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Chapter 3

    Leon could feel the water descend his esophagus, moisture meeting aridness along the slow path to his stomach as his body absorbed what it had been longing for. He would not have stopped drinking if it were not for his need to breathe. He inhaled deeply and could feel the last of the liquid enter his stomach. The swishing sensation and the metallic taste of dehydration made him nauseous. He tried to spit the taste away, but it stubbornly remained. The street merchant noticed and stared at him intently, praying he did not empty the contents of his stomach in the vicinity of his cart. He did not know there was nothing to empty out of it. Leon noticed the glare and took it for something else. He reached into the pouch at his side before the merchant waved his hand dismissively.
    “I can’t charge you,” he said. “I saw you coming from the top of the hill.” He motioned toward the precipice Ruslan once occupied. “Looks like you’ve been through a lot.”
    The merchant knew what Leon was; the A-shaped pin on his lapel made it clear. He knew better than to question the circumstances that brought him to the center of the Sandsea on foot. What little he knew about sentinels told him he did not want to aggravate one, not in his state.
    Leon showed his appreciation by chugging the remainder of the bottle. The first wave prepared him for the second, and there was less commotion as it descended. His nausea began to subside as the water settled, though not entirely. Despite his desire for his famine to be ended with a porterhouse or game hen, he could wait no longer, knowing food was within reach. He scanned behind the merchant’s makeshift counter. Fruit or junk food were his options, so he opted for some bananas.
    “Another water and three bananas,” he said, reaching again for payment.
    “No, no,” the merchant waved him off. “It’s all on me.” He was not taking chances.
    “You sure?” Leon asked, aware of the effect he had on people. It irked him how they always seemed eager to help him. He wished they would extend their generosity elsewhere. Their actions toward him proved them capable, and countless others could use the handouts more. Though now was not the time for such a grievance.
    “Of course.”
    “Take this at least,” he produced a small silver coin worth a fraction of what the lot was worth.
    “No, thank you, sir. Honestly, I couldn’t.”
    Leon shrugged and pulled some wrappers from his pouch—knowing they had been licked clean of any crumbs—and tossed them in the trash as he stashed two of the bananas.
    “Thank you,” he said, nodding as he peeled the other and headed toward the city’s heart.
    It had grown since he had been there last. The buildings beyond the merchant’s stand were erected on what was once the city’s outskirts, a realization he came to when he arrived at the strip he recognized as the city’s former perimeter. A newcomer would never have guessed the buildings on the outskirts were newer since the planks siding them already showed significant signs of wear. Nothing in the Sandsea held up for long unless it was made of steel or iron—and even then, it would not last forever. Leon was sure he had seen countless structures in Tharthis City torn down and rebuilt three or four times over. Little that man created could escape the hand of time, a truth expounded by the harsh conditions of the Sandsea.
    Leon’s first bite of the banana offered instant gratification. He savored its soft sweetness as he stared down the sprawling main road that ran straight to the city’s eastern edge, where the glory of Tharthis City stood—eight stories of steel dwarfing everything around it: the Tharthis Power Mill. Two colossal blades spun at its peak, nearly doubling its height when vertical. The sun flashed off them on every upswing—perhaps the cause of the skyward glint. A marvel of modern technology, the power mill was packed tight with internal mechanisms that enabled it to produce enough energy in a single day to power the city for two. The excess was used to power the vehicles and machinery that dug beneath the desert in search of rubelym. Built aside such a meager city, and with its bleak desert backdrop, the power mill was something of a monolith to man’s achievement on Id’Etat—though the occasional passerby rarely gave it the reverence it deserved.
    By his second bite, the banana was all but gone. He squeezed what was left from the bottom of the peel into his mouth before swallowing what was already there. He considered tossing the peel to the ground, but first checked to see if anyone was watching. He should have known. More than half the crowd stared at him intently, their attempts at discretion quite condemnable. Whether it was the elderly watching unabashedly from run-down porches, or merchants sneaking peeks between customers, they all looked at him with the same sense of tepid curiosity.
    Am I that obvious? He stared down at his clothes, ragged from a week amidst the sands, but not a far cry from what the locals were wearing. It was the damnable badge he was mandated to display in public, so small yet seemingly visible from a mile off. He put the peel in his pouch and grabbed another banana, looking back as he peeled it. Countless eyes followed him from the monotonous procession of buildings lining both sides of the street.
    A sudden bang sounded ahead. He looked forward. A few buildings down, a door reminiscent of the one in the security footage swung open, and a man sprinted out. He stopped dead just before the city’s meager square. It was as if his eyes were heat-locked to Leon, instantly picking the sentinel out of the crowd. Sickly thin with long curls framing a browned, leathery face, the man’s identity was unmistakable.
