John knocked the rubble off of him and dragged his way out from the remnants of the container that erupted in the fiery blaze. How did he survive it? Not only had he been close by, but it threw him. It threw him far, right into the wall of the container. He blasted through it. John hadn’t black out; he remembered it all vividly.
The ground was hot to the touch. The fire that raged upon the container's remnants filled the air with smoke and heated the street. Struggling to his feet, a sharp pain ran up John’s side. He reached down under his coat and pressed his fingers to where the pain was centered. They dampened, and fear shot through him. Blood. Lots of blood. Jagged fragments of shrapnel stuck into the wound.
John stumbled forward with a noticeable limp. His right knee burned; something was torn. He pushed on regardless, stepping to the burning wreckage of the container. A single body hung over the remains of the catwalk, a crinkled mess. The flames danced under it, turning it red hot. The body was one of the Nekos they spoke to first. Not Sal or his right hand man…
John called out, “Elle! Elle, can you hear me?”
No response. He tried calling again but was met with the same silence. Police sirens whirled some way off, but they were getting close. As John staggered to the wreckage, hoping that he may find someone, anyone, a CX-6 lifted off from behind the containers. Even with the black smoke clouding the air and the distance, a Neko was clearly within the cockpit. The car launched overhead, making its way to the road.
He survived… Then again, John survived and was far closer to the blast. He checked the holster at his side. Instinctively, he must have put his pistol back before the bomb went off. His gun was with him. Wherever Sal was going, he couldn’t let him do this again. Given the amount of damage, there was no way this was the only explosive in District 14. More would go off. More damage would be done. More life would be lost.
John called out, “Elle! Come on… Say something!”
She was either out or dead. There was nothing he could do about either. John wiped his face, a mixture of tears and blood congealed on the back of his hand. There was no time to mourn or search. Sal was alive. He was moving, and John needed to follow. Despite the pain in his leg and the blood weeping at his side, John staggered for the CX-14. It was more or less where he left it, shifted only slightly after the explosion. A large chunk of debris covered the exterior and hull; a large crack ran the length of the windshield.
John cleared off as much as he could, enough that he could get in and fly the thing. Multiple dents and scuffs assured the vehicle would be considered totaled by any insurance, but as long as it “drove”, he didn’t care. When it started and all the gauges and screens clicked on, signaling the important pieces were still intact, he sighed with relief.
With a kick of the thrusters, the CX-14 lifted off the ground. He would be much faster than Sal’s CX-6, but with the former’s head start, it may not matter. The CX-14 sped forward, past the incoming police units that were quick to notice another vehicle leaving the scene of the crime. AS John glanced out his window, he thought he saw Captain Richards; the two exchanged glances for a brief second. He prayed they would find and help Elle… if she was alive.
As John’s CX-14 gave chase, unknown to her, Elle finally started to come too. She remembered Sal taking a shot at the bombs, it exploding, and the ensuing fireball that engulfed the entire container. In that instant, she thought herself dead, soon to be a cooked blood splat on the pavement. The metal catwalk buckled almost instantly. The cruel forces of gravity and the unrelenting force of the explosion carried her into the burning abyss below. John vanished before her eyes in a fiery white light.
Elle clamped her eyes shut, waiting for her consciousness to leave her forever. The impending doom of death washed over her; panic welled inside her chest and burst forth. Just as it was about to emerge as a blood curdling scream, she was enraptured in a tight embrace. Peeking her eyes open, one of the Nekos, the one that Sal referred to as Veet, had wrapped her in a tight hug, diving forward as the catwalk crumbled into nothing.
Veet tossed her as the catwalk ruptured like a wave. The blast carried Elle through one of the container windows. Curled into a ball, she collided with it, knocking all the air from her lungs. The glass, already damaged by the initial blast shockwave, gave way, and Elle broke through, tossed aside and striking another container. At that moment, she blacked out.
Now, she had regained consciousness and struggled to stand. Her legs shook with the consistency of jelly, a side effect of her delirium. Elle tested the ground, almost assured her legs would give out as the result of some terrible injury. They did not. Luckily. Yes, there were scratches and scuffs, her clothes were shredded from the blast, but she was in modest shape. Elle ran for the burning container, calling John’s name but receiving no reply. As she struggled into the container wreckage, a glimpse of the CX-14, zooming through the sky and away, caught her. John? Was it him?
