An assault on the senses, acrid fumes of burning petrol seared the eyes and nearly threw Olex’s lungs into upheaval. Billowing black smoke made his eyes sizzle in pain, but even through the watering tears he could observe different bodies of the rapturous crowd all react uniquely to the biting flames that washed over the entire scene. Some began to move in the same manner he did, trying to retreat from the blaze. Others seemed unsurprised, likely those more nefarious actors that had employed firebombs in the first place. Any attempts to quickly remove oneself from the crowd was a fool’s game. In front of Olex lay a sea of bodies all moving in their own directions irrespective of those around them.
The courier paid for a moment of being slack jawed. A spray of blood cut through the air in tandem with the crack of a weapon’s discharge. Olex’s face wrinkled in disgust and frustration, contorting as he fought the urge to gag. The initial shock subsided and instinct took over. It wasn’t his first time. He licked his teeth and spat a few crimson wads on the ground, not particularly trying to avoid the legs of the fleeing protesters. The bloody saliva was quickly washed away by the streaming pool of blood coursing from the dead stranger’s head. Mouth firmly shut and staring at the departed, he wiped the rest of the mess from his face, staining the legs of his pants with his dirty hand. Eye contact with a corpse always precipitated an overwhelming anxiety. At least for Olex’s sake, the only person watching him lick a stranger's blood off his face was dead.
Proctor needn’t struggle his way through the crowd for long before something angelic pierced through the suffocating tungsten and titanium. Sudden divinity clutched him around his wrist, a grip so precise and firm that it would never loosen unless the angel willed it. Mutual eye contact was brief. An exchange of emotions. Distant curiosity from the angel. Bewilderment from the elder cyborg. The looks broke, Proctor being dragged from the spot where he stood.
In spite of the fact that his leg had stiffened straight out and was carving a winding gouge in the dirt and dust in his wake, nothing felt labored about his movement. He wondered if the monk could even tell how much of Proctor’s weight she was pulling for him. She carried more metal than flesh, and a glimpse of titanium plates and bolts creeping up her neck from under her robe implied that even her spine was heavily modified. The monk could probably haul a hundred men twice Proctor’s size without a struggle. Proctor examined her arm for a moment, a piece of cybernetic mastery that was too artfully crafted to have been made on any assembly line on the planet. Most thoughts left his head the moment he entered the monastery proper and suddenly became surrounded with an evenly spaced and incredibly shiny sea of people. People, even if many of them resembled machines more closely. From wall to wall mats were laid evenly across the entirety of the monastery, each being occupied by an assortment of different vessels of flesh and metal commingled. Some vessels still carried souls intact, untouched by the terrible disease that had ravaged its way through many of the machines that sat, awaiting either repair or decommission.
Proctor found his seat on a wave, having little time to speak or ready himself before the monk began to tear the innards from his malfunctioning leg. She spoke. He didn’t listen. Couldn’t listen, rather. Few words pierced the fog as effectively as the pain did, despite his earnest efforts to comprehend some small bit of what she said.
Such a great deal of time had passed since Proctor had engaged in any sort of serious socialization that it felt alien. Most of the relic’s isolation was of his own accord; those who inhabited the Reclaim didn’t exactly go out of their way to chat up limping piles of bumbling and mumbling metal on a regular basis. The monk’s sentences were brief, but the speed with which she spoke still put a bit of spin in Proctor’s head.
“Who are you?”
Proctor was overwhelmed instantly. A question as simple, if perhaps abstract, as that one drew so much from his frail mind that he was at a loss for words. Of a million answers, none seemed particularly satisfying, or interesting. Summing up your own existence in mere words was never easy. Deep down Proctor knew realistically the monk never expected such an answer. But it couldn’t stop him from combing his memories for any single, exemplary moment that could succinctly describe him. Every twist in thought and turn in memory all led to the same brick wall that he attempted to avoid with wild vehemence. Not even Proctor was certain who he was anymore.
