“The Voice of Hatred” by N.J. Linnehan, Winner of the 2018 Fall Fiction Contest

I sit within my sound-proof cubicle inside the Tai-lonian Social Services Department.  The light of my glass-top computer pulsates, the notifications for my messages never ceasing.  I swipe the user-interface, and the monitor goes black.  I turn to a single piece of decoration on an adjacent wall.  The details of the aged landscape painting have long since been etched into my subconsciousness.  The artist of this pre-Collapse piece is awful, so I’m told by the experts who prefer the realism of today’s holographic depictions.  My late parents had hopes that it would be an investment towards a Master’s certificate.  Real Union Credits don’t depreciate so harshly.  My stomach churns over this valueless reminder of a pitiful excuse for a legacy.  I will be tasked with assisting these dirty creatures until I’ve aged too far to use my earnings toward a better education.  I close my eyes and contemplate the cushiness of my station, grateful that I’m not a door-to-door representative entering the hovels of these animals.  I look to the clock and exhale.  Another day of dealing with the never-ending line of degenerates.  As expected, there’s a firm knock on my office door.  I breathe this morning’s last solitary breath before calling out, “Come in.”

The door slides open with a gentle hiss.  Into the space steps Santrodel.  Like me, he dresses in the professional manner of solid black slacks and a tie over a white button-down shirt.  The only difference is the quality of his exquisite, tailored clothing.  He’s twelve years my junior, with enthusiasm and an expectation for certain future success.  I’m his superior, but I’m not the one he needs to impress.  He stands there with a hearty smile.  “Good morning, sir.  I have your first appointment with me.  Shall I send him in?”

His bubbly personality gets under my skin.  This station is just a stepping-stone for him, as his family’s lineage has been well-educated for decades.  He knows that this is my station for life, and I see it on his smug face as he tortures me every day with the sincerity of his niceties.  I beckon to him with my hand, which he acknowledges with small head-bow.  “Very good, sir.  Can I get you some coffee?”

He calls me sir for now, but that will certainly change with time.  I point out a black, ceramic mug to my right.  A continuous wisp of steam rises from it.

“Right.  I’ll send him in now.”  He steps out before I hear him on the other side.  “Kel Swoon?  You may go in.”

Santrodel whispers a confident “good luck” to the thing as it steps in.  The being stops above the threshold and stands there like an obedient child awaiting instruction.  He’s smaller than average five-foot Tai-rat, but he’s well into his prime.  His disgusting, ashen-grey skin reminds me of those elephants portrayed in the city museum.  They’ve been deemed humanoid, although their anatomy resembles nothing of humanity.  He wears the appropriate interview attire that is properly cleaned but probably stolen.  My father always insisted that you can’t trust these rats, especially one in a suit. They’ll do anything to get ahead.   I pass the time by making a game out of guessing their problems.  I’m betting foundry worker, so yet another uneducated upstart intent on finding an easy way up.  It’s because of degenerates like this that my parents suffered premature deaths in the foundries.  My ancestors spent a century and a half rebuilding this world from the rubble.  The Tai-rats arrived on our Earth ninety years ago on that craft of amalgamated garbage, and yet they expect the benefits of a deserving human.  I motion to the plastic and metal chair opposite my desk.  The infernal thing squeaks with every movement.  “Please sit,” I say as I have many times.

The Tai-lonian sits himself into the squeaking chair.  As he does, I shudder at the thick, tentacle-like appendage that protrudes from the back of his head.   The thin end of it flitters around tastelessly.

“Thank you, sir.”  His dictation is clear, unlike the mumbling garble I’m usually subjected to.  His posture is straight, which is a good attempt at least.

I tilt my computer to hide it from his view before grazing a finger across the surface.  I make my way to the documents folder at a lethargic pace.  An incessant squeaking persists as I feel his leg bounce against the desk.  “Please stop.”

The whining ceases.  “I apologize, sir.”

I access my daily schedule before finding to find the client file.  A twitch develops in my cheek when I see that my guess is wrong.  He’s a secretary for someone in the Lower Business Sector and lives close to my own apartment.  These creatures fill the streets of my city and take more human jobs by the day.  I calm myself before starting with a good time-waster.  “No history of crime and a respectable education percentile.  Are you a third generation Earth-born, Swoon?”  Questions like these are of no consequence, but they’re everything to them.

