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404: Part Seven

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

“Hello?” Marco calls out, feeling a cold wind blow through him as he gazes across the road, to a large, faded sign: Constitution Ave.

“Hello!?” Jess yells in the other direction.

Jess shakes her head in the silence. “This is nuts…”

He pulls out Alex’s cell phone and begins to scroll through the contact list. At the top of the screen, in small letters “No Signal”. He frowns then tucks the phone away. “Yeah, tell me about it.” Marco walks past her, around the side of the wreckage.

“Where’re you going?” she asks, falling in step behind him.

He passes the overturned cockpit, running his fingers along the scratched and torn metal, feeling the thick crevices and long patches of seared white paint as he makes his way toward the passenger’s entrance. “There’s one person who’d know what’s going on and if he’s still alive, I’m going to find –”

Marco stops as the tail-section of the plane stretches out before him, broken and bent at a ninety-degree angle like a ‘V’ — the entire rear end crumpled and twisted, laying in a bed of shattered glass. From where they stand, he can see that many seats have been dislodged from the floor, now resting — or embedded — in the roof and walls.

“I don’t seem him,” Marco says, dropping to his knees, peering through the shattered windows. “No blood, no nothing…”

“Over there!” Jess points to the remnants of the emergency exit. She shuffles toward it, pulling a strip of fabric from the door.

Marco approaches, keeping a look out, watching for any movement. “You think he fell out the back during the crash?” He takes the fabric in his hand and realizes it’s soaked in blood.

“Maybe,” she says, getting close to the ground. “On second thought, check this out.” She swipes a finger along the pavement and holds it up to show traces of blood on the tip. “Faint, but it’s there.”

“So… he survived the crash, bandaged himself up… and took off?” Marco processes this new information in his head. “Yeah, look at that.” He points ahead, to small dark splatters as they lead away from the wreckage.

“Jeezus!” Jess nods then stops herself. “Hey, wait a second, I’ll be right back.”

“Wait a second?” Marco asks as Jess climbs up and into the plane. Inside he can hear rustling and he strains to watch her as she rifles through the remnants of cupboards and drawers. “What are you looking for?”

She smiles and holds up a small metallic box. “Just a little insurance.”

“A hard drive?”

“Alex said that his bosses wanted the footage… which means it must be important. I dunno, maybe we can use it somehow. Against ‘them’?”

Jess stuffs the small metallic box into her jeans and climbs down, checking the clip of her gun. “Only got five bullets left… better make’m count.” She smiles and tosses it to him. “Looks like he’s all yours — that is, if you’re sure you want to do this.”

Marco feels the weight of it in his hands, a familiar shiver running down his spine as he looks over the weapon. “Hopefully I won’t have to. He’s in shit with his bosses, probably more so now that he’s lost both Freya and us. He won’t be able to go back, even if he wants to. One thing’s for sure: he’s a devious little bastard… so maybe, just maybe, we can get him to flip and tell us what’s going on here.”

“Stranger things’ve happened.” Jess shrugs. “C’mon, let’s get this over with.”

Together they walk down the empty street, away from the crackling carnage as they follow the crimson droplets back toward the Washington Monument. Marco looks at the cracked and displaced wall of the old Department of Commerce building and the long crater of broken and pitted asphalt, feeling a sense of dread overtake him.

“What if they’re all dead?” he says, his gaze running across the pristine, empty streets — not even a single piece of trash on the ground. “This place should be teeming with people. And, yeah, I know tourism ain’t exactly what it used to be around here, but still… this is insane.”

The footprints lead them off the paved road, into a large, unkempt park; blades of tall, green grass and weeds dotted in blood. Jess stops and looks around at the ring of trees, in awe. “Marco… we’re in the Ellipse!” Marco stops, following her gaze, a realization washing over him as he spots a single, massive pine tree and then, in the distance, a gleaming, white building.

“What about the President?” He stares across the way, at the White House, concern etched on his face.

