They say that when you're about to die, your entire life flashes before your eyes. They say everything goes dark, and you see a light at the end of a tunnel. And then, right at that moment, Nox thought-no, he knew that he was about to die. There was no light, and there were no memories. There was nothing. The world went blurry, his vision got shaky, and all the sounds around him faded to nothing but static, white noise, the eerie sound of whistling wind through trees at night.
He did not die. Though he felt the cold of the scanner against the right side of his neck and the even colder metal through the thick hair at the back of his head, he was not dead. It took him a long moment to process this fact and even longer to comprehend why.
'Error 2125MB. Error 2125MB. Error 2125MB.'
And then, from behind him, a voice tinged with a cruel mix of dissatisfaction and placation: "Alright, you're good."
The cold spots faded and his senses came back in a flood. The scanner was broken. He didn't know how they could really just not remember that the error code for a missing identification number was 4463AAX, not 2125MB, which was not even close-but he wasn't about to correct them. From the sound of it and if memory served (which it almost always did), 2125MB was the code for a lack of security clearance to use the scanner's software. The thing would say 2125MB no matter who they scanned, or what, or when.
"And you, kid: you're good, too. I can tell you're from around here."
Nox was hoisted to his feet by his backpack and spun around. The gesture was not unkind, just forceful. He had to incline his chin to meet the gaze of the man who was apparently in charge here.
"Marcus James. MJ is fine. Do not call me Mark," the man introduced himself in his peculiar voice and extended a hand for Nox to shake. Nox did, and thought Marcus-not-Mark-but-maybe-MJ was going to crush the bones in his hand like twigs.
Marcus was extremely tall with flawless chocolate skin and the body of a man who didn't exercise excessively, but was obviously strong and could probably kill a human while blindfolded- and quite possibly with one hand tied behind his back. In addition to a small scar over where his identification chip was, he had curved scars of varying thicknesses running up and down his bare arms. Battle scars. There was a black tattoo on the inside of his wrist made of symbols and numbers Nox couldn't decipher but immediately recognized as the mark of a soldier. By the expressionless look in Marcus's green eyes, Nox would guess he had seen combat not just once, but many times. He was hardened. Nox couldn't help but to notice that his eyelashes were long enough to make him look deceptively innocent and childish and if not for the thick, graying stubble on his chin, he could've been mistaken for someone almost Nox's own age.
He seemed to notice Nox's eyes on his tattoo and immediately pulled his hand away to fold it with the other behind his back. His posture was uncomfortably perfect, and his expression didn't change in the slightest.
War in the world run by Pangaea was an entirely taboo topic. Everyone knew about it but no one knew when it was happening, who fought, or why. Soldiers were almost never seen walking the streets as they lived in and entirely separate complex of their own, connected but not open to Opis. People were not drafted into the force, but based on physical condition and whatever other information Pangaea had, people were "highly recommended" to join. If someone were to refuse, they would insist, then offer a signing bonus, then a higher salary. For the few people that resisted beyond that, there were heavy fines for acts against the city. If Nox hadn't been afraid of Marcus upon the initial gun against his head, he definitely would have been now that he realized who he was. That mark on his wrist was probably one of an infantryman, and around it were what had to be commendations and promotions.
"Nicholas Cameron," Nox managed to force out, and was proud to hear that his voice didn't betray his intimidation. "Please call me Nox."
"Alright, Nick." Marcus then went to Gemini, who had also risen to his feet and looked as defiantly terrified as a cornered predator, and shook his hand as well.
"I'm Gemini," Gemini said, and Marcus nodded.
"Please, come this way." It didn't sound like a polite request. He began to walk away through an open doorway into a larger, even more sterile-looking room. Sarah hurried her pace to catch up with him but not before she shot Gemini and Nox a reassuring, pleased look over her shoulder. Something about that look gave Nox the impression she was more happy to have been right about their harmlessness than she was for their safety.
"Did you get the stuff I asked for?" Marcus asked Sarah. She dug in her pockets and retrieved three small rectangular boxes instead of answering. "Thank you."
Marcus immediately opened one of the boxes and lit a cigarette with a polished silver lighter he seemed to have summoned forth from thin air. Nox could not hide his surprise or disgust, but thankfully Marcus's back was still turned to him and so he didn't fear for his safety. Marcus's posture was visibly less tense within seconds of the first stream of smoke from his nose.
