Editing and partial trans by Wendy Dinsmore
Any errors in trans or episode are mine
Fear-my intimate friend for as far as I could remember. Not a good friend, rather one of those types of friends your parents are always telling you to keep away from. Everyone knows Fear, perhaps even felt it to some degree. But few have it live with them; prod them, few have it feed off them like a separate living thing. Most don't understand what it means and what it wants at all. It's just a word, something irrational which happens to people--a defense mechanism. Still, just because it's something you can't see or touch doesn't make it any less real or hungry.
‘Fear is the mind killer...' I read or heard this somewhere once. And it's true. Brave men aren't braver because they can overcome their fear, they just have less of it to get past than others.
Do you remember when you were little and your teachers or your family used to encourage you to use your imagination? To culture it? I wish they'd helped me instead to stuff, to crush, and to kill mine instead. You see, I have too much of it, and it's a weapon Fear uses against me. It's how it sets me up to feed. With my imagination I can see only too clearly the things which might happen. I can almost feel every nuance of possible pain and indignity. It's almost more real than the real thing.
Before the old man left, before Ma ditched me at the old church, what passed for my father often told me there were things with big teeth who lived in the hall closet. He told me the monsters in there loved to eat little children, their teeth gnashing their flesh, lapping their blood, sucking the marrow out of their bones.
Just hearing him speak of them would send shivers coursing all over my body. Horrible nightmares would haunt me in the night. I would walk past the hall closet pressed against the opposite wall, and I swear to you I could hear the monsters quietly munching and crunching some poor helpless boy on the other side. Once it was so real my Ma found me cowering on the floor crying, paralyzed by my growing friend as he fed as well.
I tried to avoid going past there whenever I could.
"You'd better be good or I'll stick you in there." My old man would smile wickedly whenever he said this, knowing there was no need to specify of where he was talking about. We both knew exactly where he meant. "They get real hungry you know."
I whimpered just thinking about it. You've never seen a better-behaved four-year-old in your life. But still, every few days, he'd bring it up again. Sometimes he'd grab my arm and for no reason at all would start dragging me towards the closet just so he could watch me blubber and pee on myself. Ma would rescue me and yell at him if she saw him, but there were many times when Ma wasn't there.
But no matter how good I behaved, Fear always made me doubt as to whether I was being good enough. Worse, I started to wonder if the monsters ran out of bad little boys to feed on, would they then look to eat good little boys as well?
I never did find out. And it was just as well. If the old man had ever put me in there, I think it would have stopped my heart right there and then. Fear thought it was all just too amusing.
I did think my heart would stop the day Ma left me at the church. The old man had been gone for some months, and things hadn't been going well for us. Ma didn't believe much in religion, practicing just enough Shinto and Buddhism to get by, so I still think it rather queer she left me in a Catholic church of all places. I've never met her again, so I've never gotten a chance to ask about it, not that it makes any difference now.
She'd told me we were going out to have some fun. I stared at the strange building as we walked up to it not really having seen one like it before. It looked dark and creepy to me like it was watching me as we walked up the stairs. Ma opened the door and sent me inside, slipping me couple of thousand yen notes.
"Go on. Go in there," she said. "There'll be a man in black inside. I want you to find him and give him the money and the note in your pocket. You're a good boy, so do this for me. Okay?"
Yes, do it. Be good.
At five and a half, I didn't understand she was ditching me. But my friend liked all this, so I knew it couldn't be good.
With a half-impatient shove and a regretful look on her face, Ma got me all the way inside and closed the door. Suddenly frantic, I turned around, calling for her. "Ma!" I pounded on the door, not able to figure out how to open it, my little fists going numb as my panic increased. Be good. But no matter how hard I yelled or pounded on it, the door wouldn't open.
"Oh my. Who might you be?"
I froze at the gravelly voice and slowly turned. Before me was an old man in a black robe. I stared at him blankly until I remembered what my Ma had told me to do. So I opened my red hand and showed him the money and with the other took the note out of my pocket. The priest ignored the money but took the note. After a moment, he looked up from the note to gaze at me.
"Oh my." He refolded the note and hid it away in his robe. "Are you hungry? I think I might have some crackers in back." He held out his hand to me.
I stared at it for a long moment. It was bad to talk to strangers, things happened to you. But Ma had said to find him. I took his hand, my own shaking.
The priest kindly led me away from the doors and down the aisle sitting between well-worn pews. It was then that I saw it-the giant crucifix overlooking the altar. A life sized man staked to a wooden cross. Was this what they did to bad children here? As I stared at the grisly scene I felt each of the thorns from the crown on his head as if they were piercing my own skin. I could feel my hands and feet pulsing with pain as I noticed the nails pounded through his hands and feet as if they were crushing my own. There was the excruciating agony from the wound slowly bleeding at my side. It was more than my young mind could take. I fainted for the first time in my life.
As I grew older, as I learned things, Fear found more things to like. Strange, bitter children at the orphanage, dark halls and darker alleyways, bullies, long lines, crime, all sorts of things. The list set out for Fear's enjoyment seemed endless. It might have driven me mad thinking about all the possibilities, except it wouldn't let me. You see, it didn't want to lose its plaything. It only wanted to feed off me, not destroy me. And if I went mad I might not really be afraid anymore, or become so afraid the fear would eventually mean nothing.
So for periods of time, hours, occasionally days, it would leave me alone. But this only worked for the Fear. For once it dulled me into thinking things might be okay, it would zap me again to suck me dry.
Once I did find someone to help push it back for me, someone who didn't look for anything from me but only helped me because he could. I met him at the orphanage, this boy. His name was Ken. He hadn't been there long when we met. A couple of the bullies had herded and pinned me to the back corner of the yard, throwing sticks and small rocks at me. Fear was having a ball telling me what those two might do next, telling me over and over no one would help me. But Fear had been wrong. Someone did come.
Ken asked them what they were doing and to leave me alone. When they didn't but turned to attack him, he took them on. And won! It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. And for the first time, I felt Fear retreat unbidden. Ken had then walked me back to the others and told me I could call on him if I ever needed help again. I stuck to him like glue when I could ever after.
I never could figure out how Ken could push Fear away, but he did. I always supposed it had something to do with the strange intensity he sometimes looked at things. The way which, despite what everyone else said, he stuck to his beliefs. I've always wondered how it might have changed my life if he'd never been taken away. He didn't mind me hanging around him, you see. He never called me a crybaby, or made fun of my fears. He would actually listen to me if I had something to say.
If he'd stayed, maybe I could have finally beat it, finally made Fear go away. But he didn't stay. He didn't even have time to say goodbye before he left. One day a man had come and got him and he was gone. Fear had rejoiced much that day.
No one I've met since has put up with me the way Ken did. Not even after I learned to hide some of what went on inside me.
I stayed at the orphanage till I was sixteen. One night, a number of the others broke out of the place and let me come along. I couldn't sleep for days, my mind speeding with the number of things that could happen to us out in the world. But we made it. We even sneaked out of the country a few months later. I guess you could say one of my first jobs had to do with smuggling--smuggling myself. If I'd been alone, I would have never made it. But I learned being part of a group did much to hold bad things at bay.
Eventually some of us ended up in Huntwall. We joined a gang there, one with many of our own feelings on life. We called ourselves the Betrayers--as in betrayers to what society stood for and makers of our own rules. It was a cool name with cool sentiments and the gang tried to prove it every chance we got. The gang colors were black and dark blue. And no one in their right mind wanted to mess with us.
Our turf was close to the docks; import and shipping being a small part of our business. I didn't hold a high position in the pecking order, but I didn't care. I was part of a group, and I did my bit. Besides, not being high meant a lot wasn't expected from you. And I liked that just fine.
Then word of the war came. Not a gang war, though I always tried my best to stay as far away from those as possible, but a world war. Galactor versus the world.
At first nobody in the gang really cared, but I did. I could feel Fear lapping up the rumors and sketchy news as if it knew something no one else suspected. None of the attacks were close to us, but still the ferocity of the attacks and the group's strange tactics made the rounds. It was clear these guys were looking for world domination. But the ISO and the UN were fighting back. They had some kind of team whose sole purpose was to fight them. Still, to most of us, this was all far away and meant little. Business needed to be taken care of here and now and had nothing to do with these conflicts, or so we thought.