    Refusing to offer a window of escape, Leon dropped the fresh banana and procured the Augmented Range Machine—or ARM—holstered beneath his pouch. He aimed as the man threw his hands in the air in ignorance.
    “I know who you are, Salvador,” Leon shouted. Most of the people who had been gawking a moment prior scurried to find safety behind locked doors, though a bold few remained to stare in awe from their porches.
    Salvador tried to speak, but the effort seemed taxing.
    “Relax,” Leon told him, intent on ending the ordeal with haste. “You’re fortunate. You have something we want, so I won’t hurt you unless you give me reason.”
    “Excuse me?” Salvador asked.
    “Attempts at ignorance won’t serve you,” said Leon. “Phetaclyn. You’re either on it, or you’ve used it before. Either way, you know what it is and, more importantly, where you got it.”
    “I never—”
    “You are on it, I think,” Leon interrupted, the stark yellow of Salvador’s eyes becoming evident as he drew closer. He stopped twenty paces from him, hoping not to have to learn of the drug’s potential firsthand. Then, as if any sense of trepidation promptly dissipated, Salvador cackled haughtily and began walking toward a porch across the street.
    “Freeze!” Leon shouted, unwilling to fire yet, fully aware of what would be the extent of Simon’s fury if he did. Then suddenly, as if Leon had taken too long to blink, Salvador was on the porch. A middle-aged man and woman were screaming, attempting to escape indoors. Salvador grabbed the woman; her body went limp as he pulled her to him violently. The man charged forward and tried to wrestle her free, but Salvador launched him into the front of the building with his free arm. The siding splintered as he fell motionless to the porch. The woman released a blood-curdling scream. Leon heard a commotion from above and looked up, finding a sizable audience watching from second and third-story windows.
    Reality seemed to flash forward, and Salvador was back in the center of the street. He had his left arm wrapped around the woman’s neck and a pistol aimed at her temple.
    “Let her go, Salvador,” Leon demanded calmly.
    The spectators beheld a daunting silence.
    “Come on,” Leon prodded after a moment. “You’re nullifying any sense of amnesty you have. The consequences will be worse if you take a hostage.”
    “No, they won’t,” Salvador answered. “You don’t know them.”
    “Don’t know who?”
    Salvador stared at him through listless yellow eyes, traces of confusion and terror evident within. Leon was uncertain if he was the source of that terror. Salvador tightened his grip, and the woman let out a panicked shout.
    “The people who sold you the drug, you mean?” Leon asked.
    “If I told you, it’d all be over.”
    “No, it wouldn’t,” Leon lied. There were protocols for talking suspects down in any circumstance. This one called for him to draw on the Order’s reputation as a righteous organization—to convince Salvador to take his chances with them instead of whomever he might be betraying. “We can protect—”
    “Liar,” he interrupted.
    “I’m not lying.
    “Yes, you are. I’m wanted for murder, and you’re a sentinel. You won’t let me go free; better yet, protect me.”
    “Actually, we will. You have something we need, and that’s worth a lot. I know the Order brass—they’re not bad people. I’m guessing the people you’re scared of are, however. So, it’s up to you who you take your chances with. Them, or us?”
    “With me,” Salvador replied.
    “That wasn’t an option.”
    “I’ll take my chances with me,” he repeated fervently.
Leon smirked. If Salvador continued to resist and Leon deemed the hostage to be in substantial danger, then he was clear to shoot—regardless of the knowledge the mark possessed. An arrest was a drawn-out process, and his meager snack did little to abate his violent hunger.
    “Are you sure?” Leon asked, shifting to an intimidation protocol. “You said it yourself; I’m a sentinel of the Order.”
“I’m sure. Are you sure?” Salvador smirked insolently. “You said it yourself.”
    “What did I say?”
    “What of it?” Maintaining his composure was effortless. Salvador could sense the lack of alarm, and his dismay began showing through his maniacal disregard.
    “Oh,” he let out a forced laugh. “You don’t know ‘til you’ve tried it.”
    “I’ve heard remarkable things, but they don’t concern me.”
   “They should,” Salvador threatened, rolling his head to stretch his neck. The enhanced messengers inside his brain were becoming restless. “Who are you to choose anyway? It’s not your life at stake; it’s hers.” It was a panicked, unimaginative threat and meant little to Leon. Salvador jerked the woman violently and pressed his pistol harder against her temple. She shrieked. “You don’t want that on your conscience, do you? I know the Order doesn’t.”
    “Don’t worry,” Leon assured her confidently. “You’ll be fine.”
