Jack stepped outside, pulling the copper gas mask over her face. She tightened the elastic straps against the back of her head, shifting them underneath the long, black hair that she’d tied up earlier. She took a deep breath, hearing the whirr of the filtration system as it struggled to sift out what little oxygen content there was left in the environment.
“Come on, Ace. We’re going to be late!” She called into the doorway behind her. The four-hundred-square-foot apartment was amongst the thousands of similar structures stacked on top of each other, covering practically every inch of Los Isles—-aside from the Restricted Sector, that is. Throngs of humanity passed by her as she stood only a foot outside of her door, each with gas masks concealing their features. They were all heading to the Courthouse. So were they, if Ace would hurry up.
She turned back around, resting her hands on her hips. She squinted to see through the brown smog that hovered in the air, clouding her vision and casting a murky, orange hue in place of sunlight. As she looked at the factory across the street, she could hardly see the massive smoke-stacks pouring more of the heavy contaminants into the air, so veiled were they by the noxious fumes.
“I’m coming!” He yelled, his raspy voice distorted by the breathing apparatus. He stepped out onto the street and stood looming above her like a granite pillar, chiseled and dark. Even beneath his gas mask she could see his pronounced jaw flexing with irritation.
“Don’t give me that look,” she said. “We have to get there on time.”
“You think I don’t know that, Jack?” He said, stepping ahead of her into the tumultuous crowd. “Let’s go.”
His massive presence was unusual to most people. Most of the time, they could get places quickly, despite the crowds, because of Ace. His huge arms and staggering height made people move for him as much as it made people stare. When they would go to Yosama’s Bar after their sixteen-hour shifts at the factory, people would sometimes try to pick fights with him, just because he was so big. She could never understand why they did it, or why they thought it would be fun. Ace may be a relatively patient and quiet man, but he could only take so much before his blood began to boil. Those fights never ended well for them.
They walked hurriedly through the masses, Ace leading ahead of her like some kind of machete-wielding jungle guide, chopping his way through humanity. Being late to the mandatory Courthouse announcements was considered frowned upon. Whatever that meant. Jack only knew it was best not to find out.
“Ace!” She bellowed ahead of her. She knew he’d heard her, but he didn’t turn around or stop moving. They were already running late. “Can you see anything yet?”
“Yes,” he said. “The car is arriving.”
“Fuck,” She muttered.
When they finally made it to the town square in front of the Courthouse, they were at the back of the crowd. Ace managed to shove their way toward the front so that Jack could see a little better. Just as the masses stopped shuffling, the clocktower struck five a.m. and a black Mercedes rolled through the gate that blocked off the Restricted Area. Behind the vehicle, the Agents rapidly re-closed the gate to the road; reactivating the electric fence to protect the beautiful white buildings and the Courthouse from the filthy masses. She saw Ace spit to the side. It made her nervous.
The Mercedes’s door opened; the Governor of Los Isles stepped out. He wore a golden respirator, complete with oxygen tank, and black, circular goggles that protected his eyes from the intensity of the smog-laden sunlight. His long, blonde hair cascaded over the straps on the back of his head and curled softly on his shoulders. His suit was purple today, with gold cufflinks; the same suit he wore everyday for his mandatory announcements, just a different color. You could tell his skin didn’t spend much time in the toxic outdoor air, for it was pure white.
A single Agent stepped out behind the Governor, cloaked by his black goggles and silver respirator. His rifle was pointed lazily at the ground, his finger laxly overlaying the trigger as if he knew he’d never have to use it. He stood with his legs slightly spread and his shoulders loose as the Governor stepped away from the car and into the center of the square. The Governor’s fancy black shoes clicked against the filthy bricked streets.
“Welcome, my people,” He said, his voice smooth yet distorted through the respirator. You could tell he had a nice voice underneath that thing. Probably a nice face too, with skin as smooth as a baby’s butt.
“Thank you all for coming.”
He paused, taking a moment to survey the crowd, moving in circles as if to make everyone feel important. Or intimidated. Under his protective goggles, you couldn’t tell what he was really looking at. The black lenses gleamed this way and that in the steamy orange light.
“Today, I have an unfortunate announcement. Due to a shortage of food, we are both going to have to cut your rations and increase your required work hours from sixteen to eighteen.”
