Melancholy: Episode 2
“If you knew you were going to die,” I say, “If you had a split second before it was going to happen, what would you do in that split second?”
Luke groans. “I don’t wanna play this.”
He’s basting a chicken that must have cost him a fortune, and I’m watching him from the stool behind the kitchen bench. This is how we spend most of our lives: Luke cooking, me watching and thinking of stupid things to ask just to get a reaction out of him.
“Go on. Tell me.”
“How could I possibly know?” he asks.
“Use your imagination.”
“I’d stop myself from dying.”
“No, that’s not one of your options.”
“Why? How am I meant to be dying?”
“That doesn’t matter. It’s inevitable.”
“You’re not playing properly,” I whine. “It’s a hypothetical.”
He hides a smile. “A split second isn’t enough time to do anything,” he counters, holding out a teaspoon for me to taste his plum sauce.
“Mm, yummy. Okay, five seconds.”
“Five seconds? What could I do in five seconds?”
“Okay, a minute.”
He tilts his head, pausing to think about it. “One minute to live, huh? I’d eat crème brûlée.”
I stare at him, smiling slowly. “You’re a hopeless addict in need of an intervention.”
He shrugs, smelling his chicken and giving a delighted sigh.
“I was going to say that I’d use my last split second or five seconds or minute or hour to kiss you.”
He freezes. “Oh, shit. Wait. Can I change my answer?”
“Too late, pal. You value food over your girlfriend, and you can never take that back. Nev-er.”
Luke rounds the kitchen counter and leans in for a kiss, but I dance out of his reach. “Go back to your cooking, crème brûlée boy.”
He walks over to the tray with its beautifully basted and trimmed roast chicken, a creation that looks and smells so utterly mouth-watering that every time I take a breath my stomach grumbles. He lifts the whole tray and walks into the living room.
Confused, I follow.
And watch as he goes outside and throws the whole thing off the balcony.
Turning to me, he says, “I’d never throw you off a balcony.”
I stare at him, utterly stunned. “How generous of you,” I manage.
“Do you believe me now?”
“All I believe is that I’d much rather come in second to food if it means we get to eat dinner.”
February 8th, 2066
That moment is what fills my head as I fall through the elevator shaft. Luke wanting crème brûlée in the split second before he dies, and me wanting to kiss him. That moment, and numbers.
One, two, three, I count before I feel my body smash into the ground.
Pain erupts through my hip and spine and head and wrist, my wrist. I moan loudly as I squeeze my eyes shut and roll over in agony. Tears stream beneath my lashes.
“Josi,” I hear Luke grunt, and from some place within all the pain I am immensely relieved he’s alive. It wasn’t that far, really, but it felt far.
“Sit up,” he orders. “Tell me what hurts.”
“Everything,” I moan.
“Stop being a baby and sit up.”
What an asshole. I struggle upright, woozy with shock. I probably have a concussion. The elevator has stopped a few feet above us, trapping us in a small metal hole in the ground – we won’t be able to get out of the shaft until it goes back up again, so we really need Pace and Hal not to gas everyone before that happens.
“Identify your injuries,” he says. He has blood all over his face, dripping from what looks to be a cut on his scalp.
I close my eyes, trying to move my limbs. My legs are both fine, my back is alright, my hip feels badly bruised, my head is pounding and there’s something definitely wrong with my left wrist.
“Think it’s broken,” I say, holding it gingerly.
Luke asks me if I can move it but pain slices through my arm and I yelp. “Yeah, it probably is broken,” he agrees. “But pain isn’t real, Jose. Concentrate on external stimuli to pinpoint your focus away from your pain receptors.”
“Good job – the Blood-talk is aggravating enough to distract from the broken bone,” I mutter and he gives a breath of laughter.
Luke searches in his pack for the med-kit and produces a bandage. Working quickly, he wraps my wrist and even though it hurts like hell, it feels a tad better when it can’t flail around as much.
“Are you alright?”
“Four broken ribs and a superficial head wound,” he replies promptly. I help him place a thick white patch over the cut and wipe the blood from his face – it’s hard in the dark and we fumble awkwardly for a few minutes.