    “Not if you try to play the hero.” Salvador began to step backward. “They say someone on Phetaclyn can dodge a bullet, you know?”
  “I’ve heard that,” Leon answered, stepping forward to maintain the distance. “But I find it hard to believe the effects of a drug don’t conform to the realm of possibility.”
“Perhaps,” Salvador continued, seemingly gaining some confidence. He quickened his pace, eager to increase the distance. His hostage whimpered as her feet began to drag. “It takes a lot less time to pull a trigger, however. You fire at me, and she’ll have a bullet in her head before yours hits.” He laughed a volatile laugh, and the woman shrieked once more, this time thrashing to escape. With Salvador unsuspecting of such bravado, she came surprisingly close. Leon observed the struggle, and in a moment where he caught a glimpse of Salvador’s exposed neck, the movement of time ceased. He pondered the drug’s effectiveness as he beheld the skin covering his query’s medulla. A clean shot would instantly sever all contact between brain and body. However, it only took a slight movement to pull a trigger, and Leon wondered if Salvador could manage to do so in the milliseconds between the retort and contact.
    Time crept forward; the window was closing. Leon cursed himself for wasting even a fraction of such an opportune moment deliberating. The distance was too short for Salvador to react. It was as if, in his exhaustion, Leon forgot what he was. He remembered now, and he fired with confidence. The retort sounded boisterously through the open city, and Salvador lost all function before he could think to act. There was no pain—his body no longer possessed the means to tell his brain to feel it. He remained conscious just long enough to accept his defeat, heralded by shocked gasps from the onlookers. As the enhanced messengers inside of him perished for lack of purpose, he, too, fell to the ground, lifeless.
    The woman stood straight, rigid with shock, a blood spatter on her shoulder. She was on the cusp of fainting but remembered her spouse on the porch. Fighting to maintain composure, she ran to him. She leaned over to lift him and hug him tightly. He was regaining consciousness.
    Leon holstered his ARM and walked to Salvador’s body. He felt the onlookers’ eyes boring into him, and as much as he hated to make a spectacle of such a sight, he was thankful for their presence. Simon would not be happy he killed Salvador, and Leon could only benefit from their testimony if needed. Unmoved by the growing pool of red beneath the body, he crouched down and began to search it. He found a wallet bulging with a wad of paper credits and a newer identification card. The headshot and specs matched Salvador, but the name read ‘Milan Cronin.’ He inspected each fold and dropped it beside the body after confirming that nothing else was inside. He hung onto the credits and ID. As he prepared to resume his search, he heard footsteps approaching from behind and rose to meet them.
    “Thank you.” It was the woman, her arm around who Leon assumed was her husband, supporting him. He had a gash above his eye, but outside of that, he seemed okay.
    “Are you all right?” Leon asked them.
    “Shaken,” she paused, looking down at the body and the blood. “A lot better than I might have been.”
    “Good. I’m sorry if I frightened you, but I had to act before he did. He was very unstable.”
    “He’s so thin,” she replied. “How was he so strong?”
    “Not sure,” Leon answered. “Can you contact the authorities so we can get this taken care of?” He motioned toward the body, though she chose not to look again. She nodded and turned away to start down the street.
    “Wait,” said Leon, presenting the wad of credits as she turned back around. “Take this. You deserve it.”
    “I couldn’t,” she answered. “Not under the circumstances.”
    “Well, I can’t keep it, and if you don’t take it, it’s just going to an organization with more funding than it knows what to do with.”
    She only hesitated a moment before reaching for the credits.
    “We’ll get the sheriff,” she told him, and they retreated as briskly as the man’s condition would allow.
    Leon turned and crouched to finish his inspection. He found a key in Salvador’s coat pocket with the number ‘21’ etched into it and two small vials with a clear liquid inside. He stood and held one to the sky to inspect its unassuming contents. Confident they were what he was looking for, he placed them in his pouch along with the key and reached for his OIC to call Simon. It barely rang before he answered.
    “That was quick,” he said, smiling eagerly. “Good news, I hope?”
    “I think so. Though his ID says ‘Milan Cronin.’”
    “Does it?” Simon smirked. “No worries. Anyone at HQ can ID him at this point. How’s he doing?”
    “Not good,” said Leon, opting to remove the bandage quickly. “I did a number on his neck.”
    “You didn’t,” his prior air of jubilation abated instantly.
    “I had to.”
    “Damn it, Leon!” The frame shook as he slammed his fist on his desk.
    “I had to, Simon. He had a hostage.”
   “You got back to me pretty damn quick!” Simon shouted. “You couldn’t have tried to talk him down for long.”
    “I did try, but I didn’t want to give him too much time. He was so unstable. I got a window, and I took it. Any other sentinel would have done the same.”