The Betrayers' hangout was a subbasement bar appropriately named The Dive. It was our headquarters, for lack of a better word, and was where ‘business' was usually initiated. Word on the street had it if you needed something done, pilfered, smuggled, whatever, we were the group to see-at least for our section of town anyway. Since we were so close to the warehouse district, it afforded us easy access to places to hide if you needed to disappear in a hurry. In a strange way, it was home.
I didn't normally leave The Dive as most of my duties were there. I met prospective clients at the door and made sure they were legit before letting them talk to Kechi. Some days this was harder to do than others, but I got pretty good at it. Fear was real good at figuring out people's intentions. It was my little niche in the world.
So I was sitting back in one of the ratty chairs close to the back when this guy in a long black coat and broad hat came down and just stood there looking the place over. He was wearing dark glasses, which hid his eyes, and sported a large ring with a red gem on his right hand.
Just looking at him gave me the creeps. There was something I didn't like right off. Feeling uneasy, I tried to ignore him, but Kechi kicked at my chair and signaled for me to get moving. This was the one bad thing about my position, I had to meet this guy whether I liked it or not.
So I hefted up my jacket, shoved my hands in the pockets and made my way over to where he was still standing. The barkeep tried to catch the guy's eye to get him a drink, but I saw the stranger totally ignore him. It looked like this guy was here for business.
I swallowed hard and turned up the collar on my jacket, staunchly reminding myself I wasn't in here alone.
"Hey, are you here for some business?" I asked him. When his face turned to look at me I felt heckles instantly rise on my neck. There was an aura about this guy screaming ‘don't mess with me'.
I couldn't help but take a step back, though I knew it would show badly for me.
"I might," he said. His right hand was in his coat pocket. It occurred to me the pocket was large enough to hold all sorts of things. Like a gun. That's when I first noticed it, the pin on his lapel. It was a mix of eastern and western demons to create a symbol which brought Fear a tingle of glee.
"Is this where the Betrayers hang?"
"Depends on what you want," I said, speaking with bravado I didn't feel.
The man smiled at me and it instantly sent chills down my spine. It reminded me of a cat about to pounce on a wounded bird.
"I don't want anything. Actually, I believe it'd be better to say I'm here to do something for you."
And this was how it started. First he hired the Betrayers to do a few simple jobs-arson, breaking and entering, some smuggling. He paid us well. More than the jobs were worth, really. But he always insisted he come along on the jobs, which was unusual. Like he didn't trust us or wanted to see how we operated. Normally Kechi would have never allowed something like this, but the guy was a sweet talker and could have convinced the Pope to give up his faith if he put his mind to it. He had Kechi and the others eating out of his hand before long. But his veneer never fooled me. Prey always knew a predator, so I knew something ugly was underneath the skin. Something I didn't like but something which Fear was overjoyed at seeing.
Rumors ran rampant through town of a new power in the city, some big muscle you either joined or got run under by. These rumors had been around since before I came, but were growing louder now, more believable. There'd been some hits on the drug lords in the region, some muscling in on the black market goods. It was making a lot of people nervous. Word had it it was the outfit calling themselves Galactor. Back home, it was a word which meant caboose-like they were wanting to ride up behind the world. Heh. Okay, I never said I was good at this.
Anyway, people were nervous. Me? I was downright scared. If there was a big organization out there taking over, the Betrayers would never stand a chance. I could see us being taken out in a number of ways, bombing, hit and runs, or just out and out assault. Kechi said we were too small to bother with, though he became a little more stringent on us keeping watch outside the bar. Sweets, the name we dubbed our number one contractor with, would only smile whenever the topic came up.
"You boys are on the winning side already. You've got nothing to worry about."
It was about a week later when he came in with copies of a contract and popped a recruitment speech on us. He said his group's goals were simple-all they wanted to do was save humanity from itself, to give it order, to bring the rich and poor to an equal footing. It was bullshit, we all knew it, but nobody seemed to care.
I almost said something, I really did. But one cold look from Sweets was all it took for me to keep my opinions to myself. There was a three grand signing bonus and this grabbed almost everybody's attention right from the start. Money was something they could understand. So everyone signed up and though I didn't like it, so did I. It was hard to keep my hand from shaking as I scrawled my name on one of the forms. I hadn't been able to understand half the stuff written on it. I tried to look as happy and excited as the rest of them, but my insides had turned to stone.
No sooner did we all sign that Sweets pulled up a briefcase on the table. It was full of cash. No one had thought he'd actually bring it with him. Man, I'd never seen so much cash! As we stared at it, counted it in our hands, Sweets told us he'd be back in a week to give us our orders. "Good to have you in Galactor." I doubt anyone else heard a thing he said. Oh yeah. Fear laughed echoingly inside me as I spotted Sweets smiling that predatory smile of his at us from the stairs. It could see all manner of new sport for it to suck me on coming from this development.
We made a week of weeks with all that cash though. None of us had ever been good at saving any money before, and we weren't about to start then. Women, booze, so much pot, crack and who knows what else, the bar was covered in a cloud of smoke from it. It was like a seven day high. Even I was able to get lost in it. I forgot all about my usually unforgettable friend and the doubts I held about this whole thing. It was glorious!
Just as he told us he would though, Sweets returned a week later. Though most of us weren't quite up to it by then, he demanded we get straight to business. All trace of sweetness was gone from his voice. It was very convincing. Fear stood up with glee, as if it'd known this was how it was going to be all along.
"Listen up, maggots, you've had your week of fun, but now is the time to pay for our generosity." Sweets' words smacked into us like blows. He glared at each us, even Kechi, who sat up in shock at the sudden change. I sat as far away from Sweets as I could.
"Galactor will continue to give you minor jobs to take care of for us, just like you've been doing up till now." Sweets brought out a small case from his large coat pocket and opened on the table for us to see. "Each of you is to keep one of these so you can identify yourselves to another member of the organization if necessary. If you lose it and you need it, you're likely to get shot." Inside, it held two rows of the gleaming, red demon head pins I'd spotted on his lapel before. "If anyone ever approaches you saying they're from us but can't produce one of these, he's fair game for you to do with as you will." He passed out one pin for each of us.
To do with as you will. Now there was a loaded phrase. Were we supposed to become killers for these guys too? Beat ‘em up, cut ‘em a little, no sweat. But kill them for not having a pin? And the same would be done to us too?
Looking at mine, I felt a shiver course through me. I swear the thing felt warm in my hand and not cold like the metal it was made of. I started to wonder if maybe we'd all sold our souls.
"Put it on." Sweets' eyes stuck to me even as everyone else moved to do as they'd been told. Looking away from him, Fear laughing inside me, I took the backing off the pin to put it in the inside pocket of my jacket.
Fumbling with the pin, I jerked my finger back in pain as the end poked through the material and nicked me on the other side. I sucked on my stinging finger, staring down at the pin. Now it'd been baptized in blood.
"There's also something else you'll be doing for us," Sweets added. "There are certain individuals who don't see eye to eye with our goals and would happily do everything in their power to shut us down. Most don't get far, but there are a few who are definite thorns in our side." He reached for an envelope in his other jacket pocket. "You're to keep an eye open for them and let us know if you ever spot them. The organization will do the rest." From the envelope, he pulled out a number of pictures. Most were very grainy and looked like they'd been magnified almost out of proportion. A couple looked more like police composite sketches. Sweets set them all out on the table so we could get a good look. The last one he set down though wasn't like the others. It was a family portrait. And it was one I'd seen before.
"What the hell?"
I looked up at Kechi, realizing I'd actually been the one who'd spoken. "Ah, nothing, nothing, boss. Was just wondering how the heck we're supposed to spot some of these guys since we can't even tell what they look like from these pictures." I could feel the sweat filling my armpits at the lie, though I was actually cold all over. "This one here. You can't even tell if it's a man or a woman."
Kechi snorted, agreeing with me, and a number of the others laughed out loud. But I could still feel somebody's eyes on me. I didn't dare look over to see who it was, already sure it was Sweets. Damn.
"If the comedy hour is over..." Sweets tone was like a bucket of cold water and shut everyone up. I almost sighed with relief when I felt his eyes leave me. I didn't dare though, for fear he'd notice it. You bet.