The next room was outfitted to vaguely resemble a retro sort-of living room. There was a couch and a television (which currently displayed nothing but blizzard and static) to one side, a long table with six chairs in the center, and a kitchen straight ahead. To the other side, there was a door and two hallways.
Yet another man sat at the table, tinkering with pieces of wire electrical equipment. He was slightly overweight, pale, had a receding hairline, and was dressed like he expected to attend a business meeting at some point soon, but despite the unbecoming appearance, he seemed to genuinely brighten in both expression and body language when he saw Sarah and Marcus enter the room.
"Hey! There you are. You've been gone for a while now, I was-Sarah, what is that on your face?"
Everyone turned and looked. Nox thought it was pretty obviously blood, but being a smartass around strangers was not something he was comfortable with.
"Oh, this? Just blood. There were some assholes chasing these poor kids back in Del Muerte. By the way, this is Nicholas Cameron and his friend, Gemini." She gestured broadly toward them. Nox was unsure how he felt about his new qualification as Gemini's 'friend' considering they'd only met about two hours ago, but Gemini seemed not to care or notice when he immediately stepped forward and stiffly extended his entire arm at the man.
"I'm Gemini," he said, and from the sound of his voice, he was smiling.
Nox, following the lead, introduced himself as Nox yet again and shook hands.
"Thomas Sawyer," the man said brightly, grinning so much it was almost strange. "But please, feel free to call me Tom."
"They're going to be staying with us for a while," Sarah continued, saving everyone the awkward silence. "Nox here is in the same predicament as the rest of us. Gemini… Well, he was born out here but he's just a kid." Gemini shrugged bashfully.
"Really? That's great! It'll be nice to see some new faces around the Warehouse, to have someone new to talk to. Especially you, Nox-" here he leaned toward Nox in an exaggerated movement and held the back of his hand to the side of his mouth in a mockery of secrecy "-what with the girls always chattering away with each other and, well, as you may have noticed, Marcus isn't much of a talker."
Marcus gave Thomas a bland, disinterested look, tilted the chair he now sat in onto its back legs, and let out a cloud of smoke.
Nox smiled uncomfortably and nodded. Everything about Tom was so exaggerated in its friendliness that it seemed he was trying entirely too hard to make sure everyone liked him. He was like a walking, breathing caricature.
"Well," Sarah said, "besides Marcus, Tom and I, there's one more. She's got to be around your age, Gemini, and a little eccentric, but we love her anyway. Her name is Iris and she-Mark, is Iris here?"
He shot her a look and just said, "No."
"That girl, always wandering off on her own. I'm sure she'll be back soon." Despite the casual statement, Sarah pursed her lips like a frustrated parent. "Anyway, sit down. Make yourselves at home. Gemini, sweetheart, you look starved. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Can I get you anything? Come on."
She led him toward the kitchen without waiting for a response and proceeded to offer him the entirety of the contents of the refrigerator and cabinets.
It wasn't until Tom returned to his seat and gestured pointedly at the one across from him that Nox sat. He didn't know what to do with himself so he just placed his backpack on the table and stared at his hands. Though he would have been quite content to simply sit in silence until Sarah brought Gemini back, Tom seemed to have other plans.
"So, Nox, what did you do before the whole arrest thing?"
Nox tried to suppress a cringe. "I, uh, well…" He couldn't exactly just say, 'Oh, you know, I stole from the government and deleted stuff from the system for shits and giggles.' That definitely wouldn't go over well. He struggled to think of a believable cover story. He could feel Marcus's piercing look boring into the side of his head. Nox looked at him from the corner of his eyes and saw that he'd paused in the middle of lighting another cigarette. Apparently the polished lighter was actually strung from a metal chain around his neck and he was taking a suspiciously long time to answer an extremely straightforward question.
He faked a sneeze in an attempt to cover his ass. "I used to work with computers."
Tom nodded, evidently not noticing Nox's internal distress, and smiled. He opened his mouth to speak, but Marcus cut him off.
"Computers. Doing what, exactly?"
Nox panicked. "Oh, you know, general stuff, troubleshooting… repairs," he finished lamely.
