A/N: This is a story I've had in my head for a long time. I know it's not like most of my stories, but I think you'll find it still has my voice and writing style. I hope so. Anyway, hope you like it :) REVIEWS would be greatly appreciated.
"You listenin' to me kid?" the man holding the bread asked harshly. I nodded silently, but my eyes still hadn't left the loaf he was holding in front of me.
"How old are you kid?"
"Twelve," I answered, not really paying attention to him. I wondered if I could grab the bread and escape without him catching me. I finally looked at the man behind the food and saw that he looked big and strong. I hadn't eaten in over a week. I didn't have a chance against him.
"A little young to be on the streets, eh? Where are your parents?" He began tossing the loaf up in to the air and catching it. I found myself hoping he would drop it, and considering ways to make him miss the catch. Most people didn't want food they had dropped on these streets.
"Dead," I responded flatly. He stopped tossing the bread after that. After a minute of silence, he tore off a chunk and tossed it my way.
I fell on it without a thought.
While I was trying to swallow my first mouthful of that thick chewy—it must have been fresh—bread, he started talking again. "There's more food for you if you come with me."
I looked at him warily. I'd heard stories from other street kids about men in white coats leading kids away, then disappearing with them, never to be seen again. I didn't want to become a lab rat.
He sighed while I looked at him suspiciously. "What's your name, kid?"
I swallowed the bread in my mouth. "Justin," I responded, puffing out my chest as best I could.
"Well, Justin, I'm Tate, and if you'll come with me, I've got a deal I think you might want to hear."
"What kind of deal?" I asked, pushing backwards until I was up against a wall.
He sighed, taking a quick look around before yanking the collar of his shirt down to reveal his shoulder. He pulled at what looked like a normal patch of skin, only for it to peel off to reveal a small tattoo of a small, red key. It was impossible not to recognize, there were posters all around the city warning citizens to be on the lookout for Valish rebels sporting a "key to freedom" tattoo. I took a step back.
"You're a—," I shouted in surprise, but he was on me in a flash, covering my mouth with one hand and holding my neck against the wall with another.
"Hush kid! You wanna get me killed?" he whispered harshly. I could barely hear him above the hammering of my heart. "Now I'm offerin' you a chance to help me out, not get me arrested!" He let out a long breath, and took another look around to make sure he hadn't drawn any attention. Not that it was likely. In this city's allies, you could stab a man, and no one would even notice. "Now, I'm about to let you go," he whispered. "Can I trust you to stay quiet?"
I nodded as best I could, and he slowly removed his hands. I had to fight to keep from shaking.
"So will you help me, kid?" He finally took a step back from me.
I took a few more shaky breaths before answering. "How?"
"The rebels." I corrected, making sure I understood.
"Yes, us. We've got a few ideas we need kids for. I dunno how long it'll last, but we'll feed you and give you a place to stay," he explained as he carefully reapplied the skin-toned bandage.
"Why kids?" I asked, still terrified.
"Well, kids are small, crafty. And 'cause you're kids," he broke into a big smile, "the government goes easy on you. Worst you've gotta worry about it being sent to prison. We don't have to worry about losing the life of a soldier." I was still wary, but my stomach began to overrule my brain. I let myself believe that my future was looking up. "Cause the thing about kids is," Tate assured me, "they'll never, ever, try to kill a kid. Even they're not that evil."
The memory of that day passed through my head a lot over the next four years. But now that I'm throwing another shovelful of dirt onto Sarah's quickly dug grave, all I can think about is just how wrong he was.
Four nights ago had started out like any other mission. My squad had received orders from Tate to break up a drop site. We hadn't been told what sort of drop we were breaking, but they never told us Latchkey Kids anything like that. Drop breaks were normal fare for my squad, because of how small we were. Three kids is a pretty small squad to begin with, and it doesn't help that Sarah and I didn't let Tommy go on anything dangerous. We didn't let Tommy come that night, but drop breaks were easy enough. All you had to do was prep the site to make it look like there was an ambush waiting for them. Nine times out of ten, they postponed the drop at any sign of danger, "costing the Terrans time and money". Four years as a Latchkey Kid, and that's about as specific as my mission statement ever got.
