Back to Square One
an illustrated narrative
The morning was still dismal and muggy as Darian walked sluggishly to campus, still struggling to wake up. Despite having turned in early the previous evening, he had never in his life managed to sleep solidly for more than maybe four hours at a time, and the accumulated sleep deprivation was seriously taking its toll. Every now and again, he attempted sleeping on the floor, using piles of clothing or a comforter as cushioning, but it was more often than not too cold or hard to get settled and pretty much only served as a change of scenery.
To make matters worse, he had dreamt again... or, it felt less like a dream than a memory, but always the same one--vivid, violent, and unforgiving. The pain had become unbearable, and he had awoken in a cold sweat, screaming, the same as had happened every other time before. As he had done every other time before, he tried desperately to shake away the memory and absorb himself in the hustle and bustle of normality. Furthermore, it was frighteningly jarring to wake up, to where he spent at least half an hour after each waking to calm himself enough to gain his bearings. It upset him terribly not to be able to escape his fate, but his options seemed to be more limited by the hour.
Taking an unexpected interest in his surroundings--perhaps because misery loved company--he took in the mood-setting scene around him. The grounds were a bit soggy from a light overnight drizzle, so any of the students leisurely waiting outside quickly occupied the available deck furniture--some cozied together fairly closely, particularly with a cool breeze picking up--and it satisfied him to overhear a couple he didn't like arguing over something petty.
One person huddled forelornly under a tree, however.
He recognized her instantly, pushing thoughts of his own discomfort to the back of his mind. "Alex?" Darian asked, strolling over. He was quite surprised to see that she was still wearing her goggles despite the weather.
She glanced up at him briefly, then returned her gaze to her feet. "Hi," she said numbly, though there was a tremor of sadness in her voice as she clutched her tote closely to her body.
A pinch of guilt bit at his conscience. "Are you feeling okay?" he asked, somewhat concerned. "You're not upset about yesterday, are--"
"W-we got robbed," she stammered unexpectedly, still staring at the ground. "Someone broke into our house... in broad daylight... and took... everything."
Darian froze, eyes wide as a chill ran down his spine. The odds were too slim for--
"I don't care about most of it," she continued, pouring out her heart to him, "...all stupid stuff just to make it look like someone's living there, but they took the one thing that matters the most to me."
Ears flattening against his head, he bit his tongue to keep from letting on his possible involvement in the matter. "I'm... sorry..." he whispered, still hesitant to get too involved. "Are you going to be okay?"
"It's offensive that we escape a life of war and hatred just to come here and get robbed right away. I don't believe people can be so cruel."
Uncertain of what else to do, Darian knelt down in front of her and looked her in the eye. "I don't think people always mean to be so cruel," he said honestly, "but bad things can happen to good people."
She looked away uncomfortably. "Why? What good comes of all the bad things in the world?"
After a pause, he stood again. "That, I can't answer."
Another uncomfortable silence passed, then Alex stood as well. "I guess I'll see you around," she said before walking off.
Alex looked at him blankly.
"If... it's not a personal question," he asked dumbly, "what did they take that was the most valuable to you?"
She paused. "My mother's jade ring."
Darian stared at her, gob-smacked. The gaze she returned felt as though it could see into his soul, inspecting his deepest secrets, and he flinched in embarrassment.
"What?" she asked timidly.
"I..." he stammered.
"What is it?"
He was being stupid. There was no way she could guess that he was in on it if he didn't give himself away. "S-sorry," he whispered, shaking his head. "I... I don't know. I'd like to help, but--"
Despite her mood, Alex perked her ears slightly at those four words, which only served to make him feel more awkward about the situation.
He glanced over to see several others entering the main building. "Sorry, gotta run." Without another word, he broke into just short of a sprint to catch up with them.
Darian couldn't concentrate in any of his classes, much less World Cultures. His mind kept settling astoundedly on Alex and how, by sheer chance, he had saved the one thing that mattered the most to her from the other thieves... but how was he going to return it to her without incriminating himself? The questions that sprung to mind made him queasy, when was already uncomfortable enough that he was supposed to be tutoring her, especially when he was hesitant to get too close to anyone else as it was.
There was also the secondary matter of that noise... well, it wasn't really a noise as much as it was a sensation, since he never actually heard it as much as he could feel it. Still, it echoed through his mind, but always just weakly enough that he couldn't discern exactly what it was or where it came from. It varied too much to be something mechanical, and he felt it in too many places now for it to be one person or thing...