The Agent tensed his grip on the rifle as the crowd stopped shifting, stopped breathing. The respirators were all silent, even if only for a moment. It was a moment that felt like an eternity to Jack. She could almost feel the despair as it settled into each of their tired, thin faces.
Her stomach twisted into an uncomfortable knot. For the love of God, when are they supposed to sleep? What is there to do but work and sleep and eat and die when you work sixteen hours a day, much less eighteen. As she looked down at her thin, yellowing hands with soot-stained fingertips, she imagined death could be more merciful than this.
She looked up at Ace. The veins in his neck bulged with each heartbeat and he clenched his massive fists into a ball.
“Ace,” she whispered. “Don’t be upset, please.”
He looked down at her. His eyes were bloodshot, red blood vessels spidering through the whites of his eyes and into the brown center. Tears slowly built on the edges, pooling in the redness and threatening to form actual tears. She’d never seen Ace cry. Not once.
She started shaking as the Governor continued to speak.
“I hope you know this is required for you all to survive. There are simply too many people and not enough goods to go around without this increase in workload. I do hope you understand that this is for your own good. You work, and we protect you. There must be order. That’s how this works, you understan—-“
A body—-a man’s body—-lurched out of the crowd in front of her. She saw a blur of brown hair and yellowed skin, the flash of a copper respirator as he flew into the town square. He sprinted toward the Governor with his head ducked down and his arms outstretched as if he intended to grab the Governor by the throat. Only a moment more and he would have reached him, but a gunshot smashed through the air before he could. She saw the barrel of the Agent’s gun smoking as the man’s chest seemed to explode. Red splattered onto the governor’s purple suit and white skin as the body went flying backwards. The Governor didn’t even flinch.
The body hit the ground right at the edge of the square; right in front of Jack. She stood shock still. She could say nothing. She could do nothing. Her ears rung. Her head felt hollow. She stared at the body of this man, this person she didn’t know. She could see his is wide, open eyes, pupils saucered as they stared at the sky. Blood quickly pooled on the street, reaching the tips of her shoes. She stepped backwards into the crowd to keep it from touching her.
Time felt as if it crawled as the Agents rushed into the crowd and dragged his body into the square. They passed right by the Governor as they dragged the limp, bloody body, but he didn’t even look. He said nothing; he stood with his shoulders taught and his arms folded in front of his body as if nothing had even happened.
The blood on his suit was starting to sink into the fabric. The blood on his face was staining his pure white skin.
“Well, everyone. Enjoy your work day,” he said, unfolding his arms and stepping back into his rich man’s car.
The darkness of night had swallowed Los Isles long before Ace and Jack got out of the factory. Their faces covered in sweat and soot, they funneled through the wire-fenced corridor to punch out. The old work-card in her hand looked white compared to her blackened fingertips, but it also was stained with the filth and soot of the factory. Jack arrived at the scanner and slid the work card underneath it. The red light flashed green and she moved on, allowing the next of the thousands in line to do the same.
She bumped up against Ace as they walked home, trying to get him to talk or at least look at her. The night hid the thickness of the air so that it almost seemed as though it would smell fresh, like the rain before it had turned to acid. She could only vaguely remember that smell from her childhood, before the pollutants had blotted out the sunlight, but tonight looked like—-if she could smell it without gagging on all the toxins and particulate matter in the air—-it would smell like that. Like the rain.
“Want to go to Yosama’s?” He asked, his voice raspy from dehydration.
“Don’t you think we should sleep? We only have six hours.”
He didn’t say anything for a while. They continued to walk, their heavy industrial boots scuffed against the street.
“No, I don’t think we should sleep,” he said finally. He sounded angry, his voice echoing inside the metallic respirator as if he were shouting. “I don’t think we should ever fucking sleep again.”
They arrived at Yosama’s Bar, the concrete apartment that was only slightly larger than their own, yet had somehow managed to get a business permit. The neon-yellow sign above the door flickered, the light struggling to be visible in the hazy atmosphere. Ace kicked open the door, and Jack followed as they stepped into the cigarette laden atmosphere of the bar. There were only a few people who’d also just arrived, since everyone got off work at the same time.
