Back to Square One
an illustrated narrative
To say Marius was tired would be a severe understatement. He had gone without sleep for what felt like days now, but he had no control over that. He couldn't even look at a spot on the wall without seeing nightmarish hallucinations crawling all over it. His heartbeat pounded violently thorough his skull, as though threatening to crack it at any moment. The pain was so great and had persisted for so long that he couldn't even react anymore, and it surprised him that he hadn't choked on his own vomit long ago.
"The director has done well," said a squeaky voice, "but it looks like more of the pieces are falling into place. If you catch them, you will be greatly rewarded."
Marius nodded limply, lacking the energy or focus to do much else.
"Don't you have anything to say? Things are going so well for us! Aren't you just as excited as I am?"
He felt like screaming, but with as little control as he had over himself, he wasn't even sure how to do that anymore.
"Oh, don't be like that. If I can't sleep, I don't see the fun in letting you do it."
"Ghh," he finally gurgled, barely managing to enunciate even that much.
"Fine," the voice spat shrilly, and Marius immediately felt rejuvenated. His muscles were larger, his attention concentrated, his pain vanished. He felt as though he could do anything.
They didn't dare linger in the area longer than they needed, taking their findings and running. Daybreak was approaching, and they needed to think in private. Beating feet back back to the house, Alex locked the door behind them, not only for the house but also for the guest room. "So who is she?" she asked in anticipation, excited to have seen him at work at last.
"Marian Waters," he read, shuffling eagerly. "Gave birth to boy 708.2.1:27.15. Father unknown. Blood type 0- and so on... it's me, I know it--the papers describe me perfectly." He lowered the file slowly as he sat on the bed. "Yet, there's no evidence of me."
"How do you mean?"
There was a deep sorrow in his eyes, but also a deep frustration. "Who named me? Why am I Grey, not Waters? Is that my father's name? If so, why don't they know who he is?"
Alex twitched her ears. "I thought you said your father was dead!"
"That's what they told me, and I didn't bother pursuing the truth. Maybe he's still alive after all. Regardless, I would've had to find my mother first, and anything about my father would have to follow from there... but..." He tossed the file limply away, slumping against the bed's headboard. "All this has done is raise more questions, no answers."
"But you're closer to finding her, right?" Alex encouraged. "Now you know her name--"
"The problem is," he interrupted, "I never encountered a Marian Waters in my searches, either, and--I told you--I remember them ALL. Every record for every person in the block, and none of them match."
"Maybe they got her name wrong."
He frowned angrily. "If so, then the file's useless, because they don't say anything more about her than her name."
"Could she be from another block?"
"Possibly," he mused, "but which block? And why come here just to have me?"
"What do your instincts tell you?"
"It's not really instincts, I think..." Darian stared at the ceiling. "It's kind of... memories."
He rubbed his knuckles thoughtfully. "I had a vision of my mother giving birth to me, that's how I knew what to look for, even if I didn't realize it at the time. It's not a conscious effort--it's something else driving me."
"Then that means something else is leading you this way!" Alex reasoned. "So now you just have to find the next clue!"
"Mmm, yes," he mused, glancing out the window. The morning light had already started peeking over the horizon. "Hey, are you going to school today?"
"Oh, crap, I lost track of time..." Checking her watch, she yawned carelessly. "Meh, I don't have enough time to get a good rest before class. Maybe I'll have Sunni call me out sick and catch up on some sleep."
Darian muttered to himself, lost in thought. "Outside the box..."
His words were almost deliberately hesitative. "...I think I know what to do next, but I can’t do it until later. The timing has to be just right."
"Terrific!" Alex cheered, beaming. "If we’ve got a moment, then, I'm going to shower off after all that digging around in the dirt... or did you want to go first?"
"I'll take my turn second," he said, waving casually.
"Are you sure?"
"I don't want to lose my train of thought. Go ahead and get ready."
Smiling, Alex strode quickly to the bathroom, excited at the progress they had been making. "What an adventure!" she remarked to her reflection before stripping down. She bathed quickly, eager to tackle the next step but relishing the water before finally stepping out of the shower and toweling off. It was all she could do to keep from darting out of the bathroom before donning her robe.
"Alright, Darian, I'm all d--"
When Alex stepped into the guest room again, Darian was nowhere to be seen.
Confused, she checked down the hall, worried that he had gone snooping again, but he wasn't in her room, either, nor the kitchen, den, library...
She tried the front door--locked. That would mean he was still in the house, right?
A chill overcame her as she realized he could have left, then restored the locked state of the door. He had run off on his own. With mixed emotion, she returned to the guest room once again, this time noticing a bit of paper on the bed she had initially overlooked.