“Whatever happened, I’m sure she’s fine. They’d make sure to get her the hell out of here.” Jess nods.

“It’s just… it’s all starting to make sense now. No one’s heard from her, she doesn’t make public speeches anymore. All we ever see on TV are her aides and–”

“What do you want to do? You want to go up and knock on the doors of the White House? See if anyone’s home?”

Marco stares across in the silence, the land still and unmoving around him, not a solitary bird in the sky. “…I bet they used gas.”

“Who used what?” She asks.

Marco turns his attention back to the trail, tightening his grip on the gun in his hand. “C’mon.” He pushes his way through the tall grass, walking beside the blood trail as it arcs to the left, away from the White House. Stepping out of the park, onto 17th Street, they come to a stop at a large scarlet splotch on the ground. “Did he… fall?” Marco leans down, looking at the smear of blood — almost as if someone had writhed on the ground.

Jess taps him on the shoulder, pointing to a continuous line of drips on the pavement. “Whatever he did, he aggravated the wound real damn bad.”

Marco nods and together they set off running; up the street, through a parkette and on to the next major intersection, following the trail as it leads deeper into the empty city.

“He’s slowing!” she says as the drops become larger, closer together. “He’s got to be around –”

“Jess!” Marco whispers, pointing around the corner, onto F Street. She moves close to him, peering into the shadow of the tall building ahead. There, in the gloom, a hunched obese figure shuffles down the sidewalk, his ragged breath seeming to echo around him.

Without a word, Marco sets off after him, picking up speed as his eyes narrow into slits. Gun ready, he rushes past Alex, stepping into his path. “Where’re you going, Alex?”

Alex stops, mid-shuffle, watching Marco and then Jess as she arrives. With a heavy sigh he collapses backward against the wall and slides to the ground, a smear of blood behind him.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

“So. You made it,” Alex grimaces, looking up at them through dull eyes, his body slumped against the building. “Heh, for a while there I thought I was the only one.” His leg is drenched in a thick coat of blood as it drips down from the ragged mess of his right arm. He shifts and groans, the makeshift sling unable to contain the entirety of his twisted, jagged limb.

Marco feels his stomach lurch as he sees white bits of bone mingling with severed veins and bulging flesh. “That looks pretty bad,” he says, with a sincerity that causes Alex to laugh then wince.

“Yes, I’ve gone and done it now,” Alex’s voice trembles as he looks down at the pulped remnants of his knuckles and forearm.

Marco looks to Jess, she meets his gaze and nods — an unspoken message passed between them: “Get him onside”. He hands her the gun and steps forward. “Alex, you’re going into shock. You’ve got a compound fracture there and severe blood loss — we need to get you to a hospit–”

“Can’t. Doesn’t matter.” Alex slurs, his head shaking from side to side. “No one left. We took care of that. One of the first things.”

“What do you mean?” Jess asks, her voice strained but calm. She tenses, hand clenched around the grip, resisting the urge to use force.

Alex notices her, his glazed eyes clearing. He regards them for a moment before taking stock of his surroundings. “Where am I?”

“Washington. There was a crash. You’re not doing so well,” Marco says, kneeling beside Alex’s arm. “We need to get you out of here. Can you stand?”

Alex shakes his head. “I remember the wing exploding. Something crashed into me.” He looks down at his destroyed arm as if seeing a stranger. “I put my arm up to stop it…”

“Alex, what happened here? Where did everyone go?” Marco asks, unsure that he wants to hear the answer.

“Relocated,” Alex whispers, his voice distant, head starting to dip.

“Hey!” Marco yells followed by a not-too-gentle slap to Alex’s face. “Don’t fall asleep. You fall asleep, you die. You got that? Do you want to die?”

Alex’s body stiffens, like a punch-drunk fighter with one last good round left.

“You said ‘one of the first things we did’. What’re you talking about?” Jess asks, taking on a far more gentle tone.

