To Be a Rock and Not to Roll

“What is your percentage, Mr. Drake?” Ms. Cabot, the middle-aged brunette in a dress suit, begins, “We usually include this in our online application, but it was left out by mistake.”

My heart sinks. I squeeze with my left arm scrawled in black markings, the tattoo-like birthmark that represents all the sins I committed in my past lives. It wraps around the fingers of my left hand, snakes up that arm, and webs down the left side of my chest and torso.

I knew this would come up. I was so excited, because it wasn’t on the application. I thought the Raleigh Exploration Company was one of the few places in this god forsaken city that didn’t care about the markings everyone is born with.

“I’m a 24-percenter.”

Ms. Cabot grimaces while the younger blond to her left, Miss Cook, and the burly older man to her right, Mr. Barth, pass a look to each other. They sit at a table in front of a white board scribbled with questions from my interview. The line of green circles from top to bottom indicate my answers were correct.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Drake, but I regret to inform you that we won’t be able to proceed further with your application.”

My fingernails bite into the palms.

“Even though I’m below 30%?”

“Unfortunately, so,” she answers, “due to the recent SAFE Act passed by the Diet, our insurance company raised its occupational hazard rates for employees who are or work with marked peoples over 20%.”

“I don’t have a criminal record though.”

“It’s about trust,” Mr. Barth says with a voice deep enough to seduce every woman who hears it, “you know how this industry is. Once a crew is out there on a sandship, they’re on their own. I need to trust that you’ll have my back once the wraiths show up. Everyone talks a big game until those monsters begin screeching and scrapping the hull with their claws. I swear, every time a marked person locks eyes with one of those bastards and sees the abyss, they lose it. They’ll throw their own brother overboard if it buys them another second of life.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“They all say that,” he glares, “but I’m old enough to know better. You don’t know what a man will do until he’s in that situation. I won’t risk my crew to test if some marked guy is an exception.”

I bite my lip. As much as I hate to admit it, he’s right. The worst of human scum is covered in markings like mine. Thirty-percenters and higher commit at least half the crime even though they’re only 15% of the population. Twenty-percenters to 29-percenters do another third. Even my own memories back him up. My drunken old man was 35-percenter. The bastard got shanked in a bar fight when I was in high school. My mom was a 27-percenter and wasn’t any better. She sold her body to anyone who could hook her up with the next fix.

“Again, we regret to inform you that we will not be continuing with your application and apologize for any inconveniences from our error,” Ms. Cabot says, “this concludes our interview.”

Metal chairs scrap across the floor followed by the clank of a door closing. I stay balled up in my chair for a little longer.

—————

“DAMN IT!”

A white bird watches me slam my fist into the concrete wall from the entrance of the alleyway.

“DAMN IT! DAMN IT! That stupid god damn law!”

The blood rushing to my head is better anesthetic than morphine. I don’t feel a thing as blood flits into the air. However, my tantrum is short lived. No matter how hard I punch, nothing will change. The Raleigh Exploration Company, like many businesses in Mammon, won’t hire me. I’m too marked.

The SAFE Act introduced the beginnings of a social credit system that makes it legal to discriminate based on percentage. It’s now legal for government and businesses to ask how covered we are and make decisions based solely on that. Later, a scoring system will be added. Our percentage will cap our score so no matter how good of a person I try to be, there will always be a ceiling over my head. There will be jobs I can never have and places I can never live. Even associating with Loners, people whose percentage is a single digit, will become impossible.

I grab the sun cross pendant hiding beneath my button up shirt while I stabilize my breathing. Remember Dias, don’t get blown away like everyone else. Those were her words. A part of me wants to lash out at the three of them, blessed as they are with low percentages, but I’m the reason why I’m like this. These are my sins covering my body, and it’s because of people like me that our world is almost dead.

I slump against the wall, still clutching the pendant. Asha, is it really worth trying so hard when the world wants me to fail?

—————

On a clear day, I could see the edge of the western deserts from my old high school rooftop. A warm breeze that smelled faintly of sand and oblivion would blow through there. It quickly became my favorite place to eat lunch. Up there, I was alone to daydream about what secrets lie in the wastelands that consumed the rest of this dying world. The news was always filled with stories about ancient technologies, rich oil deposits, new monsters, and lost cultures discovered by Mammon’s exploration companies. I wanted to join them and concocted thousands of plans that I never followed up on.

That is, until I met her. My favorite daydreaming spot was also liked by the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met. She had eyes as blue as the dawn and hair gold as the sun. Even dressed in the blue and white uniform of Southwest Mammon High, she was stunning. Unlike the other pretty girls I’ve met, her beauty radiated from her core. She had the kind of inner-beauty that Loners wished they had. She had a way of appealing to the best in someone no matter how marked they were. Her name was Asha, and it was love at first sight.

“Wait, are these raspberries?” I asked after eating a slice of her latest pie.

She liked baking, and often times brought me samples of her experiments to eat, but that day, I couldn’t believe what I tasted – raspberries. They were thought to have gone extinct decades ago, but the Raleigh Exploration Company found a stash of seeds in the corpse of a city thousands of kilometers into the desert.

“Good guess! I’m surprised you know what they taste like.”

“The old bat who runs the bakery let me try one last year, but you shouldn’t waste something like this on me.”

Raspberries are still expensive. A single basket costs as much as bottle of quality liquor that my idiot old man used to chase. However, none of that mattered to Asha. Whenever I said anything like this, she’d knit her brows and puff out her cheeks like an angry chipmunk. This girl was too pure hearted to intimidate anyone.

“Not! A! Waste! You worked hard to get into the top ten for the midterm. That deserves a reward!”

“But-”

“No buts!”

I sighed and gave up.

“How is it?” She asked.

I swore that girl could read my mind.

“Amazing.”

She breathed out her anxiety and frustration.

“That’s a relief. I was so nervous when I was making it, because I hadn’t used raspberries before. You wouldn’t believe how many times I tasted the filling! I kept putting in sugar bit by bit, because I couldn’t afford another basket if I messed up.”

For a moment, her smile blinded me.

“I’m glad you like it,” she finally tastes her slice, “mmm, this is good.”

“Did you forget how it tastes?”

“I did not!”

She did.

“It just tastes different the next day,” she continued.

“Thanks for making this.”

“You’re welcome. I’m proud of you.”

She was too much for me to keep looking at.

“You used to be a delinquent getting into street fights and now you’re one of the top ranked in school. I overhead the teachers recently.”

“Shut up,” I half-muttered.

“They couldn’t believe a marked boy could make such a turn around.”

My cheeks were warmer than the sands encroaching on what little land we had left.

“It’s only because I’d rather not be at home.”

“You’re cute when you’re embarrassed,” she giggled.

Thankfully, she spared me from anymore emotional damage and contented herself to chipping away at a homemade sandwich. I wasn’t used to being praised. I’m still not. I’ve always found mean looks, clenched fists, and hard words to be more comfortable. A dad who came home drunk and angry because he pissed away all his money gambling and a mom that lashed out while going through withdrawals were constants in my life.

I didn’t like going home. I never told Asha, but sometimes I would go days or weeks without returning. I’d sleep under bridges, on park benches, or along the banks of the Pishon. Some of the homeless guys there were fun to talk with, but I ran away from them when they took their shoes off. The smell made me gag. However, they weren’t bad people. They taught me how to survive on the street, and I used the showers and washing machines at school to keep clean. I have the gym teacher, Mr. Erickson, to thank for that.

I’m also grateful to that grandma who ran the bakery near the library in the 23rd ward. She was a kind, no-nonsense old bat that took a liking to me for some reason. She let me help out at the bakery washing dishes and doing other chores under the table after the library closed for the night. Mrs. Fields was like the grandma I never had, so when some thugs decided to harass her store one day, I dealt with them. They never came back, but that bat’s smug grin did. I miss her.

“Hey Dias,” Asha started as she looked up at the cerulean sky spotted by clouds, “do you know what’s on the other sky side of the sky?”

“Space.”

“That’s still a part of the sky.”

I shot her a quizzical look. She got like this sometimes. It was like her inner weirdo would pop out to say hi.

“Do you?” I asked.

I didn’t mind when it did, because it added an ethereal layer to her charm.

“I do.”

“What is it then?”

“Escape,” she smiled, “on the other side of the sky, there’s a world different from this one, a land of milk, honey, and opportunity. I wish I could show you it someday.”

“You act like you’ve been there.”

“I have.”

“Please,” I dismissed her, “there’s only wasteland outside of this city, whether it’s above or around us.”

A dry westwardly gust threatened to steal the handkerchiefs Asha liked to wrap lunches in, but I managed to rescue them before they blew away.

“I think it’s time to give you this,” she said reaching into her bag.

In her hand was a golden sun cross pendant on a short chain.

“This is too much for good grades.”

“It’s not because of your grades exactly,” she said as I admired the sunlight sparkling from the pendant, “it’s what those grades mean. I want you to keep that pendant with you always.”

“Why?”

I slipped the necklace around my neck. The place that became its home.

“Because people don’t wake up one day and become good.”

The look I gave her didn’t faze her this time.

“They simply refuse to be blown away with everyone else.”

I looked at my left hand etched in intricate patterns. I didn’t need anything else to prove how much virtue I really had.

“I can feel it in the air,” she continued while looking up into beautiful late spring sky.

I didn’t know then, but it was in those days that the ideas for the SAFE Act took to the air from the tongues of the Loners.

“There’s a storm brewing. Someday soon, farther away than tomorrow, but closer than sometime, we’ll all be caught up in its fury.”

Her dawn blue eyes locked straight onto mine with an intensity I hadn’t seen from her before.

“Promise me that you won’t be blown away with everyone else.”

“Promised.”

Her smile was too dazzling. It was easier to stare into the sun than to keep looking at her.

“I’ll hold you to that!” She said, her usual cheerfulness returning as if the weirdo had never visited, “So you better be ready!”

I liked that girl. Our time on that rooftop or in the library were some of my best memories of high school. I wanted her to be mine, but I never found the courage to ask. I was too scared that she wouldn’t feel the same. I was scared that I’d never see her again. However, it was impossible to stretch those days into eternity, and after we graduated, I never saw her again.

She was the first and only girl I’ve ever loved. I tried to meet other people, but my heart was never in it. In the back of my mind I compared them all to her. And now, all that I have left of her are memories and a sun cross pendant.

—————

My hand smarts. It’s what I get for smashing into a brick wall repeatedly. Staggering up onto my feet, I catch another look at the bustle outside of this dark alleyway. More people than I’ve ever seen march down Golden Hind Avenue, one of the larger roads in the 10th ward. They carry signs that read NOT A SAFE ACT FOR MARKED PEOPLES, OPPRESSION IS NOT SAFE, LONERS LEAVE US ALONE.

The SAFE Act wasn’t popular with many people, but its proponents argued that it had to be pushed through, because the rate of desertification increased from an inch per year to two in the last decade. The curse placed on this world thousands of years ago was growing because of us. The event that changed the minds of the fence sitters in the Diet was the Grain Field Massacre. It was the first time in over a hundred years that wraiths were sighted on green land instead of the wastes.

A part of me wants to join the throng and scream my lungs out. That stupid Act cost me the job I spent all of college studying for. I worked out everyday to be pass the physical tests, spent scholarship money on extra desert survival training workshops, and pursued a specialty in sandship engineering in case I ever needed to repair one while out there. The frustration grits my teeth together. So much of my life wasted.

I breathe it out while grabbing Asha’s pendant through my white button-up shirt. There’s no use in throwing a tantrum about or protesting that law. It was passed in our collective safety, and there’s no other game that a pompous elite Loner likes to play better than the virtue game. I imagine they’re watching us on TV and sardonically asking, Can’t they appreciate what we’ve done for them?

Whatever. I’m pissing myself off again. The Raleigh Company isn’t the only one. I might have better luck with a smaller outfit. They won’t go on the glamorous expeditions like the bigger companies, but I have to start somewhere.

On the street, I push against the tide of protesters marching toward the capital plaza in the central ward. The anger floating in the air is as thick as the anger floating in my head.

The protesters are dressed differently than normal. Most of the men expose their chests and markings. The women maintain some modesty with tank tops or sports bras, but the message is clear. We are the marked. A part of me wants to button down my shirt too. However, that impulse is cut short by the crash of breaking glass.

A protester so heavily marked that he should be reborn as a wraith throws a brick through a shoe store window. Glass scatters across the pavement and voices roar. Moments later, tens of people jump through. You’ve got to be kidding me.

They’re not. That first act of burglary inspires others to charge into a high end clothing store. Another group has their sights on an electronics store with a wall of new TVs playing an aerial view of Mammon with the headline, “Unprecedented Turnout for SAFE Act Protest.” The wall displays streets from the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, and Central wards teeming with people before the group inside takes the TV for themselves.

Glass breaking ten feet away from me riles up a part of me that I thought I left back in middle school. It delights in the destruction. They’re Loner businesses after all.

“IN OUR STREETS!”

It’d be like my old middle school days when I got into street fights with guys because I didn’t like their look. They did the same with me. We didn’t hate each other. We used each other to vent our anger at the stupid hand we’d been dealt by this dying world. We risked everything on today, because tomorrow is a nightmare we didn’t want to see.

“IN OUR STORES!”

My head is humming and the anger won’t go. I don’t need the stuff, but I could use the money in the registers. That stupid Act just cost me a job, so why not have some of these Loners pay for it? I haven’t been able to get anything better than a farmhand position since I graduated from college in the Spring.

“NO ELITES, ANYMORE!”

I grab the pendant through my shirt again. I need to get home before I do something stupid. Without looking back, I head toward the North 10th Ward train station.

—————

A crowd gathers around a speaker in the plaza in front of the entrance to the train station. He’s a tall man with a square jaw and a look as mean as the row of thugs standing in front of the turnstiles. The faint smell of gasoline hangs in the air.

“My marked brothers and sisters,” the speaker begins, “this is the time of choosing.”

At first, I thought the man and the muscle behind him were heavily marked, but after looking a little closer, it hits me. They’re tattoos. They’ve inked themselves to extend the patterns so it looks like their percentage is over 50%.