But that night we messed up. Sarah and I hadn't waited as long as we should have. We hadn't been in that warehouse ten minutes before I heard Sarah scream. I ran over to her as quickly as I could, but stopped short before the opening she was standing in. There was a soldier there, pointing a TAZER straight at Sarah's chest. I cursed silently and crouched down behind a box.
She had tried to talk her way out of it, like we were trained to do, but the soldier was old, and smug, and didn't care. He hadn't even let her finish talking before he shot her with the TAZER.
I could feel my rage building up, despite my efforts to stay calm. She was only fifteen, and he had just shot her full of electricity like it was nothing! I had wanted to charge at him; to grab one of the pipes lying around and knock him out, but my training said no. "The unit is more important than a single member," Tate had told me when he put me in charge of my little squad. "Your companions will end up fine if they get caught. If there's any chance it'll end with another person getting caught, just let it be."
And like an idiot, I listened to my training. I had told myself that if I got caught, Tommy would be alone, and I couldn't do that to him. He was only eight. And so I sat there, watching as the soldier placed handcuffs on Sarah and carried her out of the warehouse. It was hard because she was a third of my squad; because she was my second in command; because she was my friend. I assured myself it was the right thing to do while wanting nothing more than to chase after her. Instead, I took a deep breath before walking as slowly as I could back to our hideout to tell Tommy.
He was devastated. He looked up to Sarah and me like family ever since we took him in off the streets. To him, losing Sarah was like losing a sister or a mother. I had tried to assure him she was fine. I told him she was most likely on her way to the Capitol's Juvenile Detention Center, and that she would probably be back in our little city within a year. I told him a lot of things that night to get him calm enough to stop making me feel guilty. And I was wrong about every one of them.
I found out the two days later. I was going back to the hideout through the main city square when a large crowd got my attention. I worked my way through the mass of people to see what was going on. As I got closer, I began to hear one authoritative voice shouting over the muttering of the crowd.
"… by military tribunal, you have been convicted of betraying the Holy Terran State, with subterfuge leading to the death of countless soldiers; of being a member of the terrorists, the Valish Separatist Resistance," the last part caught my attention. I began to frantically push my way through the crowd. When I got there, I couldn't understand what I saw.
Kneeling on a platform, before a dozen government news cameras and all of those people, was Sarah. Her face was covered with bruises, there were large spots of red showing through the bandages on her arms, and she was constantly shaking. The man standing behind her was dressed in the robes of a Terran priest. I couldn't figure out what was going on until he laid it out for everyone there.
"For these crimes, you have been sentenced to public execution by shooting." A roar of outrage rang from the crowd. Shouts and jeering were tossed at the priest, but he spoke above them. "Let this be a warning to the Valish Resistance!" he yelled, taking the time to catch the eyes of everyone he could. "We have been lenient, these past years, hoping you would grow accustomed to being part of the great Holy Terran State. But you have worn out our patience! No matter who you are, if you support the Resistance faction, you are a criminal! Adult or child, you will be punished!"
The cries from the crowd grew louder, but the priest was done. I was frozen, I could only watch it unfold before me as a masked soldier was called up to the platform. One man broke from the crowd, running towards Sarah, but he was quickly tackled and subdued. Sarah was sobbing visibly, but no one else ran forward from the crowd. They were all frozen like me, helpless to what was about to happen. At the last minute, I was able to make myself look away. But that couldn't keep me from hearing it.
The chatter on the radio had said that there was public outrage at the shooting, but sitting in the market square a few days later, that was hard to believe. All those adults and kids milling around between the fruit stands seemed well rested and untroubled. Tommy and I looked dead in comparison. Neither of us had slept well in the week since they killed Sarah, since the shooting. We'd also received no contact from headquarters in that time. Not until that morning.
