplicity, few moving parts and thus room for improvisation. It could work.
I desperately wanted to ask him where he had gotten the guard and who it was but I knew he would never answer that. Besides, I would find out soon enough. Maybe even before Fatso killed me.
It was just one thing bothering me in all this; I blame the booze that I didn’t think it through before putting words to it.
“That’s the only thing you want from me?”
He looked at me strangely and I was glad it was semi dark because I think I blushed. I’m not sure what I had been intending to say, but even so I was aware of how wrong what had come out sounded.
Believe it or not, I was saved from sinking thought the earth by Fatso.
It had slowly gotten darker and the court was almost empty. While talking we had not noticed how the men throwing dice had left one by one, replaced by people who I think Fatso considered to be loyal to him.
Now they drew up in a loose semicircle around us, the few stragglers left saw what was going down and quickly made themselves scarce.
I wet my lips and casually drew up my leg, letting my hand rest on my ankle, close to where my knife was. I’m sure they saw it, but perhaps they did not care. The group of four men with Fatso in the middle all brandished some sort of make-shift weapon in their hands and they moved with the cocky surety of a group who knows the odds are on their side.
I cast a look at Roy; he looked casually on as the group advanced. I decided that I’d take my cue from him, of course it all depended on whether he would consider me too much trouble and just let me deal with this mess myself. Although, I guessed Fatso was as much after his blood as mine, which felt oddly comforting.
“Me and my buddies we figure we don’t like your attitude much.” Fatso said, a long piece of metal casually swinging in his right hand.
Roy didn’t answer, he just sat there and took another sip from the flask.
“Nothing to say, Roy,” Fatso said, spitting at the name. He nodded at his friends and said, “Let’s party.”
Roy didn’t wait for them; he leaped up and smashed the half empty bottle over the head of the nearest thug. The glass broke and you could hear the air go out of the man, he fell right over. Now there were four against two.
I ripped our my knife, holding it in a tight grip I rolled out of the way, feeling the air move as a steel bar swung through the space where I had just been. I slashed wildly behind me, all caution gone and only an extreme desire to live burning in me. I was not going to die here in this shitty camp. I was going to get out of here with my life still mine.
I felt my knife connect with something and distantly over the pounding of adrenalin in my ears heard someone scream. I yanked the knife back, dimly aware that something warm and wet now covered my hand. I got up and was rewarded with a fist in my face, I toppled backwards, somehow managing to stay on my feet.
I jumped backwards a few feet, hands up in front of my face, core defensive training coming back to me. I shook my head trying to make the world stop spinning. Then someone jumped me and it was all I could do to twist my body to the side without getting hit. We danced around each other, attacking and defending. The guy was shorter than me, and I can’t say I’m very tall, not short but definitely not tall; he was about twice as wide as me though. I’m still slim as a rod, shoulders still the width of a boy rather than a man. Gee, I can’t wait to grow up.
He was slow though. I danced around him and could see him grow tired. So I gambled. I pretended to trip over, one knee down on the ground. I could see the pleased smile on his face, two teeth in his bottom yaw missing as he raised his arm to strike me down.
I jumped then, a fistful of sand thrown in his face. He roared in anger but it was cut short as I took him from the side, knife sliding in so smoothly through the skin in his stomach. The way he screamed then was horrible, like an animal who suddenly knows it is about to die.
I could feel the knife brush a rib as it went in, automatically I twisted it to open up the wound, make it as lethal as possible. I could see the whites of the man’s eyes which were wide with terror. He dropped his weapon and grabbed at my arm, blood was already bubbling out through his mouth, red froth accompanied by a terrible wheezing sound as he tried to draw air from a punctured lung.
I pushed him away and took a step back, vision clearing and mind going to a frightening stop, had I killed him? Had I killed a man with my bare hands? He fell to the ground, dark blood pumping out of him.
I learned hard and painfully that day that killing in war, with a gun from maybe a hundred meters away, your enemy so wrapped up in gear and helmets you no longer see them as people is very, very different from stabbing someone in the chest when you are so close you can see into his eyes as he falls.
I think I dropped the knife.
“You there, stop that instantly.” I looked up only to see a group of guards, automatic rifles aimed at us. Roy had frozen, arm held high, still the broken bottle grasped tight. I could see how white his knuckles were. Under him was Fatso. Lying on his back with blood gushing from a head wound. One second more and Ray would have killed him dead.
“Stand down right now you worms!” Roy dropped the flask and we both raised our hands, trying to look non-threatening. The guard who kept talking, while keeping his rifle aimed at us, gave Fasto an experimental kick in the side.
“Take this piece of trash to the infirmary.”
He looked us over and shook his head as the other guards enlisted a few prisoners to take Fatso and the dead man to the hospital. The other thugs, nowhere to be seen anymore.
“Some days I wish I was at the front,” the guard muttered, more to himself than to us. And they let us go. I just couldn’t believe it and I never understood how it happened. Most likely Fatso was not well liked and the guards happy to see him put in place.
Me and Roy we walked away and as soon I started moving I could not stop, I started running, not caring if he kept up or not. I ran until I ran out of breath.
I ended up close to the recruitment office; it had a large empty space in front of it normally used when the Technomancer running the camp had something to say to everyone.
There the air just left me and I fell down, knees hurting as they hit the sand. I looked at my hands and even in the half dark I could tell they were covered in blood. They were also shaking and I could not hold them still however much I wanted and I realised that was because my entire body shook.
Then Roy was beside me. He knelt down and took my hands in his, rubbing them with sand, cleaning them.
“It’s just the aftereffect of the adrenalin. You will be fine,” he said.
“I think I killed that guy,” I said and my voice didn’t sound like mine at all, weak and feeble.
“But you have killed before surely?” Roy said carefully as he looked at me.
“Not like that,” I said heavily and closed my eyes.
He didn’t say anything at first, he hesitated, then placed his arm over my shoulder.
It felt strange at first, no one had really touched me in years; medics don’t count. Then he pulled me close and I could feel myself relax, forehead falling down to rest on his shoulder. His arms felt strong and very warm around me, he smelled faintly like the planet itself; like dust and sun.
“I had forgotten it was different,” he whispered and I think it was more for himself than for me.
He held me like that; hand rubbing circles on my back while I sobbed until I felt numb and the panic had drained away.
Chapter 6: Fournier
When I woke up the next day I used some of my precious drinking water to get rid of the crusted blood under my finger nails. As I scrubbed frantically I thought over the events of the day before and one thing seemed clear to me now. I had to leave the camp and I had to leave now.
Talking about escaping before had been day-dreaming, exiting but somewhat unreal. Now I felt it in my guts that it was necessary. As soon as Fatso was out of the infirmary, if he lived, he would stop at nothing and eventually he would succeed. I had killed a fellow Auroran as well; I would have made other enemies in the camp. Brawling was ok, even sought out by bored camp members, but you did not kill your own. That was the unspoken rule that I had broken when I let my knife slide in between that man’s ribs.
I didn’t eat much that day. People stayed away from me, kept a wide circle and I felt like I had become invisible.
I focused on my tasks at the power plant. I hadn’t been trying to figure out ways to disable the shield but now that I had to, it was not all that hard. It would take some time to set up, time I might not have but it was doable. Just rewire some strategic lines while managing to get away with it. Enough power converted to the shields and they would overload if I could just manage to get rid of the overload safety. As I said, it could be done if you were motivated enough.
I didn’t see Roy that first day, guess he was keeping a low profile as well. He shook me awake that night though, I wasn’t really sleeping, my head was too full of accusing eyes and red, red blood. My hand went instantly under my pillow, where my knife wasn’t anymore.
“Shh,” he said, “Just me.”
I nodded and tried to focus on him in the darkness but all could see was the outline of his jaw and the pale oval of his face.
“I figured it out, but need time,” I whispered back, his hand was still on my shoulder and it made me uncomfortably warm.
“Good, good.” He said, “I’ll get the guns from my stash as soon as you say the word.”
And then he left and I wished he hadn’t.
The next few days passed, and then a week and then a month. I lived in a state of permanent anxiety. Then one day, I heard Fatso was back out from the infirmary and knew we could wait no longer.
I went and looked for Roy, he had been keeping his distance lately and it made me nervous.
I found him in the cantina, quietly talking to Jay in a shadowed corner. I made sure they saw me coming before approaching. Careful, had to be careful.
“Hi kid,” Roy said and Jay nodded at me.
“Can we talk?” I asked, nodding to Roy.
“Nasty business with Fatso,” Jay said in his trademarked lilting accent.
I only nodded, too wired up to try and be polite.
“Me heard he’s back today,” Jay continued, “You should watch your back, he got more people owing him money than’s good for you.”
“Roy,” I said, willing the man to come with me. I knew how much trouble I was in, I didn’t need to hear it from someone else.
“Guess it’s time then,” Roy said.
I shook my head and hissed, “What?” After being careful for so long he was going to blow it like this?
“Relax, I’m coming with,” Jay said, he grinned and pushed his cap back on his head, revealing a balding forehead.
I looked at Roy and he met my eyes calmly and nodded.
“The more the merrier,” I said even if that was not what I felt.
“Tonight then,” Roy said, “You ready for this kid?”
“Yes, I’ll set a timer for half an hour after midnight; that will give us as much darkness as possible.
The others nodded.
“We’ll met up an hour before, don’t bring any excess stuff. I have gotten hold of some water; it will be on the train,” Jay said.
I felt my skin tingle and my heart beat fast in my chest. This was it, we were really leaving and in my mind there was no way we could fail.
I was holding on to my gun like it was my last drink of water. In front of me was the camp’s train station guarded by a small group of Abundance soldiers. I did not see the others yet. I had come from the power station where I had set things in motion, now all we had to do was wait and hope that it worked. I felt the small collection of electronic parts in my pocket. They had once been part of the overload safety to the shield. Now they were not.
I looked up at the grand clock on the far away wall. They should be here now, only 10 minutes left until the entire camp would know someone was trying to escape. The shield overloading would make one hell of a bang.
Then I saw them, Roy and Jay walking calmly into the hangar area. They were affecting an air of confidence, like they were supposed to be here. Roy glanced in my direction and gave me a miniscule nod. I got the drift and sneaked towards the closest guard, trying to keep in the shadows behind a stack of crates.
The guards were not expecting trouble or renegade prisoners. As long as there was no train arriving the doors were locked, but our friendly guard had given us the keys to the place.
The guards rose from their table as they saw the two men closing in.
“Hey, what are you two doing here?” A short fellow asked.
Roy smiled and was about to say something when of the brighter one must have seen the blood already on their clothes and realised that they both had one hand behind their back.
He didn’t have time to shout. Roy raised his arm, gun with it and shot him in the throat. Then things went to shit.
I came up behind the guards, taking one out before they realised I was there. The gun felt comfortable in my hand, not the semi-automatic piece I had used as a solider, this was a small portable gun shooting nails, but deadly even so.
I threw myself behind cover as the soldiers got their weapons up and started to return fire. I glanced nervously at the tower, but it seemed the others had done their bit and taken care of the guards there.
The battle, if you can call it that, was over quickly. The guards went down like flies between our fire and soon all five were down on the ground, moaning or already dead.
I ran up to Roy.
“We lost Bill,” Roy grimaced and I could tell he felt bad about it. Bill then, had been the guard coming with us. I had no idea who he was but sent a small thank you in his direction.
“We on time?” Jay asked as he looked around us, looking slightly uneasy.
“Yeah,” I started but then as if it was waiting for me I could sense the explosion. The ground shook and a few rocks and dust rained down from the cave ceiling. There was a faint sound like a dry thunderstorm and then it was over.
“Guess that’s our call,” Roy said and grinned at me.
He turned and started to run towards the train, we followed close by.
We came around the last corner, the door to the train just ahead. It was however as far out of reach as if it had been on another planet.
In front of us was the camp leader, the Technomancer. His elaborate dress decorated by circuits and the implants on his head too obvious.
We all stopped dead in our tracks.
“Well, well. So you are the ones trying to escape from my camp.” He said it with an air of disdain, like we were children being very, very naughty.
“Guard the door,” Roy said. Then he ran, of all things he could do, towards the monster in the middle.
I could hear the Mancer laugh and feel the static electricity start to build up. The hair on my arms tingled and fear started to spread. I started to run after Roy.
“Stay put idiot,” Jay stopped me with an iron grip on my arm.
“You trying to get you killed? Now guard the door as you told.”
I admit I was confused but I was a trained soldier and I recognised an order when I heard it. Me and Jay took up opposite sides on the big doors leading back towards the camp. After that explosion it would not take long before a group was sent here to investigate.
I now and then glanced backwards. Roy and the Technomancer were engaged in some sort of close combat battle of which I had never seen the like before. The Mancer sparkled as he danced and Roy danced around with him, avoiding the blasts while trying to get close enough to pass through the personal shield all Mancers seemed to generate.
It was not long until we saw reinforcement come running towards us, we opened fire. I thought I saw one go down before the rest took cover. From then it became a trench war in miniature. We shoot at them, they shoot at us and no one made a move. We were keeping them at bay so Roy could do whatever he was doing.
“Sons of bitches,” I heard Jay say over the cacophony of sounds echoing back and forth on the large cave.
“You ok?” I shouted.
“Yeah, yeah, just mind you'own business,” he replied.
I glanced back then at Roy and what I saw shocked me to my very core. Roy was still dancing around the Mancer but he was shining blue like him. Blue flames licked his frame and his eyes shone. The Technomancer had stopped laughing and even from here I could see the caution in his moves. He was afraid of Roy in a way he had not been a moment ago.