“The Loners have finally found a way to institutionalize their hatred for us. With the passage of the SAFE Act, they’ve granted themselves unprecedented powers to marginalize and terrorize us and anyone who they feel is not as pure as their lone digit. They’ve dehumanized everyone into a number.”

An angry murmur rumbles amongst us. He’s not wrong.

“They say that it’s necessary! They say that the deserts are expanding! They say that we are the sinners! Who else could it be? Look at the statistics. It should be obvious who is and isn’t the problem. But I ask, are these lies, or are they damned lies?”

“DAMNED LIES!”

“That’s right. They’re damned lies. They know damned well why a marked father breaks into their car and steals their stereo. It’s because their sin of discrimination kept him having a job that provides the living wage his family needs. They know damned well why a marked boy takes his chances peddling drugs. It’s because their sin of discrimination keeps him from learning anything in school. They know damned well why a marked man shoots his gun. It’s because their sin of discrimination erected a legal system that offers him no other retribution.”

I found a lot of the boys I used to fight with peddling on street corners after middle school. Their reason for fighting changed from angst to territory.

“At the root of all these sins is theirs. It is the rotted tree leeching the life from this world. The SAFE Act is merely the next despicable fruit it’s borne. If we allow ourselves to eat of it like all the other curses they’ve conjured, we and this world are damned. They will advance our marks until every man, woman, and child is reborn as a screeching wraith haunting the deserts to kill and consume each other in a never ending cycle of death and rebirth.”

He pauses to let the nightmare awaiting us sink in.

“However, it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s a way to lift the curse. Burn down the rotted tree!

On cue, some of the thugs behind him take out matches and throw them onto the ground. A trail of fire blazes to the walls, climbs up the brickwork, and claims new sources of fuel inside the softer, more flammable guts of the train station. They can’t be serious, but at same time, a darker part of me is delighted to see it go up in flames.

“You must choose my marked brothers and sisters! Are you going to join us in saving the world from its real threat or will you continue to support the system of discrimination that eats away our land? What will you choose? This is the time! Every heart will be counted! The curse will continue to devour our world until we’ve burnt away every piece of that fetid tree, and they are made to repent for their history of exploitation. It is only then the deserts will retreat.”

He points to everyone surrounding him.

“But think hard, think well, and choose wisely. We don’t have much time, and I will not show mercy to the unwise.”

He puts down his megaphone and steps off the makeshift podium. A few other marked men fall into his flanks, and I distinctly hear the name, Elijah. However, they don’t move north toward the Central Ward but south. Meanwhile, the crowd is mixed. Some gasp and mutter to themselves as the train station lights up. Others add their voices to the chorus reaching us from the street.

The piper is calling me to join him.

—————

The further down Golden Hind I go, the more powerfully I see Elijah’s words take shape. Tattooed men and women wearing sunglasses and covering their faces in different colored bandannas mix into the crowd of half-naked protesters. They shout and break windows where it’s too peaceful, and start fires where they’re not. Already, the first licks of flame climb into a second story window above what was once a quaint cafe.

Across the street, a group accosts some middle-aged women in dress suits. I can’t hear the words, but a tattooed woman gathers a group of tattooless marked people to surround them. I smile as the Loners huddle together and the circle around them grows thick. The last thing I see is the women dropping to their knees.

“Hey, you!” A man grabs my shoulder from behind, “Repent for what you are!”

I throw the hand off with a hard shrug and turn to the idiot. He’s a tall, lanky man without tattoos to extend his marks. Instead, they curl around his neck, and the right side of his torso. He’s about a 22-percenter.

“Back the hell off,” I growl.

“Ooooh, look at we got here. A feisty little Loner playing tough guy. You think you know what pain is? Think you’re still the big man because the system will protect you?”

What a stereotype. I don’t need to see his eyes to know that he’s never been in a street fight, because if he had, he’d know from looking into mine.

“Hey, Franco! Marco! We got a fun one over here.”

Of course, he would. His backup. Franco and Marco, a couple of doughboys that do more laps to the coffee shop than at the gym, saunter up. They’re about as marked as I am.

“Oh look here, all dressed up for your fancy white collar job,” the smallest one says, “how many people like us did you rob today? One? Five? Ten?”

Why do the small ones always bark so loud?

“On your knees. You’ve got a lot to repent for,” the other with a surprisingly deep voice orders.

I unbutton my collar, briefly revealing my pendant, to show my markings. Greed flickers in the smallest one’s eyes.

“I’m marked, you idiots.”

As I’m turning to leave them behind, the smallest one says the wrong thing, “Necklace first, traitor.”

He moves as if he were entitled to Asha’s present. Snatching up the pudgy claw, I inform it of the reality of the situation. I’m the one who spent the last eight years training to be an explorer. The twitching of his cheeks and the gargling whimpers he coughs up as I crush his fat hand rouse a dark thrill in me. You wanted this fight, didn’t you?

“Play your game with someone else.”

Panic and rage flit in his eyes after I release him. They duel for how to react, but the tall one who started it all makes the decision for him.

“Franco, over here.”

He pulls his attention to some other sod. From the looks of it, a Loner done with work and in the wrong place at the wrong time. Can’t say that I have any sympathy for him. It’s because of his people’s nonsense that this is happening.

An emotion as wild and dangerous as the riot roils in my gut. It wants revenge on the Loners. It cackles whenever a metal pipe breaks the windshield of a fancy car or flames kiss an office building for white collar graduates of Mammon University. If its graduates won’t acknowledge the four years I spent there then why should I care when the unfortunates they’ve kept from the table demand a place?

A two inch bubble forms around me as I cut through the riot. The aura flowing from me must be darker and wilder than the chaos on the streets. It doesn’t matter to me anymore. I’m a hair trigger away from lashing out at the next idiot I stumble across. This city would be better off as cinders. At least then, sin would stop feeding the curse consuming the last habitable land in the world.

“On your knees, old bitch!”

A well built masked man forces some bat in business casuals to the pavement. Unlike the other tall guy, his neck, arms, chest, and torso are etched in tattoos that make it appear like he’s crossed the 50% threshold into wraithdom. Obviously, that can’t be true.

“Look at all that unblemished skin,” he says while caressing her cheek and neck, “You’ve had a nice long life of sin, haven’t you?”

When it reaches her collar, he yanks her shirt open.

“Well look at this.”

The gold sun cross pendant around her neck snaps off.

“Please no,” she says while reaching for what was hers, but the man keeps it just out of reach.

“Haven’t seen one of these before,” he admires the sun cross, “it must’ve been expensive.”

“It was given to me.”

“Given? Like a present? I wonder what those are like. You see, little marked boys like me don’t get birthday presents. Did you know that? The best our papas can do is put dinner on the table that night.”

“That’s horrible,” she says.

“Isn’t it?”

The man squats down to her level and grabs her by the hair. He forces her dawn blue eyes to meet his dark ones.

“That’s because your papa gave my presents to you.”

She yelps while he yanks her onto hands and knees. It’s nice to see a Loner get what’s coming to her.

“You see all this? This is what the time of choosing looks like. You’ve lived all these years off the backs of marked peoples, but that stops today. You’re going to have to make a choice. You’re either going to repent for all the lives you’ve ruined or your blood will quench the thirst of this dried up land.”

“I lived an honest life. I didn’t do anything.”

Dawn blue eyes search their surroundings until they meet mine. Help me, they say.

“Didn’t do anything? An honest life? Bullshit. You’re so blind that you can’t even see the hell you’ve made.”

He follows her eyes to me.

“Another one? No. You’re one of us. I know those eyes. Come here. This Loner owes you.”

I step closer and scowl at the old bat pleading to me. My fist clenches tight.

“You’re all dolled up. Let me guess – a job interview. You jumped through all their hoops and lived an honest life just like they told you to. But, it wasn’t enough. They still wouldn’t let you into the club.”

“Pretty much,” I reply.

“I hear you. I hear you. If I got a dime for every time I heard a story like yours, I’d be richer than all these sinners, but we don’t need to pander to their hypocrisy anymore. This is the time of choosing. How will you collect what you’re owed?”

The old bat trembles on her knees in front of me. Her terror and submission are exhilarating. Loners have always looked down on me like this. When I was in college, professors and classmates would click their tongues when I entered the room. Why is he here? Their feelings were written in the air. Mammon University was for the elite, well-bred, and unmarked. How sweet would it be to bring them low?

My head is humming, and the anger won’t go.

I could smack the coot around a few times and relish in her sobs. When I’m bored of her, I’ll empty out her purse and have a better payday than a week on that stupid farm. Bile rises in my throat at the thought of going back there. I’m a Mammon University graduate, and I’m forced to work on a farm with middle school dropouts. It was a waste of my life to play by their rules. It would be better to join the army in the streets in burning this rotted tree down.

“Every heart will be counted, brother.”

My head is humming, but the anger is gone.

If my heart were to be counted, do I want to be among the thugs beating up old women in the street? I left my hopelessness behind in middle school. I don’t know this woman. She’s no more guilty for being unmarked than I am for being marked. Even if she has looked down on, taunted, and jeered marked people do I want to reaffirm that world view? If I were to smack her around and use her as revenge for my failed job interview, wouldn’t I be wrong too?

“Pendant,” I say.

“Certainly.”

I slip the sun cross pendant into my pocket and help the old woman to her feet.

“The fuck are you doing?”

“Saving an old woman from a self-righteous thug.”

A fist slams into the side of my head, and a couple stars pop in to say hi. The Grandma shrieks.

“One more time. What the fuck are you doing!?!”

I needed that hit. It cleared the humming from my head. I’m ashamed that I almost bought into Elijah’s sermon. The only things that will come of it are burnt-out buildings, ruined livelihoods, and a mountain of corpses to entice the wraiths with.

“Sorry, but I’m going to carry you,” I whisper to the coot, “I can’t fight him and protect you.”

“Okay.”

“Leaving,” I tell the zealot.

With a burst of strength, I throw the old woman into my arms and run. She makes it easier on me by clinging to my neck and supporting whatever weight her frail arms can handle. She’s old but a fighter. I like that.

“Hey, get that guy!”

I don’t pause to see who joins him, but maybe I should have. A second later, a brick collides with the back of my head. The stars return with more friends, and I stumble forward. Darkness threatens to overtake me, but an impulse, Stay up, repels it. With the next step I catch myself and dart into a nearby alleyway. I take every twist and turn trying to break any line of sight our pursuers might have. Even though grandma here is surprisingly light, I don’t think I can run faster than those thugs while carrying her.

“Thank you, young man,” she whispers along the way.

“Can’t say it was no problem.”

We come out onto another street, Endeavor Avenue, to be greeted by another mob. They’re everywhere, but I don’t have time to be choosy. I continue south and away from the Central Ward.

“You wanted to go along with them.”

“Sorry,” shame drips from my words, “it’s been a bad day.”

I sling us down another alleyway and through a cutaway between two buildings.

“But you didn’t. I’m proud of you. If only there were more young men like you out there nowadays.”

We run by a group of looters loading boxes into a truck parked behind a store. They’re too occupied with their haul to care about us. Not much longer, we’re on another but less crowded street.

“They’re gone,” she tells me.

I confirm it myself. There’s no one. Relief gives way to dots bubbling up in the edges of my vision. I wobble on my feet.

“Can you stand?” I ask.

“You should be asking yourself instead,” she grins, “please let me down. I can’t have you falling over on me.”

She’s a sprier than I thought, easily hopping out my arms and standing. Instead, I’m the one having a hard time getting back up. My fingers discover a wet lump on the back of my head. The lightest touch makes me flinch. That lump is going to be with me for a while. I return the pendant to her.

“Thank you, young man.”

“You’re not out of this yet. Where do you live? I’ll see you home.”

Dawn blue eyes grow wide, and I’m treated with a nostalgic smile.

“I live in the 3rd Ward. I can take a train there.”

I shake my head and kick up the wooziness that had just settled. Need to avoid doing that.

“They already set one on fire.”

“Oh my… so that’s why I saw smoke.”

The 3rd is on the northwestern side of the Central Ward. It’d be a long walk from here.

“Let’s see if we can find you a cab.”

I urge her forward from the small of her back. There’s less chanting and more looting here. The mob is made up of normally dressed people, not flaunting their markings or wearing an improvised mask getup. Likely, they’re nothing more than opportunists tempted with free stuff and egged on by violence.

However, nothing is ever free. What they don’t pay for in dollars, they will pay for in markings. Was that new TV worth it? Do you need that new pair of shoes so much that it’s worth transforming a little more of yourself into a hungry ghost that haunts the desert?

“Thank you, again.”

The old woman whispers something else under her breath. I don’t expect to find a cab very easily. The protesters block off many of the major roads, but they all blow in the same direction, toward the Central Ward and government campus within. Any cabbie with an ounce of sense in him would keep his livelihood off the streets while this is going on. However, when we turn onto a smaller road, we find one listening to the radio.

“We’re in luck,“ I say.

After a knock on the window, he throws me a look harder than his face.

“What is it?” He asks.

“Can you take this woman to the 3rd?”

The two share a look I can’t place.

“You kidding me? In all this mess? Take the train.”

As he begins to roll the window back up, the idea of mugging him flashes through my mind. She needs help, and besides his face, the rest of him is soft. It wouldn’t be too hard to pull him out or push my way in, but it’s a stupid idea.

“Wait!” I pull out a roll of bills, “I’ll pay extra.”

The window stops, but a toothy grin starts. That’s right. You like money, don’t you?

“I feel my courage coming along,” he says as a grubby hand comes for the money.

But, I pass it to the old woman.

“Hey! What was that for!?!”

“She’ll give it to you once you take her home.”

He clicks his tongue.

“Fine. Hurry up and get in!”

“Thank you so much, young man. You didn’t need to do that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I say with a little less shame than before, “they robbed you.”

Before she gets into the car, the old bat glares at the cabbie, but he shrugs it off.

“It’ll be safer to take the outer belts than cut through the city,” I tell the driver.

“Got it. Later, kid.”