“What did you think of?” Luke asks me suddenly. “With your split second?”
I am amazed that he remembers, that he thought of it too.
“I knew I wasn’t going to die,” I lie. “It was only a few feet.”
“I didn’t think about crème brûlée,” he admits, and that’s all, and it’s enough, because if he said anything else I think it might hurt inside my chest too much for me to ever climb out of this dark steel trap.
When the elevator finally moves up a few floors, we’re able to stand and pry the lift doors open a crack. Luke peers through, gun at the ready, and then hoists himself into the hallway. When he reaches for me I have to give him my right hand only, and it feels as though he’s about to pull my arm out of its socket.
We creep down the corridor, on the lookout. The vent we need is on the right and along another hallway.
Around a corner an armed Blood is standing outside a glass door. If we go for the vent he’ll see us. We stop, and Luke motions for me to wait. Then he rounds and fires rapidly.
The Blood’s weapon discharges in response and the noise is like a blow to the head. Peering around, I see that Luke and the Blood have sprinted toward each other and collided, both their guns sent flying clear.
Luke’s weapon hits the wall and slides into my reach.
As he and the Blood punch and block and move too fast to believe, I grab the gun and aim it toward them.
“Luke!” I shout. “Hit the floor!”
“No!” he yells, but he flattens himself as I fire wildly.
I don’t hit anything except the glass door, which is obviously bulletproof, for the bullet ricochets off into the vent, then embeds itself in the wall with a spray of plaster. The Blood uses the opportunity to kick Luke in his broken ribs while he’s down, and I realize I have just made things a thousand times worse.
Luke sweeps his leg and takes down the Blood, rolls on top and crunches his elbow into the man’s windpipe, then cracks him so hard across the jaw that he’s out like a light.
Luke staggers to his feet and glares daggers at me.
Sheepishly I hand him the gun. “Sorry?”
“Get in the vent, Rambo.”
This vent is wider than the last so Luke and I can crawl forward side by side.
“Move over,” I whisper.
“You move over.”
“You’re twice the size of me!”
“And yet look who’s taking up more space. Get your bony elbows away from my ribs.”
“Get your shoulder out of my face! It keeps clacking my chin.”
“You mean that huge mouth of yours?”
A grate below us comes into view and we both shut up, shuffling forward to peer into the room. As expected, we’re above the labs. I can’t see anyone down there. Pace and Hal have retrieved the gas, so now we’re just waiting for them to feed it into the vent before we can climb down.
“Want to talk about John Smith?” Luke asks me.
I glance at him. Light from the lab is shining up into his face so I can see it quite clearly. “Boring.” There’s no way I’m telling him about that period in my life.
I’m finding it hard to concentrate on counting the seconds. My wrist hurts and Luke’s smell is familiar and too close in this confined space.
“Where’d you learn to fight?” I ask him to change the subject.
“Dad. I grew up in a madhouse. Mom threatened to move out just about every week ’cause we fought so much.”
“So your dad really did teach you to fight? That wasn’t a lie?”
“All kinds. I was a boxer though. Born and bred.”
“As a kid?”
“Yeah. There’s a league. And an illegal one.”
“What’s an illegal boxing league like?” I ask curiously.
“Bare-knuckle. No shirts, no shoes. You get thrown in and you don’t come out again until someone’s unconscious.”
“And your father put you in this league when you were a kid?” I ask, disbelieving.
“’Bout nine, maybe.”
“Jeez. How’d you do, then?”
“Champ at seventeen.”
“Champ of what?”
“In your age group?”
I stare at him, trying to work out what he’s saying. “You were the boxing champion of the whole city when you were seventeen? Including grown men?”
He smiles again, and this time it has a cocky edge.
“I thought you were already a Blood by then.”
“I used to sneak out. Met Dad and Dave for the fights. Nobody gives a shit what your job is when you’re in the ring.”
“Was Dave good too?”
“He was alright. Bit soft.”
I lick my lips. “So … what’s the secret?”