As I watched, Roy took a step forward and pushed inside the other man’s shield into his private space and drove a knife into his throat. He danced back and shouted at us,” Take cover!”
I pressed myself flat to the ground, hands over my head. Then a silent pressure wave hit, it slammed me into the wall and drove the breath from my lungs. Had I not been lying down my head would have slammed into the steel and split right open.
I rose in a daze, the smell of singed hair in the air and an eerie quiet where there had been chaos but a moment ago.
Jay was lying on his side and I could see blood. I ran over, keeping low across the door. The soldiers outside had apparently not recovered yet because I was not shoot dead.
I reached Jay and I could hear him groan. I pushed him into a sitting position. The blood was coming from a leg wound, it looked like a bullet.
“You ok?” I asked in lack of something better to say.
“No, of course not,” He huffed and looked around him for his gun. I picked it up and gave it to him. His cap was nowhere to be seen. He looked older without it, tired and grey.
“Go kid, go now.”
“What about you, I can’t leave you,” I said, and bent to help him up. I had to throw myself to the side as bullets started coming from outside.
“Go, I am in no shape to escape and someone has to hold them off.” He pulled himself towards the door and started to return fire. I hesitated, I didn’t want to leave him like this.
“Go kid, just go.” He didn’t look at me, I could see sweat running down his face as he fought the pain and returned fire. I placed my gun beside him, thinking it was the least I could do. I squeezed his shoulder shortly and then I turned and ran. Can’t say it felt good but a man has the right to decide his own fate.
I ran towards Roy, he was bent over the corpse of the former manager of the camp, or what was left of it. If a Technomancer dies in battle the pent up energy has to go somewhere, let’s just say it was not much left of him. The blast wave that I still felt had mangled the body past recognition.
Then Roy got up, I could see him pull the former Technomancers gloves on, black with a strange pattern on the back. He was still lighted up, shining from inside. It was true, the charge had not come from the dead Technomancer but from him.
He turned to me, blue flames still caressing him. He looked for a moment like an otherworldly being, eyes glowing like human eyes should not be able to, and all I could think about was Peaceful‘s head, all melted away.
He must have seen the terror in my face because he looked suddenly ashamed. He half turned as if to leave me. I looked at the corpse by his feet and then back up at him. His dark hair was standing on end and the air around him was still crackling with residue electricity.
I should have been afraid, I should have run. A Technomancer? I should have known better. But I had not imagined the momentary look of pain in his eyes as he saw my fear. I could not let that be how we parted, not after everything we had already been through.
“Roy,” I called and ran towards him, memories and childhood stories of cold blooded murders pushed down.
“You coming?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I replied and he grinned at me, looking ten years younger and happy; it broke my heart to see.
Chapter 7: Galilei
So Roy was a Technomancer. It sort of made sense. It explained his manners, how he managed to seem so aloft and why he was so well educated for someone born in the slums. The Technomancers found their recruits early.
They were like a government organisation outside the government. They kept to themselves but everyone knew they had a lot of power on Mars. It was only thanks to scientists back on Earth that pushed that particular mutation among those who were susceptible that we were able to colonize Mars. Without the mancers wilding electricity it would have gone a lot worse. The artificial atmosphere we built before people came to Mars, it kept the oxygen in and heat up, but it did not stop the sun; besides we need the sun. It is where all our electricity comes from.
They were not liked even so, most people were afraid of them and looked at them like they were wizards and witches, rather than people with a special mutation. Some people were born with a knack for it, it only needed to be brought out. Exactly how was a well-guarded secret. Only the Technomancers knew and they were known for keeping their secrets.
Above all it explained why Roy did not want to be in the camp once our people showed up. Being a Technomancer was for life, whether you wanted to or not. One did not just pack a bag and leave. Except, Roy had apparently done just that. He made sense in a way to me now, like I had found a piece of the puzzle and was starting to see what the picture was supposed to show.
We gave up the train after half a day. By then we had traversed a great deal of the distance back towards Auroran guild territory.
It felt rubbish leaving the train and setting off on foot. But going all the way in the train had never been the plan, to fucking obvious to start with. Secondly, the train could only go on the tracks as they lay, no chance we could convince someone we were using the train for legit reasons. Walking was the option left to us.
Mars is full of train tracks and tunnels that go everywhere. The surface is so full of craters that it takes a lot of effort travelling over the surface once you left the big plains. It was these tunnels that the Technomancers built in the beginning. Before we built the cities, people lived here, protected from the sun. The first mushroom farms and mines had been established underground.
We had moved out as soon as we could, but it had taken many, many years to build stable enough colonies to manage that. It was all before my time anyway.
We jumped the train just before a crossroads, main track going forward and we took one of the many side tracks connected to it, they all looked alike to me but Roy said he knew where we were going. I followed, still a bit too awed to argue. We picked up our big packs with water and set off.
We set a steep pace on the first day, half jog, half run to place as many intersections and miles between us and the abandoned train as we could. We only stopped briefly, hours later and I fell to sleep the moment my head hit the ground and it only felt like a minute before Roy shook me awake, put a processed bar of food in my hand and we were off again.
We did this for five more days, running and sleeping, sleeping and running. We hid sometimes, crouched in tiny alcoves while train passed us by. The dust in the air making us both cough and wheeze. Other times we laid low for hours, waiting for a crossing to clear. I slept when I could, but most of the time I was too strung out to manage more than close my eyes before my own skittish nerves woke me up again.
I felt like giving up many times. I was so tired that it felt like it would be ok to be caught, if only I could lie down and sleep. The fact that they would shoot us on sight as enemy soldiers trying to run seemed to slip my mind at times like these. Roy pulled me up every time. When I stumbled he put a hand to my back and pushed me on. When I was cold at night we slept back to back to share heat. I would never have made it had he not been there.
One week after we had made our escape we passed the border into our own territory. I still have no idea how Roy found out about this place. It was an underground village, no more than maybe twenty sheds or lean-tos huddled together in a dead end tunnel. It was populated by the filthiest people I have ever met.
Roy led me straight to one of the sheds, a flickering bluish light coming from inside. A guy with a cap drawn down across his eyes was looking at us, but apparently we passed some hidden test because he let us pass.
Roy nodded at him and led us in. Inside was a bar, of sorts. The light was coming from a sun-light fixed in the roof and I guessed that light was the vitamin D supplier to this little community. The room had some tables and upturned barrels. At the far side was a barrier with some bottles behind and a skinny guy hidden inside a huge parka adorned with metal rings of all sorts and sizes.
“Howdy Roy,” he said and nodded at us.
“Leg, nice to see you again,” Roy answered while managing to sound anything but.
“Nobody said anything ‘bout one plus,” Leg fixed his eyes on me, head doing a little shake from side to side.
I had no idea what was going on and frankly I was too tired to care. Whenever I had asked about our plans Roy had only said something about him having one. I looked at the man named Leg and thought that this was a man I would not trust farther than I could throw him, if that.
“Problem?” Roy said.
“It’s gonna cost you, but it can be done,” Leg said after a while, mouth in a twisted sneer.
“Roy?” I asked, deciding to actually take part in deciding my own fate. He half turned towards me, head angled away from the bar.
“I’ll be fine Innocent, Leg here owns me big time, just let me deal with this.”
I raked a hand across my scalp, my hair was slowly growing out of the close military cut and it was so dirty by now it itched, eventually I nodded.
I leaned against a beam, thinking about nothing and mostly trying not to fall asleep while Leg and Roy came to some sort of arrangement. Then we were shown to one of the back tables, hidden behind a partial wall and told to wait.
I rested by head in my hand, looking sideways at the world. I had a glass of brownish liquor in front of me. It tasted like gut rot but I guess beggars can’t be choosers.
“The war is over by the way, a month ago, Leg told me,” Roy said.
“Huh,” I said. I had known it was coming to an end for a long while. It was still strange though, it had been on-going for years, since I was twelve and I had a hard time remembering a world without war.
“We won?” I asked.
“Yeah, apparently,” Roy nodded and I felt strangely nonplussed about it.
“There was abattle at a place called Green Hope and that ended it.”
I nodded and feel silent thinking I would learn more once we got home.
We waited for a long while, someone brought us food that we ate in silence and after we waited some more.
“What is this place?” I asked after I had finished a second glass, a pleasant warmth spreading in my stomach.
“Border town, trade in illegal goods across the border, there are a couple like this around. If you know where to find them,” Roy said, voice kept low.
“And you do?” I asked.
“Some of them yeah”
I didn’t say anything else, just waited.
He reached over and refilled my glass.
“I,” he started, “I have spent a long time on the run, you pick these things up or you die,” he shook his shoulders and I had the feeling he was embarrassed over something. It was now or never, I thought.
“From the Source?” The source is what the Technomancers call themselves, no one outside knows much about it except that once a kid goes in, the only way out is as a Technomancer loyal to the Source.
He rolled his glass between his fingers, faraway look in his eyes.
“Yeah, ran away when I was fifteen. I suppose I have been running since.”
“What happened?” I asked and wasn’t sure if I meant why he left or what happened after.
He sighed, “Let’s just say I didn’t like it there,” he took a drink, slamming the glass down hard and whipping his mouth on his sleeve.
“The training is brutal and the young treated no better than slaves, asked to do the biddings of their chosen trainer, or master.”
He looked away, out in the dark behind me and I waited, sensing something more was coming.
“My master, she was, older and traditional. Believed in obedience body and soul.” He didn’t explain further.
“Anyway, didn’t like the hierarchy, the hours, the beatings, the anything. So I left, just took up and walked out one day. They didn’t expect that I guess.”
Without thinking I reached out and placed my hand over his. I let my fingers curl around; his hand was warm and rough, the tiny scars from a hard life covering the back. I fixed my gaze on my hand on his, I felt him look at me but I didn’t raise my head, afraid he see something in my eyes. Something I had just myself started grasping.
We were interrupted at that moment, Leg shouting at us from the door that our window was now. We were catching a train to Shadowlair.
We travelled in the back of a goods train for the better part of two days, the train personnel must have been used to this kind of things because they did not search the carriage we were in. Leg had thrown in some processed food, water, and a jacket and scarf for me to try and hide the prison look of my gear. I slept most of the time, trying to regain some strength.
Whenever I woke I could see Roy’s back, sitting cross legged leaning against the side wall and looking out at the landscape rolling past. He had pushed the door open just enough that I could see Mars. Red, red dirt with nothing in-between.
Chapter 8: Heimdall
Shadowlair is the capital of the Auroran guild, it is home to a million souls or so, maybe more. No one counts. Mars is not a huge place, most of it is uninhabitable, the atmosphere is thin and you need constant protection from the sun. The few cities that exist are placed around or close to the mountain ranges, in the natural shadow.
Around Aurora are several other guilds, Abundance is only one of many. The rest had stayed out of the war, not feeling the loss in lives and resources worth in. Mars is an unforgivable mistress as it is; colonisation even after this many years is still a pain. Likely people would not have moved here, had they had a choice. Yet, as the earth became uninhabitable due to pollution, people had no choice. The atmosphere was already established and some basic colonies created by prisoner and other lowlife up and running. You could just move on in.
I had not realised before how much I considered Shadowlair my home but walking its streets now I realised I had missed it.
We had decided to seek out my parents first. They had room and once I told them what Roy had done for me, they would welcome him with open arms. They would be so happy, and surprised to see me. I was walking fast, a smile plastered on my face as I told Roy all about the neighbourhood.
I felt better than I had in days, years perhaps. The war was over and I was going home.
As we wove our way out of the train station I realised some things had changed. There was some sort of station to get into the city proper, a desk with armed soldiers. A man was reading some papers a woman held out to him before letting her pass.
“Next,” he shouted as a barrier opened and let her through. I realized he was speaking to us.
We walked up to him.
“What’s this all about, officer,” Roy said after he glanced at the stripes on the shoulder of the man’s uniform.
“Identity control, give me your papers for inspection,”
“Papers?” I whispered to Roy, he shook his head slightly.
I had long since lost all of my identification tags or id papers and had not thought much about it. You almost never used them for anything; or at least that had been the way before.
“So this is gonna sound crazy but we have escaped from a prison camp and so have no papers, but we are both Shadowlair born and breed.” Roy said.
The guard, instead of looking suspicious looked at us with interest.
“Really? Which camp?” he said.
“Camp 19,” Roy said.
“I have a relative there, my sister’s husband, name’s Sobriety. You know him?”
I could feel my face stiffen and my breath stop. That was the name of the man I had stabbed to death. Was the world really this small, could stuff like this happen?
“Yeah of course I know him, skinny fellow, always talking with food in his mouth,” Roy said and casually placed himself between me and the guard, more to hide my pale face than anything else.
“Yeah that’s him alright. He ok?” The guard seemed not to notice me.
“Yeah, fine last time I saw him,” Roy said, “We were good friends, I saved his ass a few times and he mine. He talked about your sister and their kids a lot, how he wanted to keep out of trouble and get back to them.
So what about cutting us some slack here with the papers, let us through and I promise we won’t be any trouble,” he added. I assumed he made all that up and was just lucky, but who knew when it came to Roy.
The guard scratched his chin, and seemed to be on the verge of shaking his head. He glanced over at the other guards and seemed to come to a decision.
“Yeah ok then, you don’t seem the rebel types anyway, just you stay out of trouble, ok?”