“Just… war. War makes you do dumb things.” He looks to his arm again, shaking his head. “Really, really dumb things.” He looks around at the empty streets, a tinge of sorrow in his voice.

Marco nods to himself as the pieces start to fall into place. “How’d this happen? How’d we end up at war?”

“Oh, we’ve been at war for a long time, Mr. Temura. Didn’t you know that? Since… before… either of us were born; a… shadow war spanning decades.” Alex grimaces as he shifts positions.

“And you. You’re a ‘hero’ in that war. Because you sold us out to the other side. You let them in.” Marco says, gritting his teeth.

“You know, I think that’s about as much… as much as you’re getting from me,” he laughs, his pained face shifting to one of defiance. “You’ll find out the rest soon enough.” He chuckles then looses a vicious cough.

Jess readies her gun, “Don’t you clam up on us now, you sunnova–.” Marco turns to her, putting his hand on the weapon, shaking his head.

“That’s okay Alex. That’s fine. We’ll stay here with you, beside you, until it’s over,” he says, putting a finger to Alex’s neck, checking his pulse, feeling it weaken in real time.

“Over?” Alex watches them, his smile fading.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood and there’s no way to get help. Any time now you’re going to slip into a coma and everything you know, you’ll take with you to the grave.” He pauses, for effect. “No one else will ever know how you did it, how you brought our country to its knees.”

Alex turns his watery gaze to Marco and grins. “Wow, manipulation’s… just not one of your strong points… is it?” He licks his lips, his pallid brow now drenched in sweat. “You think that just because I’m…” He looks away, unable to say the word, a flicker of real worry on his face as a realization washes over him.

“Dying. Yes, yes I do. I think that because you’re dying you want us — hell, you want as many people as possible — to know just how goddamn brilliant you were. I think you need us to know about your master plan.” He stares at Alex for a moment, then continues, “Then again, what do I know? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you just want to die alone.” He nods to Jess and they turn to leave.

“W-wait!” Alex calls out, his voice low and soft. Marco turns to see Alex glaring at him, a long sorrowful thing, as if the last of the fight in him has all but drained away. “Yes. Yes I let them in… though I wasn’t alone. There were eight of us in total… but I was the one who set everything into motion.” Alex’s tone darkens as he recalls. “They were senators and generals and lobbyists, plotting like children in the dark. Having their secret meetings, braying about how they were going to ‘overthrow that socialist President’. Idiots. Setting the…” Alex grimaces, his one good hand clenching as he rides through a wave of agony, sweat beading on his brow. “Setting the wheels in… motion. Each of them with their own petty machinations. None of them realizing that every little thought that they’d had were all seeds that I had planted.”

“But how… how are you in the room with these men? You’re certainly no General. You were what? The water boy?” Jess shakes her head, unable to believe it.

Alex snaps to attention, offended, his eyes fixed on her. “I was the messenger. A lowly aide to Senator Vanusen, yes. But one smart enough to make my intentions known in the right way. Smart enough to realize that while these pathetic men were gathering to gripe in secret, they were leaving themselves wide open. And it didn’t take much. A few nods, a few well-timed ‘but you don’t have to stand for it, sir!’s… and I was in. Running secret ‘encoded’ messages between them at all hours of the night. Oh, how they loved their codes. It was like living in some ancient era — all paperless, nothing proven… or so they thought. I organized old school, cloak and dagger meet-ups, dead drops, coded transmissions; I whispered to them at State dinners, created secret handshakes with them in the Pentagon… heh, they must’ve thought they were living in a movie. By the time they realized that they’d been played; by the time they realized that I had kept everything… they were in too deep.” Alex smiles. “Oh and how they whined and threatened and cajoled… they would kill me, they would make me pay. These angry old men, so blinded by their boundless intolerance. Their pettiness. They let me walk right in — and all because I stood there, behind them and cheered them on.”