She watched it for a moment, knowing that it must be him. He was alive… possibly… but why would he flee like that? With the CX-14 fleeing the scene, the evening sky morphed into a light show of incoming police cars. Even the sounds of sirens couldn’t detract from the low grunts of a man still alive. She checked the wreckage; Veet was where she had been flung from him, crumpled underneath the mess of jagged catwalk metal, turned sharp like spears. They skewered him to the white hot metal. One of the other Nekos attempted to pull the piercing spikes out of him, but as he touched the metal, it burned his hands, and a scream escaped his lips.
“Don’t! You’ll only hurt yourself more,” Elle yelled as he went for it a second time. The Neko froze, surprised to see that anyone else had survived.
His voice shook. “But he’s…” Though his eyes were open, Veet’s consciousness fled as far from the pain as it could. but Veet stared far beyond his subordinate to some other realm that did not exist. Death’s door was close. “He needs our help.”
Elle stepped over debris, fragments of the container wall and catwalk. The inside of the container burned like a hot oven and cooked the sweat off her forehead. As Elle stepped up to Veet, he shifted his gaze to her. It was hopeless, the realization that this was the end. She was no doctor, but judging from the wounds, there was nothing anyone could do.
Elle did the only thing she could think to do: kneel down to Veet and meet him Neko to Neko. She did not care how the metal floor burned her knees as she lifted his head slightly; a gurgling of blood and mucus spluttered out from his mouth. “I’m here. I’m here with you.”
Veet’s mouth opened not an inch, and his speech was near whisper. “Where… is… Sal?”
“I don’t know,” Elle replied, “John, the human who was with me, is gone too. After him…”
“Please don’t… don’t let this be the end…”
“I…” Veet’s body was near crumbling. Elle struggled at what she could even do to keep him alive. “I’ll do my best. You’re… you’re going to be ok.”
Veet used what energy he could to shake his head. “No… Don’t let… Don’t let the dream end… Don’t let Sal… Don’t let his hate… Don’t give them a reason to hate us more…”
“What can I do?” she asked. She was one Neko, miles away from wherever Sal and John fled to. Veet offered no solace, no response beyond a pleading gaze that stabbed Elle through the core. With each passing second, it struck her harder and harder until life left Veet. His energy fully gave way, leaving a lump of flesh in Elle’s grasp. She slowly set his body down and held back a tear. “Thank you for saving me…”
“What do we do?” the Neko asked as the police were upon them. They landed their cruisers all around and began casing the area.
Elle stood; her knees were red and raw from the burns suffered. She could not feel the pain. Tossing her arms up as the police demanded she surrendered, she faced them. There was only a small glimmer of hope for her.
“Elle Brockman… So, that was John I saw then,” Captain Richards said, shaking his head and telling his men to help them out of the wreckage.
It had begun. Explosions erupted around Yorktown’s Undercity. Alarms blasted into the evening sky. Fire and rescue were deployed to every inch of the 14 Districts. The number of bombs and the fire generated from them would be far too many. Sal’s premature detonation had sent off a chain reaction that not even the police or Coolage had anticipated. The Revivals assaulted on Yorktown had begun in chilling fashion.
Humans and Nekos fled into the streets, looking up at the huge flame walls formed, only for a second and third and forth bomb to detonate and send them into a fearful tizzy. Citizens who thought themselves safe were suddenly thrown into harm's way as an unexpected blast would jar them. Like the fire fighting struggling to keep up, police could not handle the influx of panicked citizens, advantageous looters, and those, privy to the Revival’s dogma, that carried out the plan.
Sal had overestimated his hand.
As John flew overhead, seeing the ensuing chaos, fear, not action, overtook the Neko populace. There wasn’t the charge of action that Sal spoke of. They didn’t suddenly see an opportunity to strike back. No… Most were scared. Most ran for safety. The few groups making a scene paled to the sheer number of citizens looking for help.
It took a moment, but John located the CX-6 in the mess of panicked drivers. As soon as the explosions started, vehicles began piling back to the street, worried that the attacks could hit them. The roads were not fully empty, and as chaotic as it could be, John pulled up on the wheel, riding over the mass of cars. The CX-6, damaged from the explosion in District 14, was made a fast break. John took the risk and followed, all the way to an apartment. A Neko bolted through the apartment doors, past the growing number of onlookers gazing up at the large, fiery smoke cloud. John touched the CX-14 down.
