Afterlife
rating: +9+x

Nathan can't remember his own face.

It's been altered so many times that his reflection is a stranger. He knows from early photographs what he's supposed to look like, but no longer self-identifies with the image.

And so it makes little difference to him when the Sothists cut it off…

"I'm gonna kill you," he says.

At least, that's what he intended to say. It's difficult to speak without lips, and what comes out instead is a garbled mess.

His torturer smiles indulgently and then goes to work on the nose. Nathan wonders whether or not he's gotten his point across before coherent thought is hijacked by a starburst of pain. He manages to choke back the scream but can't help thrashing and twisting his head side-to-side, body fighting to get away. But he's strapped to the chair tight, there's no escape, and his erratic movements cause the knife to slip on the backstroke. The blade shudders as it lodges in the shelf that is his exposed cheekbone.

They've already lopped off his ears; carved away the stubbled flesh along chin and jawline. But the nose… the nose is the worst. Raw nerves sizzle and howl, and far, far away on some distant shore Nathan is asking himself if it's too late to take up Zen meditation.

He feels every single goddamn tooth of that serrated blade as it saws back and forth.

Finally the tip of the nose is severed. His torturer holds it up for him to see, a cartilaginous wedge pinched between taloned thumb and forefinger. I've got your nose! I've got your nose! Nathan ignores this grisly version of the child's game and focuses on her knuckles. They're the size of walnuts.

She tilts her head back and makes a show of gobbling up the chunk of meat that used to be attached to his face. Each bite is drawn out, exaggerated — drool sheets from her mouth. Nathan remains unimpressed. It's the same display as all the other pieces she's removed and he's grown bored of the act. She needs to get some new material.

She's seven feet tall and has a head like a rotten jack-o-lantern. Her smile stretches even wider, bristling with chisel-teeth. She's not all human, that much is obvious, but Nathan doesn't think she's all Prime, either. There's interbreeding among the species somewhere in her family tree.

When she leans in to gloat Nathan's ready for it. He spits a mouthful of blood he's been saving and hits her right-smack in the mug. Bull's-eye. She snarls, winds up and backhands him. It's like getting hit with a bulldozer, but after peaking his pain level has already plateaued, and it might as well be a lover's caress. The blow rocks him, sends his center of gravity reeling and then tips it over. He goes for a ride — along with the chair — crashing to the ground.

Restrained, he's unable to use his arms to break his fall. His head rebounds off the floor. A fresh gash opens up along his scalp.

Stupid bastard, Nathan scolds himself. His clotting factors are already working overtime and can't afford anymore wounds. A natural would've bled out hours ago. He shouldn't have provoked her like that.

He shakes his head to try and clear it and figure a way out of his current situation. The Prime aren't susceptible to incantations. There're no Words of Power he knows that he can use against them, thaumaturgy isn't his area of expertise, and she hasn't revealed her true name. Physically they're mortal, but they've confiscated all of his weapons and stripped him naked.

The chair he's trussed to is made out of wrought-iron. For the past hour he's been unsuccessfully trying to break it. If it was simple wood he could probably do it. With the metal the most he can manage is to bend two of the slats and create a slight separation where the back is welded to the armrests. He's worried his wrists to the bone trying to slip out of the shackles.

Initiating hypocapnia in prep for apnea, a voice in his head says.

It's the Director, communicating via the microscopic phone installed in Nathan's cranium.

WHAT THE FUCK GOOD IS THAT GOING TO DO? Nathan may not be able to talk, but there's nothing wrong with his mental texting.

A Foundation Mobile Task Force is currently en route and will be on scene in less than five minutes. Begin hyperventilating. That will assist in decreasing the levels of carbon dioxide in your blood, allowing for more oxygen to avoid hypoxia.

SO WHAT IF THE FOUNDATION IS COMING? THAT SOUNDS LIKE BAD NEWS.

We're going to turn them into your rescue team. Commencing protocol Waiting Room.

It takes Nathan a few seconds to remember the code-name. The tactic was hypothetical and as far as he is aware has never been attempted in the field.

NO! WAIT! WAIT!

But it's too late. The Director has locked Nathan out of his HUD and access to the phone. His body — including key involuntary functions such as respiration and heart rate — has been usurped.

He is suffocating surrounded by air.

It's going to be all right, Nathan.

NO ITS NOT YOURFUCKINKILLNGME.

Yes. I'll see you on the other side.

STOP PLEASTOP.

He gasps, chest hitching. His lungs refuse to process a breath. A pair of filthy, callused feet park themselves inches from his face. It looks like they'd take size twenty shoes, and then Nathan recalls the Prime. He looks up to find her towering over him, head cocked to the side like a dog confused by this turn of events. In his panic Nathan tries to motion for help but has forgotten that his arms are still handcuffed behind the chair.