It was a note, carefully written in her native tongue. It took an instant to read, but as she did, she crumpled it up, tossing it aside in a fury as tears formed in her eyes. The words nevertheless burned into her mind, a faint hint of the anger in his voice from three days ago now etched into her memory:
The door tingled cheerily as he entered, again looking a bit out of place in being there. With recent events, the receptionist eyed him suspiciously, hovering her hand over the silent alarm but hesitating because he was carrying nothing and wore only a plain dress shirt, slacks, and suspenders.
"Can I help you...?" she asked, struggling to conceal her wariness.
"Director Dirk Ganymede," he introduced himself casually, not the least bit concerned about being identified. "Is the chairman in? I just wanted a word with him about sponsoring a child to mentor."
She glanced at the calendar. "He's in a meeting at the moment. I can give him your message, if you like."
"Certainly," he said, reaching behind his back. Before she could react, he had drawn his gun from behind his back, and shot her through her left eye.
Within moments, he had taken the keys from her desk and locked the door, pocketing the keys this time. As though taking a trip down memory lane, he strolled casually to the cafeteria, taking in the sights as he went. At each window he passed, he took a tube of sealant from his pocket and rubbed glue around the edges. Eventually, he ran out, tossing the empty tube aside. "I hope that's enough," he mused carelessly.
Down the next corridor was the administrator's offices, where the chairman would be having his meeting. Little did the chairman know the meeting would be his last. Ganymede withdrew a chain and lock he had tucked down his pant leg and restrained the doors with them.
As he ambled along, he was surprised to hear a babble of voices ahead. There were about eighty children in the cafeteria along with their attendants--Lunchtime, he thought, cursing himself for forgetting the time. Without having been seen, he turned around, this time heading for the boiler room.
To his advantage, the building had been constructed with a gas line... he paused tensely as he contemplated what he was about to do, a bead of sweat forming on his temple as he closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he grunted determinedly, purging his mind of the hesitation that had overcome him moments before. Taking a wrench and crowbar, he twisted and jammed open a hole large enough to leak enough gas to set the building ablaze with a tiny spark.
"The biggest design flaw in this building," he commented evilly, "is its lack of fire escapes." With that, he returned to the front entrance and let himself out, relocking the door from the outside.
Darian felt exhausted, despite trying repeatedly to rejuvenate himself. He was emotionally strained as of late, particularly with all the recent developments, but he knew the next step he had to take alone. He wasn't sure if anyone would be waiting for him when he returned, but he knew from the moment everything changed that he had to return some day. He just hoped Alex would stop trying to live her life through him and get on with hers.
The house had an eerie silence hovering over it. Even the resonance had died off, nearly completely, leaving Darian feeling more alone and vulnerable than ever before. He cautiously approached his entrance, looking about for signs of... anything, really. As far as he could tell, however, nothing had changed in the few days he'd been gone. When he decided the coast was clear, he gritted his teeth and stepped inside.
Before he could react, a pair of hands leapt at his throat, fastening a familiar shackle around his neck. "Caught you!" shouted a too-familiar voice, which quickly turned to one of surprise. "Wait a minute..."
"Let me go!" Darian shouted, not the least bit expectant that his demand would be honoured but nevertheless defiant.
"You look a lot like Darian," Paul mused, "and you know how to get in, so you must be him." He laughed carelessly. "Just what have you been doing during your last few days of hooky?"
Darian wasn't sure what to do. He could probably undo the shackle as easily as he had redone the lock for Alex's house, but would it be a good idea to reveal his ability? Even if he did, how long would he be able to fight? Was anyone else here to assist in his punishment?
"I'm surprised you came back, actually," Paul continued, spiteful. "Were you just looking for trouble? Forget your homework? Certainly you don't know what's going on in the network, or you would've stayed away."
"What?" he grunted, choking on the shackle.
"I don't know why I'm bothering to tell you, but it looks like one of our dear directors has gone berzerk and is systematically shutting us down, starting with... heh, our 'recruitment centre'..."
The bombing! Darian recalled the face of the man who had killed everyone... was that man really a fourth-tier? One of them? He had to find out who he was--perhaps they were allies, or--
Paul frowned. "It's just a matter of time before he comes for the rest of us. Our organization is doomed. I can't imagine what the head boss thinks of this... he's probably vanished already, but the rest of us are stuck where we are."
He gagged on the tight shackle meant for a slightly smaller version of himself. Darian was running short of breath, but he struggled to stay conscious. The gang toppling! What did that mean? Would he be free at last? However, it meant that he had to work fast if he was going to find out what he needed...
