“Is this all necessary?”
My voice almost gets completely ignored.
The rebels are hiding out in the warehouse that we are in. I can tell they are being very cautious. They separate Shiloh and Naz. I can tell both boys are freaking out. It’s as though they went from one situation to something even worse.
“You have any concerns…talk to Royce,” the rebel states.
The rebel base is dark and dimly lit. The look on everyone’s faces seems to be a look of severity. I’d been here before when I was just hired. Back then things were looking up a lot more. Nowadays things were a lot stranger. Things were a lot colder.
It seems like some old factory on 2nd Earth. There are boxes of canned goods topped one over the other on the lower level. On the upper level, I see laser guns under guarded security. It looked like these people were ready to go to war.
“Where is he?” I ask.
The rebel points.
“Come on,” Star states, “No point in trying to talk to the lower levels.”
Star grabs the small of my waist. He was with me when they came and rescued us from the government control. What I hadn’t known is that they had also gone to get Naz and Shiloh. It wasn’t a rescue though. As soon as the truck arrived with Naz and Shiloh they were thrown in a prison-like fucking terrorist.
I’m still shocked how the tables have turned with Naz and Shiloh. There was a time I would have been Shiloh’s biggest threat and now I just sort of felt bad for him. He’d been through so much during the Reparations. We all had.
I just wanted peace.
We find Royce in a room with multiple screens. He’s dressed in all black. He has some rebels with him. They are all in black as well. They look like they are about up to business. When he sees us walking in he doesn’t seem slightly unphased from whatever plan he has going on at the moment.
He points at the screen, “Every news network is reporting. Every single one is reporting about what happened. Everyone is reporting about the attack.”
He wasn’t lying. Sure enough, he had multiple news networks up. One of the news networks I notice has a picture of Jonathan and the words “JONATHAN DEAD?”
“Is he?” I ask, “Is he dead?”
He shakes his head, “No. We took him. He’s locked up.”
I’m shocked. I’m not the only one. Star pulls me back and gives him a long look.
“You kidnapped Jonathan, the Deliverer. Every officer in 2nd Earth is looking for us right now? If we get caught we’ll all be executed for treason.”
“You aren’t members of ER.”
“Does that mean we can go?” Star asks.
“Not yet,” he responds, “You know our location.”
“That means we can be charged with helping the Resistance,” Star is freaking out.
I grab Star. I know he’s afraid. I know he feels caught up in a war that we wanted nothing to do with. The determination that is on Royce’s face right now is something that neither Star and I really share. I don’t understand why we are here but I do know this is Ground Zero for some major shit about to go down and somehow we are right in the crosshairs.
“Naz and Shiloh look terrified,” I state, “They aren’t a threat to you. They are just as upset with Jonathan as you are.”
“Naz is an Upsetter and Shiloh…he’s next.”
“He’s being raised to replace Jonathan.”
“By the Syntellect?”
Royce turns. The men with Royce turn as well. They all look at us with this curious look. I can tell they don’t want me to know what the hell is going on. I can tell they don’t like the idea of me really understanding all of this shit.
“How’d you learn about that?” he asks.
“We know. We know what the Familiars are. We know about the Syntellect.”
He pauses. He takes a deep breath. It seems like he and his allies knew as well for the most part. ER was well versed in this.
“Then you know why we fight. You know we are the ones in the right,” he explains.
“Naz and Shiloh know as well. They aren’t your enemies.”
He takes a deep breath, “The Syntellect has plans for the two of them. It’s safer to kill them.”
He seems stuck on it. He isn’t letting up.
“How does that make ER better than the Familiars?”
He gets quiet. I don’t think anyone’s challenged him like that. It’s hard to tell if I’m getting through to him. It’s hard to tell if any of this makes any sense to him.
“You don’t get it. We have Jonathan and his heir. Everything is in our grasp. We can finally stop the Syntellect once and for all. Jonathan can tell us how to destroy it.”