Roy assured him we would and the guard nodded and did a show of inspecting papers we did not have before letting us pass through the check point.
We walked quickly on the other side, both eager to get away before our ruse was discovered.
“What was that?” I asked once we had a few blocks between us and them.
“I have no idea,” Roy said, “but I have no doubt we will find out whether we want to or not.”
I shook my shoulders and forgot about it for the time being. Lesson from the army, never fret over things you cannot do anything about. Right now we were going home.
I practically ran the last few blocks, the checkpoint forgotten and a sense of excitement filling me. I thought Roy was laughing at me when I didn’t look at him, but it was ok, I’m sure it was with me and not at me.
“I’ll be great, and you can stay with us for as long as you like,” I said turned to Roy. I didn’t actual know what his plan was, probably he didn’t know himself. The least I could do was offer him somewhere to think about it.
Besides, maybe I could go with him, I had no real plans either. There was nothing I really wanted to do, besides meet my family again.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Roy said and smiled that crocked smile which made his eyes narrow at the edges.
I smiled back feeling like a child again.
That was when the house came in view.
Or the place where the house had once stood.
Now it was a pile of rubbish, it looked old but you could still feel the lingering after-smell of burnt things. I just looked at it, at first unable to take in what I was seeing. My parents’ house, burnt to the ground.
I feel down to my knees, too much in shock to be able to stand up. My mind was whirling, noticing the little details. There were too many broken and twisted sheets of metal, not fire, explosion resulting in fire. I had seen my fair share of those before.
Someone had killed my parents, someone had bombed their place and left it a smoking ruin. I could not understand, I did not want to understand.
“Common kid we cannot stay here,”
I didn’t move.
Roy squatted beside me, one hand on my shoulder.
“Look I know things look bad, but we cannot stay here. There is something not right about all this.”
I wanted to ask what it had to do with us, we were on home territory. We had to go to the police.
That was when the police found us. They must have kept a watch on the house.
“You there, hands where we can see them,” came a shout from behind us, I looked and saw three riot clad police officers, weapons drawn.
Roy got to his feet, hands lifted, he looked at me and indicated with his head that I should get up.
I couldn’t see what he had apparently already understood. That my parent’s house was the only one we had seen so far that had been bombed. Why would Abundance do something like that? This was not fallout from the war. Something else was going on here.
I turned to the police, “What happened here? I live here, my parents, are they ok?”
“Kid quiet,” Roy hissed but it was way too late. I could see the officers look at each other, then they flicked the safety off on their guns.
“Stand up and keep your hands where we can see them. You are both under arrest.”
I stood up, hands in front of me, “Arrested, for what?”
“What?” I said, because apparently I was an idiot.
The police were carefully advancing, keeping us firmly in sight with their guns. A sense of panic filled me and I knew that we had to run, there was no way this was a mistake that would be cleared up by going with them. I looked at Roy; he met my eyes and nodded slightly.
“Now,” I shouted and threw myself to the ground. I rolled behind some trash cans and more felt than heard the sonic boom as Roy activated his powers and sent a lighting storm towards the officers. The cry of pain and smell of burnt flesh filled the air as I got to my feet.
The police were strewn about like broken dolls, one trying to get up on his feet. I ran up to him and kicked him in the head, he slumped down. Unconscious or dead, I did not know. I kept kicking him though, feeling ribs crack under my feet. Then Roy was there pulling me away.
“We need to run, now!”
And we ran. Again.
We ran a long way through the maze like structure of Shadowlair until the streets slowly became smaller, dirtier, and more decrepit. Roy led the way and I only assumed he knew where we were going.
At some point we started to walk to avoid suspicion, we didn’t say much. My head was spinning so fast I was oblivious to the rest and Roy let me be.
When I looked up next we had passed into one of the worst parts of town. I had not been here much as a kid, these streets were far from safe, frequented by thugs, mutants, and other shady characters.
“Where are we going,” I asked at length.
“To see a friend of mine, if she is still here,” Roy answered.
He led me down an alleyway and up to a door with a broken neon sign above it. Only two letters, a c and a t were still working, apparently it had once said Charity’s bar. Inside was one of the shadier establishments I had even been to.
It wasn’t more than a few bar seats and a lounge area with no roof. It was still in the middle of the day and the place was practically empty, a huge hulking shadow of a man lounged in the corner, looking suspiciously at us as we stumbled in the door.
Roy nodded at him and walked with determined steps towards the interior of the bar.
“Well I don’t believe my own eyes, if it isn’t handsome Roy walking into my bar.”
A woman a few years older than Roy, tall, and dark haired rose from a table in the back. Her face had clearly once been very beautiful and was still distinct but now marked by a hard life, deep lines in her face that still could not hide her brown clever eyes.
She stood with her arms crossed over her chest and smiled at Roy while shaking her head.
“I heard you joined the army and got yourself killed?”
“Charity,” Roy said and nodded towards her, “do I look dead to you?” he continued.
“I suppose not,” she said, “oh come here, give your friend a hug,” Roy laughed and walked over to her and they hugged.
I hanged back, uncertain what to do and feeling out of place.
“So to what do I owe the honour of your visit? You just here to say hello now that the war’s finally over?”
“Something like that,” Roy said and he shook his shoulders.
“You gonna introduce me to pretty boy over there?” She said and nodded to me, “a friend?”
“This is Innocence, we travel together for the time being. I owe him a lot,” he added.
Charity inclined her head towards me ever so slightly, “Nice to meet ya,”
I mumbled something in agreement.
“Charity,” Roy started, “we need a place to crash for the time being, somewhere out of sight.”
She shook her head, “I thought as much. You on the run?”
“Something like that,” Roy said.
In the end Charity provided us with two mattresses on the floor in a back storage room. We had something to eat then I turned my back on the room and fell asleep. This was a day that could not end fast enough.
Chapter 9: Ibragimov
When I woke up it was still the same day, only late. I could hear sounds from the bar, although faint as if the night was dying. I was alone in the room and glad for it. I suppose I had fallen asleep from pure shock but now I had to face the memory of my parent's burnt out place again.
I touched the pocket in my jacket before I remembered that the letter from them that I had carried during the war was gone along with my military gear. I might have cried a bit before I managed to pull myself together.
Now I needed answers.
I found Roy and Charity at the bar, between them was an almost empty bottle. The bar itself had a few stragglers in it, a working girl walked among the tables looking for a last costumer.
“Innocence. Sit,” Roy said and pulled out a chair.
He filled his glass and handed it to me. I picked it up and drained it instantly, warmth filling my stomach and a prickling sensation creeping up in my legs.
Roy refilled the glass and took a drink from the bottle.
“I filled Charity in on our situation,” he said.
I nodded, I supposed I had to trust her if Roy did.
She looked at me and there was a new softness in her eyes, she smiled sadly and I saw that I had been wrong, she was still beautiful.
“I’m sorry about your parents,” she said.
I fixed my gaze at the table, scratched metal surface, and tried to keep calm. I nodded, afraid my voice would not bear.
“Roy told me they belonged to the militia?”
“Yeah,” I said, wondering what that had to do with anything.
“Charity has an interesting story to tell, you should listen,” Roy said. I looked at him and could not read the expression in his eyes, pity, anger?
“I’m listening,” I said.
So Charity told me what had been happening in Shadowlair all the years I had been away.
Wisdom, the politician who had inspired so many to join the war effort by promising a new and better life for all of us and especially to the poor and destitute living in the slums of Shadowlair was still the guild ruler. He had been elected in the early years of the war and even though there should have been a re-election last year he kept the post, having instituted some law of exception due to the war. It didn’t seem to matter that the war was now over.
People had believed in him, had joined the army in masses, and it was likely that which had won the war in the end. However, at home things started to happen. Security was tightened step by step. The authorities said it was to catch war criminals or spies or possibly both. They hired thugs to the local police, people with no illusions or dreams about democracy or freedom.
Soon security checks started to crop up and people questioning the dreams as unrealistic got threatening visits from police. Not much actually happened though. As the war was ending and soldiers started to return home, people started to become upset over the new order and began to protest.
There were marches almost every week, people starting to ask the obvious questions, why do we have to wait for the war to end before we launch the new us, the new more equal Aurora? Why is the police growing, why the check points? But by then it was too late. The police started to strike back against the marches, using excessive violence.
On the radio there was talk about obedience and how it was only spies and traitors who protested against the rules.
“But nobody really thought they would do anything,” Charity said. She grew quiet and looked at me, then shook her head.
“The civil militia was a sort of organizers for the protests, a civic movement trying to protest the decrease of freedom by legal means. Then one night they came out and took them away.”
I sat perfectly still as I listened to her story. I had no idea so much had been going on at home. I had assumed it was us out at the front who were fighting, that people at home were safe, comfortable. Maybe there had been talks in the military, but I had never listened that close.
“They killed them?” I said as she didn’t continue.
“Yeah, as far as we know. They,” she hesitated, “the police said the militia was really in league with the underground resistance movement. They were therefore guilty of treason, for which the punishment is death, but there were never any trials, and no bodies released. They claim that many were killed while resisting arrest, but I don’t think there is much truth in that.”
I remember vaguely all the meeting in my parents basement, all the people coming and going. Crates of stuff being hidden in the shop. How disappointed my parents had seemed at everything. I hadn’t paid attention, like I never paid attention.
“What is the resistance?” I asked, trying to fit the pieces together in my mind.
“An illicit organisation apparently working for the freedom of Aurora. They claim to fight the tyranny for the people. Not much is known though, they tend to raid things, be a thorn in the side of the authorities but so far they have not done anything major.”
“And you, what do you think about them?” I asked looking at her, I had no idea where this certainty was coming from.
She eyed me carefully and glanced at Roy, he shrugged.
“Out here in the slums we don’t see much of the government; they come in, beat some people up and leave.”
“I need to be alone for a while,” I said and left them.
I walked aimlessly through the streets all night. No one bothered me, which says a lot in this part of town. Maybe they saw even greater sorrow and misery than their own in me.
I had no goal, I just walked along the empty streets and alleys: from shadow to shadow.
All through the war it had been something temporary, I had always known I would come back home after. See my parents and tell them tales about it and then things would get back to normal. They had been the dream keeping me upright when I had blood and mud to my armpits, when I had to gather the blown off limbs of my friends and when I had to raise my weapon and shoot at people who like me, wanted nothing more than to survive.
The knowledge that they were at home, living their lives and that I was out and protecting them had made it all worth it somehow. I don’t think I had actually formulated that thought as clearly before but it was the truth. Had I known that my own government, the one I was risking my life for on a daily basis was the thing I should really fear. Then I don’t know what I would have done.
After I had walked up the same street once more I turned back, no clear goal just a sense of immense and pointless loss. I felt helpless, there was nothing I could do, my parents were gone and clearly I had failed in some way. It was also the fact that so much apparently had been going on in their lives, that I knew nothing about. They had a life of their own, something not involving me.
That hurt as much as their most certain death in some sense, the feeling that I had not known my parents at all; and now it was too late.
If only I had paid more attention to what was going on, I could have warned them, or just been there with them. I didn’t want to be dead though, I simply wanted them alive again. To loose ones parents I was beginning to realize meant that you were suddenly all alone in the world.
There was no one to turn to, no one who would take you in and take care of you whatever you did. It felt empty, like I was loneliest man alive. The despair was so crippling I thought I might die.
But then there was that, that stubborn spark in me which constantly refused to give up however much you kicked it. I realised I had to do something. My world was tumbling down around me and I still knew almost nothing about why. I wanted desperately to understand. Why my parents? What had happened to them? What had they been involved in? Who had they been?
I needed answers and I could hardly ask the government, I had resisted arrest, was likely now known to be traveling with a rogue Technomancer and associated with my parents. No, I would have to find this resistance and there maybe, someone could answer my questions.
I came back to the bar around dawn, the big hulking bodyguard let me in after he fixed me with a glare so primal I mumbled thank you before slinking back to the mattress on the floor.
Roy was sleeping when I got in, his back turned to me and his body gently raising and falling in even breaths. I looked at him for a while, growing calm by his presence.
I crawled into bed, anger and grief momentary replaced by determination.
I woke the next morning by the smell of coffee. I hadn’t had a cup of coffee for months, maybe as much a year so the smell brought me instantly awake and pushed down a left over feeling of dread from dreams I could not remember.
A sat up, hungrily eyeing the battered tin cup in Roy’s hand. When he saw me wake, he handed the cup over. I took it gingerly with both hands, taking in the aromatic smell. I took a small sip and couldn’t help a growl of content escape me.
“If I knew coffee meant that much to you I would have tried to get you a cup earlier.” Roy was laughing, eyes crinkling as he sat on his hunches.
I reluctantly offered the liquid back to him but he just shook his head.
“No, you drink that, you deserve something good.”
I didn’t hesitate, clearing my mind and simply taking pleasure in the moment, soon I would have to face the day and my broken life, but not just yet.
Roy looked on in silence as I took small sips, trying to make it last. His eyes intent on the cup as it met my lips.
It was over too soon and as I put the cup down I looked up at Roy who looked away, almost but not really embarrassed.
“What now kid?” he said, running a hand through his hair.
I put my head back on my jacket which was folded as a pillow under my head and fixed my gaze on the ceiling.
“Now we find the resistance and get some answers,” I said, putting as much confidence as I could behind my words. I didn’t want to think about what would happen if Roy wouldn’t come with me, or that if he didn’t that I would have no idea what to do, or where to look.