Just an hour ago, Tate finally called me and told me to come the market headquarters. As I watched the front window of a nondescript office building, I wondered how the people at headquarters had been sleeping. While I was watching, someone opened the blinds in the window. That was the sign that they were ready for me.
I looked over to tell Tommy it was time to go, but saw that he had fallen asleep. I thought about letting him sleep while I went inside, but realized that leaving a defenseless, tired eight-year-old alone in a busy market place would only make sense if I wanted him to be kidnapped. I gently shook his shoulder.
"C'mon. They're ready for us." I told him once he had rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
"Oh. Okay." He looked down at his feet. "Hey Justin. What do you think they wanna talk to us for?"
"They probably just want to talk to us about our next mission." I lied, forcing a small smile on my face. I knew they wanted to talk to us about Sarah. But new missions, especially the ones he was allowed to come one, usually cheered him up. And I really wanted to cheer him up again.
"Oh," he said flatly.
I kept myself from sighing, and tried to focus on the meeting that was about to happen. Were the going to ask me what had happened? Were they going to ask me whose fault it was? Were they going to make me admit that if I had just tried to save her, none of this would have happened at all? I shook my head, silencing the thoughts that were rattling around in there. I had already decided it was my fault. I didn't want to have to think about it anymore.
The man pretending to be a secretary in the front room nodded to Tommy and me when we entered. This building was the tertiary headquarters; the one they only used when they thought the operation had been majorly compromised. I swallowed the lump that was forming in my throat as we stepped through to the next room.
At first glance, it was just a normal business office. There was a desk in the center of the room, and filing cabinets lined the walls. The desk even had a nameplate. Only, if you took the time to look there was a security camera fixed on the door, and there were one too many paper shredders, and there was a set of hand-held radios against one wall. Behind one of the filing cabinets was a secret escape passage. And then there was the fact that the two men standing in the center of the office looked like they were about to tell me my parents had just died. Again. I guess it wasn't really so much a normal business office after all.
"Justin, Tommy, how are you two doing?" Tate asked, seating himself on the edge of the desk.
I glanced at Tommy, who continued to look down at his feet. "Not so good," I replied.
"Yeah. I'd guess so," Tate said, sounding disappointed. I'm sure he would have rather us been happy and chipper and over it all by the time we'd arrived. Oh well.
"Tommy," the other man, the one I didn't know, said softly, "would you mind going to the front room for a minute? There's something we'd like to talk about with Justin alone."
"Is that really necessary?" I asked, putting my arm around Tommy's shoulder. He really wasn't fond of being left alone.
"It's okay, Justin." I felt Tommy grab my hand and remove it. "I can wait outside."
"Thanks, Tommy. We'll just be a minute," Tate called after him. Once Tommy was outside, he got up and closed the door.
The three of us left in the room stared at each other for a few seconds before the stranger finally broke the silence.
"Well, Justin, I don't believe we've met. I'm Wade Madison," he extended a hand for me to shake. I hesitated but eventually took it. "I'm the one who came up with the idea for… what is it you kid call yourselves again?"
"Latchkey Kids," I answered, trying to figure out where he was going.
"Right," Wade continued. "And you've all been a great help to the cause these past few years. Which is why I don't know how to say this." I looked up at Wade, confused. "So I'll cut right to the chase. We're ending the Latchkey Kids."
I was floored. "You can't do that! What'll we do?"
"We can and we are," Wade said calmly. "The premise under which you were created has proven false. Your jobs are not necessary enough to risk losing the lives of Valish children. There are already too few in your generation who believe in the separation of the Valish and Terrans. We can't afford to lose the rest of you."
"Then train us better! Train us how to keep them from catching us!" I was shouting, but I didn't care enough to hold it in. I was too angry.
"That's not all," Tate added. I glared at him. I couldn't believe he was supporting this. "It's obvious from the look of it that Sarah was… tortured for information." As he said that, I could feel my confidence crumble. I hadn't allowed myself to think about that. "We don't know how much information about the Latchkey Kids they got. Plus, no one is comfortable training kids to deal with torture just so they can do petty jobs for the resistance." He walked over to me slowly and put a hand on my shoulder. I knew from experience he was trying to console me, but it wasn't working.