"Regardless of the quality or lack thereof of these photographs, you're to keep a constant vigil for all these people. If you even think someone fits any of these, we'll want to know. Katse-sama rewards well for information on his enemies. He'll also do the same for any other type of information which furthers our cause."
"And how are we to let you know?" Kechi asked. "Will you be dropping by every week?"
"No, you'll actually be seeing less of me," Sweets informed him. "I have some equipment for you to use to keep in contact. No use taking chances and have you marked as to whom you work for now that you're in. But before you and I get into it, I have one more bit of news for the rest of you." Sweets turned on the charm and glanced at the rest of us. "Opportunities abound in the organization. You're in, but only at the fringes, so not all benefits of membership are yet open to you. Work hard though, and it could be arranged. The more useful you prove to us, the faster you'll rise in the ranks. Galactor provides a world of options for the right people."
Sweets smiled. "We're all brothers now. United and strong. Memorize these pictures and it might be even better for you. The sky's the limit boys!"
With that said, Sweets took Kechi in tow and left us to our own devices. My eyes returned to the table and the last picture there, still not understanding what it was doing here. I knew this portrait, I'd seen the stiff pose of the father, the mother's kind looking face, and the little boy sitting happily on her lap. Ken, the only person who'd meant anything to me had owned one just like it. He'd shown it to me over and over until I'd almost gotten sick of looking at the thing, though never in the world would I have ever told him.
Unlike the rest of us at the orphanage, Ken had always denied he was an orphan or an unwanted child. He'd always insisted he was there because his mother was very ill, and despite what some said, he insisted his father wasn't dead, just missing. No one had believed him. He wasn't the only there who couldn't face the truth. But he'd always been so sure, so certain he was right. I never did understand why he clung so hard to his belief. I would prefer to think of my parents as dead, just like I told everyone mine were. Because if they weren't, it meant your parents hadn't wanted you and had ditched you there to rot. Just like mine did. But Ken didn't look at it that way. Couldn't look at it that way. It was as if the concept was an alien thing, some cruelty which couldn't possibly exist. Over and over, he told me his father had been in an accident while testing an experimental plane. Over and over, he told me he hadn't died there though. Some of the others would occasionally ask him if this was true why hadn't his father come back? Ken never took any offense and would quickly explain his father had been hurt badly and was still recuperating, or had probably gotten amnesia and didn't know where to go back to.
As I stared at the familiar picture on the table, I now wondered if it could have been for another reason altogether. It might be because Ken's father was a spy and had needed to hide his identity. How would Ken feel about this is he found out?
I stepped away from the table telling myself it was none of my business. I wouldn't tell Sweets anything to pay Ken back for his friendship so long ago and that's as far as it would go. This was in the past and in the past it would stay. Fear laughed at me again as I went up the stairs and outside.
It was my turn to keep watch today, and though nobody had really bothered all week, it was a good excuse to get out of there. I leaned back against the wall next to the sidewalk advertisement, using it as a partial cover.
Sure, keeping an eye out for other gangs or the cops had become less strained than it used to be, but it was a good habit. I had a feeling it had a lot to do with Sweets and Galactor that we had less to worry about on this account. How many of our fellow gangs now worked for them, I wonder. I know if it hadn't been for the money and the promises of more to come, the Betrayers would have never signed up with them. But money did make the world go round, cliched as it might sound. The ugly pin suddenly felt very heavy in my pocket.
I jumped at the voice, not having paid too much attention to the entryway of the bar as I watched a hobo across the street pick through some trash. I didn't feel much better when I noticed the person who'd spoken to me was Sweets. "Yeah?"
"Let's have a word." Those dark eyes didn't leave room for a refusal.
I tried anyway. "I've got watch duty."
His eyes narrowed and I lost my nerve. "We could do it here though, if it's okay?"
Sweets stepped up close cutting off my view of the street. He put his hand on the wall beside my head, pinning me in since the sidewalk sign already cut me off from the left.
I liked the look of this less and less. "Wha, what do you want to talk to me about?"
"Well..." Sweet's smile came on full force. "I couldn't help but notice something when we were all talking at the table earlier.
I wouldn't meet his eyes. "Wh-what?" My throat went dry.
"I could have sworn it looked like one of those pictures there might have looked familiar to you."
I shook my head hard. "No way. I only know the people the others know." I couldn't push myself to tell him outright he was wrong.
Sweets leaned in our noses almost touching. "Really? Are you sure about that?"
I could feel his hot breath on my face. I made myself nod, feeling prickly all over.
Fear laughed, gleefully showing me pictures of what I might expect to happen next. First it dangled the possibility Sweets would drop this and leave me alone. This brought out a loud chuckle from it as I tried to latch on to this possibility of safety. More likely, it then told me, he would hit me, rough me up a little to press me. No one who saw anything out here would help me, if they saw anything at all. If I got real lucky, he would just threaten me a lot.
But Sweets did none of these things, which in a way was even worse. I jerked as he softly patted my cheek. "Ah, Sabu, you just aren't a very good liar. Did you know that?" His smile turned predatory. "Tell me what you know. You work for me now, remember?"
I swallowed hard, hearing the steel behind the seemingly non-threatening words. I was a Betrayer, dammit. He couldn't talk to me like this. But...Kechi, Kechi would do nothing. He worked for Sweets too, for Galactor. I saw my only hope was to come clean, but maybe, just maybe, I wouldn't have to tell him everything I knew. "Well, to tell you the truth, the picture is what looked familiar, not the people."
"What do you mean?" Sweets suddenly looked very interested. His voice dripped nothing but sweetness.
I stared at the ground, feeling hot and enclosed, trying hard not to shuffle my feet. "What I mean is, I think, way back, I might have seen a picture which looked like that one. But I don't actually know anyone in it." The last came out too fast.
"Hm, that's interesting, Sabu." Sweets leaned in close again, almost as if he meant to give me a kiss.
I felt myself starting to panic. It would be so easy for him to stab me right now and leave me here to bleed to death. I could feel my side aching where the knife's blade would cut my skin between my ribs. "It was a long time ago, you see. It was a picture one of the guys had at the orphanage. Just some kid. I barely even knew him. Your picture just reminded me of his. That's all." I was blabbering but couldn't stop.
"A kid at the orphanage, is that right?" Sweets finally leaned away.
I gasped in some air almost as if he'd been hogging it all when he'd been so close. "Yeah, some kid. No biggie."
"Who was he?"
"Ah, who was who?" Don't go there, don't go there.
"The kid at the orphanage. What was his name?"
"Hell, Sweets, it was years ago. I dunno. I hadn't even remembered about the blasted picture or him till I saw yours. He's nobody." I waited, quivering inside, sure he'd lose his patience with me about now.
"Sabu, there could be a lot of money in it for you if you could remember his name." He'd spoken my name like a caress. It gave me chills. I didn't feel any better as he leaned in close again. "My superiors want this guy very, very badly."
"Really, Sweets, I'm trying. But there were so many kids there and it was a long time ago. I'd be only too happy to tell you if I could remember."
"So you really want to help?"
"S-sure." Fear laughed sensing what was coming next. I knew I was being pushed into something I wouldn't like.
"Come with me. I have some things to show you." Sweets grabbed hold of my arm.
"But, my shift."
I felt his grip tighten. "Don't worry about it. No one will be bothering you guys today. I'll clear it with Kechi later too, just to make you feel better."
I still tried to hesitate. I grimaced as his hold got painful.
"You did say you wanted to help, remember?"
I nodded, my stomach turning into knots. I stepped away from the wall. Sweets let go of my arm.
The impulse to flee swept through me. This might be my only chance to run for it. But where would I go? The Betrayers were the only ones who even tolerated me, and now they were in Sweets' pocket. And from the rumors, the news, and Sweets' attitude, I was dead sure there was nowhere I could go where Galactor wouldn't be able to follow. So staring at the concrete, my hands shoved in my pockets, I trailed after him.
Sweets strode down the street as if everything around him were his. I saw him nod at the hobo as we passed and I could have sworn I saw a glint of red from his finger as he half nodded back. A couple of blocks later, Sweets turned down into an alley.
I held back, staring at the narrow way with its deep shadows, the stench of old garbage drifting out towards me. This alley looked like fifty million other alleys. The narrow way, large tins full of refuse, a trail of water running down the middle, and the tall walls of buildings throwing mysterious shadows throughout. But today, here, this one felt different. Deep in my being I knew it to be an entrance to hell.