Relax Nathan. It's going to be okay. I'm right here with you.

His body writhes uncontrollably. It feels like he's dying, and that's because he is, of course. It takes over two minutes for him to black out.

The last thing he sees before falling unconscious is the Prime reaching down to grab him, and he thinks again: Walnuts. The bitch's knuckles look just like walnuts.


1


five… six…

An electrical charge jumpstarts Nathan's heart. According to the count it's not the first, but it is the first to ascend him back to the living. His spine arches with each fibrillation and he wakes with a jerk, greedily sucking air. The inhalation starts him coughing. All of his muscles are bunched, contracted into stone slabs. He still can't move his arms although the shackles are gone. By the time a scintilla of reasoning has been restored he realizes that he can't see. His brain has been deprived of oxygen so long that it's caused him to go blind.

There you are. Thought we lost you for a moment.

COCKSUCKER.

Relax. The Waiting Room procedure has gone off without a hitch. You can't see because the Foundation has cleared the area and declared you dead.

Is that a chuckle Nathan hears on the other end of the line? Is the Director even capable of laughter?

YOU KILLED ME, Nathan texts.

Well…

HOW LONG WAS I OUT?

Under ten minutes.

Nathan leaves it at that. He's sealed within some sort of rubberized plastic. He locates a zipper seam in the material and tears it open, squirming through the hole on knees and elbows.

He emerges reborn from a black womb. It's a body bag. The fuckers had sealed him up in a body bag. That was why he couldn't see.

A dizzy spell makes him light-headed as he stands. He braces himself against the wall and waits for it to pass. After the motes fade he notices the Prime: she's on the floor, a bag over her head, wrists and ankles bound by a chain. The links of the chain appear to be made from tongues of fire. They scorch and blacken her skin wherever they make contact. Curls of smoke rise upward.

He crouches down and pulls the bag off her head. She snarls, lips peeled back from razor incisors. Their eyes meet.

Nathan places a finger to his mouth. "Shhh," he whispers.

What're you doing? We don't have time to indulge in revenge.

I DO.

He says to the Prime softly, "I told you I was gonna kill you."

It's impossible to know whether the creature tied up beneath Nathan understands him or not. She might be deaf and dumb. Poor girl. Nathan would've felt bad for her if it wasn't for the sadism she'd showed him. She seemed too stupid to be cruel.

The Foundation would be back shortly to retrieve her — as well as him — and her breed isn't exotic enough to warrant a containment cell. She's not exactly on the endangered anomalous list. No, she'll be experimented on until she expires. It's better this way. A kindness, really.

He pets her head, smoothing the tangles of greasy hair. It seems to calm her.

He's careful not to touch the burning chain as he wraps his hands around her tree-trunk throat and squeezes.


2


His "in" with the cultists had been a man by the name of Robert Keats. Apparently — from what little Nathan is able to piece together — Keats had lost a substantial sum of money betting on horses. The Director had purchased his marker and given him two options: either vouch for Nathan to the Sothians or die.

Keats had picked the former.

In the end, same as at the racetrack, his choice had turned out to be the wrong one. While otherwise preoccupied getting his face cut off, Nathan had heard Keats's screams echoing nearby. Eventually the screams dissolved into a wet gurgle.

There were no more screams after that.

Out the torture chamber, Nathan steps into a dim corridor. He's underground, can tell that much just from the quality of the air. Naked light bulbs are strung along crumbling mortar walls at interval, islands of light separated by shadow. Large patches of mortar have calved away like ice, revealing loam and root systems.

There's a door neighboring the one he's just exited. He pokes his head inside it and isn't surprised to find Keats lying in a pool of blood. His throat has been slit, but he's still wearing clothes.

Nathan never will unearth exactly how the cultists found out about him. Were they just acting on their gut, on intuitive suspicion? Did they break Keats before he died? They hadn't bothered interrogating Nathan, there were no questions asked while they tortured him, and certainly no answers were proferred from either side, and so he has no clue if they actually had evidence as to his true identity.

He strips Keats, helps himself to the pants and shirt — they're too small for him, he can't even get the pants buttoned and the sleeves of the shirt only reach halfway down his forearms, but despite the stains it's less conspicuous than running around in the nude. The shoes, on the other hand, are a lost cause and he promptly abandons trying to slide his feet inside. He'd need industrial lubricant to get the job done.

Go. Now.