"But we depend on this. Do you expect everyone to go back to being street kids?" I asked Tate.
"Of course not. Most of the kids are old enough to get jobs by now." Wade answered. I could feel my anger returning, and turned to glare at him.
"And the other kids?" I asked, clenching my fist at my side.
"We'll… we're doing our best to find orphanages that can fit them," Tate replied. "Plus, we're trying to find Valish homes for them, for kids like Tommy—."
"Tommy is staying with me." There was no room for discussion on that.
"Of course. If he chooses to, we don't have any control over you kids anymore." Wade replied off to our side, but my focus was on Tate.
"You can do whatever you want now," Tate affirmed.
"So. Just like this, you leave a few hundred kids out on their own?" I asked, trying hard to keep my voice steady.
"There is… one other option. Not for everyone, which is why Thomas isn't in here right now. But for kids like you. After all, you're almost an adult." Wade walked behind the desk and opened one of the drawers. Very slowly, he pulled out a small black pistol. "You could join us as an adult."
I took a good hard look at the gun that Wade put on the desk. All the adult rebels got one, but as Latchkey kids, they never gave us any weapon. Told us it was too dangerous for a bunch of kids to have access to dangerous weapons. I couldn't tell, but if he was showing me the gun to tempt me, it wasn't working. I wasn't a fan of wielding the same thing that killed my parents.
"If not, well then you'll never have to hear from us—." Wade's speech was interrupted when the fake secretary quickly opened the door.
"Sir, we've got an issue. The boy, I couldn't stop him." I rushed past the secretary, into the front room, but Tommy wasn't there. "He just ran outside. I had no idea what he was doing until he had caught up to them," I could hear the other man explaining to Tate and Wade.
I burst out of the building and into the bright market square, almost tripping over a loose cobblestone. After a quick scan, I found Tommy a few hundred feet away, in the center of the square. He had somehow managed to knock down a Terran soldier, and was doing his best to attack the armored man. The soldier's partner was doing her best to pull Tommy off, but he was fighting.
When I got closer, I could hear Tommy yelling and crying. Between punches he was screaming, "you killed her! You killed her!" I flashed back to a memory of myself doing the same thing on the night they killed my parents. By the time I shook off the memory, the female soldier had wrestled Tommy off. He was fighting even harder now, trying to get back to the other soldier.
I watched as Tommy finally broke down crying while the female soldier pushed him into the ground. By the time I got there, the male soldier was up and on his radio.
"Tell Martha's orphanage we have another one for them," he growled into the handheld transmitter.
"No!" I shouted, breaking through the small circle of spectators. The male soldier spun to face me and Tommy began shouting my name.
"Are you this boy's brother?" he asked tersely.
"Yes," I said, catching my breath.
"You don't look related," he growled. I silently cursed Tommy's rare red hair. "Where are your parents?"
"They're, uh…" my mind raced, but the soldier had already noticed my hesitation.
"Nice try boy. I know street kids when I see 'em." He smirked.
"No! They're at home! I—"
His baton was in his hand and in front of my face before I could blink. "Don't lie to me boy." He moved the end of the baton until it was pushing gently against my temple. "We're doing your 'brother' here a favor. And on the off chance you are telling the truth, then just bring your parents to the orphanage with this brat's papers. Now get outta here before I give him something to really cry about."
I couldn't believe this was happening. Not again. I couldn't lose Tommy too. I stayed where I was, but I can't say if it was out of stubbornness or fear. "I said get outta here!" the soldier shouted.
I could hear the small crowd behind me that had gathered to watch the spectacle. I knew none of them would help, now that the soldier had labeled us street kids. A few days on the street were enough to show you just how much the general public cared. We were like trash to them, now. I could feel my rage building as I realized I had to stand up for myself.
