Three solemn faces welcomed us to the kitchen. True; the family had actually waited for us, but their faces were ashen, and their shoulders were hunched. I’m sure at least one of them was silently kicking themselves for not running off into the night.
Being this close to the Underbelly, this family was lucky; they had cupboards in their kitchen. Most were missing doors, and the few that hung askew were darkened by dirt and grime along the corners. Each of the exposed shelves was bare. Harsh overhead light displayed tired walls devoid of family portraits but riddled with time. Dirty handprints, hand-marked height measurements and holes littered the walls. The sadness in their surroundings engulfed me, mirroring the emotion pooling in the family’s eyes. The tiny round table between us wobbled when leaned upon, and the chairs didn’t match, nor did they all have the expected four legs. For a few uncomfortable moments, nobody spoke. The mother couldn’t even look at us; she just kept fussing over her daughter, constantly smoothing her hair.
Colton leaned back in his chosen chair, draping his arm across the back of mine. “Care to explain?”
The father studied his hands as he cleared his throat. The little girl kept batting her mother’s concerned hands away as she watched me, her massive acorn colored eyes wide, intrigued. She gathered her feet under her in the chair as she rose to her haunches, the only member of her family brazen enough to make eye contact.
The only one brave enough to speak. “You killed them?”
“Yeah,” she kicked back to her rump and tracing her finger in a circle on the table said, “I didn’t like them very much anyway.”
“Neither did I.” I responded plainly.
“How come you didn’t die?”
“I was better than them.”
She nodded knowingly.
Colton leaned forward; elbows propped on the rickety table. “Aren’t you scared?”
The mother was overcome with fear as she leaned into the crook of her husband’s shoulder. Dark circles lurked below red, puffy eyes, and she swiped at her tears, revolted.
The girl watched her mother. “No,” her voice was level, calm. “Not scared.”
“How come?” Colton wondered as her innocent gaze met his.
“‘Cause why?” I urged.
“‘Cause you didn’t kill me.”
Her mother stifled a sob and buried her face in her husband’s embrace.
“How do you know we’re not going to?” Colton continued.
She stopped tracing circles on the table, her hand still propped at an angle in the air. “Are you?”
As the husband tried soothing his wife, I offered only, “No.”
She resumed tracing circles.
“Oh, Jesus.” the mother sobbed as she rose from the table, placing the back of her hand to her forehead. “I can’t…”
“Sit down!” Colton barked.
Quivering, she did as instructed.
“Back to the first question. You want to tell us what happened?”
The father returned his wire rimmed glasses from atop his short brown hair to his nose. “I, uh,” he struggled to push words through his lips. “We…. I don’t know. We didn’t tell anybody, honest. We wouldn’t risk that. We just… I have no idea. We worked with Christian. We thought everything was….”
“We didn’t say a word!” the mother managed through her stifled sobs. “How dare you accuse us!”
“Nobody accused anybody of anything.” My words were firm.
The little girl laid her hands flat on the table and watched her parents’ desperation. After contemplating, she moved one hand to her mother’s arm who quickly covered it with her own. “Mommy, what didn’t you tell?”
“Nothing, Baby.” She patted the top of her daughter’s hand dismissively.
“You told me lying is one of the worst things a person can do.” I was taken aback to find her voice as strong and confident as her word choice, considering her age. “Why are you lying to me Mommy?”
I couldn’t help but smirk.
Ashamed, her mother could do little more than look to her husband. “We’re not lying,” he lied.
Disbelief furrowed the girl’s brow, but she turned from her parents slowly, accepting their lie as truth. “Kay.”
Colton squeezed my knee under the table and I had to nod in agreement: It was no wonder this child had been dinged so young.
The system was designed to rule out all those who would become a drain on the system, eliminating those who could not contribute. Those unlucky souls were driven into the Underbelly or just killed outright. However, the system was just as effective at finding prospects, individuals who with the proper… guidance, would become Sovereign Elites.