After one last thank you from inside the car, they’re gone. He surprises me by taking a turn into an alleyway, but it’s not a bad idea. If he drives fast enough, the looters will get out of his way, and the buildings will hide him from the rest.

The lump reminds me that it’s still growing when I scratch the back of my head. I wince, but the realization of what’s ahead of me is worse than the pain. I live 20 miles to the south, and I gave that guy everything in my wallet.

I sigh while watching two white birds fly out from the alley. Now a hike on top of everything, huh? It’s hard to imagine today getting any worse, but complaining won’t change anything. At least I’m in good enough shape to make it.

—————

Setting the largest train station in the 10th Ward, the Northern Golden Hind Station, on fire was the signal flare for police escalation. The beat of helicopters grates my ears. A few of them enter the smoke stack blackening the sky carrying over sized buckets suspended below. Red and blue lights cross into purple inside my vision as rows of police cars line up to form impromptu barriers to contain the rioters at the end of this street.

The rioters, led by Elijah’s people, answer the police with shouts and bricks. A few them break down doors to the two and three story buildings overlooking the police lines. A few moments later, a Molotov cocktail sails from a window and splashes fire over the hood of a police car. It spooks a nearby police officer who accidentally shoots a canister of tear gas into the crowd.

One surprise leads to another, and a volley of cannisters find their way into the mob. A woman collapses when it hits her in the head. Another cannister hits a fat guy in the gut. Screams and gunfire clatter. It’s a different sound compared to the firearms I trained with – deeper and has an odd jitter at the end. A few more go down, but they hobble back onto their feet a few moments later. They’re using rubber bullets, for now.

The police advance their line, and the mob retreats. I duck into a nearby alleyway to escape being caught up in the tide. Not long after, more explosions and a white cloud I want nothing to do with lurches after me.

When I almost reach the other side, a voice halts my feet, “Masks on! One volley and advance!”

Screams follow in the wake of an increasingly familiar sound.

“Push them back to Golden Hind, and arrest any stragglers. The Diet passed the emergency legislation the chief asked for.”

I take cover behind a dumpster as the first cops dressed in full riot gear come into view. Through the crack between it and the brick wall, I watch them advance. The first line pushes forward with clear shields raised and batons ready. The second loads their launchers with another can of tear gas. Behind them are the bosses and less heavily armored officers. A couple of them tackle and cuff a bandanna guy bleeding from the head. Glad I sent that old bat home in a taxi.

I let several minutes pass before moving. The bit about emergency legislation worries me. Nothing good ever happens when the Diet has an emergency for an excuse.

As I struggle to figure out what to do, my mind returns to the wasteland survival training I took in college. Thirst, hunger, and temperature are not the greatest dangers an explorer faces when stranded and alone in the desert. There is some water out there, and certain species of curse bugs and lichen are edible too. The heat can be mitigated by traveling at the right times and finding shelter in the husks of civilization.

Instead, the greatest threat the wasteland has for the explorer is the wraith. There are billions of them haunting the barrens. They usually slink about alone, lurking in all the places that are best for an explorer. Sometimes, however, they gather into mating storms and scour the deserts. They devour other wraiths and people they come across while reveling in a violent orgy. Inside, they don’t care who they rape or eat. A male might bite the head off the female he’s mating with only to have his progeny burst from her womb and consume him. If a single wraith falls behind or stumbles, the rest will pounce to feed.

Sometimes it causes the storm to stop as the wraiths feeding on the stumbler are attacked themselves. The wraithstorm transforms from a black cloud rolling over the ground to a geyser of liquid, screams, smoke, and newborn wraiths. However, inside the wraithstorm, the carnage continues until there’s only a single colossal monster remaining – the wraith who devoured all the others. These abominations can sink fleets of ships by themselves, but their lives are short lived. They can never find enough food to sustain themselves so they slowly starve to death, and their curse bleeds back into the wasteland as it drips from their rotting forms.

To overcome a survival situation without a sandcraft, the explorer walks in the wake of wraithstorms. An individual wraith is agile, perceptive, and adapts to situations like humans do, however storms do not. They continuously move forward as a mob, clumsily steering toward the next source of food ahead of them. They will not stop even if it means crashing into a cliff or falling into a ravine. They’re too carried away by the thrill of mating and feeding to do anything else. They pick the wasteland clean and never look back.

On the other side of the dumpster is a clash between two storms. The storm of rioters gives ground to the storm of police. The third volley of tear gas is their scream. A shriek is always followed by a charge. Police cars come to life and inch behind the front lines of riot police. Not much longer now, and I can follow behind them until I can find another side street.

I peek out from the alleyway. The police have reformed their lines a block away. Tear gas wafts into sky. The voices of the rioters reorganize themselves into a chant.

“WE WON’T BOW!”

Before I can ask myself where the charge is, shirtless men wearing bandannas appear on the roofs overlooking the police’s new position. It’s a trap. The ambushers throw flaming bottles and pipes onto the cops below. My heart skips a beat, but the explosions do not.

A score of officers go down, some in pieces. An arm spins up to fifteen feet in the air before it bounces off the hood of a car.

“MARKED AND PROUD!”

The storm of rioters descends upon the police while the front line recovers. Officers further back, draw their weapons and open fire. Within the cacophony, there are some of the tell-tale jitters of rubber bullets mixed. The first line of rioters collapse but the rest stomp over their bodies to devour the broken formation. This is my opportunity.

In the situation where an explorer encounters a feeding wraith, the explorer has the advantage of surprise. A feeding wraith is oblivious to the world outside of their reach. If the explorer believes that the area is relatively free of other wraiths, disposing of the feeder with his firearm is the best option. If the explorer believes that the area contains other wraiths, as long as distance and silence are maintained, he may reposition with safety.

I slink along the sides of the buildings and duck behind a parked cars as I head toward an alleyway halfway down the block. I take it slow, watching the situation with the storms unfold. A wraithstorm doesn’t pay attention to its back, but people do. And one of those rearguards decides he’s had enough. He pulls a rifle out of a nearby squad car. Another officer reaches out to stop him, but a stern look is enough squelch him. The two men share a moment and the second grabs a rifle too.

The two men abandon their post and join the fray. They sweep over the rioters, firing at anyone that doesn’t look like a cop. Shots ring in my ear until they’ve unloaded about sixty rounds. There’s no jitter. They break to reload, but I slip into the next alley heading south. There’s no reason to linger any longer.

I unbutton my shirt as I move toward the next street. In a survival situation, the explorer conceals himself whenever possible. Wraiths do not have extraordinary senses. They cannot sense water like curse bugs can, so camouflage can allow an explorer to hide in plain sight or avoid the grasp of a passing wraithstorm. They cannot see in darkness either. Many explorers survive being stranded by finding dark holes to crawl into and leaving their distress beacons on. One explorer, Gregory Tompkins, survived six months alone doing just that.

No matter what I say or do, the police will see me as a rioter. They’re outnumbered, anxious, and committed to using whatever powers the Diet granted them in that emergency legislation. They will attack anyone who is not one of their own. Short of looting a corpse or mugging a cop, there’s no method to acquire sufficient camouflage to blend in with them. Worse, it’d expose me to the other storm looking to feed on the police. That’s why I’ll pretend to be a rioter. I’m marked enough to pass off as one of Elijah’s people revealing their sins to the world.

However, that plan is short lived. At the end of this alley, the rioters fight among themselves. Jewelry spills onto the pavement from a cloth satchel at the feet of a muscular man with a shaved head. He knocks the man in front of him flat in a single blow. That other man’s head crunches against the concrete wall, but his friend uses it as opportunity to shank the shaved head. One, two, three strikes to the kidney. Before the shaved head can recover, one of his accomplices bludgeons the friend with a metal pipe. Others join in the bedlam not long after.

I click my tongue and pop into the first open doorway I find. My feet thunk against the door laying on the floor.

“Hey! It’s a Loner!”

Not a few steps into the husk of a jewelry store, a small man with curly hair points a knife at me. His friends who are smashing open a cash register look with smiles as deep as their greed.

“Look,” I say, the words oddly calm to my ear.

I pull aside my button-up shirt to reveal the intricate markings scrawled across my chest and left side.

“My bad, but still, back the fuck off. All this shit is ours.”

“You got it.”

I keep my distance and walk over an old man’s corpse. Their eyes don’t leave me until I’m outside the door.

Just how many people were protesting the SAFE Act today? Every street is teeming with rioters, looters, and Elijah’s followers. As I cut through alleyways and buildings that question nags at me. How much of this was planned? The violence, looting, and police response escalated so quickly. More pillars of smoke drift into the sky as Mammonites continue to burn their own city to the ground. There won’t be anything left of north Golden Hind by tomorrow morning.

—————

To stay away from the chaos on the streets and avoid having anymore knives pointed at me, I blaze a trail through the third floor of an apartment building. As I pass by a cracked door, my heart freezes. I hear women crying and men groaning. Through the crack I can see a group of men rape Loners they’ve abducted. One has a brunette bent over a couch while another takes a blond on a kitchen table. The blond tries her best to fight off the bigger man, but a punch to the face ends her resistance. Another two huddle together in tears and tattered clothes.

A third man stands beside a window over looking the streets. A rifle is propped up against the wall next to him. This man, older and with a short but messy beard, grins at the other two while taking glances out the window. I want to help them, but it’d be suicide.

“I want the blond next,” he says.

“You already had those two.”

“Well, I want a third too.”

“Fuck man. You’re going to come your brains out before the real event starts.”

“I hate you bastards!” The blond interrupts, “I hope the cops cut your dicks off when you get that fight.”

The older man whistles, “I love a bitch like her. Yeah, I’m next. Hurry up, and switch.”

“Fuck off,” the blond’s rapist replies, “you’re going to be useless tonight.”

In a survival situation, the explorer remains calm and vigilant. He assesses the situation and environment then takes the course of action that optimizes his and his party’s likelihood of survival. The explorer remains calm and vigilant. He does not act rashly. The explorer remains calm and vigilant. I swallow down my feelings and pull away from the apartment, leaving those poor girls behind.

Heroics don’t save anyone in the wasteland. They won’t save anyone here. The moment I charge through that door, that bearded bastard will blow my brains out. If by some miracle he misses, the other two men will overpower me. If the girls try to help, they’ll just be shot. No one would be saved and the effort would be pointless.

A white bird watches me climb onto a fire escape. I clutch the pendant around my neck. Asha, I don’t know where you are, but please be safe.

—————

My heart hangs heavy while I push south. The despair those girls face and the sinister grin of the bearded bastard appear on the back of my eyelids whenever they close. However, I force it out of my mind by remembering the precepts of my training. This is a survival situation in a human wasteland. A single misstep will mean death. My objective is to get back to my rundown studio apartment 20 miles south of here.

That is, until I came across the three interviewers hiding out in the backroom of a gutted restaurant.

“Hey, you’re that Drake kid from earlier today,” Mr. Barth says as he stands up.

Near him, Ms. Cabot and Miss Cook sit next to each other at a table meant for employees.

“Mr. Barth? Yes, I’m Dias Drake from earlier today.”

Ms. Cabot’s eye narrow while she takes in the sight of me.

“A few questions, if you please,” she says.

“Sure.”

“Why are your markings revealed?”

The meaning is clear to everyone. Mr. Barth subtly adjusts his posture to jump me depending on my answer.

“In a survival situation, the explorer conceals himself whenever possible,” I say while raising my hairs into the air.

Mr. Barth relaxes his posture, but Ms. Cabot remains sharp as ever.

“Thank you. And what of your left hand? You did not have that injury when we last saw each other.”

With everything going on, I had forgotten about how much I messed this thing up.

“I punched a wall a few times.”

“Oh?”

Her eyebrow raises with the tone in her voice.

“Your response to the results of the interview, correct?”

“Yeah,” I say while looking away from them.

In retrospect, it is pretty dumb to lose a fight with a wall.

“And what were the results of your camouflage, Mr. Drake?”

“After they see my markings, they believe I’m one of them.”

“Excellent. We could use your assistance, perhaps, make a deal. We’re stranded in the 10th Ward, because those idiots decided to set the train station on fire. We attempted to walk to the next station, but that’s proven to be… difficult.”

Mr. Barth suppresses a laugh. Specks of blood decorate his dress shirt.

“We are too well dressed and attract too much attention. We cannot blend in either, because undressing would reveal what we are.”

The suggestion is enough for Miss Cook’s face to twist into disgust. She reflexively covers her chest.

“That’s why we would like to request your assistance in escorting us to another station further south. If we can, then we may able to revisit the question of your employment at Raleigh.”

The suggestion forces me to pause.

“What about the insurance?”

“We can arrange for you to be a 19-percenter.”

“How!?! That information is registered with the government.”

“Miss Cook, care to explain?”

“My uncle works at the registry. If we send him a correction paper from one of our doctors, he can, uh, conveniently bypass the bureaucratic process.”

“It’s not a bad deal, kid. It’s a chance to earn my trust, and you’re not getting on my ship without it.”

This is the chance of a lifetime. I can’t let it pass me by. Glancing at the two women, the scene from that apartment flashes in my vision. Instead of the blond, I see Miss Cook, a woman a touch younger than me, spread on the kitchen table. Instead of the brunette, I see Ms. Cabbot, who looks good for her age, bent over the couch. My stomach turns. Even without their offer, I would’ve helped them. I won’t abandon them as well.

“I’ll do it. I assume you need me to scout ahead, right?”

The women breathe sighs of relief.

“You’re quick on the uptake,” Mr. Barth says, “I like that. Newbies who can’t think for themselves are the first to get eaten.”

“What if they’ve closed or burnt down the South Golden Hind Station too?”

“That’s a risk,” Ms. Cabot says, “if we cannot use the station then we would like to go Mr. Raleigh’s, that is the president of our company, mansion. He lives in a gated residence with a security detail. He knows us personally. I have no doubt that he will shelter us until the riots pass.”

“It’s a plan then.”

In every situation, the explorer uses every resource at his disposal, even if it’s a riot.