John fought through the crowd, reaching for a pistol that was not there. Unarmed, wounded, and starting to feel light headed, he pushed forward despite everything telling him to stop. Checking his side, blood had soaked through his pants, shirt, and jacket, forming a sticky puddle upon him. A few onlookers saw his state and shrieked; some offered to help. He ignored them.
Inside the apartment lobby, he called for the elevator. With no clue where Sal was going, it could be a long trip taking the stairs. Blood loss was a real concern. The elevator dinged after a few seconds; the closest one opened. With most of the tenants outside, the place was eerily quiet, and John activated every floor: all 14 of them. The elevator chimed again, and the door shut.
The first six floors were fruitless; he could have missed Sal. With how empty things were, he paid attention to each floor’s “mood”. Did it feel like someone was there? It was far from foolproof, but it was all he had to go off. Finally, on floor 9, he got the itch. Something was amiss. John stepped out and listened; faint voices carried through the halls.
A woman… He recognized it. Elle had mentioned Amber had moved in with Sal Regis. Was she involved with all this too? John couldn’t debate with himself as he followed it. Soon, a man’s voice followed: Sal’s voice. John gritted his teeth. Each step felt like a hundred.
John came upon the apartment in question. The door was propped open by the deadbolt. The voices were clear as day. An argument of some kind. As he pushed through the door, leaning up against the war, their conversation stopped. Sure enough, Amber and Sal faced each other in a posh living room. When Amber saw John’s state, she gasped.
“You followed me?” Sal said, “You… How are you even alive?”
“Fucking great question,” John spit as a metallic taste filled his mouth, “You happy? Your little explosions are going off. Sure are doing a number. Not the number you wanted though.”
Sal gritted his teeth as Amber asked, “What is he talking about, Sal? What is going on?”
“Nothing… We’re leaving. Yorktown. All of it!” Sal commanded, “That’s what I’ve been telling you!”
“I’m not leaving!” Amber shouted, “Where would I even go?”
“That’s your plan then, Sal?” John chided, “You see it too. Your little ploy hasn’t worked out.” John staggered into the apartment. His limping grew worse. “Yeah… Good job. You did it! I ain’t letting you turn tail and run. You’ve got a lot to answer for.”
“What is he talking about, Sal?” Amber demanded.
John answered for him. “Here’s your culprit, Amber… Sean Addler was just a part. Sal’s your real stalker. The pimp in those Breeder rings. A murderer with quite the list. Now, a terrorist with a failed plan. This work out for you? Are you the big Neko now?”
The look of horror on Amber’s face would not pass. She said to Sal. John kept going. “He used you, this Sal Regis, the leader of the Revival. Designed to give Nekos a chance in Yorktown by destroying them, angering them, and igniting them. This was the last key, but he greatly underestimated it. Right Sal? You fucking failed!”
Sal’s rage bubbled. He screamed like a mad beast, a rabid radiated dog awaiting a bullet to the skull. He pulled a large chef's knife from the butcher's block and charged at John. With no gun, no defense, John held his arms up, feeling the sharp blade sink into his forearm as he stepped back, far too slow with the already deep gash in his side. He caught Sal’s arm as he went for another stab, fighting back with what strength remained. The tip of the blade hovered inches from his gut. Amber wrapped her arms around Sal and pulled him back.
“Let me go!” he sneered, lashing out at her with everything. The blade of the knife slid across her hand. Amber fell back, clutching the deep cut set into her palm. Sal froze; he hurt her. Calling out her name, he reached out, but Amber’s look of terror forced a stake through his heart, searing a stupor into him. Only John’s fist could snap him from it.
The knife dropped to the ground, and Sal with it. He bounced into the kitchen counter and caught his balance. John breathed heavily. Even one punch drained him to the point of collapse. “You stupid bastard… Did you really think this would work? What did you think hurting your own would do? This isn't a grand revolution. Look at her!” He pointed to Amber. “That’s what you’ve done to Nekos. Fear. You’ve done nothing but kick them back down. Worse, you’ve given every bastard in this city an excuse to dismantle you further. I will tell you, Sal Regis. Nekos like Amber and Elle don’t deserve the world you’ve created for them. But you! You deserve every ounce of it.”