“Fourth, sir, proudly.”

I stretch a smile.  “Certainly what we like to hear.  Pride is very important.”

His eyes widen.  “Yes!  Of course, sir!  I come from a long line of–”

“Excellent.  Please give me one moment.”  I squint at the file’s particulars with a feigned interest.  “So, I understand that you’re seeking an administrative station within World Union.  Our splendid government is always eager to employ qualified individuals.  So, tell me.  What makes you a qualified potential?”  They’re convincing sometimes, and on occasion I’ll listen, but mostly I take this time to just nod and agree.  His voice fades as I think about the beach. The warm sun casts so many sparkling reflections off the rippling Atlantic.  He stops speaking, and I bob my head.  “I see that you’ve done a lot for your society.  You’ve shown a lot of potential in your studies and have stayed away from illegal elements.  World Union is always searching for upstanding individuals like yourself to fill positions, especially in the Tower.”

He opens his mouth to speak, but I leave no time for an interjection.  I cover him with my gaze.  He’s already sweating.

“Unfortunately, you haven’t developed enough yet to procure an administrative station under World Union.  That being said, I can assure you that you’re proceeding in the correct direction, and at your current trajectory you will be a very competitive candidate within a couple of years.”

The pain on his face remains obvious despite his attempts to suppress it.  “Thank you, sir.  I am sorry that I have not yet fulfilled the requirements.”  He offers what would be a prolonged and pitiful bow had I not raised a hand to stop it.

“There’s certainly no need to apologize.  Keep striving to better yourself, and great opportunities will be available to you and your family,” I say.  There haven’t been opportunities in months.  Those with the positions that he wants aren’t keen on giving them up, besides the fact that I would never allow a non-human to surpass me.

He bows before straightening himself.  “I will, sir.  I intend to perform to the best of my abilities as a citizen.  I desire only to make World Union proud of me.”

He speaks Basic well.  He must be the adopted understudy of another one of the many generous human soft-hearts, but perhaps not a respectable one as there are no references in his file.  “Well, Swoon, we must never forget that society can function only when all citizens perform their part for the community, and not just themselves.  As our nation’s creed states, we must not forget our brothers and sisters who share the equal burden.”  I love to see them crack.

“Of course, sir!  It is selfish of me to procure status for my own benefit!  I strive to better myself in order to aid in the elevation of those around me!  Together we make society better, stronger, sir!”

He’s certainly the understudy of a human and a smart one to boot.  But it won’t change my decision.  I glance at the clock.  Any further and I’m sure to be written up again.  I’ll let him off easy.  “It’s truly fantastic that you feel that way.  Citizens such as yourselves are the foundation of our great society.  Your enthusiasm is quite commendable, and your level of dedication should be a paradigm of reference.”

His face lights up like the sky on Unification Day before he rambles out another sentence.  “Thank you, sir!  I do not deserve such praise, sir!”

His modesty is just another tactic.  I raise my hand to settle him down.  “Okay, okay.  I understand your passion, and it will certainly not go unnoticed.  I’m going to make note of all of your positive progress in your file,” I assure him.

It seems a sure thing that his face will tear from the intensity of his smile.  He struggles to remain still as the chair emanates an irregular array of squeaks.  “Of course, sir!  Thank you, sir!”

I fiddle about the main screen before I access my messages folder and reply to a coworker’s client transfer request.  I tell him I’m not currently capable of taking on another client, as my daily schedule is already at capacity.  I eye the clock, then the Tai-lonian with a great, accepting smile.  “That should about do it.  I’m terribly sorry that you’re not able to procure a position with World Union today, but please keep improving yourself and feel free to apply again.  You’re guaranteed to be selected when the time is right.”

The Tai-lonian stands, barely exceeding my height despite my sedentary position.  He delivers one last bow with excessive showmanship.  “I deeply respect the time that you have provided me, sir.”

