patienceThe cloth blindfold wrapped around my head and covered my eyes. I could only hear and feel his presence in the dojo. I was anxious. I drew a long, quiet breath and steadied myself. The smoke from the candles in the room tainted the air. I thought that I could feel their warmth on my cheek.

My uncle Setsuo crossed the mat, advancing toward me from the front. I heard him step. The floor creaked. I tuned my ear. His breath was shallow and his moves almost silent. I sat, enshrouded in darkness, trying to count his steps, feel his movement. He took another step and the mat below my knee moved. He was close. My grip on the handle of the wooden katana tightened and my fingers twitched.

I would strike only when I was certain. I focused on the sounds and waited. I thought I heard a breath. The flame from a nearby candle shuddered. I waited a moment longer. With a swift and practiced movement, I pulled the wooden sword from its sheath, swung out at a forty-five degree angle, and struck… nothing.

I felt his staff tap me in the center of my chest. I turned my katana and swung backwards across the space in front of me. Nothing… again. The staff tapped my chest once more. I was baffled.

“Your heart is strong, Maxim,” my uncle said. He was leaning over me from behind.

I let out a frustrated sigh.

“Impatience and hesitation both come from the heart,” he said. “If your mind and your senses are unfocused, your heart will always betray you. Remember this.”

“Yes, uncle.”

I pulled the blindfold from my eyes and…

I was awakened.

Blinding light streamed into the maintenance room through the open door. A cold blast of air shocked the room. Squinting, I scrambled to get to my feet. A figure stood in the light. I held up my hand to shield my eyes. The knife I’d been clutching while I slept fell to the floor with a clatter.

Through the light, I saw a figure of a man in outline alone. He had a slight frame, too small in stature for an LMO. He stood perfectly still.

“Who’s there?” I asked, stepping backward from the entryway and the excruciating light.

There was a pause. The man let out a “humph” in a low voice and turned and shut the door. Darkness enveloped the room. I took a step back, snatched up the fallen blade from the floor and held it in front of me.

“I am Makabe,” he said with a gruff and distinctly Japanese accent. “I am maintenance for this sector.”

Overhead, a series of fluorescent lights flickered to life with a soft metallic clinking sound. I squinted again. He was an older man, naturally aged, probably eighty years or so, with deep wrinkles in his face. He carried a large blue toolbox in one hand. He wore an old leather coat with a deep, fur-lined hood. Thick, dark goggles wrapped around his head. Atop his wrinkled brow, he had a tuft of short, thick gray hair. His heavy gloves and boots were covered in ice and snow.

He pulled the dark goggles off, showing narrow, black eyes and dark, thick eyebrows. He stepped from the entryway into the room, set his toolbox down on the worktable, and began pulling off his gloves by the fingertips. “I don’t receive many visitors here,” he said with an irritated tone.

“I was lost in the storm last night,” I lied. “I needed shelter.”

“I believe you are the one they’re looking for, the one that attacked and killed Q’Roth.”

The abruptness of the statement caught me off-guard. I hesitated and sized him up. Makabe the maintenance man appeared genuine enough. He was too old to be a sentry or a patrolman, too dirty to be a professional hire of any kind. Something didn’t add up. I kept my guard.

“I suppose,” I replied in a whisper.

Makabe gave me a long look. “You are haafu. Half-Japanese, yes?”

His mention of Japan made me feel more at ease. “Yes,” I replied. “My father was a US Naval Officer stationed at Atsugi. Japan is my country, my home.”

“Nothing lives there anymore,” Makabe said, shaking his head. “Our people are gone. They are no more than sparks within smoke.”

Makabe eyed the knife blade. He put out his hand and waved it down with a cautious gesture. “I am just an old man. Your weapon… please.”

I lowered the knife to my side, keeping my stance and distance. “Nothing here is as it appears to be.”

“Yes. Still though, your attack on Q’Roth was desperate and foolish. You are obviously not from here, not from Bellingshausen.”