Marco watches Alex, his mind reeling, unable to speak. Alex scratches his chin, eyes glazing over once more. “Oh, I really wish I had thanked those lobbyists properly. There were so many ideas on the table at first. But those lobbyists… so eager to have theirs heard, so eager to change the game. And they did… they opened up a whole new avenue that we… hadn’t even thought of. The senators and generals loved it because it would finally give them control over something they thought uncontrollable, but I loved it because I immediately knew what it could become, how it would be their… downfall. The fall… of the… great American… empire…” Alex shakes his head, yawning wide, his eyes glazing over again. “Such simple, silly little men…”

“But how–”

“Shhh… it’s time,” Alex says, a weary smile on his face.

“No! You’re not going to die yet. Just hang on!” Marco says, brow furrowed.

“You… idiot.” Alex pulls a set of keys out of his pocket and tosses them on the ground. A small black piece of plastic — one that looks like a car remote — vibrates and flickers with a red LED. “You people… so easily distracted…”

Behind him, Marco hears a pounding cascade of footfalls and the cocking of at least a dozen guns.

“Get on your knees! Now!”

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Marco turns and looks behind him, to the figures in gray US Army camo staring down their rifles, watching, silent and unmoving. Alex laughs, a high-pitched jackal’s whine followed by another loud yawn, his eyelids drooping as the blood pools beside him. “I got you… I got you…”

Behind the armed figures, several more men in gray fatigues round the corner onto the street, parting to make way for a grizzled, muscular, white-haired man. In his mid-fifties, he looks like the kind of man you’d want in charge at the front lines of a war; weathered and angry, a permanent scowl etched on his face with thick scars on his hands and neck. The man reminds Marco of a movie he saw once, so long ago… a line of dialogue echoing in his head as he looks upon the battle-hardened soldier.

“What we have here, is a failure to communicate…”

The man comes to a stop a few feet from Marco, concern forming on his chiseled face as his gaze falls on Alex; concern that shrivels to contempt as he turns his attention to Marco and Jess. Jess scowls as she regards the man and sees the emblems and stripes on his arm.

“Are you the CO? What the hell’s going on here? Where is everyone??” She stalks toward him and he backhands her in a single, smooth motion, sending her spinning into Marco. “What the fuck!?” She nurses her cheek as several more guns draw down on her. She puts her hands up, shaking with anger.

The Commander walks past them, kneeling beside Alex, moved by the sight of him. After a long moment he speaks, his voice filled with sorrow. “I mobilized as soon as your plane went down, Mr. Wong but I’m afraid that you don’t have much time. Even if we were able to airlift you out of here… I’m sorry, you’re not going to make it.”

Alex nods as if underwater, his face pale, eyelids half-closed. “I… know…”

“Help this man to his feet!” The Commander barks and several soldiers rush to Alex’s side, lifting and supporting him. Alex half-groans, as if wanting to scream but finding himself unable to.

“Forgive me, Mr. Wong, all I can offer you is a hero’s death. I promise you this though: you will be remembered. Children of the New Republic will speak your name with reverence.” He stands and draws his gun, cocking it, stepping back into position. “Deshi ‘Alex’ Wong, we thank you for your –”

Alex’s eyes roll back in his head, body going limp as he collapses to the ground; his last breath loosed out into the air.

“Help him up!” The Commander yells and the soldiers struggle to lift the dead weight of the obese man. “You hold him steady!” He raises the gun again, pointing it at Alex’s head. “Deshi ‘Alex’ Wong, we of the United States Armed Forces thank you for your service and your commitment. Go with God.” The Commander fires, shooting Alex’s corpse in the forehead, the back of his skull spraying outward onto the dirty pavement. He holsters his gun and turns to face his men. “This man died a hero’s death and that’s how he will be remembered. Am I clear?”

“Hooah!” The gathered soldiers yell in unison, standing at attention. The Commander turns and walks back toward the corner of the building, calling out over his shoulder, “Bring them.”