I relay to him a warm smile, staring back into the black chasm of his unnatural iris’.  He exits the room and I’m given no time before the next client drifts in like an apparition.  My heart jumps at the skin-and-bones Tai-lonian who stares blankly at me from across the desk.  A female, distinguishable by the way she hangs her Tai-be tentacle over her shoulder like the tail of a dirty scarf.  Her blemished skin matches her torn and soiled harlequin clothing.  I already know the story; another tunnel-rat.  “Please sit,”

She hesitates before slinking herself into the chair with near-weightlessness.  It still squeaks.  “Thank you, sir.”  Her voice is soft, which could be frustrating.

I locate her file.  8:45, Landa-Len Wen.  A merged family name is a sure sign of a deteriorating line.  It appears as though she’ll pass out at any moment.  I received this client as a transfer from one of my coworkers, and her file contains detailed information regarding her living situation in the pre-Collapse network of tunnels beneath the city that they have subsequently coined, “The Under”.  “Good morning, Wen.  How can I assist you today?”

Her face contorts as she attempts to form her next string of words.  “Y-you should have, sir.  My need,” she mutters, trembling in the presence of my limited, governmental power.

I turn to the file and bounce my eyes around the document in no particular direction.  “I don’t seem to have it.  Who was your representative before?”  I stare at her.

Her eyes dart around the room in search of the answer as her breathing intensifies.  “I-I don’t know, sir.  They say I have new one.”  She shakes despite the room’s warmth.

“Well, it could have been Ito.  He became careless with his work and had to be let go.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he had purposefully lost a lot of his records in his disgruntled exit.  I apologize, but I have to ask you to re-state the purpose for your visit so that we can restart the process.”

She stares back at me with eyes as wide as ceramic saucers.  “But I–”

“I’m afraid I can’t extend the duration of our meeting, as you’ve selected a follow-up appointment.  I’ll need you to tell me as much about your situation as possible so that I can fill out your file for your next visit.

She emits fractions of letters before forming a cohesive thought.  “I live…  Under.  They tell me move, but I live there my life!”

“I’m sorry about that, but I need you to not raise your voice, please.” I say, wincing at her horrid grammar.

She breathes a shuddering exhale.  “I sorry, sir.  I-I don’t know what do.  They kick me out, but I not on way, and I have nowhere go.”

I lean back in my chair to examine the ceiling before turning back to her.  “Have you taken your case up with the zoning department?”

Her eyes well up into a glossy sheen.  She struggles to articulate her thoughts now.  “They tell me come here.  I come many time.  My last tells me he close, that I don’t need move.”

That damn chair continues to squeak.  I’ll scare her out of her shivering.  “For Union’s sake!”

She flinches before stiffening.

“I can’t apologize enough for the disaster that you’ve been subjected to.  Wen, I will make certain that you don’t have to move.”

She shows a weak smile.  “You true nice, true nice.”  She emotes several small bows in my direction.

I raise a declarative hand.  “Please.  There’s no need for such praise.  I’m merely acting within the means of my station.”  At this point, I’m just glad that she hasn’t tried to bribe me with a sexual proposition as some of the more abhorrent females do.  My skin crawls at the thought.

She shakes her head.  “No, you true good, true honor.”

I leak a dual-edged smile.  “I do appreciate that.  Please give me a moment to reverse this bureaucratic wreck.”

She nods as she dries a tear from her greasy face.

I glide my finger across the computer’s interface to press the file-delete button.  “Alright, let’s get this paperwork started!”  I barely manage to fill out the standard information before 9:00 rolls around.  I send the thing away, and my next appointment stands before me within seconds.  Another story, another problem.  Sometimes it’s all just too much.

My lunch hour is during the most beautiful time of the day.  For five years I’ve made a pleasant habit out of strolling down to the boardwalk.  Outstretched before me is a network of smooth concrete sidewalks connecting all paths in the city.  I pass many administrative workers like myself, but in the five years that I’ve taken this path, I’ve certainly noticed the increasing Tai-lonian infection that walks about freely.  The air is cleaner by the ocean, and smiling faces radiate all around the beach’s shifting sand.  Their joyous laughter calms me until I lay eyes on a family of Tai-lonians.  I latch onto a red painted railing and close my eyes as I breathe in deep the crisp air.  Although only for a short time, it feels good to be free of that office.  My daily visit re-energizes me, and I’m ready for the rest of my day.

The rusted orange sun begins its descent behind the horizon every evening in the Autumn.  The walk home is long, but my forehead soaked with September sweat is kissed by a refreshing, gentle breeze.  I would find the walk more enjoyable if it were not for my aging back which entices me to expedite my speed.