Sovereign Elites were the highest tier of Elites, and for all intents and purposes, the highest tier of society. Each Municipal had what was known as the Municipal’s Inner Assembly, comprised solely of Sovereign Elites. It was they who became the politicians, Czars, Generals, etc.; they made the decisions, controlled everything from policy to humanity. Becoming a Sovereign Elite was the highest, and wealthiest, Selection one could aspire to. It meant power in a country, in a world, where power was everything.
Though she was barely five years old, sweet little Emilia Katzenberg had been dinged, destined to become a member of the Municipal’s Inner Assembly. While this was the dream of many, the highest Selection one could aspire to, in actuality the news was quite devastating.
True, she would have wealth, power and live among the highest-ranking Elites, but the process of getting there, it breaks the soul and strips you of all aspects of the human condition.
In fact, it was the process of conditioning that made these people so successful, so powerful, and certainly, so ruthless. Members of each Municipal’s Inner Assembly wouldn’t bat an eye if they were to witness an innocent child being tortured to death, much less raise a hand to prevent it.
I had witnessed the truth of this statement with my own eyes. My selection was as an Elite Premier, or a member of the Military Nationals. It saw me grouped into the same round of training and conditioning as those belonging to the Inner Assembly. There, I saw such atrocities take place on the regular – lives offered in the name of education.
One time, I witnessed three Inner Assembly Assholes watch on as a child, who couldn’t have been more than four years old, was burned over and over again with a rusty branding iron. They claimed the boy knew of a stockpile of food and clean water hidden in the Underbelly. The child was too young to understand what a stockpile was, much less provide detailed directions.
Yet, boredom had painted the expressions worn by the three Elite spectators a horrible shade of indifference. In all likelihood, they had each endured worse as they were groomed for their own Selections. At one point, that rusty iron was tipped into the child’s eye, and the tallest of the three spectators only yawned in response. After all, witnessing another person endure personal horror, to members of the Municipal’s Inner Assembly, is a way of life.
As for me, I nearly died that die, my Instructors holding me under water until I finally reached a point that I surrendered and agreed to participate only as spectator.
Those who were considered a success in this life were not but broken souls. They would never know happiness in this life. It was one of the worst fates to befall anyone.
Poor Emilia had been sought after already, her intelligence condemning her to an Elite future. Her family had been notified of the Selection and told that she would be removed and placed into the structure of the Inner Assembly within the month. There was no request to do so, because frankly, they weren’t asking. They would simply take their daughter, ruin her, transform her into a devastated shell of a person, and her family would never see or hear from her again.
Fortunately, Emilia’s parents had wanted more for her. Luckier still, they belonged to the Opposition, or the Legion, as it had been known of late, just like Colton and myself. We were a collective of Americans who dared to believe in democracy and fought to return the power to the people.
The Legion was our one hope, our one chance at reclaiming life, liberty, prosperity… freedom. The Legion’s uprising would not happen in my lifetime, I knew. Truth be told, it might never happen, but we had to work for it; we had to try. The prospect of discovering true equality in a tomorrow not too far on the horizon was the only thing that buoyed me from one day to the next. That dream, the belief that we were working to create something better… it was the only thing worth living for. It was certainly the only thing worth dying for.
“You do know why we’re here?” I addressed Emilia’s parents.
Ignoring their daughter’s inquiring eyes, each nodded in turn.
“Did they say who they were?”
The husband gave a miniscule shake of the head.
“Did they say what they were here for?”
The couple looked at each other for a long time until withdrawn, the wife peeled from her husband’s side. “They uh, they knew.”
“Knew what?” Colton demanded.
She regarded him warily before addressing only me. “Somehow, and I don’t know how, they knew what you were going to do.”
“Look, Mrs. Katzenberg, we gotta get back. Care to move this along?”