Sal’s mind left him. He bolted forward, pushed John into the wall, and darted out of the apartment. What was a hard shove but would have normally barely phased him felt like a train as John tried to recover. It took everything to not collapse under the weight of how exhausted he felt.
Amber was right there. “What happened to you?” She looked down at his side, at his forearm. More blood poured out from both wounds. “Let me help you!”
“Where’s he going?” John asked.
“I don’t know…”
“I need to know! Guess!”
Amber tossed out the first thing she could think of. “The roof! He wanted to take me to the roof. I didn’t understand why.”
It was possible Sal had some sort of getaway on the roof, a sort of contingency plan if things went south. Considering the way things turned out, this “went south”. With a few well mediated breaths, he bucked himself up despite his state. His skin had begun to turn pale.
“You can’t be going after him,” Amber said, “You need to rest. I’ll call an ambulance.”
“If he gets away, all this could happen again… No… Sal will answer for this.”
“Where is Elle?”
“I don’t know…” John replied, “If you see her… let her know where I’ve gone. Call the police…”
“I’m going with you.”
John smirked. “You sound like Elle.”
“Sal is my old friend. Besides, you can barely walk.” John could not disagree with that.
“Fine. First, call the police. Let them know where we are.”
Amber helped John up the final set of stairs to the apartment roofs. It had been longer than John could tolerate; calling the police and his state drained away too much time. Without Amber, he would have struggled to make it up half these steps. Worse, it was likely Sal was gone. As Amber pushed open the heavy door to the roof, an onslaught of rain poured down on them. A crash of thunder screamed out over the Undercity, crying for the flames that it could not extinguish. From this vantage point, the bright orange highlighting the Undercity came into full view. The air was filled with sirens and screams.
Silhouetted against the burning night sky, Sal watched his creation unfold. There was no joy or pride in this work. Faint sounds of gunfire were drowned out by the panic. He wanted to see victory, a moment that would signal Nekos were regaining their personhood. There was none of that.
“Wait here,” John said to Amber as he pushed off her and neared Sal. He called out to him. “Glad you didn’t leave! I’m putting you under arrest, Sal Regis. Surrender yourself.”
“Do you hear that?” Sal asked, almost as if he never heard John’s command, “It’s still early; I didn’t expect victory chants. There would be fighting. And there is! Not enough though. Not enough. This was supposed to be the breaking point. This would be our moment. I hear fear.”
John replied, “You thought that the populace had grown to be like you. You were wrong.”
“I was not wrong!” Sal scolded, “You could never understand. It’s impossible. Nekos all feel it. Our hatred for you humans runs so deep that nothing will ever quench it. One day, one day, it will bubble to the point that nothing can stop it.”
Sal and John, in their conversation, stepped closer to each other. The two men now could reach out and touch each other. Even with the rain, The whites in Sal’s eyes glowed in the night sky; John assumed his did the same. Their personhood became their defining factor. Neither Neko nor human, they met as men and nothing more.
Sal was the first to strike; it would be enough to knock stronger men back. John held steadfast despite his wounds and returned to blow with one of his own. It was like punching a brick wall, and as he went for a second, Sal refused to accept it. Blow for blow, traded with the ferocity of crazed beasts.
The movie before Amber played out; she yearned to step in and put a stop to it, call “and cut” to end it all. Nothing… Her legs locked to the cement roof. Nothing… The two men before her exchanged fists until blood mixed with rain. Faces swelled; knuckles cracked and broke. Even with the shrapnel in his side, John fought like a new man. The adrenaline pumped through his veins, reinvigorating what little strength he had. Even Sal feared this man. John should have collapsed at his feet, far too injured to go on.
Where John was fueled with his body desire to live, Sal easily outlasted the blood loss. Their fight, which had turned to tussle on the damp concrete, shifted. Sal began to steal away the upper hand. Forcing John under him, Sal wrapped his fingers around the PI’s throat. John struggled to free himself; Sal would offer not a second reprieve. He jabbed his fingers into John’s side. The fragments of shrapnel dug further into the wound and sliced ribbons into Sal’s fingers. John screamed as his muscles gave out. Amber ran to her friend and did her best to pull him off, but Sal was lost. His eyes turned crazed like the fires around them. There was only hate.