Sweets' annoyed voice snapped me out of my thoughts and before I could think better of it, I entered the alley.
"Wh-where are we going?" I hated the quiver I heard in my voice, the fear, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Sweets glanced back at me, an amused half smile on his face. "It's not far."
Dodging a couple of puddles, and jumping back as a startled rat crossed my path, I followed Sweets down the alley and around a bend. A couple of the buildings possessed doors into this new section, but Sweets didn't head towards either of them. Instead, he headed straight for the dead end wall in the back.
Three large crates were stacked next to the corner making a small, dark, cul de sac. "In here."
"What?" There was nowhere else to go. Was he going to hurt me now? I cringed, waiting for the first blow.
"You really have no guts at all, do you?" This came out in Sweets' friendliest tones.
I felt my face grow warm but didn't answer him. He didn't understand, no one did. So instead I stepped into the narrow space as I'd been told.
Chuckling softly to himself, Sweets pressed a dark knot on one of the crates. I stiffened as the solid looking side of the crates suddenly slid into the wall showing a narrow space inside.
"Go on in. I'll join you in a minute."
Not wanting to be ridiculed again, I stepped inside, shoving my hands deep into my pockets again so he wouldn't see they were shaking.
"You're so brave." Sweets' tone was something between amusement and contempt. The door shut in my face.
I almost screamed as the floor beneath me dropped, taking me with it. Heart running at a gallop, I realized this had to be some kind of elevator. But to where? After several agonizing seconds, the floor slowed and came to a stop. An opening swooshed open behind me and I turned around. Beyond the opening was a large open room with two men standing in it. One was talking into what looked like an intercom while the other stood right outside the elevator. Both were wearing green and blue uniforms as well as a masked helmet made to look like a mountain lion. Both men were armed. The one closest to me had his machine gun aimed at my gut. I didn't dare move.
"You, come in here." This came from the man at the intercom. He waved me in.
The other pressed the barrel of his machine gun against my side as I came out. "Show me the pin."
Sweat gathering at my brow, I slowly moved my hand to my coat and flipped the left side over so he could see the demon face attached to my inner pocket.
"Go stand over there." The first man pointed towards the nearest corner. "36 will be down in a minute."
I nodded, not entirely understanding, and walked over to where I'd been told.
Less than a minute later, the elevator door opened again and Sweets stepped out. "So, Sabu, surprised?" He flashed his pin to the guard and the latter immediately backed off.
I nodded quickly. "What is this place?"
"Southern region hub." Sweets motioned for me to follow. I hurried after him. We went through a door on the far side of the room.
A long metallic hallway headed off in both directions. Sweets turned to the right. "We have places like this in most major cities around the world. If you play your cards right, you might eventually get to work in one."
It made me nervous Sweets was volunteering all this information. He'd never done this before, especially to me. Fear whispered perhaps it was due to the fact Sweets didn't plan to ever let me leave and so I'd never be able to tell anyone. I decided I didn't want to ask any more questions.
"Sabu, I want you to learn something about what we do here," Sweets went on. "I want you to understand how if you're not one of us, you're against us."
We reached the end of the corridor. There was a metal sliding door there. Sweets quickly punched in a sequence of numbers to the keypad on the wall next to it. The door slid aside. Four armed men, wearing the same uniform as the others, sat inside. I didn't like the look of it.
The men smiled as we walked in, the hunger in them making me cringe inside. The door slid shut behind me. I felt as if I'd just been locked in with a pack of ravenous dogs. I could see no way to open the door back up from the inside.
"Who's this, 36?"
Sweets tipped his hat to the one who spoke and then half glanced back at me. "This is Sabu, a new recruit upstairs. He thinks he may have recognized the picture of Spy A. He's not sure though, so I thought I'd bring him down here to spend the night and see if it didn't help him remember."
I could feel the sweat running now down my back. "I already told you everything I know." The admonition came out as a half whine, but there was nothing I could do about it. One of the men chuckled quietly.
"True, Sabu, but you also said you really wanted to help the cause. I've brought you here to help you do that." His smile was cold. "You haven't changed your mind, have you?"
I could feel all their eyes on me. I couldn't get out of this and I knew it. Fear laughed. "N-no."
"Good. That's what we like to hear." Sweets nodded at one of the other four men. The latter turned, and using another keypad on his end of the room opened another door. "This way." Sweets motioned for me to go through first.
I felt like the condemned walking to his execution. It took all I possessed to force myself into the other room. Sweets and the four guards fell in behind me. I knew I wouldn't like what I would find here.
I wasn't wrong.
The door opened into a long corridor with cells on both sides.
"Put him in the one in the back." I could hear the enjoyment in Sweets' voice.
I half turned to protest, but one of the guards suddenly shoved me forward.
There were six cells on either side, each about two meters wide and deep. A metal cot was riveted to the back wall and there was a six-inch hole on the floor for wastes. They were all open in the front, in the same style as the ones you'd see in a spaghetti western. About half of the cells looked to be occupied. The prisoners all moved as far back as the cells would allow as we went by. I spotted a woman wearing fish net stockings, a tube top, and shorts which didn't hide much. There was a hobo in the cell next to hers, and farther on two gang members, rivals of the Betrayers, as well as a salary man. All of them averted their faces when I glanced at them, their fear screaming from every part of them. I felt my own rising quickly.
When I reached the last cell on the right, one of the guards unlocked it with a bulky key and opened the door. "In you go, sunshine."
One of the others shoved me inside.
"Now, Sabu, use this evening to think real hard and try to remember that boy's name. And don't worry, my boss won't mind you staying here until you do." Sweets tipped his hat in my direction, grinning.
"No! Don't do this to me. I haven't done anything!" I jumped towards the cell door, panic brimming as they slammed it shut.
Sweets' grin grew. "You have nothing to worry about. As soon as you remember we'll let you out. How long it takes is up to you."
Sweets left, taking the guards with him. Chuckling echoed in the corridor. Fear laughed louder and louder.
I grabbed the bars and pressed my face between them trying to keep them in sight. "Please."
"Have fun, Sabu." Sweets waved. Soon I couldn't see them anymore. I heard the door slide closed at the end.
"No..." He'd left me here. He'd really left me here. And he'd not really said when he would be back.
I slumped to the ground even as Fear chuckled at the fun it expected to come.
The thin blanket on the cot provided no warmth whatsoever as I sat scrunched up in a corner of the cot.
It'd been quiet since I'd been brought in, not even the prisoners making any sounds. I'd called out at one point hoping one of them would talk to me, but got no response. So I had plenty of time to think, and it got my thoughts going in directions I didn't want to go in.
Sweets would never come back. I would rot here till I died. One of the Betrayers might ask about me, but none would go to the trouble of finding me, especially if Sweets told them I was doing a job for him. I was doomed.
My stomach rumbled, telling me it was empty. Would they feed me? Or would they let me go hungry to help out my "memory"? Would they let me die? Fear smiled at me with Sweets' grin and I shivered.
But I could put up with being here; I could put up with being hungry. I wasn't a coward; I possessed principles. And I owed him. I owed Ken. I could do this.
Time didn't mean anything in here. As the minutes then hours coursed by everything got sharper, stronger. The stench from the cot of old sweat and fear wrapped itself around me. I could almost hear the others breathing even as my own heartbeat pounded in my ears. The glaring lights pierced my eyes like needles it grew so strong. I could see every dip, chip, and rough spot on the walls and bars. The weave of the blanket felt like thorns raking over my skin.
When the door down the end of the corridor opened, it was like a gunshot going off. My heart leapt to my throat in the hopes Sweets changed his mind and had come back to get me out. Fear laughed at me even as I got up off the cot to go look.
"Okay, guys, who's first tonight?"
Pressing my face into the bars, I could barely make out four men in the green uniforms. Because of their masks, I couldn't tell if they were the same four who'd brought me in here. There was no sign of Sweets. I quickly backed away, the realization dawning on me their words boded ill.
"What? No takers?"
One chuckled. "Let's leave the woman for last. Her pimp's not cooperating and we should do our best to keep her from getting rusty."
The answering laughs from his fellows sent chills down my arms.
"Let's go for this one."