Jack took off her respirator for the first time all day. The air pressure escaped and let out a blast of air as she pulled the copper apparatus from her face, strapping it to her utility belt. She ran her fingers against the painful red ridges it had left in her cheeks.
“Jack, Ace! Welcome!” Yosama said, immediately pouring them each a glass of flavorless, clear alcohol. He set the shot glasses on the bar top made of stacked cinderblocks. The only kind of alcohol Yosama sold was distilled from potatoes he had to grow himself. God bless him. He was a true entrepreneur. He had to work all day at the factories as well, he received no exception, but somehow he usually managed to keep this place open at least three hours a night.
“Thanks,” Jack said as she took a seat on one of the rickety stools at the bar top. Ace sat beside her, immediately throwing back his head and downing the glass Yosama had set for him. Yosama poured him a second one without question.
“You upset, Ace?” He asked, spreading his arms against the bar top and squinting his brown eyes—so brown they almost looked black.
“We’re all fucking upset,” a man sitting next to Ace said. His eyes were also bloodshot; his face also scarred by the respirator. “Fuck,” he said, as he took a swig of his alcohol.
Jack looked over at him, noticing his finger as it tapped nervously on the grainy bar top before he took another drink.
“What’s your name?” She asked.
The man leaned towards her, opening his mouth. His eyes were bright blue, blue like she’d never seen before. He shut his mouth and sighed as he sunk back to his side of the bar.
“Does it matter?” He pulled out a cigarette and put it between his lips. Yosama walked over, striking a match and holding it up to the end as the man puffed on the thick, black smoke.
Jack didn’t say anything. She dipped her finger into her alcohol and let it slowly dissolve the black stains on her skin. Ace downed another drink.
“Jesse,” the man said, taking a drag of his cigarette. He spoke as he exhaled, the smoke puffing through his lips and nostrils in sync with his words. “But like I said, man, does it really matter? We might as well just be a number. They own us, controlling things the way they do. You know that, right? We’ve got no fucking choice, ever. We never have.” Jesse ran his hands through his greasy blonde hair, closing his eyes as he leaned against the bar top. Now that his hands were forced to be still, he tapped his foot against the floor.
She was silent for a moment. Ace clenched his fists as Yosama poured him another drink. A few more people walked in the back, slamming the door shut behind them.
“Maybe we do,” she said. A tremor shot through her hand, rattling her glass. She glanced over at Ace to see his eyes were wide. He looked wild, like he was intoxicated, but there was no way he’d ever be intoxicated after three drinks. His huge brown eyes glared at her like he knew. He knew what she was thinking. Maybe he had all along.
“What are you saying, Jack?” he asked.
She bit her lip for a moment as she looked around to be sure no Agents had entered. They’re usually not around at night. They actually value sleep.
She leaned over the bar top, facing Ace and Jesse. She cupped her palm around her mouth as if it would guard her words from the world.
“I’m saying we fight.”
Ace glared at her, his fists clenched around his glass before he let out a breath. After she spoke those words, the bar felt suffocatingly quiet. She glanced over her shoulder, suddenly feeling watched, vulnerable, anxious. The few other people in the cramped building weren’t looking at her though. They were all absorbed in their smoking and drinking and gambling, drowning away their problems and laughing while they did it. The only person looking at her was Ace.
“Yosama, let’s have another round,” he said, throwing his head back and swallowing the clear liquid in a single gulp.
Jesse took another drag of his cigarette before exhaling. He laughed to himself, the permanent red lines on his face curved upward in a smile. His face twitched as if those muscles had never been used that way before.
“Fuck,” the man said, laughing as smoke poured out of his nostrils. “Why the hell not.”
Plumes of steam shot out from between the two metal plates as Jack pressed down on the lever, casting the gold into the shape of a respirator.
The heat on the assembly line was sweltering. Sweat was dripping into her eyes, and since it mixed with the soot caked on her skin, it stung like hell. She wiped the agonizing liquid away with her forearm as she lifted the lever, releasing the shining gold respirator from between the plates. Ace worked beside her, lifting the respirator with tongs and dropping it into a liquid solution, where the sudden cooling bubbled angrily before the next person took it up for cutting and refining.
