Part 1

From a second story window, through mismatched panes of reclaimed glass, could be seen a quail's nest haphazardly constructed from bits of driftwood and dead leaves. Though the tree on who's branch it lay gave little harbor of growing foliage, no breeze ruffled the feathers of its caretaker, and both it and the egg next to it remained coated in a haze of shade. Almost any clock would have deemed the time to be mid morning, and the calendar on the wall had been turned to August, 2089, yet any semblance of natural light emanated only from diluted reflections off of the eroded concrete and frayed rebar which made up the eave of a monumental barrier that encompassed them. Just within range of sight, the eyes of a man distinguishable most prominently by a bluish-gray windbreaker indicative of his position stressed to make out the colors and textures of the egg's shell, and the coat of its otherwise disposed guardian. Muffled broadcasts of some grand caretaker and deep rooted problems under its watchful eye mustered the ambiance of the room from which he gazed, yet the smooth brushed metal of his jacket's zipper between his pale white thumb and index finger assumed prevalence in his mind until a familiar voice brought him swiftly back to the present situation.

   “Yuri,” his sickly looking partner, Len, called out to him. His tone was playful, though masking a slight fester. It having occurred to him that he had been staring out of the living room window, though not sure at what precisely, Yuri turned to face his similarly dressed partner only to realize that the radio in the bedroom had been turned down to its effectively inaudible volume.

   “Yes?” Yuri answered, failing to pass off the moment of aloofness.

   “I know the street is lovely, but I could use a hand here,” Len smirked.

   “Right, sorry,” Yuri came back, stepping lightly over to his partner as he pushed back the sleeves of his own jacket which hung loosely off of his lanky, hunched frame and lifted the cover off of a chest adjacent to them. He wasted no time before he dug his hands into the strangers’ belongings and began rifling through them. Menial belongings by any stretch of the imagination, yet Len took particular consideration in turning over and thoroughly inspecting each item as he made his way down.

   “Go and check the coat closet, I'll take care of things in here,” Len directed, prompting only a nod in agreement from Yuri before he slipped through the narrow opening separating his partner and the couch behind him.

   “I assume the bedroom yielded nothing of interest?” Yuri asked as he opened the closet door, the screech from its ancient hinges nearly drowning out the second half of his question.

   “Well,” Len began with a slight inhale, his attention still firmly affixed on whatever was in his grasp at the time, “whoever left last didn't make the bed, and that same person must have forgotten to hang the towel on the rack after bathing.”

   “Any of that sound suspicious to you?” he continued, tilting his head just so to meet eyes with Yuri who had yet to begin his own search, instead pausing to humor the thought.

   “Not so much suspicious as it is disgusting, but I don't think that's a punishable offense,” Yuri answered, pondering for a moment how such a legislation could be enforced. Perhaps a standardized precedent of cleanliness and organization, or a scheduled measurement of bacterial infestation throughout the living space.

   “Good thing too, the PRI'd be running your door through tomorrow morning if that were the case,” Len poked.

   “Funny, I was thinking the same thing about you,” Yuri retaliated, their banter interrupted by a mutual chuckle.

   “Think it could be a diversion?” he followed, the question mostly facetious as evident by his curious tone.

   “That would be pretty elaborate, ironically, but somehow I doubt it.” Len concluded before closing the chest cover and turning himself around to begin analyzing the living room couch, starting with searching the ground clearance underneath it and the crevices between its cushions. Meanwhile, Yuri turned his own attention back to the closet; digging his hands into every pocket which could be found on its meager collection of jackets and winter coats, each one dangling from rusted wire hangers long bent out of proper shape. All contained little more than balled up lint, save for a couple which had simply unraveled into holes rendering them useless as pockets. With that, he pushed them aside to each end of the bar, revealing a standing retinal-scan safe from a manufacturer he didn't recognize. The name certainly sounded domestic, and he was well aware that those names changed rather frequently for various, sometimes obscure reasons. Still, he would not be certain of the truth of it until he scanned his own eye which, were it to be domestic, would surely trigger the relay surgically implanted only into the retinas of PRI officers and informants, unlocking the state mandated secondary access point. He was almost disappointed when the tumblers clicked in compliance with the scan, meaning not only would he be forced to endure the minute, though nonetheless discomforting jolt of the activated relay, but also that no obvious wrong doing had been performed.

   “Hey, Len,” Yuri called out to his partner, who by this point had tilted the couch onto its hind legs so that he could pat the bottom covering and reach inside any holes ripped into it lest the occupants hide something within the frame.


   “Have you got the scanner with you?” he asked, pulling out a filing drawer and thumbing his way through the somewhat organized pallet of papers inside.

   “I left it in the car,” Len answered, letting the couch back down onto the floor and walking over the have a look for himself. “You got documents?”

   “Yeah, looks like pretty standard stuff,” Yuri began, quickly going back through the less eye raising stuff so Len could see.

   “Birth certificates, marriage, identification, tax reports, trade diplomas, a few letters, family portrait,” he demonstrated, taking the last of those items out so the two of them could look with humorous disposition at the blank expressions worn by even the child, but an infant when the photo had been taken.

   “Cute,” Len remarked, giving Yuri a smirk.

   “We probably have most of this on file already, Ill go check the database in the car and submit anything that isn't.”

   Silent in his agreement, Yuri simply returned his attention to the contents of the safe, or rather the lack thereof. A thin film of dust seemingly all that remained within it, a quick inspection to make sure he was not overlooking any unknown hiding places within its titanium walls was all that stood between him and assurance that nothing was to be found. No one among the ranks of the state would approve of a storage container equipped with areas which would prove difficult for an officer to locate, especially if that would defeat the purpose of the thing in the first place, and he was confident that whoever owned it wouldn't be smart enough to create such a space on their own. That was, until the search drew his eyes to a segment of the wall beside it where there appeared to be a square segment of drywall about the size of his hand which had been removed and replaced. Turning his flashlight onto it confirmed the suspicion, and the remnants of wood dust around the cut area suggested it was a recent development.

   Latching the flashlight onto his shoulder to keep the light fixed on it, he pulled a flat head screw driver from the multi-tool on his belt and wedged it into the cut. His heart now racing, he popped the segment of drywall out of the panel; not even bothering to stop it from falling to the ground as he moved his head as close to the wall as he could to see inside. Its insides now awash in fluorescence, all that looked back at him was a a small black box fastened to the other side of the wall and a strobing, red light attached to it. A listening device, military grade. Removing himself from the closet just so to see around the corner, its intent became clear when he spotted the telephone on the wall's outside face. A sigh escaping him, he grabbed the cut segment of drywall before coming to his feet. However, just before putting in back in place, something resting on the fire stop just below the device caught his eye. Returning himself and the flashlight to the opening, a stuffed toy shaped like a mouse and a few marks worth of coins on top of a folded sheet of paper was revealed to him.

   Sliding the paper out from underneath the trinkets weighing it down and unfolding it, Yuri suddenly found himself somewhat transfixed on what had been drawn inside. Though a crude and simplistic depiction, obviously by the child despite how strange that now seemed, it was nonetheless straight forward enough to at least make out what was happening on the surface of it. A boy, sleeping on what appeared to be the living room couch; and seemingly floating parallel above him, a girl. Her long gray hair draped over the white cloak she wore, and a golden circle had been drawn around her head, like an angelic halo adorning her. A heavenly figure, to be sure, yet like the family in the portrait she bore no facial expression whatsoever. She simply lay there, staring at the boy as he slept. For a moment, Yuri could almost believe she was staring back at him, there, holding the picture in his hand, by the way its two-dimensional perspective came together.

   “Everything's on file already, even the family portrait.” Len said as he opened the front door, his unanticipated return to the apartment causing Yuri to flinch before stuffing the drawing back into the opening.

   “You find anything else in there?” he asked, missing Yuri's somewhat conspicuous disposition as he walked right past him.

   “A-a bug,” Yuri stuttered, prompting Len to stop on his way to the kitchen and look back at him.

   “Behind the phone,” he continued, pondering in the couple seconds it took Len to comment why he suddenly felt the need to obscure the trinkets hidden away with the device, but unable to amend that decision before his partner had already begun giving his analysis of the matter.

   “Probably put there by the last team that searched this place,” Len figured, turning back to enter the kitchen like he'd previously intended. “I'll have to report it to the region controller, though, see if he remembers giving that order.”

   “It’d make our jobs a lot easier if the PRI kept records of searches and operations performed during them.”

   “I always thought it was their way of maintaining plausible deniability,” Yuri followed, sealing the cut segment back into the wall before going to join Len in the kitchen. “You know, cover their tracks?”

   “The agency has more important matters than its public image to attend to; a double edged sword, but an unfortunate necessity,” Len proclaimed, almost as if to mimic precisely an official statement on the subject as he handed Yuri one of two bottles of lager in his hand. Ice cold to the touch, it had clearly been taken without second thought from the nearby refrigerator.

   “Chaos bites at the heels of this place, no matter the lengths we've gone to stay it, that much I've learned,” he went on, sitting himself not so graciously onto the couch as he twisted the cap off of the bottle. “Maybe, one day, those who seem to breed it instinctively will come to understand and appreciate all that we do to protect them from it.”

   Any sort of response that could further build on that notion lost to him, Yuri could only silently accompany Len on the couch. Twisting the cap off of his own bottle, a strangely easing calm, interrupted only by the momentary swishing of watered down alcohol with each swig they took, descended between them.

   “It's awful,” Len sneered, turning the half empty bottle such to halfheartedly read the label of its producer, not that it would have mattered what it said. “How can they drink this stuff?”

   “You say that no matter what we're drinking,” Yuri grinned as he finished a sip, “you were ranting about it in front of the whole battalion when we went to Nachten's that one weekend.”

   “I have no memory of that,” Len came back, the pride in his tone suggesting he would have done it again even if clear headed.

   “Everyone else does,” Yuri followed, his grin having turned to a bit of a smirk.

   “Well, that can only mean that whatever they served me was at least strong enough to get me drunk.”

   “Can't argue with that,” Yuri ceded, downing what was left in his own bottle, “must have been a bad wheat harvest when they made this.”

   “Bad wheat is the least of their problems,” Len declared, leaning back into the couch and folding his arms.

   “Drinking this makes me want to go through basic training all over again just to have a drop of that wine they gave us at our orientation,” he went on, a glimmer developing in his wide eyes.

   “Oh yeah,” Yuri remembered for him, “It was part of that huge stash found underneath a general's summer home when it was raided back during the war.”

   “You'd know better than I would,” Len dismissed, his focus clearly occupied more with the drink than the history behind it. “If that is true, though, it almost makes me wish they would have won.”

   “Careful, Len, some people might consider that kind of language treasonous,” Yuri replied, serious only in his statement of legislative fact.

   “I said almost,” Len backtracked, the slight rise in the volume of his voice showing he wasn't entirely in on the joke.

   “I'm just gonna write that down really quick,” Yuri went on, he himself failing to notice Len's lack of awareness of his jest as he beamed and motioned towards the notepad on his belt. Before he'd even moved an inch, however, he was suddenly halted when Len inexplicably jumped to his feet. Now standing over him, Yuri looked into his eyes which had become shaded from his body blocking what little light came in from the window. He couldn't tell whether or not it was fear or imminent aggression lurking in them, but what he did know was that his entire body seemed eerily tense, almost shaking where he stood. Seeing this, Yuri immediately dropped the subject, averting his gaze from his now clearly distraught partner.

   “Sorry,” he murmured, “I-I didn't mean to wind you up like that.”

   “No, you're right” Len replied, his shoulders relaxing before he returned almost robotically to his place on the couch. “I shouldn't have said that.”

   Though earnestly inclined to assure Len that he personally had no problem with it, Yuri felt it best simply not to say anything else. Again, a quiet descended over them. This one, however, felt more akin to a rope tightening around their airways than a soothing redress from whatever may be happening outside the four walls that encompassed them.

   “Hey, Yuri,” Len spoke up after releasing a muddled sigh, finding an itch on the back of his neck, “you mind if I ask you a weird question?”

   “Not at all,” Yuri replied, mustering as inviting a tone as he could manage given the circumstances.

   “How... how come you're always staring out the window when we’re on these dispatches?”

   Not a controversial or even particularly intrusive question, yet when Yuri heard it he found it difficult to explain without first pondering on the idea himself. He was sure that he was at least subconsciously aware that it was something he did, yet it seemed only now to dawn on him that it was something he simply did absent of any kind of introspection.

   “Just to see what’s out there, I suppose,” Yuri surmised, now dissatisfied even with his own justification, or lack thereof, now that it had been brought to the forefront of his mind. Glancing over at Len, he caught a glimpse of him smiling warmly, a stark contrast to his more frequent grins of smug enthusiasm.

   “Not the answer you wanted?” Yuri smiled back.

   “No,” Len shook his head before leaning back into the flat cushions, his own sight turning upwards towards the ceiling. “That’s just so like you.”

   “Looking out at the one place you’ll never find anything worth protecting people from, like a lost child.” he continued, his tone more than enough to convey that he meant it, at least for the most part, as an innocent quirk as opposed to a legitimate point of criticism.

   “I always make sure to do my job properly, though, right?” Yuri rebuked, feeling yet compelled to defend himself.

   “You do,” Len agreed. Though wanting the relish his partner’s approval, Yuri found this cumbersome due to a discomfort which offset Len’s stance.

   “Sometimes I wonder if that will be enough, though,” he expounded, his eyes starting to glaze over, “Once I’m promoted, we won’t be seeing each other much.”

   “I’m just not sure I can trust folks around here not to take advantage of that side of you."

   “I had forgotten about that,” Yuri murmured, his head turning downcast, “Do you know yet where you’ll be stationed?”

   “I don’t, but I happen to know the agency isn’t too keen on replacing many people in this district’s management.”