It’s not long before I’m at the cracked-pavement courtyard of my apartment building; another bland concrete and glass structure packed with miniscule apartments unlike the elaborate structures with granite decorations around the tower.  I ascend the stairs as I brush past groups of chattering human and Tai-lonian manufacturing laborers.  Their bellowing laughter fills the breezeway between units.  As I approach the third landing, I press myself against the wall to avoid an especially greasy Tai-rat.  The spiraling staircase of chipped ceramic stones is a simple ascent, and I’m soon within the comfort of my small, organized apartment.  Many of my coworkers reside in the business sector, and they pay a third more of what I do for nicer accommodations.  I don’t blame them for their lack of frugality, but after my generation is gone, then it will be apparent whose legacy is lacking.  My living arrangements serve all of my necessities, and at a price that modestly fits into my plan.

It’s here where I spend my evenings, obsessing over the future of my legacy as I gaze at the sun’s last minutes of light, determined to push my unborn child to new heights.  A giddiness rises in me when I imagine the far-off possibility of my child performing amazing feats of heroism in the Fourth World as a contractor, the highest echelon of World Union’s militant strength.  I intend to willingly forgo my own life’s passions to pour the fruits of my life’s labor into my legacy in the hopes that they will be more integral to society than their ancestors.  Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a woman of a respectable station who shares my particular views with which to help start that legacy.

Relative normalcy has continued for months, but an exception occurred this morning after I examined my messages folder.  The details of one outlines that a big push is to be made in regards to the increasing Tai-lonian plague under Sector West-5, a recently cleared section of Union City outskirts.  With the land cleared of ancient scraps, the next step is to re-locate the Tai-lonian presence in the Under.  The Tai-lonian Social Services Department is to initiate World Union’s plan to move them several hundred kilometers away to a work colony.  My initial reaction to this news was ecstatic glee, as I’ve always dreamed that they would be sent away to clean the Fourth World.  But when I heard the same stories circulate about how extraordinarily beautiful the colonies were, it made me contemplate incessantly on why World Union would go to such lengths to care for degenerate, non-humans.  I refused to believe it until I learned that many humans would also be moving there for work.  Regardless, I’m over-joyed that a large majority of them and their soft-heart human companions will be leaving this city for good.  I’ve been tasked with serving the Under residents of Sector West-5 with eviction notices, escorted by a handful of city defense officers to act as a precautionary force.  Although I normally regard days like these to be a fantastic break from the normal routine, traveling to the Under is something I’ve never desired to do, but this is a big opportunity for me to personally rid them from my city.

We’re instructed to take a shuttle from the office, so I wait outside the Tai-lonian Social Services Department with my briefcase alongside my coworkers who exchange small-talk.  A familiar, young voice comes from behind.

“Such a virtuous thing we’re about to do!  Are you excited, sir?”  Santrodel swoops around to stand before me.  He stares with a jovial smile.

I do all I can not to roll my eyes directly at him.  “I’ll be glad to see them off.”

“Haha!” he exclaims, giving me a heavy thump on the back.  “I think we all will, sir!  I’ve considered moving to the new outpost as well!”

I can’t help but scoff.  “Such a shame.”

Before another word slides from his mouth, I’m saved by two Union City defense cruisers that come to a gentle stop before us.  The early morning sun shimmers against the pearlescent black automobiles.

“Glamourous!” Santrodel shouts as he rushes to enter the first automobile.  The rest board without hesitation.  I enter the car that Santrodel is not in, and the automobile makes its way forward.  Affording an automobile is a luxury that I could never hope to obtain in my lifetime.  This one is nice, and my fists tighten from the jealousy of not having a higher-level degree.  I shake the thought by observing the passing scenery.  It’s still early, but the streets are filled with citizens.  Our path takes us through the Center, but only close enough to get a peek at Union Tower.  The people of Sector Center, and subsequently the Tower residents, are the highest educated, the most skilled, and the most influential.  Many here walk without a day’s purpose, instead acting on a whim of impulse, dressing not for functionality, but for leisure.

