My feet dance from ledge to ledge as the sirens begin to wail.
They don’t see me. They almost never do. When they are fortunate enough, they may catch sight of my maroon cloak, or the glint of my copper framed goggles as I disappear into the city below, prize in hand.
Tonight will be no different.
Package tucked under my left arm I raise my right wrist.
2:Nearest root to Vontelo’s?
1:Did someone become a psychic?
2:Nah must be A.I. instinct.
1:The same A.I. instinct that led us to Getlin’s last time the E.L.O.s caught a glimpse of us?
2:That was the other instinct. Hunger.
1:You don’t even have a stomach.
2:Well, you don’t even have eyes.
1:Yes, I do. They’re technological.
2:So is my stomach.
Words cease, in their place appear floating yellow arrows. I begin to follow them, only to duck behind a dilapidated chimney as a familiar form approaches.
He floats a mere eight feet from my position. Within striking distance.
“If ever the opportunity to remove an E.L.O from the streets reveals itself, then do not hesitate, even for a second, to strike them down,” Filmond once said.
Shock sticks in metallic hands, I creep forward.
“I assure you they will not give you mercy”.
I crouch, preparing to pounce.
“Many times they have struck us down, prematurely ending the lives of our brethren”.
“Think of all they have done to you”.
And I stop.
He takes that moment to fly off, blond hair whipping in the wind.
For a moment he glances back, and for just a second, I swear our eyes met, but before he can return, I am gone, heading deep into the slums of the South Side.
“I swear I saw him, or her, or whoever it is,” Zaid tells me from across the lunch table.
“Who?” I ask, taking a bite out of my baloney sandwich.
“Deftest,” he says slamming a fist against the table, nearly spilling his soup. “I almost had them, I swear. They were right there. I know it”.
“That supper thief that you and the rest of the E.L.O.s are hunting? The one that escaped and continued to avoid your superiors on numerous occasions?”.
“Yeah, but-” he starts, running his hands through his blond hair.
“Then you shouldn’t feel bad about it”.
“But-” he starts again.
“Supper thief, responsible for some of the most notorious thefts in recent times. Never been caught. Has no solid sketch. For all you know you could be lucky to be alive,”.
“I could have at least gotten a proper description”.
“And what, be killed for your efforts?”.
“Deftest never killed anyone,” he says, his pale blue eyes squinting at me.
“That you KNOW of,” I reply. “How could you tell. Besides, even if they haven't killed anyone, what is to say they wouldn’t under extenuating circumstances. I mean, if I were a super thief and someone had my face I certainly wouldn’t want them running off to tell their E.L.O. buddies. You should stay away from that one. It could be dangerous”.
He sighs shaking his head.
“I knew the job would be dangerous from before I applied, but this is what I want to do, need to do, was BORN to do. I know it can be concerning when I disappear for days at a time or don’t reply after shifts, but I have to do this. I’m giving back what the community gave to me”.
A silver spoon the size of a whale, intended for the senator’s son, that had the boy not been hit by a tram, never would have made it to your gracious mouth. The mouth that is part of the face which resembled the deceased.
“Also,” he says, more upbeat in tone. “We might have an advantage. I’m going to headquarters for an MIS,”
“MIS?” I ask.
“Memory Imaging Scan,” he replies. “They can recreate your memories on screen. If they can pull out enough details we might manage to make a semi-accurate depiction of Deftest”.
“Then why were you disappointed in not getting a better description?”
He pauses, looking down at his now cooling soup, then lifts a spoonful to his mouth.
“MIS are not perfect. They rely on what you see. Had I seen them more clearly then our depiction would have been more accurate. As it is, we only expect to narrow down the possibilities, not find an exact match”.
And at that, the bell rings and we split, him ascending to the upmarket classes and me descending downwards to join the rest of my privation peers.
At day’s end, we are greeted by musty-smelling mattresses in our dank quarters. Most take the first opportunity to run off to the library to ‘study’. I don’t. Instead, I meander down the rows of ancient bunks, the last bits of black paint near completely chipped from their surfaces. I stop once I reach the bunk furthest from the door.
This bunk has been, for the past three years, the territory of Cyrilla Culliven, several times challenged by kids older and younger alike.
I plop down, near instantaneously regretting my decision.
“Oww? Just oww?” comes the voice of an unfamiliar boy. Twelve years I’d suppose. Tawny hair, slender frame and-
“You have an enhancement”.
“What... I, I mean, no. What would make you think that?”.
“Eyes boy, they may be metallic, but they work. Better than yours anyways”.
“Wha-hey, my eyes work just fine thank you very much,” he says as I prop my arms behind my head.
“Sure they work fiiiiine, but mine work better,” I say, kicking my legs back. “I can see your enhancement. Artificial skin covering. Nice by the way. Seems that someone had a backing in wealth. It's a bit expensive getting one that melds well. Oh, and word of advice. Don’t get too prissy around here otherwise, someone's gonna slap some sense into you” I advise, flicking a strand of short black hair from my face.
