“Oh no,” I exclaimed, looking at the time on my holo-gauntlet.
“What is it?” asked the investigator after a brief pause.
I stood up and glanced outside. The sun was sinking below the horizon and the sky dimmed. “I just remembered I have some errands I needed to do before sundown,” I said. I looked to her face. I was trying to figure her out, and she looked like she was doing the same with me. “I’m sorry to cut this short, but I really must be going.”
She hesitated, and slowly stood, stopping the recording. “It’s nothing to be concerned about, Talcorosax. You’ve been very cooperative.”
I raised an ear. “Have I? I thought you wanted me to cut to the chase about K and the Brotherhood. But I’ve refused to do so.”
“I-” She chuckled, and looked up at me with a strange smile. “I suppose… I’ve become somewhat invested in the story.” She crossed her arms. “I hope we’ll get to continue the story tomorrow morning?”
“I don’t know,” I said, checking my holo-gauntlet absentmindedly.
“I see. Where are you off to now?”
“I need to stop by the market… I’m picking up some groceries.”
She snorted. “Being the King, I assumed your errands would be more urgent.”
I was rushing out the door, when I said to her “Everyone needs to eat. Goodnight investigator!”
The door hissed closed behind me, and she called out “See you soon!”
I made my way through the hallways and with each passing step my shoulders began to sag further toward the ground. My ears went limp. My fingers had no tension. My eyes trained the floor. My pace slowed.
I stopped by my room, and lifted my arm up with the minimum effort required to the clothes hooks which lined the wall of the door, and paused. I was reaching for a long red coat, but on the hanger next to it was a black hooded cloak. The sight of it made me tense. I retrieved the coat. I put it on and glanced at the tall mirror against the wall.
I was startled. Someone was standing in the room. Their eyes were swollen, and their face looked wrinkled with exhaustion. Their mandibles hung slightly, and they slouched forward almost like a zombie. There was no life in them, yet there they stood.
I took a step forward and reached out toward them. My fingers met theirs as they touched the glass of the mirror. I pushed my face close to the mirror and looked deep into their orange eyes, damp and reflective in the dim light of the room.
“Who are you?” I muttered.
The night air was crisp and almost freezing. I wrapped my jacket around my body to keep warm, and anxiously checked the time on my holo-gauntlet. My bare foot sunk into a puddle on the paved road. Rain poured down on the street and the buildings and stalls of the market. It was mostly skythers, but some humans too were walking around the market with umbrellas or hoods worn tightly over their heads. My jacket didn’t have a hood, so water streamed down the skin of my face and dripped off my mandibles and my soaking wet ears. It was difficult to hear through the rain, but I listened for the sound of sizzling food and watched the chefs working their magic from behind counters and windows on either side of the market. It was almost like a neon canyon, with massive buildings on either side covered in advertisements and glowing signs, and the evening market crowd bustling around at the base of them. It should have been a center for community, but the people were almost drowned out by the corporate advertisements which blared from the skyscrapers above.
I heard my own voice reverberating off the buildings through the rain from some hidden speakers, and I looked up. On a massive screen I could see myself sipping from a can of root beer. I was decked out in combat gear. The can was labelled in bold English print, Galaxy Root Beer.
“Nothing beats a can of Galaxy Root Beer! Galaxy Root Beer, you’re a life saver.” I exclaimed, before holding up the can to the camera.
Rain pelted my face as I strained my eyes to watch the ad. I remembered filming in an empty room, but they had digitally created a set. I was drinking root beer in the middle of a scorched and smoking battlefield.
The shot cut to me lifting an unreasonably sized piece of rubble as humans and skythers of different shapes, sizes, and colours climbed out from underneath. Then I was handing out the drink to them one at a time as a masculine human voice came over the speakers. “Galaxy Root Beer: It’s a real hero, for a real hero.” The final shot was an image of me winking to the camera, with the Galaxy logo next to my head.
Just as quickly as it had started, the image changed to another ad. Inspirational music played from the speakers as it showed humans in all sorts of exhilarating environments and activities, before jump-cutting to a shot of a sleek hover-car.
