Chapter 3: Rearview mirror
We barely make it into our apartment before I’m all over Ethan. The keys he’s opened the door with clatter to the hardwood floor when I grip his hips and shove him to the wall. Grinding my thigh into Ethan’s crotch, I invade his mouth with my tongue, swallowing his breathy little moans like liquid honey.
Ethan’s hard already. Begging for it with the way he whimpers and presses our bodies together. Always so fucking easy. So fucking needy. Just like …
I deepen our kiss, desperately locking my lips with Ethan’s until he draws away.
“Hmmm … Sacha ...”
He’s panting against my ear, his hot breath almost driving me insane. And it’s all I need to shut out the thought of the other skinny guy. The one with the broken voice and that huge scar disfiguring the side of his skull …
I free myself from Ethan’s embrace and take a couple of steps back, panting hard. Feel Ethan watching me, eyes wide with concern. Glare at him, shake off his hand when he reaches out to touch.
“Don’t!” I hiss. Looks as me as if I’ve hit him. Hurt his stupid navigator feelings. I take a deep breath. “Please …” Saying sorry without actually saying sorry. The closest to fucking apologizing I’ll ever get. He’d better settle for it.
Ethan smiles. “It’s fine, Sacha. I … Do you want to talk about it?”
Shake my head. “No, I … Let’s just go to bed, okay? I’m fucking tired.”
“Don’t you think we should at least …” Ethan sighs. “You know …” He’s clearly uncomfortable. Course he is. It’s a fucked-up situation. The favor Aleks has asked of us is hovering in the air like a thick black cloud. “I mean,” Ethan carries on speaking. “I can understand if you want to go. After all it’s kind of like Aleks’ last wish and Hector said there’s going to be taken care of everything. I just …”
“Leave it,” I interrupt him with a scowl. “I said I don’t wanna discuss this now! I’m going to bed.”
Later, when we’re both lying on our large futon, I’m staring at the ceiling with eyes wide open, unable to calm down. I can hear Ethan’s soft breathing next to me and envy him his ability to sleep. Every time I close my eyes I can’t help but think of Aleks. Don’t want to face the possibility of losing him. The idea of it alone unbearable. Yet, I know it’s true. I could see it in Aleks’ eyes; the acceptance of the inevitable. The determination to set things right before it happens.
But how’s a fucking trip to Earth supposed to make up for anything?
That’s what Aleks has asked of us. To come to Earth on a fucking road-trip with him. Stupid lil shit told us, he wants to see the ocean just once before he dies. Has always been ridiculously fond of it since he’s first seen it on an edu-vid. Nothing even remotely comparable on Mars; just a fucking red rock floating in space with water only available through large hydrogen-oxygen fusion plants outside the vast climate control domes that make human life on Mars possible in the first place.
I’ve already seen the ocean. Been to Earth with Ethan a couple of times after we’ve gotten discharged from Fleet. Didn’t find it all that spectacular. A hell of a lot of bluish-grey water, cold as fuck. Never quite figured out what Aleks was so excited about.
Ethan’s stirring beside me, murmurs something unintelligible in his sleep. I roll over to my side, sneak my arm around his waist and burrow my face in his soft blond hair. Ethan smells of warmth and sunshine. Holding him finally soothes me a bit. I close my eyes and slowly drift into sleep.
The fat grey rat disappears into a crack in the wall of the run-down factory building, wiggling its tail as if to mock me.
“Fuck!”, I spit, frantically trying to fight back the hot tears of despair and frustration that threaten to fill my eyes.
I won’t cry!
I won’t fucking cry!
Not having eaten anything half-way decent for days I feel slightly light-headed, and my stomach seems to have shriveled into a tight, painful knot. It’s been more than a week since I’ve run away from that family they’d put me into. My foster father giving me strange looks, trying to feel me up when he thought nobody was watching. Wasn’t going to let it happen. If I have to get on my hands and knees, I’ll at least do it on my own account. And sure as fuck I will have to, sooner or later, if I don’t find any other way to keep myself from starving.
