Moaning of death was all I could hear, broken bodies strewn on the floor like unwanted toys after being played with for way too long and way too violently. I saw their eyes, silently begging me to take their lives than to suffer this pain. I wanted my mind to reach every one of them, to engulf their essence in mine and to rip their life forces from the bloodied vessel that were their bodies. But I dared not open my mind for I wasn’t strong enough to sustain everyone’s grief and agony.
The two underlings had collapsed through the compound’s floor after Apex blasted a hole beneath them, causing enough commotion to allow Visp and Newt to escape through the roof. I found my gaze lingering on Visp as he jumped onto the roof, carrying the unconscious Newt on his back.
“Stop that, there is nothing there for you.”
I locked my gaze with Shard, felt the sincerity and perhaps sympathy behind his words.
I flung my arm at him, fist at ready to connect with his jaw. But my hand was stopped in midair.
“Lorrie.” Apex growled. “This is not the time for this.” He pointed his finger at the grotesque monstrosity that was just dragging its body form under a pile of molten slabs of concrete. Shard was gone the next minute, jumping on the monster and jabbing his arm-turned-to-blade on it. Apex soon joined Shard, crashing explosion after explosion on the thing. I stayed back assessing the situation and also because of the lack of usefulness I was feeling at that time. None of my powers were offensive and that super clone didn’t seem to have a mind or a life force to invade.
Apex crashed on the wall a foot from me, a singed hole on his chest. I shouted his name and ran to help him to his feet. Shard was thrown on us the next minute but leaped at the clone the next. Apex was muttering to himself again, like a madman, and rushed to Shard’s aid. I took a metal pipe and ran to the clone, phasing through Apex and Shard, and flung the pipe hard against the clone’s face. His head was twisted at an awkward angle, but soon shifted to its original position. With the flick of his arm, he sent me flying across the room. I hit the wall and slid to the floor. Apex shouted my name and I heard several explosions thereafter. Shard skidded on the floor until his back was up against the wall.
“We have to go,” I repeated to Shard.
Shard shook his head. “You’ll have to convince him first.”
Apex crashed on the wall between us again. Before I could say anything, he was on his feet and running toward the super clone. I wondered if he ever tired. I saw Apex hitting it hard on the chest and igniting his arm. It was the hugest explosion and the light was blinding. Apex was barely conscious when he was back with us. Shard took his body and shoved him to my arms.
“I will stay here, take him and go.” Shard ordered.
“No,” I said. “If I leave you, Apex will never forgive me. We never desert one of us. Number one rule of kids from the slums.”
“You don’t belong to the slums anymore,” Shard said. “I can’t stall it forever so you better start moving. I’m strong enough and he’s tiring. Tell Apex to look for me on the radio waves.”
Without another word he jumped back into the fight. What had happened between Apex and Shard to have changed Shard in this way? He wasn’t the ruthless and indifferent person we had known a couple of weeks ago, he seemed more human.
“What are you still doing there?” Shard snarled, heaving the clone and throwing him a couple of feet away. “Get going!”
The command in his voice was imperious and I disliked it. But I wasn’t going to start complaining, not when I had Apex’s life to care for. I put his arm around my shoulders and climbed to the roof. Once there, we slid off the domed top until we stumbled onto a balcony. We escalated our way down and hit the ground running, away from superpowers inc., away from the cries of pain.
We were outside the compound and I tasted freedom. I dragged Apex’s body off the main road, for fear of being detected, and stuck to travelling the small ones. The warning that kids escaped from the compound had spread and guards were flooding the Martian capital. People were unaware of what was happening and why authorities were scouting the city so fervently for “a couple of rowdy kids”. They were oblivious of what took place inside the compound, or they knew and decided to ignore it for fear of the consequences of declaiming against it. It was so like the government to keep their people in the darkness: confused, weak, and subdued.
