“Keep up!” I shouted, maneuvering my front wheel onto the narrow planks of the ancient rotting bridge that loomed over half buried tracks from a long abandoned train system. I could hear Quig huffing as he pedaled behind me. Apparently, there was no need for bicycles in Kelig, or Quig had just gone soft. How was this kid ever going to be a super agent, or whatever the career path was that was keeping him up at night, if he was struggling to keep up with me? I rounded the small lump of a hill that meant we were nearly there and picked up speed for my favorite part of this trip, the narrow hole between the remaining fence boards that edged our childhood kingdom. I flattened my body and held my breath as the nasty wooden teeth passed within centimeters of my arms. We had long ago decided that the occasional blood spilled in this method of entry was toll paid, and at a worthy price. We were the only ones who came here, and to us it was a place of awe and wonder; a forgotten ruin of a factory that probably hadn’t run since before the Orunian Wars, lurking brown and orange and awkward over a skyline of hills and young trees and the outskirts of an excessively boring town.
We rode straight into the structure without breaking pace and zigzagged through corridors until skidding to a stop at the staircase that would lead us up the highest tower, where a view encompassing miles of forests and several distant towns awaited us. Mina had been here a few times, but failed to appreciate its beauty, so this remained mine and Quig’s.
“Last one to the top buys ice cream!” Quig shouted, speeding past me up the stairs as I set my kickstand.
“Not fair!” I laughed, chasing his heels.
I didn’t push hard. Our ice cream date was with Mina, and I didn’t mind so much being the one to offer her any kind she desired. Quig laughed gleefully all the way up to the top, and I tucked thoughts of Mina into a pocket so I could fully enjoy the form of my radiant brother lapping up life’s minute pleasures. In my mind I created a pop-up book showing Quig leaping up stairs with a handful of stars cupped in his outreached palm. I gave way to a chuckle of my own as I imagined it. Panting at the top of the tower and taking a few minutes to drink in our view, all we could do was grin at each other in communion.
“You suppose there’s monitoring up here?” Quig asked quietly after a while.
“I don’t know,” I mused. “Probably not.”
Most every building had audio monitoring but I couldn’t imagine anyone bothering with this place. People didn’t even seem to see it most days, though it loomed over our little town. It was just part of the relics of pre-war being reclaimed by time and emerging forests. Maybe they erased it from their minds for that reason. It was better to move forward under Orunian rule rather than look back to a time when humans controlled their own destiny.
Quig nodded. “That’s what I was thinking, too,” he said. He pounded on the metal wall, echoes of his fist flitting back to us from different areas of the empty structure at different intervals. “They’re going to put me in masks,” he said.
“Are you serious?” I scoffed, my insides upheaving with envy.
That was even better than being a super agent. The mask department only took the best of the best. Our mask technology set us apart from every other country in the world. The masks made our agents, our super agents, nearly invincible. They could see in impossible darkness, breath through any toxin, hear a conversation three rooms away, even heal minor injuries. And Quig was going to be at the forefront of improving upon them. When I’d guessed that he was on track to be a super agent I hadn’t aimed nearly high enough.
“I have to give my answer when I get back,” he nodded. “They’re going to graduate me early.”
I fought, hard, to find a part of myself that could be happy for him. Everything Quig touched turned to gold. I, on the other hand, was apparently his side-kick big brother, benefiting from the residual glow of his graced life.
“That’s amazing,” I offered blandly.
“The thing is,” he continued without noticing my lack of sincerity, “this is the real deal. I mean, in reality I’m only thirteen. Good agents enter active duty when they’re fifteen, and that’s serving sandwiches and stuff. I’m going to be in masks.” He lifted his eyes to mine and I saw the worry and fear that burdened him. “What if they figure out I’m just a kid?”
“Hey,” I said, leaning forward to kick his heel lightly, my big brother instincts instantly cramming jealousies into the dark recesses of my book. “Who cares? I mean, if they figure out that you’re a kid, they’ll be that much more impressed.”