I rubbed some of the rain from my face with the back of my drenched sleeve, to no avail, as the sounds of commercials fought to steal my attention. There were so many lights and sounds here that the city felt so alive. But, muffled by the rain, I felt detached. I barely noticed what was going on around me, trying to keep my eyes forward to my destination. My eyes caught a skyther, huddled in the corner of a building, wrapped up in a blanket, shivering. In front of them they had a bucket, and a sign written in Skorali asking for charity. And below the skyther text was the same thing written in horribly broken English.
I narrowed my vision, away from the struggling soul.
I stepped up into the warm light of the vendor’s stand, glancing at the time on my holo-gauntlet once more.
An old skyther with grey skin and fur and a stained apron leaned over the counter and peered at me. She was sheltered from the rain under the canopy of her establishment. She spoke in Skorali. “We just closed. Come back tomorrow.”
“Please,” I said, stepping forward. “I was caught up all day, or I would have come sooner-”
“You must know how it is,” she said. “If I spend a second more with the store open tonight I might not have time to prep and rest for tomorrow. Can’t make exceptions for anyone these days. If you don’t run an airtight show then the big corporations are gonna stamp you out like an insect.”
She turned away, but I persisted. “I need to buy two weeks worth of rations. I can ensure it’s worth your while.” I lifted my holo-gauntlet up to her, and showed a large sum of credits. “I can send this right away.”
She eyed me suspiciously. “You sure about this?”
“Yes,” I said.
She stepped up to me and handed me a device. “Just tap here.”
I touched my gauntlet to the device and heard a sound confirming the transaction had gone through.
“Alright,” she said, staring at me in mild disbelief. “I’ll grab a crate of rations for you.”
I hesitated. “Actually, can you put it into two containers?” I asked.
I shuffled my feet as she went inside her store room to grab the preserved food. My eyes scanned the streets. The sun was beneath the horizon now, and people were mostly vanishing from the market. Already it was much less busy, but the ads continued to play above and around me. The lights of the stores were shutting off one by one.
I grabbed each metal box of rations by the handle and thanked the vendor, retracing my steps down the street.
The skyther was alone, still huddled against the wall of the building, with their eyes half open, still shivering. I slowed down, and walked up to them cautiously.
I knelt down and placed one of the boxes of rations next to them. They opened their eyes and glanced between me and the box.
“I brought some food,” I said in Skorali. “It’s made to last, so it shouldn’t go bad. You can eat it whenever you need to.”
They sat up, still quivering. “Th- Thank you,” they replied.
“It’s not much,” I said, as they removed the lid and grabbed some dried fruit and vegetables and nuts. “Oh, make sure to keep it dry,” I said.
They slid it under the small overhang of the building to shelter it from the rain. “Thank you so much!” Their voice was shaky.
I shimmied out of my coat and wrapped it around them. “This might help keep you warm. It’s pretty cold out tonight.” I paused. “I didn’t bring water but… you know you can use the fountain at Tolo Square, just down the street, if you get thirsty. It’s free for public use, all day and night. It’s not sugar water, but...”
They nodded, their mandibles hanging open in surprise. I turned to leave, but I felt them feebly grab my hand. “Please, it would be nice to have some company,” they said.
My heart sank. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I have to go.”
Their ears lowered. I stood up and started walking away. I looked back at them, wrapped in their blanket and my coat, some food in their hand. But they looked so tired. “Thank you,” they said once more.
“Take care of yourself,” I said.
I glanced over my shoulder back at them. The skyther scanned my face.
“You’re the one from the commercial,” they said, in a disbelieving voice.
I struggled against a sudden, powerful desire to hide my face. I nodded, unsure of what to say.
The skyther’s face contorted into one of confusion as they continued to drill me with their sullen gaze. “You’re the real Osax? The King?”
I shut my eyes and spoke. “Talcorosax. Yes, I am. I must be going.”
“Have you retired or something?”
My eyes fell to the rippling water beneath me. “No.”
“But where have you been?” they asked. “You said that after the fight was done you’d honour your mother’s position, and work on helping the people. But nothing has changed. What have you been doing all this time?”