Shard was wrong. I did belong to the slums because that was the first place I sought; even after five years away, even after I was betrayed for a couple of gold coins by a perverse butcher. The shabby familiarity of the houses made me longed for my own home, with my parents. However, I knew it was burned to the ground, which happened to every house of the people who contracted a sickness and died of it. I still knew my way around the slum, every shortcut to avoid people, every nook and space to hide. The filthy cobblestoned road beneath my feet reminded me of hours spent playing, chasing my friends, and running away from the baker when we would steal a loaf of bread. I wished Apex was conscious so that we could talk endlessly of hours spent planning our next attack on the city kids, of our next move toward gaining more food to feed our hungered selves, and of the dreams we had of escaping the slums to become someone better and with a future ahead of us.
None of this mattered right now. What was important was to find shelter, bandages, and water. I propped Apex against a wall and scouted a lonely house off the road. I heard movement inside the house but what I needed was hanging on the clothesline. Quietly, I gathered the white blankets and made it back to Apex. His head was lolling to his sides and I caught brief glimpses of consciousness in his orange eyes before he was dragged into unconsciousness again.
I leaned on him and whispered. “Apex, we’re home.”
We kept moving, following the trajectory of the sun on the sky. Along the way I had stolen a flask of water and another one of what might have been alcohol. Another hour of walking got me a piece of stale bread and pieces of dried meat. Apex’s body was beginning to feel heavy on my already tired body and I still had no idea of where we could find shelter. The sun was a foggy disk on the distance, clouded by the raging sand storm. Our last stop brought us to a dark building looming above us, its shadow enveloping us in the nightfall. It was the old warehouse where we used to lured city kids into and scaring them senseless with the imitations of apparitions we created. It was one of the first factories built when the colony was created; the project was carried out and financed by Apex’s father but it failed two years after its opening. I wondered what had happened to him in these five years. I had to ask Apex.
We entered the dilapidated building; it was two stories high filled with spider webs, broken moldy wood, and haunting memories. The wood planks were treacherous and the windows were just holes on the wall. We made our way up to the second floor to a room with the most strategically located window: that looking into the slums and, in the distance, the city. It was also the smallest to avoid any onlookers a glimpse to the inside. Not that anyone ventured inside this building anymore. It wasn’t worth anyone’s time, like everything and everyone else inside the slums.
I bandaged Apex as best as I could and made a makeshift bed for him to lie down. I lay down the food and flask of water next to Apex in case he woke up and threw a black cloak on myself. I walked out of the building using the back door and scouted the area for any signs of soldiers or escapees. The low houses provided a different vantage point as I made my way from rooftop to rooftop, always conscious of never losing my footing. Dim candlelight flicked to life on the houses and the aroma of food wafted to my nostrils. I remembered how acutely hungry I was but had left all the food in the warehouse.
I stayed blended with the shadows; my body pressed against the rough adobe and rammed earth houses. It was a dangerous place; one could find drunkards, druggies, and criminals when least expected. It wasn’t safe for women and children to come out at night. However, despite the negative stigma attached to such a horrid place, it contained all of my precious memories.
There was the sound of knuckles connecting with bones, a whimper, and the sound of a body hitting the ground. I raced to the alleyway where I had heard the sound. A girl barely my age was lying face down on the road, her dress almost torn to pieces. A man was stumbling towards her, a heavy stench of alcohol on him. He taunted a combat knife. The girl pleaded with him to let her go back to her family but he just jeered at her.
I opened my mind to try to reach his but the consequences were fatal. Anguish, sorrow, and despair from the refugees; desperation and confusion from the Martian population; and ire from the authorities flooded into my mind, all fighting to be acknowledge. I gripped my throbbing head as my knees buckled and gave way beneath me. With ragged breaths, I pulled my mind shut and everything fell silent. The girl whimpered again and I knew I had to act quickly.
I phased through the roof, falling on all fours into the house below me. It was an empty bedroom. I jumped-phased through the wall and knocked the man to the ground. He scrambled to his feet, swinging his knife. I took hold of his wrist, stomped hard on the arch of his feet, and then hooked my leg behind his ankle. He hit the ground with a thud, his knife skittering away from him. He slurred his insult and got to his feet, throwing his arms around me. I danced out of his reach, positioned myself behind him, and flung my leg. His back arched awkwardly before he collapsed to the ground. The girl was long gone. Through the dimness I could see his shabby soldier uniform and the thought of it repulsed me. Not even soldiers could be trusted. I took his combat knife, happy to finally have a weapon.