He nodded dubiously. “I guess,” he sighed, lifting a rusted bolt and tossing it into the void. We watched it arc through the air and eventually kick up a small puff of dirt on the yard below. “Kelig’s all business,” he said after a while. “They’re not easy to impress, and boy do they ride you hard. The directors weren’t clear on how much more I’d have to work, exactly, but they warned me that it would be a significant commitment if I say yes. I wouldn’t…” but he didn’t finish his sentence. He stared blankly at the tree cover behind me for a while.
“You wouldn’t what?” I prodded.
Quig sighed heavily. “You’ve loved her longer than I have anyway,” he murmured. “Mina deserves someone who can be there for her. Put her first, you know?”
“I agree,” I said carefully.
“You don’t get her like I do,” he added, “but I think you’d be good to her.”
“I don’t…” I stuttered, weighing the impulse to punch him in the face. I rose and brushed the dust off my knees hastily. “You’re really something, you know that?” I barked. “You think you understand an ounce of Mina? You think you’re somehow doing a noble thing, honorably handing her off to me like I’m her second best option? You’re an arrogant prig.”
“No Quig,” I shouted, “I’ve had it! The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know, with your heavy decisions, agonizing over saying ‘yes’ to the biggest opportunity in a lifetime and conveniently drumming up an infatuation over Mina to create a significant poetic counterpoint to cover up the fact that you’re just plain scared! Maybe you are too young for all of this, who knows. All I see is a frightened little boy, putting his nose where it doesn’t belong so he can feel like a…”
Quig launched at me and we tumbled to the floor, aiming punches at each other and mostly succeeding in ingesting dust. We pulled apart, huffing and glaring, until Quig started to laugh.
“Stop it,” I snarled, though I couldn’t fully suppress a laugh, myself.
The scuffle had liberated some kind of weight from us. Sitting covered in the dust and debris of the tallest tower laughing, it felt like the rest was washed into deep pockets of the pop-up book, leaving a blank page between us. We tromped down the stairs in silence, riding slowly toward town, stopping often to watch small moments of nature traveling her private winding rhythms with no care for career dilemmas or unfair opportunities or even beautiful girls. At the train bridge, Quig lifted his finger toward a government car sliding along the side streets ahead. It was one of the industrial war-style models with large wheels that could traipse over any landscape, but glistening black as if carting movie stars, and though it could have been headed anywhere, in a glance we were of the same mind. The satellites had worked just fine last night and our midnight swim with Mina had caught someone’s attention.
My lungs and calves burned equally as I dug into everything I had, tearing through yards as we cut toward Mina’s house, Quig pacing me pedal for pedal. By the time we arrived to her neighbor’s lawn she was at the street, already speaking with someone inside the vehicle. She laughed politely, unaware that two red armored agents stalked toward her from either side. Quig and I were in motion at the same moment, bursting through the bushes and attacking the agents with anything we were able to grab on our way; twigs, stones, fists, shoes.
I can only claim that I fought for my life. Who knows, maybe I’d have saved them if I’d fought for theirs, too. If I know anything now, it’s that there’s always more to give; you just have to know that you’re willing to give it, at any cost. I was fourteen. I didn’t understand cost yet. I didn’t lose consciousness, though I couldn’t say I had a firm grip on reality when the agents left me there. I could have sworn that the last thing I saw, before my life was forced to go on without them, was Quig’s face, with a finger before his lips.
I couldn’t speak for a while. My mouth was swollen up pretty badly. My whole body was. When I was found, along with our bikes, and then it was discovered that Mina was missing, everyone just assumed that I’d have been the one to remain with Mina, no matter what had become of her. There was even speculation that we’d run off together and Quig had tried to stop us. They called me Quig and I didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to argue.
My first night out of the hospital, I found Quig’s mask in our room. It was gold, literally metallic and shimmering warmth, just like him. I put it on. It bonded to my face without trouble and began administering a numbing topical anesthetic when it detected my injuries. I collapsed onto his bed, struggling to accept what had happened. It had to have been our midnight swim. If it had been about our conversation in the tower, they wouldn’t have been interested in Mina. If our swim was the problem, though, our parents would have gotten a call from local government agents with instructions on where they could collect their arrested children. Besides, those hadn’t been enforcement agents, they’d been Orunian agents. I’d heard about them, with the red cloth binding their armor.