But not just yet.
If only I could find that goddamn rat, break its neck and roast the fat thing on an open fire, it’d help me to get over another couple of days. Probably also help me catch all kinds of dreadful diseases for good measures, but I’m already far beyond the point of caring.
In the dim light of the fading day I search the wall and eventually find an opening big enough for me to crawl through. I’m embraced by pitch-black darkness, so thorough that it almost seems solid. As my eyes fail to adjust to the absence of light, I take a box of matches out of the pocket of my pants. I’m about to strike a match, when I hear voices mingled with laughter and fearful cries somewhere close.
For a tsygan stray like me it’s healthier to stay underneath the radar of certain people. Streets in this part of town are a fucking warzone, especially after curfew. Too damn easy to catch a bullet in the head or knife between the shoulder blades. But I’ve never been good at keeping my ass out of trouble, and I’m far too nosy to resist to find out what’s going on.
It doesn’t take me long to locate the source of the noise that has caught my attention. As soon as I see the flickering bright orange reflection of a fire on the concrete walls, I slow down and sneak over to the gate that leads from the broad passageway into a vast assembly hangar.
A metal staircase leads up to a gallery that surrounds the whole of the hall at half height. Silent as a cat I tiptoe up the stairs to procure a better view of the scenery. What I see when I look down, makes the blood in my veins grow cold.
Six coarse men stand around the fire. All of them wearing leather jackets with insignias that identify them as members of the Lobotiev Brotherhood, the local Bratva gang.
But that isn’t what makes my heart pound wildly.
I swallow hard.
The boy is about my age, twelve or thirteen, maybe even a bit younger. Small and scrawny with glossy black hair framing his delicate face. He is staring at me with grey eyes wide open in terror and disbelief. Desperately he tries to keep his balance on a wobbly stack of crates, a taut sling around his neck that forces him to get up on his tiptoes in order to not strangle himself. “Fuck,” I hiss under my breath. “Fuck….fuck…”
Those eyes set on me, piercing even at such a distance, keep me glued to the spot even as my mind screams for me to run. To abandon this kid, it’s no concern of mine, the last thing I want to do right now is give the damned bratva a reason to have a grudge.
But still, I sit there, limbs tense in a crouch, trying to formulate a plan of rescue … I can’t just leave this kid in the lurch, not after all I’ve been through myself… I know that if I were in that boy’s place, I’d be mentally on my hands and knees, begging for any kind of miracle to save me from the certain death tied around my neck.
My eyes flick over the men again. Six of them in plain sight. My eyes search the dark corners of the room for anyone hiding, nearly pointless with the dimmed flicker of flame being the only thing barely illuminating the walls of the vast place. But I can’t see any other shadows.
Something else catches my eye: Two large double doors on the far side of the room, and next to those, large garage doors that would’ve been used to ship out produced goods. There is a switch to the side, and next to that… crane controls. My eyes flick up to the crane, noticing a rather large payload that is still tethered there. If I can get to the control panel, then maybe a distraction might give me enough time to free the boy and slip out of sight.
“What the hell am I even doing,” I mutter under my breath as I hastily make my way across the catwalk, being just delicate enough with my footing to remain silent. I manage to cross the room and exit the metal stairs that are just across from the control panel. Quickly, quietly I move towards them, glancing over my shoulder frequently to make sure the men are still occupied with their sick little game.
My hand hovers over the red button that will release the tether from the crane’s giant claw. Hesitation grips me. They’ll probably have weapons. “Fuck,” I hiss again, before slamming both hands down on the button and garage door opener, then turning tail to run back to the stairs before the load’s heavy fall reverberates through the entire complex.
I manage to make it halfway up before it does. I hear shouts from the men, three of the six whipping their heads in that direction, hands flying beneath jackets to grasp their weapons as they exchange startled and angry orders in Russian.
“Shit, what the hell? I thought you said we’re alone!”
“Fuck you, we were! Those Blutliga-fuckers must’ve caught onto us somehow … damn shits!”