The factory was dark. The harsh fluorescents hanging overhead should have given off more light, but they’d long ago been stained by the sweltering, filthy air that had congealed on every inch of the building. They now cast a murky glow that hurt Jack’s eyes and made everything look dirtier than it already was. The Governor wasn’t about to pay for filtration systems in the factories; that’s what the respirators were for. So of course, they still had to wear them as they worked, adding another layer of suffocation to the sweltering fortress of filth.
“Hey,” Jack whispered, glancing up at Ace’s dark hair that was clumping with sweat. She was breaking protocol by talking to him, but she and Ace had often done so in the past. It was how they’d become friends, actually. Though the Agents lingered on scaffolds overhead and could watch them from every corner, they couldn’t hear you from that height, and the Agents on the ground couldn’t be around everyone at once. It was easy to get away with. They hadn’t talked much in the past few weeks though. Ace had been far quieter, both at work and at Yosama’s afterwards.
“I’m going to take the metal sheets today. During our fifteen,” she said. “For the kni—-“
“Shut up, Jack,” he mumbled, his voice reverberating in his respirator. “They might hear you. I don’t want to die because of you.” He looked around as he spoke, his wide brown eyes scaling the building.
Jack pressed the lever down on another sheet of gold. She looked down at the copper respirator covering her nose, noticing how the colors contrasted one another.
“You know,” she said, “we’re probably going to die. I won’t let you say it’s because of me. I thought you were on board with this.”
Ace clenched his jaw beneath the straps of his breather, his huge arms working mechanically on the menial tasks set before them.
“If you’re not, then don’t come,” she said, suddenly angry. “Don’t do it. I’m not your keeper. If you have a better idea then let’s hear it. I’d love to hear it.” Steam blasted from the metal molds before her, making her break out into a fresh sweat.
She felt her throat tighten. How dare he say she’s the cause of this. The Governor is the cause of this. If they die, it’s because of him. Because of the rules, because of the hours, because of the air and the starvation…because of the goddamn respirators.
“I am on board. I can’t live like this anymore,” he said, lowering his voice. “I just don’t exactly have a death wish.”
“Damnit Ace, it’s not like I want to die,” she bit back. “But someone…someone has to do something. If you’ve got a better idea, I’d love to hear it. I know my plan is shit. I know we’re probably gonna die, but I see no other choice.”
Silence followed, only interrupted by the clinking of metals and the screams of escaping steam. Ace worked quietly after that. She could tell that he was angry with her, by the way he moved, by the way he didn’t breathe. She pressed the lever down on another metallic sheet, feeling like a monster. She was making him feel bad about not wanting to die, really? She didn’t want to die either. God. She was such a bitch sometimes.
She wasn’t like Ace. She didn’t know how he could stand to be so quiet, or why he never just said what he was thinking. She hated it. She never could figure him out. For the ten years they’ve been working side-by-side in this factory, she felt like he never really let her in. Not anymore.
It hadn’t always been this way. Ace had been her only friend for almost as long as she could remember. After the war, when they’d started working at the factories, they’d been mere children. They’d been scared and alone and forced to work twelve hours a day in exchange for “protection” from the poisonous air. They’d had nobody else, no other surviving family or friends. They’d gone through it all together. She cherished those youthful memories. Despite having lost so much, those days had been full of hope and romance, before the years of toil and starvation had squashed any romantic sentiment left in their exhausted bodies.
The years had changed them. Ace had grown quieter, darker. She supposed that she had too. It wasn’t just them. The world had grown darker. The youthful optimism found in friendship was no longer there; the reality of life had worn them down. They were only shells of who they could have been, had the world been different.
“I’m sorry, Ace,” she said, her throat tightening with emotion. “I just can’t think of another way.”
He stopped working for a moment, gripping the metallic tongs, a clean new respirator between them, dripping white hot liquid onto the concrete floor. He only glanced at her, but she could tell his eyes were sad. He passed the respirator onto the next station before he spoke.
“I’m sorry too,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow. He stared out, away from her, up onto the guard rails where Agents crept overhead on mesh scaffolding, guns in hand.
“And you’re right. There is no other way.”