"Let my brother go," I said through gritted teeth, glaring up at the tall soldier. The next thing I knew, a blinding pain shot through my head, and then nothing.
The sound was the first thing I noticed. There was someone near me, muttering about something I couldn't quite make out. I tried to open my eyes but immediately flinched as bright light flooded my vision. I groaned and raised one of my hands to block the light.
"Oh! Honey!" a voice a few feet away called loudly. "He's waking up, dear!" I heard quick footsteps approaching as I tried to open my eyes again, but slower this time. My vision was fuzzy but I could make out two dark lumps against the light.
"Oh thank goodness, dear," said the first voice. I realized that it was a woman, and she sounded relieved.
"Are you okay, Justin?" asked a familiar male voice.
"Light…" I muttered groggily as the shapes swam in and out of focus. One of them walked over to the source of the light and made it disappear. Now that it was darker, my vision began to return quickly, and soon I could recognize Tate.
"Where am I?' I asked him once I felt a bit more awake.
"My home," he relied softly. "You've been out for nearly three days."
"What happened?" My eyes followed the woman as she moved around the room. My memories slowly returned, recalling her as Tate's wife from the night he had picked me up from that alley. I was pretty sure her name was Sofia.
"That soldier knocked you out," Tate muttered. "Probably used his full strength, too. The bastard…" I lifted my hand up to my head and felt a layer of bandages around my forehead.
"Tate brought you in here all bloodied up like that, and I thought the worst, but turned out to be not so bad," Sofia said with a smile. "You'll be back to normal before you know it." My memory began to catch up with the present, and soon I was filling in the rest of the story Tate and Wade must have come to mine and Tommy's rescue right after I was knocked out.
"Where's Tommy?" I asked, still feeling around the bandage they had wrapped around my head. I found that any pressure against my left temple started a shot of pain through my head, and noted to avoid that area for a while.
Tate and his wife exchanged silent looks before Tate sighed. "The soldiers took him," he said slowly. My hands fell as I stared at him. Surely he was joking, and Tommy would be running into the room in a minute. Tate returned my stare with his own solemn one.
"You… you didn't get him back?" I asked, unbelieving.
"We can't risk me or Wade being brought in. You know that," he answered, dropping his gaze away from my eyes.
"But you could have just said you were our father!" I said, raising my voice and trying to lift myself off the bed. "You could have gotten him back easily!"
"Calm down, dear," Sofia said, appearing on the other side of the bed to calmly push me back down onto my pillow. I could feel a headache starting to grow behind my temple.
"If he's not here, then where is he?" I asked Tate through gritted teeth.
"We know they took him to Martha's orphanage like they said. We're assuming he's still there."
"You don't have someone watching him?" I yelled, fighting against Sofia to sit back up.
Tate sighed. "We can't spare anyone for that kind of job, Justin—"
"Of course not," I said, bitter. I felt an overwhelming urge to do something, anything as long as it got me out of that room. I forced myself to stay calm, though, and eventually Sofia let me go, and a minute later she left the room.
After a long silence, Tate began to talk again; carefully, as if he thought I might go off on him. "Have you ever considered that this is… best? For Tommy? I mean, he has chance at a normal life now. He can be a kid…" Tate trailed off when I began glaring at him. He was just proving how little understood.
"I can't just leave him, Tate," I said, holding my glare. "The night we found him, after his parents just threw him on the streets, Sarah and I promised him we would take care of him." I finally dropped my glare and looked down at my hands. "He's already lost Sarah," I whispered. "I'm not gonna let him lose me too."
"What makes you think you can even get him back?" Tate asked, walking around the room. "The Terrans will consider it kidnapping. How do you plan on hiding?" I didn't have an answer to that. Tate was right, there was no way to get out of this easily. Nothing about this would be easy. But I knew a way to make it easier. The Terrans had destroyed my friends, my family, my life. They had taken everything. So all I had to do was learn from the people who wanted nothing more than to get back at them.