   “Yuri, I want you to promise me something,” Len immediately followed, no doubt to extinguish any kind of pain or silence that would inevitably arise from that uncertainty.

   “What’s that?” Yuri asked as he bobbed his head back up, eager to comply with whatever Len had in mind.

   “If you ever find yourself in trouble, I want you to come find me,” he proposed, genuine in his intent though reluctant to look Yuri in the eyes as he said it. “I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”

   A wide smile coming over him, Yuri nodded in confident agreement. “I promise, and you do the same.”

   “Hopefully it’ll never come to that, but I appreciate the sentiment,” Len replied, placing a hand on Yuri’s shoulder before lifting himself up onto his feet.

   “Now,” he began again as he turned to face Yuri, a far more upbeat demeanor having returned to him. “Howsabout we finish off this search by moving some furniture over a few inches, huh?”

   “I thought you’d never ask,” Yuri beamed, popping off of the couch before the two of them positioned themselves on opposite ends of the furniture and prepared their grips. Just as they were about to begin sliding it across the floor, however, Len’s transceiver lit up and began spouting audio from the district command hub.

   “Seven-seven to Wheel Three, what’s your status, over?” the shrill voice on the other side requested. Even before Yuri had a chance to notice, Len had already disregarded their move and snapped upright to respond.

   “Seven-seven, Wheel Three is finale, over,”

   “Copy, Wheel Three, we’ve got a ten-eighty-nine on the four-hundred block of Ninety-ninth and Signal, need you to respond, over.”

   “Domestic disturbance?” Yuri whispered, promptly only a silent look from Len, clearly somewhat agitated by the look of his mute expression, but nonetheless focused.

   “Wheel Three is en route, over,” Len complied. Not another word, nor action came from him before the two of them made way for their cruiser. That is, save for the moment before they crossed the threshold of the door leading out into the hallway, when he stopped seemingly mid step and a look of embarrassed pensiveness came over him. From the other side of the door, curious as to what had derailed him, Yuri peaked back inside to watch Len screw the bottles’ caps back on. One emptied and the other not too far behind, he placed them right where he had found them in the refrigerator and sauntered past Yuri, eyes once again looking straight ahead.

Part 2

Ninety-ninth and Signal could be found in one of the few remaining parts of the city that even vaguely resembled how it would have looked like before the war, let alone earlier. Everything else had long since been indiscriminately carpet bombed before, and subsequently reconstructed after the occupation. It’s former name had been lost to obscurity outside of the few locals to whom it had been passed down, and it had since been designated The Goths. A name, originally intended as a denunciation of its people and architecture, that those who still lived here had come to accept and even take pride in. 

Its inhabitants were primarily the sons and daughters of those who grew up shortly thereafter. Having witnessed the creeping of the barrier high and higher around them, their failure to bear children of their own, for one reason or another, meant the district was one of almost solely elderly citizens. On the few occasions that he had been there previously, Yuri would sometimes hear them ramble in senile tirades claiming that this was one of the only places where, in the deep of summer, the sun would rise up above the wall just so to give them unobstructed rays of direct light. Whether or not this was true, however, he could now only speculate as the towers constructed in the midtown district just across the river adjacent to them, truly goliathan in their reach above ground level, had subjected the area to a ceaseless shade relieved only by the fluorescent glow of the overhead streetlights. 

In stark contrast to him, though, Len couldn’t have cared less about the history of this place or what that meant for the people living in it. At least in that scenario. Turning his head away from the window to see his partner behind the wheel, Yuri couldn’t help but give a faint grin to Len’s grumblings as they drove further down the poorly kept cobblestone pavement. The constant rattling of the car’s wheels and rusted panels did well to drown out the equally unpleasant groaning of the diesel generator and the hum of the electric motor it sustained, but to him it was merely trading one white noise for another while making for an extremely uncomfortable ride.

“I pray you never have to take another call here once I’m gone, Yuri,” Len moaned after a particularly enormous pothole lurched him in his seat and sent a metallic bang echoing through the cabin.

“You didn’t seem to mind it much last time,” Yuri pointed out, fully anticipating Len’s immediate and fiery response.

“Security detail for my favorite noir is the exception, not the rule”

“But an exception nonetheless”

“Are you implying that it was the location I was excited about, and not the fact that I got to meet the lovely Miss Nikita Konstantine and then watch the episode at home?” Len argued, finding it hard to focus on the road, let alone and the negative effect it was having on him. All according to plan.

“I suppose not as much as it giving you at least one good memory of this place. You heard she’s releasing her own album?”

“What genre?”

“Some kind of jazzy pop, I think.”

“She singing in it?”

“Probably, why?”

“She’s got a pretty face, that’s for sure, but I don’t see her having a great voice. I don’t know why she’d be famous for whispering into her starcrossed lover’s ear if that weren’t the case.” Len explained, disappointed that he couldn’t find a reason to think otherwise.

“Why not try and get assigned to this district?” Yuri half-humorously suggested, “She lives around here you know, you’d probably run into her at some point.”

“You could ask her about it, and help push for the Interior Department to finally put asphalt down here in the meantime.” Len remained silent.

“And we’d only be a few miles apart,” Yuri added, put off by the ambience taking place of a desired reply.

“You know as well as I do I have no say in my placement,” Len replied, shooting him an unenthusiastic glare, “and no offense to you, but I’d want to be as far away from here as possible regardless of any of that.”

“I don’t care for these anciens indigenes, they’re much too full of themselves,” he continued, his voice now droning, “Philistines, the lot of them; clinging to the heritage of their ancestors and defining themselves by it.” Again, Yuri found himself only quietly following the sentiment. Not that he could have parcelled a response before the car came to a rather abrupt halt.

“We’re here,” he murmured, fumbling through the cumbersome process of powering down both the generator and electric motor. Anxious as he was to stretch himself out and avoid his partner’s growing chagrin, both his and Len’s attention were immediately and simultaneously captivated once more when another patrol car turned onto the street a couple blocks ahead and began in their direction.

In almost every way, it was entirely identical to their own. A four door sedan, mass produced to exhaustion despite pathetic attempts to revitalize its look, sputtering along with its diesel generator gurgling over the whine of a tiny electric motor where once would have been found a slightly more formidable petrol engine. The words Department of Protections and Seven, alongside their respective insignias, lay decaled on its hood, trunk, and doors. Its riders bounced in their cramped seats on coil suspension more suited for a ball point pen, and rusty bolts held in place a steel bar carrying high visibility light fixtures and sirens across its roof. Only one aspect set it apart, but it was unmistakable: its second tone was prussian blue. Uniforms of the state worn only by native recruits, a novelty known only to neighborhoods of their majority habitation, and a stark contrast to the standard vehicles. To every other passerby, the two cars may as well have been invisible. Len, however, found them to be all that was worth looking at as he sat dead silent, eyeing them with every inch closer they came.

“Is that them?” Yuri asked, relieved, though only slightly, at the redirection of his partner’s irritation towards something less abstract and perpetual.

“Yeah,” Len muttered aridly, tilting his head slightly, “looks like someone took a wrong turn.”

“They must have heard the call go out,” Yuri followed, a hopeful benefit of the doubt in the tone of his deduction as his eyes shifted between Len and the approaching cruiser. “Maybe they're here to back us up.”

“I don’t see a camera crew around here, so I doubt it,” Len shook his head, catching their glance back at him as they drove past. “We don’t need their help anyways.”

“Must be nice, wearing the badge with barely any of the responsibility,” Yuri mused, briefly envisioning an effortless paycheck before the spite reminded him why he’d thought about it in the first place. “Why even recruit them if all they have to do is look official?”

“I like to think creating the illusion of safety is all they can really be trusted with.” Len answered, almost cackling at the notion as he watched them pull away in the side view mirror. “It doesn’t endear them to me, but it’s at least be an excuse I can wrap my head around.”

“No, I’m afraid taking a call in their own neighborhood is simply beneath them.” he sighed, turning back to face Yuri who, staring silently out at the line where the hood dropped off to reveal the road ahead, reminded him that the car was still running. It was strange, Yuri thought to himself; Len seemed the positive emotion between them now that he couldn’t shake the feeling things weren’t as he or how he believed his superiors expected they should be. One thing he was sure of, though, was that he knew he felt uncomfortable around Len whenever he was upset, and he didn’t want his partner to feel the same way. With that, he stepped out the car to the facade of apartment building they’d been called to towering over him. Fortunately for his unbecoming state of mind, along with the blood flowing back to his lower half, something else returned to him now that he was away from Len; a suspicion which had latched onto him from the moment the call came in.

Though clearly dilapidated from years of neglect, the centuries old stone and brick housing blocks stood defiantly firm. Grid wires supporting new retrofits sprawled up and between their facades, and neon advertising signs painted them in loud, juxtaposing colors, yet they could only represent everything their conquerors were not. Their flourishings of styles long deemed unsuitable for contemporary aesthetic standards, even as they withered, presented a unique extravagance compared to the monolithic and pure geometries of what would inevitably replace them. It would have been hard to believe that this place was only a few blocks down from the apartment complex they’d just left, and not much farther at any one point from another neighborhood that mimicked it, were it not for the peculiar way the locals responded to the arrival of their two-tone, turquoise green and white patrol car. They didn’t.

A perfect compliment to its outsider status, The Goths carried an infamy for the aloofness with which it handled the arrival of law enforcement. Citizens of any other neighborhood were always steadfast in their acknowledgement, and often lauding, of officers and military personnel. Were they to come across one, it would take priority in that moment. It had become a paramount understanding to clear any obstruction from the path of a state official, even at the cost of the slightest convenience, and this was typically followed by an earnest salute or devout praise of their work. That being said, this almost cult like following proceeded only in an atmosphere of complete tranquility and familiarity.

The people of The Goth’s, however, seemed only to merely exist on their own terms. Just on the street they parked, men, women, and what few children could be found walked straight past them, talking amongst themselves. A bakery some ways down the street saw regulars ferry in and out with their daily rations, and a man at a bus stop on the other side of the road sat with his eyes glued to a newspaper. Not so much as a cursory glance came from any of them, nor from whomever drove down that same street.

“You coming, Yuri?” Len asked as he stepped off the street and walked past him, once again dragging his partner out of a transe, though less aware of this particular instance.

“Yeah,” Yuri spoke as his gaze floundered, just now noticing that the car was no longer running. “Have we been here before?”

“You ask me that like I’d remember these kind of things,” Len didn’t answer, his earlier frustrations still lingering in the harshness with which he conveyed the notion. “Honestly, this neighborhood all looks the same to me.” 

“Fair enough,” Yuri settled, forced to come to terms with his suspicions remaining just that for the time being and having to be aware of what that would imply going forward. Giving their surroundings one last glance, he shuffled to catch up with Len who had already worked building’s large wood and iron brace front door open. Squeezing himself through as it creaked closed, he and Len were suddenly met by a rather lazily amused looking man exiting the first apartment to their left. No doubt that complex’s designated informant and landlord, he was a short statured man who’s bugged eyes behind thick lensed glasses and crooked, swollen hands built a suggestion that he’d developed a fascination with watching, assuming it wasn’t something he’d simply been born with. 

“I saw you guys pull up,” he said with a bit of a stutter, eyes darting between them. “You here about the ten-eighty-nine?”

“Unfortunately,” Len sighed. 

“I’m Len, this is my partner Yuri.” he went on, extending an honest if not gripping hand to the associate.

“Sev, you’ll forgive me if I don’t shake your hand; germs, you see.” the informant Sev declined, instead making for the elevator midway down the hall. “Follow me, I’ll show you the room.” As if expecting such a greeting, Len merely dropped his hand and followed him.

“So what are we dealing with here?” Len inquired as they stepped into the elevator.

“Old fella named Ganwell, turned seventy a few months back, been living here even longer than I have,” Sev answered as he shut the cage door, his words mired by its rusting screech. “Doesn’t do much other than watch the television and feed the damned quails.”

The utterance of his name alone was enough to trigger the chip in Yuri’s eye, unfortunately necessitating another shock to his nervous system as it connected to Seven’s criminal data cache. In an instant, a cascade of files, each one documenting with frightening accuracy the daily lives and various quirks of almost every person within the city’s walls run down his field of view. Settling on their person of interest but a moment later, its contents spilled into sight, its slight transparency the only thing keeping him from complete blindness. The vast majority was superfluous clutter, unsurprisingly, though a few items managed to pique his interest. Firstly, almost all of the information originated from a single source, not that it was of any real concern in the grand scheme of things. Second was the uncovering of citations, and even an arrest, dating back long before both he and Len had even been conceived. The details of the activities, however, had been redacted as per institutional standards. Far more paramount to the current task, though, was the discovery of divorce filings dated just as far back as the rest of the items. It wasn’t anything conclusive by any stretch of the imagination, but considering that even in his relatively limited experience domestic disputes occurred primarily between wedded couples, Yuri felt it substantial enough to at least bring up in conversation.

   “He lives alone?” Yuri asked, the question aimed more towards Len who looked back at him, his partner’s sudden and helpful insight only slightly overshadowing the discrepancy that the information implied.

   “How’d you know that?” Len inquired, both he and Sev equally struck by his interjection, though for different reasons. With clear memory of being in a similar situation fresh in his mind, and unwilling to use more of his partner’s time explaining the chip’s function to him yet again, Yuri settled on just pointing to his eye with a small grin. He got the point across, as the look of snide realization on his partner’s face conveyed.

   “He had a wife once, but she left him some years ago on account of his womanizing. He’s got a thing for the blonde ones.” Sev indulged.

   “Wait, so who made the call, then?” Len pressed, not nearly as interested in the finer details of the man’s life as Sev was.

   “Not sure, I only found out about it when Seven told me you two were on your way.” Sev explained, his voice again obstructed by the scraping of metal against metal as the elevator reached the building’s second floor.