Soldiers flood around them then, grabbing Marco and Jess, pulling them away. Together they’re herded down the street and around the corner to a battle-weathered Armored Personnel Carrier. It sits there on the street, metal hide dented with pock marks from bullets and singed from flame, treads thick with ash and mud. Jess nods to him, a smirk on her face. “Looks like someone didn’t go down without a fight.”

Jess and Marco are shoved inside, the troops climbing in after them, carrying Alex’s corpse wrapped in a body bag. With a heavy whirr, the bay doors shut and seal themselves as the machine roars to life. Marco stands in the back corner of the vehicle, across from Jess, watching as the soldiers sit on metal benches welded to the wall, faces forward, unmoving — Alex’s body lying in the aisle. “You okay?” he asks.

She crosses her arms, head down. “I just… I can’t believe it. That little shit… Fuck me. I fought for this country, watched dozens of good people die to defend it… and that fat fuck…” she laughs, fighting back tears. “That little fuck and seven idiots brought the whole thing to its knees. And for what? What did they gain?” Marco takes her hand. “I don’t know how, but we’re going to stop them. I don’t care who it is, what their motivations are… we’re going to find a way.”

A hatch in the roof of the carrier opens as the Commander looks down at them, gun drawn. “That’s very touching.” He pushes a button and a thin metal ladder slides down. Marco sends a worried glance to Jess then begins his ascent.

Climbing out onto the deck of the carrier, they watch as the city rolls by, empty street after empty street. The Commander stands at the front of the deck, gripping the rail, staring out at the smoke clouds on the horizon, an odd smirk on his face. “It took us only a few days to cleanse this city of its filth and degradation but it’s taken us years to clean up the mess. Soon, Washington will be reborn as a proper Capital city. A place of worship, where good Christian men can rule with kindness and compassion. Our America will be a beacon of strength and hope unto the world once again. A New Republic reborn from of ashes of the old.” He lights a cigarette and inhales deep as the heavy smoke clouds loom ever closer on the horizon. “After a long, hard battle, we have finally won back our country.”

“Is that why you brought us up here? To gloat?” Marco asks, scowling.

The Commander turns to him and smiles, a cold, vicious thing. Jess watches him, a snake coiled, waiting for any moment of weakness, waiting for his guard to drop. It doesn’t. At all times he has one hand resting on his holster, body tensed, waiting for any sign of movement.

“Okay, so you ‘cleansed’ the city. Where are all the people?” She asks, dread already present in her voice. “Alex said you ‘relocated’ them.”

The old warrior laughs, a deep guttural sound. “Yes, he would’ve said something like that. He never had much of a stomach for the realities of the job. He’d sit on his computer, typing this way and that, doing whatever it was you do on those silly things. But he never could come to grips with the hard facts of it.” He grins, as if enjoying a fond memory. “He was a weak spit of a man, physically, but that mind, his tactics… I’ve never seen the like of it. Like a viper, he was. Brilliance. Sheer brilliance.” He takes a long drag off his smoke, nodding to himself as the carrier approaches a bridge, as the smoke clouds envelop the entirety of the horizon. “He will be missed.”

The carrier crawls across the bridge as the hints of flickering flame can be seen. Marco gasps as a realization washes over him: the pillars of smoke are coming from Arlington National Cemetery.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

The stench of ash and decaying flesh wafts through the air as Marco and Jess stare in silent horror at what lies before them. From their perch on the deck they watch as the carrier trundles past a massive flaming pit in the earth; as men in heavy gas masks and hazmat suits shovel the still-decomposing bodies of men, women and children inside.

The carrier picks up speed and rounds a corner, Jess slaps her hand to her mouth, fighting back a sudden need to vomit: as far back as they can see, off into the horizon, are more flaming pits, each tended to by its own Hazmat-suited crew. Bodies are piled high beside each of them as massive dump trucks back up and deliver more.

“What is this?! What the fuck have you done?!” Marco calls out, his fists clenched, coughing as they speed into a cloud of the acrid fumes.