I climbed back to the roof again and just walked around the rooftops of the slums. I breathed in the air. Something pale caught my eyes. I crouched and carefully peered over the parapet. My heart hammered on my chest when I saw the pale hunched figure with skinny limbs dragged its feet through the cobblestone, its head tilted to the sky as if following a scent. I saw it disappear around a bend. It was then that I remembered to breathe. Those two underlings that were with the super clone had done something strange to me; they had inhibited all of my powers. It was hunting for Apex and me, and I was sure the other one was after Visp and Newt. I shuddered. What if that thing harmed innocent lives? I gripped my knife and walked around the bend, but the figure was nowhere to be seen. I searched the surrounding areas to no avail until I finally decided to go back to Apex.
On my way to the warehouse, I caught sight of a tattered billboard with Earth on the background and Mars at its front. It read in bold lettering, “Mars is the planet of new hope”. Underneath the slogan, someone had written with fading ink, like tear stains on the fabric, “Mars is a slaughterhouse” among other vulgarities. On its left side it read, “Rise among the flames and punish those who made you slaves”, this message had been scorched with fire not long ago because the edges of the letters still had soot. I climbed the post until I reached the billboard and with the knife carved out “Is there hope?” on the fabric, and then climbed down. It was stupid notion, but I felt the messages on the billboard were more than juvenile vandalism.
They were statements.
The next morning I watched Apex opened his eyes. “Finally you’re awake.” I said.
It took him a minute to respond and regard his surroundings, then said, “thanks for getting me here, and I guess it was you who bandaged me all up so thanks for that too."
His formality made my heart ache in strange ways. I wanted the old familiarity between us. After a moment in silence he said,
“So, the slums eh?” There was a boyish and playful ghost of a grin of younger times in his face.
I shrugged, my lips pulling a small smile. “What can I say? Martians are a sentimental lot.” We ate a meager breakfast as Apex talked about the changes in the slums during my absence. We didn’t talk about our parents. Then the inevitable happened.
“Where is Shard?”
I swallowed. “I don’t know.” I replied hoarsely. I saw a flicker of rage in Apex’s eyes.
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“He stayed behind to let us escape. He said he’d try to reach us if…”
“If he survives?” There was accusation in his voice.
“…and he told you to look for him in the radio waves.”
“Lorrie, we never leave-”
“I know, I know!” I cried defensively. “Don’t you think I tried? He was so insistent and I ran.” Was Shard alive? I hadn’t thought of him since I left him and that shamed me.
Apex ruffled his hair like he always did when he was frustrated. “I should’ve fought harder. I know I could’ve defeated that thing. If only… argh!” He stood and slammed his fist on the nearest crate, then kicked some more, thrashing the entire place.
“Apex, stop!” I shouted. “They’re going to hear us and then what? We’ll be dragged right back to superpowers inc. and we’ll be where we started.”
“It doesn’t make a difference, Lorrie, being inside or outside. We cannot run from them forever.”
He must have seen the desolation in my eyes because he was quiet. “We’ll find him, and Visp and Newt too.”
“You’ll need parts,” I said in a small voice uncommon of me. It was always like this and will be for the rest of our lives. We will fight and then make amends not with words but with silence and everything unspoken that happened in between. We didn’t need 'I’m sorry'.
“Let’s go. From what I can remember you were the best hunter and could find hidden treasures better than anyone else.”
“I haven’t been here for five years remember?” I grinned. “But I doubt you can do much without my help.”
Apex and I changed our clothes with fresh ones I had taken earlier that morning. I had left golden pins in return. We walked, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. It wasn’t hard to be ignored, everybody was busy with something. When we passed the billboard I had scratched on last night, I noticed there was something new written on it. It was a single word scorched onto the fabric next to my question: “YES”.
I shuddered and snapped back to reality when Apex called my name. I made my way to him, ignoring the wolf-whistles and filthy names that men and women alike called after me until I reached him.
Apex was glaring at them. “Did they slandered you behind your back on Earth?”