   “The call came from inside the building, but it couldn’t be traced to any one room.” he continued, seemingly oblivious to the tension building among his guests as they exited into the hall. “Whoever did make it directed us here.”

   No particular sense of danger followed Yuri as he kept pace alongside Len toward the room to which the call had been placed. From a purely objective point of view, it actually made for quite a benign scenario all together. Still, he found what they’d been told so far disconcerting enough to warrant letting Sev get ahead of them just enough to have a private discussion before going any further, not just to validate the feeling, but to gauge his own response to it as well.

   “What do you think?” Yuri asked, slowing his pace to try and signal Len to stop, only to watch him continue on ahead.

   “Sounds like a waste of our time, honestly,” he murmured without even bothering to look back at Yuri when he answered, not that he needed to see the irritation in Len’s response. Fortunately, neither of them had to worry about what Sev may have thought of that attitude as he was clearly more focused on the case than they were, pulling a ring of keys from his pocket by hanging it on his wrist rather than grabbing it as they approached the fourth door to the right of the elevator. “Let’s just get this done quick, we’re gonna be late for mess hall.”

   It wasn’t quite the answer Yuri had hoped for, but he couldn’t say he expected much less, let alone that he didn’t agree deep down. With that, he shuffled to catch up with Len at the point where the hallway walls angled inwards to house the front doors of their respective rooms, and theirs was the door leading off to the building’s left side. Just below lay the room belonging to Sev, who lingered somewhat stiffly next to Len, leaning over just so to watch him give two solid knocks on the door as he balanced the room’s key on the top of his index finger.

   “Mister Ganwell, Protections Department, we’d like to ask you some questions.” Len announced, raising his voice enough to carry sufficiently through the door without shouting. He’d barely been able to finish the sentence, however, before Sev brushed him aside as the sound of the person of interest begging their pardon muffled from the other side. In one quick motion, he thrust the key into the lock and turned it open only with his open palm before immediately stepping back to his former position behind Len.

   Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Len turned the handle and stepped inside. Having made no more than a single step past the threshold of the door, he found his way suddenly blocked by the body of the room’s sole occupant and the smoke coming off his nearly finished cigarette, presumably on his way to see who was visiting through the peephole. Though he began by staring with squinted eyes up at Len from the solid foot and a half he stood below him, long enough to confirm visually confirm what the man had told him, only a moment passed before he then noticed Sev close behind.

   “Is this about the rent money?” the man named Ganwell wheezed as he dragged what was left of the cigarette, his voice labored by tobacco phlegm which exacerbated the frustration in his tone.

   “Should it be?” Sev came back as he peeked around from behind Len, leaning in to squint glaringly back at his tenant.

   “I told you already, pensions have been running behind schedule the past few months,” Ganwell moaned, “how come you’re never pestering Edrick about this, or Miriam? They get their money from the same place I do.”

   “Don’t go shifting the subject, have some decency,” Sev replied in disgust, “Edrick and Miriam aren’t leaving the terrace covered in bird shit, let alone getting the police involved for who knows what reason. How do you think that makes my property look?”

   “Were not here about that,” Len spoke, clearly agitated from having to raise his voice yet again to wrestle back control of the situation.

   “May we come in?” he went on to ask, motioning towards the living room where a full ashtray sat before a television broadcasting some state approved news outlet. They were already inside, the old man felt so desperately compelled to point out in sheer observation of how obvious the conclusion was. Fortunately for him, he wanted this whole ordeal over with as quickly as Len did, and so he settled on a compliant grumble before shuffling aside to let them through.

“Thank you,” Len nodded walking past him, as did Yuri. “May I?” he asked, standing himself next to the armchair opposite the television and the half-empty package of cigarettes on the table adjacent it. Again, Ganwell simply grumbled in agreement.  

   “Thank you,” he continued, everyone’s attention finally back to him as he set it alight and began it with a slow, deep inhale. “We were informed of a domestic disturbance occurring in this building. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

   “I don’t see how I would, I don’t get many visitors nowadays.”

   “I wonder why?” Sev poked just audibly enough for Ganwell to hear him as he deliberately avoided eye contact, opting instead to leer out the window nearby with arms tightly crossed.

   “Sev,” Len interrupted, shooting him a cooperative if cautionary glance. “Your support is appreciated, but I can handle this.”

   “Mister Ganwell,” he continued on, shoving what remained of the cigarette into the overflowing ashtray as he absent-mindedly read the headlines detailing various tidings of crisis cutting through all aspects of life within the city’s walls running across the television screen. “Are you aware that this report was directed towards you?”

   “No, officer, I wasn’t,” Ganwell replied, taken aback as much as his frail body could be by the notion. “By who?” Len stopped.

   “I…uhm” Len stuttered.

   “We’re not at liberty to disclose their identity at this time,” Yuri spoke from behind the two of them, his head lifting ever so slightly up from the notepad he’d been following their exchange with. Briefly making eye contact with Len, he could sense the relief in his expression before returning back to the pad.

   “Precisely,” Len followed.

   “I see,” Ganwell murmured in reply, his eyes grown downcast as he gave an uneasy nod. “Well, I can assure you, officer, that I have done no such thing.”

   “All I’ve ever wanted was to live a tranquil life,” he continued, glancing briefly over at Sev, “Surely, you can see that I am but a decrepit old man, incapable of even meditating such a thing.”

   Someone had been lied to, that much was apparent to Yuri as he continued his documentation. He was sure that Len knew it too, and he could tell by the unyielding impatience in the way his superior carried himself throughout the conversation that it wasn’t helping his already apprehensive stance on the situation. With Ganwell having staunchly proclaimed his innocence, Len seemed prepared to render his final verdict. That is, until Sev came to his side and gently laid a hand on his back.

   “Len,” Sev leaned in to whisper into his ear, “A word, please?” A sigh escaping him at the knowledge that it was his responsibility to do so, Len obliged.

   “Excuse me one moment,” he announced to Ganwell who awkwardly turned aside, pretending to watch the news himself in response as Len and Sev dropped back to join Yuri on the other side of the apartment.

   “You’ll forgive me for being blunt, but I implore you to detain this man for further questioning.” Sev spoke, frighteningly straight faced in his assessment while Len and Yuri immediately looked to each other in muffled disconcertion. They both knew exactly what that would entail, and they were certain he was aware of it too.

   “I understand your concern, Sev,” Len empathized more sincerely than he let on, “but he doesn’t seem particularly dangerous.”

   “To be honest, I’ve grown tired of this whole matter. The whole scenario simply doesn’t add up, and I’m not terribly keen on exploring it much further.”

   “This is not the first time he’s been a problem,” Sev spoke, toned down such that Ganwell couldn’t overhear his this time while maintaining the determination in his delivery.

   “You’ve made that transparently clear, Sev,” Len followed, trying his best not to come off as sarcastic in his reply, “but being a nuisance isn’t a criminal offense, there’s nothing I can do.”

“You misunderstand, he’s had run-ins with the law before.” Sev explained to lukewarm reception from Len who, despite faith in his compatriot, expected promising citation to support such a claim.

   “That is true,” Yuri spoke in a somewhat reluctant pursuit of honesty. He could sense Len inhaling in preparation to confront him on the validity of his claim, and almost couldn’t help smiling when he backed down with a sigh having remembered asking the very same question only minutes before.

   “He was arrested almost thirty years ago, and he has some other citations on his record as well, but for what exactly has been removed.” Yuri elaborated.

   “You see?” Sev pounced, “We have no idea what he could have done. I say we act on the side of caution.”

   “Alright, I’ve heard enough.” Len spoke with chagrin laiden tone, eager to do anything at all if it meant he could be somewhere else but here. “I’ll take care of this.”

   Turning away from the two of them before they had even a moment to try and extrapolate where he might have been going with this seemingly unwarranted determination, Len returned to Ganwell’s side of the apartment. His visitors’ private discourse having gone on much longer than he expected, the old man had actually begun paying a modicum of attention to the television and was in the middle of lighting yet another cigarette. Having spotted Len approaching, however, near jolted it back into his hand as he turned to face him.

   “Mister Ganwell,” Len began, sensing that Yuri and Sev were carefully watching him from the other side of the room, and struggling to formulate his sentences knowing this. He’d made his decision some time ago, he just needed to make it look convincing enough to evoke the proper response from everyone. Well, everyone except Yuri. “After careful consideration, I have decided not to conduct any further investigation.” The room fell silent.

   “I don’t think you pose a real threat to anyone.”

   “Well...Thank you fo-” Ganwell tried to appreciate.

   “No,” Len interrupted, turning his head and tilting it up somewhat to try and see out the window down to the street below where the now midday sun almost hung high enough to give the neighborhood a soft, if diffuse glow. “People like you don’t create the kind of trouble that spills blood, or makes the news.”

   “It's more like a slow burn that torches the bridges around you, one by one, building a reputation that eventually tolls the bell when the loneliness you’ve built out of the ashes gives way to dementia and forgetfulness. For that, you have my pity.”

   “Know this, however, and know it well,” Len growled, turning back to approach the man and shoving a willful index finger in his face. “Flagrant misuse of my and the department’s resources is not something I’m prepared to tolerate.”

   “Sir?” Ganwell followed, utterly bewildered.

   “I ought to place you under arrest,” he went on, perfectly masking his complete lack of any interest to do so as he took the liberty to lean forward even further once he spotted Ganwell depressing onto the heels of his own feet and turning his head up. “but fortunately for you, so much of my time has been wasted that I can’t help but find it counterproductive to allow this abuse of my good faith to go on, so we will see ourselves out.”

   “I strongly suggest you do everything in your power to keep me from having to come back here, and we will be watching you,” he finished, following Ganwell’s looking to Yuri and Sev who, for their own reasons, both acted as if they hadn’t heard that last part. “Am I understood?” 

Frozen in place, a defeated scowl came over him before he gave a slow nod with eyes straight forward to avoid Len’s. The man didn’t seem all too frightened, he was confident they’d have arrested him a while ago had they any real intention to. Frustrated that he couldn’t show his disgust would probably have fit his demeanor, but it was clear he got the message. Sev, meanwhile, seemed at least entertained at the whole thing despite not getting the arrest he clearly desired. That, however, was more than enough for his mindless diatribe.

   “Yuri, we’re leaving.” Len announced, satisfied with the outcome and eager to depart before anyone could derail them again as he made straight for the door. While Sev appeared to have something in mind, not another word escaped any of them as Len walked past. Yuri was certain, though, that even if he had spoken it would have fallen on deaf ears. Scrambling at his partner’s sudden behest, Yuri shoved the notepad back into his pocket and skipped out the front door which Len hadn’t bothered to close on his way out.

   “Are you placing a surveillance notice on him?” Yuri asked as the two of them briskly returned to their cruiser, the question having followed him since Len implied it.

   “I don’t know, can we talk about this later?” Len exasperated as he jolted to a halt just outside the driver side door, smacking his arms on the roof of the car and burying his head in them.

   “S-sorry,” Yuri murmured, turning his head away in embarrassment. Looking back up to see his partner’s disheartened reaction, Len sighed deeply before standing himself back up.

   “I wonder if I even need to,” he said in half jest as he opened the driver side door. “Howsabout we discuss it at mess hall?”

“Oh, I’m not going,” Yuri followed, his mood brightened somewhat. “I promised Hesse I’d make lunch for her today.”

“I see,” Len smirked, the singularity with which his partner described something he did almost every day since they’d met never ceasing to amuse him. “Come on, then, I’ll drive you there.”

“It’s fine, I’ll take the bus.” Yuri declined as he stepped onto the street and began making for kiosk on the other side.

   “You sure?” Len asked as one of his brows rose up, put off somewhat by the denial of his gesture, though nonetheless pleased that he’d now saved plenty of time he was fully prepared to dedicate to it.

   “I’m sure.” Yuri answered, turning himself around to face Len as he continued towards the other side of the street, his head swaying occasionally to ensure he wasn’t about to be run down. “Pick me up when you’re finished?”

   “Will do.” Len smiled, waiting until Yuri turned back around before opening the car door and climbing inside.

Part 3

One of the few forms of transport left that was allowed to be driven under power solely from a traditional internal combustion, the wail of a diesel engine pulling the public bus to and from kiosks and stations had become almost a novelty to those fortunate enough to be able to travel by car. An unpleasant novelty which effectively drowned out the urban orchestral soundtrack graciously, if hopelessly, set on loop by the Transport Department, but a novelty nonetheless. The leaf spring suspension on which the frame and everyone inside it sat provided a marginally smoother ride than most other vehicles would offer, if only because the excessive weight stretched each bump in the road out far enough to muffle the jolt. Ribbons of lingering cigarette smoke floated in the void between the riders and the piercing glow of fluorescent lights required for anyone to be able to navigate, and the constant sparking of plasma lighters to continue their presence only added to the musk of the midday atmosphere. These inconveniences, however, were well within the boundaries of acceptability for those who relied on the machine and the punctuality its archaic power source contributed to their commutes. Each one of them remembered in retroactive fondness the attempt to introduce buses powered solely by electric motors in much the same fashion as the police cruisers, and the dramatic effect on productivity and patience that resulted from it. 

None of these factors concerned Yuri, though, as he occupied in one of the precious few seats available. A brown paper bag carrying rations of onions and noodles in much greater proportion to the amount of pork he’d been given sat carefully tended on Yuri’s lap. Just enough for two, a proud smirk coming over him at the thought of it, though it would have been better had he not been held up at the distribution office by the untimely death of a pensioner while standing in line. Neither he nor anyone who witnessed it seemed all too concerned, but an argument over who was at fault for the incident did manage to drag him into the situation just as he was nearing the front. Everyone watched with wide eyes and bated breath as he mulled over the details and simultaneously acted in resounding agreement and admiration when he concluded that an ambulance should be called and assured them that the paramedics would handle things. Ultimately, he’d been forced to miss his carefully timed connection and had to wait for the next one, his thoughts a cyclone of expletives until he finally stepped on board the last bus to Hesse’s stop. Perfectly content in the knowledge that this was a deliberate rejection of the alternative, and even hiding a minute sensation of superiority, he bore through the less charming aspects of his decision for a more personal reason.