—————

I raise three fingers and motion for them to enter the corpse of another boutique. Ms. Cabot and Miss Cook come first while Mr. Barth brings up the rear. The clack of the women’s heels signals how slow this trip will be. Unlike Mr. Barth or I, the women haven’t trained to be explorers. Although, Ms. Cabot is in better shape than I imagined. She must work out.

The problem is Miss Cook. She’s slow and scared. At every noise, whether it’s the clash of breaking glass, the shout of a rioter, or rumble of garbage, she jumps and whines. More than once Mr. Barth has nudged her along. It’s because of her that I’ve kept to hopping from building to building while working toward the station, but eventually we will need to cross an intersection. I have half a mind to carry her across, but a half-naked marked guy carrying a Loner girl through a riot is anything but inconspicuous.

And the time for just that arrives when I pop out the back door near the exit of an alley. The wail of sirens fills the air, and a shirtless pack passes by me. We share a look, and their eyes crawl over my skin. However, when they see my markings, they smile and offer an approving nod. I return it, but nothing is said. I want nothing to do with them. More so when one of them smashes the back window of a parked car. They share a laugh about it before joining up with the storm marching down the street.

Three fingers. Come. However, what lies afterward is a disaster. A pillar of black smoke rises from the South Golden Hind Station a block down from here. Clear battle lines are drawn between the rioters and the authorities trying to put out the fire. Fire hoses try to push them away but more pour in to fill the gaps.

“BURN! IT! DOWN!”

Someone from a side street throws a brick over the policemen protecting the firetrucks and hits a fireman in the head. His hose flies out of his hands and whips through the police. Officers tumble to the ground and a hole splits their line in two. The storm of rioters roar and charge. Other firefighters try their best to keep them at bay.

“No go,” I say, “the station is on fire.”

Ms. Cabot bites her lip.

“Where’s this mansion at?”

“East of the station,” Ms. Cabot answers.

We’re on the west side.

“No choice then, go back and hide in that store. I’m going to look around.”

“You got it,” Mr. Barth says as he ushers the women back into the hollowed out boutique.

Ideally, we’d be able to walk around the station and that fight, but the reality is different. The authorities are wisening up to the tricks of the rioters. They’ve positioned firetrucks, armored cars, patrol cars, and whatever other vehicle they had lying around to form makeshift walls of a fort. Others are positioned to isolate the streets from each other.

I watch one group try to climb up a firetruck blocking off an alley closer to the station, but a single officer pepper sprays the lot without much trouble. He shouts over his shoulder and a cannister flies over his head and lands at the invaders’ feet. Tear gas floods the alleyway. No go here.

Raising my fist into the air, I repeat the chant, Burn it down, as I walk through the wake of another storm rushing to the fight at the station. The alleys are clear of barricades, but Elijah’s group lurks in the shadows. I share a look with a guy in a second story window. Bile revisits my tongue as that rape room flashes into my mind. That guy probably has a rifle too. No go here.

However, I find a break with a store a little backward from where we were. There’s no one in a barren convenience store. Its back door connects to a parking lot filled with cars. Their windows are broken, hoods beaten in, and smoke rises from a few, but this is perfect. There’s plenty of places for Ms. Cabot and Miss Cook to hide while having a clear view of the train station.

South Golden Hind Station isn’t that big. There’s a few stores built into the first floor like a bakery and a coffee stand, but that’s it. The rest is a platform, ticket booths, and a waiting area now in flames. The mob clashes with the police on the northern side near the stores while the southern side with the rail crossing is relatively empty. Cameras flash from a few loiterers recording the havoc. Others lean against walls and hold themselves. Blood runs from purple and red welts that dot their faces and bodies. One of them struggles to breathe while his friend comforts him with an icepack.

We can cross here.

—————

“Ah!” Miss Cook screams while she trips in her heels.

I’m quick enough to catch her while we cross the street back near the boutique. A few heads turn to look at us. I knew it would be her.

“Thanks,” she smiles.

“Play along,” I say without waiting for her answer.

A few rough guys look over at us and talk to each other. One of them points toward Miss Cook while leering. They approach.

“Learn to walk, bitch!”

I pick her up by the waist and carry her like a wet dog.

“Hey!” She cries.

She doesn’t get it, but I shouldn’t have expected her to. It’s obvious from how she acts that she’s a well-bred unmarked girl. If she were on the streets with me during my middle school days, all we would’ve seen is a target. In the corner of my eye, I can see Mr. Barth motion to me, Need help? A subtle shake of the head calls him off, and I turn to the shirtless well-built man who leads the pack.

“What’s this you got here?” He asks.

His eyes crawl over Miss Cook’s ass while he licks his lips. She’s not an athletic girl, but she is cute. She’s soft, feminine, and would be the girl next door if next door were a mansion near the sea.

“Revenge,” I growl.

It comes out darker than I anticipated, but that’s fine. My goal isn’t to project hostility but danger.

“Had an interview today with her. The bitch didn’t give me the job, because I’m marked.”

A guy in the back smiles and nods along. Good, a lackey is on board with me. Miss Cook’s squeals raise their mood.

“Just like a Loner bitch.”

His posse agrees.

“So she’s going to pay the price for that,” I say, “if not with money, then other ways.”

“Mr. Drake!”

The pack leader flashes a toothy grin. The bastard would like that.

“A girl like her has a lot she needs to pay for, wouldn’t you say, boys?”

They hoop and call with their agreement, but I pull her away.

“I’ll see that she does.”

My eyes narrow on his. He meets them head on. Long seconds pass without either of us moving. No one in this group of bastards says a word. Eventually he starts nodding his head as his smile grows.

“I like those eyes. They’ve seen what a fucked up world the Loners have made. You’re one of us.”

He breaks contact to look over his shoulder at his posse.

“Come on, let’s leave this bastard to his bitch. He earned it.”

With that, they leave without another look. A tide of relief washes over me. That guy is easily a 35-percenter.

“Sorry if that scared you,” I whisper once they’ve stepped out of earshot, “I’m going to carry you the rest way.”

I urge Mr. Barth to come along..

“Thank you for your efforts, Mr. Drake,” Ms. Cabot greets us as we step into the convenience store, “I won’t lie and say I wasn’t worried.”

“You should’ve been. That guy… isn’t someone I want to meet again.”

He’s a monster in human skin.

“Good work there, Drake,” Mr. Barth says while joining us, “I thought another fight was about to start.”

“It was close.”

“Are you close to putting me down yet?” An annoyed mouse says as she dangles under my arm.

“Oh, forgot about you down there.”

I set her down. She brushes the dust off her suit before standing to her full height of 5’2” or so.

“Thank you, but please, don’t pretend you’re going to rape me.”

The other two toss me quizzical looks.

“You need the right appeal,” I tell them.

“You have a terrifying side.”

“Isn’t that what these marks mean?” I say while walking to the back door, “Come on, we need to keep moving.”

There’s an odd silence behind me. It lasts a second or two longer than I expect, but I don’t look back, because the sounds of crunching glass follow.

—————

“Shit,” I mumble.

The situation at the station has changed. In the ten or twenty minutes it’s been since I was last here, the authorities have seized the advantage. Water hoses fight the fire and the rioters simultaneously. A volley of gunfire jitters, and a row of rioters fall to the ground.

“What’s the problem?” Mr. Barth asks while joining me in peeking over the roof of the car we’re hiding behind, “Were we supposed to cross here?”

“The storm was closer to the barricade, but the police pushed them back.”

“Storm?”

“I’ve been thinking of the sides as wraithstorms.”

“Not a bad analogy,” Mr. Barth smirks.

“Isn’t that a good thing though?” Miss Cook asks, “if the police take those people out, they can help us.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” I say.

“Your reasoning, Mr. Drake?” Ms. Cabot asks.

“Two things. The first is that the Diet passed some kind of emergency legislation. The second is that before I met up with you, I watched two cops gun down thirty or forty people.”

Their breaths seize.

“Imagine you’re a cop in this situation,” I continue, “you’re outnumbered and surrounded by a violent mob that wants to kill you. It won’t take long before you start thinking that anyone who isn’t in a uniform is an enemy.”

“Just like a storm,” Mr. Barth adds, “I hadn’t thought of the police that way as well, but they fit. You got around by walking in wakes, right?”

“Right.”

He sighs while scratching the back of his head, “you really were the most qualified candidate today.”

I swallow down the bile playing on my tongue. If I were the most qualified why didn’t you hire me, is what I want to scream at them, but I know the answer. I just don’t like it.

“What are your thoughts? Hang out while you scout around again or do you want to cross?”

The police aren’t firing tear gas. The volleys of rubber bullets and water hoses seem to be winning, but my gut tells me it’s a ruse.

“We wait for the scream.”

The women tilt their heads, but Mr. Barth smiles.

“Good plan.”

We duck back behind what used to be a luxury car and wait. The police continue to advance on the mob step by step.

“Mr. Drake,” Miss Cook says, “I’ve been wanting to ask you. Where did you get that pendant?”

“This?” I reflexively touch the item that’s made my neck into its home, “I got it from a girl.”

“Oooh?” All three of them respond at the same time.

“Did she have an interest in archeology or ancient civilizations?”

“Nope.”

“Hmm, peculiar. Do you know anything about the symbolics of the sun cross?”

Both Mr. Barth and I give her a look.

“That’s a no then,” she sighs, “it comes from an ancient religion that was centered in the holy city of Biet Shemesh that existed before the Aror. It claimed that this world was a proving ground for guilty souls and that those deemed worthy were brought to the other side of the sky, where the sun crosses so to speak.”

She’s a nerd. Only the biggest, most overly educated anthropology geeks call the curse, Aror.

“Mysteriously, texts about the religion disappear about fifty to a hundred years after the Aror manifested. Those accounts all describe that its practitioners disappeared in a single night.”

“MARKED AND PROUD!”

“There’s the scream,” I hop up to my feet.

Mr. Barth joins me to watch the police fall into the shadow of a larger building while pushing their lines forward. A scattering of gray and brown dots fall onto the authorities. Fire, smoke, and explosions consume them. A firetruck topples over. The silhouette of a man is torn in two. The line shatters.

“The hell…” Mr. Barth gasps, “is wrong with these god damned marked fuckers.”

The formerly disorganized mob charges. A group of bandanna clad men lead the attack on the stunned and disorganized police.

“Did you expect this, Mr. Drake?” Ms. Cabot asks.

“It happened earlier,” I answer.

I offer my hand to the women.

“Let’s go. The storm is distracted.”

—————

There’s an unspoken agreement between Mr. Barth and me to look after one girl each. Mr. Barth stays with Ms. Cabot while I keep an eye on Miss Cook. He’s an older, burly man a few inches taller than me. His brown eyes are hardened from a life as an explorer, but he was never a street fighter using his fists to forget about tomorrow. While I can rely on him if a fight breaks out, in the end, I will be the one wins it. Wraiths aren’t humans and the monsters of Mammon can conjure more wickedness than the ghosts of the desert.

“Ah!” Miss Cook cries as she stumbles from another misstep.

I don’t miss a beat and pull her into the next step. How clumsy can this girl be?

“Thank you.”

“Keep moving.”

The fight between the rioters and the authorities descends into a disorganized melee. The cops spared from the explosions fight back against the storm with batons and riot shields. The rioters who aren’t with Elijah battle with their fists and improvised weapons – broken bottles, tire irons, chains, and broken off table legs. However, what concerns me the most are the officers further back. What’s going through their heads as they watch their buddies die, bleed out, and fight for their lives?

That fear is realized when a firing line forms on the roofs the armored cars serving as their second wall.

“Barth! Hit the deck!”

I pull Miss Cook into my arms and fall to the pavement. The impact pushes the air from my lungs, but she shouldn’t have taken any of it. The next second, gunshots without any jitters ring above us. I cover Miss Cook’s green eyes.

A flock of white birds watch us from the power cables hanging over the train tracks. It’s amazing that the gunfire hasn’t spooked them.

“Ah! I’m scared! I’m scared!” Miss Cook cries as the barrage continues.

The cops fire at will on anyone who isn’t them. Scores go down. One man is pushed around by each bullet until he flops onto the pavement. Another, one of Elijah’s, is hit square in the head. The exit wound splatters onto a man who had the sense to take cover like we did. However, another series of gunshots split the air at a different rhythm.

Snipers, likely the same terrorists who threw the bombs, take fire on the police culling the mob. The authorities return fire, but firing up at that angle is impossible, but the whizzing above my head pauses after a few volleys.

“Run!” I yell.

Mr. Barth and Ms. Cabot take off at once. It’s impressive how that woman can move so well in heels.

“Get up, let’s go.”

The girl quivers on the asphalt. Tears run down her round cheeks.

“I-I… can’t move…”

This is all too much for a girl raised in the protected garden of the unmarked. She belongs in a museum surrounded by books, artifacts, exhibits, and curious children.

“Sorry about this.”

I throw the terrified girl over my shoulders in a fireman’s carry and sprint after my future coworkers without waiting for a response.

“Awaah!”

As we round the corner to the south side of the South Golden Hind Station, three helicopters fly over. Men clad in black armor of some kind, sit halfway out the open doors and fire on the snipers. I can’t tell if they hit or miss but the gunshots above change their tone. Every shot, no matter who it’s from, summons a whine from Miss Cook.

“Wah! Ah! Aaah! Wah! Eek! Ah!”

There’s quite a lot of it actually, but one ear splitting ring catches my attention. A high pitched clank then a deeper whirling sound from above. A tail rotor on the lowest helicopter fails and the craft spins as it falls out of the sky. It crashes into the roof of a nearby building near the larger tower. Whoever made that shot is either the luckiest or best marksman in Mammon.

My view of the battle disappears behind the burning train station, and we cross over the tracks. This road is quieter. The breeze carries smoke, ash, and the stench of burning synthetics over the pavement, forming a kind of smokescreen to protect us from whatever gung ho cop might be on the other side. Over here, the more shell shocked protesters hide behind cars, store signs, and what they can find while they nurse their wounds. One tries to stop the bleeding from his leg while his friend struggles to mend their arm with a dirty shirt.