He looked up, startled.
"You may have been too zoned out to notice," Paul scolded, "but class is over."
He frowned uncomfortably. Why couldn't he just be left alone?
Darian gathered his things and trudged toward the door, when Paul stopped him. "The schedule's changed, you know," he said.
"What, midterms moved?"
"No, you're due this evening."
He cringed, eyelids drooping. "Seriously, I've been ill lately. I can't do it tonight."
Paul frowned at him in disapproval. "I'll pass the message along, but somehow I doubt they'll be sympathetic to your plight."
"Perhaps if I was given something better than a couch," he spat. "As used to it as I am, it doesn't afford the best night's sleep."
"Stop grumbling about what you haven't earned. You're lucky they listened to your advice about preppies being less suspicious and gave you an upgrade to afford such a nice wardrobe."
"Fancy clothes are a poor substitute for a real home life."
"Well, I'm sorry you think that, Darian, but in the end, you're still just a low-life among low-lifes." Paul gestured towards the door. "As you know, this really isn't the best place to be talking, so I'll say a good day to you."
Frowning, Darian turned and walked out the door. "A good day in hell," he spat.
"I HEARD THAT," Paul shouted.
As usual, his stomach growled ravenously as lunchtime approached. Normally, he stowed some kind of nonperishable snack in his backpack to allow him to hide away in the library or out in the courtyard, but they were out of such foods at the house, and the lone vending machine was depressingly, even tauntingly empty again.
With a deep sigh, Darian headed to the cafeteria.
There, the rumours reached his ears like iron filings to a magnet, increasing in enormity as onlookers noticed him enter and turned the subject of their vicious gossip toward him. That wasn't his concern. As he queued with the other students, his eyes darted across the room with a heightened paranoia.
Would he be safe as he progressed through the line? he wondered. At each stop, Darian glanced quickly over each shoulder, hesitating between the mash and the spinach not out of indecision but worry. It always felt strange to him to get so worked up over it, but he couldn't help it--it had only gotten worse in the past few years, no matter what precautions he might take. Finally, he approached the register and pulled out his wallet, withdrawing a Rio and paying Ms. Pranzo without incident. Lifting his tray, he breathed a small sigh of relief when--
From behind the remaining queue, Kotaro burst forth and tackled Darian, making him drop his tray. The contents spilled across the floor, except for his bowl of pudding, which landed perfectly on Colleen's head.
"KOTARO!" screamed Darian and Ms. Pranzo in tandem. Colleen screamed as well, but unintelligibly by comparison.
Backing away weakly, Kotaro smiled in embarrassment. "Sorry?" he offered, though he didn't entirely look it.
It was difficult to say who was angrier at the moment, Darian or Ms. Pranzo. Both gave chase as Kotaro bolted from the cafeteria, although Darian was a bit faster. As Kotaro disappeared around the corner, Darian picked up speed and--
--collided with Alex, knocking her to the floor. "Ouch!" she whimpered as her backside hit the solid tile floor, her books flying in every direction.
Darian immediately got to his feet, mortified, as a strange dizzying sensation overcame him. "Ah... s-sorry," he stammered as his head slowly cleared, though--rather than offer Alex a helping hand to stand or collect her books--he glared angrily down the hall at the quickly-retreating Kotaro. A tense moment passed in awkward silence as Ms. Pranzo hustled into the hallway, having exercised a bit more caution in her haste than Darian had.
"Are you okay?" she asked. "We'll get you another tray, no charge--"
"No, thanks," he muttered bitterly, a familiar discomfort in his stomach. "I'm not hungry anymore."
Then Ms. Pranzo noticed Alex sprawled on the floor. "Oh! Are you okay, dear? Darian, aren't you going to--"
Darian, however, had other ideas and strode quickly away without another word.
Alex seemed confused at his actions, or lack thereof. "Dar--"
Her voice trailed off as he vanished down the hall. There was never a worse time to give her the ring, and he had no interest in blowing up at her on accident, regardless of what she or Ms. Pranzo or anyone else who might have witnessed the scene thought of him at the moment. His mood failed to improve as he approached his locker, intent on hiding Alex's ring there until he could figure out how to give it back to her covertly. Spinning the dial on the lock with a practiced hand, he reached into his pocket and was about to withdraw the ring when something caught his eye.