The Blutliga… A German rival gang – Russians and Germans constantly fighting for dominance in the slums of Colony Five … The three men on alert scurry to cover the door and investigate, while the other three … they’re backing away now. Securing the other entrances, I guess.
The boy is still tethered there, but now the question is how I can get him down.
“Fucking waste of my damn time!” The shout of one of the brothers is followed by a loud gunshot in the boy’s direction, shattering the fragile crate he’s just barely managing to stand on. He falls with a startled yelp, the rope pulling sickeningly taut as he hangs there, suspended only by the length around his neck.
“Fuck!” I break into a run on the catwalk, eyes darting to and fro, trying to find what the rope is secured to – a rickety-looking, rusted-out walkway that goes between the two running parallel by the walls. I swallow as I creep towards it.
I can hear the boy struggle for breath violently, even over all the noise surrounding us. Time is slipping through my fingers. I have to do something. Now! The kid will lose his desperate struggle any minute.
There’s no way I can hoist the kicking body up the walkway. So, there’s only one thing left I can do. I take a deep breath and pull the knife out of my right boot. The blade is so blunt that I have to use it like a saw and apply all pressure I can muster. But the goddamn rope is thick, and the boy’s movements are getting weaker and weaker. His gasps for breath sound so painful it hurts to listen to them. I double my efforts. Cold sweat is running down my forehead, making my eyes sting.
I’m almost through.
The boy’s completely limp now. And, even worse, he’s gone dead-silent.
No, no , no, no, NO!
The rope snaps with a sharp hiss, eventually. For the blink of an eye, time seems to stand still. Then, all of a sudden, the boy’s falling and crushing onto the cold concrete with a sickening sound.
I set into motion almost immediately. As fast as I dare, I crawl backwards until I reach the catwalk. I hurry down the stairs with frantic speed. When I finally reach the crumpled body on the floor, I pick him up without bothering to check for the kid’s pulse. There’s no time for that with the Lobotiev brothers returning any second. Fortunately the little brat’s as light as a feather, so I can just throw him over my shoulder and head back into the dark passageway.
I can’t believe that we really make it outside unhindered; through the crack in the wall, into the light of the slowly setting sun.
“Hang on”, I gasp, not looking at the dead weight draped over my shoulders, secretly fearing what I’ll see if I do. “Just keep it up for a couple more minutes, kiddo …”
We’re not far enough away from the factory building for it to feel even remotely secure when I’m taking cover behind some meager shrubs and carefully set the boy down to the floor.
It’s the first time I really get to seem him. Eyes closed, skin ashen-grey. Doesn’t look good. Shit, shit, shit!
“C’mon”, I whisper pleadingly. “Wake the fuck up, goddamnit!”
My fingers clumsily fumble for a pulse, jerking back quickly when they’re touching something warm, wet and sticky. Only then I notice the deep ridges the rope has cut into the kid’s neck. They look horrible. Bloody, where the skin has been torn open, swelling and bruising already.
I position the boy’s head on my lap and lightly smack his cheeks with the palm of my hand. I’m not really expecting him to react, lying there ashen faced and lifeless. So when his eyes suddenly fly open and his whole body convulses when he desperately tries to catch a breath, it almost startles me.
“Nein, Lena! Nein!” It’s barley audible, more a hiss of thin air than an actual voice. His pupils are dilated to a point, the light grey of his eyes isn’t visible anymore. He looks straight into my face, but it feels as if he’s seeing right through me. “Bitte! Lasst meine Schwester in Ruhe!”
No, Lena! No! Please! Leave my sister alone!
He’s kind of sobbing now, while struggling for breath at the same time. It sounds horribly painful. I’ve been growing up in the border area between the Lobotiev and Blutliga ruled parts of town, so I know my fair share of German. Enough at least to understand that he’s pleading for someone to leave his sister alone. Don’t need to be a genius to add everything up. I’d rather not know what happened to the girl. Probably hasn’t been as lucky as her brother – if you really want to call him that.