Luke looks at me and grins. “You want to know the secret to boxing like it’s a piece of information you can learn and then succeed at? It takes training, girl. Instincts, strength, speed … Things you develop over time and with discipline.”
“Yeah yeah yeah. Just tell me. What’s the secret?”
His smile shifts and he meets my eyes. He considers; it feels like forever. I want the moment to last until time ceases, the two of us in this vent with him looking at me like that. Luke leans toward me, close enough that he can brush his lips against my ear. His breath is warm.
“It’s simple. You can’t be afraid to get hurt.”
I consider this, looking at his mouth.
“Train me,” I say.
“You’ve got a trainer.”
“He’s taught me nothing.”
“You haven’t wanted to be taught.”
What am I doing. Why am I saying this. The last thing I need is to be spending more time with him. But I know in my guts that if there’s any hope of me ever being able to defend myself, it’ll be because of Luke.
“Want to make a deal?”
I tilt my head suspiciously. “What kind?”
“If I train you, you have to agree to something else.”
I wait. There is a glint in his eyes.
“You have to ask me questions. One a day, every day. I give you one-hundred-percent true answers, no matter what the question.”
My eyes narrow. “How does that benefit you?”
“It’s a long game.”
“It won’t change how I feel about you.”
He shrugs. “Great. Then agree.”
“Deal.” We shake on it. “I’ll have no way to know if you’re telling me the truth.”
“It’s called trust.”
“Yeah, and it’s long gone between us.” It comes out harsher than I mean it to, and the smile is wiped off his face.
That’s when the people appear below us. Two men and a woman, all wearing lab coats. Beside me Luke tenses. His eyes dart to one of the men, and then he leans very close to my ear again to whisper, “Falon Shay.” The prime minister.
I lean to Luke’s ear. “He’s not our mission. Ben is.”
Luke doesn’t respond, and I’m pretty sure he’s far more interested in revenge or whatever oath he’s sworn to kill Shay than in rescuing Ben.
“… scheduled date can be moved forward,” Shay is saying.
“Not realistically, at the rate of testing,” replies the woman in a deep voice.
“Where are we?”
“It isn’t ready,” she says bluntly. “I need another round. Several, actually.”
“There isn’t time. Show me the subjects so far.”
They continue further into the room and I can no longer see them. Their voices drift back to us. “Subject sixty-four, like many before her, shows bouts of unpredictable lethargy.”
“Lethargy isn’t productive,” Shay snaps. “Fix it.”
“Subject sixty-five, like many before him, shows hyper-sensitivity to light.”
“And sixty-six? This one?”
“Severe anxiety attacks and paranoia.”
“But no sadness for any of them?”
“No detectable sadness.”
I close my eyes, head swimming with a bone-shattering fury. I’m completely aflame with it; my whole body is burning. Sixty-six people experimented on and ruined. I’m going down there. I’m going to kill all three of them and then I’m going to burn this whole fucking lab to the ground –
Rough, warm hands take my face and I jerk in alarm, so utterly lost within the rage that it takes me several seconds to realize that it is Luke with his hands pressed to my cheeks, looking into my eyes.
Breathe, he mouths, but I don’t want to, I don’t care about breathing or calm or panic or any of it I just want to kill them I want to torture them in the same way they tortured those poor people I want to watch the life fade from their eyes and I can’t breathe or think or feel anything I just –
Lips press against mine.
Everything vanishes. The world, instead, is his mouth, the warmth and the softness, the ache of it and the perfect way it fits against mine.
When Luke pulls away he is feverish, and I am calm.
Falon Shay and the other man have left. Now there is only the female scientist below us. Belatedly we pull on our gas masks, because the gas is dispersing. We swing down from the vents (difficult with only one hand and a complete lack of coordination) and land in the lab.
The woman spins to face us in shock. She is pretty, with fine, sharp features and thick dark hair. “What – ” But that’s about all she manages to say because she is abruptly very sleepy. Stepping toward the disconnected alarm, she presses it before slumping almost gracefully to the floor and conking out.
Before us are several glass cages in which people sleep. Test subjects sixty-four, sixty-five and sixty-six. Two girls and a boy, all children around ten years old.