Proctor had undoubtedly been a child at one point, but to try and recall anything his formative years was utterly futile. Early adulthood was the same, a depressing inability to fill any holes in his memory. With corporeal limbs and a reflection that still looked back at him in every puddle of dirty water or grime covered window he walked by, it was certain that Proctor was indeed existent. There absolutely had to be some sort of story that spanned the years of life that led to this point. His abundance of scars and discomfort of age all signified that Proctor had indeed lived a long life, one stricken by inescapable violence and conflict. What irked Proctor the most was that despite his forlorn familiarity with the pain he lived with and damage his limbs bore, he was just as inquisitive about them as the monk that had just slid a new piston into a place in his knee.
His cheeks ran cold, conditioned air dancing across the tracks that trickling tears left running down his face.
Chaos of this nature felt familiar, maybe a bit uncomfortably so. Bathing in violent heat and still trying to rid himself of the metallic twang of iron in his mouth, Olex took a deep breath. The very ground he stood on began to give way to his weight. Asphalt deteriorated to sand. Buildings of brick and mortar crumbled into dunes of sand. His familiarity with his surroundings suddenly made more sense. It was The Badlands surrounding him. Parching heat dried his lungs and seared his skin. His hands bore deep crimson stains as if he’d never cleaned them. A dead Tinman lay in front of him, signs of a failed attempt to save his life littered around. As the sand consumed the body, Olex brought his bewildered eyes up to those around him.
A wall of confusion and fear. His chest tightened as he became gripped with a fear, unlike anything that he’d ever felt. A deep, pitch black dread that had crawled it’s way from a deep recess which it had been locked in for quite some time. Dotted amongst the sea of faces draped in terror stood a few stone facades, the few men and women displaying a foul, incongruent comfort with true violence. Yelling and cries of fear and terror mixed, Olex no longer sure which were protesters and which were his brothers in arms. Incomprehensible cacophony blurred and dulled until only his own shallow breathing was audible. He was shaking. Cold, clammy sweat broke out up and down his back. His knees began to buckle.
“Pray that God has mercy for cowardly men!”
A commander’s distant words crept through deafening silence.
“Pray that perhaps you can have a good rest in the afterlife, because a weak-knee’d, quiver-lipped son of a bitch will never have an easy time down here with us. The Path of the Pioneer is always rough, but every Dog has its day!”
Cutting through the impossibly tall dunes of sand was a phantom. A pallid face, eyes sunken and wild looking. Windows into a temple long sacrificed to animalistic instinct. Steadfast in his path through the slowly unraveling crowd, the Ghost had seen Olex first, while he was still caught seemingly in a trance staring off into space. A loutish collision finally cleared the sand dunes from around Olex as his body turned in the direction of the man who hit him. Like ghosts tend to do, the man floated and cut his way through the crowd with little effort, even in spite of the large briefcase he was carrying. Olex spent a few moments trying to figure out what the Ghost had said to him through the intense white noise of the crowd. Within those few moments, the Ghost lunged into someone. His target recoiled violently in pain. His clothing immediately ran deep red as it was carelessly sheared through by the chainblade sinking into his flesh.
The Courier’s cry for help, even had it successfully escaped his throat, wouldn’t have been heard through the surrounding cries of fear and panic as more and more rioters began to notice the man writing on the ground, blood rushing from his back and mouth. The man stared Death in his eyes, his gaze jutting upwards into the sky as the color drained from his face and painted the asphalt. A final, jagged breath inaudibly escaped his mouth.
Perception snapped forward, from deep inside Proctor’s thoughts into his vision and the room around him.
”I don-” Proctor began, before realizing the monk next to him had been called away.
His croaking voice fell silent. A small jolt went through his body as he scrambled his hands to wipe the wetness off his face. He was already an old broken man surrounded by other old broken people. No need to be the crybaby of the bunch.
Proctor slowly made his way back to his feet, extending his arms high above his head. Another futile attempt to replicate that sensation of stretching everything out when you’re tired, which had eluded him since the day he began replacing stretchable muscles with static, hard metal. He relaxed, trying to decide if he wanted to wait inside or outside the clinic for whenever the monks would hopefully start breaking out the drugs. Something stark and bright drew his eyes away from empty space.