Tucked into the righthand niche created by the door's protrusion into the locker was a piece of paper, just barely visible from his vantage point. It chilled his blood to see it, because he wasn't the one to put it there, as well as it being where he had hidden a substantial portion of his on-hand cash.
Furrowing his brow, Darian shoved the ring deeper into his pocket and snatched the paper with his other hand, uncrumpling the note with a tested patience. It was written in block letters, not to disguise its author from him but from anyone who might accidentally find it, and was written in a complicated cipher that was nevertheless simple to read for those who knew the encryption method:
DID YOU EXPECT TO BUY YOUR WAY OUT? IT WON'T BE SO EASY AS THAT.
Enraged, Darian tore up the note, slamming his locker shut without even exchanging his books. He realized this after a moment, but his patience was too thin for him to care, not even to reset the lock. It didn't matter--no one was going to steal his books, and he didn't need them himself because he wouldn't be going to class again today... not if he didn't want to seriously hurt somebody.
As the sun fell, Darian weaved in and out of buildings, making so many turns and circling back so many times that anyone trying to follow him would have gotten dizzy long ago. His destination was a dark alleyway in a desolate sector of town where few people were eager to go, even when fully armed with automatic assault weapons. It was located in the rear of a seedy grocery store, itself legit--however, underneath it was a well-concealed warehouse full of the kinds of jacked goods that the packs had been stealing.
Darian knocked twice on the backdoor, paused, then knocked twice again. After a minor pause, the door swung open, and he caught a glimpse of the nigh-invisible peephole as he entered. As usual, no one in the building was unmasked--even Darian wore his suit--but they knew the pecking order well enough that they didn't particularly need to know who was who.
"You the Grey kid?" asked the bouncer. Darian nodded.
He turned to the large monitor embedded in the wall near the entrance, scanning quickly. Darian couldn't make out the symbols--it was encoded in a way that only the bouncers and third-tiers or higher understood.
"Faulkner's got you on Level 6," he said, pointing to the elevator. "Training or something, I dunno. You know better than I do."
Darian sighed, striding casually toward the elevator. He punched the call button, and it opened immediately. Inside, he punched the floor lights in sequence--2, 4, pause, 2, 4--and the doors closed, taking him to Level 6. As the doors parted, a dusty-haired woman twice his age met his gaze with dark violet eyes. Strange, he thought, I've never seen any women here before...
Rigid professionalism in her every move, she stepped wordlessly into the elevator as he disembarked. Despite his curiosity, he didn't have the opportunity to find out more about her, not even enough to see to which Level she was going. Certainly he didn't have enough information to figure out what she was doing on Level 6, for that matter.
What was on Level 6, anyway?
None of the doors were labeled. One or two he recognized at a glance as being special clearance, from the keypad by the handle. Taking even a few seconds to prowl the hall would certainly be noticed by surveillance, however, so he didn't dare to dawdle, pushing his curiosity and his memory of the woman to the back of his mind. The lights were on at the first door he approached--this door he opened to find someone already inside.
The large room was filled will all sorts of different equipment, probably for aptitude testing. "Darian," Faulkner greeted expectantly, looking up briefly from his binder as he scribbled down some notes. "How are we doing today?"
"Miserable," he grumbled, removing his mask in the privacy of the training room. "I need a real bed soon, or my back's going to murder me."
Faulkner laughed coldly. "That's absolutely hilarious that you say that." Darian merely scowled in response. "Come, come, I understand you're turning sixteen soon? It's about time we looked into higher-tier evaluations, then. I mean, it's obvious that you're not going to do well on your own, isn't it?"
Darian had no answer for that.
"I'm serious, son... you take care of us, and we'll take care of you. It's really as easy as that. We'll even look into getting a bed for you, if that's what it takes, though I'd have imagined you would have already allocated part of your allowance towards one already."
"Clothes are expensive, you know."
"You didn't have to choose such a preppy attire. One of the things you should have learned by now is how to budget."
"Looking snappy helps keep attention off of me."
Faulkner shrugged. "Whatever... it's your life. My job is just ensuring you have the proper training to advance in the syndicate."
"To be honest," he interjected, unimpressed with the trivial banter, "I'm really tired of this game already. I just want to live my own life, free from the lot of you."
"But why?" Faulkner cried sarcastically. "We take what we need, we give R.M. what he needs, and he gives us even more of what we need. It's teamwork at the highest level you can get! Even the Prime Minister doesn't have the unified front that we have! How do you expect to do better than that out there?"