Getting no response from either of us, she pressed on. “We didn’t know when, or even how… We made the request weeks ago. I had no idea when…. When you….” she stifled her sobs.
“We did this for our daughter.” Her husband rubbed her back. “We want what is best for her. I don’t know if this is the right choice, but I know the alternative, and I know that’s the wrong choice. Hell, we weren’t even sure if Christian could help us. We risked everything when we reached out. Then, Christian had us tell Braden, and he helped us get everything in order.”
“Braden?” Colton was as shocked as I was.
“Um, I, I don’t remember.”
“Braden James.” the mother chimed in. “His name was Braden James.”
“We don’t have much time.” I jumped from my chair, nearly tripping over the two bodies Colton had spent upon his arrival as I scurried down the hall. Then, before I could pass through the doorway, empathy compelled me to turn back. “You have five minutes.”
The mother tried to quell her tears as she smothered her daughter in affection. The father’s arms encircled them both as he buried his head between them.
“Check them for weapons, money, anything useful.” Colton rushed into the room behind me as I scooped up my bag.
“Shit!” Rummaging, we found one set of handcuffs, a .38 revolver, two quick reloads, two knives and some chord.
“We’re made.” Colton admitted the obvious as he pulled a knife from one of their pockets. “It has to be clean if we’re going to have a shot.”
Sighing I gave only a resigned “I know.”
“We’ve got to unplug.”
I nodded and offered my back. He felt along my neck gently, tracing toward my spine. Finding a knot, he felt it again to be sure and quickly inserted the tip of a knife blade into my flesh.
Moving fast, he plucked out the data chip that had been implanted years prior, back when I had first taken my post as an Elite Premier. He let my chip fall to the floor even as he placed the knife in my hand. When I turned to face him, his hands rested comfortably at my waist. A dopey grin flashed across his face as he tipped his head to the right allowing me to trace his left collarbone with my fingers. Finding the target, I hesitated.
“What’s the matter, Harper? You’ve got a green light to stab me. Why the hesitation?”
I dipped the knife into his skin, fishing out his data chip. His jaw clenched in pain as his chip was larger, more crude. All Military National Soldiers were chipped the moment they were selected for incorporation. We had both belonged to our government, but the proof of the Nation’s ownership of us would remain there, on the blood-soaked floor.
There could be no going back.
When we returned to the kitchen, the father swiped away tears. “I guess this is it.”
Tears streamed down Emilia’s face as she squeezed her parents, grabbing onto them one last time. “I’m sorry Mommy. Sorry Daddy.”
“For what, Angel? You haven’t done anything.”
“It’s because of me.”
“No!” soothed her father. “We just want you to be happy. We want you to choose your own path in this life. We want you to live, Baby, really, live for us ok?”
Temper flared within me. “Stop it! Now. You can’t say this. You’re not supposed to be able to -”
“We didn’t tell her!” the mother hissed before turning back to her daughter. “We say these affirmations every night, don’t we, Baby?”
Crying, Emilia nodded, “but tonight you’re going to die.”
Shock gripped the room as her parents froze.
“Get her out of here.” Colton grumbled as he began to usher the couple down the hall.
“No, please!” begged the mother trying to free herself.
“How did she -?” the father tried swatting Colton’s arms from him. The scuffle escalated within just a moment, and the mother managed to slip from his hold.
She fell to her knees before her daughter and sobbing pulled the girl to her chest, only for me to rip Emilia from her grasp. “How did you know?! How did you know?”
Seeing that he only wanted to comfort his wife, Colton let the man go.
“This is a mess!” Colton snapped as I marched toward him.
“You don’t say?” I plunged the girl into his arms and turned on the parents.
Before I could take a step, Colton’s hand cinched around my arm.
“No.” I issued forcefully. “I’ve got them.” I could actually feel anger shooting from my eyes as I bit out my next words. “They. Are. My. Responsibility. Understood?”