None of us stop until we’re safe in an alleyway east of the station. Ms. Cabot’s back slides down the side of a dumpster as she struggles to catch her breath. The tight bun she keeps her black hair in is in disarray. She pulls a few locks and the whole thing collapses onto her shoulders. Mr. Barth props himself up against the wall, sweat drips from his thin beard while he regains control of his breathing.

“Those damned… bastards… this is why… the Diet passed that Act…” The words fumble from Ms. Cabot’s lips, “So senseless…”

I set Miss Cook down, but her knees give out the moment she’s on her feet. I bring her down slow.

“Good work, Drake.”

“Indeed… you’ve been a hero… to Miss Cook.”

Miss Cook can only nod as she swallows down a wad of snot. Is that what Loners call babysitters?

“Thanks, but after you catch your breath, we move.”

The tides of the battle could shift, or another group might try for a flank. In either case, we’d be swallowed up again.

“Agreed,” Mr. Barth says.

He’s already recovered. He’s every bit a veteran explorer as I took him to be. Ms. Cabot needs a minute or two more, and not surprisingly, the girl who didn’t run needs a couple more after that to get a handle on her nerves.

“Miss Cook,” Ms. Cabot begins, “once this is over, I believe you should undergo desert survival training.”

We start down the alleyway.

“Wha? Why!?”

“Today has shown that you are unprepared for emergency situations.”

“I’m in anthropology though. I won’t be leaving the city.”

“There may be a time we’ll need you to join Mr. Barth or another captain while exploring ruins.”

She moans.

“Wouldn’t you like to see them for yourself?”

“Ah!” She cries.

That would be a yes.

“I would like-”

“Excuse me,” a woman’s voice from behind interrupts her.

The air tenses as the four of us turn to see a middle-aged woman so marked that it sprawls across her cheeks and around her right eye. The hauntingly beautiful pattern continues down her neck and spills out over her exposed cleavage from her tank top. It winds down both her arms and right leg. Dawn blue eyes on the verge of tears hold onto mine.

“Could you help me, please?”

My companions’ faces contort. Their disgust, rage, fear, and hatred are plain to see.

—————

I grit my teeth, because I already know my answer. That bearded bastard leers in my mind, but the three next to me don’t see him or know of that room.

“Please,” she pleads with us.

“What is your percentage?” Miss Cabot asks.

“49%.”

Miss Cook whines and steps backward.

“Please, I don’t want to sin anymore. I don’t want to become a wraith.”

“Why trust us?” Miss Cabot asks again.

“Because I saw that young man,” she points to me, “he protected that young lady, carried her on his shoulders and did everything he could for her. I was hoping, he would help me too.”

Their eyes bear down on me.

“Yes and the deal is off,” Mr. Barth says.

“I concur,” Miss Cabot adds.

“She’s practically a wraith already. I don’t trust her,” Miss Cook trembles backward, bumping into the side of a building, “we can’t trust her.”

“I’m sorry. There have been men taking girls away. Pulling them inside buildings and doing, I don’t want to know what they’re doing. Please, just help me get away from here. You don’t have to take where you’re going just away from all this.”

This was a chance of a lifetime. A lower percentage. The job that I promised Asha that I would get. All I need to do is say, No, you’re on your own, and they’ll be mine, but that damn bastard. I grab the pendant at my neck.

“You can’t be serious, Drake. She’s an unknown quantity,” Mr. Barth says.

“So was I, but you gave me a chance anyway.”

“That was different. We knew your background. Look at her, she’s so god damned marked that’s she’s almost one of them already. Have you suddenly forgotten what those marked bastards are doing? Look at how many people they’ve killed. They’re trying to burn down the last city in the world! Think of how much our last green patch is going to die because of what these idiots are doing today. Nothing about her proves that she’s any different than them. Her guilt is drawn all over her!”

“Before I found you guys, I helped an old Loner woman escape in a cab.”

The woman tattooed in her sins smiles at me.

“That was a wonderful thing you did,” Ms. Cabot says, her voice softer, “but please think about your future. You won’t have another opportunity like this again. No matter what exploration company you apply to, their answer will be the same. You are too marked to be an explorer.”

“Do you think I’m helping you because of that offer?”

Incredulity drips from my words.

“I would’ve helped you regardless,” I look at Miss Cook, “I’ve seen how dark this city can be.”

“You are one of them. Just like that monster said,” Miss Cook says.

Ms. Cabot bites her lower lip, but continues, “I imagine you have, but remember that trust is paramount in our line of work.”

“An idiot who can’t control his emotions and do what’s right is a liability out there,” Mr. Barth says.

“Indeed, and Mr. Drake, haven’t you already made an agreement to help us? We feel our safety would be compromised with her presence.”

“Then she’ll scout ahead with me.”

Ms.Cabot gnaws on her tongue as her eyes dart around.

“At the moment, you’re in a position of power, Mr. Drake. You’ve demonstrated numerous times already how instrumental you are to our survival, but don’t you think it’s an abuse of that power to bring her into the group without our consent?”

I sigh as I look up as the first tinges of orange that herald the evening. My fingers tighten a little more on the pendant. Asha, thank you for this trinket.

“Since when is helping someone in need an abuse of power? Are we people or percentages to you?”

I meet those dawn blue eyes once more.

“I’ll help you.”

“Mr. Drake!”

“You three as well.”

I’m taken aback by the force in my own voice, but they’re not.

“God damnit!”

“That was a foolish decision.”

“Stay away!”

“Thank you.”

“Can’t say it wasn’t a problem, but you’re welcome. Ma’am, please stay with me. We’ll need to scout ahead for them.”

There are two paths I can go by, and I don’t think I’ll have another chance to change the road I’m on.

—————

The further we go away from Golden Hind Avenue, the calmer the streets become. By the time we reach the neighborhood where the Raleigh mansion is, the most we have to worry about are roving bands of teenagers pretending that they’re revolutionaries. They carry sticks, pipes, and other crude weapons, but they’re more likely to vandalize property than people with them. In that regard, cans of spray are their weapons of choice. I won’t lie, the neon penis graffiti on the walls surrounding the estates of Mammon’s elites makes me laugh, but it doesn’t lighten the load on my heart.

As evening falls on Mammon, we finally arrive. Ms. Cabot pushes the button of the intercom and explains the situation. Two armed guards accompany the president of the company that I was almost hired by. He verifies that he knows those three, but tilts his head at the woman I saved and me.

“The man helped us make it here,” Ms. Cabot says, “And the woman is the next person he’s decided to save.”

“On behalf of the Raleigh Exploration Company, I thank you,” he says with nod.

“You’re welcome, sir.”

Carmen, the name the woman gave me, nods as well.

“Will they be joining us?”

“No, sir,” Ms. Cabot says.

That smile is a stake in my heart.

“Hm, someone like that would be good for the company,” Mr. Raleigh says, “have you considered a career in exploration?”

Ms. Cabot answers for me, “I’m sorry, sir. He’s a 24-percenter.”

Mr. Raleigh’s expression falls with his breath, “Aaah, a shame.”

“Isn’t it?”

He steps out onto the street and shakes my hand, “I do appreciate what you’ve done. These three are some of my best employees. Miss Cook is an expert in anthropology and ancient language translation. Her work has allowed us to gain a competitive edge over other companies by uncovering new sites and translating texts that were thought to be untranslatable. Ms. Cabot is an excellent vice president that I count on to see any project to completion. And Mr. Barth is the finest captain I have. He’s volunteered for and succeeded at expeditions that were thought to be impossible. Perhaps you’ve heard of the circumnavigation he made six years ago?”

“I have. It was impressive.”

“Indeed it was. Thank you for protecting them. It gives me hope that not all is lost for this city,” he turns to my former companions, “Please feel free to use the baths. I’m sure you’ve had a hard day,” back to me, “And you, sir, please take care. It’s dangerous today.”

“I will.”

With a final smile and nod, he beckons for Ms. Cabot, Miss Cook, and Mr. Barth to follow him in. Miss Cook doesn’t say anything, but the scowl would be enough to convict her of murder.

“You’re an idiot, kid,” Mr. Barth waves me away before entering.

“I was looking forward to working with you, Mr. Drake,” Ms. Cabot says over her shoulder, “I was impressed with your courage, quick thinking, discipline, and situational awareness. You would’ve made a fine explorer, but you lack the proper priorities. It’s a shame.”

She had to twist the knife, didn’t she? The armed guards look at each other wondering what that was about, but shrug it off. The gates close and with them, my dream of becoming an explorer. I slump against the Raleigh mansion wall.

“God damnit…”

I slam my fist into the pavement, but it reminds me that it’s still upset about the abuse I inflicted on it earlier.

“I’m sorry for doing this to you,” Carmen says while she sits down beside me, “I understand if you don’t want me around anymore.”

I clutch the pendant around my neck.

“It’s not your fault. I made the decision. You deserve help just as much as they do.”

“Thank you.”

However, that decision cost me my future. It was the right thing to do. Asha would’ve told me the same thing, but that dream is over now. This city never cared about what was wrong or right.

“That pendant must be precious to you,” Carmen says.

“Yeah.”

“Was it a gift from someone special?”

“A girl I knew.”

“Oooooh?”

What is with people and that reaction? I swear everyone acts twenty years younger as soon as I hint at Asha.

“What was she like? I bet she was pretty.”

“She was a weirdo that baked pies and talked about the other side of the sky.”

Carmen knits her brows and puffs out her cheeks like an angry chipmunk. For a woman as marked as she is, I’d think she could be a little more intimidating.

“I liked her though,” I continue, “more than I realized.”

I hop to my feet and then help Carmen to hers.

“Sorry about that, I have a handle on myself now.”

I don’t.

“Where do you need to go?”

“I know some people who work at a lounge not far from here. They’ll let me use their phone.”

It’s not hard to get there. The bartender with a toothy smile recognizes her instantly. I accept the water he offers, but after a couple glasses, I leave. I don’t want to be with anyone right now. All I want to do is go home and close out this chapter of my life in bed.

—————

I can’t go home to my shabby apartment without returning to Golden Hind. I live south of the Pishon River, and I need to cross the Golden Hind Bridge. There are others, but they’re miles away to the east or west, and after everything that’s happened today, I don’t think I could handle the detour. I already have 20 miles ahead of me.

People huddle in the street while they rest from the tumult of the day, and as I wind down the road, our shadows are taller than our souls. They stretch over burnt out cars, broken windows, and scattered corpses. Blast marks accent holes in an armored car. Slogans written in neon spray paint mar the walls of buildings. A stack of smoke floats from the remains of a police box.

A few curious eyes watch me but nothing more. Many of them nurse open sores and welts. Red blood and black sin dye their skin. Their injuries rob of them of their fight. None of them appear to be affiliated with that Elijah guy. Maybe they lost their bandannas and sunglasses, but my gut disagrees. Their eyes are softer, and they haven’t extended their markings with ink.

However, it also warns me that this isn’t over yet. What those bastards mentioned in that apartment still lurks in the back of my mind, the real event tonight.

—————

As I approach the Golden Hind Bridge, more people pop up. First as scattered clumps then larger masses. Even the police are here, but they don’t seem interested in fighting. They form makeshift forts out of their patrol cars and watch. Their red and blue lights annoy me with flashes of purple. Conversations roll into each other and the air drones with chatter once the slope of Golden Hind rolls down to the river. What I see at the foot of the bridge steals my breath.

Two rows of headlights shine onto an impromptu stage at the entrance of the bridge. A diesel generator hums from the back of a pickup truck. Wires run to several speakers set up all around. At the center is a lone microphone. A line of armed men in bandannas flaunt their heavy markings and keep a crowd of thousands from approaching any further. Excitement crackles in the air.

I bite my lip. I won’t be crossing anytime soon, but if I can get closer to the front, and off to a side, I might be able to sneak over once they’re finished with whatever stupid production they’re putting on.

What’s odd is the number of children and preteens mixed in. Besides the kids playing vandal near Raleigh’s mansion, I hadn’t seen any today. However, they’re all around now. They look to the adults with curious faces or anticipation, after all, this event isn’t too far away from a party.

I find a place under a tree planted into the sidewalk a few rows back from the front. It’s nice to have something to lean against and rest. A girl, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, settles in next to me after pulling her wavy blond hair to the side. Dawn blue eyes glance up at me before turning their attention to a couple men with markings extended by ink.

Not much later, Elijah walks out from the darker shadows created by the bright headlights to thunderous applause.

“Minister Hamelin!”

The piper waves and nods to the crowd with a big smile. He doesn’t wither under their attention but blooms. He takes his place at the microphone, and I can’t help but sigh.

“Good evening, my dear marked brothers and sisters,” he waits for the crowd to die down, “look behind you!”

The crowd turns to look up the hill at the scattering of cops.

“Behold our oppressors! After one day of our righteous rage, we struck the custodians to the rotted tree of discrimination impotent. See how they cower behind their cars and flashing lights, too scared to pick the fight up once again.”

The gathering storm roars. Elijah Hamelin smiles at them as they raise their fists and scream out their supposed victory. He allows them to indulge for a few moments before softly shushing them with a hand.

“And as great of a victory this is, our work does not end with today. We are the intrepid farmers reclaiming the land from that fetid tree and tilling the packed soil from its roots. This earth that we plow is the foundation to the new city, the second city of this world, that our children will inherit. It will be a land safe from the tyranny of the SAFE Act and the prejudices of the unmarked. They will not suffer as we have.”

“VIC-TOR-Y! VIC-TOR-Y! VIC-TOR-Y!”

“Ah, what a sweet victory it is, but remember brothers and sisters, we are only the farmers. It is our children who will grow into the trees that bear the fruits of life and prosperity that the unmarked have hoarded all by their lonesome. However, this is the time of choosing, and we can tell which seeds will grow those great fruits and which ones will not.”

He snaps his fingers and scores of men and women, bound and gagged are escorted into the open space in front of his makeshift stage. Their knees are kicked or butted with rifles so that they kneel before us.

“The soil, dried by their deplorable greed, must be watered before new life can grow. If our children are truly capable of creating that better tomorrow then they too must be counted. As all must be counted.”