"Good. You can help Tom out, then." He lit his cigarette and made it exceedingly obvious that he was done with the conversation.
Tom smiled sheepishly. "I've been trying to build a computer for days without much luck. I used to be a pharmacist. Not much money in it these days, and certainly no computer experience."
Nox took a closer look at the electrical components and wires. There was a keyboard, but aside from that, Tom would have been lucky to make an alarm clock. He sighed inwardly. 'Great,' he thought. 'Now I get to teach computer technology to a doctor, of all people. It would be easier to teach a monkey.' Rather than voicing the thought aloud, he forced a slight smile and nodded his understanding.
"Alright, well I should be able to help. I'm missing some components, though, and it doesn't look like you have any of them here," he said.
"Well what do you need?"
"A motherboard, a monitor, a power source, a wireless chip," he paused, seeing Thomas's complete lack of comprehension. "Basic stuff. Very necessary. There should be some intact back in the city, if you know where to look." As he spoke, he began carefully unloading the contents of his bag, everything but his notebook.
"And do you know where to look?"
Nox nodded. "There's an abandoned office building I've seen. They should have the stuff I-we need in there."
"We'll go tomorrow," Marcus dictated, breaking his silence and effectively ending that line of conversation.
It was relatively quiet for the next hour or so, if one was able to tune out Thomas's endless droning on about this and that. He spoke a lot but said very little, and that was beginning to get on Nox's nerves. He tried to distract himself by tinkering with the computer parts he had available, but the motions were so automatic that it left his mind free to wander. When he grew tired of his own repetitive thoughts, he took to watching Sarah teach Gemini how to make pancakes, as he had never needed the knowledge before now and had never seen a working gas stove before. Then she attempted to have him make some, and it did not go well. Even so, Gemini appeared to forget or forgive the incident earlier and was beginning to warm up to Sarah's kindness.
After some time, the five of them sat around the table eating rather flavorless pancakes with maple syrup. Sarah and Tom kept up most of the conversation with Gemini interjecting now and again to ask questions or volunteer irrelevant information. Marcus, for all his coldness, was managing to choke down the food for Sarah's sake in spite of his visible disgust.
"I wonder where Iris is," Tom said after the conversation began to lull.
Sarah looked at the single empty seat and pursed her lips again. "It's going to get dark soon. We should look for her," she suggested.
Marcus shook his head slowly and speared another bite of pancake. "She'll be back soon."
"But what if something's happened?"
"She can take care of herself. Give her some freedom."
"I'm worried, Mark," Sarah persisted.
Marcus's expression changed slightly, but it straightened itself back to blankness before Nox could put his finger on what it meant.
"Let's just wait a bit, give it some time," Tom suggested. He was apparently trying to take control of the situation and failing. Marcus stared at him and said nothing. Tom shrunk a bit in his seat at this, but Sarah seemed placated by his suggestion and leaned back in her chair, sighing.
"Alright," she said. "But I'm going to look for her later, if she doesn't come back."
"Let's talk about something else," Gemini suggested hopefully. He looked at Nox but addressed the group.
Nox nodded, but offered no suggestions.
Gemini shifted uncomfortably. "Well, Sarah, what did you do before you came here?"
"I worked in a prenatal care ward. You know, the place pregnant women go to figure out who their child is going to be and modify the genetics, if they want to. It's funny, it seemed like such a normal thing to do back when I was doing it, but after being out of the city so long, and especially after all Iris has told me, and meeting you, it sounds a bit strange. I can't complain, though. Without it, my daughter may not have ended up being so perfect." Sarah smiled here, but it was a sad sort of smile.
"You have a daughter?" Nox asked without thinking. It would explain the motherly vibe he was getting from her.
Sarah looked up and seemed almost startled, like she'd forgotten there was anyone around. He'd just called her back from a distant memory. "Yes, I do," she said. "She's five. Well, actually, six now. Her birthday was a couple of weeks ago. Her name is Daisy."
Now she pulled a photograph out of one of her many pockets, slid it across the table to Nox, smiled proudly. He picked up the picture and as he was looking at it, she spoke again:
"That's always been my favorite picture of her. She looks just like an angel. Her eyes are so green, you wouldn't believe it."