“Schhhh, Myshonok …,” I whisper, brushing the hair out of his face. Don’t know what else to call him, and he reminds me of a little mouse somehow. One that has almost been killed in a gigantic mouse trap called life. “Ganz ruhig. Keine Angst, alles wird gut.”
“Hush … Calm down. Don’t be afraid. Everything’s going to be alright.”
I know it’s a fucking lie. Nothing’s going to be alright. Not for me, not for him, most definitely not for his sister … But what else am I to do than to tell him a goddamn pack of lies? Tell him he truth? That I won’t be able to take him to a hospital for treatment? That I can’t even get him any fucking painkillers?
His eyelids start to flutter, he’s passing out again. A hoarse sound escapes the ruins of his throat, then his whole body goes slack. If it wasn’t for his breathing – loud and painful, like shards of glass in a grinder – I’d mistake him for dead. And then, all of a sudden, there is silence.
“Hey, Myshonok!” I grab him by the shoulders and shake him; slightly at first – harder, when he doesn’t react in any way whatsoever. “Wake the fuck up, for fuck’s sake!”
He’s no breathing anymore and I panic. Somehow I know, that this is not, what’s supposed to happen. We are meant to make it out of here together. He’s going to be my best friend, my companion – my shadow. The one I can always rely on. The one who’s never going to let me down. Who’s never going to deny me anything.
“Don’t you dare, do this to me,” I mutter under my breath, trying to feel for his pulse. “Don’t you dare …”
But I already know, all my efforts are pointless.
He’s dead. He’s …
“Myshonok!” I sit up in my bed with a startled yelp. For a moment I don’t know where I am. Darkness is surrounding me. It’s fucking suffocating me.
“Sacha …?” Ethan’s stirring next to me. He turns around, sneaks his arms around my waist.
“Had a bad dream, Baby?”
“It’s nothing,” I say. “Go back to sleep, Ethan.”
He cuddles up against my side and sighs a content little sigh. I rest my chin on the top of his head. His stupid hair is tickling my face. Smells sweet like fucking flowers. Won’t ever admit it to him, but I love the scent of it.
It merely takes him minutes to fall back asleep. Don’t think I’ll be able to again. Don’t think I really want to. Know it’s only been a dream. Aleks didn’t die, then. He and I made it out of The Shambles. Signed up to be fighters for the Alliance. Best decision of my whole life, cause there’s no fucking way I’d have met Ethan otherwise.
Things didn’t turn out as well for Aleks, apparently.
He’s been strangely devoted to me right from the start, don’t know why. It’s not as if I’ve ever treated him like he deserved. Stuck around anyway, content with every little scrap of attention I could spare him. Not that Ethan left very much of me to share …
Fuck, yeah, I love my Myshonok. Always have. Not in the way he’d have wanted me to, for sure. He’s kinda like family to me. Damn pretty as well. Didn’t help him much getting over me that I couldn’t keep my hands to myself. Pretty sure I’ve been his first. He sure as fuck wasn’t mine. Shit, I’ve never claimed to be a bloody saint.
Quit screwing him after things got sort of serious with Ethan. Only slept with Aleks one more time, back on the Sleipnir, when he was Deimos and I was Cain. Had had a bad fight with Abel, gotten drunk and fucked Deimos. Wanted to piss Abel off, ended up hurting Aleks instead.
Know I’m a stupid git. Both Ethan and Aleks deserve much better than that. Fuck things up more often than not. Only thing I’ve ever done well is pull Ethan through the war alive and save Aleks.
I suppress a sigh. I know what I am to do now. Shit, it’s going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my whole life, but there’s no bloody way I let Aleks die. Not without trying every fucking thing I can to save him.
I’ve done it once, I can do it again. Together Aleks and I will find a way to beat this fucking tumor. There’s got to be a cure. There’s just to be. And I’m gonna use this bloody trip to Earth to convince Aleks of that.
I’m not gonna allow him to give up just yet.