Chapter 55:

Chapter 55 - A Prisoner of Circumstance


Every time Turu roused himself from the haze of apathy that pervaded his daily life, he seemed to be in the middle of committing some new, unforgivable atrocity.

There he stood, clad in his lab coat and gloves, surrounded by a group of fawning research assistants. The stark white surroundings of his laboratory contrasted with the vibrant red hue of his latest creation, a psychoactive compound he’d been working on for some months. He held the ampule of liquid up to the light, drawing a chorus of gasps from all around him.

His colleagues understood what it represented. The chemical would befuddle their enemies; alongside the nerve agents and poisons they had perfected in recent years, this new solution would grant them victory in the coming war. It would cement Truvelo’s status as a scientific superpower and usher in an age of chemical warfare, rendering slug-based firearms obsolete.

The thought of it chilled him to the bone.

“We are ready for mass production,” he declared, pocketing the sample. “Review my notes and get to work synthesizing a new batch. I expect a progress report by week’s end.”

His aides bobbed their heads in unison and dispersed, leaving him free to shed his coat and gloves before moving over to the sink and rinsing off his hands. He glowered at his face in the mirror, meeting his own dark eyes with a glare of disapproval. Congratulations, ‘Czar’, he seethed. You have done it again. Mother would be so proud.

Turu left the room without another word, the crisp fabric of his fatigues feeling no less restrictive than that of the lab coat he’d just shrugged his way out of. It seemed that, no matter how many layers he sloughed away, he could never come back to himself.

That man was buried deeper than anyone could reach.

The Czar strode down the wide hallway of the complex with his hands behind his back, nodding to every soldier who stopped to salute. He made every effort to appear proud and composed, but the self-hatred he felt inside was positively crippling today. He picked up the pace accordingly. If he could just get back to his office…

“Czar Turu!” came a powerful voice from behind. Turu turned to find his top lieutenant, Lieutenant Baezhe, standing there, puffing slightly in the wake of his admirable attempt to catch up with his long-legged superior. He offered a quick salute before continuing: “Our forces have failed to reapprehend our person of interest in Sebastopol. Apparently, he has boarded an airship and departed south by southwest. General Alehsi believes he may be on his way toward our position.”

Turu frowned, rubbing at his stubbled chin. “That is concerning. Has he attempted pursuit?”

“Negative. He said he lacks the manpower to attempt such a thing.”

“That is for the best,” Turu sighed. “However, the fact that this man was able to escape imprisonment in the first place is unacceptable. Issue a formal reprimand.”

“I will see to it,” Baezhe replied, offering another salute. “Shall I mobilize our forces for the fugitive’s arrival?”

Turu paused to consider. It would have been so much easier if the man had simply been executed in Sebastopol–certainly a much kinder fate than what awaited him here.

“Do not bother. I will address this myself,” he decided.

“Sir!? Are you certain? By all accounts, this man is dangerous. It would not be proper for you to face him alone–you are vital to the war effort in more ways than one!”

“I decide what is proper, Lieutenant,” Turu countered. “That is all. Dismissed.”

Baezhe swallowed the lump in his throat and saluted once more before turning on his heel and marching off down the hall. Turu exhaled slowly and resisted the urge to massage his temples. He knew, of course, that stopping the white-haired man was important. The same compulsions that had driven him to pursue his research and assume military command demanded his death.

As always, though, the reasoning behind those acts wasn’t his to know. They belonged to a man–a foreigner with a smooth voice and a calm manner–who called once or twice a month. Turu didn’t know who he was or why he obeyed him. He didn’t even know why he bothered to pick up the phone.

All he knew was that he hated him.

Even after slinking back to the safety of his darkened office, Turu found that he couldn’t relax. He paced and fidgeted, looking from the phone to the window to the wardrobe in the corner. The light filtering in through the blinds illuminated the artifacts lining the wall: family photos, his medical degree, his awards for scientific achievement. But he couldn’t bring himself to look at such things these days. They belonged to another man–a better man–and he could no longer remember what they represented.

His chest was getting tight. The speed of his pacing intensified until he forced himself to sit down, hands shaking as they reached for his pocket. Maybe this will be the one! he thought in desperation. If it is not directly lethal, perhaps I can finally…

He unstoppered the ampule of chemicals and lifted it to his lips. As always, though, the act of drinking it eluded him. The shaking of his hands grew more violent, eyes bulging as sweat poured down his face. No matter how much effort he exerted, he couldn’t seem to complete the motion. A sob wracked his body as he reached for the nearest drawer, revealing rows of similar ampules tipped with slender steel needles: his darts.

Turu screwed a needle head onto the vessel of his latest creation and poised it above his bare, sweat-slicked forearm. With extreme concentration, he tried to lower it into contact with his flesh. Much like his attempts to drink such agents, though, the attempt was destined to end in failure; the last inch or so of empty space between the needle and his arm felt like an insurmountable distance.

After many minutes of sustained effort, Turu wearily cast the dart aside. It skidded across the surface of his desk and came to rest among the minimal slivers of sunlight peeking through the blinds. There it sat, glinting. Taunting him. He half-expected the phone to ring; it would have been a fitting escalation of the utter hopelessness of the moment.

Eventually, the man rose from his chair and drifted over to the wardrobe. Ignoring the main compartment, he stooped low and pulled open the bottommost drawer to reveal his treasures; his blowgun and traditional garb. Relics of a simpler time.

A time he still remembered.

Even now, he could recall the smiling faces of his community–a faction of the Iklwa who lived in the deep jungle near Truvelo’s southeastern coast. They spurned modern innovations and lived as they always had, relying on the jungle’s natural bounty for all that they needed. He took up his old chestpiece–a light garment hewn of fine furs and segmented animal bone–and felt along its contours, thinking back to the trials that had molded him: his first hunt; learning to heal his own wounds with salves and improvised poultices; his Voda Ten’wi–a rite of passage undergone by every youth on the eve of their birth.

He had survived his Voda Ten’wi. He remembered the next day’s celebration fondly. Afterwards, the village elder came to him and acknowledged him as a man. He was instructed to choose his own way and speak it into existence, and he did so. He vowed to live among the settled peoples and practice medicine.

How different would his life be, now, had he stayed? Turu often wondered. He could not have conceived of it at the time, but that was the moment he threw away his humanity. His innocence. Shortly afterward–though the details eluded him–he was hollowed out and made into a puppet for ruthless men. He had set out from his home with hope in his heart, intending to do good. Now, nothing of that man remained. He wasn’t sure how it happened. Somehow, his intentions came to nothing. His hands and lips moved on their own, dealing death and fostering destruction before he could even question his actions.

Turu kicked off his boots and unbuttoned his fatigues until he stood naked in the corner of his office. Then, with reverence and deliberate slowness, he clothed himself again in the trappings of his people. The gesture made him feel freer than anything he’d tried in all his years of frustrated confusion, but he knew in his heart that it was only an illusion. There was only one thing that could grant him release.

He took up his blowgun, his dart, raised the blinds, and opened the window. Then he perched on the sill and looked out to sea. He’d told Baezhe to leave the fugitive to him, and he intended to do his best to honor that pledge; indeed, he could do nothing else. But the innermost part of him wanted nothing more than to fail. If he was incapable of freeing himself from his living nightmare, then only one option remained:

Turu had to hope that the white-haired man could do it for him.

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