He had been scanning the room, curious to see where the monk who had been working on him had been called off to, a face easy to recognize amongst the crowd of cyborgs and half-humans. More recognizable yet was the face beyond her’s, one topped with a short bob of purple gossamer that matched the intensity of the brightest ornamental light in the room.
His limbs froze again, this time not in a fit of pistons or joints painfully seizing stiff, but like a wild animal torn from the darkness. Jaw slack and eyes wide, confusion wrought his mind. That was S’venia. The woman behind the name was still a mystery. Whatever relationship she had with Proctor remained to be seen, if there was any at all.
Perhaps both Proctor and the Monk could glean some more interesting answers about his past were they to ask her. Maybe.
Fear was beginning it’s agonizing creep into all of Olex’s extremities. Fear kept animals sharp, kept them alive. Fear also drove them into the corners of the cage, drove them back until they had no choice but to lash out, uncoordinated and unsure. Fear drove Olex more and more into the fence that held the crowd back from rushing the APEX building. The crowd would surge with movement and Olex, accompanied with a large group of other outliers, would have no choice but to brace against the fence. With every heave, the creaking chain link would groan and lean farther and farther back. The two men guarding the front would tense up, with a set of guns and two pairs of wild eyes jutting out at the wild riot. Olex could move along the fence, one excruciating inch at a time, but his exact destination was still unknown. Just on the other side of the fence lay two men who were dying for an excuse to shoot him, and in the opposite direction lay an immense and mindless drove of rioters and criminals who would hold little more sympathy for him than the guards. Something within that swarm changed. It started on the outside.
Petrol fires still raged around the crowd, driving those with any sort of survival impulse closer inwards towards one another. The slaying the Ghost perpetrated seemed to precipitate a bloody rash of violence throughout the mob. One by one the members of the crowd gave into the same barbaric impulse. The mob thrashed against itself. Metallic limbs and fists became painted in thick scarlet. Protest signs dashed across heads, dusty sidewalks were begrimed with viscera and wide pools of red. Amongst the beasts were the unfortunate victims. They seemed untouched by this violent impulse and were ripped to shreds as a result. Ashes to ashes.
Bumpy chain link dug itself into Olex’s back, rhythmically clicking against his shoulders despite the thick canvas of his jacket. An occasional shove here and there was enough to give Olex room to scoot across the fence inch by agonizing inch. Hands jutted out intermittently, grasping, either for help or with more malicious intent. The reason didn’t matter much. Each attempt was fought off with ease. Fighting kept him from getting dragged into the crowd every time he was grabbed. Another hand, this one not grasping but holding something, jutted forward from the crowd.
A long and bloodied blade glided off the burnished titanium hands of the courier as he caught it. Pressed together by the crashing waves of people against them, Olex faced his would-be killer eye to eye. Face contorted, mouth stretched to bare all of her yellow, rotting teeth. A look in the eyes that could only be the result of an impulse of mindless instinct. Nothing premeditated. Bestial, not vengeful or raging. There was nothing past her eyes. The sadistic void that true evil held in its eyes was something Olex was well acquainted with, but it wasn’t present in her. Just the facade of a cold blooded killer without the malice behind it all. Something was driving her to kill, but she didn’t know what.
The assailant relented on the pressure for a moment, setting her feet for a renewed attempt to drive the knife forward. The brief moment was all Olex needed to react accordingly, taking both of the protester’s hands in one of his own titanium paws. He drove the knife back, driving his fist into the woman’s face with a pop only an APEX Aegis could produce. Sweat was misted through the air as the assailant’s head snapped back with a sickening crack, causing her knees to completely buckle as she was ripped from consciousness. The only thing keeping her from flopping lifelessly onto the ground was Olex crushing her hands in his, which had undoubtedly snapped bones at this point. He tossed the hands, and blade as well, allowing the woman to finally sprawl out and enjoy her sleep.
Like a pinprick to a dragon, the tip of the knife found itself flying into the miniscule inch of open flesh on the back of a gargantuan cyborg. Even amongst the thrashing crowd, Olex crawled to a rigid stop. The titan threw down the man they had been choking to turn his attention to Olex, and carried a look so insidious on their face that even the courier could feel his blood run cold. The titan shot towards Olex at a hideously swift pace that flew in the face of their size. Within only a few moments the Titan’s fist was jutting through the fence where Olex’s head had just been. He countered with his own hook, but the immediate blow to his torso let him know about how little of an effect it actually had.