Nox believed it. The picture showed a little girl in a yellow dress standing in an extremely pink bedroom. As he examined, she ran up closer to the frame and smiled a wide, gap-toothed grin. She froze there for a moment before the animation began again. Her hair was so blond it was almost white and her owlish eyes were indeed almost too green to be plausible. They were like fresh winter grass, or emeralds in sunlight. As cute as she was, Nox was generally not a fan of children and found it ever so slightly unnerving. He handed the photograph back.
"She's cute," he said.
Sarah nodded, still smiling. She looked longingly at the photograph for a second more before tucking it back in her pocket. "Yeah, she is. The picture was taken on her last birthday. She was so happy… And three months later, they arrested me outside her school and sent me here." Sarah was beginning to curl in on herself as though her words caused a physical weight to press down her shoulders. "I think my sister has custody now. My baby girl is growing up without me," she said. "I miss her."
Her voice did not crack and her tone did not waver, but the slight watering in her eyes betrayed her weakness. Marcus tensed and lit another cigarette. Everyone was silent for a moment to give her time to compose herself. There was nothing anyone could say that would comfort her in that pain, and nothing would be appropriate to break the silence.
"In case you hadn't guessed, that's why I worry so much about Iris. She's been here longer than I have, and without a mother on top of that. Poor thing. Iris, Daisy, both flower names. I guess some part of me wants to think that if I take care of her, I won't be a horrible mother for not being around for Daisy."
Again, no one had anything important enough to say to break the silence. Thomas placed a hand on Sarah's shoulder to comfort her and she softened at the gesture, but not because it helped any.
"Well, that's enough about me. Apparently we're having story time here. It'll help Nox and Gemini get to know us better, to maybe feel more comfortable here. What about you, Mark? Do you want to tell them your story?"
Marcus's eyes hardened impossibly more when he looked at her. His mouth tightened into a controlled frown. "No."
Sarah was unperturbed by this rudeness. "Alright, you then, Thomas."
Thomas raised the corners of his mouth. It wasn't quite a smile, but it wanted to be. He was not too pleased to be put on the spot like that, but would never turn down the opportunity to talk about himself it seemed, as he obliged. He straightened up and cleared his throat.
"Well, as I've already mentioned, I was a pharmacist. I know that may seem silly considering the lack of need these days, but I have a love for helping people, and that was the only financially stable way to do that I could think of. There are still sick people who need medication, you know. Some people are immune or allergic to the immunizations they give out. Anyway, so my wife and I ran our own pharmacy in downtown Opis. Business was slow, but steady. We did alright, my wife and I." He stopped and stroked the place on his face where a beard would be, if he had one.
"My wife is really all I left behind, coming here. I don't mean that to sound bad, though. My wife is my everything. Her name is Emily. We met in medical school. We were both young and dumb, with a mutual passion for helping the people Pangaea can't. She was more into it than I was, though. She was always so thoughtless, so irrational. I was attracted to her beauty and knowing that I could help her find the right path in life. She wanted to come out here, to the Fringe, and help the domestic people." He chuckled a bit, as if at some old joke. "Luckily, though, she found me to help her out. I convinced her that marrying me and doing the pharmacy thing was a much better idea. We could always support ourselves, and any kids if we ever had any. We were so, so happy. I bought her anything she wanted. My silly Emily. Who knows what she's gotten herself into without me there to take care of her."
Nox was uncomfortable. There was something about the tone of Tom's voice when he said her name that was just slightly off. It was too subtle to even form any theories about, but he noticed it every time and liked it less and less. Tom made him uneasy. The vibes he gave off were entirely indecipherable. Yes, he was kind and welcoming, but he had cold, wild eyes.
Here Sarah turned to Nox and Gemini again, looking expectant. If Gemini hadn't spoken up at that precise moment, Nox probably would have panicked.
"I guess that makes it my turn then, huh?" Gemini inquired without inflection. For someone who talked so much, he seemed almost unhappy having to tell his own story now. Or course, Gemini could lie if there was something he didn't want to talk about, but based on his hesitation and resigned attitude, he either hadn't thought of that or had some moral attachment to complete disclosure and honesty. Nox liked it, whichever one it was.
