Words By Rich Larson, Art By GDJ at Pixabay
The mansion was like something out of a horror flick, all dark parapets and grotesque spires. Declan watched, breath hooked behind his chest, as the Director’s sleek black limousine purred down the drive. Jass shifted beside him, rubbing her hands against the splintering cold.
“Tonight, or never,” she murmured.
The reminder set his whole body tingling: tomorrow they Aged Out, left the labor camp forever to make their own way in the wider world. Tomorrow he finally threw out the stained gray jumpsuit he’d worn his whole life and put on the bright yellow shirt Jass had stolen for him from the fabric recycler.
So tonight was their last chance for payback.
Once the limousine disappeared, Jass ducked past the swiveling cameras and held her hackphone up to the gate’s scanner. For a gut-lurching moment, nothing. Declan waited for an alarm to wail, for a security drone to appear out of the gloom.
The buzz of the electric fence cut short.
The cameras froze on their pneumatic stalks.
Jass pumped her fist in the air. “We own your house, slimeball!”
Declan felt his adrenaline surge. He pulled the crowbar out of his bag and tossed it to Jass, then armed himself with a canister of spray paint. The open gate still looked anything but inviting, and he figured smiley faces on the two horned statues would help a bit.
The inside was a labyrinth of lavishly-furnished rooms; Declan had the feeling of being digested by them. He couldn’t remember any home but the Dorms, where he’d slept elbow-to-elbow with the other indentured wards. One room in the Director’s sprawling mansion could have fit a hundred cots.
The decor grew stranger the deeper they went. Photos, first: the Director posing with the corpse of a feathery leviathan, likely a dinosaur clone-grown for the hunt; the Director with a woman a half century younger than him, clutching his wife’s hand as if she were his child. Her eyes were dark and anguished above a bone-white smile.
Then came paintings, strange paintings of naked bodies writhing in flames, a non-Euclidean tower drenched in dark smog, a woman with her legs bound together vomiting up something that resembled a sea slug.
Declan wiped them out with swooping arcs of spray paint. When they passed a long table supported by humanoid statues on hands and knees, Jass clawed a gouge down the middle with the crowbar.
Both stopped at a life-sized portrait of the Director. He hovered in the darkness, staring down with a paternal smile on his pallid face. The angles of his body jutted at his tailored suit like chicken bones inside a garbage bag. His hands were smeared with black oil.
“My turn with the crowbar,” Declan said.
Declan lined himself and swung for every kid in the enclave, for every sweat-drenched hour spent hewing rock, for every sleepless night spent shivering and coughing up mold. The canvas split, bisecting the Director’s wattled neck, and then—
The portrait glided left to reveal the dark mouth of a staircase.
Jass took the crowbar back, tugging it from his trembling hands.
“Spooky,” she muttered.
They descended. The air was colder now, damper, and it carried a faint stench Declan couldn’t place. The floor at the bottom was a spongy material that swallowed their footsteps. Jass waved the hackphone, trying to get the ceiling lights on, but they weren’t responding.
A soft moan carried through the dark.
Every centimeter of Declan’s skin turned pebbly with goosebumps. He pointed his light toward the sound, looked over at Jass, knuckles white around the crowbar.
They approached slowly, warily, yanking aside a series of plastic shrouds. The stench grew stronger.
When Declan’s phonelight hit the wall, every joint in his body turned to water.
An emaciated figure hung strapped in place, a shrink-wrapped skeleton. IVs were feeding the bulging veins in his bony wrists. His skin was sun-starved and covered in sores, eyes and mouth stapled shut with precise sutures.
“Niall,” Declan said in a shredded whisper. “It’s Niall.”
Jass’s body seemed to buckle. “But they said he was transferred to Dorm Eight,” she choked. “They said…”
Declan was eyeing the web of restraints, searching for a release, when he heard a voice like bone scraping bone.
“Here to join the fun?”
Declan whirled. The Director was even larger than his portrait, a hairy, wrinkled beast, naked apart from a surgeon’s rubber gloves and night-vision goggles that glowed a predatory green. One hand held red-stained pliers; the other a loaded gun, and Declan knew in his fear-sick gut that they were never Aging Out of their gray jumpsuits, never leaving this fucked-up house, either they died here or joined Niall on the wall—
Jass’s crowbar obliterated the top of the Director’s head; a chunk of bloodied scalp went flying past.
Declan watched frozen as the Director crumpled, falling first to knees and then to belly. Then a white-hot fury ignited his whole body and he followed Jass’s lead, kicking, stomping, extracting evil from the world.
The supervisor brought up the chemical profiles of runners 4930 and 4284, two human data points in the sea of treadmills below, just in time to display a cloudburst of serotonin and adrenaline.
“It’s testing through the roof,” he murmured. “We can expand it, too, do a whole uprising…” He trailed off under the Director’s stare. “With your approval, of course. We’re very grateful that you let us use your likeness.”
The Director turned from the main screen, where Declan and Jass danced around his mutilated body, to the observation screen where they were in full sprint, limbs pumping furiously, kinetic output almost doubled.
Two of a thousand indentured runners racing oblivion, skulls linked by long rippling cables to a spidery sim-machine on the ceiling, minds snared in electric dreams.
“These are trying times,” he said, voice solemn but warm. “The least we can do is give them a little revolution.”