Doubled over and stumbling backwards, Olex was pitched into the fence. His solar plexus screamed with pain and spasmed. Olex gasped and sputtered for air, sucking in through his gritting teeth. The Titan quickly tried to follow up with a kick to the head. Olex hid his head the best he could under his arms but still felt the strike force his face painfully into the concrete. Coarse bits of sand and what felt like small shards of glass dug into his forehead. He loaded his legs up under himself and shot up to his shaky feet. He started grabbing onto the chainlink to stabilize himself as he fled along the fence. A flurry of punches followed quickly behind him. Metal knuckles found him flush along the jaw and rattled his brain.
Olex landed abruptly on his back. His spasming legs disregarded every attempt he made to stand. Dust collected in small plumes as he frantically kicked away. The Titan scrambled to stomp on Olex’s ankles, setting their feet and losing ground with every failed attempt. Frustrated, they blitzed to catch up to the side of Olex. Steel toe boots filled with titanium feet landed a sickening kick to his ribs which upset the breathing he’d finally gotten under control. Olex writhed in pain as the Titan grabbed fistfulls of his shirt. He was lifted to his feet like a ragdoll and shoved into the fence.
Olex cracked the titan across the face with an elbow. The snap of the blow was audible even over the violent cacophony around them. The Titan’s knees buckled, servos whirring as they struggled to stay standing. The goon lurched forward as Olex tried to follow up. They wrapped their arms around the courier and effortlessly dragged him to the ground. Olex was out of breath and powerless, opting to simply shield himself from the flurry of blows raining down on him. Each blow blurred his vision more as his mouth was bloodied and a cut open above his brow. Olex forced his shaky legs to stand as he lowered his head against the fence. The blows began to come from around his guard. The courier tired of the struggle and could feel his grasp on consciousness slipping. His hand began to creep into his dirtied, bloodied jacket, unlatching the lock on his holster.
His stomach soured. Even with the vicious blows causing a ringing in his ears, the crowd around him fell quiet. Olex’s heartbeat slowed down as a nauseatingly familiar feeling settled into his bones. Olex spun with another elbow, stumbling the Titan momentarily. The stumble was brief. Pure rage kept the Titan on their feet and drove them forward still. The pulse of Olex’s heart grew even more tangible in his face as the Titan wrapped their hands around his throat. OIex’s free hand fought off the grip to no avail. Black tendrils snuck in around the edges of the Courier’s vision. The Titan’s rage distracted them from the pistol barrel creeping up under their chin. Tears began to flow from Olex’s eyes. Pain and regret.
Bits of skull and brain splattered over Olex’s face, blood mixing with sweat and tears as they left ribbons down his cheeks and chin. The titan had crumpled instantly on top of Olex, the latter now pressed uncomfortably against the fence.Olex lay pinned under the lifeless giant, and viscera from it’s gaping skull poured over his face and neck. He struggled in vain to breathe, only to begin gagging and coughing as hemoglobin’s distinct flavor dripped back into his mouth. His lungs screamed. The Titan’s limp body was shoved to the side as Olex rolled onto his hands and knees and continued his gagging and gasping. Shirt and jacket had become stained with blood, but whether it was his or the Titan’s it all tasted horrible. Sand and dust mixed in to make the experience of trying to clear his eyes joyfully fun.
Still on all four, Olex’s head turned wearily over to the nearly headless Titan. Frightening power and speed, the menacing glare and presence, all gone. All that was left was a useless husk of metal and clay. Any trace of reason or emotion had been dashed in one short, easy squeeze.
Shaky inhale, shaky exhale. Olex needed his gun back.
Unexpectedly, it was one of the few things not covered in blood or viscera. Cold to the touch. He tried to pull the slide to begin the process of removing gray matter, but it wouldn’t budge. A quick look over revealed that the safety was still on.
An APEX cleaning crew had introduced more turmoil into an already chaotic scene. Many protesters began to desert their various causes, choosing their life over whatever horror the crowd or mercenaries held for them. Mobs turned into mobile frenzies, overtaking whatever lay in their path and colliding violently with the gun trucks and military grade weaponry that now surrounded the riot.