“What is done is done, Mr. Temura. No use crying over spilt milk,” the Commander says, his hardened gaze fixed on the road ahead as the carrier rolls past. He takes a deep breath and smiles.

“Spilt milk?! How fucking dare you?! How dare you wear that uniform and say that??” Marco yells, ignoring the stench, anger washing over him as Jess puts a hand on his shoulders.

“Marco, don’t,” she whispers. “All he needs is an excuse to kill us…”

He stops, his hands shaking as he tries to contain his rage. No dice. “Look at them, Commander! Look at what you and your people’ve done! You fucking monster!” Marco’s eyes burn with hatred, spittle forming on his lips as he lunges toward the Commander — receiving a solid boot to the gut for his efforts. He collapses to the ground, coughing as he fights to get back to his knees, still reaching toward the white-haired man.

The Commander looks down at him with contempt, as if at a gnat. He draws his gun and smashes Marco in the head with it — a swift blow that lays Marco out with a ringing in his ears. “Oh, Mr. Temura. You don’t know the half of it.”

Jess puts her arms around Marco, trying her best to comfort him as the machine speeds down toward a huge, squat building: The Pentagon.

The building itself, almost as wide as the Empire State Building is tall, stretches on down the road and still shows some battle scars despite several crews working to paint and repair the outside. A few windows are riddled with bullet holes while parts of the wall have been damaged by explosions. In front of the building, a small battalion of soldiers performs its drills, each of the soldiers wearing gas masks and carrying M4 carbines. Marco stares at this display, confused, unsure how to feel.

Behind the soldiers several crews, all wearing gas masks themselves, scurry up and down the sides of the building in their harnesses. Jess taps him on the shoulder and points across the street to the once-massive parking lot, now converted into a fully functional air strip. Several large cargo planes sit idle on the pavement.

“How do we get out of this?” She whispers, her gaze darting around.

Marco looks to her, his face determined. “We don’t. Not yet.”

The carrier makes its way to the large, fortified entrance of the building and comes to a stop. The rear doors open and the troops pour out, coming into formation behind it, laying Alex’s body before them. The Commander, gun in hand, motions for Jess and Marco to exit. They climb down a side ladder, dropping to the ground, tensing as they notice a gray military Jeep exit from the Pentagon and drive toward them.

The weathered soldier jumps from the top of the carrier, landing with cat-like grace in spite of his age. He smiles at Jess, a cold smile that doesn’t reach his eyes, leaning in close to the both of them. “You two murdered my best friend. And while I can’t kill you, orders being what they are, the moment I get the go-ahead I am personally going to gut the both of you.”

“That doesn’t sound very Christian of you,” Marco says, taking full advantage of his momentary immunity, watching as the Jeep, and men in military garb, approach.

The Commander scowls, fist clenched as the Jeep pulls up beside them.

“Commander.”

He turns, at attention, hand raised in a rigid salute. “General Haskell.”

General Haskell — a tall, wrinkled, thin-faced man — steps out of the Jeep and salutes him back. He’s flanked by two soldiers, each carrying an HK416 assault rifle, their gaze fixed on Marco and Jess. “Where is Mr. Wong?”

“Mr. Wong was mortally wounded in the crash. With no way to procure proper medical attention, his death was inevitable. I took it upon myself to grant him a hero’s death, sir.” The Commander turns, leading the General to his troops and the body bag on the ground. The General nods to one of his men and he kneels, unzipping the body bag to reveal Alex, his face a pale, bloody mess, the back of his head awash in gore.

“So you shot him in the head?” General Haskell asks, a scowl forming. He stares at the corpse for a long moment. “We’ll take it from here Commander, thank you.” He nods to the Commander’s men, who, with great strain, lift Alex’s body into the back of the Jeep. The General’s soldiers grab Marco and Jess, leading them, at gunpoint, into the back seat with the body. General Haskell turns, and is about to climb back into his seat when he stops.