“You’re the boss,” Roy said and my lips curved into a smile with no real happiness behind it. Someone was going to pay for my pain. I just had to figure out who.
Chapter 10: Jörn
We spent the next few weeks scouring the city and making discreet inquiries both through Roy’s widely dispersed network and Charity’s more up-to-date one. I learned a lot about Charity, her life story if you will and incidentally a little about Roy’s.
Charity used to be a whore, before she managed to save up enough to buy the rights to the bar she ran now. She came from a water mining community down south called Shady Pines but had left as a young teenager, sick of country life and small minded people. She ended up in Shadowlair, not a penny to her name and no friends either.
Her dreams hadn’t really come through; she met some shady people and ended up on the street. She had been lucky though, a rich patron and she got the opportunity to leave the streets before they broke her down. She didn’t tell the story like this, but it came out a bit now, a bit then over the weeks. Hidden away in funny anecdotes she told in a loud outrageous voice after the bar had closed in the evenings and I helped her clear away.
She ran her place well, a strict hand controlling the clientele so that nothing bad or shady enough went on that would get the authority involved. Because of that a lot of people not looking to be bothered came to her place. That was how she met Roy. She wouldn’t say much, respecting Roy’s desire to keep his story to himself as much as possible I guess, but she dropped some hints here and there.
Roy had tumbled into her place shortly after she had got it, eight years ago. He had been young and so obviously on the run and in trouble that she had taken pity on him and taken him in, given him a temporary job and helped him to a new identity. I loved how she talked about Roy like that, young and unsecure, still quiet and careful and not as sure of himself.
When I looked at him I could see the young Technomancer in him, on the run and scared for his life, or worse. Roy himself didn’t say much when I asked about those days, only that they were bad, but that things had turned out ok after he ran into Charity. Charity had smiled at that, and patted Roy gently on the arm. I liked her even more after that.
After two weeks in the storage room Roy stated that he had had enough of sleeping on the floor. I didn’t protest, the room smelled of old beer and garbage and it was never quiet. I asked if Roy had a plan, and he said yes.
I followed quietly behind him for a few blocks, walking in zig-zag across the street to avoid the few patches of sun that got through the city roof.
This part of town had a lot of veterans from the war. Men and women with missing limbs or minds, begging or simply not doing anything at the street corners. Those with a little bit more energy would use a rag to wipe dust of the windscreens of the solar powered monobikes that drove along the streets, adding to the constant fog of dust in the air, hopping for a coin or a scrap of food.
It made me angry that all these people, who had been the ones winning the war, now thrown away like yesterday’s trash. Someone must have become rich from the big fine that we had forced Abundance to pay as they lost the war. In the better parts of town there were palaces and cars, food that was not processed mushrooms and left over bits of chicken.
This was not what those who fought had fought for. This was not the world my parents had died for.
“Here,” Roy said, drawing me out of my gloom.
“What’s here?” I asked because it looked like nothing to me, a dead end alleyway that might once have led somewhere and which now, due to the constantly shifting architecture of Shadowlair, ended in a pile of trash and nowhere out.
Roy winked at me and indicated that I should follow. He put both hands on one of the walls and pressed firmly, the metal sheet gently slid away under his touch, a narrow passageway opening up.
He turned back, a finger to his lips. I kept quiet and followed him, palming my knife when he pulled out a metal pipe that he must have hidden in his coat.
We sneaked around a corner and came out in a tiny courtyard, a pull-up ladder leading to an upper level. Three men were lying about on the ground, surrounded by trash, empty bottles of booze and burnt squares of cardboard from spice smoking. Indeed they reeked of the drug.
It didn’t take much in the end to chase them off, some screaming, threatening and Roy thumping the leader over the back with the metal pipe and they were gone.
We sent them scurrying off, kicking some of their garbage out after them. Then Roy closed the doorway and rolled a big empty barrel in front of it. When I asked him how we would get out he just smiled and said he’d build a new door.
Up top was a small landing and an open doorway to a small room in the back. It was mostly empty, a really raggedy looking sofa on the landing and some empty cans of food strewn about.
“What is this place?” I said, wondering what we were doing here.
“Home, kiddo, home.” Roy smiled and sat down on the battered old sofa pulled up against the wall.
So we moved in, Roy had scouted the place a few days before and deemed it ready for a take-over. That was how moving worked in this part of town. You either built something new where it would fit or you simply took it from someone else. I guess Roy wasn’t the building type.
We moved our mattresses from Charity’s and Roy got some old packing crates that served as beds. No more sleeping on the floor for us.
We made a makeshift home out of the place. Roy spent some time changing the entrance, building some doors and putting up locks and bars for them. I helped put all the trash in a big pile outside to hide the entrance.
I didn’t live there long, a month or so, but it was a good time. It was nice, just me and Roy. We ate food from packets and threw empty beer cans down the ladder. In the evenings we would be at Charity’s place and she would tell us stories and I would tell them about stuff that happened when I was a child. Sometimes Roy would chip in with a story of his years on the run, places he had been to, people he had met. He never talked about the time in the Source though, or his early years.
That first night I remember lying awake listening to him breathing on the other side of the room. I eventually fell asleep like that, a deep longing in the pit of my stomach.
Eventually a lead turned up. It was Charity, of course, who managed to track down someone who knew someone who had heard something, at some point. It ended up with me and Roy sitting at a small table in the back of a dingy bar in a neighbouring part of town.
The place didn’t look like much, a few posters on the walls, left over relics from the early days of the war. One over Roy’s head showed triumphant Aurora soldiers holding our flag, against the hopeful backdrop of a hydrophonic plant. It made me rage inside.
Despite its looks this was supposed to be a contacting place for the Resistance. A place to leave info or come in contact with them, according to Charity’s informant. Roy had pushed a relatively large bill over to the bartender when we ordered, and expressed our interests. The bartender had shrugged non-committedly but he had pocketed the bill.
I had wanted to ask him straight out but Roy had put a hand on my arm and led me to a table in the back and told me to wait, apparently things like this took time. So we sat down, a bottle in-between us and waited.
I kept an eye out, looking at everyone coming and going, but no one looked like a rebel. Not that I knew what a rebel looked like, but anyway.
“So kid, have you thought about what you are gonna say when we find them?” Roy looked at me over the rim of his glass.
I shrugged my shoulders, I had no real plan. I pushed my hair back and ran a hand through the strands.
“Ask them about my parents”, which was as far as I had thought about it.
Roy didn’t push me though, so we continued in silence.
We had been there an hour, maybe more when a dark haired man in a dirty jumpsuit fell in through the door. He sauntered up to the bar and I could see him talking to the bartender, some money changing hands. In the wrong direction, from the bartender to the man.
He stood at the bar a while, like he had no rush in the world. Then as if by chance he sauntered over to our table. I put my glass down, this was it I thought.
“You want to meet the resistance, fine. But I warn you. If they smell a trap they will kill you.”
Roy just nodded. The guy eyed him suspiciously but then seemed to make up his mind, he indicated that we should follow. We took a back door out of the pub and passed through a boxing ring where two women were practising beating the shit out of each other. Around the ring was empty spectator benches and along the wall booths for betting.
At the back we passed through yet another sets of doors and a winding hallway. At the end were some stairs, our guide indicated that we should walk first. I took the lead, eager to find answers, for something to finally happen. I walked down a few steps and in through a door at the bottom. It was pitch dark but I stepped in anyway.
I felt Roy come in behind me and the anonymous man followed, lightening a torch as he closed the door. As the light spluttered on the tiny interior lit up. I found myself staring straight into the barrel of a gun. I followed the line of the arm to a woman in a red coat, sitting behind a small table.
I cast a glance back, the man behind us was aiming a similar gun at us from behind. I briefly met Roy’s eyes, he smiled slightly, like he had expected nothing else.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” The man barked behind us.
Roy held up his hands in the air and smiled broadly at the woman.
“Friends, I promise, you can take it easy,” she only lifted an eyebrow slightly, seemingly immune to smiles bright as the sun.
“The only reason you both aren’t dead by now is because I recognise your face from wanted posters. Isn’t that right, Mr Technomancer,” She said, voice raised in the end, leaving the question hanging.
“Pride, what the fuck?” The man in the back shouted. He turned to us and there was both fear and awe in his voice.
“Leave now, and don’t come back” he hissed, gun moving between me and Roy, like he couldn’t decide who to shoot first.
I did not want to go, I had come this far, had finally found the resistance, but now I didn’t know what to say to make it better. I had long since stopped being afraid of Roy and I couldn’t understand why anyone would think he would hurt them.
“Innocence?” Roy said, glancing in my direction, one eye never leaving the gun. He looked like he was calculating what it would take to take down the two before they could shoot us.
“Innocence,” the woman said. I nodded and turned back to her, “Innocence Smith?” she asked and I nodded again.
“I knew your parents,” she added and then she looked sad. She waved at the man and simultaneously put down her gun on the table. It was still within easy reach but at least it indicated that for now, maybe we could talk.
“They were with you,” I said and finally I realised that it was true.
She nodded, “I am sorry for your loss.”
The man in the back hadn’t lowered his gun, but it was pointed only at Roy now, and he seemed uncertain what to do. I took advantage of it and took a step closer to the table. The woman, she was my ticket. I could work on her.
“They were taken away because of you and your cause.”
She looked away, but nodded slowly.
“Then you understand,” I said, blinking back tears that had been hiding under the surface for too long. I put my hands down on the cool metal surface of the table leaning towards her, imploring her to listen to me.
“Please, I need to know what happened to them.”
“No,” she said.
“No?” I repeated and I could feel anger build in me, she had known them, she had to tell me.
“No, what you want to know is what it was all for. What was the point, what did we actually fight for in the war?”
At her words the air went out of me. I met her earnest blue eyes and could see the fire burning there, her belief in something bigger than herself.
“Yes, yes I need to know,” I said my voice horse. I couldn’t stop myself, I grabbed her arm, I needed to touch her as if that would allow me to understand.
“Then come with us, be one of us. We need people like you, honest, true people; work with us and maybe you can find your answers.”
I didn’t have to think about it, it felt so right. I wanted to do this, I needed to do this.
“Roy?” I asked her.
Pride shook her head. I looked at the man with her.
“No way, he is too obvious and besides who can trust a bloody techno,” he spat on the ground as he said it. I guess I shouldn’t blame him, it was how most people saw them, but it made me angry anyway.
I looked at Roy, I felt so conflicted. Like I was being pulled in two directions at once.
“You go kid, work with them awhile, warm them up to me and maybe I’ll join you later,” he lifted two fingers to his brow and saluted me. It did not feel like a mockery but as a tribute
I nodded back, I would do that, explain to them that they could trust Roy. Then we would be together again.
“Yes, yes I’ll come,” and I meant it, with all my heart.
The man who I would later learn was named Marco grinned, showing all his teeth. He slapped me on the shoulder.
“Then welcome to the resistance.”
And that was how I, Innocence Smith, wound up a member of the Auroran resistance.
Chapter 11: Kepler
My first period with the resistance was hectic and confusing but also rewarding in its own way. I quickly found out I had a lot of skills that they needed.
It turned out that the resistance was less of an organization and more of a network. Isolated cells working on their own, a structure of ideology keeping them together. Their communication was all low tech solutions, physical notes written in code left around the city or even oral messages transferred mouth to mouth. It was much safer than any electronic communication could ever be.
My cell was led by Pride, Marco was her second in command. He had been born outside Aurora, hence no virtue name. All in all there were thirty of us; a wild mix of people all fighting and working side by side. Some were veterans like me, some had belonged to the militia but gotten away, and some were just tired of the current system grinding them down to nothing without offering anything in return.
All my military training and experience as well as my now basic training in electronics paid off. I had been in the army, in active fighting duty for almost two years after all. I knew a lot of stuff about tactics, fighting and training others. That I had escaped from a prison camp also gave me a sort of instant status in the group. That my parents were known as having worked for the cause also added to my figure. I hated that, how my parent’s disappearance and perhaps death somehow made me someone.
I’ll have to admit though, it made my life easier. I was accepted straight away and trusted, something which likely would not have happened otherwise. I tried the first weeks to argue for Roy’s sake but no one really listened. As soon as I said the big T word they drew back. I guess they had reasons.
Rumours said that the Technomancers and the Source were in the pocket of General Wisdom; our unlawful president. Ever since the war he ran things with an iron fist, apparently even the Mancers. He controlled the army, and apparently if you control the army you control everything. So now the Mancers ran his errands, working crowd control and helping to root out resistance cells. My new found friends said that they were traitors, only looking out for their own skin, turning a blind eye to the suffering of the people.
One of the first things Wisdom had done was to institute laws of exception pushing away any democratic elections until the exception was deemed over, and apparently only the President could make that call. No one believed he would ever do that.
I picked up all sorts of knowledge about the state of my guild and how none of the dreams people had nurtured about the war had come to fruition. I finally paid attention to politics. I guess it is true, it is never too late.
My first real mission was a raid. We had been tipped off about a weapon stash through the network of informants that sympathised with our cause. I guess the government had hoped to crush the resistance early by destroying the militia, but what happened was that more people than ever had rallied to the cause.
People rose up instead of letting themselves be beaten down; determined to fight back. Oppression has the tendency to do that. So there was a wide network of people all over the country, and some in other guilds on Mars who supplied the resistance with both intel and money. It costs to run a revolution after all.