A few miles through and our path takes us passed the heart of Union City and into a dirty place populated by workers of manufacturing.  The buildings here are short but numerous and vast in length, all of which emanate a wide spectrum of mechanical noises.  This entire sector is a remnant from The Reconstruction, but it’s still highly operational.  It’s a place littered with many Tai-lonians and humans alike below my station who walk their path to work in sad masses.  I can’t imagine it, every day they don their greasy coveralls and congregate in sweltering factories to produce our necessities.  If there’s one thing that I can thank my parents for, it’s working just hard enough to pay for my Associate’s certificate.

We pass the city’s defensive net, which is an array of armed guard towers that span the flat and arid outskirts.  Plumes of smoke in the distance emanate from smoldering mounds of gathered pre-Collapse detritus.  The automobile comes to a sudden stop amidst an area with no distinguishable landmarks.  The officer instructs us to disembark, which we sheepishly do.  Five of us step out onto the dry earth.  A dry breeze carries hot dust which assaults our attire.  A thought of agitation is shared amongst my coworkers as we brush away the staining dust.  The distant horizon is crisscrossed with paths for utility vehicles that extend for kilometers in multiple directions.  At a young age, we were told that The Collapse was caused by a worldwide struggle for Earth’s resources, but that it was ultimately due to the inevitable consequence of nuclear proliferation in an era of ceaseless intolerance.  There’s no place on this planet that was not touched by the damage caused by our racist ancestors.  The chills are shaken from my body as one of my coworkers speaks out.

“Hey!  Where are they going?”

Both cruisers accelerate back towards the city.  My composure remains frozen despite my rising heart-rate.

“For Union’s sake!  Are they leaving us here?” squeaks another.

Before a panic can set in, a figure emerges from the dust a short distance away.  The group quiets as we turn to it.  The figure is hazy, but it clearly beckons to us.  We come upon the figure to find it disappear into meter-wide hole in the ground with a set of crumbling stairs descending into darkness.  My coworkers worry amongst each other.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“They’re coming back, right?”

“Why aren’t they escorting us?”

They squawk like chickens as a dim light shines from the depths.  Their jabbering fades as we stare down the pit.  I’m hesitant but eager to complete this assignment.  I force my feet forward to be the first to make the frightful descent.  A string of work lights hangs from the ceiling, which illuminates infrequent patches of darkness.  I’m several meters down before I hear the hurried thumping of heels behind me.  The harsh wasteland air is replaced by the stench of a damp rot as the passageway narrows with every step.  A network of rusted rebar covered by centuries of a thick, green moss lines the cracked walls on both sides.  I’m cautious as I lead the way, mindful of my steps across sunken-in concrete.  My coworkers resume their irritating banter.

“How much further?”

“Something just dripped on me!”

“My clothes!  Why are we here?”

I share similar sentiments, but only the completion of this assignment will allow us to leave this horrid place.  We near the passage’s end; a fissure in a wall just wide enough for an individual to slip through.  A bright light shines from the other side.  My button-down shirt snags on a bit of mangled rebar and tears as I step through.  My heart lightens at the sight.  A more elaborate string of lights adorns a massive tunnel structure that stretches far out of sight in opposite directions.  Fastened to the soiled, curved walls is an array of ancient wires and tubes which hang disconnected from each other in many places.  At my feet, two parallel beams of rusted steel run the tunnel’s length, and a cold draft brings with it a low whining howl.  A collective of awes and gasps reverberate throughout as my coworkers file in behind me.

“For the Union!  We should have gotten them out years ago!”

“I never imagined it was like this… The colonies will be a much safer place for them!”

“Those poor creatures!  How could they live like this?”

An outstretched shadow covers us as we gaze.  The figure’s boorish voice calls out to us.  “This way.”  He disappears through a side corridor when we approach.  My coworkers continue to complain.

“Why are they treating us like this?!”

“This is NOT a proper escort!”

“I’m filing a complaint when we get back!  This is ridiculous!”

We shuffle around the corner and move through a tight passageway before entering a small room littered with primeval garbage.  I stop dumbfounded in my tracks as my coworkers enter in behind me.  They breathe audible sighs of relief.

“I told you there was nothing to be afraid of!”

“Thank the Union!”

“Look who we have to protect us!  There’s no way anything can happen!”