"I don't know yet," I said slowly. "But I will soon. Because as soon as I can get out of his bed, I'm rejoining you rebels. As an adult. And you're going to train me." Tate seemed surprised, so I waited to see what he had to say before I continued. He just nodded. "And not for shitty jobs either," I warned. "You're going to train me to go on real missions." Tate looked sad, but merely nodded again before walking out of the room a few minutes later.
It was a week before Tate trusted me enough with a gun to take me out of the city and teach me how to use it. This included a lot of reminding me not to fire unless I knew I wanted to kill whomever it was pointed at. Of course, the separatists couldn't afford any sort of real training, so it was mostly just two days of Tate helping me to shoot trees, teaching me how to tell if a door was alarmed, and showing me how to pick locks. Eventually, Tate said I was good enough for what they had planned.
"And what do you have planned for me?" I asked, putting the lock picking set down.
"You're going to be a lookout for one of our men. Two days from now," Tate said, closing all the locks I had just opened.
"I told you I don't want guard duty," I muttered.
"It's not guard duty," Tate replied, exasperated. "We need someone who's good enough to get on the roof of an office building and small enough to stay hidden while they're on watch. Look, it's the best you can hope for considering how young you are." I stayed quiet for a minute.
"Fine. What kind of mission is it?" Tate looked at me for a while without saying anything. "Because if I'm keeping lookout for a guard, then you can forget—"
"It's an assassination. A Terran General. Now, that's all you need to know about this," he said with an air of finality. So I shut up, and I stayed shut up until the next night.
The man I was on watch duty for told me his name was Zeb the night before the mission. He wasn't a particularly nice man. He was tall and strong and very ugly. The night we met, we went over the plan, and he seemed dedicated to pissing me off. He kept mocking my age, my height, just about anything about me he could think of. It took all of my effort to keep from punching him.
That night Zeb showed me a picture of the target. General George Parin looked stern and mean, with a head of red hair tucked under his military cap. Zeb made sure I had memorized what he looked like before moving onto the blueprints to his house. I figured a Terran General would have something decadent, like I saw in the billboards the Terrans put up promoting the wealth of the state. But this was just a normal, two-storey house. It was a lot like what my family had before the Terran invasion. It was located on the edge of the business district, and my position was on top of a small lawyer's office down the street. I had seen a trellis on the back, and knew I would be able to climb it with ease. Zeb told me his plan of entry, and that his code word for aborting the plan was, "salamander," and a list of just what warning signs to look out for. It seemed like my job would be pretty simple. And a lot like guard duty.
"Now I ain't never had a mission go bad, boy. I don't want your scrawny ass to be the reason my perfect record is dirtied," Zeb said, glaring at me.
"I'll keep my end nice and clean." I said, annoyed.
"That's right you will, boy. Now we meet at this corner," he pointed to a crossroads on the map, half a mile from the house, "at 2300 tomorrow. Don't be late, 'cause this is the last night the ol' General is in town for a while. Now get outta here. Oh, and try not to think about what we're gonna be doing." He gave me a sickening smile, and I got out of there as fast as I could, doing my best to take his advice.
I got to the meeting point right on time. Zeb was waiting for me with a smirk on his face. "Glad to see you can do something right," he said with a sneer. Two seconds and he already made me want to punch that smile of his face.
"Let's just do this," I said, starting the walk towards the General's house. The streets were empty at this time of night, but that meant we didn't have to worry about anyone seeing us. I did my best to stay quiet but Zeb decided he wanted to talk.
"You don't need to feel bad or nothing, ya' know. This guy's got it coming to him," Zeb said with a smirk. I didn't respond. "This is what he gets for declaring an all out war against us separatists. All we want is to be our own country again. Don't need no full blown war," he explained to the air. "Plus, I hear he's the one who ordered that little girlie killed two weeks ago."
"What?" I asked, stopping where I was.