“You remember that conversation we had, Commander? About that posting you wanted here?” The General turns, now face to face with the Commander, eyes narrowed. “Your mission was to bring all three of them back. Alive.” The Commander stiffens, jaw set; his hackles raised but contained. The General shakes his head in disgust. “Get the fuck out of my sight. Return to base and await further instructions.” He salutes the Commander, and the old warrior returns it before spinning on his heel and stalking back to his carrier, climbing on board with his men, no longer hiding his anger as he disappears inside.

The Jeep roars to life and turns around, leaving the carrier behind as it drives toward the entrance of the Pentagon.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Marco is led out of the Jeep, gun to his back, Jess at his side as, together, they pass into the grounds of the Pentagon. A familiar sound rings in Marco’s ears the moment they enter the building: buzz saws. All around him, builders scurry as they work to re-build several cracked and damaged walls. “Doing some remodeling?” Marco asks, a venomous tone in his voice. The General ignores him, striding past corridors of soldiers and workers.

They come to a stop at an elevator where the General swipes a keycard. The doors slide open and, as one, they enter the cold and utilitarian metal box. The General waves the keycard in front of a black RFID panel, then holds down the buttons for basements 1 and 2. The buttons light up, as if scanning his fingerprints. A low ding acknowledges them and the doors slide shut. Marco closes his eyes and counts in his head as they begin their descent. One Mississippi… Two Mississippi…

He feels a panic growing within him as, after a full fifty-four Mississippi’s, he feels the elevator slow to a stop. The doors slide open to reveal a cavernous underground installation — not a room, but a whole new underground base complete with vehicles and a light rail track. Above them, huge, harsh lights illuminate the ground, casting long shadows behind everything they touch.

Jess and Marco are pushed toward a squat, plain, white building with a large, dark green ‘04’ painted on it. He looks around him, feeling the cold grip of fear as he’s shephereded onward, as he tries to memorize as much as possible about his surroundings; the arcing swerve of the pavement, the rows and rows of buildings — barracks, hangars, workshops.

This is where people go to be ‘disappeared’… that tiny, scratchy voice whispers from inside once more, all hint of playfulness stripped away.

A group of soldiers, chatting amongst themselves as they work on a tank, drop everything and stand at attention as the General walks past. At the entrance of the building, the doors slide open and together they enter a large clinical, white room. The General nods to the medic behind the white desk, shoving Marco and Jess forward. “Prep them.”

The medic nods and steps forward, leading them through another door, into a cold, metal room. Marco looks around, seeing a camera hanging from the ceiling as it turns to watch them. Several more medics in plain white clothing enter as well, each carrying a large set of shears. They set upon Marco and Jess, cutting away their clothing and pulling it off of them with precise but unforgiving hands. Within seconds Marco and Jess find themselves standing naked and shivering in the room, the medics exiting without a word.

“Oh shit…” Jess says, fear now welling up in her eyes. “Oh shit.”

Marco holds her hand, a shiver running down his spine. “Just… n-no matter what h-happens, be strong.” He tries his best to sound reassuring but his voice cracks, his hands shaking.

A loudspeaker clicks on. The voice coming from it is harsh and metallic. “Move into the next room.” With a low metallic whirr, a wall slides to the side, revealing a set of double doors. Marco and Jess stand there, unsure. Quivering. From somewhere behind them, a low hiss is heard. The loudspeaker clicks on again. “This room will fill with chlorine gas in 20 seconds. Move into the next room.”

Together they push forward, through the double doors, into darkness. The doors hiss and seal behind them and Marco feels Jess’s grip tighten on his hand. Shaking. Seconds later, another hand on his arm, she moves closer until he can feel her breath on his neck. She pushes her head up against his and he feels the cold droplets as they land on his bare chest. “They’re going to try and break us,” she whispers. “They would’ve killed us otherwise. A-after everything we’ve been through… oh shit… I… I don’t know if I can do this.”

He wraps his arms around her, holding her close in the darkness, remembering their time together in the shower… a moment that seems so long ago now.