Is that what he was trying to do? Royce was trying to destroy the Syntellect. He was trying to destroy the soul of 2nd Earth that kept everything alive on this planet. He was trying to use Jonathan to do it? My heart was racing realizing that this was far beyond anything that I could imagine.
“You’re playing with fire,” Star interrupts, “And you’re going to get all of us burned. Canaan, I don’t want to be a part of this.”
“Let us go,” I state.
“I can’t do that. I told you.”
“I get why you took Jonathan. Hell, I get why you kidnapped Naz and Shiloh. But why are we here? What the hell is the benefit of us being here?”
“Have you already forgotten?” he asks me, “You are the sacrifice of the 2nd Earth. You’ve already been named and marked. I have multiple things that the Syntellect wants. If you think for a moment I’m going to give that up then you’re wrong.”
My heart starts beating. So much had been going on that I hadn’t been thinking about it.
“How long do I have before the 2nd Earth comes for me?”
Royce turns to me. I’d noticed when he first hired me that he had the emotions of a Familiar at times. However now when he tells me how long I have, I can tell things have changed. He looks almost sad. I can see him take that deep breath and hesitate just a little bit. It’s clear that this is something that he doesn’t want to talk about.
“24 hours,” he states.
24 hours. 24 hours left to live.
I nod, “OK.”
“OK?” Star asks, “That’s all you’re going to say? OK?”
“Thank you, Royce,” I respond.
I walk out of the room. No. It’s more like I storm out of the room. I get into the hallway and I’m just feeling straight up angst. Star follows me out into the hallway. I’m halfway down the steps before he grabs me and turns me around. I hate that he does that. I’m not a Familiar. I can’t hide my emotions as well as they do. I wish I was a Familiar so I didn’t cry or I wish I was an Antlien so at least I would look attractive when I cried. Right now though I’m tearing up with this ugly expression on my face.
The last thing I want is for someone to feel sorry for me. The last thing I want is for someone to give me the look that Star is giving me at this moment.
“Don’t tell me you’re giving up, just like that,” Star says.
He has this tone to him that he’s almost angry with me for being upset that I’m going to die. He has some nerve on him.
“What the fuck do you want me to do?”
“Let’s go back in there. We can talk to Royce. Maybe there is something we can do. Some way to stop the 2nd Earth from taking you.”
“How? We live on 2nd Earth. The Syntellect is everywhere. It’s all around us. I’ve seen someone get taken by the 2nd Earth before. The ground opens up and the person is gone. Never seen again. Dead. No matter where you are the 2nd Earth will take you. It’s scientific precision. There is no hiding from it.”
It’s stupid that I have to explain this to him because he knows it. He’d seen what happened to the victims of the 2nd Earth. We’d all seen how the sacrifices happened. It has been decades and no one had escaped after being marked as the sacrifice. What made them think…even for a second that we would be able to avoid it. What made them think even for a minute that we would be able to stop this.
Star shakes his head, “I just started liking you. I don’t want to give up on what could happen between us that easily.”
Did he think I did? I press my forehead on my palms. Anita had screwed me. She had really fucked me over. It was all my fault though. I shouldn’t have gotten involved in this in the first place. I knew the risks. I shouldn’t have taken Royce’s money and gotten into the contract to kill Shiloh. Now I was in way too deep and I was being left out to dry.
“It’s over before it even started,” I tell him.
“You don’t mean that.”
He looks hurt. He bites his lower lip. He’s breathing heavy. His alien horns seem to shrink slightly. I am assuming this is a sign of emotional distress with Antliens. He seems to withdraw into himself when I say what I say. I can tell that this is really upsetting him.
But I can’t lie to him.
“I don’t want you,” I tell him, “Truth is I still like Nazareth and you’re just a nice consolation prize. That’s all. That’s all you’ll ever be.”
He doesn’t react when I say that. I turn and walk away and this time he doesn’t follow me. I can almost feel his pain as I walk away but I’m doing it all for a reason.
