The tank finally gives out; it happens suddenly, with a shudder and a heave. A crashing sound like so many before—and it dies. It all goes dark. Only a single red light flickers weakly overhead.
"Fuck!" May slams her hand down on the panel.
"What is it?" Jack leans over her.
Rochelle is tight-lipped; she crosses her arms. Sitting in the corner, she hasn't said a word in ages.
"It's—I don't even—know."
May just stares. There's a faint rumbling outside; the red light fades.
If they're chasing us—if they caught up to us—we're screwed.
Jack opens the hatch a bit and peers out. A little starlight drifts into the interior of the tank.
"Come on, come on…" May mumbles, trying random levers and buttons.
Rochelle sighs; she's nervous and she doesn't want to show it.
But she's a little too like to hide it.
"Come on, goddammit!" May slams a button down, hard. "Move!"
"Fuck!" Jack suddenly ducks back inside.
May looks up. "What?"
An explosion batters the tank, shakes it from side to side.
"You picked one hell of a parking spot!"
Shouting becomes audible out there, a chant.
"What? Who's out there?"
"You came to the wrong neighborhood, motherfuckers!" Ciel yells at the tank hatch. He sticks another grenade onto it, pulls out the pin and hops off.
It goes off as he reaches the rest of the kids. They cheer as it goes off; wait breathless; but when the smoke clears, the tank is still there. Relatively unharmed.
"Try the dynamite!" On cue, the next relay of kids charges. They bury the sticks behind the wheels, in the joints and vulnerable places.
"What do you think they're doing here?" his friend whispers.
The kids leap away; the charges go off.
Ciel's eyes move to the cannon. "They're not even shootin' us or anything."
"Maybe they're drunk."
The dust clears; they stare at the tank, still firmly lodged in the pile of rubble.
"Thing's got a helluva kind of armor."
"What a helluva time to get drunk."
Its wheels make an odd squealing sound, trying to grab onto something; like a last gasp.
"Come on out!" Ciel shouts. "Com'on out ya damn Reapers!"
As abruptly, the squealing and movement stops.
"Reapers! Reapers! Reapers!" The other kids take up the chant.
There's a whole mob of them standing about. Some of them wave around guns; empty and broken, discarded husks. There's a lot of them lying about. Ciel stoops and picks up a rock.
He hurls it; the rock rockets off its top.
Followed by a hail of others.
Ciel grins. "Maybe we could tip it over."
But just as they get close, the top springs open. A helmeted figure peers out; and is immediately bombarded by rocks.
"Stop!" it ducks. "Stop!"
A girl? Ciel hesitates. But the other kids swarm up the tank and drag her out.
"Arg!" she swats at them futile; her helmet tumbles off. "Goddammit! Get offa me, you little demons!"
One of the kids peers inside. "There's more!"
"Wait—" a man clambers out, "let her go—"
He's immediately covered by kids. "Reaper! Reaper!"
"I'm not a—I'm not a—"
They drag him down to the ground; along with the girl. A woman climbs out behind them, and just stares at the sight. The kids ignore her.
"Get off me! Get off me!" They sit on the man, pinning him to the ground.
"God fucking dammit, you fucking brats—" The girl swears.
"Stop! SHUT UP! Everyone SHUT UP!"
The kids look toward Ciel eagerly. As he moves toward them, the man raises his head.
"You Lord of the Flies here?"
For a moment, Ciel stares. He's got one eye missing.
"I can explain—" he begins.
"No shut up!" the girl flails around; can't shake off the kids hanging on her arms. "You lemme go or I'm gonna—"
Ciel recovers; he picks up one of the guns and walks forward.
"No! Wait! I'm not a Reap—"
He shoves the gun in the man's face. "Say shibboleth."
"Holy fuck." His eyes widen. "How old are ya, kid?"
Ciel prods him. "Say shibboleth."
There's a moment of silence.
He swings the gun around. "You too."
The girl's expression doesn't change. "Shibboleth."
Ciel tosses the gun away; it clatters on the ground.
"The hell was that about?"
"You passed." Ciel nods to the kids. "Tie 'em up."
"Hey—hey! What the fu—"
The kids duct-tape their hands together; the girl's uncooperative, so they tape her mouth too. And they fit the description well—well, not badly.
"It's okay." Ciel tells them. "K. just wants ta have a word with you."
The girl makes muffled, violent sounds; the man laughs as they lead them off. The woman comes down from her seat on the tank, and bemusedly trails after them.