“I... I, I’M NOT PRISSY!”.
“Your ‘not prissy’ little red face is screeching at me over a slight insult. You won’t last a month if you don’t make some friends around here”.
I swing my legs over the bed and stand eye to eye with him.
“Why are you over here anyways. I highly doubt it's because you were assigned to the girls' bunks, but then again…”
“Don’t even say it” he says grimly.
“I wouldn’t put it past them-”
“But, it would be an easy mistake to make”.
“NO!” he snaps, then takes a breath. “And if it really matters to you, I came to meet Cyrilla”.
“Came to ask for protection?”.
“No, he says, crossing his arms. “I just wanted to meet her. I heard she was the toughest around,” he says looking away. “And that’s supposed to be her bunk”.
“That's my bunk”.
“It seems we haven't had a proper introduction so let me introduce myself,” I say, extending a hand.
“My name is Cyrilla Culliven, and you?”.
His name was Rysen. Rysen is an...interesting kid, although I wasn’t lying. If he doesn’t make some friends soon he’ll be completely black and blue. Even with the enhancement in his wrists, heck, oftentimes it makes it worse. I remember that one kid...
I shake the thought from my head. That doesn’t matter right now.
I maneuver my way down the darkened hall, taking care not to cross paths with either of the security guards on round this time of night.
There is a window towards the back of the school, within a supply closet. It is not visible at first glance, but if you know what you’re looking for you will find it with relative ease.
Slipping between leftover stage props, pieces of an obstacle course, and a lone broken desk, I push aside a box meant to block entry.
The window is small, but it doesn’t have to be big, just large enough to crawl through. Grabbing my cloak from where I stashed it among old theater costumes, I don my gear and am gone.
The stars shine bright in the sky as the veil of clouds gives way, only to be consumed by churlish grey clouds once more.
I suppose I should feel grateful for their presence, but...I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment at the lost sight. The night sky was always one of my favorite parts of the job, although the clearest skies tend to be the worst when your goal revolves around evading sight. It's a shame really, a true shame, but there’s no use in crying over a bit of spilled milk.
I sigh, shaking my head, before lifting my right wrist.
1:Skip? You there?
1:What the task is tonight?
1:You know? A thieving gig?
2:I thought you would know.
1:Know? What the gig is?...Or something else?
2:You don’t know?
2:You’re supposed to report to Releem’s.
Releem’s office is relatively small but well kept. That’s better than what can be said of most places around here.
“Deftest, please,” he says, gesturing towards a velvet-lined chair
“take a seat,”. He tips his hat in my direction.
“Releem, it’s always a pleasure”.
“Ah, the sentiment is mutual my dear, are you well?”.
The man before me is unremarkable in appearance. He has well-groomed brunette hair and matching hair. His skin, while pale, is only slightly so. He is relatively tall, but not overly so. He has the type of face that wouldn’t stand out in an empty room, but this man… This man pulls the strings. He is the puppet master, and the city his stage.
“I am well. Thank you for asking.”
He nods at me, a sly smile creeping across his face.
“Why did you call me here?”.
He grins in an almost cheerful fashion. “Let me show you,'' he says, standing from his chair. “It’s best both seen and heard”.
The hall he led me down was long and winding. The walls consisted of damp concrete that was lit every six feet by dim bulbs, that is if some hadn’t burned out, leaving large dark patches in between. The only sounds to hear were the stepping of our feet and the ceaseless dripping of water from the rusted pipes.
Permeating the dark ahead is a light brighter than the rest.
We stop before it. The door which it slips from under looks as if it was once sturdy. Now I can’t help but stare at the bluish mold growing on the upper left.
“What is behind it?”
He turns to me, a smile creeping across his face.
“History my dear, history”. He opens the door to reveal piles of books and scrolls, papers old and new, posters lining the wall, and numerous thumb drives and disks clustering a desk.
I tentatively take a step forward reaching for what appears to be a file laying on top of a shelf, only to retract my arm as he watches me.
“Soon my dear,” he says as he strolls about the room. It's larger than I initially thought, I realize as he slips behind a bookshelf. The space is at least four times larger I notice, as I peer behind it.
I follow Releem towards the far side where he stops. Before him, there is picture after picture of children. The dates span back decades, at least seventy I think, noticing the label on one of the older photos.
“Lanster Pickatee,” I read aloud “1321”. The grim boy stands facing the camera. His dirty blond hair half covering his right steel grey eye. His shorts are stained by mud, his white t-shirt greying, and the soles of his shoes are held on by tape. In his hands he holds a dried rose, thorns still intact.
Another photo shows a brunette girl, hair tied in braids. She wears a plain white dress, posed with one knee hugged to her chest, the other extended towards a wall-length window, her expression blank as she stares, aimlessly into the distance.
A third photo shows a widely smiling boy with fiery locks. Clinging to him is a small monkey. In another photo of the boy, he is wheelchair-bound, a sole tear running the length of his face.
The photos continue, generally displaying images of kids ages four through nine. Some are older, some are younger. I scan through them, stopping on one of the most recent.