Above Yuri’s head, through the haze of tobacco smoke, news headlines ran down LED strips bolted onto the trim just beneath the bus’s roof. Typical announcements of political infighting or economic instability plaguing the hopes and aspirations of whomever read them, interrupted only by advertisements for cigarettes and various other consumable stimulants. Nigh impossible was this cascade of information for Yuri to read, however, considering the mob of working class men and women who had gathered around him in order to pay tribute to him and his services. The expected and preferred result of his presence there, requiring only a short wait for a previous bus to take him to the other side of the Goths and making a connection which served the adjacent district of familiar inhabitants. It was not the first time he had turned away the convenience of his patrol car for the admiration of strangers, save for a handful who had come to recognize him from multiple shared routes, yet each time he was staggered by the coordination with which they enacted their praise. The area of walkway between the two rows of seats on either side of the bus were sufficient enough for two or three people to address him without interference; one at a time, they’d typically laud his efforts in keeping them and their communities safe and express hope in the prospect that peace and stability will bless them, as well as goodwill in his pursuit of actualizing that prospect. Once that was done, they would retreat back into the crowd behind them and allow whoever was standing behind them to move up to where they were standing. 

   Each kiosk and station passed through cycling new faces onto the bus who’d yet to enact it, this ritual continued at an almost constant rate for the majority of the route. Yuri had easily received the gratitude of at least a hundred individuals, and yet he never tired of the bump to his ego that each one supplied. Nevertheless, he appreciated the lull that arose as his stop approached which granted him the opportunity not only to relax a little bit in his seat, but also digest the self-confidence and gratification his supporters had imparted on him.

   “Ravenous, though fortunately finite and altogether meaningless.” the man sitting in the seat adjacent to his who’d been there even before he got on himself and hadn’t uttered a single word to him the entire time suddenly spoke up. He was a rather handsome man, couldn’t have been older than thirty, with swept back waves of onyx reaching down the back of his neck while settling for a mere stubble from both ends of his jaw. Leant back in his seat and with a stiff disposition about him, he held his chin high while his hands lay clasped in his lap, though he lacked sufficient zeal to direct his words toward any single person.

   “Excuse me?” Yuri asked, operating on the assumption that the words must have been meant for him at least to hear considering they were uttered at such a volume that only he could have understood them amidst the grinding ambience in which they were uttered. Nevertheless, the bad taste left in his mouth by the man’s refusal to pay respects despite ample opportunity to do so lingered in his reply

   “This is your stop, isn’t it?” the man pointed out, addressing Yuri directly this time with a soft smile arising from his expression as the bus began to slow. Turning his head towards the front of the bus, he watched the ticker just above the driver switch over to Kompas Avenue. Only a few blocks from Hesse’s apartment, this was the closest stop.

   “So it is,” Yuri turned back to concur with the man before standing himself up with an urgency he never imagined would feel appropriate in such a context. Walking to the front of the bus, he straddled himself between trying to keep his balance as the brakes pushed him forward and resisting the urge to look back at the man and wonder what all that had been about.

The doors had only just folded open when Yuri hopped off onto the sidewalk and began walking down the length of the bus toward Hesse’s street. He knew he’d have to pass the window at which he and the man sat, but he was determined to keep his eyes forward. Like a nervous tick, however, Yuri’s field of view darted up to the man as he came abreast, only to find him occupied with some other business obscured behind the sill of the window. A sigh of relief escaped Yuri as the bus began to pull away, spitting a plume of carbon into his path, yet once he remembered that the man had sat next to him the entire time without once acknowledging him or his service, a doubt enveloped whatever reason he’d been concerned in the first place.

As he rounded the corner onto Pilyastr street, a droplet of water suddenly hit Yuri square on the top of his head as the already dim luminescence of obstructed daylight began to grow dimmer still. Bobbing his head upwards, he squinted through the exacerbated bloom of the street lights above to see dark, rippling nimbus clouds forming just below the brim of the city wall. Moisture trapped at the base of the enclosure was evaporating with the rising heat of the daytime, and subsequently recondensing at it came into contact with the cooler, drier air just beyond its embrace. A fairly normal occurrence during the summertime, rearing its head nearly everyday following closely behind the fading of noon, yet Yuri always found himself ill prepared for its arrival. He was well aware of its reality, and the frequency with which it was so, it was only that he found carrying an umbrella everywhere for the entire season to be marginally more annoying than getting himself wet, stifling any potential for correcting the behavior.

   Returning his attention to the sidewalk and what lay ahead, however, his eyes befell something even less common than a moderately unsettling passenger on public transportation perfectly juxtaposing the arrival of the seasonal precipitation. There stood Hesse, staring up at the brim of the wall above where the incurring storm only just allowed faint and fast receding hues of bright white to caress her. Though a few years Yuri’s senior, she nevertheless exhumed a restrained fertility not even the fatigued look on her face or the way her trendy shorts and blouse hung loosely off of her curves could distract from. She had an entire life ahead of her, and yet for reasons Yuri never thought to try and grasp, this had to be the first time he’d seen her outside in at least a few months. Her right arm hung partially lifted from her side, ready to shield her eyes from the light at any moment were it to come. She stood perched on the edge of the sidewalk, almost leaning out into the street as if to try and grasp out at the rain and the sky from which it dropped, yet she kept most of her weight off her toes. It was just easier that way, and probably less painful too.

“Hesse?” Yuri tried to parcel her attention as he approached, the rain intensifying with each step closer to her he took. “What are you doing out here?”

“Summer will be over soon,” Hesse answered, almost mumbling, her gaze remaining where he’d found it.

“You can almost see it from here.” she expounded, a shimmer of the last wedge of flaming light suffocated by the overcast reflecting off her eyes. “I keep waiting for it to come out of hiding, to say hello and show me something beautiful.”

“It came so close back in June, I could see the tails rippling over the top like a cat about to pounce on a carpet beetle,” she said, lifting up her arm to lazily hang out her index finger towards that very place in the sky. Right as the memory felt fresh in her mind, however, was the moment the reflection suddenly dissipated, leaving behind only maws of black where her pupils retreated into the back of her skull. “But it never does, not even a sliver; it must not like rain very much.”

“Come on, let’s go inside,” Yuri brushed off, taking the last few steps before he was within arms reach. With droplets of that rain now starting to run down her face in smearing pearls, she tilted her head in his direction until her straight, washed out auburn hair drooped over the same shoulder her cheek now rested on. She gave no reply in words, she simply looked wearily into his eyes. Were it not for the fact that she’d done at least that much, he wouldn’t have been sure she had even heard him speaking.

Only one side of the apartment, one window for the living room and one for the bedroom as was typical for the newer units, faced out towards the street. Despite that, it was small enough that the sigh of the rain created an ambience who’s tenor held remarkable evenly throughout its space. That, though, and he’d never dare tell her this to her face so long as he could remedy it himself every once in a while, was the most calming aspect about it. Yuri was always the first one to turn on a light anywhere in there, usually the kitchen light so he wouldn’t burn or cut himself. The only visibility that could be drawn otherwise came either from the streetlights outside painting the walls with a meagre diffusion of light blue or the television flooding the area of the living room opposite the table on which it sat with a haze of rapidly changing colors and intensities of contrast. He couldn’t say whether or not any other bulb in that place even worked, only that they were each coated with a thin veneer of dust. 

A well rehearsed scenario by this point, the moment Yuri entered the apartment he banked right and made immediately for the passable collection of cooking utensils scattered about the cupboards lining the wall tangenting the front door. Hesse, in stark contrast to him, strolled rather uninterestedly straight inside. That is, until the diodes streaming rose lipped, beret cladden widowmakers fluttering their eyelashes at poor heartthrob fools in polyester suits caught her eye. Directly ahead of her lay a couch onto which the sheets and pillows from the bedroom had long been appropriated, at least that’s what Yuri figured had been the case considering he’d never been in there, yet she found preference in walking herself hurriedly to the flattened section of carpet no more than a foot from the screen and propping herself on her knees before it.

   “Sorry if I’m a bit late,” Yuri almost stuttered after a long drawing of breath in preparation for that conversation starter. “There was a-uh-murder outside the grocer, I had just gotten off the Star Line when it happened-”

   “Shush!” Hesse shushed, her eyes remaining firmly affixed to the screen. “This is the last episode before the season finale on Sunday.”

   “I’ve been waiting all week for them to rerun it,” she almost whispered, as if to explain it more to herself than to Yuri. “I fell asleep by accident right before the premier; I almost cried when I woke up and realized had ended hours ago, but I ended up falling back asleep again.”

   “Loving Arms?” Yuri asked after stopping halfway through slicing the pork into cubes and walking into the living room. Short for In Loving Arms, Die, voluptuous and despicable tales of venomous intent hidden behind pale blue eyes and their promises of heavenly respite. Even with Hesse making every effort to block the screen with her unusually stiff posture, the television he’d bought for her some months ago was more than sufficient for him to recognize the characters from volumes he’d begged Len to let him borrow.

“Yeah,” Hesse began, her eyes wide open lest any stimulus or information pass her by. “Joseph just found out that his father-in-law is the actual father of Tatyana’s child, not him. He’s on his way now to kill her, and probably himself afterwards.” Yuri stopped, trying desperately to pretend he didn’t just hear all of that from two seasons back.

“Shame,” she muttered, her lower lip pursing and quivering from the urge to break into tears and oblivious to the fact that Yuri had already walked back into the kitchen. “They were perfect for each other. Perfect.”

He’d never even gotten the chance to express his desire and intent to catch up with the rest of the show. Yuri couldn’t believe that she would simply spill such major plot points absent of the slightest thought for what he had yet to find out. So, an argument only guaranteeing that the remainder of his day, and probably the rest of the week, would leave both of them in a sour mood, he chose not to believe it. Instead, he resigned himself to the insurance that the food would be cooked properly and thoroughly, as well as the sentiment that at least she was enjoying herself. Neither one of them spoke another word after that exchange, and, with the exception of Yuri’s shuffling around between sauteing the pork and onions and boiling the noodles, neither of them moved an inch. Each one lost in their own corners of pursuit and consciousness while the television filled the vacuum between them.

‘Do you know why I’m here, my Tatyana?’

‘Yes, you’ve come to take your revenge in the only way you know how.’ 

‘Somehow, I saw this coming eventually; the only thing that surprised me was the euphoria I felt giving you my heart while it lasted. In retrospect, that makes sense, but I should have known it was too good to be true.’

‘Do not insult my heart, impulsive as it may be. I never stopped loving you, not for a moment. Will you not think of the boy I am to bring into this world? He may not carry your blood, but he can still be your son, and I your wife.’

‘The bastard has my pity, and I will weep for him, but I refuse to make the same mistake as I have made my entire life.’

‘Killing me won’t save either of us. I answered for my sins long ago; that you are here now is proof enough of that, and you will remain the heartbroken fool who loved me.’

There was a small round dining table behind the couch and before the corridor leading to the bathroom and, presumably, the bedroom. The coating of dust that sprawled along the grain of the cheap wood it had been constructed with, however, would stand as a reminder of how useless in this context it really was until the next time Yuri cleaned it off. No, he would have to bring the food to her, and she would take it where she was. It was not a spectacular dish by any stretch of the imagination, but Yuri nonetheless looked upon it with great pride, and handled it with the utmost care as he carried both his and her plates over to the couch.

“Lunch is ready whenever you want it,” Yuri smiled into the back of Hesse’s skull, anticipating a meticulous transitional stride backwards so as to not miss even a second of the programming.

   “Oh, I already ate,” Hesse replied, the look of amused indifference plastered on her expression having to make itself known through her muffled pronunciation given that she barely turned her head an inch to relay it directly to Yuri. Steam still rising off of the noodles covering the fork at the edge of his mouth, he paused to make sure he’d heard that correctly.

   “You already ate? When?” he asked, an eyebrow raised as high as his tension could bring it as he let the fork back down onto his plate.

   “I don’t know, an hour ago? Two?” Hesse began, still focused only on the screen, “Oleg took me to the fish place by the river.”

   “My dad was here?” Yuri asked again. Not a terribly uncommon occurrence for him to visit her once in a while; the back injury he’d suffered in a warehouse many years prior prevented him from doing much other than that and keeping his own company while waiting for the disability benefits to arrive. “Why didn’t you call and let me know?” 

“Sorry, I figured you were gonna come anyways,” Hesse justified, suddenly rising to her feet so she could kneal next to Yuri who looked on defeatedly at her portion, doomed to lose its fresh warmth in his hand. Hearing the fledgling empathy in her voice, Yuri raised his head to meet her eyes, but almost immediately backtracked once he saw the annoyed lethargy pervading the pale blue underneath them and decided which one he preferred.

“You knew I was cooking for you today,” Yuri moaned, keeping his head turned downward, “I could have gone and had lunch with Len at mess hall, and now all of this is gonna go to waste.”

“No it won’t,” Hesse contradicted, nudging herself upward to sit beside him and gently taking the plate out of his hands. Yuri didn’t know to where she had relocated it, and he didn’t bother to find out for sure, but a soft thud on the carpet below them suggested she had merely placed it there for convenience so she could slither her arms around his torso and rest her head on his shoulder.  

“Parcel it in one of the plastic tubs and I’ll eat it for lunch tomorrow,” she compromised, tightening her grip on his upper half and beginning to gently rock the two of them back and forth.