There’s a pain in my chest at the sight of them, something nostalgic and cruel. Memories circle, faint, shadowy things unlike any of the precise memories that fill my brain. Discomfort and fear and a lab like this. Needles, cages, lab coats …
“Josi!” Luke says, and I return to the world. There’s no time to engage in whatever messed-up stuff lies in my ten-year-old brain. Luke scoops the scientist into his arms and we duck out of the lab, moving swiftly through the underground levels of the building. I find the woman’s security tag in her pocket and read, Dr Meredith Shaw, Head Scientist and Medical Researcher, Collingsworth Institute.
I wonder how Ben feels to know this vile place has been named after him.
We creep past sleeping scientists and Bloods, all here late in the apparent rush to get the sadness cures ready for administering. We check every room and every bed, but Ben isn’t to be found.
“Goddamnit,” I moan in growing frustration.
We reach the final hallway and see a huge NO ENTRY sign out the front, as well as two sleeping Bloods. Praying that this is it, we prop Dr Shaw’s eye up to the scanner and press her fingers against the pad.
With a hissing sound the door opens and a waft of very cold, disorienting air hits us. I go first, creeping slowly down the stairs and into a room even further underground. It’s well lit, the bulbs almost painfully bright. And what’s with how cold it is? My teeth are chattering.
“Weapon up,” Luke orders me, and I draw my pistol with shaking fingers, even though he specifically told me I wouldn’t be able to hit anything with it. Why did he tell me that? To freak me out? My gas mask is making my breathing louder in my ears.
Luke’s close behind me, but because he’s holding Dr Shaw he can’t draw his own weapon. Which means it’s all me this time: the girl who can’t hit a grown man three paces in front of her.
A billow of what seems to be mist caused by the low temperature wafts aside and I am able to see the glass container. Inside it, lying asleep on the floor – without even a bed to lie on – is Ben Collingsworth.
Lowering my gun, I run to the glass. He looks older than I remember, his skin much paler, hair wispier. “Open it,” I implore Luke quickly. I don’t know why I feel so profoundly protective of this old man. Maybe it’s simply because although I don’t remember him experimenting on me, I do remember him saving my life last year.
Luke gets the door open and I rush in to squat beside Ben, rolling him over. There is blood in his mouth, and I lift his top lip to see that it’s coming from his gums. His skin is freezing to the touch, and there is blood under his fingernails too. I can’t help but look worriedly up at Luke. He wears a pensive expression that doesn’t make me feel any better. Gathering the old man into his arms, he carries Ben up the stairs and out of the cold room.
“I want to take Dr Shaw with us,” I tell him.
He considers quickly, eyes darting back to where he left the woman at the bottom of the stairs.
“We can find gurneys to carry them,” I press. “Think how badly it’ll mess up their schedule to lose their head scientist. And imagine what she’ll be able to tell us.”
With a quick breath, Luke nods. “Righto, wait here and keep your gun aimed down the hall.”
He puts Ben on the ground and runs back down the steps to get Dr Shaw. That’s one of the things I like about Luke, I realize. He’s the one in charge, he knows a thousand percent more than I do about this stuff, but he’s always open to suggestions and happy to listen to other people’s ideas. It’s a nice quality.
“He’s a lot lighter than she is,” Luke says when he returns with the scientist. “You’ll have to get him in a fireman’s hold.”
“I carried you on my back for about two miles,” I grunt wryly. “I think I can carry one old guy who looks like he’s mostly made of paper.”
“When did you carry me on your back?” Luke demands.
I pause to look at him. “To get you out of the asylum.”
“You carried me all the way from the asylum to the resistance tree?”
“How else did you think we got away?” I ask, leaning to try to roll Ben over my shoulder. I don’t really want to talk about it, to be honest. Leaving my pack and a bunch of the crap I’ve been hauling around, I instead try to get Ben over my shoulders. I have to stop, though, as my wrist feels like it might snap off.
“Uh, give me a hand here?”