There were five of us doing the job. It was a simple hit and run, the goal to run off with as much as we could stuff onto the solar-truck we had. Our source had found a secret warehouse with government weapons. For some reason they were kept low key and stashed away. It was the perfect target. Low key meant fewer guards and a better chance for us. We were badly equipped and any and all weapons would be a great boon to the cause.
We had been lying low for two days, installed in an empty apartment on the other side of an unmarked hangar. It was a long time since any space ships had been serviced on Mars so all old hangars had long since been converted to other things. After all, with Earth uninhabitable, there was nowhere to go anymore.
We took turns standing guards, observing all who came and went. Pride, took no chances with things. Unless we were sure about this, we would pack up and go home.
After 48 hours cramped up in that tiny space I was climbing the walls with the need to do something. We played cards and talked in hushed whispers, or we slept. Finally, as I thought I couldn’t take the waiting any longer we got the order to move out.
As I strapped on my gear I felt calm and at home. Grenades clipped to the belt, spare ammo packs in the side leg pockets, rifle on the back, knife in a sheet in my boot. It was all automatic and comforting. Being a soldier was after all the only real career I had known so far in my life. I knew how to do this.
We filed out in the dead of night from our hiding spot and ran in a well formed column down small lanes and hidden alleyways towards our target. We stopped briefly by the fence, quickly cutting a hole; insulated clippers snipping away at the electric mesh.
We crawled inside one after another, careful not to touch the fence. Our first order was to cut the power, that way the fence would go offline and we would be able to leave with our loot. So far we hadn’t seen anyone but we were not taking any chances. Gratitude, our leader of the night led us in a slow approach towards the main building, we reached the fuse box unhindered and she installed the localized EMP and set the timer.
We had time to sneak up to the main door and edge inside before things went south.
Suddenly the quiet night was cut open by the steady, high-pitched whine of a high calibre laser. The noise is unmistakable, as well as the burning light that accompanies it. Even so, I had never actually seen one in action, only films during weapon training.
Gratitude went down instantly in a burning pile of limbs. The laser cut through her like she was butter. It gave the rest of us time to run behind the old stripped carcass of a satellite. Its metal body strong enough to give us time to regroup before the laser would cut through it.
Once in cover we faltered though, we had lost our leader and our plan of slow, hidden approach had been blown to smithereens. I wondered briefly what a high end expensive weapon like that was doing here, they had been banned in the last peace treaty and were supposed to be all gone. I guess this was the reason this place had been hidden away.
I looked around and could practically feel the resolve weaken and knew that if we didn’t refocus now, we would all go down with Gratitude. I looked at Tenacity who was supposed to be second in command on this run, but he was looking at me, a lost expression in his eyes. No help there.
I took a deep breath, the smell of burnt flesh and blood in my mouth. It calmed me, these were smells I was used to after all.
“For the resistance!” I shouted, raising my fist in the air. It woke them up from the temporary trance. I could see the faraway look go from Tenacity’s eyes, and he nodded.
“We need to silence that laser. Tenacity follow me, we will try to find the access on the back. The rest stay here and draw fire, make it seem like we are all here.” I looked at them all, crouched behind makeshift covers, boxes and crates. They looked at me calmly, every single one, and nodded.
“Sir, yes sir!” Tenacity said and I fought back the panic rising when I realised that they were actually listening to me, following my lead. I put on, what I hoped was, a dead serious look, “Good luck.”
“We no need no luck, just you take out that damn laser and we be fine,” Purity said grinning, showing off the four teeth she had left.
I tapped on Tenacity shoulder, and indicated with my head that he should follow. Purity and the rest opened cover fire and we ran back towards the door we had come from.
No one met us outside, which was lucky. They could easily have gunned us down from two directions if they had sneaked up on us from behind. That they hadn’t confirmed by suspicion that there were not that many of them, all gathered up by the gun. If we hurried we could take them down before reinforcement arrived.
We kept our profile low, running bent down to the ground, making as small targets as possible as we wound our way in a haphazard pattern across the outside courtyard. I was glad the EMP had gone off while we were dodging the laser, without the high beam lights flooding the outside we made it around the back of the building in no time.
There I found a backdoor. It was locked of course. I paused, trying to regain my breath as I ran through scenarios in my head. Tenacity came up behind me.
“What now?” he said.
I made a decision, time over subtlety.
“Just shoot anything that moves, ok.” I didn’t wait for an answer.
I raised my rifle and blew the door of its hinges in a micro second. The noise was devastating as the steel melted and the door tore away. Before the smoke could settle I rushed in, weapon first and sending a silent prayer out into the night.
I turned a corner and dove to the ground as bullets ripped the wall behind me to shreds. I fired while still in the air, no accuracy in mind just a wide salvo in the general direction where I thought the enemy where.
When I hit the ground I was still alive so I rolled to my left and got up to my feet pushing the trigger as fast as it would go. I felt more than saw Tenacity firing behind and to my side. In the smoke I could see two figures going down under our barrage, screams of pain lagging behind.
Then I saw the laser. It was swivelling around on its stand, burning a gash in the wall at least four feet deep as the operator didn’t bother turning it off.
“Holy fuck!” I heard from behind me as Tenacity saw the laser closing in. Fuck indeed.
“Back, back, back,” I shouted and we made for a hasty retreat. I fumbled at my belt, trying to get a grenade out. At first the bastard wouldn’t loosen from the pin, and then I had it my hand. I threw it backwards without looking and jumped headfirst out the door. The blast hit my back before I was fully out. The grenade must have met the laser beam and exploded before the standard three seconds.
The blast punched me down into the gravel, forcing the air out of my lungs. For a second I stayed put, trying to regain my breath and figure out if anything was broken. I was lucky.
As soon as I could I crawled to my feet and scrambled for my gun, which had been thrown in a different direction than me. As soon as I held it I felt safer. I found Tenacity with his back against the wall, he gave me a thumbs up and a weak smile. He scrambled to his feet as I beckoned.
With no little dread I started back into the building. Only way to know if my grenade had done the trick would be to go look. Best way to kill me, would be to not fire up the laser until I was in sight.
I quickly pushed my head around the corner. The laser was still there, but lying on its side, blissfully turned off. I let out a sigh of relief and neared it carefully, waving to Tenacity to check on the other two bodies.
The operator had been cut in half, the laser must have spun around from the blast wave and before the dead man’s grip disconnected it had cut both his legs clean off. He must have bled to death in seconds.
I called out to the others, still holed up on the other side of the hangar.
“All here,” Purity shouted and I could hear the others hooting and clapping. I felt myself break out a big smile, not dead yet.
After that we grabbed what we could, the big fucking laser foremost and then ran like hell. We made it before reinforcement could show up and managed our rendezvous with the transport home.
As we sat in the back of the van bumping steadily along I studied the faces of those around me. They looked happy and content; laughing and talking quietly. They were alive and after all, the mission a success. A weapon like that would come in handy.
Tenacity saw me looking around and rose as much as he could under the low roof and came to sit down beside me.
For a while he just sat there, but I could feel he was trying to speak up. I kept quiet, thinking there was time.
“I,” he started but then stopped. He rubbed at his own neck and I could tell he was embarrassed.
“Thank you for stepping up back there,” He eventually forced out, then he nodded sheepishly.
“No worries,” I said, leaving it at that. Tenacity was smart; he knew what had happened, no need for me to berate him for it.
“You did real good back there, I don’t think many others could have saved the day like you did.” He added, punching my shoulder.
“Thanks,” I said and felt that huge grin return.
He snorted and elbowed me in the side, “Well, don’t let it go to your head.” I laughed and after a while so did he; awkward moment passed.
So that’s how I really committed to my second war. This one was smaller, but we all felt like there was more at stake.
Chapter 12: Lyell
The weeks that followed were good. We were treated as heroes and a shared belief that we could do anything took hold. Things were going well for the resistance, we were gaining ground and recruits daily. The government kept increasing security all over the country but we kept avoiding them. It felt like we were invincible.
Oh I got a promotion as well. Everyone was impressed at how I had handled the situation. Tenacity stepped down and I replaced him as new group leader. He grumbled, but mostly for show and afterwards we both got so drunk we couldn’t walk and spent the evening talking about the good old days before the war. I don’t really remember what we said, but it was fun.
Then, about a month or so later, they took down a sister cell of ours. A leak probably, they were all shot instantly or captured and within the week tried and found guilty of treason. They were all executed. It killed the good mood that had been going around.
After that we began to limit the information we took in and also started to move regularly. That was simply the easiest way of trying to keep a step ahead of the army and the Technomancers.
I did a few more small raids, water mostly, and helped plan a few others. None of the others were successes in the same way, but we got by and lived on. Although, another cell managed to raid the city archive and steal a lot of identity documents, these then got circled around the resistance, fake IDs are always useful for people like us.
So far I had not managed to get Roy invited into the resistance, and to be fair I don’t think he wanted in. Not much of a group player really. Instead he had taken to supplying us information. He knew a lot of people all over town and outside, all who owed him for this and that. So he picked things up and made sure to throw them our way.
When I heard from Roy this time I hadn’t seen him for two months and our meeting before that had been brief to say the least. That time I had insisted to rendezvous with him. He had left an oral message with a facilitator that he had something for us. Normally someone else would meet him and pick it up, but I argued and sulked until I could go myself.
It had only been brief. We passed each other by in the crowded market; two strangers brushing close as they made their way between stalls selling scrap metal and food. Our hands clasped for a brief second as Roy slipped a note into my hand as we passed. The rough texture of his fingertips brushing against the sensitive skin on the inside of my wrist as he pulled away; I could see his lips mouth “Hi kid,” and then he was gone.
I had to force myself not to turn around and look as he walked away; heart pounding in my chest.
This time Pride sent me. Roy had requested a face to face. Apparently he was on to something big.
“You be careful,” she said looking at me, “Ties outside, they can be dangerous. Both for us and the ones we care about…” She quieted.
I just hummed in agreement, too excited to stand still. Whatever she was trying to say I didn’t care. I really deserved a night off. Well technically I was supposed to be working, gathering intel from Roy but it felt like a night off. I wanted to have a drink, talk nonsense and not think about the state of the world for a few hours.
I even washed before I left.
I made my way across town, not really paying attention, simply enjoying my good mood.
In the back of the bar where we had first made contact with the resistance I found Roy.
He was sitting at the same table we had waited at all those months ago. His dark hair was in its usual tussle yet longer than when I had seen him last. It was long enough that he had tucked a few strands behind his ears. The few grey hairs he had were also more clearly visible. Even from where I was standing I could see his differently coloured eyes and I felt that familiar tug in my stomach. He looked tired, I thought.
As soon as I sat down my mirth died away. He looked too serious, something was wrong.
“What is it?” I said, breath catching.
“Not even a hi before we get down to business?” he said, but there was no real humour in it.
“I know that look, something very bad has happened.”
He sighed and finished his drink in one go. I waited while he poured himself another one and added one for me.
He started several times, then stopped and the longer it took the worse I felt.
Finally he said, “I found out what happened to your parents,” he stopped there.
“Oh,” was all I could say. I had long since prepared myself for this, had known it would come. I had no illusions the news were good.
“Turns out it was Wisdom acting on his own, he took control of the army and ordered the attack. The rest of the government would never have supported it. Likely he knew it, but after it was done, no one dared oppose him anymore. It was his defning moment. "
He handed me a list, it was tattered and torn, like it had spent a lot of time in someone’s pocket.
It was a directory, a written order with a list of names. I scanned the list but I knew I would fine the names before I did.
Moderation and Consideration Smith, both had a ‘marked for execution’ in a neat column after their names. In the third column were the dates. It was all very proper, bureaucratic and orderly. At the bottom was a signature, President Wisdom Andersson it said.
I wanted to tear the paper apart, burn it to cinders. Instead I carefully smoothed it out on my knee and refolded it, hands shaking as I did. I hid it inside my shirt, close to my heart. Where I had once carried a letter from my parents around. Many years ago in what felt like a different life, a different world.
“My sources also say he initiated the war you know, ordered the attack on an Abundance water plant.”
“You sure?” I said.
“I would not have shared this with you unless I was a hundred percent sure.”
I rolled the idea around in my head. It felt like the truth. All I had seen of that man’s actions spoke of a self-serving megalomaniac of the worst kind. He would have ordered the war, it had given him the presidency after all. He had suspended further elections as soon as the war broke out and as it ended had managed to get the suspension extended. Everything to keep himself in power. Including killing my parents.
“This is why we need this revolution,” I said, voice firm, “Men like him, they need to be stopped so that the rest of us can remake this guild the way it was supposed to be. A place for all men and women to be equal, where we can feel safe at night.”
He looked at me sideways, “You sure have come a long way,” he said.
“I guess I have,” I replied. I didn’t really know what he meant but I agreed anyway.
I rose; I hadn’t even touched my drink yet but a night off suddenly seemed ridiculous, a childish thing.
“I need to go.”
“I know,” he said and got up to stand in front of me. I could tell he wanted to say something else, to say he was sorry for my parents. I didn’t want him to say anything though, I was holding together just fine, the only thing that had happened was that what I already knew had been confirmed.
“You should come with me. You could tell the rest of us all this and join us properly,” I said to keep him from speaking.
He shook his head, “No point kid, they are afraid me. Just like all people are. There is a reason technomancers keep to themselves.”
I looked at him, really looked, but all I could see was quiet resignation. A life not chosen, forced on him, but lived anyway.
“I’m not afraid,” I said eventually.