A group of four men and one woman, all of great stature, stand conversing in a huddle at the dilapidated room’s center.  They’re not Union City defense officers as promised in the memorandum, but contractors, and I’ve never heard of a contractor performing duties within the city’s perimeter.  The obligations of a contractor always take them thousands of kilometers into Fourth World wasteland.  Without ceasing their whispering conversation, one of them turns to us and motions a signal to wait.  They wear form-fitting combat fatigues laden with slits and pockets, and they cradle assault rifles in their arms.  As my coworkers continue with a happy chattering amongst themselves, my intuition beckons me closer to the contractors.  I offer a generous bow.  “Excuse me, honored gentlemen and lady.”

They cease their muffled conference and turn to me with an unwarranted display of disgust.  The woman leans out.   “Is there something you require?”

Her impatient tone turns my face hot.  “I-I don’t mean to interfere, but we were expecting a city defense patrol.  As much as I appreciate your honorable service to our fine city, I feel as though your presence here may be…excessive.  We’re just distributing eviction notices, ma’am.”

She glares back with beady brown eyes.  “Hey guy, why don’t you stay in line with your own station!”

I recoil under her vocal power. “Yes, ma’am, I deeply apologize.  I was just concerned.”

One of her male counterparts speaks up, “You should be concerned with your assignment and not ours!” he barks.

“Of course, sir.  I apologize, sir.”

I shrink back into my group whose hatred of my insubordination I feel like a scorching heat.  They whisper loud enough for me to hear their insults.

Santrodel leans in.  “What would possess you to say such things, sir?”

I shake my head, unable to give him an answer.  Before this situation becomes too much to bear, the woman steps out of the huddle as her male companions fall in behind her.  “Listen up!  We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.  We’re going to make this quick and painless.  Our duty is to clear this place by week’s end.  It’s your job to distribute the eviction material, it’s our job to make sure everything stays copesetic.  Affirmative?”

We nod.

“I can’t hear you!”

We speak up in collective agreement.  “Yes, ma’am!”

A hideous smirk curls out from the woman’s mouth.  “That’s what I like to hear!  At this point, we’re going to split up and canvas this entire pit.  Each Rep gets protection.”  She points a stiff finger in our direction, distributing us individually amongst her squad mates.  She looks to me with a pensive stare.  “Masafid, you get the curious one.  Make sure he does his job.”

The largest of the squad steps forward to glare at me with contempt.  “Yes, ma’am.  Let’s go, desk-boy.”

He turns down a connecting passageway.  I follow close behind as the temporary string of lights dims away behind us.  He activates a bright light on his vest which casts all surroundings in a ghastly radiance.  My mind continues to race with questions, but I dare not speak up to this gargantuan.  The contractor stops to analyze a heads-up-display map which emanates as a holographic light from his wrist.   As he does so, I’m drawn to a large plaque which hangs above.  I pull a handkerchief from my pocket to wipe away centuries of dust.  Though faded, I’m able to make out a network of intercrossing colored lines over an indistinguishable map.  In large letters it reads MBTA across the top.

“You a historian now?  Do you require assistance carrying your degree along with your case of brushes?”

A chill crawls down my neck as I cast my eyes to the grimy floor.  “I apologize, sir.  Please continue.”

He rolls his eyes before turning down another corridor.  We spend several minutes weaving through this decrepit place before coming to a sealed entryway that blocks our path. He reaches into one of his vest pockets and removes a couple of spherical devices before pressing himself against the rusted entryway.  “Stay right here.  Don’t move from that spot,” he commands with a stiff finger.

I nod, and he breathes a great exhale before throwing his weight onto the door.  The act produces a horrendous screech from the grinding metal.  He throws the devices into the room before storming in. Two great flashes of radiating light fill the room beyond, followed by a collective of screaming.

His voice booms.  “Stay right there, rats!  Sit down, NOW.”

I drop my briefcase at the deafening reverberation of sporadic gunfire.  A high-pitched wailing pierces the air before being cut short by a muffled impact.

“Get in here, desk-boy!”

I rush to collect my briefcase.

“NOW.” he howls.

