His hand wiped the tears from his eyes, his feet stumbling through the wreckage. It couldn't be gone. Not all of it. Not his friend...the children.
The fire had long since died down, the smoke now only a moldering ghost of a scent. Decay and rot had set in. The bastards hadn't even had the decency to bury them.
They didn't care, not even to use the corpses as research materials.
He leaned his back against a blown out wall, the soft, burnt wood giving way to his weight. There had to be something here. Something left of...
It was quiet. Like a violin sting a million miles away. But it was there. A hum, low and metallic and echoing on the corners of his perception. He turned his head
about, quickly looking for the source, stepping over rubble and bone. He followed it down the hall, kicking aside ruined books and destroyed heirlooms. To the study.
Yes, it had to be here still. He rushed to the far wall, to the still-standing bookshelf. How was it still standing? Why were the books still pristine, untouched by fire or rain or decay? Of course...Charles, that clever son of a bitch. He had covered the entrance with the bookshelf.
But which book...his thoughts raced wildly. He was certain his arrival at the manor grounds had been noticed, that he had minutes at best before they returned, before this dilapidated crypt was a battlefield again. Hi ran his fingers across the spines of each book, looking for the one that wouldn't budge.
The Origin Of Species yielded nothing. Nor did Civilization and its Discontents. Nor did The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
Indeed, none of the books yielded anything. Until he got to the bottom row. Of course. Charles would have put the entrance switch low to the ground, where it would be easier for him to reach. The Once And Future King was the key, and as it slid mechanically back into place, the brazier in the fireplace clicked and groaned and shuffled aside arthritically, revealing a stairwell going down.
Deep beneath the manor, the halls were smooth and cold, with a metallic sourness to their scent. At the end of the hall was a large round door, seamlessly installed so as to be hidden. He drew a finger along the large 'X' embossed on it's face, stopping at the quarter-sized lens in the middle. He kneeled down, placing his left eye to the lens, hoping that this would work. It wouldn't. Why would it? He and Charles hadn't spoken in years, and had rarely seen eye to eye when they did. But...it had to work. It had to, or he had come all this way for nothing.
He stared into the lens for the longest second; the sudden blue ghost of a light and the mechanical humming nearly knocked him over, convincing him that it had been noticed by those he wished to avoid. Before he could stand to escape, the round door gave way, leading into a vertical tunnel, a bridge leading only halfway into it. A lone chair, elaborate and sleek in its design, was the only decoration. He uneasily entered the room, the doors closing behind him in a rush of air. Faint blue lights hung on the air, activating automatically as he stepped towards where he remembered the chair to be in the dark. His hand found the backrest, and he sat.
"Charles...I'm sorry. I...I ignored you. I let this happen."
His voice was hoarse and low. The tears came easily, the memories more so. His friend, the first person he had ever been comfortable with, his brother. The things they discussed, the stories and tragedies they shared. The plans they had made. This manor, this facility...he couldn't believe Charles had done it. Had really done it. It went from talking, to...well...
He laid his head against the backrest, weeping uncontrollably at the memory of his lost friend. And he gasped like a small child at a horror movie when a voice disturbed his mourning.
The voice was worn and cracked from disuse. He concentrated, only lightly, only enough to feed the machine, to supply power to the right areas, move the right circuits.
A large blue form hung in the air, that of a man in his early forties, bald pated and thin in the face.
"Max, if you can hear this, then you were right, and my experiment failed. But...I still believe, Max. I still know they have good in them. Fear is a powerful motivator towards destruction, Max, but it's not greater than love or hope. We can show them. We can teach them. If...if the worst has happened to me, and to the children, I want you to pick up where I left off. There are so many, Max. So many who need us, and not just our kind."
Max stared at the light, the ghost of his friend. What was he asking? For him to take up the fool's errand that had gotten him killed? His children, his house, torn asunder?
He spoke before he realized there was no one there to speak to.
"Charles, no, I--"
The ghost continued uninterrupted.
"It's still there, Max. The dream. My dream. And a man's dream is always bigger than the man. Don't let my dream die with me, Max. Don't let my death be in vain. Show them. Teach them. We are one species. We are the children of Man. They've forgotten that. They've let fear and rhetoric drive their children from them, but we can forgive them. We can live with them, Max. I...I thought too highly of the men in charge, trusted that they would spare us...would show some humanity. I underestimated fear. You can learn from my mistakes, old friend. You can rebuild it better than I did. Make it stronger. Make it last. You can do this."