The dust swirls around their feet; they've been hiding for days, and only now have emerged. And it seems like an entirely different world.
"It's like this, cat," Lion tells the cat on his shoulders. "It's just—" he looks quickly up and around. "I think we're lost."
"I know, I know. We were already lost."
In more ways than one; he doesn't even know what he's doing anymore. He leads his cycle along the road, and it's like there's a ghost at his side. Several, actually.
"I feel like I'm supposed to do something. But for the life of me I can't remember what it is."
A footstep in the distance; Lion freezes. He drops the cycle and darts behind a ruined wall.
Luckily, the Reapers aren't looking for guys like him. They have their hands full already, herding the ones they have. Just a crowd of random people; some with suitcases, some with just the clothes on their back. They look dazed, like they can't quite figure out what's happening to them.
They're surprisingly quiet as they pass. Just stumbling sounds and little protests when the soldiers shove somebody who's walking too slow.
How long before his bloodlust is satisfied?
One of them glances his way and Lion ducks down; as low as he can. He covers his head and doesn't even move until hours after they're gone.
"Hey. You." Until hand clamps down on his shoulder.
Lion lifts his head; and his heart stops. For the second time that day. A mask—that mask faces him. That damn fox, with that crazy smile.
"You a refugee?"
Other people emerge from somewhere; the shadows, most likely. Most also wear masks, scavenged from somewhere.
"Wanna get back at them?"
Lion stands up, looks around at all of them. They've formed a crescent 'round him—nowhere to run.
"You wanna come with us?"
Lion hesitates; then nods slowly.
"What's your name?"
A pause. Lion shakes his head.
The masked man's eyes narrow. "Aw. Cat's got your tongue?"
A sudden blow strikes him suddenly from behind; Lion stumbles and swears.
The masked man grabs Lion, shoves something into his stomach. "You ain't no mute."
Lion meets his eyes—then looks down. "No," he whispers.
"Say it or I'm gonna shoot you right in the fuckin' chest."
Lion waits for the word to echo away. Until the last moment of silence. He swallows.
There's a huge silence.
"He was nervous." One of the others calls out. "Let 'im try again."
The one with the fox mask prods Lion again.
"Shibboleth." Lion says miserably. "Shibboleth. Shibboleth."
Laughter fills the air around him. A gleeful, mocking laughter.
"We got one."
Down, down, down—again… I shudder as my hand grazes the tunnel wall again. I quickly pull it away. But without the guidance I stumble. It's weird down here. Opening up and narrowing down. Dark. But the man with the umbrella carries a little lantern, lights up the way in front of up. Someone's put up little lodestones here and there as well—by our feet—glowing wisps of light for the ones without lanterns. Makes it creepier, if anything.
I break the silence. "Where are we going?"
"To the tunnels, of course."
"But we're in the tunnels."
"Where are you taking me?"
"You ask too many questions."
"Don't I deserve to know? After all this time?"
He smiles strangely.
And every once in a while, we'll meet another person. They almost never look at me. Sometimes they mutter something low, respectful to the man beside. But most of them just walk quickly past, intent on going wherever they're going—deeper and deeper ahead.
"You know the story, Andrei? About these tunnels?"
My foot catches something; I stumble and catch myself. "Which one?"
"You are right. There are many." His sigh. "Some say they were burying places for the dead. Originally. Lingering places for the dead, cities of ghosts. Some say—an underground city. A haven for the living."
"What about the dragon?" I joke.
"Bagr? He is not a dragon. He just claws around. No wings, see?"
That's right. "But really—" I press him, "—where are we going?"
"Where do all lost people go?"
I'm dragging my feet, I'll admit it.
"It's curious," he begins after a while, "how the people always know. Whenever there's trouble." He raises his lantern. "Where to go. Even after all these years, the Reapers have never figured it out."
Who can blame 'em? I brush against the wall again and leap away. "They're stupider than they look."
The man with the umbrella nods. "It's a mystery. How the people always know."
There's a dripping sound; we pass it. The lantern light reflects off his face.
I hate this place. It's so damn claustrophobic. "It's like a self-fulfilled prophecy. We're worms."
"We are all children of the earth," he says softly. He suddenly swings the lantern into my face. "Have you forgotten already?"
I stumble back from it. We stop for a moment.
"You are no longer one person, Andrei," he tells me. "All those people who have died—they live on in you."
Those who are dead, are not dead. They're just living in my head.
"Bullshit." I swat the lantern away. "Those who are dead are dead. That's all."