“Okay,” Yuri mouthed, the answer only coming across audibly in the popping of his tongue off the roof of his mouth. Once she’d gotten that confirmation, Hesse began to pull him down until the two of them were lying down side by side. It wasn’t going to consume the meal Yuri had cooked for her, but he couldn’t deny that her warmth would soothe him at least for now, so he embraced her back. Both of them remained still, and once he was certain that she had fallen asleep there next to him, that he wouldn’t have to look into those eyes again, he turned his head and stared at the void of darkness created by his body casting a shadow from the light of the television onto her face.

His eyes began to weigh heavily on him with each minute that passed, however many it had been at that point. He knew from experience how good it would feel to fall asleep there with her, but he knew just as well the derision he’d get from Len, and rightfully so. He’d have to wait outside the building for Yuri to wake up, and might even have to craft some overly-embellished reason as to why the two of them couldn’t make a search or respond to a call. 

Gracefully, then, Yuri released himself from Hesse’s now limp grasp and returned to his feet with both their plates in hand. As he crossed the tile threshold back into the kitchen area, he peered briefly into the shade which obscured the hallway leading presumably into the bedroom. His eyes following the path on which he walked, they too crossed the telephone on the wall adjacent to it as he set the plates onto the island countertop and began emptying hers into a plastic container. Hesse wasn’t going to be awake by the time Len arrived; he had no reason left to be there, so he ate his own portion in silence, standing up and half watching the television from the kitchen.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait on the stoop of her building for much longer than ten minutes before his partner finally pulled up. Still, he could feel the sweat from the afternoon heat pooling on his skin, unable to dissipate into the heavy air, and walking to the cruiser felt like wading through neck-deep water. The storm outside had ceased, but this summer had been more humid than in the past. The mixture of water, dust, and diesel which had created a rainbow-like veneer on the pavement below would surely linger in the curb trenches, awaiting either vapor salvation or frozen hell.

Part 4

The remainder of that day yielded nothing too far beyond the normal realm of possibility. The two of them greeted the afternoon by paying a scheduled monthly visit to the general manager of one of the city’s administrative districts, though neither of them knew of which one in particular. The only managers they really remembered were those of the central executive and native districts; all the others seemed to blend into each other. Yuri was certain that they had been instructed to ask about a few sensitive matters without giving off any impression that the man was under investigation. Apparently there was suspicion that he had helped arrange for an opponent of his to be arrested on dubious charges of organizing tax havens via an undeground prostitution ring. He didn’t recall Len asking any questions relevant to such a suspicion, though, only that they had been offered alcohol as soon as they arrived and what followed could only be described as light hearted small talk.

   Len probably shouldn’t have driven the cruiser to their next assignment afterwards, a canning factory in the neighbouring borough, but Yuri found his cheery attitude more pleasant than almost sideswiping a supply truck while entering the factory campus was frightening. The truck driver, too, took it in jest. They’d been sent to procure documents which, after being recorded into the archives and analyzed by the appropriate department, would confirm whether or not they had reached the mandated quota. The facility was operating, to be sure, however it did not appear to be doing so at as great a pace or intensity as it was capable. The shop foreman, though, carried himself confidently to meet with them and gleefully complied to their instructions, handing over every last bit of information the Yuri and Len could possibly have asked for, and assured the two of them that everything was running smoothly.

After the documents had been transferred, Len suggested that the two of them take a break and have a word with the floor staff while the foreman was away. He made it seem like he was scheming to uncover something that those in higher positions would be inclined to hide from him, but all he really accomplished was convincing them to part with some of the preserves not yet packaged for shipment and soaking up their praises for himself and Yuri. Just before the two of them were about to depart, the final minutes of their shift in sight, one of the assembly line workers stepped forward rubbing his hands together and looking as though he hadn’t slept well in a disturbing amount of time. He asked if the rumors and news stories about rampant scandalous behavior in the upper echelons of government were as true and dire as reported. Len initially paused upon hearing that, his head pointed downward as he was in the middle of skewering cherries out of a jar with a fork.

“It’s worse than you could possibly imagine,” he finally spoke, raising only his eyes to meet the man’s and almost smiling as he said it. The man wobbled for a moment before shaking Len’s hand and declaring his fervent belief in the work the two of them were doing. Once that exchange had finished, the factory steam whistle blew, mandating the return of the floor staff to the assembly line and signaling to Yuri and Len that their own shift had finally come to an end.

Similar to a vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, Yuri lived in a single family apartment far above the street, tucked away within the envelope of a monolithic complex. Flanked by staggered copies of itself on both sides, it stood on great concrete piers like some kind of ancient beast forever frozen in mid stride. All its weight seemed to lean on a single one of them, the largest, which stood alone some twenty feet away from the central form and housed the stairway and elevators, and connected back to the building via hallways floating between them. At the base, cave like recesses had been bored into the structure to house local businesses, not many of which ever stuck around for too long. Relatively young age and inexperience harbored disadvantages, hence the building’s location in an older borough probably developed a few decades after the end of the war. Position within the ranks of the state, however, yielded the opposite effect, most obviously apparent by the enclosed balcony jutting out from the sheer concrete facade.

No words of goodbye were spoken by either of them as Yuri stepped out of the cruiser. They didn’t need to; this wasn’t any kind of special occasion, just something that happened in a reliably consistent window of time. It would happen tomorrow, and every day after that, so it lulled Yuri into a false sense of security as he lumbered up the steps to the ninth floor and through his front door. The television was on in the living room, playing some black and white film, but no one was present to view it. This was normal, even despite him not having any memory of leaving it on. Much like the radio, state override controls handled every television in the city. Unlike the non-stop handling of the radios, however, the television overrides were reserved primarily for major news events and occasionally large media premieres. After setting down his keys and wallet and throwing his jacket onto the couch, he threw up his hands and stretched with a long, relaxed sigh, only to have the calm suddenly jolted out of him by a voice from the kitchen.

“Yuri, welcome home,” its meek tone spoke. Yuri knew instantly who it was, but he was never quite sure when or why he would visit.

“Dad?” Yuri asked rhetorically as he composed himself, taking a step toward the kitchen as Oleg’s clean shaven face emerged from behind the corner of a dividing wall in a puff of oily vapor. 

“I scare you?” he grinned, an electronic cigarette hanging from his lips and a pot of tea brewing on the stove behind him.

“A-a little bit,” Yuri answered while attempting to downplay exactly how much he’d been frightened. Both this and his answer proved amusing to Oleg who simply revelled quietly in it. “When did you get here?”

“Oh, an hour or two ago,” Oleg lazily answered, slouching into the dining chair, “Tonight was the premier of the final film in the Wolf’s Dress trilogy, Illusory Pose, and I was not going to miss that.”

“Cable’s out at your place again, huh?” Yuri asked slightly facetiously as he took a seat opposite his dad at the dining table. Like Len dropping him off after the end of the shift, his father picking the lock so he could indulge in whatever media he was following at the time and help himself to Yuri’s tea was something he’d accepted as a normal occurrence. This one, however, was a slightly more recent development. 

“Retirement has come with some… unexpected externalities, I’ve learned,” Oleg explained as he folded his arms and began to look beyond his son with a bit of a strain on his brow.

“I can imagine,” Yuri replied, looking him straight in the eyes for a fleeting moment before landing on something else, “must be a strange feeling, being with Seven for four decades and now it’s just over with.” 

“I have so much more free time now,” he nodded after a brief, silent pause. “I can’t figure out what to do with it all.”

“I envy you,” Yuri came back, now staring off into some corner himself. “Sometimes I wish I had a bit more time to myself, find something other than career to put my mind towards.”

“Yeah…” Oleg replied, barely audible and bereft of tone. “I told them I was more than happy to continue on with my duties, but I guess they’ve started implementing some new recruitment and replacement program so I wasn’t given much of a choice.”

“I went back there a few days ago,” he began again, “I wanted to see if they’d consider bringing me back on, and to see Pitr and the other regional commanders if nothing else.”

“And?” Yuri asked out of both genuine curiosity and the knowledge that he would answer whether the question was posed or not.

“I never got a clear answer out of the deputy chief, and I think the upper management got culled shortly after they let me go.” said Oleg, a nervous wriggle pervading his seat. “I’m not worried though.”

“Seven has always taken care of me, so I trust that they’ll look out for my best interests in the end,” he went on, hopeful in tone while his expression remained pensive. Meanwhile, Yuri wondered if perhaps this practice of excommunicating the aging workforce could have had something to do with Len’s sudden promotion. He couldn’t prove anything, but the thought alone left him perturbed, and this was not at all helped by the sudden realization that an awkward silence had descended between them. Fortunately for him, the ping of an egg timer near the stove top the kettle was sitting on relieved him of it.

“That’s the tea ready, pour some for us, won't you, Yuri?” Oleg requested with a pip of attention, to which Yuri complied as if by impulse.

“Much appreciated, son,” he mused as Yuri filled two plain, white, cubic cups he’d pulled from one of the cupboards. “Enough about me then, tell me how works been on your side?”

“Is Len still waiting on that promotion?” he immediately followed, taking a long, whispy swig from his cup.

“Uh, yes,” Yuri stuttered in reply, as if abruptly redirected from a stream of consciousness he was assembling, “We spoke about it today, actually; I think Home Office is still searching for a district to assign him to.”

“Damn shame,” Oleg grumbled, staring into the mire and reflection of his drink, “to think a fine man like him will be wasting his talents on some underwhelming district inspector position.”

“You know, the longer he waits, the more I begin to suspect he’s not too thrilled about it either.” Yuri contributed before trying to gulp down enough tea to put him on par with his father. He stopped, though, when Oleg’s head bobbed back up with a newfound intensity.

“Did he ever appeal to the Protections Court for a transfer like I told him?” Oleg asked, now leaning quite far in Yuri’s direction.

“I don’t think so, but I never asked him about it.” Yuri speculated. This uncertainty, however, was more than enough to draw a sufficient conclusion to at least one of them.

“That boy procrastinates almost as badly as you do, Yuri,” Oleg complained, dropping his head back and looking forlornly up at the ceiling.

“I guess it wouldn’t make too much of a difference, though,” he continued as his arms crossed, “those intelligence heathens always get what they want.”

“Meanwhile, the people struggling every day to preserve the thin blue line between civilization and chaos have to make do with the leftovers.”

“Given time, though, I’m certain they will be judged appropriately, as they have judged.” Oleg concluded.

“How’s that?” Yuri asked, taking advantage of his father’s occupied field of view to give him a snide face to go along with the question.

“Not sure how, I just know they will,” Oleg doubled down. He moved not an inch as he delivered his prophetic insight, and the confidence in his tone was unflinching.

“You make it seem so intuitive,” Yuri almost scoffed.

“Because it is,” Oleg perked up, leaning towards his son once again with a unique energy compared to the time before. Perhaps a result of the caffeine in the tea having worked its way to his brain. “History teaches us this. Neo-noir.

“New black?” Yuri pondered, an eye brow shooting towards the ceiling.

“No, no, Yuri,” Oleg sighed in humorous fascination at his son’s profound misconception. “Neo-noir: The Wolf’s Dress, Shaking Hands with Shadows, Illusory Pose. Aesthetically singular works, but thematically derivative of the classics nonetheless. A reflective composition of the infinite subjection of man to his own folly.”

“The avarice of the fallen antagonist is manifested in an ethereal, but centralized chaos he unleashes on the world in his pursuit of power and self preservation, invariably causing a uniquely painful suffering to the protagonist. The obelisk of moral authority,” Oleg tangented before Yuri had a chance to say he didn’t understand the connection. “The protagonist will be given no alternative outside of employing the antagonist’s own methodology against him.”

“Naturally, self-described humble onlookers will decry him for having succumbed to the abyss he had set out to destroy, achieving revenge disguised as justice while miring the threshold between right and wrong in the process, only to retreat back to the assembly lines of the same chaos they claim to so vehemently detest.”

“Meanwhile, the protagonist, the victor, lives on with the vision he fought to uphold. He buries the dead, those who feared the constructs of good and evil, while he remains to register his thoughts on the question. Those thoughts will then become law, he will shepherd the fearful to a more harmonious cooperation, and perhaps one day his own imperfect being will foster a more perfect shepherd to replace him in the same manner.”

“When you put it like that, it seems that man is doomed to a heinous existence no matter what path he chooses.” Yuri surmised as his eyes fell from Oleg’s dilated pupils, each on appearing subtly different in radius through the almost telescopic lenses on his glasses, among other discomforting effects, to the stressed wood of the table top.

“There’s a reason you feel that way, Yuri,” Oleg came back with a finger pointed square in the middle of his son’s forehead, “Us mere mortals are the very fallen creatures that form the basis of the struggle of noir. It’s foundational in the structures around which we live and operate.”

“We do it to ourselves, and that’s what hurts the most, but it is a truth we must be willing to face if we ever hope to change for the better.”

A sensation of immense weight bearing down on Yuri’s chest and throat encroached him. As the room swayed and warped around him, Yuri could almost see himself shrinking in size where he sat. Even if everything Oleg had said proved to be incongruent with reality, the guilt of his own incongruence and lack of purpose with and within the framework of everything he tried to align himself with remained in the necessitated implications of such a conclusion. It made no difference what he believed, he felt the tinge of wicked uncertainty feeding back into the loop, so he spoke the only words that could make any sense satiable for the both of them in that moment without furthering painfully unwanted hostilities.

“I-I suppose you’re right.” he conceded.

“I am glad to hear that, Yuri,” Oleg spoke softly in reply, slowly receding back to the comfortable position his son had first found him in. “Admission is the first step in effective problem solving, and I know that you are not lost from exoneration.”