The girl appears to be five. Jett black pigtails seem to have stopped mid bounce as she skipped down a beautifully decorated aisle. In her left hand, she carries a little woven basket filled with pastel blue, yellow, and pink flower petals, which she tosses with her right. Her sky blue dress was patterned similarly and tied off with a belt that both complemented her hazel eyes and matched her sandals. Her smile spread ear to ear.
In the next picture, the girl lays in a dew-coated field. I would say she was staring, but…
A blindfold covers what I am sure is now empty sockets. Her hands are completely bandaged and edges of wrapping stick out from her oversized rain boots. The smile that once graced her lips is long gone, replaced by what can only be described as a sort of blank, perpetual emptiness, that only those who had the most to lose and did, could ever achieve.
“That picture was taken a little less than nine years ago,” Releem says from where he is standing over my shoulder.
He gives me a grim smile. “That my dear is how we found you,”.
“In...in the...second photo...or...?”.
He nods, patting my shoulder.
“Who...are these people? Why are they here?”.
“Deftest my dear, these are the chosen,” he says.
“The chosen,” he confirms. “Each and every kid here was broken, with nothing left to live for, and we. We fixed them. We gave them purpose again.” he says gesturing towards the wall of photos. “Each and every one of these kids recovered, and not only that but became better than ever before. Better than they could have been otherwise”.
“You really think so?” I ask, staring down at my metallic hands. “Even me?”.
“Especially you,” he says, an almost excited smile spreading across his face.
“Then why did you only show me this now?”.
“Because it is finally your turn,” he says, hands now clasped behind his back.
“My turn for what?” I ask. Only now do I see the file. Before it sat in the front room, now he lifts in from where he placed it on the table.
“It, my dear,” he says, “Is finally your turn to find the next chosen,”.
“Ever since the first chosen it has been determined that after their fourteenth year they must retrieve the next. Their protégé you could say”.
“Protégé? I’m supposed to mentor a kid? Why didn't I have a mentor?”.
Releem’s expression changes, morphing into a sad smile.
“Ikem was an excellent student. He had a brilliant mind and never lacked passion. He was one of our most devoted subjects, but...an unfortunate series of events led to his...dismissal. It is most unfortunate you never had the opportunity to train under your predecessor,".
“So...Who is my protégé?”.
Viven Hindler, the name plays on repeat in my mind.
The boy is about six years of age. He has a mother, a brother, two step-siblings, and a stepfather.
Viven Hindler lives in a mini-mansion in Northside.
Viven Hindler, always has his hands pressed against the glass barriers of his cage.
Viven Hindler, is never good enough.
Viven Hindler, is always thrown under the bus.
Viven Hindler, called their bluff.
Viven Hindler, went amok.
Viven Hindler, stopped his rampage.
Viven Hindler, played the stage.
Viven Hindler, played their game.
All the while he played them again.
He started pickpocketing at just shy of six years. He just stopped arguing and became the perfect stepson. He became so well behaved that his stepfather started bringing him to galas where everyone wanted to meet the perfect little sophisticated boy, as his stepfather bragged about him dragging him to rich person after rich person, each having had consumed enough champagne that they wouldn’t even notice a couple hundred dollars pulled from their purses, or a few items of jewelry becoming lost in the excitement. And even if they did, who would expect perfect, little, innocent Viven? Why would they?
“It’s brilliant,” I say under my breath.
In less than two seconds I have the mattress lifted, folder tucked below, and a Ludobelli strategy book right in front of my nose.
“Well,” Rysen asks. “Are you going to tell me?”.
“2884-3,” I say, pointing to a strategy in the book.
“You play Ludobelli? I didn’t know that,” he says, sounding almost excited “I used to play with my dad all the time”.
I stare at him blankly.
“Why are you here?” I ask. He pulls back blinking, only to stare down at his feet, then plops down next to me.
“You told me to make friends,” he says.
“I didn’t say with me,” I responded.
“Yeah, well, you're the only person I've met worth talking to so far,” he says, turning away, only to glance back at me.
“You just want me to prevent you from being killed, don’t you?”
“Gasp,” he says, clutching his throat. “You would accuse me of such an act. I would never”.
Then we laughed. We exchanged stories and ideas, Ludobelli tactics and advice. And while It isn’t recommended to pointlessly, personally, acquaint oneself with those outside of the group for anything other than for business purposes, I can’t help but feel pleasure talking to someone as any normal kid would. That is, without wondering if one day we may stand on opposing sides of a battle that may never truly be won.
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Wow! I think this is a great story!!
Just before lights out, I pull the book out from under my pillow. I flip through the pages stopping as I find my target protruding from between them. There it is, a picture of a boy, little more than six years of age. His hair is brown, almost black in hue, with eyes hazel in color. He sits, legs crossed, boredly flipping through a pile of wallets, not noticing the camera. Maybe the boy does it for fun, maybe for attention, either way, the boy will be my protege, like it or not. And then the lights go out. This is part of the end that di...