The light bobs and sways. He steadies it with his hand, begins walking without another word.
"And who the hell are you anyway?" I catch up to him. "Why do you think you can talk to me like this?"
"I've had many names," he answers calmly. "Up there on the surface. But down here I am only one man."
Strangely, it seems to be growing lighter around us.
"I was a Count. And a Mask Vendor." He dims the lantern. "An Method Actor, mostly. And I used to run a little hotel."
My eyes widen; my breath catches. "Hal—?"
"I am nobody. Merely a child of the earth."
And all of the sudden, a cavern opens up; in front of us, like a giant breath of air. And in the distance—a massive gate. The kind of thing that looks thousands of years old.
"We're here, Andrei." He moves forward without hesitation.
"Where are we going?" I hazard, knowing he won't answer.
"We're going to see the King."
"Yup, that's me."
And if they were going to shoot you, they would've done it already.
A row of men in front of me, each face more impenetrable than the next. I'm surprised there isn't a light shining in my face.
I do. "What's this, a trial?"
None of their expressions change. One of them speaks, one of them takes notes. The others are like stone.
"Think of it more as an—examination, if you will."
"A medical examination?" I laugh. "You guys think I'm nuts?"
One of them does look familiar, now that I think of it. That doctor that treated my hand.
"It's just that some of your men have been—concerned—about you."
"So you had them haul me in here?" In goddamn handcuffs? "And you took away my gun?"
"We just want to prevent you from doing harm," he says soothingly.
Like you give a fuck.
And the thoughts suddenly freeze in my mouth. The speaker fixes me with his stare. Another one of them shuffles some papers.
"You're in a very special situation, K—"
"—Alex. And it wouldn't do good to ruin it."
"Can't ruin what you never had."
His little speech stops for a moment; but he goes on.
"The eyes of the civilians are on you," he says gently. "Even now, they are wondering about you."
Why I haven't been lynched yet.
"It would not look good to have you suddenly—disappear from sight."
Out of sight, out of mind.
There's a pause; I don't know what he's expecting. But it doesn't happen, so he goes on again.
"I'm glad we are in agreement. Mere formalities, you see. If you would care to explain—"
"Why you happened to leave your post—in that manner?"
"And the men had to search to bring you back?"
"Was going sightseeing."
"The city's beautiful when it's in ruins."
A few of the men exchange glances.
"It is regrettable," the speaker comments, "of course. But a necessary measure. You are familiar with the procedures yourself."
I nod. "It is necessary. To send the people a message."
He blinks. "So you understand."
There's a pause.
"You must continue to do your duty at such a time."
"—the fumes must have gotten into my head a moment," I answer. "I must've gotten disoriented or something."
"And these—things—people heard you saying?"
I shrug. "Lies, of course."
The atmosphere relaxes ever so slightly. Like a little animal that's been let out of them room.
"I'm glad we're in agreement." The speaker seems satisfied. "Now—"
I start laughing. "You want me to go back out there? You want me to go back out there?"
And it snaps back like a rubber band.
His voice hardens. "Is there a problem?"
It's totally silent in this room. I can feel the gazes of the other others. I focus on the speaker's face. But then I start laughing again.
"They're—killing—people out there. They're destroying my—city—out there."
I want to put my hands up to my face, prevent the cracks from showing; but the damn handcuffs get in the way.
He seems to smirk a bit. "You've never had a problem with it before."
"Oh believe me," I tell them, "I've had problems." I stand up suddenly. "I've got lots of problems."
"Alex." The doctor, the familiar one says softly, "this is being recorded."
Like a dog jerked on its chain; my mouth moves silently and wordlessly. I sit back down.
"Let's start from the beginning—"
"I think I've started hallucinating," I tell him.
"And what kind of things do you see?" The doctor asks.
"And what do they look like?" The speaker mocks. "Bloody sheets and rattling chains?"
"No. They look like scarecrows, with haunted blue eyes."
And then talking. He talks for a long time. But it's only a few seconds, really. Time is twisting, shrinking and springing into infinite space around my head.
"I don't get it," I interrupt him, and I don't even know what he's saying, "I don't get it. Is he alive? Is he alive? Is he dead? Is he alive?" I start laughing. "Up and down, up and down." I put my head on the table. "What the fuck is happening? Why the fuck does this keep happening to me?"
I shake with laughter; and my laughter is the only sound in the room.
"I wanna go home," I tell the emptiness. "Take off this uniform and leave the show."
That's why I'm sitting in the cell, because I have to know.
Have I been guilty all this time?