Two separate crowds went their separate ways as if they were choreographed and meant to do so. A few squads of APEX mercs moved in tight formation into the building through an opening shutter door, while a strangely cohesive group of rioters blew their way into the opposite side.
Various groups of people moved in every direction, with the very center of the Square slowly becoming less densely packed. Stragglers sprinted to and fro, screaming and trying to shield themselves from the violence forming a deadly cross fire. Olex stood amongst it all, unsteady. He ran a hand through his blood-soaked hair, the heat from the surrounding flames slowly drying his coating of crimson into dark bits of scarlet crust.
Ages had passed since he’d had this much strange blood on him. Like putting on an old coat from deep inside the closet that you hadn’t worn in years. He was surprised it fit him so well.
The disgust in his stomach settled for a moment. The mission at hand returned to his mind. There was still a package to be delivered, but every way into the building seemed fraught with risk. One path was filled and guarded by the mercenary crew. This nice group of young men and women would surely listen to reason instead of blowing his brains out the second he got close, right?
Opposite the merc crew was a group of protestors, but more organized than ravenous it seemed. Something felt off about a group of people being led by some green bed sheet in a gas mask. Olex was curious about whatever set of circumstances led to the formation of a strange pseudo-cult which had just blown a massive hole into the side of an APEX building, but solving mysteries was the least of his concerns at the moment.
Olex found himself spilling into the building through the front doors, riding the tidal wave that flushed in the moment flames forced the two guards to relent on their pressure. He thought he could see a set of frightened eyes peering at him from a corner of the building as he entered, but the rush of the crowd pushed him forward too quickly for him to distinguish anything from the grey blur.
As branching hallways and different paths opened up, the crowd thinned out. They scattered into every direction, some simply deciding to destroy everything in sight, others choosing to continue pushing through the halls. Olex slowed down as the shove of the crowd lessened, and began to more carefully make his way through the halls. People who entered the building from every different entrance, all with different objectives, began to mix and collide. Some hallways were death corridors filled with mercs that shot everything in sight. Others held protestors violently beating and stripping mercs of their gear. Olex floated through it all as if he were a ghost, going mostly ignored in the frenzy that had engulfed the building.
One of these groups seemed to be privy to some sort of information that he wasn’t. They moved collectively. Olex floated into their orbit, following them down a set of darker hallways deeper underground. Cries for support and help became audible as the mob Olex was following flowed into the already ensuing havoc of the lower floors. Armed people were rushing in from behind, seemingly to some sort of front lines that had materialized in the chaotic skirmish.Every other room seemed like it had turned into a makeshift triage. There was a group huddled around a rather stoic looking woman. She was pointing at different hallways and rooms on a makeshift blueprint, not really seeming sure of anything that was printed on it.
No one seemed to question anything. The only inquiries Olex could hear were from random passersby asking for ephemeral bits of information. The familiar malaise of battlefield fatigue was beginning to set in, as thoughts of wanting clean clothes or a warm bed wormed their way amongst the panicked musings of a man trying to deliver mail in a warzone.
Metal halls made for ugly acoustics, and explosions ripped their way from hallways all around followed by the screams and cries of maimed men and women. Were they blowing the lower floors up?
Olex had been jogging lightly behind someone, a man carrying a makeshift machine gun with a ratty beret sitting shakily atop his head. A few funny jokes about the hole filled hat began to trickle into Olex’s head before it was suddenly bouncing off the floor. Instinct had brought his arms around his head. He shielded himself from any more potential trauma, grimacing through the ringing in his ears. He could feel the footsteps of people bound past him, and found a few curious gazes momentarily looking back down at him when he opened his eyes. Most of those in the hallways were concerned with the man who had been running in front of him. His legs were completely mangled, blood from hanging exposed blood vessels leaving a trail on the cold metal floor as they drug his lifeless body away.