Jess shrieks as a cold blast of water slams into her back, pushing her forward, ramming Marco into the wall behind him. She drops to the ground, sniffling in the darkness. “Aww F-FUCK! F-fuck…” she whimpers, “why’s it gotta be so f-f-fucking c-c-cold…?”

“Jess!” Marco calls out, “be strong. You’re so stro–” Marco screams as hard stream of freezing water crashes into his pecs, pinning him against the wall, his arms flailing against the onslaught. And then the water is gone, leaving nothing but the sounds of weeping and dripping water.

A loudspeaker clicks on. “Marco Temura, you will say ‘I am guilty’.”

“What?” Marco calls out. “Guilty of what?”

A frigid stream of water slams into Jess, her wet body slipping and crashing to the floor with a thud as she wails.

“I’ve done nothing wrong!” Marco yells into the darkness.

The loudspeaker clicks on again. “Marco Temura, you will say ‘I am guilty’.”

Another ice cold stream of water slams into Jess. She screams in the abyss, the sound of her body sliding across the floor, her screams fading as the distance between them grows.

“Jess!” Marco cries out, reaching out in the emptiness. A dull thud reverberates across the room followed by a low whimper.

A loud speaker clicks on. “Marco Temura, you will say ‘I am guilty’.”

“D-d-don’t,” Jess calls out, her voice quaking. “T-t-they’re using a t-torture t-t-technique… i-it’s c-called ‘traum-matic i-implantat—” She shrieks again, the roar of water echoing around him as he yells for her, getting to his feet, running toward the sound of her cries. He slips, crashing to the ground, a flash of white in his vision as his head bounces.

“M-Marr-co… a-are y-you t-th-ere? S-s-say someth-thing,” she calls out.

The loud speaker clicks. “Marco Temura, you will say ‘I am guilty’.”

“N-n-no.” He sputters, feeling the dull ache in his head.

A loud hum reverberates through the room, rising in pitch, like something charging. An arc of blue light crackles along the ground, slamming into both Marco and Jess, their bodies stiffen, fingers curling. Marco feels his jaw clench, his eyeballs almost popping out of their sockets. And then it is gone, all but a strange ringing in his ears and tingle on his skin.

A click. “The next shock will be fatal. Marco Temura, you will say ‘I am guilty’.”

Marco rolls to his knees, shivering and shaking, water dripping from his eyes. “Jess…?”

A soft groan rises from across the room.

The hum begins again.

“Jess… I’m sorry.”

The hum grows, rising in pitch; a terrifying whine.

“I am guilty,” he says, his voice hoarse, spitting it out like poison. “Please. Just let us go.” The hum powers down, the light flickers on. Marco rushes to Jess’s side, holding her close. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he whispers.

Click. “Move into the next room.”

* * *

Room after room. Bangs and booms and crashes. Darkness and cold. That damned click. “I am guilty,” said over and over and over again — each time the words so much easier to say, each time the notion gaining more of a foothold in his mind.

And then, after what seems like an eternity, a door opens before him and floods the room with light. Marco staggers forward, squinting, his mind as numb as his body. Unsure how long it’s been. How many rooms? So many rooms. He smiles, feeling the heat from the linoleum on his feet. He lays down on it, soaking in the warmth. Rolling across it, trying to spread it across his body. Smiling. Laughing as he writhes in it.

His eyes open now, focusing on the shapes in the distance, on the large, red rectangle hanging behind them. Stars. One big star. One, two, three, four small stars. He rolls onto his chest, not caring, feeling the warmth spreading. Footsteps approach. Clicking on the ground. Slow.

Hands pull him up. Up off the floor. The warm floor. He struggles, wanting to be warm again. Laughter. Laughing at him.

Marco looks up, scowling at the men. The men in uniform. They sit behind their panel. Their large desk. Staring down at him. One face, a wrinkled old face, leans forward. A familiar face. The General’s face.

“So this is the man who’s caused us so much trouble?”

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