2796 words (11 minute read)

Chapter V

. . . . Hiiiiraaamm . . . Jeeeeeefferson . . .

. . . Theeeey betteeerr . . . nooot . . . beeee . . . deeaaad . . .

. . . Fiiiine . . . theeeeey. . . reeeee . . . fiiiiiiine . . .

Voices, swirling around in the darkness. Ebbing and flowing like waves.

I climbed slowly out of the deep, dark pit of my mind and opened my eyes. The edges of things blended together in a disorienting blur. Nothing stood out. Not the great mass of yellow burning against a sea of shadows. Not the formless shapes who congregated around it. I struggled to make sense of the world around me but failed each time I reached the absolute limit of what my brain was able to process at once. I closed my eyes and faded back out for a time. None of the formless shapes seemed to have moved much so I didn’t imagine my periods of mental absence lasted long.

Something soft and thin pressed against my cheek, against my arms, against my legs. It tickled my skin whenever I attempted some small movement.

All right, Shiloh. Retrace your steps. What’s the first thing you remember?

Panic. Absolute bedlam. I woke up to find strangers clad all in black standing around my bed. Pennyworth tried to save me but he . . . oh God . . . did they kill Pennyworth? My heart gave a painful lurch and I thought I felt the coolness of tears pouring from my eyes. I didn’t want to believe they did but found it hard not to consider what the woman’s electrified baton could’ve done when it came in contact with Pennyworth’s metal body and the computer bits inside his skull. It didn’t take much to convince me that it was enough to fry him to death—

Rilei, where’s Rilei?

Where was anything, really? The various shapes and smears of color around me had yet to come together to form anything real.

The voices around me sounded as if I were listening to them while underwater. Warbled, muffled, and unintelligible.

One of the shadows moved away from the others and disappeared from view before coming up to me, a gesture which effectively drew all the smudged lines together into the distinctive shape of a man’s face, framed by a cascade of blond locks. With the mask which I thought once covered his mouth hanging loose around his neck I saw his soft pink lips turned upwards into a smile. Black-lensed goggles covered his eyes.

“Welcome back, little lady. It’s been a while. How do you feel?”

For what seemed like an eternity, but what had only been a few seconds in truth, I struggled to make sense of what he was saying to me. “M-My head . . . my head . . . it hurts . . .”

“Yeah, that should go away soon. I’d give you something for it but it won’t help. You’ve just got to muddle through for the time being.”

“Where . . . Where’s Rilei . . .? Where’s my . . . my sister?”

The man turned his head to the left. I tried to follow his gaze but found nothing more than the blurry pile of shadows. Was that Rilei? Was she all right? I focused everything inside of me on making the hazy edges of the world come together just long enough to find out. I couldn’t do it well enough to see anything.

“She’s okay. Still asleep, but alive and unharmed. Well . . . mostly unharmed. She did put up a bit of a fight when we took her but beyond a few scrapes and bruises she’s all right.”

“Why . . . why are you . . .?” I struggled to get the rest of the question out, but my brain refused to form the words. They remained lodged in my throat like a dozen cherry pits. All I managed in their place were a few loose tears. The blond, goggle-eyed man reached down and wiped them away with a single finger. His touch burned.

“Don’t worry, neither you nor your sister in danger. The man who sent us after you, Hiram Jefferson, gave us specific orders to keep you alive. He wants you treated like honored guests.”

“You didn’t answer . . . my . . . my question.” Things started to come together. I began to see the pile of yellow-orange light as it took on the shape of a large campfire, the flames jumping up into the black velvet sky and licking the little diamond stars. The shadowy figures sitting around it morphed into the goggle-eyed soldiers from before. I saw Rilei lying beside me, her left eye covered by a dark blue-purple bruise and a cut running across the length of her bottom lip. My stomach did queasy tumbles. I wanted to reach out and take care of her—but when I tried I found myself unable to. Ropes tied around my wrists kept my arms bound behind my back.

“I know, but I can’t. Hiram didn’t want us to say anything to you. He wanted to be the one to do it himself—”

“Oh, now that’s not very polite,” said a raspy voice from somewhere in the dark. “The lady asked you a question.”

Everyone—including me, the best I could—turned toward the sound of the voice in time to see a stranger in filthy clothes pressing a gun to the back of a nameless, goggle-eyed soldier’s head.

The other black clad soldiers reached for the rifles sitting between their legs. The blond man who took the time to speak to me stepped forward towards his weapon still sitting in the place where he’d been before I woke up.

One man surrounded by at least half a dozen soldiers with better guns.

Just by looking at the white haired gentleman’s baggy denim pants; the rips in his black vest; the yellowed stains on his white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and the skeletal metal appendage attached to his right arm—I didn’t have much confidence he’d be getting out of this alive.

A nasty grin stretched across the old man’s lips. “Oh I wouldn’t get too hasty now, fellas. If I were you, I’d rethink that.”

From the seed of his words, more men and a few women appeared from out of the forest shadows. Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten—more and more with varying sizes of guns in their hands poised for a quick shot and an easy kill. Dusty, haggard men and a few women clad in baggy clothes with dried blood soaked into their rags.

My heart thudded so hard and so fast in my chest that at one point I stopped feeling it at all, washed completely in the waters of absolute paralyzing terror. My eyes jumped right to the man whose entire body was a stark shade of snowy white. Black smudges smeared down his forehead and around his eyes like thunderheads before a storm. They seemed to make the rest of his skin stand out in a vile contrast.