I backed away even further, scrunching once more in my corner. Eyes wide, I stared at my cell door, wishing with all my might they didn't meant me.
The seconds ticked by, my ears attentive to the sound of footsteps. Instead, I heard a half whimper from somewhere down the way.
"Oh, yes, you're the lucky one tonight."
I heard one of the cell doors open.
I flinched at the desperate plea. It could have been my own. It might yet get to be.
"Hey, someone wants special treatment, boys." More laughter. "Guess we'll have to oblige."
I tightened up as I heard the distinct sounds of fists hitting flesh.
I screwed my eyes shut, put my hands over my ears, wanting no part of this. But it didn't work; it never worked. Fear jumped with glee as my imagination supplied what I couldn't actually see. But in my mind, I was the prime player.
When a particular painful jab made the poor prisoner scream, I screamed with him, feeling it myself. Sweat filled my armpits and ran down my back. I could feel it dripping into my underwear.
Slaps, jabs, light punches, pinching, I knew them for what they were-torture without permanent damage. Lying there in horrible pain, a helpless animal, while the brutes showed their power by doing whatever they liked.
I was exhausted by the time the sounds ceased. Yet when I heard the cell door click closed, my eyes snapped open. I knew without a doubt another would be next and this time it might be me.
The next two put up more of a struggle than the first and for it they got more pain. The guards would be tired by the time they made it to me. I almost giggled madly a part of me telling me over and over this would be a good thing. The one after, they didn't take long with at all.
"Okay, honey, it's time to put out."
It's your turn now. Your turn.
I felt the ‘please don't' rising to my lips though I knew nothing I said would dissuade them from what they meant to do.
A slap resounded down the corridor.
"You're supposed to look happier to see me."
It wasn't me! It was the woman. And they'd said she'd be the last. They could have lied. I almost whimpered.
"Come on, you whore, can't you do better than this?" More blows echoed down the corridor.
If she doesn't satisfy them, they might just have to go looking elsewhere.
My breathing grew labored. I knew what that meant. Four of them, grabbing me, slapping me. They would throw me partially on the cot and yank down my pants.
My face would be held down against the filthy mattress, my arms held out to my sides as I struggled to wiggle free. I would be pinned, trapped. Callused hands grabbing my exposed buttocks and pulling them apart.
"Yes, look at that."
The dreaded thrust. The sharp tearing pain. And laughter, always laughter.
I opened my eyes, disoriented, not sure of where I was.
A muffled whimper and a grunt of pain brought the memories flooding back.
I sat up, which set my head spinning, to find I was still in my cell. I looked down at myself, expecting the worst, the line between what was real and imagined blurring as it sometimes did. But it wasn't real; I hadn't been raped. All my clothes were on and I was intact.
I sagged in the cot with relief, my body covered in sweat.
But are they gone? Fear was smug with the feast I'd already provided it.
My vision darkened but I held on. The others wouldn't have dared to make a sound if the guards were still there.
Slowly, I forced myself to relax. It was over. For now.
I didn't sleep. I couldn't sleep. The probability they would grow bored and at any moment decide to make my nightmares a reality wouldn't allow it.
Hours, maybe days later for all I knew, the heralding sound of the door sliding open echoed through the corridor.
Squeezing myself even farther back into my corner, I listened intently for the sounds of doom.
Numerous footsteps resounded on the metal floor, making me shiver. The echoes grew louder and didn't slow. They're coming for you.
They would hurt me, leave me here forever, going through the same ordeal time after time. What harm would there be in telling them Ken's name? I would avoid all this if I did that. And Ken had always protected me before. By telling them, he would be doing it again. Ken was strong; I was weak. I know Ken would understand. It was his fault I'd ever seen the blasted picture anyway. If he'd never shown it to me all those times, I wouldn't be here now.
A flash of green caught my eye at the edge of my cell. I screamed out before I realized what I was doing. "Ken Washio! His name is Ken Washio!"
An amused laugh followed this even as Sweets came into view with some of the guards. "Morning, Sabu. You look awful." He grinned at me.
I got off the cot, staring only at the floor, even as I vainly tried to straighten up my clothes and hair. My hands were shaking.
"I take it from your exclamation you were able to remember the name we were looking for?"
"Yes." My voice shook. Why wasn't he letting me out already?
"What was the name again?" He was enjoying this and I knew it.
I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. "Ken, Ken Washio."
"You're sure that's the name?" Sweets still made no move to open the cell door.
"Yes." My desperation was horribly obvious.
"What a good boy you are, Sabu." I glanced up at him and his usual grin was on full force. "Okay, let him out."
Relief, and weirdly enough, gratitude flooded through me at his words. Like an eager child, I rushed forwards.
Sweets put his arm around my shoulders as I came out, sending tendrils of panic through me. As he led me out of the area, I never once glanced into any of the other cells.
"If this lead pans out, a nice little bonus might just show up on your paycheck." Sweets patted my arm lightly and then separated himself from me. "For now though, you just go home and get cleaned up. Show back up at the bar tomorrow. Think of it as time off for good behavior." He laughed at his own joke. I didn't find it funny, but didn't say so.
When we reached the hidden elevator up to the street, he stopped me from stepping inside.
"I doubt I need to tell you this, but I want us to be very clear on this point." I quivered inside not sure where this was going. "You were never here. You don't know this place exists. You watched some guy for me overnight and that's all there was to yesterday." He turned his emotionless eyes towards mine. "If I ever even suspect you've said one word about this to anyone, you'll do more than come here for some help with your memory. Understand?"
I nodded quickly, my throat too clogged with the knowledge he meant every word.
"Go on then."
I got into the elevator and never looked back.
It was surreal. It felt like I'd been to hell and somehow been spared only to have it all turn into an unbelievable nightmare best forgotten. After taking a day off, I went back to the bar only to have the guys swallow Sweets' tale without a quibble. Life returned to the usual routine and I actually started believing it was over.
I was wrong.
Sweets returned to the bar four days after the incident. He said he was there to check up on us. Yet the moment he'd come down the stairs I'd seen him search the room with his eyes until he'd spotted me in the back. Hmm.
I thought about slinking out of sight, maybe figure out a way to get out the back, but Sweets never took his eyes off me long enough for me to try.
Sweets traded pleasantries with the guys. He made sure Kechi hadn't had any problems with the equipment. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, waiting for the hammer to fall. I didn't have long to wait.
"Say, I've got a small job I need to take care of for my boss. Would you mind too much if I took Sabu off your hands for a few days?"
I felt myself go cold all over. What was this about? I tried to get Kechi's attention, to somehow signal to him to say no, but he never even looked my way.
"Yeah, sure. I don't see a problem. That okay with you, Sabu?"
Both of them turned to look at me. There was no way I could back out now. "S-sure."
"Great! Thanks." Sweets patted Kechi companionably on the back. Then he turned his feral eyes on me. "Come along, Sabu." He grabbed me by the arm. I could feel Fear's expectations rising. I didn't like any of this one bit.
Outside, a large black Cadillac was parked at the curb. Sweets opened the passenger door and motioned me inside. "Get in."
"What's this about?" My fear of what it might be was more than the fear of the man for the moment.
"A chance for some big money, maybe even more, if you play your cards right. Now get in." His tone brooked no further argument.
I got in the car and he closed the door. I didn't look at him as he came around and got behind the wheel.
The Cadillac thrummed to life. Sweets steered it into the narrow street.
"I'm sure you've figured out this has more to it than what I told Kechi." He glanced at me from the corner of his eye. "It's big, truly big."
I stared at the dashboard not saying anything.
"There'll be five g's in it for you."
That caught my attention.
"Maybe more, depending on how it all works out. It might even get you off the streets and into a cushier job if you're real lucky."
So much money meant bad news. What could he possibly want me to do one of the others couldn't have done as well or probably better? And why so much money? "Where are we going?"
"Docks. Boss is in a hurry to get this job over with. Doesn't want the mouse to get wind of what we're up to before we've nabbed the bait."
Bait? Nabbed? "What, what is the job?" You won't like it. This was getting worse by the second.
"We found your boy. But he's in Utoland," Sweets said amicably. "There's too many eyes in that town, too much help he could get. So we need you to lure him back here, where we're more in control."
"You, you want me to help you kidnap, Ken?" I felt cold all over. "I can't do that!"