I was OK with dying the same way that I lived.
Alone and broke.
I’m in the sleeping quarters when I hear a knock on my door. I’m paranoid that it might be Star. I couldn’t take the look on his face when I hurt him earlier and I don’t want to relive it again. That’s probably why I ignore the knock until I hear the voice of Royce on the other side.
I walk over to the door and see Royce standing there. He walks in. He has a candle with him.
“What is it?”
“Hope you don’t mind me coming,” he responds.
“Actually, I do mind. Preparing to die is something that is very personal. I’d rather go through it alone.”
“You don’t have to. I spent hours talking to that boyfriend of yours,” he explains, “Star, right? He really seems to have taken a liking to you.”
I’d sat on my bed just thinking this entire time. All the while I was thinking of all the regrets that I’d had in my life. There were more regrets than I could imagine. I guess it’s true what they tell you. The moments before you die are the moments where your entire life flashes before your eyes. There is nothing like being sentenced to death and knowing that it is coming but still feeling so much life all around you. The rebels in ER were serious but deep in his eyes there was hope. They had hope for a better day. I’d never get to see that better day. Not ever.
“He’ll be fine,” I explain, “He’s not my boyfriend.”
“He wants to be.”
“That is going to be pretty impossible since I’ll be dead,” I respond.
Royce nods, “Perhaps your body…but what if I told you that I have a way that you can live forever.”
I look over at Royce. I don’t think Familiars had a sense of humor so I didn’t think this was much of a joke. The very first time he met me, I was broke and downtrodden. I was someone who was so volatile in life that I was desperate enough to do about anything. Maybe that’s why he knew I was the perfect candidate. Now was something similar to that. I’m standing here knowing there was no tomorrow for me.
“I’d tell you that you were full of shit,” I respond.
If I had never taken the contract on Shiloh, chances were I would have never been in the Reparations, to begin with. If I weren’t in the Reparations I would have never gotten under Anita’s radar and she would not have chosen me to be the person who was killed in the Reparations.
Royce crosses his arms, “When I was young I was in love. I wasn’t supposed to be. Not really. I was an Upsetter. My job was simple. I was tasked with sabotaging the refugees that were coming into 2nd Earth. My job was to make sure they were desperate enough to never want to leave. I got sidetracked. I fell in love with a girl named Anne and my father Jonathan couldn’t have that. He couldn’t have me so distracted. So she was chosen to be a sacrifice. She was killed. Do you know what he told me?”
“It’s just one girl. You’ll find another.”
I nod, “Seems like something an Upsetter would say.”
Royce nods, “That’s their explanation for almost everything. Look how much 2nd Earth provides us. Food, water, and more resources than we needed to maintain a powerful and successful civilization. We ought to be happy. After Anne died by the manipulation of my own father I knew that I couldn’t abide that any longer. Ever since then I’d worked against my father and against what Reparations stood for.”
Royce drops his vulnerabilities at that point. It’s as though he is showing himself for the very first time and as he shows himself I am really understanding why he was so dedicated to that.
“It must be nice. Nice to have something to fight for.”
“That boy you were with, Star. Do you think they’ll let him survive?”
“He’s survived this year but Jonathan isn’t an idiot. The Familiars aren’t idiots. They know Star has been hanging around too many dangerous people for too long. They’ll change up the rules of the lotto next year or the year after that. It’ll be a year he feels safe and comfortable. And then he will be the sacrifice. You do know that, don’t you?”
My heart starts bracing.
“Why are you telling me this?” I ask.
“Because there will be nothing between you and Star. As you said, it is over before it really began,” he explains bluntly, “But he can have a life after this. He can have happiness. But if the Syntellect is around he’ll be a sacrifice. It just works like that.”
He is serious. He is blunt and he isn’t skipping a beat with what he is saying. I am so concerned all of a sudden.