The girl next to me covers her mouth with a hand to keep it inside.

“The good seeds will water themselves in unmarked blood. The bad seeds, tainted by the unmarked’s hypocritical morality, will shirk from their duty. We cannot sow bad seeds, for if we do, it will not be blessed fruit that we reap, but weeds. Those damnable weeds will choke out the good we’ve planted, and the tyranny that we struggled so hard against will rise again in our grandchildren’s lifetime.”

Amongst the captives I find the four women from that rape room. I bite my lip. I’m so sorry, but I can’t save you this time either.

“BREAK-THE-CY-CLE! BREAK-THE-CY-CLE!”

“Come, children! Who will be the brave hero to first quench the thirst of this land?”

Elijah draws a handgun and holds it into the air without a finger on the trigger. The kids look between themselves, silently debating if they will be the first.

“We cannot do it. This is your fruit to eat. Who will rise up and save us?”

“SAVE US! SAVE US!”

At last, a boy maybe eight or nine years old, runs to Elijah. He stumbles but doesn’t fall, as his excitement pushes him faster than his legs can move. With a big grin, Elijah greets him with a one armed hug, keeping the handgun out of reach above his head.

“Here he is! Here is our savior!

The storm roars around me.

“Let me show you the proper way to use a gun, young man.”

Elijah brings the gun around slowly, dramatically, and wraps the boy’s hands around the handle. The boy visibly shakes as Elijah puts the muzzle to the head of a man dressed in tattered riot gear and bloodied with scraps and bruises.

“Not yet. Not until this weight rests solely in your hands. When it’s time, squeeze that trigger and save us.”

Just as dramatically, he pulls away from the boy with his hands in the air. A long silence falls onto us while the boy shakes. Even a child knows what this means and struggles against the weight at his finger.

“This is not sin. It is justice,” the minister decrees.

BANG!

Blood splatters onto the pavement and the cop falls over. The storm rages. With fists raised, they cheer on their hero’s victory. Surprised by the crash of noise and shock of a handgun going off his hands, he looks over the crowd. He attempts to smile and looks to Elijah to decide whether he did the right thing. Elijah confirms that he did with a smile as bright as this day is dark. Elijah gently relieves the boy of the gun before he does something else stupid with it.

“This is a good seed! He will be counted among the heroes who will bring life and prosperity back to this dying city, but one seed cannot grow enough fruit. Who else will be counted among the heroes who saved us?”

The kid runs back to his parents amidst cheers and hugs. The applause, attention, and affection is too enticing for a little girl who dashes over to Elijah.

“Ah, a beautiful heroine comes next to save us.”

He walks her through the same but this time is a woman in a business suit.

BANG!

The girl next to me shrieks. The air about her is too pure for a place such as this, and that attracts the attention of a man and woman marked as Elijah’s.

“Hey blondie,” the woman says, “go on up.”

The people around her turn at once with smiles. Yeah, go on. You can do it! We need you! You’re our hope. However, she’ll have none of it. She understands exactly what it means.

“It’s your turn to be counted,” the man says.

My gaze wanders off to the side. Chatham Street follows the Pishon to the east and west. Stores, town homes, and apartments run along its northern side while the southern side gives way to a slope. There’s no need to be scared. They deserve it. You’re doing the right thing. Running on Chatham is suicide. There’s not enough places to break line of sight.

BANG!

“I don’t want to.”

The air around us drops several degrees.

“What do you mean, you don’t want to?” The woman demands, “They’re cops and Loners.”

A few more people turn toward this lonely tree. I grit my teeth.

“You can’t see the marks, but their hearts are written up more than me,” she continues while showing off her skin.

Probably 38% or 39%.

“Don’t you ever wonder why your dad can’t find a good job or your mom can’t ever make a decent meal? It’s because of them. They’re the factory owners who decide who gets to work. They’re the grocers who jack up the prices at the store. Ever wonder why the cops shake down your brother or the guys at school? Them. They get bonuses if they arrest more than their quota.”

Despite the last rays of the evening sun retreating to the west, her pupils are pinpricks. My old man had those eyes before he hit my mom.

“Have you ever had one of those bastards come up from behind and touch you right here when no one was looking,” she hisses while touching her groin, “and whisper to you that if you let him have it, your dad will get that raise the family needs?”

BANG!

“They exploiters. Everyone last one of them. They’re all guilty of it.”

The people around us nod their heads. A few speak their agreement. It’s unanimous.

“Go up,” she motions toward Elijah and the stage cast in headlights.

The world bears down upon her, but whether it’s because of fear or principle, she stays rooted next to me.

“Or do you want to be a bad seed?”

“Enough!” I growl.

Every head focuses on me now. The group is unsure what side I’m counted on.

“She’s a girl not a seed for your damned utopia.”

Dawn blue eyes look up to mine and smile. While the mob is focused onto me, she retreats behind my back.

“She’s our future!” The woman says and the people whoop their agreement.

BANG!

“Make your own future! Stop blaming the Loners and take responsibility for yourself.”

“How can I when its their boot on my face!”

“I did it,” I say, “I was a punk delinquent but I turned my life around and graduated from Mammon University. I didn’t go to a special school or have parents pay for tutors. Hell, I didn’t even go home most days.”

The woman rolls her eyes.

“Fuck, you’re one of those delusional idiots,” she sighs, “I swear they’re the worst. Listen, you got lucky. That’s all it was. Whatever made-for-TV inspirational story you’re about to go on about is bullshit for 99% of marked people. You’re the exception, not the rule.”

Heat rushes to my head. My fists clench so tight that the knuckles crack. Lucky, huh? All those nights I spent studying material in the library that I should’ve learned in middle school was just luck? Waiting in lines with homeless bums for convenience store leftovers was lucky? It was luck that I found strange men and used needles in my bed?

I breathe it out. There was one thing.

“I did have one bit of luck,” I say, “in high school I met a girl. She inspired me to be the exception that doesn’t follow the rules.”

A small hand touches my back.

“Don’t make this girl go down the path you did, so that you can feel your choices were justified.”

BANG!

“You’re traitor then.”

“The hell are you talking about?”

“You’d betray your own people if it meant a scrap from the Loners’ table. That girl, she was a Loner, wasn’t she?”

The guess throws me off guard.

“Yep, knew it. She was. You’re the worst kind of bastard. You know the truth but ignore it. You aren’t counted among us.”

The air churns with hostility.

“Give us the girl, and we’ll let you walk away tonight.”

Thirty or forty pairs of eyes now glare at us. If there were one or two, I could probably handle it. Back in my fighting days, three or four boys my size were doable.I still know the tricks for that, but this is impossible.

“No!” The teenager says form behind me, “I don’t want to kill anyone. It’s wrong!”

“It’s justice!” The woman shouts back.

BANG!

Their offer is tempting. I can walk away through the alleyway a little ways back and hide out till morning. Maybe hit up those convenience store leftovers like I did in the good-ole days. It would be a nice easy escape. However, that would mean letting this girl be killed. They’ll tear her limb from limb so her blood can water the soil of their utopia.

“Back away slowly,” I whisper to her, “try to get to the alley but get ready to run.”

“No, it’s revenge,” I say back to the crazed bitch.

A vein pops out from the side of her head. The crowd pushes in closer. I try to keep some space between us.

“Righteous retribution then,” she smiles, “betrayers would choke with our good seeds with their hypocrisy, but their blood is good for nurturing them.”

My instincts scream danger.

“We have a betrayer over here! Bring him up!” She screams, but I’ve already started running.

A wave of people lurch forward and chase after me and the girl. She’s already halfway to the alleyway, but I catch up to her in a few steps. God damn it, why don’t I get stuck with a woman like Ms. Cabot? Without breaking my stride, I snatch up the girl.

“Awaaah!” She screams.

“Sorry, too slow!”

First old bats, then nerds, and now kids. I need to find a way to make a job out of this. We plunge into the alley.

Long brick walls spotted with dumpsters block off any other path but forward. Every door we pass by is still on its hinges. Running this way would’ve been mistake if we had done it later, because it would be too easy for the mob to encircle us. However, it was worth the potential risk to break lines of sight. It would be too easy for a sniper to take us out if we stayed in view of that rally.

I turn us toward the city center when we burst out of the alleyway. There are fewer stores this close to the Pishon as Golden Hind gives way to apartments and middle class homes. As I run us across the street, headlights blind me. The rumble of an accelerating engine is the only hint I need about their intentions. The lights stay locked on us until I put a light pole between us at the last second.

The car swerves to avoiding taking itself out. Tires screech, and the idiot driver locks up. The car spins two or three times before bowling into a cafe sign and parking halfway onto the sidewalk. Curious heads pop out from apartment windows but retreat as soon as they see the storm chasing after us.

They’re using cars. There’s a change of plans. I push further into the neighborhoods west of Golden Hind instead of continuing north.

I know these neighborhoods, because they were one of my old stomping grounds. I spent days meandering around their streets and learning how to live on them. There’s a big park three blocks ahead. It’s littered with benches along its walking paths while trees and bushes line both sides of them.

However, it’s not easy getting there. The mob is slowly catching up on me. My muscles ache and burn from everything I’ve put them through, and I haven’t had anything to eat since lunch. I should have asked for something at that lounge, but it’s not like I had the money to pay for it anyway.

The girl is slipping in my arms. She’s small, not even five feet tall and 90 pounds. She should be feel like carrying a wet rag, but with every step she’s reminding me more of the rucksacks I hauled around in survival training. I groan to myself when that car forces me down a street that lengthens the trip. I’m able to escape them by cutting through one guy’s yard and kicking open someone else’s gate.

“I’m slowing you down,” she says.

“Sorry.”

I won’t lie to the girl. Putting on a tough act when it’s obvious I’m not is pathetic or distressing to the people watching.

“This should be enough,” she says half to herself, “No, it is. If they don’t like it, I’ll chew them out. I say you’ve passed.”

What is she going on about? Do all teenagers talk like that? Wait, didn’t I do the same when I was her age? I shake the distracting thoughts out of my head, because they’re robbing the strength from my legs. In a survival situation, the explorer stays focused on his survival objectives. Not too much longer, and we’re passing through the entrance to Vespucci Park.

“Let’s split up here. I can hide.” She says.

“Dumb idea,” I say.

There’s easily a hundred people on our heels. The beams of flashlights scourge the darkness from any hiding place they find. It’d be better to get them tripped up in here and then make a break for another place.

“They won’t find me. Trust me.”

I glance over at her expression while taking us one of the windier paths in the park. It trips me up. In the wastelands, explorers rely on each other to survive. If someone says they can do it, they’re trusted to follow through.

“If you’re that confident,” I stop and set her down, “I’ll trust you, but I’m sticking around to distract them.”

“But!”

Her eyes water. The worry is so obvious I can’t help but find her strange. Who is she? Do I know her? Whatever, it doesn’t matter.

“No, buts. If I’m trusting you with hiding then you’re trusting me with distracting. Otherwise, I’m throwing you over my shoulder.”

She looks down from me with a smile steeped exasperation.

“It’ll be pointless if you don’t escape.”

I kneel down to her level.

“It’ll be tragic if you don’t. I’m lucky. They’ll put me out of my misery if they catch me, but not you. You’ll have it much worse. They’ll turn you into one of them. So, let me do everything I can to stop that.”

Flashlights flit through gaps in the trees not too far away from us. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but she realizes that time is up.

“Okay.”

“Good. Don’t come out until the park is completely quiet. Once you’re hidden, I’ll start.”

After a nod, she dashes off into a particular thick batch of greenery. I hope she doesn’t come across some homeless guy in there. He might sell her out for drugs, money, or food. I wait a couple seconds longer for the bushes to settle, and dash further along.

There’s a bit of a guessing game I’m playing with them. If I rush forward and get their attention alone, some of them might think the girl is hiding close by and search around where she actually is more intensely. However, if I appear somewhere else, they might turn their attention to that area instead, but until I do, the mob will be right on top of her. Conversely, if I appear without her, they might think I ditched her and search somewhere different than where I am. There’s even a chance that they’ll give up on me to look for their good seed. However, my gut tells me that they hate more than they love, and a betrayer’s blood is worth more than the good she could bring them.

My heart skips a beat when the greenery she hid in rustles. Fearing the worst, I turn to find a white bird flying to another tree branch some distance ahead. I breathe out my tension. False alarm. She must’ve spooked it. .

I head to the northern exit to the park. Along the way, I throw rocks and make as much noise as I can. The best way to minimize the girl’s risk is to draw them out of the park entirely. It means I’ll running from cars again, but that’s fine. It’s a good ending as long as she gets away.

Some of the search groups they’ve split into take the bait. After a couple brief sightings, they’re shouting to others that they’ve found, us. Perfect. Groups further away yell the message to others, and the wraithstorm points itself in my direction. Not a minute later, there’s forty or fifty people after me while I dash out the northern exit.

Headlights focus on me from a half a block away, but I rush across the street. A few breaths later, its tires screech from taking a turn too fast and slide in a wide arc through the empty street. I slow down just enough to let those on foot see me take a turn into a side street that leads to a shopping arcade that I used to haunt.

It’s not the destination exactly. The place is closed up at this time of night, but the side streets that connect to it are at odd angles and twist around on themselves. The confusing layout is a relic of this neighborhood’s long past where roads were built around the property lines of farmers and the gradual sale of their property. It’s where I have my best chance against the car that keeps following me around.

—————

My third try at escaping the Vespucci Shopping Arcade area ends in failure as that damned car forces me back onto a pedestrian street after spotting me yet again. No matter where I sneak around to, it’s always there. Worse still is that the driver never follows me deeper into one of the narrow side streets. They’re content to put me into a double bind by slamming the gas pedal. Do I run away into the shopping area now teeming with their friends or do I take my chances with a 50 mph car? The answer is always the same.

I duck behind a dumpster and a pile of cardboard boxes to catch my breath. My legs quiver even though I’m resting. Sweat rolls down the side of my face and soaks through my shirt. My dress clothes are ruined. I’ll collapse if this goes on much longer, but I can’t get away because that car patrols the edge of the shopping area.