On the left of the hallway was the only sign of an explosion, with a big smoking hole having been left in the wall and black soot jutting in every direction around it. Opposite the hole, only blood and shrapnel marks were left. The explosion, although sizable and powerful, seemed to only come from one side of the hallway. Olex hadn’t seen any tripwire lasers, nor were there any cameras in this hallway for someone to watch and remotely detonate a bomb. Olex was shakily helped to his feet by a random civilian who scampered off quickly after it was clear he wasn’t maimed or bleeding. Were he to keep his ankles, he’d need to start watching his steps much more closely.
Trailing far behind the front lines, he allowed more and more people to take point ahead of him. One by one they’d fall, losing arms and legs or even lives. Walking by the dead ones continually attributed to a growing malaise. Each step pulled more and more out of him, until every inch forward felt like an inch deeper into his grave. Civilian life had made him soft. Fear of death was something he thought he’d done away with long ago. Now, though, he could feel blood-twinged sweat beading and trailing down his body as he waited for the next explosion to crack and rattle his brain and lungs.
A random soldier ran past, and began signaling for the growing number of surrounding protesters to follow him. Another explosion shook the basement as he rounded a corner, crying out in pain.
”Well, at least he’s not dead. Yet.
Something familiar pushed past him. A man strode past clad in tattered green rags, rasping breaths whirring in and out of a high tech gas mask that clashed with his hobo-chic outfit. Olex slowly followed behind him as he turned the corner. He watched as the man nonchalantly dropped the man a medical stim, gave him a few empty words, and continued on down a separate hallway, maintaining eye contact with something down the hall from the wounded man.
His eyes trailed up, only to see a small group of people down inside a room on the opposite end. These weren’t protesters or rioters, they were too….well-dressed. At least, for a corporate setting. One man stood out more than the others, an older man whose face portrayed none of the fear or trepidation that anyone elses’ did. Something told Olex these were APEX.
His first few steps were short and full of nerves, but with each one he could feel himself building courage. He stepped over the dying man, and held his hands up to show they were clear, besides the small drive in his right. As he separated from the pack, he could feel the eyes of both sides scanning him, followed up by a set of gun barrels pointed at him from the other end.
”Wait!” He waved his hands in front of himself as he shortened his steps. ”I’m Choi’s guy! I’ve got something that belongs to you!”
Identifying himself as someone that was working in APEX’s interests probably wasn’t the best idea when standing so close to a group of people that had been actively working to tear down an entire building belonging to the corporation. The guns pointed at him weren’t lowering, and he could feel more of them being raised behind him. More and more it was beginning to look like he had put himself in the middle of a terrible situation. One that could only really end in him being shot.
Dead eyes stared out vacantly through the small bulletproof window on the security door and did not waver from the mutilated man on the ground. Lott’s chest was locked up and her breathing came in wispy little staccatos. After watching the pawn, with a classic flank opening, move to C4 and being left with little more than just his flank it would be easy to take Lott’s reaction for shock. Yet behind that heavy security door she felt invincible, and the violence didn’t shake her—it excited her. The Man in Rags had robbed her of the opportunity for the ultimate thrill, but it didn’t matter as she cut his act of mercy, assuming leaving someone alive for APEX could be considered a mercy, out of the loop. Every few seconds, her vision was blinded by that violent flash.
Perhaps she was so blind to that cycle of violence that she didn’t register that Turkish was moving to abandon her. He still owed her answers. He still hadn’t asked her out for a drink. She raised a hand to grab arm, and then Flash! He was gone. The pawn crawled, the blood leaving a snail trail behind him, and then Flash! The trail ended as the stim stilled the wound, but the man hadn’t gone far. He lifted his head as if to look back at her. Lott’s heart raced so fast that her watch injected a sedative, mixing with god knows what, dropping a pill on the roulette wheel of health and then kicking the table over as it spun. They were about to lock eyes. She’d remember them forever and then Flash!
Guns with legs and a troubled history with alcohol and kids they never saw paraded past the door and took up a defensive formation and Flash! Another piece in the 𝔾𝕒𝕞𝕖 and lifted his hands to show he was unarmed and Flash! Lott met his eyes and Flash! She was against the wall now, sweating, full-panic, her life going by in a Flash! The door no longer provided security. The excitement turned to shock. Alarms rang. Or had they been ringing? The loop died. No more flashes.