Max sat alone in the dark, only lit by the memory of his friend. He weighed his thoughts. Charles had believed...but it had gotten him killed, his children slaughtered. Max...had already lost most of his family. Only his daughter remained...his youngest. Could he truely risk his only family for a dead friend?
He shook his head, standing to leave. How could he? How could he throw all he had left into the line of fire, for a cause he had never believed in.
"Charles...damn you, no! You can't ask this of me, you son of a bitch!"
The ghost only stared down at him, unmoving and silent, but pleading, accusing in its eyes.
"They hate us...fear us. Why would they ever learn anything from us?"
Something cracked under his shoe. Max bent to pick it up, pulling it into the soft blue glow. It was curved, broad and golden, and not too dissimilar to sunglases in shape and function. Through the center ran a single red lens, a strip of...some sort of material, like glass but not. Max turned his head to where the device had lain, and saw the bones of a youth, no more than sixteen, seated by the door, obscured by the long and deep shadows of the room.
"You see, Charles. Even your staunchest supporter died for your insipid dream! It...all those children. What were you thinking, taking them into battle? Against armies? Against people who would kill them for being...what they were?"
The ghost of Charles only looked pleadingly at Max. Screens behind the projection flickered to life. Max squinted at the screens, the scenes they showed him. Old news footage. Riots and destruction. Hatred and war. Violence and fear and evil, all the worst of mankind's demons, all on display. It was a show Max had seen before, one he knew too well.
"I can't force you to take up my fight, Max. But I can show you the worst. This is what fear does to the world. It pits brother against brother, people against people, until all we have left are ashes."
Max rolled his eyes. He knew this all too well, and thought for sure that Charles had too.
"What kind of world does Wanda deserve?"
Time stopped. Max forced himself to swallow his heart back down into his chest.
Charles...damn Charles. He always knew the right button to press.
"It isn't an easy burden I'm giving you, old friend, but it leads to a better future for our children. If we do nothing, then all we're really doing is waiting for the clock to run out. For the boxcars to pull up and open their doors, and for our future to be in the hands of those who fear us as monsters. We must stand up, not in anger, not for revenge, but with confidence, with conviction. Stand up to them, but never fall to their level. Never to their fear and anger. Understand them, Max. What do you fear, after all? Do they not fear the same?"
Max swallowed air, trying to catch his breath back. The screens changed, to show files and fact sheets about various men and women. Some Max knew, some he did not. More than a few he feared.
"We were never many, old friend. Always few in number. But there are others hated and feared as much as we are, for much the same reason. They think we all diminish humanity, make what they are less special. Find them, as many as you can. With numbers, you have strength. With numbers, comes unity.Build a wall of us, and they can never tear us down."
The ghost flickered and stuttered. Max reached out, but found nothing to fix; the recording itself was disrupted at the time it was made.
"They're coming, Max. Outside the door, I can hear them. Already...Bobby, Hank...my children are gone. Scott won't last the hour. The door will hold, but it doesn't matter. I'm finished. Please, Max...finish what I began. Save our kind, our world, from the devils of fear and hatred. Please.."
The recording died, and Max was alone in the dark. He felt his knees buckle under him, and his chest heaved wetly as the emotion overcame him.
Memories of Israel, Romania, Hungary flashed before him. Meeting Charles, fighting against the Communists, finding Magda and starting his family. Losing friends, losing his home...his wife and daughters, Anya and Lorna. Hiding away from the world hadn't helped him escape the pain. His son Pietro...
All of it was gone now. Only Wanda was left. Shining, brilliant Wanda and her laugter. But what about tomorrow? Would she be laughing when they came for her?
No. No, this couldn't happen. He had the power, he could keep her safe, keep her away from the danger. But for how long? He was only mortal, only human. He'd die one day, sooner or later and then she'd be at the mercy of the world.
But Charles had given him a long-term solution. A way to change the future, to make it better for his daughter.
Uneasy legs stood up. Max held his head high, his cheeks stained wet and hit eyes red and sore.
"Alright, Charles. You win. Show me what to do."
Sign up to rate and review this story