"You heard me boy. Now don't freeze like that. We'll be late for our appointment," Zeb said, apparently with no idea of what he had just said. When I didn't move, he yanked me forward. "Word around H.Q. is that this bastard is the one who decided to make an example of the little girlie of ours," he explained, an arm slung around my shoulder forcing me to walk with him. Normally, I would have tried to get out of his grip, but I was focusing on his words. Was he telling the truth? How could headquarters know who had given the order? If they had moles that deep, why didn't they try to stop it in the first place? And why didn't anyone tell me this? Sarah was my friend, my partner! I deserved to know! I could feel my anger start to boil in my stomach, and it felt like I was going to be sick. But Zeb kept talking.
"Too bad too. She looked like she was quite a catch. Before, ya' know, the whole bullet thing," Zeb's words snapped me out of my thoughts. "I wouldn't a' minded a piece of that," he said with a wink. I shook off his arm, disgusted.
"Her name was Sarah, and she was fifteen, you sick bastard!" I growled. I felt my heartbeat quicken and my vision began to constrict on just Zeb.
"Oh, you know her?" Zeb asked, the smirk still playing on his face. "Tell me boy, did ya' take advantage of that opportunity?"
The next thing I knew, I was on top of Zeb, punching his face into the ground. I used all my effort to get a hold of myself, and quickly jumped off of him. Even once my weight was off him, he lay there motionless.
"Zeb?" I asked, still angry. He didn't respond, so I began edging closer. I could see his chest moving and knew he was breathing, so I was wary of a reprisal. "Are you awake you bastard?" I kneeled next to him, but he didn't move. Carefully, I lifted up his head and saw that he had landed on a rock. I cursed quietly; he was out cold.
As I was dragging him into the darkness of a nearby alley, I considered my options. The rebels would probably punish me for this, but I could deal with that. The important thing was the mission. Zeb had said this would be the last chance at the target for a while, and if what he said was true, I couldn't let that bastard escape for any longer. I could feel my rage build up again as I thought about that mean looking bastard ordering them to use Sarah as an example to the masses. Should I call headquarters for back up? But what if they took too long to get there? No, we had to stay on schedule for this to work, and that only left one option.
I looked down at the gun on my side, suddenly remembering its weight. I would have to carry out the mission on my own. I had to do it for the rebels. I had to do it for Sarah.
I did my best to recall the layout of the General's house and recited Zeb's plan as I finished the short walk to the house. It was a simple enough: sneak in through the side door, go upstairs where the General would be sleeping, and put a bullet in his head like he had them do to Sarah. I pulled my gun out, checked that it was loaded, and turned off the safety as I made my way quietly through the yard towards the door. It was open, which was good, and I quickly snuck inside. No alarm either, though I could see the keypad right across the room from me.
I walked as quietly as I could through the house, flinching whenever a floorboard creaked under my weight. Slowly but surely, I made my way through the bottom floor, and up the stairs, pausing to calm my heartbeat on the top landing. There were two closed doors at opposites end of the hall up there, and I had no idea which one I would find the General behind. Choosing the closest one, I walked up to it, swallowing the lump that had been stuck in my throat since I had entered the house.
I pushed the door open as carefully and quietly as I could, grinning when it swung open silently. As the door opened, it became obvious the room was a bedroom. A small blue light sat in the corner, casting a soft glow over the entire room. The bed was small, and the floor was covered with toys. This definitely wasn't the general's room. It belonged to a kid.
No one told me the General had a kid! That changed things! No, it didn't. I shook my head, working to keep the rage simmering inside me. I reminded myself of how he had destroyed my life. I reminded myself of what this monster had done to Sarah. I tried to convince myself Children deserved a better father than that. I turned to exit the room, my conviction returned, but froze as my foot came in contact with something. A toy began to flash and beep lightly, but to my ears it sounded like an explosion. I cursed silently, frozen until the thing quieted down. I could hear my heart beating again; I hadn't been this terrified in years.
"Mrs. Parin?" A small, tired voice called out. "What are—Justin?" I turned quickly when I heard my name. Sitting there on the bed, his red hair sticking up in the air was Tommy.
