The Forty-Second

The basement hallway stretched away in front of Prad, the maw of a great jungle flower in the night. The lights had gone out hours ago — just another cost-saving measure of the DraxilCorp power structure — and they did not light up at his passing.

This was by design.

The security guard stalked past him in the dark, the beam of his flashlight playing lazily this way and that as he wandered down the hall. Prad was on him in a heartbeat, his wicked, tri-tipped blade thrusting up under the base of the skull, shattering the bone, and muddling the brain.

It took a special kind of strength to pierce bone like that, a strength forged on farm tools and honed in hatred. The man felt nothing, and for that, Prad was thankful. As he fell down, the flashlight picked out distinctly Orarosian features in the man’s face. Prad relieved him of his multi-key and stole along down the passage, finding his way by the NightSpec goggles he’d liberated from a DraxilCorp storehouse.

There was a decided irony, he thought, in using DraxilCorp tech tonight. Who else could manufacture the top-of-the-line combat gear needed for such an operation? DraxilCorp alone had a net worth over five times that of Oraros’s entire wealth of nations combined, so their new headquarters going up in the heart of Gester was heralded and welcomed with jubilation.

At least at first.

On the promise of mutual bounty, the contracts were signed in haste, if not fully understood. Oraros operated on good faith and good will in matters of business, and was completely blindsided by the cutthroat, take-all-you-can business practices embraced on Anankeros, the home world of DraxilCorp. But the people of Oraros had learned, and learned quickly. Prad more than most.

Two years ago, Prad had been a humble, happy farmhand in a family of twelve. He had been engaged to a lovely girl from Gester. His life was simple, but enviable.  Now, his sisters and fiancee were slaves to the Anankerosian transplants. His brothers worked backbreaking shifts in the mines. Prad himself was lost in the menial labor system that had swallowed almost all the indigenous people of Oraros.

All, that is, except those who had signed the life of the planet away. Those privileged few now resided in the DraxilCorp complex themselves, though their appearances were limited to public service announcements from the corporation. It was widely believed that the Corp had brainwashed them to put on the company message, if it hadn’t killed them outright and replaced them with clones more than happy to be puppeted by the Corp.

So Prad found himself alone on a mission for the benefit of his homeland, disavowed as a traitor and erased from public record, halfway down a hallway leading to rooms whose purposes were unknown even to those who worked their entire lives in the building. On paper the room didn’t exist. Certainly it wasn’t listed on the corporate directory. On the outside, it brooked no suspicion at all: a simple door of Stavromulan Oak with a curt Authorized Access Only placard. This door was locked at all times.

Prad swiped the pilfered multikey across the scanner pad. It beeped and slid open on smooth, soundless hydraulics. Behind the first door was another door, this one featureless and blank as the Anankerosian polar desert. As the first door closed behind him, the room was bathed in a sickly purple light, the color of an Orarosian thunderfish about to part its prey from its skin. Prad tensed, but forced himself to stand up straight. He clicked a button at his wrist and his suit hissed agreeably.

Hidden sensors in the walls began sampling everything in the room, from the quality and texture of Prad’s hair to the slightly acidic signature of his sweat to the striated blue and green irises around his overlarge eyes. These readings did not match the only readings that the sensors would accept, but this was also by design. Instead of Prad’s readings, the sensors picked up the sensory holograms projected by his suit, recognizing not Prad Arkid, resistance operative, but rather Orthan Lob, personal physician and preservationist to the top brass at DraxilCorp.

Prad felt no particular remorse for Lob’s blood, some of which was still dried under his fingernails. Lob had indirectly spilled more than enough Orarosian blood to balance the debt.

The glow in the room shifted from electric purple to soothing green, and the door before Prad withdrew into the ceiling.

Before him, the room opened up into a smoothly circular chamber bedecked with monitor screens showing hundreds — perhaps thousands — of real-time diagnostics and three-dimensional representations of the biological functions of the figure at the center of the room. The head of DraxilCorp. The de facto despot of Anankeros. Menoetius Moros.

He slept, or seemed to sleep, propped upright in a tube broiling with a thick, vaporous fog. Bluish and translucent, it simmered full of enzymes and nutrients. The chemicals he bathed in renewed him while he slumbered, giving him the youthful, vibrant, charming appearance that had kept him the face of his corporation for centuries. “Why settle for being remembered forever,” Moros had famously said, “when you can be forever?” The man’s face rose, ghostlike, out of the fog; his thick, virile mass of black hair waved gently in invisible currents in the stuff. His smooth, untroubled eyes were closed gently as if in a pleasant dream. His vile mouth was slack, but seemed almost twisted into a smirk of inexhaustible advantage, the expression of a man who, the moment his opponent touches his first pawn, knows he’s won the chess match already.