"With that in mind, I figured it would be prudent to be ready for unwanted visitors, and you're pretty unwanted right now, aren't you?" He chuckled viciously, withdrawing a gun from his shoulder holster. "It's time for your punishment, boy... oh, is it ever time to dish out the punishment..."
Darian's eyes grew large, clawing desperately at his restraint. "Gu--"
Blood splattered across the wall from a gaping hole in his back where the bullet exited. He went lax, feeling the life drain from his body.
The last words he remembered hearing were, "I've wanted to do that for years now."
Alex was furious. Where did he get off telling her to go to school like he was her father?
She tossed and turned in bed, the day breaking vibrantly. It was no use--she couldn't get relaxed, between anger and... well, worry.
"Stupid male," she spat, getting up and dressing. Even though she rarely slept for longer than an hour anymore, at that point, Alex felt she might as well go to school, though she was hardly in the mood.
Sunni was gone by now, doing her runs. She was Alex's most trusted informant, gathering information on the surrounding area that might help them discover the truth about her parents' deaths. It was Sunni who had tracked Darian to his home...
Come to think of it, is that where he went? What could be there that would help him?
It made her angry at how conflicted their interests seemed to be, especially considering how much they overlapped. Alex knew in her heart that they were meant to be together, in some fashion, but Darian didn't seem to want to admit it, always going off and doing his own thing. Maybe that was her own fault--she was raised to work together to accomplish greater things, while he was raised to more or less be solely independent... though obedient to his slave drivers.
"I'm not the boss of him," she muttered bitterly. "I'm not Darian's keeper."
Sighing, she suddenly felt lost. Their resonance had fallen off, and now she couldn't even sense the initial wisps she'd detected before they had met. Alex felt upset how, if they were two pieces of the same puzzle, their relationship was hardly balanced. It felt right, yet... wrong.
"Ugh," she spat in disgust. "I've got to get out of here right now and do something to take my mind off of h--"
Her ears perked up suddenly. There was a sound she'd never heard before, much like when she had been attacked... she had learned what to listen for after that, but this one sounded like... a cacaphony of tortured souls...
Alex darted upstairs, peeking outside from the corner of a window. There was a lone figure at the bottom of the hill, casually approaching. "Darian?" she whispered, but a closer examination revealed otherwise--the man had blue hair like Darian's, but whoever he was was much larger, bulkier, and seemed to lurch as though struggling to maintain control over himself.
Suddenly, Alex felt her shoulders being grabbed. "Run," instructed Sunni, an unsettling fear in her voice.
She wasted no time with questions. In the blink of an eye, the two had opened a window on the far side of the house and clambered onto the roof. Just as instantly, the house shook as a mighty weight rocked it--the newcomer landed directly in front of them, orange eyes gleaming in the sunlight, having just leapt nearly two streets' distance in a single bound.
"Who... are you?" Alex asked, afraid, but the intruder gave no response.
"This way!" Sunni called, dashing down the side of the roof, but the intruder quickly gained ground on her, momentarily leaving Alex alone.
Her mind raced. What should she do? It was clear to her that she could dispose of him in an instant, but she couldn't bring herself to kill anything, even...
"Aah!" Sunni screamed, her shoulder dislocating as the man grabbed her arm. He shook her by it cruelly, dangling her over the roof as though trying to decide whether to toss her over the side.
"Forgive me, Sunni... stranger," Alex cringed, directing her focus to the man's arms and legs...
A foul cry echoed through the hills as the man suddenly found himself dismembered, his limbs falling away as his body thumped horribly to the rooftop. Sunni fell the remaining two stories to the ground below, tumbling neatly as she impacted with honed reflexes.
Alex scaled down the side of the house, digging her nails carefully into the rock outcroppings. She rushed to Sunni's side, relieved to hear her groan weakly.
"It really hurts," she said, wincing as she strained to pop her shoulder back in. "Ow-ouch. Maybe I should leave it and have Darian fix--"
"We shouldn't rely on Darian," Alex scolded. "After all, he--"
An eerie feeling came over her as she realized she had just condemned a man to life as a quadruplegic, if Darian didn't heal him.
"What is it?" Sunni asked.
"I kept him alive for questioning, but he has no arms or legs now..." Her face was marred with a sickening guilt. "It was all I could think of doing... I was so afraid--"
"Don't worry about it... we'll figure out what to do with him."
They took a few moments to reorient themselves, then Alex climbed back onto the roof as Sunni gathered the man's limbs.
"Who are you?" Alex asked him again.