The commotion of the storm yelling back to one another and the roar of a car accelerating has woken up the residents here. Light shines from the windows of second and third floor apartment windows. Curious heads pop in and out to check what’s going on. A couple store owners even come down to reopen their stores temporarily. Any opportunity to make a buck, right?

I need to deal with that car. The half broken brick laying to my side gives me an idea – break the wind shield and spook the driver into crashing. It’d be hard to do on an open street, but the narrow side streets are a different story. I just need them to follow me, but how? The idea comes as I watch a store owner sell ice cream to a group of sweaty revolutionaries. I need to give them what they want.

—————

The car rounds the corner the moment I step onto the street from the main thoroughfare of the shopping area. This road is large enough for traffic and delivery trucks to drive throughly comfortably. The driver accelerates hard when they see me, but this time follows me in when I retreat along the main road. I don’t take the first or second side street, because I need them to commit. I need them to think that this is finally their opportunity to get that betrayer bastard.

When I jump in, it feels like the car is mere feet from my heels. Tires screech. Shuttered shop doors race by the edges of my vision as I create the illusion that I’m running headlong into a dead end. However, that isn’t the case. At the end are two pedestrian side streets that can’t be seen from the entrance.

The car rolls in reverse and pauses for a moment. The driver debates what they should do, and the lure is too tempting to resist. They spin the car around and barrel down the alleyway. I wait for them to commit. They have to be thinking about crashing into the dead end themselves. My right hand waits in my in my pocket, ready to throw the broken brick.

Come on, just a little more.

“He’s over there!” An old bat yells from the second story window overlooking one of my escape routes.

A group spots me, and one of them starts to raise his gun. Shit. Why are you helping them? They’re the bad guys.

The driver fully commits to their ram, but the choice is clear. Do I back out and attempt to play cat and mouse until I collapse? Or do I throw the brick and get shot?

I throw the brick. A gunshot rings and hits me in the back. The windshield fractures into an opaque spiderweb. The car swerves a bit to the right and crashes into a toy store. I run past the smoking car, catching a glimpse of the driver and that woman struggling to escape from their airbags. Adrenaline saves me from the pain of my wound long enough to get back onto the main road and retreat further north into the city.

However, it doesn’t protect me from the realization that I’m the villain in the eyes of other marked people.

—————

My feet plod along a quiet street somewhere in Mammon. It’s been at least an hour since I last saw someone openly affiliated with the piper, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t suspect every person I pass by. Their stares quickly become too much for my nerves and wounds, and I find quieter and emptier streets to meander about.

I can’t go home, because it doesn’t exist. I betrayed the unmarked who were willing to take me in by violating their trust. I betrayed the marked who accept me by rejecting their dreams. I can’t even return to my own bed, because I’m too weak to make the hike. I was able to stop the bleeding in my back by wrapping my filthy dress shirt around my chest, but the damage is done. It won’t be much longer. The best I can do is find a somewhere to crash and gamble on waking up the next morning. The worst part is that never waking up seems like the better option.

An odd chill settles in when I turn down another road. A building is out of place. Nestled between a low-income apartment building, and another one five stories taller is a residential gate with a neon light. A palm tree hangs over the wall only a couple of strides long. I can’t tell if the strange thing is supposed to be a type of love hotel, apartment, or small house. Everything is fuzzy and dark, likely from the contrast of the night, lights, and my fatigue.

It’s nothing but a diversion as I pass by. Something creaks open.

“Excuse me,” a woman calls out to me from behind, “are you okay?”

The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Who is she? Where did she come from? Is she counted among them?

“I’m fine.”

She’s a tall, dark haired woman about my age. I can’t see any markings, but so what? Most people can hide them under their clothes. It’s only heavily marked people or unlucky bastards like me who have them places that can’t be hidden.

“Ummm…,” she winces, “you just look like a fine target to me.”

I click my tongue and try to project as much hostility toward her as I can, but she slowly steps forward. Dawn blue eyes don’t back down from mine.

“It’s dangerous to be out tonight.”

She steps closer again, but I keep the distance. Another step, another retreat. I doubt I can fight off a single woman anymore. She grimaces.

“Why don’t you come inside? There’s leftover beef stew if you would like some.”

The suggestion of food is enough to elicit a rumble from my stomach.

“See, I knew you were hungry. I have some freshly baked pie too.”

“No, thank you.”

“Huh?”

“What type of woman asks a bloody, beat-up marked man to come inside her home the night of a riot?”

Her brows knit together, and she puffs her cheeks out.

“One that sees someone who needs help.”

“I’m a 24-percenter.”

“You look less alive than that.”

I can’t last against her and look away. She steps forward with a smile.

“Please don’t be afraid. Peace be with you. You’ve had a hard day but not everyone is your enemy.”

She takes my hand in her slender fingers.

“You’re so cold!”

“Why do you trust me?”

“Because someone wearing that pendant has an opportunity to see the other side of the sky. Means they can’t be all that bad of a person, right?”

I don’t know if I should be more shocked to hear those words from someone that isn’t Asha or that wearing a pendant is enough to let her trust someone.

“Don’t give me that look. Did you ever need an excuse to help someone today?”

“No.”

“So, step to it! One! Two! If you collapse out here, it’s not going to be fun for either of us.”

She nudges me along, and I step into her pace. How nostalgic.

When she closes the gate behind us, it feels like we’ve entered another world. The road not two steps away feels as distant as my apartment. A golden sun cross hangs from the front door of this…

“What is this place?”

“Where I live,” she says while opening the door, “won’t you come inside?”

—————

She serves a steaming bowl of beef stew and a slice of apple pie at a small table with legs so short, we have to sit on the floor. It’s not uncomfortable though. The pillow softens the hardwood floors, and by this point, my feet are happy to have the break. Strangely though, this woman doesn’t sit across, but beside me. My shoulder rubs against hers when I take my first bite.

“Do you like it?”

It’s the best thing I’ve had in months, or rather it feels that way. My stomach hasn’t shut up since I got a whiff.

“Yeah…”

Beefy, brothy, savory – that’s all I taste, but I’m so hungry that I wolf it down faster than I can breathe. Inevitably, something goes down the wrong pipe.

“Careful,” a hand caresses my lower back while I cough, “there’s no need to rush. You can take as long as you like.”

Whenever I finally regain control of myself, I reply hoarsely,  “I’m hungrier than I realized.”

“I can imagine.”

She winces while glancing over my injuries.

“It’s been a bad day,” I say.

A smirk rises with her eyebrow, “I’d hate to see what you call terrible.”

A part of me wants to shrug and say that it could be worse, but I can’t. I don’t have a future. The best I’ll manage is to keep my job as a farmhand. It’s boring, menial labor that I’m overqualified for, but they don’t ask questions about percentages or affiliations. At least, not yet. Whether it’s from the SAFE Act or Elijah’s Tree of Life, those questions will inevitably come up even there.

I sigh. Loners own those farms. Elijah will come for them. He’ll have his minions seize them saying that the food is grown by marked people so they should be run by marked people. It’s another example of Loners exploiting marked people for profit. It won’t end well. The guys I work with don’t know how to run a farm. It’s more than putting seeds in the ground and calling it good.

“After you finish, let me take a look at you,” she hesitates to touch anything other than my shoulders or lower back, “you’re in awful shape.”

I nod, and the food disappears in the blink of an eye. This woman, whatever her name is, lays a bowl of hot water down beside me.

“I’ve been concerned about this for a while now,” she touches the side of my head, “and what happened here?”

She undoes the dress shirt tied around my chest. The coagulated blood stretches and snaps as it comes off. It stings, but nothing I can’t handle.

“You were shot!?!”

There’s a rustle and tumble behind me. No need to get so upset over someone like me.

“This wasn’t there before… when did this happen? Who did this to you, Dias?”

I ears prick up at the sound of my name. Did I tell it to her? I can’t remember, and in either case, I don’t really care anymore.

“I made a choice and that was the price I paid.”

She grumbles, and wrings out a rag.

“This will sting,” she says.

I grit my teeth as she cleans my wound. My muscles convulse, and my shoulders tremble, but I’m able to keep my pride by not making a peep. It hurts. Even a ginger touch on the swollen wound hurts enough to pop my eyes out of their sockets. Still, not a sound. I’m not a wuss.

“This is terrible.”

“It’ll be worse for you if anyone sees you with me,” I tell her while using every bit of determination I have left to keep my voice steady, “I’ll leave soon.”

“What?”

“It’s the best way I can thank you.”

“I swear I’d poke you in the ribs a thousand times if it wouldn’t kill you.”

Even under normal circumstances it might.

“So you’ll settle for a hundred?”

“You’d die after ten.”

She touches my head and back.

“Don’t touch those. I’m dirty.”

Warm, tingling numbness lurches from the lump and my gunshot wound.

“Hush.”

The persistent aggravation I’ve endured all day gradually evaporates.

“What are you doing back there?”

I didn’t see any medicine with her, so how is she doing that? Actually, what kind of medicine can relieve pain that quickly?

“Helping you,” she says, “let me see that hand of yours too.”

She takes my left hand into hers without flinching at the extensive markings. The damp cloth doesn’t sting as much, but it’s still earns a click of my tongue. Once it’s clean, she claps it both of hers. That strange warmth returns and the injury rises up into vapors.

“Just… who are you?”

“Me?” She giggles while claiming her seat next to me.

I clench my left hand again and again. There’s no pain. It’s like I never abused it in the first place, but when I look over to her, I find the old Loner bat from earlier smiling next to me. Dawn blue eyes hold onto mine.

“I’m the one you gave peace by sacrificing your wrath.”

“What the hell!?!”

I fall backward and roll away from her. However, after a single blink, she’s gone.

“I’m the one you gave a future by sacrificing yours.”

Carmen. The darked haired woman so covered in markings that a single sin could easily turn her into a wraith when she’s reborn smiles at me. How did…? In disbelief, I blink again.

“I’m the one you gave an escape by sacrificing your place.”

The teenage girl who I left in the trees now sits at the table and finds my reactions amusing.

“Although, you better know me like this.”

Blink.

“Asha…”

The only girl I’ve ever loved sits at the short legged table dressed in our old white and blue uniform as if a day hadn’t passed since graduation. I can’t believe my eyes. I blink again.

“I’m so proud of you. You kept your promise.”

A different Asha now sits in front of me – a little more mature, a little more filled out, and more beautiful than ever. Wavy golden locks fall to her lower back. A thin strapped white one piece clings to her curves. Her smile grows a little bigger from my unspoken admiration.

“You weren’t blown away with everyone else.”

“All I’ve done is get caught up in one thing or another today.”

“I’m sorry, that was my fault,” she bites her full lower lip, “but it was your test, and Dias, you’ve proven worthy. You’ve come so far from the delinquent with bloody fists and no hope for tomorrow.”

“I don’t have anything to show for it though. I don’t know how I’m going to make it. Can I even get a job? Everyone hates me now.”

“That’s how it goes. The world despites the worthy, but please don’t doubt yourself anymore.”

She reaches out and takes my hand. After a squeeze, she continues, “the righteous don’t wake up one day and become righteous. They simply refuse to go off the cliff with rest of humanity. You did the same thing back when you started studying in high school. You stopped running toward the edge with all the other delinquent boys. Isn’t that why they attacked Mrs. Field’s bakery?”

“They wanted revenge and thought I’d gone soft.”

“See? It’s the way of this fallen world.”

I can never win against that smile. She’s the purest, kindest girl I’ve ever met. Rather than continue this conversation, I change the subject.

“Where have you been all these years?”

“Watching over you.”

That didn’t work.

“I wanted to test you sooner, much sooner, but the higher ups wouldn’t let me. They said this storm would be the trial and made everyone wait unless there was a special exception.”

She crawls over to me so we’re next to each other again.

“And you’ve earned your reward.”

Two white wings unfurl from her back and extend to their full span. They easily reach from wall to wall of the apartment.

“How would you like to see the other side of the sky?”

—————

Angels. I thought they were a myth. How could anyone pure and good exist when the sins of every man, woman, and child are drawn out for everyone to see? How could there be a god who cared enough about this dying world to subject his servants to people like us? A pure white feather rolls off her wing and floats to the floor.

“You’re an angel…” I mutter.

Her skin emits a soft, barely noticeable golden glow. An unmistakable aura envelopes me. Kind, merciful, nurturing, it’s everything that she is and so antithetical to Mammon that it’s alien. She doesn’t belong in this cursed world.

“Yep. I’m an angel,” she grins, “aren’t I way cooler than some weirdo who bakes pies and talks about the other side of the sky?”

“Ergh,” I half-cough, “I said that to you, didn’t I?”

“Mmmmhmmm.”

Shit.

“But I still want to show it to you. It’s a real place called Canaan. It’s a land of milk, honey, and opportunity that you’ve earned the right to enter. However, you can’t go as you are, not while you’re still bound to this place.”

Her finger tips trace the pattern of my markings across my chest, shoulder, and arm. Tingles and chills follow in their wake.

“You’ll have to let all of that go. You’ll need to give up everything and be reborn.”

She puts a hand on her stomach.

“I will carry you.”

Miss Cook’s words come back to me. All of practitioners of that ancient religion disappeared in one night.

“Will I still be me?”

“Of course, but you’ll have a new life too, right from the beginning. The memories will be hazy at first, but they come back gradually. Completely you but without the weight of Mammon on your shoulders. That’s how my dad described it.”

“Wait, your dad said that?”

How does that even work? If he’s from Mammon then he had to be reborn but wouldn’t her mom have to be an angel too?

“Yep. I’ll be your wife and mother.”

Asha inches closer and takes my hand in both of hers.

“Will you marry me?” She asks.

Silence. This situation is so out of the ordinary that I can’t form any words. I can understand marriage, but she’s going to be my mom too? It’s a peculiar feeling that I can’t quite come to terms with.