I jumped as Sweets suddenly pulled the car over to the curb and came to a stop.
Sweat beaded on my face as I was overrun with the certainty he was going to hurt me. But how could I help him kidnap Ken? I shrunk against the door as he turned his eyes on me.
"I don't think you understand your situation, Sabu. You see, there's not much room for you to pick and choose now. The kid's a nobody. He's someone you knew a long time ago. Galactor is here, now, and you're a member of the organization. It's your family, who you're supposed to be loyal to." His gaze raked me up and down.
"More importantly, my boss wants this kid's father bad-real bad. Who do you think he's going to take it out on if you don't do what he wants?"
I flinched. It didn't take a genius to figure out who it would be.
"Remember your little stay at the outpost? The things done to the others there? Well, their treatment would be a mercy to what my boss will do to you to make you agree to what he wants. Is this ‘friend' of yours worth that? I don't think so."
Fear quickly supplied me with all sorts of ideas on how the boss might decide to persuade me to cooperate. Poor little Sabu.
"What are you, what are you going to do to him?" I could barely keep my voice steady. I was hearing my own screams of pain echoing in my mind.
"The boy? Nothing. We've checked him out and he has no info on who we're after. We just want him as bait to bring out the father. We'll set him lose once we're done."
I almost believed him. I wanted to believe him. Ah, but you know better, don't you? No. I don't!
"Sabu, you will be sensible, won't you? Or should I just take you to face the boss and let him talk you into this?"
I would never hold out. I knew I couldn't. And I wasn't fool enough not to think Sweets didn't hold some idea on how I'd fared back at the outpost. I would break and I'd do what they wanted in the end. Wouldn't it be better just to go along with it now than suffer horribly only to do it anyway? Come on, you know you want to.
"All-all right. I'll do it."
Sweets smiled. "Yeah, I thought you'd see things our way." The car pulled back out into traffic.
Not much later, we reached the docks. Sweets pulled up into gated off area, and showed papers to the man at the entrance. He parked on the other side, close to a large trawler.
Leaving me to get myself out, Sweets popped the truck. From inside, he took out two tan duffel bags and a briefcase. He then opened the back door of the car and took out a blue coat with a red belt.
"Take off your colors, leave them in the car." He threw the coat at me.
I started to do as he'd told me when a red flash from the inside of my jacket caught my eye. "What about the pin?"
Sweets seemed to consider the matter for a long moment. "Leave it too. The less chances we take the better."
I hesitated, remembering Sweets' words about members being free game if they carried no identification.
Sweets gave me a half sneer. "No one will hurt you and the pin and jacket will be here for you when you get back. Right now, you're too precious to us. I'll make sure nothing happens to you."
I quickly changed coats. I noticed the red belt was the same color as the pin.
Sweets handed me a piece of paper. "Memorize this address. It's where you'll need to bring the kid once you've told him you've seen his father."
I took the paper, looking at the address, and realized it wasn't very far from here.
"When you get him there, all you have to do is make sure you get him to go in first. We'll take care of things from there."
We boarded the trawler and took up one of the small worker's cabins inside. Sweets explained in detail how I could book passage back on the same ship once we were on our way back from Utoland. Then he grilled me on the story I would give Ken and on what I was supposed to do until I got it down without a stammer or sign of hesitation. It was a bold plan, but I could see how it might work. I hoped though that it wouldn't.
The next day we reached Utoland's port and we took a train from there. I found myself both eagerly anticipating and at the same time dreading meeting Ken again. Once I saw him, I knew my courage would be up again. Maybe, just maybe, I would be able to warn him and get out of all of this somehow.
"Where does Ken live then?" We'd gotten off at the downtown station and were heading north.
"He has a small airstrip outside of town, but that won't be where you'll be meeting him."
Sweets glared at me for all the questions and didn't reply. I kept my mouth shut after that.
We walked a number of blocks over to a nondescript street. On it were a couple of bars, an upstairs disco place as well as a clean looking snack. Music sprinkled from all of them out into the street.
"Okay, Sabu. This is your big moment."
Something about the intense way Sweets was suddenly looking at me brought up the hackles on the back of my neck.
"We have to make this look convincing. No way your friend is not going to think something is up after his place got broken into the other day."
"Wha-what are you talking about?" I could feel the color draining from my face.
"Time to dance, Sabu." Sweets smiled his trademark smile even as he pulled a pistol from his duffel bag.
I took a step back, horrified. He was going to shoot me? All of this had just been some cruel joke?
The concrete chipped at my feet as he shot it, making me jump back. I dropped my bag my hands suddenly numb.
"You remember to do a good job, Sabu. Think of the money you'll get." Bang. "Think of how I'll hunt you down like a dog and hurt you if you dare betray us." Bang.
I was so in shock I couldn't speak. I couldn't even find the courage to turn and try to run away. Every shot came a little closer. At any moment I would feel the fire slam through my foot, my leg, or my knee. Pain would flood my senses. I would fall hard on the concrete my life spilling out in a pool of blood.
Sweets next shot drove me almost to the door of the snack. My eyes were glued to the barrel of his gun as this time its nose rose and pointed straight at me. He was going to kill me! I was going to die!
The sharp retort. The smell of gun powder. A searing pain in my side. I felt myself falling backwards. I hit the door. It gave way and I fell through. Then everything went black.
I opened my eyes, feeling warm, a faint itch in my side. The room slowly focused around me. It was sparse, almost utilitarian, and I didn't recognize it. It was then I remembered Sweets and the gun. He'd shot me!
I was obviously alive though, not dead or bleeding to death in a ditch somewhere. I looked down at myself to find out the damage, and noticed someone had gone to the trouble of bandaging me up. Could it actually be?
I looked up as a door opened across the room. I got the impression of a bank of communications equipment through the opening, but then I only had eyes for the person standing there.
I recognized him immediately. The baby face, those sky blue eyes. "Ken! You saved me." I held no doubt it'd been him. He'd come to my rescue just like old times.
"Ah, lucky you weren't really hurt all that badly."
It was just like him to make nothing of something so important. But I was glad to hear I wasn't badly hurt.
Ken looked good, healthy. He'd obviously been doing well since I'd seen him last. Not that I'd expected anything less. "Is this your place...?"
Ken shrugged and walked over to the lone window in the room. He pointed outside, where I could just see a strip of tarmac and a small plane sitting there. "The old man left me a small airfield."
Lucky bastard. Though I suppose if anyone deserved it, it would be him. Something to remember his father by.
"So, what have you been up to?" he asked me.
On this point at least I could be a little smug. "I joined up with a great gang."
"You've changed, Sabu..."
I couldn't tell if he thought it was for the better. It bothered me a little. "Yeah, not like before where people would tease me and make me cry and you'd have to come and rescue me." I had changed since then. "Well, I got strong so no one pushes me around anymore." Aren't we exaggerating a bit? Shut up!
Ken leaned back against the window frame his face pensive. I waited, realizing how much it meant to me for him to like what he saw. "You truly have changed from Crybaby Sabu-chan..."
I scooted back and leaned sitting against the wall. Man, I hadn't heard that name in a long while. "Crybaby Sabu..." How long ago it seemed. "I was Crybaby Sabu and you were Roughneck Ken back then." It brought back a lot of emotions for me. I could feel all the old feelings about Ken flooding back.
It's time, boy.
My innards cringed. I had to forget all that. It was time to put Sweet's plan into action. But dare I? What would I be doing to Ken? My side itched and I only too clearly remembered Sweets pointing his gun at me. Even Roughneck Ken couldn't help me against him. This was a matter of survival. "So, Ken, have you met your father?"
That got a reaction.
"What? How would you know my father's alive?"
Yes, there it was, the same intensity I remembered in him whenever he talked about his old man at the orphanage. The very thing which had helped me hold back Fear back then. But it couldn't do it now, no matter how much I might want it to. "I saw him over in the country of Huntwall." I was amazed how easily the lie rolled off my tongue. But then again, Sweets had made sure it would. I almost believed I did meet Ken's Dad.
I saw Ken try to fight falling for what I was saying. Fighting to hold back the need to find out if what I was saying could possibly be true. "How did you know it was my father?"
"The picture," I told him. "You know, the one you used to show me all the time back then."
His eyes moved along the wall to my right. "Ah, that."