Jack walked to the Courthouse a half-hour earlier than necessary, so the streets were empty. She wasn’t sure if she’d ever seen them so quiet, so entirely devoid of life. The apartments lining the bricked road were still lit up by the industrial fluorescents that towered overhead, sending a hazy white light into the orange atmosphere.
When she reached the town square, she centered herself on the border. She’d be right up front today, in front of the crowds. She twisted her arm behind her back, fingering the knife underneath her shirt to make sure it was still there. They’d only just fashioned the blades out of stolen sheets of copper last night; she could feel the irregular folds from the rough heat treating they’d done in Yosama’s oven. She felt the pointed edge and ran her finger along it until the blade split her skin. She withdrew her hand, looking at the blood as it bubbled up from her broken flesh. She suddenly felt sick.
She heard footsteps approaching behind her, and she turned around to see that it was Yosama. They exchanged nods as he positioned himself on her left. He didn’t say a word, but bowed his head and closed his eyes as if he were praying. She could hear his respirator whirring silently with each inhale.
After a few moments, Jesse ran into the square in a frenzy. She could see sweat dripping down his face, pooling along the lines of his respirator as he came to stop in front of her. He’d been more nervous than anyone, and it showed today. It had only been a few days since they’d decided to go through with it, but she’d somehow hoped he would gain his courage before today. He was here though…gasping for air and doubled over, breathing between his legs like he was gonna be sick…but he was still here. Jack started to approach him, but he stood up before she could come any further.
“I’m fine!” He said, his voice cracking under the strain. He walked away as he fumbled to retrieve a cigarette from his pocket. He took his spot, facing her on the left, his hands shaking as he held the cigarette and tried to light it. He sighed and swore bitterly as he realized he couldn’t smoke it with the respirator on, flicking the lit cigarette onto the ground. Jack watched the smoke curl up from end, slowly dissipating into the atmosphere. She could use a smoke right now too.
The crowds began to arrive, one by one. She scanned the faces for Ace. A young girl with a shaved, greasy head walked up and stood directly behind her, covered by Jack’s forming shadow as the sun inched upwards into the murky sky.
The girl was so small, yet she was alone, her hands already yellowed and stained by the soot just like Jack’s. She stared at the girl until the girl stared back at her warily. Her eyes were bright green and intense; her dark eyebrows creased downwards as she looked up at her. She looked angry.
Jack turned back around to face the square, taking a deep breath as she closed her eyes. Of course the girl was angry. They were all angry. Jack began to clench her fists until her fingernails dug into her palms and made them bleed.
The crowds grew. Adults, children, men, women. They came with thin faces covered by rusting copper breathers, their eyes weary and red, their skin yellow and thin, all walking the same monotonous path into the square. She turned to face them as they crowded behind her. It was the first time she’d looked at them this way. There were so many…it was staggering. Breathtaking. Funny that she’d never thought of it that way before.
She’d been so bent on mere existence for so long, drinking at Yosama’s, waiting for her next meal, valuing each minute of sleep as if it were her last. In the midst of all of the existing, all of the nothingness, she’d never really taken a good look at the people she stood beside. Today, she wouldn’t just exist. Today she was going to live. She was going to live, even if only for another hour, as she looked her fellow people in the eyes.
Maybe they would remember her eyes, as she remembered that nameless man’s eyes, as the blood drained from his chest and onto the filthy bricked road.
She breathed deeply, turning around to face the square. Any moment, she expected Ace’s enormous figure to emerge from the back of the crowd and tap her on the shoulder, but time passed. The crowds grew larger, pushing her further into the center of the square. The sounds of the respirators grew increasingly louder, the shuffling of footsteps became deafening, but still, Ace wasn’t there. She felt anxiety begin to rise, joining with the noise and the movement to create a cacophony inside of her. She just wanted to see him. Just one last time.
“Where’s Ace?” She asked out loud, speaking to Yosama as if he’d somehow know.
“Late as always,” he said. “Don’t worry. He’ll be here.”
Time ticked by; the movement of the crowd stopped as everyone arrived. Agents began gathering at the gate of the Restricted Area. The Courthouse’s pristine white clocktower was barely visible through the smog, but she knew the time was drawing near. She began to panic as her eyes scaled the crowds for any sign of Ace. It’s not like he was a hard guy to spot.