"Um… Well, I'm from here. You guys call it 'the Fringe,' I guess, but we don't. There isn't really a name for it, it's just here. I mean, we've got cities and communities and stuff, but they've all got their own names. I'm from Artemia, in the forest somewhere north of here.
"When I was a kid, my mom used to say I was named after a constellation. I'm not really sure what that means, but it's got something to do with the stars. We used to look at the stars together a lot. My mom and I were really close like that.
"One night, she and my dad were fighting again-it's weird; I don't even remember what it was anymore-and I couldn't sleep, so I climbed up on the roof of our house to look at the stars (huh, actually, come to think of it, there was a full moon that night and there weren't really that many stars out. Why do I remember that?) until they stopped or I stopped caring. I guess I must've dozed off or something, because the next thing I remember, it was almost sunrise.
"Anyway, my parents were dead when I went downstairs and all our stuff was gone or ruined. There was blood everywhere. It was pretty bad. I was six."
Through this entire count, Gemini kept his eyes glued to the table. He sounded determined, but when he spoke of his parents' deaths, his words became fluid and sounded almost practiced. Nox wondered how many times he'd relived that night in his head.
Sarah looked like she was about to cry again and was leaning forward in her seat as though she might at any moment launch herself across the table and envelop as much of Gemini's slight body as she could in her arms. Gemini, sensing this, looked up from the hole he was glaring in the table and made eye contact to reassure her. She settled slightly but when she was about to speak, Gemini cut her off and continued his tale.
"So that was like nine years ago and I've been on my own ever since. Sometimes I used to stay in some of the towns if the people and the weather were nice enough, but honestly it was just easier to be by myself. I don't why, but for some reason, I don't really seem to fit in with any of those people anymore.
Anyway, then I met Nox today on my way to that abandoned city and we got chased by bandits, and now we're here."
Before Sarah could release the flood of sympathetic comments and gestures she'd undoubtedly been forming and holding back since Gemini started speaking, Marcus held up a finger to silence her and leaned forward in his seat. His eyes were directed through the archway from which they'd entered the room and toward the main entranceway. As if on cue, there were six knocks on the door: three slow followed by three fast.
Sarah jumped to her feet, suddenly grinning, while Marcus rose more slowly beside her to head to the door. Nox didn't turn around to watch how it was they opened it from either the inside or the outside, but from the sound of it, they used an old fingerprint scanner.
"Iris, honey, you're home! We have guests. Come on, we're already almost done eating. Come meet them. They'll be staying with us for a while. Come on, come on, come on."
Now Nox turned around the best he could without standing up in time to see a small girl being ushered unceremoniously into the room at Sarah's bidding. Marcus followed behind them as silent and imposing as the Grim Reaper of old legends.
At first this girl, contrary to what Sarah said earlier, did not appear to be Gemini's age, but rather closer to Nox's. She had short, choppy brown hair pulled into a ponytail at the nape of her neck and wide, bright gray eyes. She was short and thin like a faerie, or a pixie-an effect which was merely amplified by the loose, light-colored clothing she wore. The longer Nox looked at her, the younger she looked. Now he realized she really was probably fourteen or fifteen, like Gemini, and it was just her expression and the dark intelligence in her eyes that made her appear older.
Beside him, Gemini rose to his feet, so Nox followed suit. Gemini's eyes were wide and his shoulders were slumped slightly, like he was embarrassed about something. He rubbed at his arms self-consciously and then extended his hand to Iris.
"Hi," he said, giving a sort of lopsided grin. "I'm Gemini."
"Nox," Nox said simply, tiring of the formalities after meeting so many people in one day. He, too, extended his hand.
Iris studied them one after the other and then shook both their hands at once. "I'm Iris," she told both of them. Her smile was more like a smirk.
"It's nice to meet you," Gemini told her politely.
"Don't they have shirts where you come from?" Iris paused for a second, then added: "Or shoes?"
Gemini had no idea how to react and made it obvious. He stammered awkwardly for a second before she laughed (the laugh of a child, high and giggly) and told him, "I'm kidding. Come with me, okay? I want to show you something. It's been a while since I had someone my age around to talk to."
Nox was forced to watch as once again the only person with whom he felt any measure of comfort was led away at the hands of a woman he'd only just met, and once again he was left to fend for himself on this disadvantaged playing field.