Following the Director's instructions, Nathan weaves his way through narrow tunnels and passageways. The acoustics are terrible; noise bounces every which way, overlapping, waves rippling and crashing into themselves. More than once Nathan spins around, convinced an MTF soldier is creeping up on him from behind, only to find no one there.

Blood streams in his eyes and he swipes it away. Damn scalp wound. Nothing bleeds like the scalp.

Left.

He passes through an intersection, two branching paths blocked by Foundation members in combat exoskeletons. But their backs are turned and they don't hear him sneak by. Nathan is light and fleet — this is what he's been designed for.

Ahead, flashlight beams bob in the dim corridor. Someone says, "Hey, I've got movement. Fifteen meters."

Left again.

A length of whip snaps out of an adjacent room and into the corridor. It crackles with green electricity and spews foam. The end of the cord misses Nathan by inches as it breaks the sound barrier. He lopes over it, his hair bristling with static energy. The scent of ozone is strong.

An explosion further down the passage accompanied by a strobe of light. To Nathan's trained ears it sounds like a fragmentation grenade. Debris patters on dirt flooring.

Right. Up the stairs.

He takes the steps four at a time. Muffled voices buzz a landing or two above. The Director isn't quite enemies with the Foundation, not yet anyway — that won't come for another year — more like competitors whose paths occasionally cross. The Director can't match the Foundation in terms of funding or personnel, and so his purview has always been smaller and more focused, with weighted attention placed on maneuverability and evasion rather than head-on engagement.

Nathan is on a need-to-know basis, and the Director is notoriously close-lipped about such things, but if rumors were to be believed, all agents that had gone up against the Foundation had lost, either due to violent skirmishes or from suicide contingent upon capture.

Nathan doesn't want to get caught, doesn't want to bite down on his rear molar and release the poison capsule. He wants to do whatever it takes to avoid the Foundation. Luck has already favored him with the first roll of the dice and he doesn't want to double-down with his life.

Through here.

He shoulders open a rusted door and stumbles into a subway tunnel. He makes for lights down one end. A rat flees ahead of him, skirting the rail. As he approaches he sees that it's a platform. Commuters mill near its edge, waiting for the next inbound green-line train. Few acknowledge his presence as he hauls himself up onto the platform; most are too busy playing on their phones. He snatches an air filtration mask off a man wearing a baseball cap. Mr. Red Sox tries to swat him away and then catches a good look at Nathan's disfigured, ground hamburger face — pink tissue, notched bone and darker sinew. He holds his hands up and backpedals, deciding that he doesn't want any part of Nathan.

Nathan slips the mask on, concealing his butchered face. He moves through the turnstile, bounds up another flight of stairs, and then he's out, on Commonwealth Avenue. It's an overcast December day in Boston, the temperature mild, hovering in the mid-sixties.

He hooks left onto Mass Ave and disappears in the sea of pedestrians.


3


He plays the video recording from his optic nerve in his heads-up-display while wading through the crowd, a sort of picture-in-picture. He may have been dead for ten minutes, but his eyes had been open and the phone in his head captured what had occurred during that time span.

After her confusion at Nathan's distress the Prime continues to go about her business. It's difficult to see, she's mostly out of frame, but easy enough to fill in the blanks. The microphone in Nathan's Eustachian tube picks up the moist smacking sound of knife introduced to flesh.

A few minutes into the footage the door is kicked in and a member of the Foundation task force stalks into view. The Prime spins and hisses, her clawed-hands splayed. The soldier is ready, he's young and his reflexes are quick. He raises something that looks like a crossbow and fires a bola projectile. A squeal and the Prime exits the camera stage-left.

"We're clear! She's down."

"Clear!"

"Jesus… what'd they do to him? What're you thinking Oscar? Just another vic?"

"Yeah," Oscar replies. "Gotta be another vic. If it's a new initiation rite their numbers are going to get even smaller. Unchain him, get him off that chair."

Oscar makes a cameo, entering the feed, which then sways. Nathan presumes he's feeling for a pulse, moving his head to probe his neck.

"This one's gone too."

There's not much else to see, especially after they zip him up in the body bag.

Nathan already knows how the movie ends. He switches the recording off as the Director navigates him through Back Bay, down Dartmouth Street.


4


The surgeon is old but her hands are steady. Nathan sits in the study of her brownstone off Dartmouth Street. She applies a local anesthetic to his face and then goes about cleaning it, washing out the wounds with a syringe of saline.

She's a connection of the Director, retired from general practice but still employed illegally if anyone needs a face swap or vocal chord scrub.

And if they can afford the exorbitant rates she charges.

"Well," she says, inspecting his skull through the spectacles perched on the brink of her nose. "I guess you've saved me a step."



This is kind of a standalone prequel to: Kids with Guns

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