"Tommy?" I said, carefully. This wouldn't be the first time my mind had played tricks on me. But the boy jumped up and ran over to me, throwing his arms around my waist.
"Justin!" he said excited and a bit too loud. I kneeled down next to him, motioning him to quiet down. "Did you come to get me Justin? I told them you would come get me!" A smile was face, and he looked wide-awake.
"What… what are you doing here?" I asked, still not fully comprehending the situation.
"They adopted me, the Parins," Tommy whispered. I looked at him, surprised. "They came to get me a few days after those soldiers took me. They said they had a bulletin in all the orphanages for red haired kids, so they could have someone that looked like they were really the parents of." I remembered the General's bright red hair, such a rare color for both Terrans and Valish. "I'm supposed to just be on a trial run, but they keep… giving me stuff," Tommy said, motioning to all the toys. "But I knew you'd come get me!" The smile returned to his face.
"Yeah," I muttered, suddenly remembering why I was actually there. I looked down at the gun that was still in my hands and remembered Sarah. "There's… just one thing I have to do before we go."
"What?" Tommy asked, curious. I hid the gun behind me before he could see it.
"Nothing. Nothing important. Why don't you get some of your stuff together, and I'll be back in a minute."
"Okay!" Tommy piped, excited. He ran over to the closet and I had to remind him one more time to be quiet.
While he was busying himself, I excused myself from his room and walked slowly down the hall towards my target. I could feel the nerves in my stomach tightening into a ball, pulling at my heart, making it beat faster. I felt the lump form in my throat again, but this time I couldn't swallow it. I took a deep breath outside the door before opening it just as easily and quietly as Tommy's door.
Another bedroom, but the bed in this one was much bigger, and held two sleeping individuals. It was obvious which one was the General. He was about twice as large as his wife, and I could distinguish his red hair even in the dim light of that room. I lifted the gun slowly, pointing it at his sleeping form.
My heart was beating so hard, I was surprised it hadn't woken up the General; the nerves in my stomach were so tight I was about to be sick. I tried to focus on Sarah, calling back to all the memories I had of her, and how they were cut short by the order of this man, but every time I tried, my mind flashed back to Tommy. All those feeling running around in my head, but the anger had disappeared. I started to focus the Terrans, and how they had killed my parents in front of me, left me on the street like a piece of trash, killed my best friend, and stolen my brother from me. My finger tightened a little around the trigger, but I couldn't follow all the way through. All I could think about was how happy Tommy, Sarah, and I had been, just a month ago. I tried to focus on the mission, on the needs of the rebellion, and my finger tightened a bit more. But that was it. The rage, the drive, it was all gone.
I couldn't do it.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't pull the trigger on this man that had helped destroy my life. I felt sick at the thought. I could feel tears of anger leaking out of my eyes, but I didn't have it in my to squeeze that trigger.
I got out of that room as fast as I could.
Tommy was waiting for me on the top landing of the stair, a full bag sitting on his back. Together we made our way out of the house as quietly as I could before running away from it as fast as we could. Once we we'd run for a few minutes, I stopped, panting. Tommy caught up quickly, and we both stood there in the open street, breathing hard. I emptied out the gun and threw it into an alley, feeling much lighter after I did.
Then I finally let myself pull Tommy into a hug.
"I'm so glad you're okay," I whispered.
"Of course I'm okay," he said, smiling. "You taught me how to take care of myself, didn't you?"
"Yeah," I said, ruffling his hair. We would have to dye it a different color for a while, but that wouldn't be too bad. Tate had given me some money from the rebels. I hoped I would still have enough for two bus tickets after buying the dye.
"So where are we going now?" he asked, finally pushing himself out of my hug. I laughed.
"I don't know," I said, not caring what that really entailed.
"Let's go somewhere fun," he said, reaching behind him to pull a wad of cash out of his bag. "The Parins weren't very careful with their money."
I felt my smile grow even wider. "Yeah," I said, pulling Tommy into another complaining hug. "Let's go somewhere we can be kids."