It occurred to me in a sickening flash of inspiration that maybe Mina and Quig had done some exploring that I hadn’t been aware of, and could be in trouble with Leai, the Orun of Health and Matrimony. She took offense to pre-matrimonial relations and could have decided to make an example of them. If that were the case, though, and I shuddered to think that it was, Quig and Mina would be returned to us after a few days. At least I was pretty sure that was how it worked. I’d heard rumors of Pre-Mats having to make public apologies to Leai and that kind of stuff, but people didn’t get all twisted up about Pre-Mat arrests like they did about Un-Masking or Action Against Another Citizen. Those were the serious offenses.
They didn’t come back, though. Not a couple of days later or a week later, and though I could speak by then, I chose not to. Even against my mother’s sobbing pleas. Quig was headed for Gentech and masks in Kelig, the central nervous system of our country. If I admitted to my parents that I was Wolf, I’d be sent back to the Ixtham agency school, where I could do exactly nothing to try to save them. If I went to Kelig, I’d have access to the kind of information someone would need in order to find out who had abducted their love and their brother, and perhaps even find a way to do something about it.
I packed his clothes into his suitcase, rolled his mask into his pants pocket at the front of my leg, tucked his ID card into his shirt pocket at my breast, where I’d seen him keep it, and picked up his train ticket. My house was funereal, so I kept my departure to a kiss on my mother’s forehead and a meaningful squeeze on my father’s shoulder. I made no declarations, but a private vow in that dark room that I would find them and bring them home. I’d protect my brother in any way that I could now, since I had failed when it mattered. I understood now that I had more to give, and I’d never hold back again.
I don’t know what made me think that I could just slip away. At the train station, I spotted my parents lurking at the edge of the expectant crowd. Seeing their discovery, they approached and my mother pressed me into her arms.
“You don’t know what it does to me,” she said into my ear, “thinking of letting you out of my sight for one second. If you were anyone else, I’d demand that you be transferred here so I could watch you and protect you.” She pulled away and locked her gaze on mine. “I don’t understand why you won’t tell us what happened,” she said, “but I have to trust that you have a good reason.” She smoothed my hair and straightened my shirt. “You need to promise me that you will do everything possible to keep yourself safe. Can you make that promise?”
I nodded but she didn’t look satisfied. She pulled me back into her arms.
“If they’d run away, you’d have told on them by now,” she murmured into my ear. “And if they’d been abducted by anyone who didn’t frighten you into silence you’d have spoken up.”
I stilled, and felt her kiss my cheek. It was wet where her tears had touched.
“That’s what I needed to know,” she whispered. “Will you be safe in Kelig?”
I nodded. With one last squeeze, she released me and let my father have his turn at a hug. His farewell was filled with promises to be available for me should I need him and reminders to call when I was ready to talk. His eyes were also wet when he let me go. At last, mercifully, the train to Kelig screeched into place and I was able to separate from their longing hands. I chose a seat on the other side of the train so I wouldn’t have to see them on the platform, and focused on my internal promise. I’d make this right.
Like that ancient tale still recited to children, though the message behind it didn’t translate well and remains mysterious, I sat aboard the train destined for my brother’s life, disguised and on the prowl to learn what I must and punish those who deserved it. ‘A Wolf in Quig’s clothing,’ I thought, giving my pop-up book a chapter heading and devising for it a likeness of me, standing in the Orun Terro’s war-posture before a prickly spray of paper that would fan out menacingly behind me like the hackles of a wolf, or so I’d seen in graphic books, anyhow. In my left hand would be clutched Quig’s golden mask and in my right, Mina’s sparkling barrette. At my feet, the gore and waste of defeated red armored agents atop a mangled black car. As the train lurched into motion, rolling faster and faster past the forgotten sides of backyards and then wider wildflower specked fields, I gave the countryside a toothy, hungry grin.
Written by W. C. McClure. I hope you enjoyed this teaser for my upcoming Onyx series. It is a work of fiction and none of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome. Also, please help support this indie author by buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!