Police sirens drew near; a cruiser jolted up in the red, night sky, hovering above the roof. A bright, white light flashed down on them. Amber covered her eyes as it was nearly blinding. The door to the roof flew open; Elle ran out, brandishing a handgun. The situation was what she feared. None had noticed her arrival, and as Sal choked out the last bit of life from John, Elle aimed her gun.
She had never shot before.
Her bullet was true.
With four pulls of the trigger, Sal shrieked as each bullet found their mark. He fell off John; blood poured from each bullet hole that ran up from his kidneys to chest. Amber screamed, but her fear turned to shock and confusion as the perpetrator neared. She never expected Elle. None of them had.
Sal fell back, grasping at his wound like the bullets had simply torn his shirt. Four of them… He had been shot four times. He struggled to stand, and upon seeing that Elle was the one that shot him, his will broke. A Neko had saved a human - that human - a representation of the society that abused them.
Tears mixed with the rain; Sal chastised her. “Is this your choice? Neko! How can you choose this man over your own? Even you must have experienced the hardships that are forced upon Neko, yet you pulled the trigger. Damn you! Damn you and everything you and people like you stand for. It is Nekos like you who have led us to this pond and forced us to drink. You are no better than those who subjugate us.”
Elle heard his words, his insults, his accusations. What could she say? Nothing. There was physically nothing she could say. Sal was not wrong. Misguided but far from wrong. Elle knew what she was choosing: what she stood for. It stood as an opposite to Sal and always would. They would stand on two ends of the cliff, unable to cross the valley below. Elle stood over him; the barrel of the gun hovered inches from Sal’s head. She knew what she stood for.
“Surrender,” she said, “It’s over. You’re caught. Please.”
Blood began leaking from Sal’s mouth. This was it; he realized it. Amber stood by, murmuring something lost within the rain. Pleading? He couldn’t tell. Sal expected this to end with John, not another Neko. Worse of all, not some “posh cat” like Elle. It disgusted him almost as much as the blood in his mouth.
“You don’t understand…” Sal replied, choking, “You don’t know what it's like to be Neko. You never will. I’ve been all over such places. Yorktown, Washington, Richmond. All the same - Neko’s crashing up against the wall of society. It will start elsewhere. If not with me, then with someone else. I… Yes… Is this death?”
The radiated dog looked down upon him, sniffing him until it got its fill. So… this was how they felt when looking up at the barrel. Did they know that life was nearly over? Did they cry? Sal wouldn’t cry. No… He wouldn't cry. He… he saw Amber. And he cried.
Sal fell back, sprawled out on the apartment roof as the rain beat down on him. No words, no sounds, no life. Amber dropped to her knees, watching as a pool of blood formed around Sal’s body and sank into the cracks of the concrete. He was gone. He was dead. She looked to Elle; there was little emotion in her. She felt nothing for Sal, and as Amber crawled to the body of her dead friend, Elle threw down her gun and went to John.
His skin was cold and pale. The wound on his side continued to weep and blotted Elle’s skirt. She went to help him, but John climbed to his knees with what little strength he had left, unable to rise any further. His eyes fogged over as he shifted his head to see who was approaching. It was Elle. He smiled despite frozen lips.
“There’s an ambulance here,” Elle said, “Captain Richards will be up with some officers shortly. Hang on for just a few more moments.”
Her words were lost upon him. “Elle, Elle…” He muttered her name over and over in a shattered state. She cupped his chin, seemingly pulling John from his stupor. His words were cold. “Run. Do not stay here. Do not stay in Yorktown. There will be nothing for you here. Or any Neko. You must… No. I want you to promise me. Take the next train. Take it before it’s too late. Let Yorktown burn. Elle…”
“It’s all right,” she assured, “It’s all right now. John, yes, we’ll leave together. You and me. I’ll get tickets. We’ll go north, far away from this place.”
John smiled. “Yes… We will go together.” His head drooped; his lips hung parted. He forced himself to look at her. His eyes morphed to near black pools. His mouth barely moved. There was no strength. “Oh… I see…”
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