I followed his gaze and noticed the old picture was right there hanging high on the wall. "Yes, that's the one." The one that'd gotten me and now you in this mess. "I saw it at a cheap hostel in Huntwall."
And off I went with the rest of Sweets' story. I told Ken how I'd gone to stay overnight at a cheap hostel and accidentally tripped over someone. They'd dropped a picture due to my clumsiness and I'd bent over to pick it up for them. Then I'd gone on to my bunk once I gave it back. "After that, I remembered it-the old picture you often showed to me. That picture..." I didn't dare look at him yet. What was he making out of all this? What did it feel like to have someone raise your hopes to something you thought you'd never get? "Then I remembered too what you used to say, that your old man wasn't dead, that he was alive somewhere..."
I glanced at him, saw the rising hope, the hunger flash in his eyes even as he asked me, "When did you see this man?"
"It was a week ago."
"A week ago..." I could see him starting to believe.
Now for the tricky part. "Then, I got into some trouble and escaped over here. They caught up to me in front of that store. And just now when I saw you..." Goosebumps rose up and down my back. I could see it, he was falling for it--for all of it.
"I see. But no, I still haven't found him."
I never wanted to meet mine again, but then I knew my father for the bastard he was. Ken's wasn't like mine. "So, do you still want to find your old man...?"
"I want to find him..."
The pain in his voice almost made me tell him the truth. This was no way to repay him for the things he'd done for me. But the things they'd do to me for telling kept my tongue still.
Ken fed me and showed me he'd found my gear. I got out a fresh shirt, feeling almost like new, and we discussed how best to get back to Huntwall. Ken had some money, and Sweets had given me a little, so it wouldn't be a problem. With the other information he'd given me, I could sneak us in no problem. If not for what I meant to do, it felt almost like old times.
"Before we go," Ken said, "I've got to tell a friend I'm leaving."
I tried not to let my worry at this show. Sweets wouldn't be happy at any delays or side trips, he'd made this perfectly clear on the trawler. "The longer we take to get going, the colder the trail will get."
I saw Ken frown as he thought about it and shook his head. "It won't take long, it's on the way. Besides, no one's in a bigger hurry to get there than I am."
I looked away, knowing this wouldn't be true for long.
We took his bike in to Utoland proper. The sun went down and the streetlights up, making the city sparkle with neon signs of all sizes and descriptions.
Ken parked the bike at the train station then walked back in the same direction Sweets took me in earlier. As I spotted the snack, I felt myself go cold all over. Yeah, Sweets shot me for show, but I hadn't known it then. My fear had been only too real.
"Please wait for me here." Ken glanced back at me, looking tense.
"Sure." I leaned back against the brick wall and watched Ken go on up to the Snack's glass door. I watched him open it and signal to someone inside.
After a moment, I saw him. Ken had waved over a little kid. This was why he was delaying going to find his father? It was then I noticed the kid wore a numbered shirt like Ken's. How cute.
"What is it, aniki?" the gangly kid asked Ken.
"I'm going off to the country of Huntwall."
"What? Are you going alone?"
"This guy's met my father. He's going to help me look for him."
I could feel the kid's eyes on me, but I made sure to look as if I wasn't paying any attention. The less I could do to make him suspicious the better. I didn't want the kid getting any ideas he might want to tag along.
"Uh, uhm, I understand your feelings, aniki, but can you trust this guy?"
The kid was trying to watch out for Ken. That was unusual. For someone so young and not living on the streets, it wasn't the kind of thing one would think about.
"There's nothing to worry about," Ken said a little forcefully. "This guy's a friend of mine."
I was glad he wasn't looking towards me or he would have seen me flinch. Yeah, I was a great friend. Survival of the fittest. Yeah, whatever. I still didn't like it. And it only got less and less the longer I spent time with Ken.
"Okay," the kid answered. "I take it you'd rather I not tell neechan about this?"
"You got it." I could hear Ken's fondness for the kid in his voice. "No use making her worry. Not when I'll be right back."
I tried not to think about whether this would be true or not. Ken would be able to take care of himself if anyone could. He was tough. I made myself meet his eyes as he left the kid, hands stuffed in his pockets. "You all right?"
"Yeah. Let's get this over with."
With Ken in tow, I retraced my steps back to Huntwall. We reached the port by the next morning. This would be the day, this would be the day I gave my friend over to the wolves. And there was nothing I could do to stop it.
"Sabu, you don't look too good. You okay?"
His concern just made me feel worse. I couldn't wait for this to be over. "Fine. Just a tad seasick is all. I didn't sleep well." I'd almost told him on the trawler, almost told him before it'd become too late. But I'd fallen asleep before I could work up myself to do it. And all night I was haunted by Sweets' face and visions of the reward he'd give me for having failed him. Ken deserved better, but...
"So where do we go from here?" Ken sounded so eager now.
"This way," I told him. "It's not far."
Coughing up for a bus, I took him past the East Side of downtown, to the poverty section of the city. It was where the hostel was where I'd supposedly seen his father.
The building looked as seedy and unkempt as a dozen others. All the windows were shuttered and gave no hint as to what might be within. I could feel my insides churning, knowing my part in this was almost over.
"So, this is the hostel you told me about..."
Ken reached for the knob. I felt sweat trickling down my back.
Could I do this? Could I just let him walk in there not knowing what might happen to him? The only real friend I'd ever had in the world? Yes. You can.
I tried to get my mouth to work, but nothing came out. Fear was right, I was more concerned of what would happen to me than what might happen to Ken. So all I did was just stand there as he opened the door and walked inside, trusting me to follow.
I didn't. Instead I took first one step back and then another. The doorway was wide open, but as Ken walked farther in the floor dropped down like an elevator. I barely caught a glimpse of him as he realized what was happening and turned around. I backed away even faster. Then he was gone.
I jumped at the familiar voice. "Swe-Sweets."
His feral grin was on full force. "Looks like you were able to get him here with minimal fuss. I might just have underestimated you."
"So, so I'm done? I can go?" I hated the squeak in my voice but at the moment there were more important things to consider.
"Sure, Sabu. You can go." I could hear the contempt in his voice again. "But you might want this first."
Sweets pulled out a large wad of bills and slapped them into my hand. "Your colors are back with Kechi. You can get them there. And as for this? Don't try to spend it all in one place, okay?" His eyes told me he was sure I'd need more in a week or two.
"S-Sure." I put the money inside my coat before he could think of taking it back. Depending on what he'd really given me, I was half-thinking I might never go back to the bar again, contracts be damned.
I left him, even as I heard him chuckling softly to himself. As soon as I made it around the corner, I hurried away not wanting to take any chances. The deed was done, there was no turning back.
I slowed down a number of blocks later as it percolated through that I might just live through this. I'd gotten away! Though I wasn't happy about it, I'd done as they'd asked and they'd actually let me go. None of my nightmares would be coming true.
I'd never felt so euphoric, so free. I'd done it. I wouldn't be hurt. And not only had I made it, but I was ahead. I opened the side of the jacket and riffled through the money inside. For once I'd really made it.
A heavy hand fell on my shoulder. I instantly went cold all over. Oooo, here it comes.
No! There was no need to panic. Everything was fine. I got away. Telling myself this over and over, I turned to see who'd stopped me.
I didn't recognize the man in the white suit and fedora, but I got the creepy feeling I should have. The stranger suddenly grabbed me by the jacket, his eyes piercing mine.
"So, the recompense for betrayal of a friend is a world trip?"
My heart sank. This man staring at me held the same predatory look Sweets often had. And he definitely was looking at me as prey. But how did he know what I'd done? Would the money Sweets had given me be enough to get him to let me go? Before I could even try to offer it to him, he punched me in the face. I fell down hard.
My jaw throbbing, I scrambled to try to make a run for it, sure there'd be more pain to follow. I was quickly grabbed from behind. Panic was flooding through me.
"Oh, I don't think so," the man in white whispered softly in my ear. "You have even more rewards coming for your betrayal."
"I-I don't know what you're talking about. Please, let me go!"
Mercilessly, the stranger twisted my arm up high behind my back, causing pain to shoot up into my shoulder. Using my arm, he pushed me forward to slam me into the closest brick wall. "If you say another word, I'll shoot you here in the street and have done with it."