"The people are going to catch on eventually. It's not as though they have unlimited resources for us to just take when we please. They'll even move away--"
"--but more will move here! Don't you see? Maybe individuals have limited resources, but the world has plenty! If they move, we'll move. That's not as big a deal as you think."
He had no further way to argue with Faulkner--someone as self-centered as that would never see the benefit of the common good.
"Look, Darian, it would be a waste to have your skills go toward something as banal as journalism or art or business management or whatever sissy little career you had your eyes on studying, and it would also be a waste for you to land in jail."
He rolled his eyes in disgust. "Funny, since this is what's going to get me there."
"That's only if you get caught, which you won't if you're properly trained."
Darian was losing his patience. "Why did you call me here?"
"I was wondering when you would ask!" Faulkner picked up a scope rifle from the wall rack. "It seems we're a bit short of snipers--"
Furious, Darian struck the weapon out of Faulkner's hands. "I can't believe you'd think of putting me in assault!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. teeth bared. "Are you out of your FUCKING MIND?"
Calmly, carefully, Faulkner picked up the rifle, replacing it on the rack. "...you're quite a lucky young man that these weapons aren't loaded." His expression was one of bitter tolerance. "Yes, then, perhaps that's not the ideal concentration for you after all... maybe cracking?"
"I don't want to have any part of this anymore," he said stubbornly.
"Well, that's too bad," said Faulkner. "I'm afraid we can't just let you go, you know, even if you weren't still a minor."
"I don't see why not. You've kept me in the dark about who's in charge, and even if I tipped off the police, they'd never find the place."
"Ah, but you know enough about our inner workings to prove to be a problem if you ever turned against us."
"That's your own fault. I never wanted to join."
"That's too bad, because when we can't recruit, we have to draft."
"Can I go?"
"I suspect so," Faulkner said dismissively, carelessly waving a hand. "Be certain that you'll hear from us again, though."
Darian slammed the door behind him.
No one was home when Darian returned--he preferred it that way, though it still irritated him that every other room but his bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen were locked off. If they wanted his help so badly, why was he treated like an animal? They probably would have enticed him to their side had he been as pampered as even the second-tiers.
So, what would he do tonight? It was always tempting to try to pick the locks and explore the house while he was unsupervised, but the locks were card-swipe from this side, and the amount of time it would take to break one of those was much longer than he felt comfortable risking. His research was always at least worth an attempt, if for no other reason than he would be learning something potentially forbidden to him, but he didn't feel like going out again.
Certainly he could be doing homework for a change, but his secret life had a way of emphasizing the futility of getting too serious with that... which really only left the usual Try to Catch up on Sleep option.
As tired as he was, Darian was hungry as well, so he trudged into the kitchen to fix himself dinner. He was surprised to see a new plate over the stove and looked at it more closely. The colours and textures looked familiar, down to the type of flower depicted on its face. He became even more surprised to realize it was one of the decorative ones he had stolen from Alex!
On further examination, though, he realized it couldn't have been the same fresco--there was a distinct chip out of the edge he remembered seeing in hers, but this one was as flawless as if it had been shipped fresh from the factory. It seemed like an odd coincidence to get one from the same line as hers, however.
Suddenly, a strange possession overcame him. Taking the fresco at arm's length, he let it clatter to the floor, watching in horror as it broke into three large pieces. There was no mistaking it--if it was the same line, then the plate he stole should have broken when he'd dropped it, yet it was absolutely flawless when he had picked it up again and put it in his sack.
Now what? His mind reeled as to how to hide the breakage, since--even as relatively worthless as it was--it was bound to be noticed. Nervously, he picked up the pieces and aligned them together, not entirely sure how it would help...
...but when he ran his fingers over the cracks, they sealed up instantly, good as new. His eyes couldn't have deceived him--the plate had definitely broken--so how was this possible?
His hands swept over the floor. Even the stray particles of dust were gone, which was perfectly unfathomable. The fresco was as flawless as when he'd first picked it up. As much as he turned it over in his hands, he could find no evidence of breakage anywhere.
What was going on?
Darian suddenly lost his appetite. Carefully replacing the plate, he turned and walked slowly out of the kitchen, breaking into a run as he darted up the stairs and into his room, throwing the door closed and cowering nervously in the dark.