    “Unstable, how?” Simon asked, his curiosity triumphing over his anger for the moment. “Was he using?”
    “Yeah,” Leon answered, welcoming the apparent intrigue. “Said so himself—and his eyes were practically glowing.”
    “What was he like?”
    “Fast, for sure, and the hostage said he was really strong,” he looked down at the slender frame. “Hard to believe.”
    “It did make him faster, then? The strength makes sense if it’s an adrenaline enhancer, but the increased speed seemed so far-fetched.” Simon paused, considering. “Damn it, Leon. He was the first real lead we had on this.”
“He had some on him, I think,” Leon answered, hoping to salvage some of his dispatcher’s enthusiasm.
    “Really? What is it?”
    “A liquid,” Leon removed one of the vials and put it in front of the camera. “Injectable, I guess.”
    “Makes sense; the effects would kick in quick when you need them,” Simon scribbled a note off-screen. “Check his arms for marks or swells—injection sites.”
    Leon sighed. He was not an investigator and was not used to taking orders outside of his jurisdiction. When a mark was apprehended, all he typically had to do was fill out a report and let the local authorities handle the rest. His hands were already dirtier than he would have liked to have gotten them that day. He knelt once more and proceeded to lift each sleeve. Aside from appearing somewhat emaciated, he could not find marks on either arm. He cursed suddenly when he noticed a damp warmth beneath his knee. He had shifted into the blood.
    “What is it?” Simon asked.
    “Nothing. I got blood on me.” He looked down. It was not much, but it always seemed like more when it was someone else’s. He turned his attention back to Simon. “No marks on either arm, though.”
“Interesting,” he answered. “We’ll have them look more thoroughly during the autopsy.”
   Leon nodded as he heard footsteps approaching from behind. When he turned to look, he saw a man running toward him with a blanket clutched at his side. He was dressed plainly but wore a badge on his breast and had a pistol holstered at his waist. He slowed down cautiously as he approached the sentinel.
    “What’s that?” Simon asked.
    “The sheriff.”
    “You’re with the Order?” the sheriff asked, his voice tense.
    “I am,” Leon answered.
    “Let me talk to him,” Simon shouted.
    “My dispatcher wants to speak with you,” said Leon, happy to hand over his OIC. The sheriff also seemed relieved, likely preferring not having to deal with the Order in person.
Leon looked down the street and saw the woman and her husband—walking on his own now. Despite the ordeal, it seemed he had a little spring in his step. Leon heard Simon give the orders to arrange for transport of the body to HQ, along with a few other mumbling details that he deemed irrelevant. The sheriff accepted the demands without question and quickly returned the OIC to Leon.
    “We’re all set,” Simon told him. Leon watched the sheriff cover the body hastily without checking to ensure the whole of it was covered. When he walked off, he offered nothing more than a nod in farewell.
   “Looks like he saw a ghost,” said Leon, returning his attention to the OIC.
    “Maybe he thinks he did. Like I said, you don’t look so good.”
    “Funny. Let’s get the report over with.”
    “Don’t worry about it; I know enough. I’ll take care of it.”
    “Seriously?” Leon asked, surprised. It was uncharacteristic of Simon, typically a stickler for Order protocol. Maybe Leon’s appearance was that disconcerting, and Simon was simply sympathetic. There was a slight pause, and just as Leon prepared to offer his thanks and say goodbye, he realized it looked as if Simon still had more to say. He sensed a certain dread, and suddenly the offer to handle the report made sense—he needed something else.
    “What?” Leon asked.
    “You’re not going to like it.”
    “I need you to bring me the samples.”
    “Seriously?” Leon answered, an anchor tied to his spirits. Kalibrek was a long way from Tharthis City. “I can’t send a courier?”
    “No, this is too big. Especially after what you’ve confirmed. We can’t risk anything.”
    “We can tell them it’s an antidote or something,” Leon pleaded. “They’ll see the urgency without knowing its worth.”
    “Leon,” his interjection was stern. “I can only trust a sentinel with this. If you were in better spirits, you would agree.”
    Leon sighed. He knew his role, forever at the mercy of Simon. That was the relationship between a sentinel and his dispatcher—he knew debating any further would prove fruitless, and it was not like he had the energy to do so.
    “Fine,” he answered, defeated. “When do I head out?”
    “Tomorrow’s fine. I know you’ve had a rough road in, so get some rest tonight.”
    “And Leon.”
    “You’re going back through the desert. Pack accordingly this time.”
    The screen went blank following the subtle jape, and Leon cursed loudly. When he looked up, there were still spectators lingering in the windows.

  < Chapter 2                                             Chapter 4 >

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