The man cried in agony, rocking himself back and forth as though still intent on fulfilling his secret mission. His face was a gnarled, twisted scowl, but it resembled Darian's in a way that deeply unsettled her.
"You... can't be him," she refused to believe, "because Darian would fix himself to how he used to be... right? Whatever happened to you..."
She stooped by his side, trying to hear. "Say again?"
The strain was too much for him, apparently. He gave out, tired, breathing shallowly as though hyperventilating, trembling from shock and blood loss.
"Do you need help?" Sunni called. "I was going to put him in the den for now."
The man seemed nearer to death--they would have to tend to his wounds quickly if he was to survive. His face was pitiful, a bizarre mix of hatred, sorrow, and agony, occasionally gnashing his teeth at her.
"Who are you?" she whispered, rubbing his forehead sympathetically.
With a chill, she withdrew her hand... in the instant they touched, the resonance echoed vibrantly.
Paul stepped outside into the fresh midday air, having spent the past few hours cleaning up the mess. If it was all the same to him, he wouldn't have bothered, but this way, if someone did check the house, no one would suspect anything for a very long time. He felt renewed, as though a heavy weight had been lifted off of him, and now, he decided, would be a good time as any to take a much-needed... one-way... vacation. He wasn't sure what he would do when he ran out of money, but that was something he'd think about later.
A finger tapped him on the shoulder. "You missed something," said a voice, then a muffled shot pierced the air.
"What's going on?" R.M. cried. "One person is destroying everything I've worked so hard to build? Why can't we take him down?"
"It's futile," said Callisto, still radiating her usual calm despite the situation. "It's as though he knows our moves even before we do. No single agent has access to all of our information at once, except him."
He frowned, forming so many wrinkles in his face that he could have been mistaken for a plate of spaghetti. "What I don't understand is what he seeks to gain by toppling us. He was a fourth-tier, right? So he knows a lot about the organization anyway, but he was also very well off and protected by being here."
"Perhaps he was jealous of your position?" she suggested.
"No, that's a high cost to pay just to get back at me, like cutting off your nose to spite your face. He's losing much more than I am by destroying us."
A buzzer sounded at the door--three buzzes, a pause, then one, a pause, then two.
R.M. flipped a switch. "Come in, Sidney."
A beaming child entered, hardly more than nine, with glistening white hair and eyes to match. "Daddy, I'm bored. Can I get a new video game?"
"This isn't a good time, Sidney," he said uncomfortably. "We're having some problems with one of the men."
"But I can get it myself!"
"It's not that I don't trust you, kiddo, but Daddy's worried about our man possibly trying to hurt you if you go out. You understand, don't you?"
Sidney pouted. "There's nothing to do here! I'm bored!"
"Come, come," R.M. scolded, slapping his knee. "Bring in your I-Go board, and we can play a game!"
"I'm bored with I-Go. I want to do something new! It sucks being locked up here! I've already broken all my action figures, too. They're stupid!"
R.M. sighed, reaching into his wallet. "Callisto, can you accompany Sidney to the toy store before they close? I'll give you another fifty. Shoot, if you can get it after they close, you can keep all of it."
Callisto nodded. "I'll take protection as well."
"Hopefully you won't need it."
Sunni was a ghost, making her rounds about the house. Unfortunately enough, making tourniquettes was a cinch, and the man stabilized quickly enough before they moved him into the house. Though the man's blood blended conveniently with the reddish roofing tiles, she had also made sure to clean the exterior as rapidly as possible to prevent the neighbours from discovering the accident.
Besides continuing to unpack their belongings, however, there really wasn't much else to do around the house at this hour, yet she couldn't help noticing that Alex hovered over the man constantly.
"Can't you sleep?" Sunni asked, concerned.
She shook her head. "No more than you can. You know that."
"It would be good for you if you tried, though. Certainly it would help you adjust if you spent less time sitting up at night worrying about the p--"
"I'm not worried about the past anymore, Sunni," she spat, unconsciously angry.
An enigmatic smirk crossed Sunni's face. "Is that so..."
It was difficult to know exactly what Alex was thinking, but it wasn't too hard to guess what she was feeling. It had been very hard on them both to lose not only her parents but Alex's closest friends in the war, ones that had always been by her side and ones that she never thought she could live without...
"He's the first one that's left you, isn't he?"
Alex coughed loudly, and Sunni knew that she was trying hard not to cry.
"I feel the same way your parents did," she whispered sympathetically. "I wish you could have grown up and lived happily without ever once knowing sadness. The world doesn't work that way, though, and bad things happen to good people."
"I wish it didn't have to be that way."