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The price of life. For Jhenai, it’d been cheap thus far. Being what she was and what power she had, she’d been prepped so she was utterly embarrassed at the next onset of tears as she wrapped her tether around Evan’s neck and put her foot on his chest.

“Stop crying,” Caleb scolded. “This’ll work.”

It wouldn’t, Jhenai was sure. The Kabra on the ceiling had long since landed and pressed her back against the wall.

Caleb had it worst, he had to hold Booker and Honn up against the wall on his back. They were a couple so at least they could cling to one another but as Honn was losing so much blood that her usual tanned skinned looked pale, Jhenai shed another tear.

Evan Mortice stared up at her, terror in his eyes. She cared less about this short skirt and more so about strangling him properly when the time came.

“I can’t do this!” Jhenai sobbed.

Caleb had no words to offer. Finally, he focused on her, tears in his own eyes as he struggled to be strong and brave, as was his reputation.

“It’ll work. Look at him. He’s an Upper. He’s got nothing in him. He’ll read as stable. As soon as they see him crashing, they’ll close in on him and we leg it. You don’t even look back; you just run and get into the cell.”

The more he spoke, the harder Jhenai’s tears fell. “But my cells ages away. I won’t make it and you won’t with those two.”

Caleb was a soldier before a husband. Always.

“Hey! What good is all this if you’re going to be the death of four fucking people?” He barked, “If it was your precious Hal, you would find the strength. Now snap the fuck out of it! Suck it up and get ready to off this guy.”

Jhenai’s hands trembled and she gripped the tethering belt tighter. It was slippery from her sweat so she wrapped it around one hand then the other to keep her hold sure. The moment she began to ease her foot against Evan’s chest, he tensed up.

For anyone with any common sense, this rare lifeline would have been a gift from beyond. Medics zoned in on otherwise strong subjects. A weak or corrupt patient, they’d leave for dead. The more potential in the injured, the more medics converged. Caleb wasn’t stupid and he was absolutely right…if he had someone with the guts to do what was necessary. One life for four. It was as simple as that.

“Slow,” Caleb instructed, “do it too fast and It’ll be a waste. Easy.”

Red lights high above flashed against Evan’s confused face. They started to dim, indicating that the medics had reached their platform. Now it was an orange glow, meshing with Evan’s bluing skin as the tethering belt squeezed his neck closed.

Jhenai tasted the sweat slipping down her brow past her nose. Burnt cinder and concrete filled her lungs with each slow breath she took, while simultaneously stopping this man’s.

This was surprisingly easy and her vision blurred the further along she got.

Evan’s hands flew up to his collar and Jhenai screamed.

“Don’t let him go, Nai!” Caleb ordered.

“But he’s fully viable.”

The alarm lights turned green.

Caleb cursed. “Keep pulling.”

Evan gasped and gag. His entire body became animated, and he struggled to take the belt off.

Though his lips were dry and chapped, one word came from his mouth as he fought to live, “Mama…”

Jhenai let go.

Caleb yelled, “Fuck! We’ve been through this. It means nothing. People in their final moments cry out like that. There’s nothing deep about it.”

The lights dimmed from green to yellow.

Life or death, a man crying out for his mother as his soul dissolved out of him was beyond her.

“I can’t.” Jhenai didn’t dare look at her husband, but she kept a hold on the tethering belt, no longer yanking it, hoping that would be enough.

Evan’s adrenaline spike vanished; he fell limp yet again. His chest heaved up and down so fast Jhenai feared he’d die on his own.

“Pst.” A voice came from across the hall.

Jhenai met Caleb’s gaze. The warning there was one she took. She was already causing enough trouble, talking to a Kabra would be the last straw.

“Lasas. Hey,” the woman once on the ceiling hissed. “Lasas!”

Caleb, arms spread, still bracing the couple against the wall, gave her his attention.

Jhenai sighed with relief.

“Rest assured, dirtbag,” Caleb said, “I’ve got fifteen years of viability left. I will get out of this. I will get a hold of you, and I will literally, not figuratively, rip your g’damn head off.”

The woman’s voice, no longer strong and threatening, quivered. “Fifteen? Well, I’ve got ten. We just need thirty. Look, that body you’re trying to use as a decoy, if he’s really an Upper, a proper one, he’s got a least thirty on his own. Your lovely lady there must have at least ten, right? Just let me come over there to you, we’ll all stick close together. So long as we don’t move, it won’t know who’s low and who’s high. It’ll read us collectively. That’s how we get by down where I’m from. What’do you say?”