My stomach hurts.
“You think I can help?” I ask.
He nods, “I know you can.”
“Under one condition. You don’t hurt Naz and Shiloh. Let them go. Let them live.”
“You don’t understand—-”
“That is my condition,” I cut him off.
“Fine. I agree. In return, I know a way to destroy the Syntellect.”
I get to him later that day. Armored trucks are pulling up outside when I walk past a window. I know they are delivering something very fragile by the way the rebels are making a big deal out of it. I’m trying to focus on it but I’m interrupted by one of the rebels. Supposedly Star is telling every stranger he’s met in this rebellion that he wants to speak to me. It’s the next day and my 24 hours are almost up. The sacrifice is almost going to happen and I know it but that isn’t helping anything. I still feel on edge. I still feel antsy. I still feel like I’m left out.
“He’s up there…” one of Royce’s people says, “Royce let you guys have the good suite.”
How kind of him.
I shrug and realize that the so-called good suite was just the biggest storage room in this goddam place. As I walk in there it smells like old boxes and shit like that. I don’t mind though. I want to have a conversation with Star.
We are all alone as I walk into the area. It’s really quiet here.
“This way!” a voice calls out.
I keep walking until I get to an open area and that’s when I cover my mouth in shock. There are rose petals everywhere and even candles. I walk closer to them though I realize something’s off.
“They aren’t real.”
“It’s a hologram projector that Royce had for his missions,” Star states, “He wouldn’t allow me to go outside and get some actual fresh flowers. Still, I wanted to at least have our first date before…well before, you know…”
He can’t say it. I want to cry seeing this. I knew those hologram projectors took some bit of editing if you wanted to create your own holograms. It must have taken him all day to set this scene up. It looks so realistic and real. As I get closer I see that Star has laid out a blanket on the middle of the floor and has a basket in there. It’s some sort of picnic or something.
I want to fight against it. I want to tell him that he shouldn’t be wasting his time on me but the truth is no one has ever wasted their time on me like this before. It feels good to be wanted, even if this is my last day.
Maybe that’s why I smile.
“Thank you,” I state.
I walk over to him. He helps me sit. I’d never been on a date before. Never been through something so intimate.
“I know you grew up in the Stacks. You grew up poor. You grew up alone. I want you to feel special for once. You deserve to feel special.”
He brings the food out and starts feeding me. It’s decent food. I can tell he’s probably prepared it himself. We start eating and all of a sudden a wave of emotion comes over me every time he looks me in the eyes.
“There’s something I need to tell you…about how things are going to go down. Royce has a plan.”
“He told me.”
“Do you have any idea what this means?” I ask.
“I know and I promise you that I’m going to make sure everyone knows what you are about to do. I’m going to make sure everyone knows why.”
“That’s not what I want for you. I want you to live and be happy.”
“Well I want to make sure everyone knows you are going to be a hero,” he tells me.
Live forever. That’s what Royce promised me.
“I’m no hero.”
“You had all this animosity in you when I first met you but I know you’ve changed. Royce told me that you convinced him not to hurt Shiloh and in exchange, you’ll strap a bomb to you.”
“I am going to blow up the Syntellect.”
He all of a sudden looks concerned, “What will happen if it happens though? If the Syntellect is actually destroyed. What about the planet?”
I shrug, “Royce believes that the planet can survive even without the Syntellect. He believes Familiars can survive even without the Syntellect. The Syntellect has told lies that there is a connection but he believes there isn’t one. He believes the Syntellect is nothing more than a parasite eating off the planet and the occupants of that planet.”
“You trust Royce?” Star asks.
I nod, “Yeah. Yeah, I do. He’s spent his whole life fighting against this. He’s a hero.”
“No, you’re a hero. You’re selfless. You are beautiful. You’re special. And everyone is going to know exactly what I know,” he promises.