“Asha Drake… It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”

It does, and since my words can’t answer her, I use actions instead. I pull my angel bride into a kiss. Asha is the only girl I’ve ever wanted. If it means staying with her, I’ll find a way to deal with the whole wife and mother thing. The explorer adapts to the situation after all. Our first kiss becomes a second and then a third. I hear a whoosh then the clank of a bowl and a couple thumps against the walls.

“Did you just… smack stuff with your wings?”

“Shut up,” she says looking away, “that was my first kiss.”

Her fingertips trace her grin.

“One hell of a way to get it.”

It was mine too, but I don’t know if I can actually admit that to her though.

“We should have the ceremony soon. Is there a time that’s good for you?”

“After you take a shower.”

A single finger pushes against my chest.

“You stink, mister.”

—————

Asha jumps a few inches and bangs her her knees against the short table when I return.

“Ow!”

Her wings smack the walls again and knock over a painting of a green meadow.

“H-h-hi, Dias.”

Her cheeks are flushed. Whenever I try to look her in the eyes, her face runs from me.

“Surprised you haven’t put those away yet,” I throw my head toward her wings, “they’re bigger than the room.”

“It’s nice to stretch them out.”

She tries to extend them further, but they get caught up on the walls like I’d expect. I sigh, and sit down next to her. Unfortunately for me, our shoulders brush against each other, spooking the weirdo I’m going to marry into clubbing me in the back of the head with a wing.

The impact knocks the breath out of my lungs, and I fall onto the table.I manage to catch myself before my head crashes into the surface.

“I’m so sorry!”

Hands slide up my back and over my shoulder. Another brushes against the short hairs on the back of my head.

“Will you put those things away?”

“No! I’ve dreamed about this too much.”

I breathe out my irritation.

“What’s going on?,” I ask as I pull myself back up, “you’re been a weirdo since I came back.”

“I’m not a weirdo! I’m just too sophisticated and otherworldly for Mammonites like you to understand.”

“You’re definitely out of this world.”

Planet X, maybe? Regardless, I’m rewarded with puffed out cheeks and a scowl from a winged puppy that’s more adorable than scary. I snake an arm around her waist and pull her close. Her wings smack the walls again. I sure as hell hope she doesn’t have neighbors.

“Once you left, I started thinking,” she pushes her index fingers together, “and I realized that we’re really going to do this. And I was like… we’re actually going to do it when he comes back…”

More wall smacks.

“And… and… I got nervous.”

I bust out laughing at the all too Asha conclusion.

“Don’t laugh! I’ve never been married before!”

You’re not helping me stop.

“You’re not supposed to,” I choke out.

“Oh… right.”

I’m never going to make her my wife at this rate.

“Out of curiosity, do you have any neighbors or a landlord?”

“Hm? No. This is one of the pocket sanctuaries we’ve got stashed around Mammon. Why?”

“You’ve smacked the walls so many times I thought the neighbors were going to start yelling.”

“You’re hating on my wings again,” her voice as deadpan as her expression.

“They’re lovely wings.”

I’m only half-sarcastic. One her wings rests against my back. Under her soft ivory colored wings, I feel sheltered, and they’re gorgeous when she’s not clubbing me in the head with them.

“I know, right?” She smiles, only hearing the part she wants, “They’re 337.47 inches long from tip to tip.”

My hand winds up her back to the base of her wings at her shoulder blades. It doesn’t find a bra strap, but learns that the muscles are denser here. I kneed the area with my fingertips.

“Is that a good thing?”

“Of course! Longer is better.”

The muscles quiver under my touch.

“Mmm, that feels good.”

The wing around my back closes in an odd hug. A couple minutes more, and Asha leans her head on my shoulder. Her breathing slows, and more of her weight falls onto me. After a little longer, I try to lower her onto the floor, but she resists.

“Not like that,” she says with upturned eyes, “I’ve thought about how I wanted our first night together since high school. Could we do it like that… please?”

I’d be lying that if I hadn’t imagined taking her before. I was never into the pinup girls or the latest beauty on television. Whenever I thought of them, they gradually morphed into her. A part of me is glad that she thought of me like that while the other part wants to know how often.

Asha stands up, and slides the thin straps off her shoulders. The one-piece falls to the floor and reveals her to me. She’s gorgeous. Wide hips taper into a flat stomach despite her love of baking sweets. A small gap lies between lush thighs. She’s soft and well endowed. Asha was never that athletic. The mile run in gym class about killed her every time. However, it’s hard not to imagine how good she would feel in my arms or to bury myself in that chest that defies gravity despite its size.

I feel her gaze trace over me as I throw off my dirty, torn dress pants. That is, until they get stuck on a certain place. Her cheeks flush again. When she notices that I caught her eyes with mine, they run away again.

“Won’t you sit down?” She asks.

Ah, that’s what she’s planning. I like her thinking. When I’m on the floor, she steps in front of me, but hesitates going any further. Those eyes narrow in on a certain spot.

“I-I’m really going to put that in me…?”

“It’s not 337.47 inches, but-”

“Oh, shut up.”

She accepts my hand and lowers herself onto me slowly. One arm wraps around my neck while the other helps guide me into her. The first drops of her excitement run over my head as I help support her with one arm. I’m surprised at how she’s ready even though we haven’t done anything. The things going through her head while I was in the shower must’ve been wild.

“Mngh!

Asha winces after only the tip. I stop her from going any further.

“Take all the time you need.”

A nod and then an exhale. I stroke her silky hair while she prepares herself. After a peck on the cheek, she continues.

“Ahn!”

Her groans hurt more than the brick I met earlier. Wings smack the walls a couple more times, knocking down another picture, and toppling over a radio. I’m tempted to hurry up and come to put her out of this, but I know that she’d hate that.

After a few more seconds that masqueraded as minutes, she settles in as far as she will go. A long breath rolls past my ear. It’s awkward to wrap around her for a hug because of those wings, but I manage. Her sizable chest squeezes against my muscled one. Her arms answer mine, and a few long seconds pass without either of us moving until she whispers, “Let me show you something neat.”

Pulling apart, the palm of her hand glows. A faint golden light rises up in a haze of clouds and sparks. Her hand stirs up heat and tingles as it caresses my cheek. So, that’s what she did to me looks like. She then rests her luminous hand where we’re connected. A warm sigh rolls from her lips as pain evaporates.

“Angel tricks. Neat, huh?”

I answer her with a kiss. It’s soft, but the next is harder. Before long we’re nibbling on each other’s lips, exploring each other’s mouths, and drinking down each other’s groans. Hips rock as our intensity increases. Her folds, relieved of their pain, squeeze and wring me. The pleasure goes straight to my head and hazes it over as tension focuses in my hips. I finally have Asha.

“Not yet,” she says while pulling away from my lips.

We stop right as I hit the point of no return. I swallow down the urge to step over.

“It’d be a shame to end tonight so fast,” she continues more gentle than she needs.

“Yeah, I got it handled now.”

Another kiss.

“Good, now I really get to do what I’ve always wanted.”

Her massive wings fold in around us, sealing us off from the rest of the room. All I can see is Asha and feathers. Her legs slide around my waist, and I choke down another urge to release as she slides a little further down my length. Her arms find their place around my neck, and her walls squeeze me tight. Her lips gulp down another one of my groans before pulling away. A sigh carries her satisfaction.

“This is how I’ve always wanted to hold you, completely wrapping you up in me.”

Another hot kiss.

“You don’t need to worry about Mammon anymore. After tonight, it’ll be a distant memory. Your future is with me, in Canaan.”

She squeezes me in her arms.

“For tonight, just think about me. The only thing that matters is the world inside my wings. Let me have everything you’ve been carrying. I’m your wife now. Your burdens are mine.”

I rest my head in the crook her neck, kissing and nibbling on its side between heavy breaths. When we were in high school, I kept a lot from her.

“Did you know… in high school…?”

“Of course. I watched you as a bird sleep on the banks of the Pishon and beg for convenience store leftovers. I saw what your parents did to themselves too, although, I smiled when Mrs. Fields took you in at the bakery. Do you remember how surprised she was when she got so many new customers after you joined?”

I reply with a squeeze. She knew everything.

“They were angels. I told them about her kindness. Not too much later, she received a sun cross.”

“Did she…?”

“She didn’t have much longer left so we tested her soon after you graduated. She’s in Canaan now.”

I press Asha so hard that a breath is forced from her chest. She doesn’t fight against it, but strokes the back of my head until all of the strength fades from my arms, and I relax in her embrace.

“Just like that, let it all go.”

I regret that I’ll never survey the deserts like I dreamed of. The danger and mystery captured my imagination. Wraiths are terrifying monsters, but doesn’t that make besting one that much cooler? I wanted to explore the hollowed out husks of our past. I especially wanted to see Heliopolis, the ruins of a modern city 5,000 miles into the desert from here. Were they like us and thought that they were the last city left and did everything they could to stop the encroaching desert? Those questions, like my dream of becoming an explorer, will be left unrealized, because I traded them for a greater treasure, Asha.

These years without her made me realize how valuable she is. I pined for her more than the dangers and mysteries that occupied my imagination. Four years is a long time, but I want her more now than I ever did then. I only have one night with her before I’m reborn on the other side of the sky. I won’t let it go to waste like the years I spent studying for a career Mammon would never let me have.

I let go of everything but bringing my angel pleasure. It’s more satisfying to listen to her coo and moan than indulge myself. I love how her wings close in tight around us as she teeters on the edge of climax and tap on my back to the beat of her orgasm. Her fingertips scratch the back of my head when I drag her across a sensitive spot inside her folds. Pressing harder against it steals her breath. Seeing her eyes roll back as another wave pulls her under is bliss.

One. Two. The more she has, the less I want to myself. I learn of all the sensitive places along her neck, shoulders, and ears. Three. Four. I bury myself in her chest, and learn how much she likes me there, and how jealous each of her breasts can become. Five. Six. Even though she’s supposed to be able move herself, she loves it when I take control of her. She wraps herself around me so tight that it’s hard to tell where I end and she begins. Seven. Eight. Her skin is flushed and so covered in sweat, she slips out of my arms. I’m surprised she can still keep going, but she drinks down all the affection I have for her and then cries for more.

It’s becoming too much for me to handle. More and more often, I have to breathe out my feelings and relax the tension in my hips. With a deep inhale, I try to keep myself from stepping off the cliff so I can celebrate Asha for a little while longer.

“Let it happen,” she whispers into my ear.

Her words are enough for me to lose control. Every muscle in my pulls tight in preparation for what’s to come.

“It’ll be a while before we can be together like this again, but, I won’t disappear. We’ll be together.”

My breath catches in my throat, and I do everything I can to pull her close. Her arms, wings, legs, and walls answer me in return.

“Surrender everything to me.”

I do. As orgasm cracks up my spine and sears my mind. The pleasure spiderwebs out from my back, crisscrossing nerves and penetrating to bone. My hips clench harder than I’ve ever felt them before, and I pour myself into her. Each rope is the length of an orgasm in the past. Sensation and ecstasy crawl across my skin and settle into my heart as my climax stretches beyond a minute.

A deep sense of peace overtakes me as I give everything to my angel. The pleasure is deep, every wave washes through me from bone to skin, but better yet is the feeling that this is how it’s supposed to be. Darkness closes encroaches on the edges of my vision, but it’s nothing to be scared of. We’ll be together.

As the longest orgasm of my life stretches onto five minutes or at least what I think is, my arms and legs numb. It’s not irritating like an arm that’s gone to sleep, but blissful. They hum in pleasure. My vision hazes into black and after her hips coax out my last jet, I can’t feel her anymore, but I can sense her presence better than ever. I’m enveloped in nothing but her now.

With one last heavy breath, I become hers.

—————

Darkness. Warmth. I’m floating, but I’m not alone. I can feel her all around me and especially through my stomach. Asha is here. Her blood is running through my veins. It’s changing me. Across my left hand, arm, and chest, her blood lifts the burden I’ve carried through so many lives, but there’s another feeling. It’s sculpting me into her match. The more my tiny heart helps circulate her through me, the more my soul fits with hers.

Time passes without days or nights, but it’s not boring. I’m content to float and let the hardships of Mammon drift into another life.

Sounds murmur through the walls of darkness. My world shifts often; gravity changing from directly below me to one of my sides. An unseen force rocks me back and forth to an indeterminate beat. Time lazily drifts until the warmth drains away, light pierces the darkness, and the sound becomes a lullaby.

I’m reborn.

—————

Sometime later, Asha carries me outside under a bright blue sky. Cool air, unknown to me except in my hazy memories, tickles my cheeks. I’m bundled up in so many clothes, it’s almost suffocating, but it’s worse when they’re not there. My hands play with a finger in front of my face.

“I thought you might like some fresh air, Dias,” Asha says.

She rocks me to the beat of her steps, but it doesn’t take long for her finger to stop being interesting. In the corner of my eye, I see her breasts.

“We’re in Canaan now, can you see it?”

Nope, but there’s something I do see. I grab at her top, but don’t really make much progress at getting what it’s inside it.

“Again? You just ate!”

She sighs.

“Are you really hungry or do you like my boobs that much?”

Both!

“Fine,” she sighs, “I can’t do anything with you.”

She pulls down a strap, and I latch on.

“I was hoping you’d take a look around, but the only mountains you’re interested in are mine, right?”

Smart girl.

“Well, I guess that’s okay. There’s plenty of time for you to see it. There’s vast blue oceans, deep green forests, and tall white mountains covered in snow. You haven’t seen that before. It’s powdery white frozen water. It’ll fall from the sky around here during the winter, but, hmm, you don’t know what that is either, do you? I’m sure you’ll love it until you learn that cold sucks, but I promise you, Canaan is everything I said it was.”

She interrupts me to plant a kiss on my forehead.

“It’s a land of milk, I mean that figuratively not just mine, okay – honey, and opportunity. The only question is, what kind of man will you become here? Will you use your talents to answer the needs of your fellow man or will you make something great that will improve our lives? But, if I had to guess, I think your heart will hunger for the adventure waiting outside of our middle country. The wilds are dangerous and full of scary dragons. Will you helps us claim that territory and expand? Whatever you choose, we’ll climb every step up the stairway to Elysia together.”

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