He pulled at my arm feebly, but I shrugged him off. Knowing better than to argue further he carried Emilia out the back door.
The couple worked to collect themselves, stalling. “How did she know?” asked the husband.
“Funny. I was going to ask you that very question.”
“Please. Just -”
“No! This ends now,” and with a push that caused both to stumble forward, I commanded, “Move!”
I managed to herd them both down the hall. They clawed at each other desperately, begging, crying, pleading; I heard none of it. My mission was clear. I never should have given them the opportunity to talk. Once those men had been handled, I should have done what I was supposed to:
Retrieve the girl.
Stupid! I chided myself. We’d sought answers, but all it had done was create more of a problem.
They entered the bedroom. “Please!” begged the mother.
My only response was to reach up and snap her neck. Swiftly. Mercifully. The husband took a swing at me, then another and uttered something incoherent. Blocking each blow, I simply pulled one of the knives I had taken off a dead man and slit his throat.
Grasping at the slit with slick hands he clamored to his wife, using his final moments to lay at her side. They gazed at one another; their wordless mouths open wide.
Summoning indifference, I stepped into the cool night air where I was greeted by two sets of solemn eyes. Without a word, Colton took the lead as we angled around the house, and I noticed Emilia had donned a small blue and red backpack at some point.
Despite the fact that gunshots had reverberated along those very streets only minutes before, nobody left the safety of their homes to inquire. Instead, all curtains had been drawn a bit tighter as the neighbors snuggled into their cocoons of ignorance for the night.
Colton leaned to my ear, “Play it nice and easy. Anybody asks, we were ordered to relocate for an assignment tomorrow. Underbelly isn’t far. We’ll be fine.” He looked to Emilia in a feeble attempt at reassurance.
Acknowledging the effort, she sighed, adjusted her backpack and placed her hand compliantly in his.
My mind raced, its roar barely recognizable above the angry fist of my heart. As we turned the corner toward the unknown, I rested my hand on Colton‘s forearm, “We can’t do this. This is crazy. We have to go back. This…” I knew I was spouting nonsense, but I couldn’t hold the words in. “It won’t be an issue. We still have the girl. We can still get her protected. We can return to our lives.”
I could read his eyes as clearly as pen on paper.
“What?” I eased away defensively.
“You’re cute when you’re naïve.” Then he too dropped his voice. “Look, if we do what you want, we all end up dead. If we make a run for it, until we can get our heads around this and find out who the hell we can trust anymore, we might have a chance.”
“Death,” he held one upturned hand to the sky. “or… maybe not death.” The other hand.
I felt sick.
“Which way you want to play this, Chief?”
I studied Emilia who still clung to Colton’s hand though her heart compelled her eyes down the street, back to her home, her parents.
Her former life.
“What if it wasn’t really Braden?”
“Not a risk we can take.”
“They could have just been given the name. It doesn’t mean it was him. If they never met him -”
“He was a nice man.” Emilia kept her voice low too.
“What did you say?” Desperation dropped me to her eye level.
“He was a nice man.”
Trepidation, fear… betrayal caused every one of Colton’s muscles to tense as he heard those words.
“He was very nice when he came to see us. He kept pretending all our stuff was real nice, and he gave me candy.”
Colton grew more rigid still.
“The man…. He was tall and real strong. But it looked like he might’ve been in a fire. His face was pink even though his skin was darker. He’s not dark like you,” she motioned to me shyly, “but it was pretty dark, and he had no hair, like it got burned off.”
“Quiet!” Colton dropped to our level. “No more! We’ve got to move!” and with that, he yanked to our feet. Realizing I was still wearing them, I pulled the gloves from my hands and placed them solemnly in my pocket. Considering I had already been found out and left my data chip in Emilia’s home, it was clear that whether I left prints or not, we were still being hunted.
Without another word, we hurried into the Underbelly, leaving every aspect of the life we’d built further behind with every step.