Lott felt a knife in her chest. She gathered what little spine she had left to stand up from the wall she’d fallen against and look out the window again. The knife twisted. There was no need to dig into archival footage. She’d erased it all anyway, not like it would work. No amount of drugs or alcohol or one night stands or soul crushing, mind numbing nine to fives would ever let her forget those eyes, nor would they forgive that last look they’d given her. It was a look she’d grown used to, a look of sad disappointment and harsh realization, a look that said, “I’ve finally figured out what you are, and I fucking hate it.” Son of a bitch, he was supposed to be dead. She’d always regretted not being there to watch it happen.
The sedative hit right, the door opened, and she stepped out into the deadly situation. This was their second chance.
“What do you think you’re doing?” said Lott to the guns—she didn’t care if they belonged to Turkish, Gatch, or APEX. Hell, she’d even take the rioters. She gave Olex a vacant look, pretending like she didn’t recognize him, pretending that could even be possible. Surely he knew better, but it made her feel powerful nevertheless.
Except her execution order died on her tongue, its spirit leaving her mouth as little more than a rattled gasp. The corner of her lip twitched. Her left eye spasmed. She lifted her hand to point at him and bark the order again, but it shook and pulled back to her chest instead as the words turned into air yet again. At least she was able to step in front of their barrels and block their shot. If they weren’t going to shoot him, maybe they would do Lott a favor and shoot her.
The disquieting dread that had come to define Olex’s past week seemed to have made way for something new. A novel feeling trickled into his body, starting from the tickling rush of adrenaline in his stomach, snaking its way through veins in nerves. His knees and elbows fell weak. The air around him felt like it could crush his chest. For all the dark crusted blood that had dried on his face, the skin underneath it had become pale and clammy. The courier stood surrounded by lifeless metal walls with leagues of virtually identical mercenaries, all built to protect the most cretinous of the nihilistic upper crust that the Reclaim could stomach. Even still, in front of him stood something putrid and reprehensible. And it stood between him and the guns pointed at him.
A miserable gray pant suit that sat in a closet with 10 other identical outfits. The clinical bob haircut, maintained to such strict corporate standards that even her hair had learned better than to grow past her chin. Vain, gaudy necklaces and rings that gave her already pale skin a sickly green glow in a dark enough room. Memorable blue eyes that still sent a shock down Olex’s spine all these years later.
They had locked eyes, Olex and the glorified corporate babysitter. After a few stunned moments and wordless gestures, she stepped out in front of the squad of mercenaries who had guns trained on him. Those that could still aim at him directly maintained, but those who were being blocked seemed dumbfounded, and began trying to get past her and re-establish their aim. The self-sacrificial move would’ve almost touched Olex, if he hadn’t sensed how little the pair of them wanted to be alive as soon as their gazes met.
It took a moment for his legs to solidify under him again, but after heaving a huge sigh and swallowing his nausea he shuffled forward. A few less barrels trained directly on him made the advancement a little less perilous, but no less tense.
”See? You don’t need to shoot me!” He motioned towards Lott, trying to play off her passive suicide attempt in his favor. He dangled the drive from its small chain from his finger. He held it out in front of him, trying to make it as visible as possible in the low light of the hallway. He prayed Lott wouldn’t have a change of heart and demand the men shoot him. He honestly didn’t even expect she had the authority to do that.
“How—why—” Praise be to the power of big pharmaceuticals, their little antianxiety injection being the only thing holding Lott together in the shape of some kind of human form. Her tongue felt thick and useless in her dried mouth as it struggled to find the proper start of a question. How are you still alive? Why didn’t you tell me? Would you like to get dinner so I can trap you in a conversation solely constructed to cut you down to tiny, miserable, tinman scraps? All difficult questions to ask with a mob of faceless strangers flanking her to get line of sight on the target.