Prad crept toward the tube, a spider advancing on an entangled moth. He leaned over the sleeping form of Menoetius, the gaunt, harsh features of his own face reflected and blended grotesquely with the smooth, perfected curves of the sleeping man.

At the hands of Moros, Oraros had bled. At the hands of Moros, Oraros had suffered. At the hands of Moros, Oraros was dying. Just like every other planet in the belt.

And now, beneath his own hands, Moros slept.

Prad couldn’t help smiling. One by one, he slipped his fingers out of their gloves. He wanted to feel the life go out of the old man. He wanted to look into the cold, dead eyes of the planet-killer as his blood ran out.

Prad reached for the console next to the Vitatube.

At the press of a button, the face of the tube slid back.

The fog billowed out, an ocean trapped within a bottle. It bathed Lewis’s skin, icy and slimy and stinking of death.

With one hand, Prad reached into the tube and seized the back of Moros’s neck, bringing the sleeping man’s face up as he bent his own face downwards. With the other hand, he brought the knife up under Moros’s jaw.

Prad thought of his brothers, entombed alive when a karillen mine collapsed on a DraxilCorp dig. He thought of his father, wasting away on a reservation for the old and infirm of Oraros in a DraxilCorp facility. He thought of his hometown, bulldozed and flattened to make way for the DraxilCorp complex, to lay the foundation for the building in which he now stood.

He thought of these and a thousand other injustices, and found he had no words for any of them. He pressed his face hard against that of the sleeping man. Tightened his grip on the knife.

“Die.”

The knife slipped through Moros’s jaw without a hint of resistance, hesitated for an instant as it sheared through his palate, and finally buried itself in his brain. Moros’s eyes shot open, his hands wrapped convulsively around Prad’s shoulder, pulling him into a bizarre embrace as he struggled. Prad watched coldly, his face still pressed to the dying man’s, as Moros thrashed, slowed, and stilled: an ant kicking feebly as it drowns in vinegar. He sank finally into the Vitatube.

The blood began to coagulate almost immediately on Prad’s arms and hands. It was darker than blood should be, blackish and ice-cold. As Lewis went to sheath his knife, he found he could no longer move his arms.

The fog.

His arms and legs had been bathed in the fog that shrouded the sleeping man. With mounting panic, Prad realized he could not move at all.

The banks of displays showing the failing vitals of the dead man flickered and went blank as the tube sank down into the floor. Then laughter flooded the room: piercing, gleeful laughter, the laughter of a schoolyard psychopath pulling the wings off butterflies. Then, the perfect, manufactured face of Menoetius filled every screen, staring at him, sneering at him, laughing at him.

“Congratulations,” said the disembodied faces of Menoetius Moros. “You’ve killed me. And now I have you.”

Prad blinked, uncomprehending, hatred bringing a snarl to his lips.

“Oh, yes, very good,” the faces said. “It might please you to know that you’re the forty-first person to successfully kill Menoetius Moros. Which means you’re the forty-first person to learn my dirty little secret.”

The Vitatube holding the dead Moros had vanished completely into the floor now, and a second tube was descending rapidly from the ceiling. It lit on the floor and opened like a clockwork box, and Menoetius Moros stepped out of the tube: young, beautiful, terrible, and immaculate in a pressed suit and starched tie, that same knowing smirk yanking on the corner of his mouth.

This time the man himself spoke, the impossible man that Prad had just killed, standing before him, flawless and self-satisfied and smug as ever. “Not that you’ll live to tell anybody about it.”

***************

This week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig involved taking a character created by another author and crafting a short story featuring that character. This feels more like a vignette than a self-contained story, but man, it’s so hard to wrap these things up in tidy little packages…

I used a character offered by elctrcrngr, a devious fellow named Menoetius Moros. He was just too unlikable; I had to try my hand at killing him off. But then, a guy like Moros doesn’t go down easy…

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About Pavowski

I am a teacher, runner, father, and husband. I am an author-in-progress. I know just enough about a lot of things to get me into a lot of trouble. View all posts by Pavowski

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