Caleb set his gaze on Jhenai again.

Neither of them spoke. It wasn’t an ingenious plan. In fact, it was a common trick done often in the poor areas. Two years ago, the medics were upgraded to counter this habit. Jhenai would know, she personally authored that program.

Everything in her said to share that truth but when she focused on Honn and Booker who were barely holding on, then to Evan Mortice, something came over her.

“It’s true,” Jhenai said. “I left a loophole in that program. It’ll work. Evan Mortice will make it possible. He may give us an infinite amount of life points.”

Caleb wasn’t convinced. That was unlike him, but it spoke of how unreliable Jhenai had been lately. He pondered the words until the first airlock sounded.

The Kabra panicked. “Come on, Lasas! Do you want to get wasted?”

All color vanished from the lights and the hall illuminated. The medics had arrived.

Jhenai shed another tear and Caleb sighed. “Come and put your back against me. You put that body between you and that Kabra. If she even coughs in your direction, you kick her ass into the hall and let her get wasted.”

The Kabra hurried to them but Jhenai jumped to her feet.

“Not so fast. Show me your life points.”

“What—what? Is this even the time?”

“Do it,” Caleb barked.

Another airlock sounded and the Kabra swallowed hard. She said, “Fine. I lied. I ain’t got ten years—”

“You’re using your powers freely. Yeah, no shit you don’t,” Caleb admonished. “But how many, because if it’s less than a year’s worth, you can fuck off.”

They remained there for what felt like light years before the Kabra gave up.

She no longer tried to approach. In fact, she took a step back and hung her head.

Jhenai could hardly stand it. “How many you got?” she asked.

Her words were ignored at first before the woman shrugged, embarrassed. “Ten months.”

Caleb scoffed, “Fuck off. Nai, get over here. The rest of us can make thirty easy. If that coma guy can give us another, that’ll be more than enough.”

The final airlock sounded and the dummy medic zipped into view on the wall behind the Kabra. As always, it was cheerful as it sang, “Dear injured, do not fear, help has arrived. Please be so kind as to line up single file. Remember, the medics are the final authority. Their job is to help those who are viable. If, for some reason, you are not selected for rescue, please do not panic and jeopardize others who are more viable. And remember, all life is precious, and our medics main priority is to ‘do no harm.’ Should they waste resources on non-viable citizens, they risk the lives of others irresponsibly. Therefore, anyone with less than twenty years of life will be overlooked for help. Anyone below a year will be considered a casualty and receive the mercy of euthanasia. We are ever so honored that you’d put your faith in us here at Mortice Inc. Thank you. Goodbye.”

It zipped away and vanished. Jhenai focused on the Kabra. Without thinking, she yanked the woman to her and Caleb voiced his disagreement.

“Fucking hell, Nai!”

Jhenai ignored him and instead dragged her to Caleb. She at least did as Caleb instructed, putting Evan Mortice between her and the Kabra, which was no easy feat because he was dead weight. The moment the woman held Evan Mortice from the front, hugging him while gripping Jhenai’s shoulders, Jhenai in turn followed suit. Together, they held the limp body up.

“Thank you for this.” The woman faced her as the final door opened, tears in her eyes. She whispered, “Thank you so much. I’m real sorry about…about the trying to kill you thing. It wasn’t nothing personal. Yeah?”

She gave what amounted to a smile but Jhenai couldn’t smile back.

“My names Kai, by the way. What’s yours?”

Jhenai didn’t dare answer. What she had were questions, a myriad of them. “Who hired you? Who were you sent to kill? Where is Milo?”

The ground shook and Caleb’s body stiffened. “Everybody shut up….”

Whenever cyborgs were around, the air reeked of oil and fuel. Their massive size required expert maintenance. A large cyborg, sporting a smokey dark gray armor from head to toe, emerged from the hallway. It was one of the older models. Jhenai cursed under her breath.

Caleb noticed. “What?”

“It’s Barron.”

“Barron?” Caleb whispered, “Well, that’s nice. I’m glad your pet project is going to get your name in the books. At the expense of our bodies, of course.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve seen this model,” Kai assured them. “Just so long as you get those two closer to you, It’ll see it as single file.”

Caleb shook his head. “I can’t move. I move and they touch the floor and their power activates and they die.”