Why didn’t they just pull the trigger? For the first time in her corporate career, Lott found that once comforting red tape, which simplified life by preventing any kind of personal decision making and transformed people from people to a series of zeroes and ones incapable of steering from their program, wrap itself tightly around her mouth and begin to smother her. As she choked on the regulations, her eyes focused on the drive dangling from the chain, swinging back and forth like the watch of that hypnotherapist who Lott had visited for a few years back in the Vegas Triangle. Their only successful breakthrough had been in unlocking the latch on Lott’s purse. The hypnotherapist had only been a waste of money; Olex had been a waste of her happiest days.
“Are you delivering that?” said Lott, finally finding her voice, her teeth biting through the tape, her eyes glued to the drive. Professionalism kept her from calling for the shot that she’d no authority to make. She was an employee of both Gatch and APEX and it was part of her contract to accept any deliveries on their behalf, even if it came from an absolute waste of a perfect jawline and top-of-the-line company cybernetics. Lott’s eyes moved to meet Olex’s. A twist of a smile splintered the porcelain mask of her face and revealed the low, everburning flames of an old hatred flared up behind her eyes as she gave him a look of recognition. “You’re a delivery boy.”
Her nostrils flared as she huffed out those words, not bothering to hide the cruel satisfaction she felt. It was a strange sensation that crept over her, one she had never felt before. It wrapped itself around her like a warm blanket, settled the acid that had been bubbling in her stomach and straightened out her spine. Was this a feeling of superiority? It was as good as anything she’d ever ingested into her system before; maybe there was a pill that would replicate it. She turned her chin up and narrowed her eyes as she raised her left hand out, palm up, ready to accept the drive.
“Only authorized personnel are allowed beyond this point. You have no authority, so I’ll take it from here.”
The pair had closed the distance between each other, with Lott stepping forward with a brand new confidence, undoubtedly a product of an elevated dosage of some sort. Her words dug at him, in a way he wished they didn’t. It was less what was said, more the worm that said it. His jaw tensed, a million different foul words and insults readying themselves at the tip of his tongue. Unrelenting self-satisfaction and smugness only served to irritate him more. It was a mutual hatred, a reunion a decade in the making which neither of them expected. Olex could see how much his mere survival annoyed Lott, and that satisfied him. Unfortunately, her mere existence irritated him equally as much.
Lots of skeletons had seemed to begin making their way out of Olex’s closet recently. Despite being largely unpleasant and unwelcome, the threats they posed had come to shape the way he thought and acted. Never stay too long in one place, give fake names out to those that don’t already know who you are. Nothing about the reckoning of his past finally coming to fruition offended him. He had made mistakes and had come to terms with the idea of having to pay his debts eventually.
Lott Ramana was not a debt to be settled, nor a mistake to be paid for. She was a snake, someone who Olex watched morph into a cretinous lap dog for those that stood for everything he hated. The idea that they’d both known one another so intimately and she still acted as if she inhabited a realm all her own was offensive to a degree that could incite rage in him. To think he’d spent a not insignificant amount of time with Lott bothered him. She wasn’t a score to be settled, she was a deep and bitter regret.
He held eye contact for a few moments, his mind racing with different insults he could fling at her, the hate in each of their eyes apparent to the both of them. He took a deep breath. Without breaking eye contact he brought his thumb up to his mouth and licked it. He slicked his blood crusted eye brows to the side, crimson flakes falling off to each side of his face as he slid his finger. He brushed those off, as well as cleaning other bits of grime and gore off his face.
”Alright. I’m ready to meet whoever’s actually in charge, then.” His lips could barely curl into a grin. Even with the immense satisfaction he drew from the attempt to goad Lott, the exhaustion and adrenaline dump was beginning to drag him down.
Lott thought it was nice knowing that time didn’t change Olex. He’d always taken every opportunity there was to carve off a bit of her self-worth to beef up his own, questioning her excitement anytime she mentioned being recognized at work or considered for a promotion. It always led to an argument, then making up, and then cycling back to an argument again until they cut out the middlestep and just stuck with the fighting. She never recalled winning a single one, so in a miserable effort to shelter what little droplets of self-esteem she had left Lott would race herself to achieving a blackout by the time Olex would get home. At least then she wouldn’t remember losing.
That luxury couldn’t be replicated here: too many goons were watching, and Turkish had stolen her drink anyway. So instead she just lifted her hand up higher, refusing to back down despite knowing that he’d do the same.