Overwhelming fear forces my feet forward.  I jump through the concrete and metal passageway.  The contractor stands over a dozen huddling Tai-lonians who wear tattered rags which barely cover their dirty, grey skin.  A female nurses a fresh bruise on her cheek with her palm.  The two thrown balls that sit at the end of the room illuminate the many phantom figures. Their shallow faces turn to me with frightened confusion as they squirm on bent knees.

“Quit gawking and distribute the material!”

I fumble with my briefcase before it bursts open, scattering my papers amongst the grime.  I feel the contractor’s condescending stare.

“You can’t be serious. Get it together, desk-boy!”

I scramble to collect the papers, gathering them into a hastily unorganized stack in my arms.  “I apologize, sir.  I’ve just never–”

“I don’t care!  Distribute the material so that I can get out this wretched place!”

I approach the shivering Tai-lonians and pass out single sheets of paper to the group.  Those in my immediate view scan the page aimlessly before those in the back step forward to assist them, pointing at it and speaking in their native tongue.  With my task complete, I step back beside the contractor who pierces the group with a sentry-like stare.  He holds his assault rifle tightly to his chest with his finger hovering about the trigger.  Within moments the room becomes a buzz with foreign syllables growing louder.  An older female steps up to the contractor with paper in hand, pointing to it furiously and screeching in tonal clicks and guttural syllables.  She looks familiar.

The contractor raises his assault rifle like a shield as the female inches forward.  “Stay in line!”

Several Tai-lonians reach out to her but fail in their attempt to restrain her.

The contractor raises his weapon to aim down its length as the female takes another step.  “You’re out of line!  Get back, or I put you down, tunnel-rat!  Desk-boy, do your job and keep them calm!”

Before I’m given the opportunity, the room erupts into a blaze of foreign pleas.  My heart beats faster as I absorb the situation.  “What are you doing?  She can’t understand you!  This isn’t necessary!”

He glares down the barrel.  “I’ll tell you what’s necessary, and you’ll agree without question!”

I step forward to place a hand on the barrel of the gun, but the contractor rams the butt of it into my chest, forcing me down into a pile of rancid refuse.  I collect myself in time to witness the hysterical Tai-lonian reach out to the contractor.  He pulls the trigger, but all I hear is an intense ringing as the weapon emits a bright flash.  She is thrust back as a rush of black fluid showers the other Tai-lonians.

“FOR THE UNION,” I scream, my stomach churning as her body collapses to the floor.  I scramble to my feet as a few other Tai-lonians do the same.  The foreign shouting intensifies as a few of them jump forward to the fallen female.  Several flashes fill the room as more of them to crumble to the ground, their ink-black blood painting the adjacent wall as they fall.  Those remaining attempt to scatter, prompting the contractor to continue his volley.  A wrenching mass rises in my throat as I look on at the writhing bodies.  My only thought in this moment is to stop this harrowing scene.  I lunge forward and push the contractor to the floor.  His rifle falls and lands at my feet.  Regret floods my veins over my suicidal decision.

His surprised demeanor immediately turns to a heated rage.  “Disrupting a contractor’s duty?  You’re dead, desk-boy!”

I hoist the assault rifle from the floor and aim it at him haphazardly before he jumps to his feet.  It’s heavier than I could have imagined, and I can hardly manage to keep it trained on him.

His face twitches, and he doesn’t try to defend himself.  He speaks back as if to a child.  “You have no idea what you’re doing.  You don’t realize the mistake you’re making right now.”

I struggle to hear his words over the ringing and my own heartbeat.  The time for reasoning is over, but words continue to spill from my mouth.  “You killed them.  For the Union, how do you not feel such abhorrence in your heart right now?  Such a repugnant–”

“It’s better this way,” he claims with a calm voice.

The remaining few Tai-lonians watch in silence.  My body sweats as I hesitate, searching for any rationale with which to diffuse this situation.  He’s clearly not fazed by taking lives.  “What about World Union?  What about your obligation to The People’s Decision?  What about the colonies?  If anything, they’re still useful to us.”

His cheeks tighten.  “The colonies are just another lifeline for these insects, another hope for survival.  My obligation to the soft-heart opinions of this city died in the Fourth World years ago.  The People could never understand.  You could never understand true pain.  You will never understand the reality of things, shielded from the reality of the Fourth World behind those guarded walls.”

I scrunch my face in doubt.  “Understand what?”