“It requires careful guidance, which I am more than willing to supplement you with, but without faith and determination on your part it will forever remain exoneration unattainable.” he prothylactized to conclude. Once he’d finished speaking, he came to his feet and began walking towards the front door. Exiting Yuri’s line of site, to him, felt like a stimuli that snapped him out of a belated awareness of the passage of time. This was especially so when he looked across the table and saw that Oleg had finished his own cup of tea, whereas he himself had only gotten as far as the first large swig before leaving it to grow cold.

“You’re a good kid, Yuri, even in spite of your less than ideal choices,” Oleg murmured when he turned back in the threshold of the kitchen. There was a tepid nostalgia in his words, yet it seemed doused in a restrained trauma. “And I’m sure your whore of a mother feels the same way, wherever she may be.”

“Thanks, Dad, I... appreciate that.” Yuri replied, his focus struggling to break from the difference in volume of liquid between their two cups while his father’s footsteps grew further and further away.

“Good night, Yuri, I’ll probably see you again some time this week,” Oleg called out from the frame of the front door as he pushed it shut. The slam of its closing echoed briefly through the walls which always carried sound a little further than he would expect. After that, however, a miasma of silence waded in. 

Yuri may have been off of duty and finally by his true lonesome for the first time since that morning, yet it was this very environment that drained him mentally more than anything. All he could think to do was waddle to the bedroom and turn in for the night. The thought even to empty out his tea or do anything with the cups sitting on the table or the kettle on the stove top simply did not occur to him. 

 Sleep, too, however, seemed almost a foreign concept to his sense of will. Laying flat on his back, every minute he spent staring up at the eggshell painted ceiling rather than sleeping triggered a reaction akin to being far removed from something vital to his survival. This would, in turn, tempt him to turn the relay in his eye back on and immerse himself in the intranetwork that state actors and more well off citizens had the privilege of being able to use. Refreshing the same news outlets he’d visited a dozen times just that night, swiping away the constant barrage of product advertisements popping up onto the screen, and combing through the comment sections. The typical input of those who contributed to these spaces almost always followed a very particular process of framing and construction. A vehement castigation of whatever problem the respective article provided insight on and a call to whichever state organization claimed oversight of its environment to correct it in rapid and vicious fashion.

As quick as the craving had arrived, it was satiated, and in the discolored fuzz left on his vision from the relay shutting down reemerged something from earlier that evening that he found difficult to avoid fixating on. Normally, he’d have walked straight into the bedroom and begun the intricate ritual necessarily preceding any attempt to fall asleep, but he noticed that the television had been left turned on and in a muted state when he transitioned through the living room.

Another noir film was playing on the screen. Illusory Pose’s premiere had long since concluded, but custom dictated that a marathon of similar films had been scheduled around it. Yuri recognized this one, and he had arrived just in time to catch a glimpse of the aftermath of its dramatic shift just before the climactic showdown. The investigator, Strauss, stands before the jealous widow, Erica, rejected by Strauss years prior and lost in the depths of a killing spree. Here, he learns of the accidental execution of his wife by the apathetic and slothenly police force which, unbeknownst to him, had been fooled into believing she was the perpetrator by Erica herself. Strauss stares into a reflection of him in a puddle of rain under a fading lamp light, watching as his face is overcome with shadows, before taking Erica’s hand and sealing their mutual pursuit of vengeance against his wife’s murderers with a vulgar embrace.

Yuri mulled over this scene again and again, any sense of the passage of time lost to him. Whether he liked it or not, he would probably never forget that film, nor would he be able to remove the frames of that scene from his memory. He would always remain entirely aware of the fact that Strauss would never get his perceived vengeance, nor would he achieve true vengeance against the true evil that led him astray, for her abandonment of him in the midst of their raid on the precinct would directly facilitate his demise. Strauss, though, would never realize this; he was forever doomed to succumb to the fruits of his folly. That reality in itself frightened Yuri, but he was certain that what frightened him substantially more was the understanding that Strauss deserved it.

Part 5

Yuri awoke to the universal citizen’s alarm from the clock built into his and everyone else’s nightstand, its screech overlaid atop news broadcasts turned down as low as he could put them. The sound curdled his blood as usual, though to a greater degree on that morning, coinciding with a feeling of unremedied fatigue. It was well, though, that it should be so unpleasant so as to inspire him to get out of bed if only to make it stop. Once it was gone, all that remained to keep the silence from echoing into a piercing ring were barely audible recordings which seemed to detail some heinous crime having been recently committed. This, however, was not a terribly novel occurrence to Yuri, and the flurry of dust particles he spotted in the bands of streetlight poking in through the gaps in the blinds proved a more immediate problem. Thus, he paid the broadcast little mind and decided to vacuum before going to meet with Len.

The whir of its motor came as a discomforting stimuli to him. Sliding it back and forth into each corner and over each square foot of carpet was no monumental task, to be sure. That wasn’t the problem. No, it was the underlying anxiety that the world was carrying on, absent of any interaction on his part, while he toiled away with his Sisyphean boulder which manufactured an urge to speed through the process as much as possible. He had to take care, however, for if he didn’t clean thoroughly or often enough he would surely begin to suffer in his breathing. It had to be done, and that simple fact alone was almost enough to inspire him not to do it out of spite.

Once he had finally finished, Yuri stowed the thing back into its crevice in the closet and pushed any kind of timetable for when it would be used next out of his mind. He figured, as always, that an intuition would alert him when its necessity would next arise. After throwing on his windbreaker over a gray collared shirt tucked tightly into black slacks, he drew back the blinds to let what little outdoor light could be found into the room before he left. The scenescape below and what wasn’t denied his viewing by the neighboring apartment blocks was a diorama lacking alteration to almost any great capacity. A blanket of mist hovered just above street level, and condensation dripped from the parked cars, one of which being a cruiser sure to be carrying Len awaiting his arrival. On the sidewalks adjacent them, dead leaves from trees planted with a surplus of confidence shuffled with the passing of pedestrians before inevitably ending up either clumped at the mouths of storm drains or halted by great big panels jutting out from the pavement and bearing the silently discriminating faces of influential party members and authority figures immaculately rendered onto them.

Not a hint of any kind of departure from normalcy could have been found, and Yuri took comfort in that as well as the feeling of the brushed metal of the jacket zipper returning to his finger tips. A certainty that, so long as Len was at least half way through his morning coffee by that point, today would be pristinely routine. That sentiment followed him all the way to within arms length from the cruiser’s passenger door, right up to the point when he reached out to open it. There behind the wheel, where normally sat his long time friend, had now been occupied by an unfamiliar child probably about twenty years old. His ash brown hair was slicked back with an absurd amount of some gelatinous product, a perfect compliment to his ill fitting dress shirt and tie, and he gave a deathly serious look from behind a pair of brow-line sunglasses. Their eyes meeting for the first time, Yuri stopped like a rodent about to be run down and made no movements until the kid eventually rolled the window down.

“Get in, Yuri,” the child sternly commanded, staring him straight in the eyes the whole time. “Nice and easy, like everything’s normal.” Taken aback by the order, and preferring to believe that everything was indeed normal, Yuri did just that.

“How do you know my name?” he asked, noting how his newfound counterpart refused to answer until the door had been closed.

    “I didn’t,” the kid replied, a smug irritation coming through in his answer, “There’s no document that explicitly states as much, that is simply what I was instructed was your name, and given your compliant reaction I feel secure that they were correct.”

    “They?” Yuri processed for a second, “are you with the PRI?”

    “The answer to that question does not exist within the bounds of an objective reality, and frankly I resent you asking it,” the kid rapidly answered having pushed out a quick sigh beforehand. “A fellow intelligence officer should know better than to act with such disregard for basic subtlety.”

    “That’s not important, though. I mean, it is important, just not right now.” he arbitrated before Yuri had any time to apologize. With each passing second, he seemed to speak more and more quickly. His determination to touch on every possible clarification to his statement, however, meant he had reached a point at which he was slamming one word into the next as they piled ever higher on top of one another.

    “What is important right now is that you gather your belongings from your apartment and return to me immediately; this place is no longer safe.”

    “No longer safe? Why?” Yuri begged to know. No intention not to cooperate with the child occurred to him, it was simply a concept he never thought would enter the realm of possibility let alone upend his entire daily routine.

“All will be explained in good time, but time is a luxury we do not currently have.” the child promised with a growing frustration, evident by his leaning in to say it almost directly into Yuri’s face while yet maintaining eye contact.

“No doubt the bastards are closing in as we speak,” he growled, taking his eyes off of Yuri for a fraction of a second so they could dart to multiple preconceived vulnerabilities about them before landing firmly back on him. “They’ll hunt us down like demons! Home Office will deny we ever existed! I’d prefer to maintain a steady level of skepticism regarding my own existence, so get a move on! Go! Go!”

Popping the passenger door open behind him, Yuri nearly fell out onto the pavement trying to keep the kid from getting any closer to him. Once he’d composed himself, a quick survey revealed that not only had neither of them been very subtle, they had actually attracted quite a bit of attention. The kid didn’t seem to mind, however, at least not as much as keeping his vision firmly affixed on Yuri while he shut the car door and slipped out of sight below the window. A silent confirmation that, whether or not any of it was true, he believed it strongly enough to warrant a concern that drastic actions would be taken if he didn’t comply. Yuri could only imagine how that would manifest as he stumbled back up to his apartment, probably something to do with paralyzing him and dragging him off to wherever was in mind with only the clothes on his back. Just the thought left him white knuckled and clammy, and he was convinced that his eyes had been wide open the entire time.

Extra clothes and essential toiletries took up the majority of what space there was inside of a small backpack left over from his basic training days, and it was only when this fact registered in Yuri’s mind that he realized how little he actually owned. That, however, naturally drew his attention to a loose photograph lying on top of his dresser. Behind a thin veil of dust sat an image of him, his father Oleg, Len, and Hesse together after spending the afternoon on the riverfront sometime last spring; a rare moment in everyone one of their lives. He took a moment to reminisce on that day, on the unique serenity it had allowed him to experience, and how he had hoped that feeling would have resurrected in some form today. Instead, it only stood in stark contrast to the chaos he could sense encroaching him.

It was then, having just realized for the first time that Hesse hadn’t even been looking into the camera when the picture was taken, that Yuri’s eye landed on the glint of a small metallic object atop the nightstand and attached to a bound piece of paper. Slipping the photograph into his front pocket, he approached his bedside to find a device akin to a solid state drive in construction. Easily a calibre of technology only available to state organizations, yet its appearance didn’t match the specifications of any manufacturer he knew of. A stone like exterior with light diodes and bus lanes etched into its surface even gave off primitive connotations, though they were no obvious indication of its capability or purpose. 

It lay inches from the pillow he rested his head on for years, yet he could siphon no memory of having put anything there. Taking it into his hand, immediately prominent in his mind was the smooth texture of its surface. More so, however, were the words ‘READ ME, READ ME,’ sprawled on the outside of the paper to which it was attached. Curiosity shuddered to the bottom of his priorities, though, when he took stock of how much time he’d consumed in this place and how directly proportional that would be to whatever the child could have in store should he fail to follow his direction. Thus, he shoved the object into his front pocket, right next to the photograph, and rushed out the front door.

“Alright, Yuri, here’s the score.” the kid promptly started up once Yuri had returned to the car. He made an attempt to pull away as inconspicuously as possible, but he seemed to have forgotten that the two of them were fully uniformed officers driving a bright white and green patrol car. Still, he was unfazed, and Yuri didn’t really have a choice.

“We’re on our way to a funeral,” he explained, wrapping his right arm around Yuri’s neck and pulling him in uncomfortably close, “the whole thing is legitimate, but the agency is using it as a cover to get you into safe hands without arousing too much suspicion.”

“I don’t understand; why the sudden concern for my safety?” Yuri asked after brushing off the strange clarification of the funeral’s validity what with the choice between someone having actually died and his employers staging a death for a facade proving too intangible and absurd to consider, especially given how much left he didn’t know that would affect him more intimately.

“Excellent question, Yuri,” the kid responded, taking his eyes off the road to express the sentiment directly. The condescending tone of the initiative, though, suggested he knew only the what of the matter and not the why. 

“Approximately sixteen hours ago there was an explosion at an apartment complex in the old north east quarter.” he briefed, squinting and leering at passersby and oncoming traffic as he went through the details. “Three people were killed, one of them an PRI agent like us, and due to the nature of the attack we suspect that the responsible party had anti-government motivations.”

“I see,” Yuri acknowledged. He was not at all foreign to the strife of the situation as it had been described, but he was finding it difficult to empathize while trying to free himself from the increasingly unwanted embrace. Curiosity beset him at the answer’s conclusion, though, yet when the child too fell silent his confidence in having relayed all relevant information aroused hesitation to submit a follow up question.

“So, what does that have to do with me?” he eventually asked, managing to articulate it loud and clearly only out of necessity given the chaotic atmosphere. Good thing too, for the child surely would have asked him to repeat the question had he the slightest doubt as to its content, and because the child did hear him clearly he instead took his eyes off the road once again to give Yuri a look of smug disbelief.

“I’d think if anyone would know the answer to that, it would be you,” the kid murmured, his speech suddenly slow and laden with a touch of doom. Fortunately, the question seemed to have been so unexpected that it finally unraveled the arm around Yuri’s neck enough to allow him to retreat back to his side of the car.

“What do you mean?” Yuri asked as his eyes darted between the kid’s, the kid’s arm lest he try to reel Yuri back in, and the road that nobody was watching. Somehow, though, just the way he said that pervaded far deeper into his already strained conscience. No answer came at first, just a return of attention back to driving which only lasted a time barely long enough for Yuri to juggle the fears of not getting any answer at all and what despicable act he must have committed to necessitate preemptive measures against a lethal response. The car coming to a cataclysmic and screeching halt jolted any and all of those emotions straight out of him, along with any color on his skin besides clammy white. Yuri turned to face the child once they were finally stopped, intending to ask him what in the hell he had done that for, but stopped short when he found him now fixated on a growing crowd of civilians outside of a television dealer and repair shop.