“Surviving,” I muttered.
I looked at the ragged, starving skyther, and guilt pierced me like a knife. I wondered who I was, to say such a thing in my position. Without another word, I turned away, unable to look at the skyther again. Unable to apologize, for I thought I deserved no forgiveness. I bowed my head, clutching the remaining box of rations to my chest. I choked back a sob. He could recognize the face of Osax through the rain and darkness of the night. But the face he saw was like a lifeless mask: a snakeskin I had outgrown, but was unable to shed. I was merely a ghost; I wouldn’t let myself be anything more.
I tightened my jaw, squinted through wet eyes, and marched away through the streets. Despite my efforts to block them, emotions of regret and longing churned in my gut and turned to thoughts. An invisible weight pushed down on my heart, heavier than the world, squishing the voices in my head together into an indecipherable chorus. The more I thought about this weight, the more I felt responsible for it all. I thought no reason could be good enough for me to feel so anguished. Nothing had happened. Everything was supposed to be fine now.
I gasped for air, and my eyes darted around the streets, crying silently for someone to see my pain, to reach out and tell me nothing was wrong. To tell me I was enough, because maybe if I heard someone say it I would believe them. To tell me it was all going to be okay.
But no one was there, and a single unfocused thought broke through the weight on my chest. Words which rested precariously above the discordant bed of emotions in my heart. Words which repeated deafeningly in my thoughts, over and over as I walked.
I miss you.
In the shadow of an alley, covered by the sound of rain, they ambushed me.
I dropped the rations to the floor and flung my arms to my neck. My hands grasped at the arm grappling me from behind. The skyther was strong. Two more skythers came into view in front of me, approaching slowly as I flailed, gasping. They wore dark clothing, and cloth obscuring their faces.
I gagged. Adrenaline fuelled my muscles as they expanded, and I punched at my captor. It was futile. He wrenched my arms together and pressed them up against my chest, holding me in place with both of his arms wrapped around my arms and torso.
I clenched my fists. One of the skythers in front of me raised their hand. They were holding some kind of syringe, with a long reflective needle, aimed at my throat.
I shut my eyes, and jumped up. I leaned back on the one who had grappled me with my legs tucked in. Then as I began to fall I kicked my legs forward and pulled him to the ground.
I ducked as I hit the wet pavement, and water splashed around us as I flung him over top of my body and onto his back. The two other skythers recoiled in surprise, but only for a second as I began to stand. I grabbed onto the handle of the steel rations case with my right hand.
The syringe-wielding attacker lunged at me. The needle was held tightly in his right fist, and it was headed straight for the side of my neck.
I inhaled sharply, and took a step toward him, slamming the inside of his wrist with my left arm. I grabbed his wrist and twisted. The side of the needle caught on my arm as I rotated his hand and his body contorted, and he dropped it. The syringe clattered on the ground.
Heart pounding, I turned to my right as the other skyther came at me with a raised fist. Without thinking, I hefted my right hand toward his face and with a thud the metal case connected with his mandibles. He stumbled back and exclaimed, clutching his bleeding jaw.
I was still holding onto his arm when the skyther who had tried to stab me tried to pry my hand off with his free hand.
I grimaced, and yanked him down toward my knee as I shot it up towards his chest. We both shook from the impact, and he let go. I let him fall to the floor with a splash.
I took a few steps back, keeping my eyes trained on the three of them. Two were out of commission for the moment, but the third one had finally risen, and I heard the unmistakable rising pitch of an E-gun activating. A faint red glow appeared in his hand against the shadow of his body.
I ducked my head and held the rations case with both hands in front of me as a shield. My eyes shut and I braced myself for pain as I stumbled backwards toward the end of the alley, lacking any grace.
Red light flashed as the energy blast sped toward me, then a sound cracked, and my arms shook. Metal sheered and dried food spilled out onto the slick cement beneath my feet. My hands, each still gripping a side of the now smouldering case, fell away from each other as it completely collapsed from the explosion of the energy blast.
I dropped the warped metal remains, and bolted.