“I know. Why is that?” He looked like he really wanted to know, he looked young again. Like that time when I found out what he was and I suppressed an intense need to hug him, hold him close and tell him it would be alright.
“Because I trust you,” I said but meant something else.
He looked at me, that uncertain look in his eyes. Then he took a step closer, hand almost rising from his side like he wanted to touch me. I felt myself tense with anticipation, but then he hesitated.
“Come on kid, time to be off. Back to your resistance,” he turned away and the moment passed. Disappointment filled me until I thought I would burst and all I could do was hum in agreement.
Chapter 13: Magelhaens
I walked back quickly, my steps determined. I had wondered and had doubts about the resistance, about our goals and aims; but now I knew. I knew what we had to do, and a plan was slowly forming as I lost myself in thought.
I walked steadily, in the middle of the street, not my usual skulking at the edges, as the resistance had thought me, trying to remain unseen, to keep hidden.
Today, I didn’t try to hide, I knew my gait proved me a soldier, something perhaps not so safe anymore but I didn’t care. I was done hiding, and so was the resistance.
I called for a general meeting as soon as I got back; I avoided all the questioning looks and worried faces. I had to be determined, I could not show any weakness or they would never follow me in this.
“What is this Innocence?” Pride asked as she joined the loose circle of people sitting in our makeshift dining hall.
I glanced around at the faces of the men and women seated on ill-assorted chairs. I knew them all by now, knew their bravery and skill. I was about to ask them to risk their lives on my word. I took a second to appreciate the gravity of what I was about to do.
“I have some news, about what happened to the Militia,” I took out the document and moved to pin it up on the board behind me, then I took a step back and invited people up to read it themselves.
I stayed put and read the entire document again, this time, when I was not looking for my parents’ names I saw a lot more. Not every name had been marked for execution, some were marked with “experiment” and some with “work camp”, yet all of them had a date neatly marked in the column labelled “date of death”.
As people read through the hundreds of names on the list sobs and quiet cries went out, I was not the only ones who had had ties to the militia.
I slowly returned to my seat and waited as the rest of the room slowly trickled back.
I eyed them, they looked lost and sad, but mostly angry and full of energy. Good, I thought, that would make the rest of this go easier. I straightened my back and steeled my resolve. So help me Mars, we would make our stand, and we would make it now.
Pride eventually called everyone to sit back down.
“Ok, so I guess this is not why you called the assembly?” she said, eyes sad but determined as she looked at me.
“No, there is something else,” I answered and stood up.
I forced myself to stay calm, this was it, now was the moment of convincing them.
“We are going to kill Wisdom,” I said and sat back down.
At first it was quiet, then everyone spoke at the same time, it was a cacophony.
I stayed still while Pride worked to calm everyone down, in the end she had to slam the butt of her pistol down into the table, the loud bang finally silenced everyone.
“How?” was all she said, as the room grew still.
“With the laser,” I answered, making sure to keep eye contact with her.
“We are going re-rig the laser and use it as a big ass bomb and then we are going to blow his train up.”
“How are we going to come close enough to do that?” someone, or perhaps all of them asked.
After that I laid out my entire plan, every little detail of it. I realised then that this was something I had been thinking about for a long time, it was only tonight that had forced me to voice it. I think I had been hesitating to go after and try to kill someone who was not a soldier or fighter before. Wisdom had seemed like neither, but perhaps you did not need the blood to be on your own hands to be a killer.
I knew they all believed my information was correct, they had all seen the order, it was beyond doubt that Wisdom was more than a bad leader, he was a corrupt murderer. It was time to take him down.
“We should call in all the cells in Shadowlair, one massive strike.”
“No,” I said continuing before anyone could argue, “This might not work, and if it doesn’t there has to be a resistance left to keep fighting. If we lose this, it will only mean our deaths, not the death of the entire resistance.”
Pride nodded slowly, I knew she would agree on this point at least, the cause before our own safety. It was all down to her now, she was our leader, she would have to make the call.
Now that my bit was over I felt the certainty leave me and I sank down in my seat like a deflated balloon. Around me people were arguing and I closed my eyes and allowed myself for a brief moment to grieve. To mourn my parents and my own loss.
Eventually the room died down, I opened my eyes and saw everyone looking at Pride. The air was tense as we all waited for her decision.
“This could work, actually work,” Pride said and nodded more to herself that to us.
“We can kill Wisdom. With him dead they can’t stop a new election. We can put up our own candidate, someone with ideals, who is not bought by the Mancers.” Marco sounded feverish, a wild hope glowing in his eyes.
I had a feeling things might not be that simple. At the same time, now that I knew Wisdom had ordered the death of my parents for the only reason of staying in power, I knew Aurora would never have a chance to become a better place with him in charge.
“This is our chance, the one we have been waiting for,” Pride, looked out across the room, seeing only determined and hopeful faces. A sense of triumph, that we could do anything was starting to fill the room; and we hadn’t even done it yet
She stood up in front of us and I could see the determination and power behind her. She lifted an arm above her head.
“A government in the pockets of the technomancers. Leaders who don’t hesitate to kill the people who helped them win the war. You have seen the checkpoints, the cruelty, the poverty,” She grew quiet and looked out across her small audience, eyes intense and serious.
“We are fighting to change all that, to restore freedom and pride to the people of Aurora.”
My heart felt full, I was both sad and full of hope. Every word she said rang true with me. We all rose like one as she finished, fists in the air and wops of joy echoing in the small room.
“So let’s do this,” I said, back straight and gaze meeting hers.
“You’re not going kid, so sit down,” Marco blurted out.
“Stand down Marco. This is Innocence’s call. His initiative, his plan, his decision.” She threw a penetrating look at Marco who actually sat back down, sullen look in his eyes.
She turned to look at me.
“There is no turning back if you agree to this, no guarantee that we will live through this. You understand that right?” she said.
I thought about it and I realised, that yes this was it. I wanted to do this even though I had to risk my life. I believed Wisdom had to be stopped and that killing him was the only way. People had to know that there were options, that life did not have to be like this. That it could be better.
“You have your answer?” Pride asked.
“Yes, yes we have to do this,” I said and I could feel the fire in my chest as I did; the certainty that I was doing the right thing, what was necessary. This I realised was faith.
Chapter 14: Newton
It was the night before the big heist and I was not where I was supposed to be, in our camp, safe and keeping out of trouble. Instead I was walking down a quiet night road. The air had a sharp edge to it and the city smells seemed amplified. My nose was filled with dry earth and hard metal but also on occasion the soft smell of wet soil and plants from small gardens. The whiff of green perfume escaping out into the night.
We had spent over two weeks preparing. Going over the plan a hundred times, running simulations both in theory and in practice, and then doing it over and over again. Until we got it right, every time. This was a chance in a million, we all knew it. No longer were we a rag tag band of individuals, now we were a well-oiled killing machine. All driven by the same goal, all in agreement.
I was in charge, how insane was that? But it was my plan, my idea and even Marco agreed that I knew what I was doing. I had been a soldier for years after all, had experience of hiding and being on the run. I knew more about a lot of things than many people. I might be young, but I had seen a lot.
Myself from a few years ago would not recognise me. I had a new surety in my steps, an authority in my voice I had no idea where it came from. I had found something I believed in, something to call my own, after all these years. I walked down the streets like I owned them and people kept their distance. They didn’t see a scared kid, but someone dangerous, someone who you better not mess with.
High above I could sometimes see a star or two, shining in the small open gaps in our metal roof. I felt happy yet I couldn’t believe I was doing this, risking the entire mission like this. Just for the sake of… something. I had a goal tonight, something that had been on my mind for a long time. If things did not go well tomorrow, well, let’s just say I felt I needed to do this tonight.
I took the emptiest, shittiest streets I knew, the ones that police never frequented. Fuelled by my newfound sense of self I continued on, further into the city.
I took a long detour, trying to make sure I was not followed, not by the police, not by my friends. I wasn’t sure if the resistance would send someone after me, I thought they could, their paranoia was the thing that had kept us hidden so far.
Then the street I had been looking for came in view. I stepped into a narrow alley and followed its windings for a while then carefully slid a steel sheet to the side and clambered over a pile of junk. The ladder was still where it had been the last time I was here, many months ago now. At the top was the small patio, looking just like it had last time.
You could sort of tell someone lived here, if you knew what to look for. There were new things as well, what looked like a separating wall that seemed to hide a new room. I let it be and went to the door I knew. I reached into my pocket for the key I still kept there and unlocked the padlock on the door, I went through.
Inside was a home of sorts, bed, a cluttered desk, cooking things, some clothes and books in piles along the walls. There was no one there but I had expected as much when the door had been locked. It looked used though, like the owner had expected to come back for the night.
I stood for a while, indecisive in the middle of the room wondering what to do. Should I go, leave a note? In the end I lay down on the bed, heart thumping and feeling self-conscious even though I was alone. Then I must have fallen asleep.
I woke up to the sound of Roy’s voice. I stretched and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.
He was leaning against the wall, looking down on me, strange half-smile across his face, eyes dark in the dim light.
I looked up at him, really studied him, without feeling self-conscious or afraid he would see me staring. He looked good, solid and present.
“I’m not a kid anymore,” I said.
At first he didn’t reply, then he shook his head slightly.
“I guess you are not,” he said, turning his head away to stare at the corrugated steel wall.
I got awkwardly up on my feet, acutely aware of the indentation I had made in his bedding and the implication therein.
“So what can I do for you Innocence?” He asked without turning back to face me.
“I,” I started then faltered.
Damn, I had not come this far to chicken out now, I needed to chance this, or I would never forgive myself.
“I want something,” I said and slowly pulled my shirt over my head, throwing it down on the floor.
He didn’t say anything but I could feel his sideway glance burning lines into my flesh.
“If you don’t then just say so, and I’ll leave and we will forget all about this. OK?” I took a small step towards him, slowly closing the narrow distance between us.
I reached out and gently turned his head so that he was facing me full on. I took another little step, toes meeting toes. So close now that I could feel his breath on my face.
I shook slightly, fear and excitement in a wild mix. He didn’t turn away, or push me away, though in fact he didn’t do anything. I didn’t know if I should be discouraged or elated.
“Roy?” my fingers still curled around his chin, the stubble rough under my fingertips.
At the sound of his name he made a little noise, at the back of his throat, and then his mouth was on me.
One moment he was keeping his distance then he was there, lips meeting mine. He felt like he was burning, skin so hot it should have seared me, tongue begging entrance into my mouth. I fell into his arms, body melting towards him, mouth opening greedily, wanting it all.
We kissed, wildly and hungrily. My head spinning out of control; I had never planned further than this. I had been almost sure Roy would not turn me down, but it is further than you think from ‘almost’ to ‘sure’.
I felt his hands around my narrow hips, gently pulling me closer and I followed. Wanting desperately to be as close to him as I possibly could. I slid a hand inside his shirt and traced the muscles along his back, the smooth expanse of skin broken at intervals by the jagged puckering of old and not so old scars.
He smelled of whiskey and oil, of static electricity and dirt, but most of all of himself. A smell that relaxed me and simultaneously made me bold. As I licked into his mouth I slid a hand carefully down and cupped my palm around his ass, feeling the tense muscle under thick fabric.
He suddenly laughed into my mouth, not harsh or loud but small and happy. His lips left mine and I felt their loss acutely as cool air hit my swollen lips. As I tried to lean back in he held me gently by the shoulders and just looked at me, a grin plastered on his face.
I stilled and smiled back, leaning into his hand as he traced a finger along my cheek and into my hair. Then we were kissing again and I threw myself in it, lips, tongue and teeth claiming and marking. Roy had a broad, flat palm pressed against my lower back and one hand still tangled in my hair as I slowly stepped backwards until the back of my legs hit the bed frame.
I pulled at the hem of his shirt and he obliged and helped me remove it, then down on the bed we went, Roy gently pressing my body down with the weight of his own.
We didn’t speak, we didn’t need to. I indicated with body and mouth and hands what I wanted and Roy gently led me. His body was soft and hard in equal measures and everything about it made me want it more. I luxuriated in the fact that I could finally touch and look however much I wanted and I think Roy felt the same judging by the reverence with which he moved.
As we rocketed together, my legs lifted and locked behind the small of his back, hands grasping everything in reach I was overcome by sudden happiness.
It just felt so right, like it had always been like this. He and I, bodies locked together, moving in time. I looked up at his face, dark hair falling over his forehead, strands sticking together with sweat. I felt myself smile wildly and pulled him down for a kiss.
My shallow, rapid breaths and moans met his as I breathed his air and he mine as wave after wave of warmth pressed through me as we pushed against each other.
For the longest time afterwards I just laid there, feeling sated; body in a perfect state of physical and mental contentment. My head was resting on Roy’s shoulder, legs intertwined with his as his fingers were winding their way through strands of my hair.
“I’m glad you didn’t say no,” I said, mostly for something to say to break the satiated silence.
He grew still, but eventually he said, voice strangely horse, “I would never say no to you, not for anything.”
I propped myself up an elbow and met his eyes, they were open and honest and so brimming with stuff I had no name for that I had to kiss him or I would have said something that would embarrass the hell out of me.
He pulled me close, arms circling around my waist, fingers digging into the flesh on my ass. I rolled my hips and the gasp I got in return made me ready to do it all over again.
Chapter 15: Orson Welles
I left while Roy was still asleep. I felt like I had said and done all that I wanted to right now. I remember thinking that there would be time for more another time. I slipped out of bed, feeling the cold steel on my bare feet. I could just make out his features lying there on the bed, his hair mussed up and a peaceful expression on his face.