The clocktower struck five. Its distorted, repetitive melody rang through the air as the Agents deactivated the electric fence and lifted the gate.
The Governor’s car rolled into the square; the steamy sunlight glinted off of the metallic black. The braking mechanism squealed the Mercedes to a gradual stop, and the click-click of a tall Agent opening the Governor’s car door seemed to slow time. Jack twisted her arm behind her back, lifting up her shirt and exposing the blade tucked into her pants.
Ace wasn’t coming. She let the realization wash over her like a tidal wave. Fear consumed her, about the Agents somehow knowing, somehow suspecting him and taking him out. The uncertainty made her heart pound and her stomach twist into a thousand knots.
Then she remembered their last conversation at the factory. It began to gnaw at the back of her mind. His fear of death ate at her, making her question if she could really go through with this. Is that why he didn’t come? Did he really abandon her, leaving her to die alone? She bit her lip, pain rising in her chest.
Yosama and Jesse both looked at her and nodded, and Jack began to tremble, clenching her fist around the blade. She turned her head to look at the little girl with the green, angry eyes one last time. She turned to look at all of the weary eyes behind her, all of the filthy faces and copper respirators and thin, yellowing skin. They were like a sea of orangish colors, breathing together like a tide. A sea of humanity.
She realized, then…with or without Ace, they had to do this. The Governor stepped out onto the street, pulling at his silver cuff-links and smoothing his freshly-pressed black suit. He had a single Agent standing behind him, as always; his black O2 tank and goggles masking his features. There was still only one. They could still succeed.
She tightened her grip on the blade and closed her eyes. A tear escaped against her will and slid down her face, leaving a streak in the grease stains.
This is not a life worth living. She stared into the darkness of her eyelids and listened to the stillness of her breath. She felt her lungs expand as stale, filtered air poured into them. She breathed what may be her last breath as she opened her eyes.
It was time. Jack ran, pulling the blade out from behind her back. Although she moved fast, time felt still. Quiet even. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see both Yosama and Jesse running too, both their weapons extended. The Governor grew in her vision as she descended upon him. His golden respirator flashed in the sunlight and his black goggles looked like the empty eye sockets of a skull.
The first gunshot rang out, reverberating in her eardrums. She was fifty feet from the Governor. She didn’t stop moving as she saw Yosama fly backwards. Blood splattered onto the ground as another shot echoed through the air. The redness of the blood was so bright, such a stark contrast to the murky, colorless world around them. Jesse screamed when he died.
She looked up at the Governor, breathing hard through the respirator as she was only a step or two away. She extended her knife in balled fist. She could hear nothing but her own breath blasting through the metallic apparatus; she could feel nothing but her heart pounding in her chest. She was about to be upon him, when she noticed the Agent behind the Governor turning the barrel of his gun to her.
The final gunshot came as she stabbed aimlessly into the governor’s arm. Blood seeped from his wound, warming her hand. As the bullet ripped through her torso, Jack stood, suddenly immobilized, staring at her own reflection in the Governor’s reflective goggles. She continued to grip the knife in the governor’s arm as she slid down his statue-like body until she lost her grip, rolling onto the ground, blood pouring from her chest with each heartbeat.
She was dying. Her blood pressure was dropping. Her eyes began to cloud, dark circles closing in around her.
“Good job, Ace,” the Governor said. She looked up at him, his black metallic eyes as void as the depths of hell. “You’ll have a place in the Restricted Sector, just like I promised.”
“Ace?” she managed to say before she coughed blood, spewing it onto the Governor’s shoes next to her face. She felt herself suffocating, her lungs collapsing as the air crushed them into her chest. Each breath she attempted was agonizing, and she could feel the blood collecting at the back of her throat, drowning her.
The Agent came into view above her. He stood as though he were one of the smoke-stacks protruding from the factory in front of their apartment, stoic and unmoving. He enveloped her in his shadow as he lifted his hand, shifting the dark goggles onto his scalp.
“I’m sorry, Jack. It was the only way.”
Ace’s brown eyes came into focus just as Jack gasped her final breath.
-Copyright: Jennifer K Fuka 2019
Image found at: http://www.theindependentbd.com/post/160874