“See for yourself,” the kid said having turned to give Yuri a disconcerted eyeing, and motioning towards the wall of televisions posted in the storefront.  Yuri took a moment to iron the last bit of terror out of him, but eventually propped himself up and raised his chin to get a better view of the screens he could faintly make out above the heads of the crowd. Once he saw the headlines, however, he could barely keep himself from losing consciousness, let alone falling back down into the passenger seat. Next to an unflattering mug of his face, one he couldn’t remember having been taken, were plastered the words ‘SEVEN: INTELLIGENCE OFFICER WANTED, SUSPECT IN TERRORIST ATTACK’ in all capital letters while a wooden faced reporter extolled further details on the story he couldn’t hear, and was sure he didn’t want to.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Yuri almost sobbed, clutching at his head trying to rationalize any portion of it, “I haven’t done anything! I would never attack innocent people!” As quickly as the feeling had bore down on him, it rapidly faded when the child threw the cruiser into drive and slammed his foot hard down on the accelerator. Yuri was once again jolted into a fetal terror by the screech of the wheels trying to grip the tarmac and the frame shuddering from the sudden g-forces.

“I can only imagine the existential dread that must be coursing through your veins right now,” the kid tried to console, though he appeared slightly more interested in gauging the frantic spectacle he’d just created by peering into the rear view mirror. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the crowd had noticed the patrol car wailing in its flight. Some of them shuffled further across the sidewalk or into the street to get a better view while others merely turned their heads in ever increasing angle. All of them, though, stared them down with a scowl laden with unfamiliar resentment and mistrust as they roared away.

“But don’t you worry, the PRI will ensure that you are kept well clear of all of this; we won’t let those damned puritans get a hold of you,” he went on to say once they had eventually returned to their former pace, still well above normal cruising speed. “You didn’t hear that from me, though.”

“Wait,” Yuri froze, a horrifying possibility coming to him after realizing he’d been thoroughly distracted from a major vacancy, “Where is Len? Where is my partner? They could try to use him to find me.”

“We’ve already taken care of him; he’ll be fine, don’t you worry.”

“What do you mean?”

“Remember when I said we were on our way to a funeral?” the kid called back, prompting a look of feverish anticipation from Yuri as to where he was going with that question, “Well, let’s just say he finally got that promotion he was waiting for… Actually, no, that’s exactly what happened; he was given that guy’s position.”

“From this point on, he’s no longer your partner. That concept no longer exists in your reality.”

“I see,” Yuri sulked. The words rang through his ear like a bell tolled for a lost family member. He knew this day was fast approaching, but he never could have guessed it would have came so cataclysmically. Still, it was comforting to know that he at least was out of harm’s way.

“That reminds me,” the child began again, removing his attention from driving once again to extend an oddly benevolent hand to Yuri. “Name’s Karz, Fyodor Karz, but everyone calls me ‘Karz,’ so I’d appreciate it if you did too for simplicity’s sake.”

“Well, Karz,” Yuri hesitantly greeted him, returning his hand shake if only to get him back to focusing on driving. “I suppose I should be thankful that you’re doing this for me.”

“Yes, you should be; just so we’re clear on this, though, I’m not doing it specifically for you,” the child now understood to be Karz said in oddly nonchalant reply, as if it wasn’t at all awkward or off putting.

Too late, the vibrations in the car had now turned a sickly sour. A less imposing sour than either of their lives being in imminent and mortal danger to be sure, but a kind of sour that burned almost as deep and far more slowly and methodically nonetheless. Yuri was now long past feeling comfortable in continuing any previous conversation or beginning another one on a different topic. He wouldn’t have known where to begin with everything that had happened in such a short span of time. Fortunately, however, he didn’t have to wait in the silence for too great a period of time before they finally arrived at their destination, unscathed so far. Yuri had been to Home Office in the past, he could even recall with intricate detail most of those instances, yet arriving there with the target still fresh on his back carried with it a potent novelty to go along with the view of the front entrance. 

Most state sanctioned facilities, especially those of such a status as being the administrative center for its respective organization, were always supplied with additional flourishings not found of civilian structures in order to convey a subtle but subconsciously recognizable differential in the minds of those who would only experience them from the outside. They were often tailor designed to reflect their assigned function and given luxurious details like split faced concrete, light gauge steel louvers, and perhaps even an arcade of pilasters if the architect had been really drunk the night before. Not anything too extravagant, but just enough to get the point of it and its employees’ elevated standing across. 

Home Office, however, was unique in that it lacked any kind of outstanding presence. The PRI was a relatively new institution, established well after the realization of overcrowding problems that the barrier surrounding the city inevitably necessitated. Clearly, compromises had to be made somewhere, and the citizenry were only too enthusiastic to have one of their drab office buildings sectioned off, right down the middle, with non-structural stud wall and turned into three separate buildings within a single complex. That was her camouflage. Like a revolutionary inspiration planted in the mind of an impressionable youth, the PRI had commandeered a lifeless husk of an unformed shell and now wore its skin and bone among the unsuspecting populace. It had achieved a delicately balanced state of existence, and the lack thereof.

After mooring the cruiser in an underground car park, Karz led Yuri through the labyrinth of stairwells and hallways every person, visitor or otherwise, was required to traverse in order to reach the agency itself. Yuri insisted that he was more than familiar with the layout, but Karz would not move any further unless he was two steps ahead and thirty degrees to Yuri’s left at all times and would not allow Yuri to move any further either unless that were the case. Eventually, they arrived at what must have been an employee reception area due to its seemingly far removed atmosphere compared to the greeting hall that non-organizational persons would encounter. At least, that was the way Yuri pictured it to be while Karz led a somewhat incomprehensible conversation with the jittery woman behind the counter. The same kind of anxiety Karz carried himself with. For a second, he believed them to be physically vibrating on congruent frequencies, but the two of them were directed to an adjacent hallway before the thought could entertain him.

On the other side of the door, it was almost as if the two of them had set foot into a reality entirely separate from the one going on just outside. Out there, all was eerily quiet. The jittery woman sitting behind the counter was the only person he vividly remembered encountering. Here, though, there was commotion all around. Strange faces clad in bright red gowns from which only their heads were visible shuffled in and out the rows of doors on either side of the hallway. Further down, some were making their way into another, presumably larger room, though he couldn’t see it clearly enough to deduce its dimensions or possible function.

“I knew you wouldn’t fail me, Karz, well done.” a soothing, perfectly tenor voice mused from off to Yuri’s left. Having caught himself gazing a bit, Yuri turned to find that they had been approached by a heavier set man with a thick, buzz cut carpet of dark brown hair extending down his jaw line in a beard trimmed razor sharp and wearing the same red gown as everyone else. Karz must have noticed him first, though, and a clear while beforehand at that, because he stood stiffly upright facing him and held his left hand out in front of him in a fist like he was pretending to plunge a blade directly into his heart.

“Thank you, Mr. Lozh,” Karz replied as Yuri turned to face the same direction as him. Karz retained his heightened alertness, but it emanated a more reverent persuasion than the paranoia showcased earlier. Clearly, this man bore a greater status than at least the two of them. With that knowledge, and in the presence of his newfound tagalong’s salute, Yuri felt a compulsion to emulate the show of respect if only to hide the fact that he had no idea who this man was or why he was speaking to them. Deja vu from only that morning whipped him like a cold wind on his shoulder, and he could feel the chill running down his spine.  That is, until the man looked to him, directly in his eyes, and smiled.

“Yuri, I’m glad to see you are unharmed,” the man named Lozh said, beaming through every word.

“I-I must apologize for asking, sir, but do I know you?” Yuri asked with as meek a tone as he could deploy. He feared that the question would anger whoever this Lozh was, but his smile only widened when he heard it.

“I am whoever you need me to be, Yuri, just as you are whoever I need you to be.” Lozh answered, placing a gentle hand on Yuri’s shoulder.

“What do you-” Yuri tried to come back with another question. Karz, however, had become rather impatient.

“Mr. Lozh, I must express my doubts over the certainty of Yuri’s safety,” he interjected as he leaned over in front of Yuri, again intruding into his more intimate proximity. “I think we should move him to the panic room immediately.”

“Your concern is appreciated, but ultimately misplaced,” Lozh replied. His clear ease of mind was stalwart, unrelenting in opposition to Karz’s neurosis. “Seven are a slippery bunch, but even they know better than to come here.”

“Besides, it is important that Yuri be here to witness this tribulation.” 

“All of us must suffer and heal together, equally,” he went on. His gaze of jollity and profound eagerness with which he viewed Yuri turned to a downcast and contracted grimace. “I assume Karz has briefed you on the details, yes?”

“He did, on the way here,” Yuri answered as Lozh’s hand slid off his shoulder. He was suddenly reminded of the grim realities that had carried him there, as well as the crippling isolation he couldn’t shake due to the proximity to unknown actors it had placed him within. He wanted more than anything merely to feel stable again, secure, and the distressed look on Lozh’s face implied his best possible chance to reattain that feeling. “Everyone must be in a panic over this, especially considering we lost an agent at the same time.”

“Losing a brother takes its toll on us, to be sure, but every member of our family knows full well what to expect in this unforgiving pursuit.” Lozh summarized, his demeanor shifting to that of a determined impatience. 

“Now,” he began again, having thrown off Yuri’s appeal, “I’d like for the two of you to don the appropriate attire for this event. A simple red gown such as this will suffice.”

“There is a man in that room there who will supply you with one. Head straight into the main hall afterwards, I will find you there.” he directed them, and immediately afterwards disappeared into the sea of bright red around them without another word. Not one question nor comment could have been made by either of them in that time. Kars, in identical fashion to every moment that had led up to this one, though, didn’t seem at all bothered. So, Yuri followed him.

Part 6

Something didn’t seem terribly right about this. The gowns worn by everyone else attending the ceremony were certainly large on them, but Yuri’s flowed off of him like water from a glass in which a large stone had been dropped. Karz’, too, was especially large on his adolescent and similarly wispy frame, threatening to make both of their motions, fine or otherwise, all but impossible. Unfortunately, there didn’t appear to be much they could do to mend the fowled measurements. The rather sedated looking man who supplied them with the garments had disappeared into the field of rolling clothes racks from which they had been produced, interestingly laiden with all manner of multicolored and stylistically varied outfits, and the proceedings had gotten underway. As such, they made peace with the trifle and shuffled their way into the chamber just down the hall.

    The chamber itself should have been relatively unassuming. It bore no kind of flourishings or embellishments from its original conception that would suggest it to be of any more or less importance than any other room in the building he’d been inside. The room wasn’t even particularly spacious, being only just large enough to accommodate those who had been gathered. At some point, perhaps recently, however, a melee of garnishments had been fastened to its skeleton, each one consistently only in their hostility to a rigid and clearly defined aesthetic.

The fixture most glaringly obvious when he first stepped in was a massive pipe organ, easily the oldest and most lavish thing in sight and reaching almost as high as the several story tall ceiling, standing empty at the far side of the room. That was certainly not something Yuri had seen in Home Office before, or any other place he’d been in for that matter. Above their heads, waving metallic flags just below large flood lights had been suspended from the ceiling, creating an ambience of being submerged within an ocean of molten silver. No columns or other means of structural support populated any space within the room. That is, save for the perimeter walls where simple geometric outcroppings, like pilasters yet to be carved, cut inwards. Perplexingly, though, they couldn’t have been placed there to take any kind of load; they stopped some ways up the wall where monolithic sections had been cut out of three sides of the room to create a balcony from which more red clad figures stared down at them. Maybe some kind of hierarchical gesture, for there appeared to be no way to reach this second level from where Yuri and Karz stood. Finally, below them, the entirety of the room’s floor was carpeted in the exact same color as the gowns everyone was wearing, and a radial platform jutting up from the floor had been constructed in the chamber’s center. Upon first inspection, one could be forgiven for not being able to immediately distinguish where the people ended and the floor began. It was as if the whole of the crowd, standing shoulder to shoulder with their woeful expressions perfectly complimenting it, were all merely rising up out of the same bright bloody red mixture to get a glimpse of whatever was to be placed on display.

For a while, there was at least a mild buzz in the air. Whispers and muffled conversations drifting about from all around. Then, while Yuri had been examining the room further, the organ had suddenly been commandeered by yet another unfamiliar face, this one because his face had been obscured by a blindfold. He pressed his hands to the keys as soon as he’d sat himself down, and when his long, droning tune began yawning through the chamber all speech immediately ceased. Finding himself lost in a trance just watching all of this unfold, Yuri was caught off guard when the crowd split in two right where he was standing, somehow managing to provide a gulf wide enough for several people. Fortunately for him, his ability to imitate was more than sufficient to quickly rid himself of the scene he’d created; not quite in time to avoid the gaze of those who’d noticed his outstanding misjudgement, but just in time to notice the reason for the divide. A coffin, drawn along through the gulf in the crowd by five men. One, no older than Karz, leading them from the front, the four behind him actually shouldering its weight, and all yet adorned in the same red drapings as everyone else.

Yes, of course. He’d almost forgotten that this was intended to be a funeral, this being the first item that even vaguely aroused the preconceived image of such a thing in his mind. He watched with increasingly sycophantic curiosity as the ensemble lumbered towards the platform, taking particular satisfaction in observation of the crowd’s focus remaining firmly on the hardwood resting place with every inch forward it traversed, just as his did merely by instinct. What would otherwise have surely imprinted on him as a miserably sluggish procedure contorted within his imaginative euphoria into a culmination of everything he’d been guaranteed all his life would be his would he only exchange his undying faith and resolve. Not even the praise and admiration of every single one of the city’s residents could have matched the sensations of knowing that he was there and alive, that he belonged there, and the fantastic oneness that broke over him like pulses of a rushing current.