“Nope,” I said and realized I hadn’t told Apex much of my life on Earth. “They actually did it to my face.”
No, I wasn't a scrawny twelve-year old anymore.
We went to the metal recycling junk yard. A percentage of Martian income came from extracting the metals from electronics; a hazardous job given that there was no proper equipment and the workers were from the slums. Apex and I walked in dressed as workers to search for the parts Apex needed. In the junkyard we came across news from the capital. Apparently, officers were breaking down doors of every inhabitant, demanding for information on some kids. There was also unnatural damages done to property and of people who suffered strange death like being melted or iced. Stranger still was that some young kids had been allowed to join the military and these were the same kids who were leading the hunt. We caught the name of Tiamone, to which Apex snarled.
“It is a sign for the rebellion to start acting.” Someone whispered but was silenced immediately. That intrigued us. Later that day we walked back to the warehouse, our arms laden with parts.
“Do you think the other refugees are taking up arms against Superpowers Inc.?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t let it pass through me if they did,” Apex replied. “What do you think of the so-called rebellion?”
“Ghost stories maybe?” I said, but wasn’t entirely sure as we approached the billboard. There was another sentence written on the board, this time with blood. It read, “We’re watching you. We need all of you.”. My breath caught and Apex noticed.
We rushed back to the warehouse and he made me explain everything I knew. I told him about the soldier and his knife, the underling, and the billboard. It was all so overwhelming but he was calm.
“We have to set that radio station soon and we must be extra careful if that minion is around. We might need more weapons.”
“It’s not like you can shop for them, Apex.”
“Right. I think I should take the knife.”
“No. I won’t be left helpless again. You make things explode, I’ll slice them apart.” I said. I hadn’t told Apex I couldn’t open my mind, that I wasn’t strong enough. We stared at each other in the dark.
“I want to take you somewhere.”
I snorted. “That’s going to be a bit difficult given that we’re being hunted down by everyone.”
“Why is it in you to be so difficult?”
“I heard you like challenges.”
He smiled and I felt heat rising to my cheeks. Was I blushing? Was I flirting with him?
“Come on silly.” He extended his hand but I pushed it away and stood on my own, just like I had done when we were children.
I followed his lead as he walked me through the narrow alleys of the slums. Each house was getting more tattered and spaced out than the rest, until finally the cobbled-stone path ended and the grass started. My feet refused to keep on going but Apex pulled me by the hand. I would have thrashed and kicked and rebelled if it weren’t that it might wake people up and give us away. Finally we were standing before two tombstones which bore my parents name.
I promised them to be strong. I promised them I wouldn’t cry. I promised them I was going to held tightly so I could finally let them go. But I also promised to die beside them. I dropped to my knees, my body raking with sobs. I gather their tombstone to me and fiercely hugged them, the cold concrete harsh against my skin.
“They wanted to incinerate them,” Apex said, and by 'them' he meant my neighbours. “But I stole their bodies and buried them here.”
I nodded. I remembered love and affection. Encouragement and devotion. “I finally found both of you. And even though I cannot and won’t lie down and die beside you, I’ll lie down and pretend I’m spending the last minutes of your life with you. And you’ll be telling me how much you both love me and are proud of me, and that I still have a life to live.”
I lowered my body to the cold ground, pulling the black cloak around my shoulders. I don’t know how long it was that I was just lying there, when Apex lay down beside me and wrapped his arms around me.
“The day you were taken, that’s when I felt a piece of me being torn away. I’m sorry it took me so long to see you.”
I turned to face him and cupped his face with my hands, drawing him to me. Our foreheads connected, our breaths in rhythm to each other.
“Apex, we found our way back to each other.”
“I will die protecting you.”
My heart did silly pirouettes but I managed to smile. “It’s so typical of you to protect others all the time.” His eyes were so orange I felt he could set me on fire. I really missed his taste of sunset. “I’d rather you live for me first.”
He smiled in return. That was as much of a confession that I was going to get from him. That night we return to the warehouse just as we had come, not holding hands. He set to work, taking both watches as I had done last night, while I slept through the wiring and buzzing of his tinkering.