He breathes an exaggerated sigh before showing a crooked smile.  They grow in number by the day, and for every Tai-lonian that rises in station, a human must fall in station.  No human will fall if there is no one to fall to.”

I scan his figure with an erratic gaze.  He stands confident in his convictions as zealously as my parents did.  But unlike my parents who never raised a hand to anyone, this mad man has a lust for blood that I have never seen.  “No… That can’t be right…” I whisper, my stomach tightening.

“You would take the side of these animals over your own kind?” he barks.

My vision blurs.  I rattle my head around to restore my senses.  “No!” I yell with an adamant resolve.  “But, but–”

His head jerks in tiny spastic movements as he takes a step forward.  “I don’t have the patience for politics.  Drop the gun.  You have one chance to comply,” he snarled in a low voice.

I step back.  “I can’t!”  My grip hardens around the rifle as he approaches.  A surge of power courses through my body just by holding the thing.

He articulates his next sentence slowly.  “You don’t have a choice.”

Our eyes remain locked as a trail of dirty sweat runs down my face.  A moment of difficult silence covers us as I summon the strength to reply.  Through that strength, my voice emits as a hushed whisper.  “We all have a choice.”

His patience deteriorates before me, and saliva spews from his mouth as he roars.  “It’s over for you, soft-heart!  You just don’t realize it!”  He raises his arm and shoves a finger in his ear.  “My Rep’s a sympathizer!  Converge on my–”

I squeeze the trigger.  His body is jerked back and blood rains down as a light mist.  His body falls with a tremendous thud.  The fresh corpse twitches, a stream of blood flowing from the exposed arteries.  I avert my gaze but find the twisted forms that had been Tai-lonians.  The mass in my throat rises beyond the point of control, and I lean over to expel my lunch over an already soiled metal floor.  I clean the acidic vomit from my face before the Tai-lonians shuffle in their spots.  I whip the rifle towards them with shaking arms.  They stand statuesque in my presence, staring with such innocently wide eyes.  I cover them with my vision, observant of any slight movement.

“Don’t move!  I mean it!” I shout in a panic.  They whisper in tongues before holding each other in tight embraces, whimpering and sobbing.  The battle cry of the contractor’s approaching squad echoes throughout the passageways.  My heart batters itself against my ribs.  I contemplate my utterly foolish actions as the heat in my chest rises further to consume me.  I grip the rifle tighter.

“It’s your fault!” I scream, stepping forward to threaten them with the rifle.  They crouch further in fear, shedding tears as they wail.  One falls to his knees and throws his hands up to beg relentlessly.

“Stop it!  Shut up!”  The room falls silent save their shaking and whimpering.  In all my years of dealing with them, I’ve never seen them in such a light.  I consider the contractor’s words, and I only now realize that he was correct in a way.  I’ve never witnessed such intense pain, human or Tai-lonian.  But despite my hatred, I don’t think I’ve ever imagined myself capable of killing a Tai-lonian.  I quiver at the sight of my own frightful behavior.  I keep the rifle trained on them as a searing pain develops in my head.  “It wasn’t supposed to be like this!  I just wanted you to leave!  You stupid rats!”

The sobbing of a younger female intensifies as she cradles a bleeding thigh.

“It’s over for me because of you!”

A small voice speaks out from the group.  “Please…”

I glare through hate-filled eyes as my arms quiver under the weight of the rifle.  “No!” I cry, lowing the weapon and backing away to pace about the small space.  “No!” I scream to the ceiling.  “Is this what you wanted of me!?”

I stop with my back facing the Tai-lonians to take deep breathes.  My labored breathing calms me, and in a brief moment clarity, a sensation of tranquility washes over me.  With one last exhale, the pain diminishes.  All tension in my body releases, and I drop the gun, which clangs against the floor.  I hang my head down, and utter my final words, “Just go.”

Those Basic-speaking Tai-lonians pull along the others, ripping them from the room and disappearing into a hidden crevice.  I collapse to my knees as I let my imagination take me away from this awful world.  My thoughts bring me back to the beach where I lean against that familiar red railing, holding a faceless woman in a close embrace.  I breathe in my last moments as the distant sound of hurried boot-steps becomes louder.  A single tear falls from my cheek.  For the first time in my life I’ve decided for myself, but it’s much too late.

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