Each hunched over, ape-like movement he made around the center of the circle threw a highlight across the mound of scarred flesh drawn on his body like tattoos: a skull with a gaping mouth on his left shoulder; circuits down his belly-button partially hidden by the black leather strap reaching up across the middle of his chest to hold the silver disk in place on his right shoulder; a scorpion on the inner thigh on his left leg crawling down from the square of leather over his manhood all exposed in the missing crotch of his baggy gray pants; and several scars which made no picture at all but instead stood like tally marks on his face and right forearm.

I glanced back at Rilei. I fought to decide if I thanked God she wasn’t awake to see this, or if I needed her to be awake and ready for a quick get-away if the soldiers couldn’t protect us.

Not that it mattered. Either way, her face remained pressed against the ground and her eyes stayed shut against everything. Against the scarred man’s slobbering laughter filling the dark of the night with twisted madness. Against the white haired man’s smarmy grin. Against the truth no one wanted to accept: We’ll probably lose this fight. The men in black lenses didn’t have the manpower to stand up to people like this, especially not with the scarred man lurking around like a gorilla waiting for the right moment to pounce.

“Now if we’re going to be gentlemen about the situation, I’d like you all to sit nice and tight while I conduct some business. Sound reasonable?” The white haired man didn’t wait for an answer. He pulled the trigger, sent the entirety of his hostage’s brains flying forward in a spray of blood and bone and chunks of gray matter, and stepped over his body as if he were nothing.

The closer he got to Rilei and me, the more I began to feel my heart beating again. It threw itself hard against my chest, screaming at me to do something. For the love of God don’t just lay there, do something!

His boots crunched against the dirt and loose pebbles. Squelched from the dew already collecting on the blades of grass. A combination of body odor, booze, and something sour I couldn’t place permeated from him in a cloud and acted as a harbinger of his presence. Firelight winked off the metal joints which made up the full length of his right arm. With the cables and tarnished steel rods all twisted together into the vague shape of a working arm I almost couldn’t see the stump at which his real arm ended.

I swallowed the urge to shut my eyes tight when he knelt down beside me, struggled not to cry.

“You’re a pretty one.” He lifted my head with his cold metal hand but I kept my eyes downcast. “Nice face shape . . . clean hair . . . nice, tiny body with perky tits . . . bit small though . . .” The white haired man eased me back down to the ground and turned his attention on Rilei. I wanted to scream. Put his attention back on me. Just for the love of God don’t acknowledge Rilei. I didn’t know what he planned to do with us but whatever it was I didn’t want Rilei subjected to it.

He lifted her head up between his fingers like he did mine, observed her for a long time without uttering a single word, and then glanced in my direction.

“She dead?”

At first I thought of saying yes. Maybe if he thought she was dead he’d leave her be. I don’t know what made me decide against it. Some strange feeling in my stomach guided me away from my initial idea. Perhaps the part of my mind unable to even entertain the idea of losing my sister wouldn’t allow me to even think such a thing.

I shook my head. He turned his appraising eye back on her. “She’s a real cutie. Nice round face . . . Nice, clean hair like yours . . . and if she does turn out to be dead it’s still not a waste because I can give her to my friend Madtwist here.”

Upon hearing what I assumed must’ve been his name, the man dressed in scars turned in our direction and licked his dry, cracked lips with a too white tongue. The man with the white hair shooed Madtwist away and the creature returned to pacing around on his knuckles, howling.

The white haired man returned his attention to me with something dark and disgusting gleaming in his coal black eyes. “You two are going to make me a lot of money. It’s not every day we find someone so well groomed.” He lifted his gaze away and settled it on one of his men. He made a clicking sound with his teeth, nodding towards Rilei and I. “Get these two in the back of the truck.”

In a flurry of motion one of the goggled soldiers, propelled by either a burst of adrenaline or a sense of duty, grabbed the rifle between his legs and popped off a few rounds into the foreheads of three of the white haired man’s savages. The white haired man reached for the gun sitting in the leather holster on his hip, aimed it, and fired. More blood. More brains. It all came flying out the front of a man with black lenses’ head as he fell forward into the fire. Madtwist laughed until drool oozed from in between his teeth, all filed down into a mouthful of jagged points.

From there, chaos bloomed. The soldiers who stole Rilei and me from our home took advantage of the momentary chaos to fight back. All around us came an enormous eruption of bullets and bright blasts of colored light to push the dark of the night to its brink.

Some of the white haired man’s men were killed, but no matter how hard the goggled soldiers tried to win they were too outmanned. Too many of them still had guns pointed to their heads when the fray began.

The cracking of firing guns filled the air like thunder. The soft whisper of summer wind drew together the sour scent of chalk and burnt paper from the fired guns and the metallic sting of blood and brains from the corpses and created something awful in its core.

Madtwist pounced on a goggled soldier and tore his throat out with his teeth like a rabid dog. He drew a small, sharpened knife from the pocket of his pants and drew another bloody tally mark on his skin.

One goggled soldier after another fell to the white haired man’s savages. He might not have won so easily had he not had Madtwist to attack them like a fearless, senseless, man-sized dog.

Tears streaked down my face as I watched each one of the men and women sworn to protect Rilei and I fall to the ground dead. Blood splattered across my body, soaking through my cotton pajamas. Sprayed over Rilei’s face.

Once the battle ended, stopping as quickly as it started, silence rolled in over the corpses. Madtwist’s loud panting remained the only sound as he ran around the dead bodies with his fists down on the ground and his nose sniffing at the blood and the guts.

The white haired man ran his hand over his hair and blew a long sigh from between his lips. “Well then! That was needless. Okay boys, get these girls into the truck.”

Somewhere in the pile of soldiers came a low groan. Agonized. Dying. The white haired man tossed a glance over his shoulder.

“And that one too, I guess. Why not? Another body is another sell.”