“I am happy that you were able to join us safely today, Yuri. I feared that our counterparts at Seven had gotten to you first.” Lozh suddenly declared having inexplicably appeared beside him where Karz had previously been standing. “I must say, though; I wish you didn’t have to be here, for reasons I’m certain you understand, of course.”

“I do,” Yuri began, subconsciously taking a step in his direction. “I appreciate you doing this for me more than you could ever know; I feel so honored to be here, to be even a minor part of all of this.” Yuri’s expression fell subtly downcast once he’d finished, but all the while he could see Lohz smiling warmly at him and his response.

“I can tell you are saying that somewhat begrudgingly,” Lohz poked in earnest from the emotions blanketing Yuri’s shoulder.

“Well, yes, “ Yuri admitted, “I’m afraid; afraid for Len, and myself, and the whole agency. I feel like I shouldn’t be, but that fear has tinged everything, and I can’t manage to separate it.”

“I suppose I’m just in shock over what happened. I’ve worked alongside Seven ever since I graduated from secondary school. I can't even begin to imagine why they would falsely accuse me of such a terrible crime.”

“It is not the first time, and it won’t be the last,” Lozh responded in a tone rapidly turned somber, “but you needn’t worry; both you and your friend Len are perfectly safe. We have become very efficient at managing these situations.”

“What are you saying? That this is some kind of tactic Seven is using against us?” Yuri exasperated under baited breath. By this point, the ensemble had hoisted themselves and the coffin onto the platform, and the one at the head of their parade had turned to face the entrance and began singing hymns in tune with the organ’s bellows. Yuri knew not a word of the language of its lyrics, but he could feel the sorrow and even thirst for retribution in its guttural sound.

“One of many, I’m afraid,” Lozh expounded as a weariness shone through in his tone.

“We cooperate in a practical capacity to keep the city from unraveling, but it is a superficial relationship to be sure. I am certain they would like nothing less than to see us fade into obscurity, and the people and institutions within their sphere of influence are their tools to do so.”

“I don’t understand,” Yuri writhed trying to wrap his head around this revelation Lozh was imparting onto him, “We’re all citizens of this place, we all strive for a similar ideal, why would our own people act against us like this?” Lozh didn’t answer immediately, instead simply smiling at Yuri once again. This one, however, leaned more towards a smirk than the previous ones.

“Yuri, how well versed are you in the history of Seven and the PRI?” he asked.

“Well, let’s see,” Yuri began. He didn’t much appreciate being asked to dig through his hazy memory of social studies lessons, but he was willing if it meant his question would be answered. “I believe Seven was assembled from the expeditionary force that occupied the city, and the PRI was established shortly after the war’s end by mandate of the ruling party’s Minister of State.”

“Imagine, standing at the helm of the sole judiciary in a conquered land, backed by the wealth and might of a global superpower, only to have your power checked out of the gate by the bastard child of a rogue, paranoid bureaucrat.” Lozh mused with subtle apprehension. Around them, the crowd had begun gently humming with the tune of the hymn. It began as a low mumble, barely audible, but a methodical intensification was apparent. “I can’t honestly say I blame them for intoxicating themselves with all of the possibilities, but I believe that is what they would refer to as the ‘natural progression’ of things.”

“My father worked for Seven his whole life - I knew something had changed inside of him the day he found out I had been levied as an intelligence officer.” Yuri chronicled, the light shed on years of awkward and strained communications with Oleg seeping through the lump growing in his throat.

“For a long time, he would hesitate to even associate with me. We’ve grown a bit closer in recent years, but he still makes it a point to ridicule the agency and push me to appeal for reassignment,” he went on, “He always tells me that we’re little more than a manufacturer of uncertainty and discord; guess now I know his motivation at least.”

“I am quite certain he is not the only one among them who believes or proselytizes such ideas. Seven are nothing if not keen on their doctrine and the preservation of its sanctity.” Lozh expounded with a dainty if disdainful shake of his head. “We, however, do not subscribe to the rigidities that they have indentured themselves to, nor the structures that support them.”

“I can’t imagine what it must be like to live and work in that kind of atmosphere,” Yuri tried to empathize, even in spite of obvious signals from Lozh that he was not very receptive to the nuance. “They probably face immense pressure from their superiors to enact and encourage certain behaviors for the sake of everyone’s safety.”

“Be careful you do not impart more good will onto them than is deserved,” Lozh rumbled behind closed eyes and stiff upper lip. “We all have a choice in this world, but unfortunately that means many choose wrong, or are unwilling or incapable of seeing paths beneficial to them through to their conclusion.”

“No, it is the responsibility of every single individual to will an equal and equitable existence for themselves and their constituents into this reality. Any other pursuit is a betrayal of man’s fundamental paradigm: the conquest of boundaries placed upon him.”

“I wonder, Yuri,” he transitioned, turning his attention back to Yuri. Lozh stared down at him, and again he smiled with the same radiant benevolence as each time before. This time, though, Lozh’s eyes grew wide with gleeful anticipation, the dilation of his pupils in sync with the crowd’s humming approaching its apex. “What will you choose to will into this plane of existence, knowing everything you now know, knowing that your previous existence is now forfeit?”

This was more to take in than Yuri could ever have fathomed. The fact that only an hour or so ago he had been entirely arranged to the predicate of another day spent patrolling the city with Len now seemed the product of a dimension entirely alien to the one he was currently experiencing. The mixture of terror and joy throbbing in his veins pushed him back and forth from the balls of his feet to his heels as if he were about to sprint forwards and fall on his back in the same motion. That Lozh had answered Yuri’s question. That he and Kars both appeared unphased by the complications Yuri had now been literally confronted with. That he couldn’t even hear himself trying to navigate this newfound and jagged landscape over the bellow of everyone around him now crying out in a catharsis of excruciating rage and audacious intent. Beyond these observations was but a void Yuri could only peer into and try to maintain his footing within. 

“Well, I owe you and everyone here my life,” Yuri astutely deduced, finding least resistance in the path back to the roots of his position and the uncertainty that had been established around it. “If you say you know how to make all of this right again, then I will follow your lead.”

“I knew you would,” said Lozh, giving Yuri a heartfelt pat on the back as his eyes retracted from their dilation and the ensemble brought the frenzied mob gently back to silent observation. The man on the organ, too, found a conclusion to the ambience he had been providing. However, only a moment of transition was allowed to pass before he again took to the keys. The disposition of the room shifted rapidly when a tune noticeably more amicable than the wallowing moan that came before began ringing through the chamber. Yuri nearly found the change in atmosphere unsettling, but he was far too bloated with self satisfaction at having told Lozh precisely what he wanted to hear to pay it any mind.

“Your willingness to take hold of your own role in this struggle will be the defining factor in your inevitable triumph, I assure you.”

“So, what happens now?” Yuri asked in a near whisper, if only to keep the excitement now bubbling inside him from inadvertently causing him to shout. His shoulders slouched for the first time since he’d arrived there, and while he could still feel the ache from the weight of the conversation, he was confident that he had a powerful ally to shoulder it.

“Now,” Lozh inhaled, “we adapt.”


“Oh yes,” Lozh went on, looking on with great anticipation at the center of the chamber where the ensemble had removed the cover off of the casket to the building commotion of everyone other than those standing atop the balcony trying to catch a glimpse of what lay inside.  “Many years ago, I once read about a biologist who lived on an island far away from here…”

“He believed that every living thing must undergo profound alterations to the very fundamentals of their being in order to survive in the merciless void of existence, forever and ever until the end of time.”

“It is truly a cruel fate, but us humans were gifted with the unique ability to affect change, not just incur it. We do not see objects in the world and infer usefulness; we, in fact, comprehend the utility of the world beyond the body and infer objects.” he went on to expound, “We don’t wait for nature to change us, we change ourselves. We change each other.”

Yuri wasn’t sure whether or not Lohz continued on talking after that. He vaguely remembered feeling a tightened grip on the back of his shoulder alongside promises of evolution and Seven being unable to pose a threat to him ever again. Regardless of what he heard, let alone who was speaking, he wouldn’t have been able to focus on either anyways. His attention had long been seized when the ensemble tilted the coffin forwards to reveal the remains of, presumably, the officer for whom the procession had been organized. 

A terrible commotion overtook the lower crowd the moment their eyes caught view of the eviscerated corpse, burned head to toe beyond any hope of recognition and missing several extremities. All around him, his constituents screeched, hollered gross obscenities, and pleaded for continuation. Despite this, however, the ensemble remained still, as did the group standing atop the balcony; watching without words or movement. Holding the coffin on the edge of the platform, just out of reach, they seemed to be waiting for some kind of outside confirmation. Yuri had not a hint of an idea in his mind what was about to happen, but he couldn’t help but feel the psychosis of the frothing mob seeping into him through some kind of neurochemical reaction he would never understand.

Whether he knew it or not, Yuri’s breathing had deepened considerably, aided by his now slightly agate mouth as he watched and waited with rapidly intensifying anticipation. He never would have been able to describe this state of mind, but he could recall having felt a similar way only once before: the first time he killed someone. The seconds, stretched into their own kind of nightmarish lifetime, before a man overdosed on methamphetamines charged him. His complete submission to the usurpation of animal instincts that pulled his sidearm from its holster and opened fire until he was certain his life was no longer in danger, knowing full well that he was terrified beyond comprehension underneath it all. He could feel that same adrenaline in him, only this time his life was in no danger, at least not immediately so. He wanted something terrible to happen, and that was exactly what he got.

He could hear bells ringing, drowning out the roar of the crowd and even any thoughts that may have occurred to him when the ensemble lurched the coffin forwards. Thrust from its resting place, the body floated among the open arms of the now frenzied crowd before being ripped to shreds in puffs of ash and rotting blood. Chunks of burnt flesh and shards of bone were thrown in every direction, only to be torn further apart by whoever happened to be standing in their trajectory.

Once the body had been reduced to slivers of even its post-mortem state, a process spanning a scant few moments, the insatiable crowd then began feasting ravenously on what bits they were able to obtain. Some who found their portion ingested more quickly than they had imagined, or who were never able to get their hands on anything at all, then began pouncing on and brutally attacking those who still had some left over. Their strikes were not delivered with the intention to kill; they were blunt, meant solely to overpower, or at least subdue. Whomever the victor between them turned out to be faced a fleeting amount of time to scarf down as much of their prize as they could before they too would find themselves challenged. Others, meanwhile, simply dropped to their hands and knees so that they could pluck fragments and lick blood stains from the carpet, often requiring them to endure being trampled upon by constituents vying for remnants of greater substance.

Their smacking lips, and moans like dueling ballads of plentiful life and inevitable demise, overlapped and reverberated through the chamber while they devoured. All the while, Yuri and Lozh stood perfectly still, marveling at the scene on display. It was only when Yuri caught a glimpse of the red cladden men atop the balcony turn away and disappear into the darkness beyond the range of the faint light that he began to wonder how long they’d been there. He suddenly felt his body grow heavy, his vision blurry, and his balance unstable; luckily for him, though, someone else had been wondering the same thing.

“It’s time, Yuri, come along now,” Karz said to him hushed and hastily as he gently placed his hand on Yuri’s shoulder. Lozh was gone; Karz was now standing where he had stood mere minutes ago, and his hand was placed on the same spot Yuri had felt the tightened grip no longer ago than that, yet he had no recollection of ever feeling the grip loosen.

Strange sensations with each step taken towards and out of the chamber. The commotion within had yet to entirely conclude, though dominant individuals had clearly distinguished themselves by that point. At least, that’s what Yuri could gather from several glances back inside before the doors shut. He felt anxious as he followed Karz towards the lodgings they’d been provided, and the safety it guaranteed. Not because of anything he’d witnessed, perhaps because he didn’t want to leave so soon, but most apparently because he couldn’t break away from the feeling that a part of him was still there. He could picture it so clearly in his mind, the patterns on the soles of his shoes pressed into the carpet and his soul imprinted on the walls. 

That notion kept in his mind for the remainder of the day; there wasn’t much else to think about that he had any real input over. He hoped that Len was okay, wherever he was, but Yuri was certain no trouble would come his way that Len couldn’t handle. Perhaps Hesse would wonder why he didn’t show up to make lunch for her, or contact her at all, but more than likely she would be too distracted by her stories and forgo eating entirely. It wouldn’t be the first time. The short tour around the Home Office living quarters seemed a blur, more akin to a film he was half-watching while trying to fall asleep than something he was experiencing in reality. 

His mind was numb from the visual and auditory stimuli, and the windowless cell he’d been told would serve as his bedroom until further notice only exacerbated his desire to sleep for the remainder of the day. That was, after all, a luxury he seldom got to enjoy and was not keen on passing up. He pulled off his jacket and trousers and threw them to the floor beside the bed, his only worry at that point being the hope that this new bed wouldn’t be much less comfortable than his own back home. Then, the clang of a metallic object hitting the floor resonated through the room, and he stopped.

In the non stop excitement of the morning’s revelations, he’d completely forgotten that a storage disc of unknown origin, attached to a note he’d yet to read, had found its way to his room and into his pocket. Slowly, lest it pose some kind of threat to him, he pulled it out of the slack’s pockets. Having taken a second to reacquaint himself with its outward appearance, and the words ‘READ ME READ ME’ staring back at him once again, he immediately thought to himself that this was something worth turning over to the PRI. Surely, he believed, they would know what to do with it. That thought, however, didn’t manage to last long. As his eyes panned down the etchings in its surface, it suddenly began to glow with a soft orange hue. He felt a jolt from the relay in his eye far more potent than anything unlocking a safe or a door necessitated, and the top of his spine tingled before nightmarish images began to pour into the space between his sight and mind.