Luke belatedly rushes to help me, lifting Ben over my shoulders and supporting our weight as I straighten my legs under the load. Despite my bravado, Ben is really heavy and incredibly awkward to carry. He keeps slipping and every time I catch him my wrist jerks and feels like it’s breaking anew.
One of the rooms we saw held a few unused gurneys, so we backtrack and gratefully put the sleeping beauties down. Then we roll them back out to the elevator, which still has three dead bodies in it.
Dragging these out, I feel a pit in my stomach, along with a whole ocean’s worth of guilt for having been excited about a mission during which we murdered five people. Doesn’t matter that they’re scientists in a clinic that essentially rapes innocent people of their personalities. It only matters that Luke shot them without batting an eyelid, and now they’ll never again go home to their families.
I hate it all. I hate these people and their science, I hate Ben, I hate Dr Shaw, I hate Luke and I hate myself. And I am having some serious mood swings. Anthony would tell me it’s due to stress. And normally I’d tell him how mood swings are my right, but in this moment I think I’d rather not feel anything at all.
We squeeze the gurneys into the elevator and ride it up to the ground floor, only to have the doors open on six mask-wearing police officers with their guns pointed straight at us.
“Freeze!” one shouts.
“Get low,” Luke orders me.
“Don’t fire,” I hiss, because I can suddenly see how this is going to play out. He’s going to fire, and there’s going to be a gunfight, and I’m going to have to watch him get mowed down by a hail of bullets and I can’t do that –
Someone fires and my heart skips a beat, but I realize belatedly that it wasn’t the officers or Luke – it came from behind the cops, wounding and dropping three of them.
Luke picks off one, two of the other men in quick succession.
The last cop is firing wildly, and then a few more of the wounded ones start to fire from the ground. Bullets go past my head, smash through walls and ding against the inside of the elevator. The doors start to close in front of us but Luke shoves them open and shoots the last cop.
I rise shakily and push Ben’s gurney out into the hall behind Luke and Dr Shaw. Around the corner comes Will, panting in panic.
“Shadow’s hit!” he shouts.
No. We sprint to Shadow’s side and I see blood all over his abdomen and pooling onto the floor. He has his hand pressed into his stomach just beneath where his vest ends, and his face and lips look gray. It is a horrifying sight.
“Still here,” he grunts.
“You’re okay, mate,” Luke says. “Will, get Ben’s gurney.” He picks up Shadow and runs with him toward the parking garage door. Will and I push the beds in a sprint down the hall, careening around corners and almost overturning them at one point.
Pressing through the heavy swing doors, we arrive in the garage to see a white patient transport van. In the driver’s seat is Pace. Hal is already helping Luke get Shadow into the back, so we bring Ben and Dr Shaw to be loaded in next.
Once the three of them are laid out in the back, Luke, Will and I squeeze in, Hal jumps in the passenger seat and Pace roars us out of the garage and into the night.
“Where are we going?” she shouts.
We’re all looking at Shadow, who is bleeding everywhere.
“We can’t take him back to the train like this,” I murmur. “He’ll never make it.”
“Can’t take him to a hospital,” Will points out.
“Head back toward the apartments,” Luke calls.
“We can’t go back to that shithole,” I argue. “John’s boys’ll be out for blood.”
“We’re not,” he replies, meeting my eyes. “We’re going to my parents’ house.”
The creature in that cage is an animal or a monster, or something in between. And when I look at him a reflection all too familiar stares back.
Josephine wakes early one misty morning to stumble upon a body, brutally murdered. She’s seen too many bodies like this before; she knows this kind of violence. She also knows, with perfect clarity, that the two newest members of the resistance will be the prime suspects.
How far will she go to protect Luke from the monster awakening inside him? And how long can any of them survive, trapped within the walls with a murderer?
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Charlotte has been writing from a young age, and has written several novels in both the science-fiction and fantasy genres, published internationally by Random House and Pan Macmillan. These include Fury, Book One of The Cure series and Avery, Book One of The Chronicles of Kaya. She studied a Masters of Screenwriting at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, and is the author of the Australian Writer’s Guild award-winning screenplay Fury adapted from her novel of the same name. …