With his words, he leans over. I’d never been kissed like that. It wasn’t just a kiss. It was the kind of kiss that Naz gave to Shiloh. It was the kind of kiss that let you know that no matter how many souls were in this entire universe that the two of us had connected. We had this encounter where two aliens are able to find one another across the galaxy. And I feel like one at that moment. I feel like now that I’ve encountered this soul I felt complete.
Maybe that’s what it was all about.
I hadn’t known Star for long and I had desired him even less. This was our very first date and even now there is someone knocking on the door trying to get us to break it up.
“It’s time!” Royce’s voice echoes through the door.
Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot. Sometimes it doesn’t take a long romance. Sometimes it just takes a small close encounter to change everything in your life.
“Live forever,” he tells me, “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you.”
Him saying those words and looking at me like I was really some sort of hero made me feel great. It’s him the one who is wiping his tears. When I get up I just feel strong. I feel powerful. Everyone died, but not everyone died feeling like they were about to destroy an entire Oppressive being that was living in the core of the planet.
I come outside the door. Star is standing behind me. He’s crying. Soon I notice he’s joined by two other people. Shiloh and Naz.
“You don’t have to do this,” Naz states.
He bites his lower lip. He’s watching them strap this vest around my waist. I watch how they put these devices between the vests. Royce doesn’t argue with Naz but I know he wants to. I look at the devices realizing that it’s too late to turn back now. The devices were definitely something that was explosive. The way the rebels were so careful with it made me think that this thing that they were strapping onto me is extremely powerful.
“Yeah, I do,” I state, looking at Naz, “You going to cry?”
“Not in my DNA, but I am going to thank you,” Naz states.
That’s when he does something I don’t expect. Naz reaches over and kisses me. He doesn’t just kiss me on the forehead or even on the cheek. He kisses me on the lips. He’s doing this right in front of Shiloh and even in front of Star. There was a time that I would have loved this sort of emotion from Naz but now I know it’s nothing more than a friendly reminder of what we shared shortly at one brief time in history. Right after he goes back to his Shiloh. They hold hands at that moment tightly.
I look over at Shiloh expecting him to be pissed that his boyfriend just kissed me but instead he just offers me a smile.
“I’ll use my own platform to make sure Star can tell the truth about the Familiars and what is happening on this planet,” he explains, “We will make sure everyone knows what you’ve done for us. We’ll make sure this never happens again.”
I nod, “Thank you.”
I love that he doesn’t give me this fake hug as though we’d been friends all along. We hadn’t really grown into that but I did respect Shiloh. I respected the shit out of him. I saw the way that he and Naz held hands I knew that was love. That was the kind of love people would write stories about. I turn to Star. We might have not had that kind of dynamic love but a moment in time was all that we needed and it would have to be enough.
“I’m ready…” I tell Royce.
I am taken outside. My heart is racing. The others stay back as I walk into an empty parking lot. I can hear the clicking of the sound. My mind is speeding and I want to look strong but for some reason, I feel like my face is revealing just how afraid I am. I almost want to piss myself but thankfully I don’t. Star is looking. Naz is looking. Shiloh is looking. The rebels have gathered out of their windows and they were all staring at me now.
The last thing I see is Star in the window. A single tear streaming down his face. Then all of a sudden a loud noise. SHRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRK!
The ground opens up and I’m swallowed. Then there is nothing but darkness and I’m falling. I’m falling so far. The ground opens up and peels back making way. At first, I’m screaming but soon I’m falling so far and for so long that I become used to it. It almost feels peaceful falling to your death in the way that I am. It almost feels natural.
I fall for what seems like forever into the heat and into the core but somehow I’m protected from burning to a crisp. I would think it was magic even but I didn’t believe in magic. No this was science. This was a living creature.
And when I get to the bottom I see it.
I finally see the Syntellect. I move my head ever so slightly. Right on time. The bomb was about to go out. 3…2….1….
“So this is it,” I state, “This is what all the fuss is about. Well good. Eat this—motherfucker…”