After I got dressed I turned to go but something stopped me. I dragged a hand gently in the air above his shoulder so as not to wake him and whispered,
“I’ll be back,” I smiled and then slipped out the door, feeling more genuinely happy than I had ever felt before in my life.
I slipped back into camp without anyone noticing I had been gone, even though Pride looked at me strangely. Maybe it was just the exhilarated expression on my face, but she could have attributed that to what we were about to do.
“You take care now,” she said and clapped me on the shoulder and I have to say I’m not sure what she was actually referring to. I didn’t care though, I felt absolutely invincible.
We didn’t talk much otherwise, everyone knew what to do. We just checked all the weapons both once and twice and then we left. It would take us a few days to get in position. We travelled in pairs to the location, so as to not raise suspicion, every two-some taking a different route.
Me and Tenacity were walking, using a hidden network of passages that took us all the way we needed without passing any guard stations. It was Tenacity who had planned the route. I had no idea how any of the others made their way to our common goal. At this point, we took no chances. The less each part knew, the better.
The laser, the most important player in all of this, had been heavily modified to look like a farming machine. New parts added and days spent rubbing dirt into it made it unrecognisable to anything but the most trained eye. Persistence and Integrity travelled with it, Integrity had been a farmer and so could hopefully bullshit his way around any and all questions that might arise at the checkpoints.
They were both relatively new, so it was a risk. But it meant that their faces weren’t on any wanted posters yet and with some of the fake IDs we had gotten hold of, they should be able to simply pass through the security points. It was a big gamble, but we saw no way around it, trying to smuggle something that big onto a train and into the centre of Shadowlair was just impossible.
Forging the fake documents for the machine had surprisingly been the most difficult part of the plan. Eventually Marco had managed to get of hold of some old friends in Abundance which had set up an import/export order for farming equipment by heavily bribing anyone they could find. We had the papers now, so that should get us to where we wanted.
Me and Tenacity had left a few days before the laser. We took the most circumspect route we could, held up in a variety of hiding spots all over town to make sure we were not followed.
I met a lot of people in these short days, people of all ages and occupations, all belonging to our network of supporters. One night we sleep on the floor in a hovel barely keeping the sun out, a man with no legs and a dog for his only friend lived there.
He had been in the war of course and now lived on what he could beg on the streets. He smelled, not only of dirt and poverty but also of desperation and despair. Me and him talked long into the night about the war and the potential of a better world.
Another half day we spent watching three small children while their aunt and uncle both worked in a nearby Solarbike repair shop. The kids were quiet and well behaved, had seen too much of life already to really be kids. Their parents had been in the militia.
I had known about all of these people of course, mistreated by life and an unfair rule. But it was a different knowledge that started to seep in living with them, seeing their homes and the hope in their eyes as they looked at us. It terrified me, that they all put their fate in us, in me.
They all risked so much by helping us, but then I guess so did we. It sank in then, that this resistance business was not something the few of us fighting were doing, it was something all of us were creating, every day in small actions that pile together to become something great.
It was a learning experience, something I am glad I had the chance to experience.
Me and Tenacity made it to the train station as the second pair. Pride and Marco were already at the rendezvous location when we arrived.
Pride cheered silently as we ducked our heads into a train carriage that had been put to the side, to broken to run again. We had made sure it would still be here when we needed it. Marco had taken care of it, he told me I didn’t want to know, that my Innocence might be forever tarnished.
It made me uncomfortable, but I knew deep down that we had blood on our hands as well. You can’t run a successful resistance without breaking a few egg someone had once said to me. I didn’t like it, but what was there to do? We needed it to happen, and it had happened.
During that night the rest of the pairs arrived, one after another. As dawn was breaking, a dirty grey light covering the entire sprawling railway system we were all waiting in silence. The mood was tense; it all came down to Persistence and Integrity now. If the laser did not make it, then our chance would be blown.
None of us slept, even though we should have tried to, but I doubt anyone could have. I was biting my thumbnail trying to stay still and not breathe to hard. Every breath seemed like it reverberated for miles, echoing ever outwards.
As I was thinking that I couldn’t take it any more Marco tapped my shoulder and pointed behind me.
“What?” I whispered, too anxious to wait until I had turned around to find out.
“There it is”, Marco whispered back to me. I leaned out a bit further to see, and right as day, there was the laser being loaded up a few carriages away from us.
I ducked back in and took a breath to steady myself.
“Here we go then,” I said, more to myself really, but it carried across the empty waggon and everyone stopped to look at me. I felt it in the air then, the certainty that we would do this.
Pride smiled, “Indeed. Here we go.”
Chapter 16: Pasteur
Our plan was to load the laser on a train heading for Abundance, the very one we had a permit for. That train had to pass through the central switch, a mess of tracks and intersections that was the hub of the Auroran train system.
Aurora has an ancient train system with tracks running through central Shadowlair. It was built in the early stages of colonisation when the city was hardly more than a few hangars and bubbles that prisoners lived in. Then the city grew up around it and left no space for any expansion to the railway. Moving it out town had been on the political agenda for as long as I could remember, but no one had ever been able to make the budget work on that; simply too damned expensive.
This meant that all traffic to and from Shadowlair had to go through the central station, and there que up at the switch; or Rat’s nest as the locals called it. The limited system was a huge time sink for train traffic but today it was our best friend.
A few greased palms here and there and we now had a ten minute window when our train and General Wisdoms would be queuing up together to make their track changes. Our train was set for switching tracks just after the president’s.
Our chance would come just as the presidential train was switching track. Wisdom would board the train as late as possible, just as his train was being readied and ours would start to que up; then and only then would we have our chance. There would not be much time, but it was the best shot we could hope for.
Marco and Pride were in charge of loading the laser on the correct train, having changed identities with Persistence and Integrity. In here there were no security checks, although still a shit load of guards, police and military scattered about.
They left confidently waving at the rest of us. I sent a quiet prayer for luck with them. As they disappeared from sight I forced my mind to focus on my own task.
You see, I had the trigger for the bomb.
No one was allowed on the trains and train drivers and staff were so tightly controlled that there had been no chance to sneak someone on board. Instead we had rigged the laser with a remote detonator, the control to which was in my left pocket. There had been no way to use a long range one; the signal would have been picked up by security. So I had to get close.
My group, all eight of us, would split up in our rail-worker costumes and spread out. The sole goal was to get me close enough to activate the laser at the right time.
I know, there was a lot of ifs and luck involved in this plan, but it was all we had managed. We all knew it would take a miracle to pull this off, yet there was a chance, no matter how small. We all felt we had to take it, that it would be worth it if we succeeded.
As the time of our arranged departure drew near our party grew quiet. No one talked or fidgeted anymore but a still but comfortable silent settled. We had rehearsed what we were going to do for weeks, the plan was so ingrained there was a chance we could have executed it in our sleep.
Now all that was left was to simply do it.
It started well, that should have worried me. At the assigned time I signalled the order and one after another they slipped out, weapons hidden in clothes and tool bags. I squeezed their shoulders briefly as they walked past and met their eyes, what I saw there made me confident. They were prepared and ready; they would do this or die trying out there.
I was the last to leave our hiding spot, a cap pulled down low across my brow as I set out with confident steps, like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Which, from my point of view, is exactly where I was.
Our luck left us quickly after that first beautiful start. We slowly meandered our way closer to the Rat’s nest, in the corner of my eye, I saw one of our own once in a while, but we kept spread out, like a fan, slowly but surely closing in.
Then as suddenly as that, our carefully laid plan went spectacularly to hell. I am not even sure what happened. Best bet, we screwed up somewhere, perhaps someone spotted a weapon or something else out of place and the guards were already likely to be on extra alert as the president was on the station.
The first warning I had was the sound of shots being fired somewhere to my right. I forced myself to continue even as the intensity of the battle seemed to increase. We had made strict plans, no distractions; the only thing that mattered was the goal.
I hid under a train as a group of riot clad police trotted past, I counted my breath, and waited until I reached twenty before I scrambled out and continued. I had my gun in my hand now and I had discarded the cap; no sense pretending to fit in anymore.
I was distracted though, thinking about my friends fighting for their lives, so I didn’t pay enough attention to where I was going.
Then there she was; a tall, broad shouldered woman standing in my path, still a few hundred feet away. She stood like she owned the world, and in a sense I guess she did.
None of that made my insides go cold and my hands turn sweaty though. It was the implants, the electrical grafts running along her arms and across her shaved head. Small flickering lights seemed to emanate from her fingertips.
She was a technomancer, and she seemed to be waiting for me.
Seeing her made me think of Roy and I hesitated, my gun hanging by my side instead of aimed at her.
As I came in view she activated her powers, like there was no rush. Blue sparks danced around her, filling the air and seemed to set the very ground on fire. It flickered and cast eerie shadows around, sucking the colour out of everything. My hand, holding on to my gun so hard I had stopped feeling it looked grey and dead. Like all the blood had been drained away.
I tried to remember everything I knew about Technomancers, everything Roy had told me and everything I had picked up by simply being near him. I knew a lot by now, much more than most people ever learned. But then most people don’t spend every waken moment observing every single movement a Technomancer does. Although, I suppose that right now I had little use of knowing just how his mouth curled when he thought I was funny, or how soft the skin was between his thighs.
On the other hand I also knew some of the limits and expanses of the mancers’ powers, what they could and couldn’t do.
The woman didn’t seem to care as I slowly approached; I guess I didn’t look like a threat and I didn’t shoot at her either. Maybe I was hoping she would be friendly, I don’t know. Then she lazily raised a flickering blue palm towards me.
I stopped in my tracks and pushed the image of Roy away, I wanted to live after all. As lightning flew against me, I danced to the side at the very last second. After all, they had no way to changing the direction of the power once it had been released.
I could feel the hair rise up on my arms as the deadly bolt singed past me. I regained my balance and finally fired at her.
As I expected it hit the personal shield a feet away from her body. I could tell when her stance shifted and all of her attention turned to me.
Again I waited for her to release her power before I jumped. I knew that the shield was not limitless, if fired on enough, it would break.
As I rolled away I thought I heard her shout coward after me, but I was not sure. It was good though, if I could rile her, I had a chance.
For a while we danced a dance of death me and the mancer. I leaped and fell and jumped as she threw lightning at me. She stood still and I moved like I never had before, shooting wildly whenever I had time to aim. At the start I taunted her, smiling and insulting her aim every time I managed to dodge her powers, but soon I was breathing too hard for it.
Every time I hit, white sparks spread out from where my bullets impacted. Every single time they stopped uselessly a feet from hitting her.
However, it didn’t take long before I started to despair. I was out of breath and realising that I would not be able to keep this up, every time I waited and she shot she learned how I moved, every time it was closer. My jacket was burned all along the back and I could feel my skin, hot and itching beneath it every time I moved. Soon she would not miss.
I sent off a series of bullets, not waiting to see if they hit and dodged in behind an empty barrel. I pushed away from it as it started to glow and melt at the edges as electricity ran through it. I pushed myself up and ran crouching towards a water tank on my left, my trigger finger pushing repeatedly as I ran.
I was panting now, sharp, painful breaths. My chest felt like it was being stabbed repeatedly and my muscles were burning in protest. I was slowing down, I could feel it.
In mid step my left leg just gave out under me and I fell to the ground, I rolled behind the water tank and was just about to get up when the smell of burning flesh hit my nose. My leg was a mess. I admit I threw up, bile rising instantly in my throat as I looked at the charred red and black flesh.
Distantly I could hear someone shout and taunt me, and I managed to pull myself up. My leg held, but barely. A quick rummage through my pockets and I found a pain reliever, I punched the needle down in my wounded leg and could not help the cry of pain that escaped me.
With tears still in my eyes I reloaded my gun and slowly stepped back out.
As soon as I saw her I released salvo after salvo at her and this time, there were no white spider webs when my bullets hit.
She must have exhausted her powers trying to catch me. I knew the immense amount of concentration and effort it took, she must have squandered it, trying to kill me fast instead of conserving her powers.
It was too late now to run so I stood my ground, gun blasting out everything I had left. She staggered under the assault; too busy trying to keep the shield up to be able to retaliate. I moved closer and aimed more carefully, making sure every bullet hit in the same spot.
Then without warning the shield must have failed because a blood red fan sprayed out behind her and I could hear a sound like a whip cracking the air.
For a moment I stood still as the mancer collapsed in what seemed like slow motion. Then I almost ran to her, Roy’s face superimposed on her features and a deep sense of regret filling me.
Some survival instinct stopped me though and I made a hasty retreat behind shelter and bunkered down as she exploded.
I stayed there for a while, catching my breath and allowing the painkiller to kick in. I wrapped my leg in a bandage before I got up and left.
As I continued I made sure not to look at where the Technomancer had died, I feared that if I looked it would break me. Exhaustion and the medication were taking their toll on me, but I stumbled on.
As I rounded a corner suddenly there it was, our carriage, just where it was supposed to be; rolling slowly up the track by the Presidential train. The flag was up, so Wisdom should be on board by now. They must have thought that we were all there was, or simply believing that the train was safer than outside; never realizing that the real threat were not the few rebels scattered around.
I still had the trigger on me, all I needed now was a second to fish it out and get close enough to detonate it. I looked around, new energy filling me. I could see Purity on the other side of a few tracks, pinned down by snipers and armed guards guarding the route to the train. She was looking at the guards, once in a while leaning out carefully from behind an overturned solarcar and firing back.