He meant it, every cell in my body knew it. My knees turned to water. If he hadn't propped me up against the wall I would have fallen to the concrete.
Saying nothing else, he roughly pulled my wrists together behind my back and tied them. Every torture I'd imagined I'd receive from Sweets and his boss came back to me in a torrent but with a new instigator. I could feel myself starting to hyperventilate.
"Stop that." He shook me hard. "You won't be hurt if you cooperate." He then yanked me away from the wall.
Keeping me in front of him, he prodded me back the way I'd come. Why was he doing this to me? Who was this man? I would have begged for my freedom, but I was more afraid of what he'd do to me if I spoke.
He shoved me beneath the fire escape of the first building in the same block as where I'd left Ken. I leaned against the wall feeling weak, trying not to look at him as he waited for something. In a few minutes, two men, both in nondescript suits and hats, showed up.
"Did you find it?" the man in white asked.
One of the two men nodded and pointed towards the other side of the building. Dragging me along, all three headed that way. On the building's other side, they stepped to an open grate in the sidewalk.
"Excellent. Let's go then."
I suddenly knew where they were going and I absolutely did not want to go there. I set my legs firmly on the ground, not intending to budge. The man in white frowned down at me and then in one swift move swept my legs right out from under me. I hit the ground hard. "You're going to your reward. It will not be kept waiting. Face it like a man, if you can." He jerked me back up onto my feet. "Now keep quiet and move."
The area under the grate turned out to be a small room. One of the other two men fumbled with something for a moment in the dark and then the whole thing started down.
When it stopped, doors opened before us and we got out. We were going into some kind of Galactor installation. It could be nothing else. Were they mad? Didn't they realize what would happen to them, to me, for being here? One look at the man in white's face told me he didn't care.
From the elevator they went into a huge hallway which went off in both directions to deeper darkness. A ways down on the hallways' far side was a thin sliver of light.
"You two go around. We should go get this over with."
Silent as wraiths, the two men disappeared into the darkness, never hesitating. The man in white dragged me towards the light, staying off to the side of it when we got near. As he reached the edge of a large metal door partially opened into a room where the light was coming from, he shoved me down his face close to my ear. "Don't move. If you do, I'll track you down and kill you."
I nodded, hearing my death in every syllable.
The man in white stepped away from me as silently as the others.
Scrunching down, trying to make myself as small as possible, I heard the echoing sound of a strap biting into flesh. Too afraid to be curious about it, I jerked away from the light as steps suddenly rang out loudly from the direction the man in white had gone. Had someone else come? Would they see me?
Then the figure came up into the wash of light. It was him, the man in white. But why was he making his presence known like this? Was he mad?
"Don't come in here!"
I gasped, recognizing Ken's voice. I could hear what it cost him to give the warning-the pain at giving up his chance to finally meet his father. Guilt twisted like a knife in my gut.
I heard the echoing sound of a strap again and realized Ken was being beaten. I felt hot guilt gnawing at me, for I knew this was my doing. How could I have ever thought Sweets might be telling the truth? How could I have done this to Ken? You wanted to live. I tried ignoring the answer.
The man in white never slowed or hurried during all this, finally coming to a stop before the open metal doors.
"What's wrong, Kentaro Washio? Your precious, only son is here waiting for you."
More footsteps rang out, echoing in the rooms. They didn't come from the man in white, for he was standing still.
Sounds of surprise whispered out from the other room even as the steps stopped. Then a third set rang out softly. Those stopped as well. I'd no idea what was going on.
"Be careful. They're planning something."
Suddenly, the man in white ducked out of the light. I pulled away thinking he was going to crash into me. Instead, he stopped and threw off his suit showing a red uniform which lay hidden underneath. He kept his back to me. From a side pocket, he removed a strange folded hat and a gun.
Paying no attention to me, the stranger walked back towards the open door, this time shooting.
Bullets rang off the walls and grunts of pain echoed out to me. I jerked at every sound, expecting a stray missile to impact me at any moment. Though I knew this would be the perfect time to make my escape, my legs wouldn't hold me. If I ran, I would be calling the bullets to me. I knew this.
"Who, who are you?" It was the same voice which had come out of the other room before. "Why doesn't he reveal himself? Where is Washio?"
I heard a lone shot ring out. Five others followed in succession. Then nothing.
"This was a waste of time." The stranger's voice sounded close to the open doorway. "Let's go."
"Please wait, Red Impulse."
Ken! Ken was still alive. I'd been so sure a bullet had taken him.
"Father, my father, where is he?" Ken asked.
"Fool. You think we have time for this? Galactor is about to collapse the Van Allen Belt. They have a missile ready."
The Van Allen Belt? A missile? What was this about? Why would Galactor do such a thing?
"If they use this missile, the Earth will be totally destroyed!"
Destroyed? Galactor was trying to take over the world, not destroy it. Right? A picture of the grinning red demon pin swayed in my mind's eye. We had sold our souls to the devil.
"Do you understand, Ken? Someone has to take the responsibility for this. If not, there never will be any father, son reunions."
My head throbbed when I accidentally smacked it into the wall as Red Impulse abruptly moved into my field of view.
I felt my breath leave me as he turned to look at me. Roughly, he pulled me to my feet and thrust me out towards the light. No!
"Almost forgot this guy." I felt the rope binding my hands loosen even as I was shoved forwards. "Dispose of him as you wish."
I fell to the ground, my face covered in a cold sweat. I didn't want to see him, I didn't want to see Ken.
Someone was in front of me, I looked up and found a Galactor guard before me. He wasn't moving. A thick, metallic odor came from him. It was blood and gunpowder. This man was dead. Before I could stop myself, I screamed and backed away. There were bodies everywhere.
Ken started down a set of metal steps from a tall platform. My back hit the corner of a strut, my eyes glued to him rather than the carnage around me. I couldn't tell what he was feeling. This scared me even more. Here comes your friend.
"Please go easy on me..." Ken wasn't happy, he couldn't be. But he just didn't understand. He would hit me though, I was sure of it. And I'd seen him fight when he was young, how much worse would he be now that he was older?
"What you said about having seen my father was a lie, wasn't it?" There was no trace of emotion in Ken's voice. It was almost as if he were asking me about the weather. My hands started shaking.
"The whole thing was an act, wasn't it."
I hadn't known Sweets was going to do that. I hadn't! Ken couldn't believe that. Oh, please!
"You got shot at close range yet your wound was so slight. I'd thought it strange at the time, but I couldn't question you about it," he said calmly. "You see, I thought there was no way a friend of mine would ever betray me."
He would hurt me for a long time for what I'd done. And he should. This would destroy whatever there'd been at one time between us. If he could only be made to understand. Fear gleefully showed me what I might expect. I knew there was no way I'd be able to get away. "Forgive me, Ken. I was afraid."
I'd crawled up against the wall, and turned away from him no longer able to look at him. My body shook under his silent wrath. "If I didn't do what they said, they'd kill me."
I shrunk in on myself, expecting blows at any moment, my fear heavy in my mouth, my throat, my entire being. And it was laughing. "Go easy on me. I was so scared. I couldn't help it." Believe me, please believe me. "There was nothing I could do. I was wrong. Please forgive me."
Then I heard something which chilled my blood. The one thing I'd hoped to never hear, not from Ken-total and unequivocal disgust.
"You haven't changed at all, have you? You were always this way. At the slightest thing, you always broke down into Crybaby Sabu."
I couldn't breathe. My chest was filled with pain.
"You embarrass me."
Ken turned his back on me. The final blow. It couldn't, I couldn't let it end this way. Not from the one person who'd ever been a friend to me. "Ken!"
"Stay away from me!" His contempt was like heat from a furnace. "You've done enough. Go wherever you want-just go away."
My head dropped as the only real friend I'd ever had walked out on me forever. Fear was gone for once, a bottomless emptiness now taking his place. I could hear Ken's footsteps echoing as he left me there.
I thought of running after him, of trying to make him understand, but couldn't. To see him looking at me with disgust again was more than I'd be able to bear.
One of the few things, one of the few people who'd ever meant anything to me was gone. My friend was gone. And it was all my fault. I had no one to blame but myself.
Yet as I sat there in my misery I realized I'd lost one friend only to gain another. Fear wouldn't be the only one keeping me company anymore. Self-Loathing was now making himself right at home.