Barron was top-of-the-line. Instead of the shiny blue tint associated with the newer models, his gray armor set him apart from all others. His original project produced five dark gray cyborgs. All the others were now gone. But that wasn’t the spectacular part. Despite his owner’s body having died five years now, it still ran well. Therefore, Barron was nicked name The Reaper. A cyborg with a dead body inside it, now too integrated with the tech to ever be removed safely, that kept to its mechanical functions without trouble. His kind was so rare that no one dared try to dismantle him.

He’d taken to the last upgrade, too, as Jhenai was fascinated by his programming.

Barron walked past them, a thundering step mixed with hissing hydraulics.

A reddish cyborg was next. More of a helper than a real threat. Two egg-shaped drones hovered by, following the two medics in case they needed supplies…or ammo.

Collectively, Jhenai and company sighed with relief.

The next emergency hatch at the other end of the hall opened though no one dared look.

When silence drifted between them for some time, Kai was the first to laugh.

“Halt,” Barron’s voice boomed.

Kai lost color. Her eyeballs rolled to the side to find the gray armor incredibly close.

Barron’s visor flashed red.

A light danced before Kai and she looked herself up and down. It lingered on her for ages before traveling over to Evan. Once it reached Caleb and the two people he held hoisted off the floor, it traveled back again.

On Caleb’s wall, the dummy medic sounded, though Jhenai didn’t look.

“Well, well, well,” it said. “What a lovely surprise. One hundred and twenty years assessed.”

Caleb cursed.

Jhenai swallowed hard. It was too high. Now, instead of causing the medics to ignore them, it garnered unneeded attention.

“Interesting. Hello there, are you standing single file? We are reading several heartbeats in one area. Please be so kind as to move apart.”

Jhenai’s legs trembled, or rather, she thought it was hers but came to find that it was Caleb who shivered.

He cleared his throat and said, “Unacceptable. This is Caleb Cowel, second regiment. I’m holding two lab techs who are prone to super-speed. They’ve lost their tethers in the explosion and should I release them, they’ll activate. We cannot move apart.”

The dummy medic’s sing-song voice returned. “Two? But there’s more.”

Caleb cleared his throat, but it was Jhenai who answered, “Jhenai Cowel, prisoner one-four-six, I’m engaged as well. should I release, I don’t come back down. We cannot separate.”

Evan faced the Kabra but he turned his head and squeaked out, “Prisoner?”

“Hmm,” said the dummy medic on the wall. For a long moment, nothing happened. Barron didn’t move even an inch. “Very well, collective assessment engaged. Please remain still.”

The next scanning light was blue, and it resulted in a beep.

“We detect a Kabra militant—”

“No sir,” Caleb chimed, his voice breaking. “It’s someone fresh out of stasis. Please try again.”

Silence.

Finally, the dummy medic said, “One hundred twenty years reassessed. High cholesterol lowers it to one hundred and fifteen. Probability of heart disease detected. One hundred. Sexually transmitted disease found. Ninety years.”

Jhenai met eyes with the Kabra, and Kai shook her head. In unison, they both looked down at the man tucked between them, Evan Mortice.

To his credit, Evan Mortice had the grace to blush.

“Second venereal disease detected. Seventy years assessed. Third….”

Evan Mortice cleared his throat when the list started.

Kai’s disgust shown through.

“…And genital warts. My, my, you truly are a man out of time,” the dummy medic said. “Possible quarantine required.”

“Quarantine?” Kai gasped.

Barron picked his head up and activated. The red light on his visor returned and Kai looked herself over.

The gap between her and Evan wasn’t much but a tin voice came. “Assessment complete. Ten months. Declaration: wasted.”

Kai’s lips parted and she focused on Jhenai and let out a cry as a ray of light struck her and she burned so fast she turned to ash before them.

Even Caleb was disbelieving. “Fuck.”

Jhenai backed up further into him. She trembled when she risked looking down at her right hand. She’d used her tethering belt to keep Evan Mortice upright, wrapped together with her.

Caleb caught the number on Jhenai’s arm. “Eight. Eights fine. He’ll just leave us alone. You heard the new upgrades.” He nodded back to the two he held up. “Let’s go ahead and turn ourselves in. These two are getting weaker.”

But from his angle he couldn’t see what she could. It wasn’t eight years. It wasn’t even eight months.

Eight weeks.

Her life was worth eight weeks.

Barron marched back. Each step he took had Jhenai’s body shivering.

Once the cyborg stopped before her, she looked up at it. All her life flashed before her and she thought of only one word. “Mama….”

 

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LynaForge

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