There was only one way to approach the train, and we had to hurry. In minutes the president’s train would be on the right track; Wisdom would escape and it would all be over. I grimaced as I realised that there were really only one option. There was no way to get the trigger to her, and the guards had not spotted me yet. If I could just get past them, I could still do this.
I prayed that it would all be worth it in the end. Then I started to wave to get Purity’s attention.
I had to throw a rock at her to get to notice me. As it hit her left foot she looked up, met my eyes and I pointed to the train. She nodded, she had seen it too. Then she shrugged her shoulders, as if asking what we should do now.
I swallowed hard and then tried with sign language to get her to understand what I was after.
It took a few tries but I think she got me in the end, because even on this distance I could see the resolution on her face as she nodded solemnly to me.
I nodded back and saluted her. She pressed two fingers to her brow in return and then held three fingers up in front of her.
Then only two.
Then off she went.
Up and over her meagre cover, gun blazing a wide half-circle in front of her. No accuracy, just momentum and surprise.
I didn’t stay to see what happened. I had to hurry or her sacrifice would be in wane.
I rolled to the side and crawled on my front arms as fast as I could. A skill they drilled into us in my army days. I stayed low to keep out of sight and made my way down a short slope and in behind where the guards had been firing from.
I didn’t stop even as I heard Purity cry out in pain behind me. I kept my head down and moved; any tears I shed were lost in the red dust.
Then I reached the steel wall of a shed that housed the track changing mechanics. I got up and then I ran as best as I could, determination fuelling me on. In my hand I held the trigger, finger repeatedly pressing the detonator. I was so close now I could see sunlight reflected in the glass panes of the carriage. Brilliant rays of light bounced of the reflective surface and made the air sparkle as it hit and reflected further on dust motes in the air.
Bullets were landing all around me now, creating little fountains of dust as they hit the ground, but it seemed fate was on my side, because I kept going. Legs pumping like pistons and arm outstretched in front of me.
Then, with no forewarning the train exploded in a brilliant ball of flame, a cloud of iridescent smoke rose like a mushroom just as the sound hit me. I remember thinking, before my cognitive process caught up, how beautiful it was. Then a tremendous crash rolled along the landscape and the blast wave threw me brutally to the ground.
I think I lost consciousness for a while, probably not long though because when I came to dust and bigger particles were still raining down on me from the explosion.
My head was ringing and I got gingerly up on my feet, supporting as much weight as I could on my good leg. I had trouble breathing as sand filled my lungs and I could hardly manage to stand. I was in no shape to fight anymore but I could see three armed men closing in on me anyhow.
I leaned back on my heels, thinking that this might just be it.
Then there he was, Roy, running towards me, hands blazing blue like a super nova and cold, hard determination written across his face. I felt an intense happiness well up inside me, how he had found me I did not know but I suspected Charity, she always seemed to know more than could be healthy for her.
I called out his name and he smiled at me across the distance and it went straight to my heart. I stepped towards him, a smile straining my face and new found energy pushed me forward. But I was stopped dead as hands suddenly grabbed me from behind, I lashed out wildly and could feel my fist connect with something but then new hands gripped my arms and the detonator I still grasped was wrenched from my hand and I could hear it clatter as it fell to the ground.
Another smaller explosion went off to my left and the air was suddenly full of smoke again, white billowing clouds all around, someone must have blown a water tank. I could still see Roy, the eerie blue light giving his features a harshness I had not seen before. He ran towards me and didn’t see the three riot officers coming in from the side.
“Roy,” and even I could hear the panic in my voice as the first took him from the side, steel baton connecting with his thigh. He fell to one knee but then a blinding blue light made me close my eyes. All the time I was struggling with my captors, who were dragging me away, one must have gotten a stun gun out because suddenly an intense pain filled me and all my muscles went slack.
I opened my eyes and in between the white mist I could see Roy fighting the last standing police, two still bodies on the ground; I tried shouting one last time but my mouth didn’t work and then someone put a bag over my head and everything went black.
That was the last time I saw Roy. They never got him and I heard that he made it out alive. As far as I know he lived to be an old man, happy ever after. I am so glad for that.
I was not so lucky.
Sorry it took so long, life sort of got in the way and the chapter just kept growing longer and longer...
Chapter 17: Quenisset
Chapter 17: Quenisset
The rest is not much to tell. Prison felt a lot like the prison camp all over, except I was kept isolated. Couldn’t have any of my dangerous ideas spread to the other inmates now could we? I think I was kept there for weeks but the days were all the same and I forgot to keep count.
They beat me up a lot in the beginning, trying to get me to spill about the resistance. I tried to hold out for a while but then in the end I gave them what they wanted anyway. By that time all I knew would be old anyway, my resistance knew better than to keep to old hideouts and paths once someone who new them was captured.
I have to say, I think they knew because they were never that serious about it. Had they tried they could have hurt me for real.
Someone had to go down for the killing of Wisdom, the book had to be closed on that chapter, and it was me who would pay. In a twist of fate it was even true in a sense, I doubt they saw the irony of it the same way I did though.
Somewhere in the middle, maybe, there was a perfunctory trial. I didn’t say much and it was not expected of me either. It was only me in the end, so I guess they never caught any of the others. They didn’t need anyone else after all; one criminal would at least make it seem like justice had been served.
They ruled me guilty of treason, of course, and as a judge read my sentence I felt that I had no emotions left to react with. I just looked at the floor, studying the pattern a net of cracks made.
I slept a lot, ate when they fed me, walked when they said walk and that was it. I probably should have tried to do something with my days, my last days, but I didn’t. I didn’t think back and didn’t regret anything; there were no choice that could have played out otherwise. I suppose I was waiting. For what, that I don’t know.
At last it was time. It was a simple prison guard that came a pulled me out of my cell and I just knew. My hands grew cold with sweat and my heart gave these irregular lurches, I didn’t feel ready, I still had things to do! I froze, legs out trying to make us stop and I wanted to tell the guard it was a mistake, that it was not my time yet; but my mouth didn’t work and nothing came out. He took a steady grip on my upper arm and just pulled me along.
By the time we had walked the line and got outside I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to die. The yard where the executions take place is outside and uncovered. The bright sun blinded me and I had to close my eyes and blink a couple of times, white spots running around on the insides of my eyelids.
The sand was a brilliant red and I was glad I was going to die here, on the soil of my land and under my sun. The land I had fought for in not one but two separate wars to protect and shape into a better place. None of those dreams had happened but the fight was not done, they would keep on long after I was gone and I had a good feeling about their chances of success.
Now I am tied to a pole, arms painfully stretched behind my back, feet firmly rooted on the ground. I hold my head high, because at least I can die with dignity.
There are three of us tied up here, I have no idea who the others are and right now I couldn’t care less. A man in a tattered uniform, goggles strapped tight to his head is walking around with a small flask. He stops in front of each of us, finishing with me. He raises the flask and I catch a small stream of water on my tongue. I roll it around in my mouth and swallow it, feeling grateful.
When I am done the man is gone without me noticing him leaving. I look up and my eyes fix on the black muzzle of the machine gun. It stands mere meters in front of us, sand bags piled around it to keep it still. Seeing my death in the dark steel makes me want to throw up, I would have if I hadn’t been too scared to lose those last drops of water. I almost panic, dread creeping up my spine as my own mortality hit me with full force.
My vision is shrinking, black creeping in from the edges and I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I have a foolish wish that this is a bad dream, that I am back in the prison camp again, safe. Well as safe as can be.
That’s when I feel him watching me. I open my eyes and look around but I can’t see anyone, but I know he is here.
“Roy”, I whisper.
I feel it in my gut, the certainty that he is here watching over me and it calms me down. I sigh and lean my head back, letting it rest on the concrete behind me. The ground is a brilliant red and the sun is shining down on me and for the first time in a long while I do not feel alone.
I do not hear the gun go off but I feel the bullets as they rip into my flesh, tear my body to shreds. The pain is unbearable and a dark all-consuming fear sweeps me away like a blistering sandstorm. The panic first closes my throat and then I cry out in fear and pain; but then I grow calm. A sense of tranquillity settles over me and all the pain goes away; I am left with that feeling of being safe and warm in the arms of the one you love.
My name was Innocence and I died three days before my twentieth birthday. I never got a chance to live my life, but at least I got to feel what it’s like to believe in something so deeply that you are willing to die for it. And also what it means to love.
August 11th, peace year 9.
A week ago I was given this diary, not sure how it managed to reach me after all this time.
I had no idea Innocence even kept this thing. When did he have time to do it? He must have compiled it when he was with the resistance.
I am getting ahead of myself though; maybe I should start like this:
My name is Temperance Tarkovsky, or Roy if you want, and I used to know a man named Innocence Smith.
Someone sent me this diary that once belonged to him. I have read it over and over in the weeks since I got it. I know the story well, I was there after all, but as I read it now there is always something new tucked away in the pages. A detail I had forgotten, an event that I misremembered.
The diary is about the war and the years after. It is about the resistance and the corruption of Wisdom Andersson. It is the story about a young man finding his way in a difficult world. It is also about me and about him, and incidentally about us.
Reading this now, I keep wondering if he knew, knew that I loved him? That I loved him from the very moment I saw him under all that dirt. He was so tired and haggard but his eyes shone like the dawn, promising to save me.
He was so young when I first laid eyes on him. His spirit so pure and I wanted to protect him from it all, from the world and myself most of all. I was the very opposite of him, cynical, bitter, and jaded by a difficult life by the time we met. I had stopped believing in the world, people and myself.
I keep trying to find myself, like I know me in the pages of his diary, but I am nowhere to be found.
Instead there is this stoic figure, this almost gentle man who stands by his side. The text attaches my name to this figure and every time I read it I wonder at this person Innocence saw in me. There is none of the hatred I always carried around with me, but perhaps some of the loneliness.
In the end he did save me, from myself.
I finished his battle for him, just like I am now finishing this journal. There was something about him that made all of us who were left behind want to be better, make the world better, for him.
The world changed after it all went down, after that act of pure defiance. Innocence saw the world as it was, corrupt and wrong and he screamed in its face that he would try to put it right.
In the aftermath of the killing of the then President Wisdom, the resistance cleaned up their shit and went straight. Became a bona fide political party, reinstated the militia and swore to protect democracy and peace. I joined them, helped with the cleaning up I guess.
I also went back to the Source. Fought, blackmailed, and bullied my way along. But that is a different story, both long and bloody. It all ended with me being forgiven by the ones still alive. On the outside it all looked cosy and nice, they welcomed me back as their prodigal son. We Technomancers are good at putting on a pretty front.
Now the Source is on the side of democracy, with the former resistance. We all fight together, but with pens and words instead of guns and knives. We all lost too much in the two wars, no one wants to see that again.
I made sure we supported Pride as she ran for presidency. She didn’t win, but neither did Courage, a general of the old school. We created a coalition, a council with both parties and the Technomancers; a big happy smiling family. Well maybe not, but a tenuous peace is kept.
In the years since the war a lot has improved. Poverty is down, no one starves to death anymore in the streets of Shadowlair. Not that we don’t have a long way to go, but we are getting there. It is hard to fight out old rivalries and make change actually happen. It takes a long time.
I guess you could call me a respected member of the community these days. It freaks me out sometimes, the responsibility of having other people depend on you. Those days when it is too much I lock the door and drink until I pass out.
I always dream of the prison camp then. I was happy there for a while, things not so complicated. Innocence is there, in my dreams I always save him. It is always something different that threatens him, some monsters, evil doers, a force of nature and so on. Before I wake up, I always manage to save him.
I reach for him in my sleep and then he disappears, simply fades away and I wake in a cold sweat, panic closing in on me, and I am unable to breathe as I remember. That I didn’t. That I couldn’t. Save him.
After those nights things are better for a while, I get back to work with new determination. You would think I was bogged down by grief, but it is the other way around. It gives me focus.
Sometime I think there exits other, parallel worlds. Maybe in one of those I made other choices, perhaps there Innocent is still alive and we live happily ever after running a small farm somewhere far away from politics. But I know he would never have wanted that. Maybe the Innocent I first met in the prison camp, the young boy, but not the man he grew into. He would never have been able to settle and live his life quietly while others suffered.
Who knows, maybe it could never have ended any other way from how it did.
I was there you know, until now I have never told anyone this. I saw the bullets rip him to pieces and life leave him. I was unable to do anything but scream until my voice broke behind a mirror wall. I fought the ones forcing me to watch, the ones who had orchestrated this but in the end I could do nothing.
In those last moments I just looked at him, standing so proud. Back straight and nothing but love for all things in his eyes. I knew then what I had to do.
It was after that I decided to visit my old friends in the Source. Let just say someone needed to pay.
I couldn’t save him, but maybe I can make his sacrifice actually mean something. One day there will be statues of him all over Mars, Innocence Smith, freedom fighter. People will know him, his determination and courage. They might not get to know him like I did, but it’s something. At least I tell myself that as life goes on.
This is not an end, because the story only ends if you imagine that the story is about you, right? This story is about the believes of a man who gave his life for them. A better world he helped create, for all of us here on the red planet of Mars.
Innocence might be dead but his legacy lives, forever on.
Managed to finish, at last! I am so glad that you have read this far, hope you enjoyed it=). I know I had fun (most of the time) writing this.
If anyone is interested, the chapters are named after famous craters on Mars.
Now I am going to go write something happy =)