“Why do you say this?”

“Killing him was not a wise move on your part. Q’Roth was a special operations lead and a high-ranking sergeant in a criminal faction called the Aryū.”

“I don’t know anything about that. He and another LMO were hunting for me. They had an animal.”

“Yes, the Madrai. Ill-tempered, vicious creatures. But they are reliable. An excellent hunting crossbreed, I would suppose.”

“I also saw a vehicle hovering above, searching.”

“It was a Skua, a personal transport vehicle used by patrols to track down human citizens from overhead. Although there are many ways to move through the city, the sky belongs to the LMO security forces.”

“The dead LMO in the alleyway…” I began.

“Q’Roth,” he added.

“Yes. Who did Q’Roth report to?”

“He reported to an LMO called Sar. He is in charge of many of the security forces here in the city. It is also known that he runs the Aryū. He will come looking for you personally.”

Sar was alive?

I remembered the incident at the crash site. Sar was in charge. His LMO forces took me from the crashed ship and tore the M-patch data storage device from my skin. The data patch contained the alternate historical record and files from the original SM5. It was the one thing I was told to deliver to the insurgents working here against the LMOs. When the insurgent team attacked Sar’s vehicle, I presumed that he and his escorting officer had been slain. We never regained the data patch. If Sar was involved in a criminal faction of the LMO forces here in Bellingshausen, he might still have the patch in his possession. He probably knew that the M-patch contained valuable data.

Makabe stepped forward and squinted up into my face. He put his hand into his breast pocket and produced a pair of spectacles. With a tan cloth he fished from his hip pocket, he began to rub the lenses.

“Sar,” I said. “I thought he was killed in an attack recently.”

The old maintenance man stared me for a few moments. His eyes narrowed. He put his on glasses and shoved the cloth back into his pocket.

“So… that was you at the crash site.”

“Yes.”

“Hmm,” he murmured. “You’re the one who fell from the sky… so to speak.”

I gave Makabe a slow nod in reply.

“And destroyed their great monument.”

Again, I nodded.

Makabe showed me a thin smile. “You must tell me your name now,” he said with a chuckle. “I want to remember you.”

“My name is Maxim Akihiko Broussad.”

The little man chuckled again. It was a warm and disarming sound. He turned to a locker next to the doorway and began rummaging through. “Well, Maxim, let’s see if they have a coat for you here, something less conspicuous.”

“I don’t need a coat…”

“You will if you expect to walk the city without the Madrai nipping at your heels and LMO sentries training their weapons on you.” He pulled a set of dirty gray work covers from the locker and handed them out to me. “What you are currently wearing has already betrayed you.”

“Where are we going?”

“There’s something you should see, my monument-crushing friend. We’re going into the city.”

I tucked the black knife into my belt and took the clothes from the maintenance man.

“You won’t need that,” he said, pointing at the blade.

“I certainly hope not,” I replied. “But, I’ll bring it anyway.”

Makabe gave me his toolbox to carry and lead me outside. The city was barely moving. Darkness prevailed. Makabe said that the sunlight only lit the city for six hours per day, beginning at thirteen-hundred hours. The wind blew steady but not nearly as fiercely as the night before. In the dark, I saw human shapes scurrying through the streets. I assumed they were human. There were no LMOs in sight.

As we wound through the streets, I found that the work covers provided little heat. Makabe informed me that heat and energy and signals were easily tracked by LMO patrols. The thin clothing and large toolkit were a quick disguise for my protection, he told me. “Now you look like a proper apprentice to an old man. You’re no longer a threat.”

An old man, he called himself. If he only knew.

I trudged through the snow and ice, following along with the large toolbox. Makabe walked at a hurried pace through the cold. He hummed and murmured to himself, as he consulted an active map on a flexible display that he had pulled from inside his coat and unrolled to activate. Occasionally, he looked back to see that I was following closely enough. He moved quickly for an old man. I stayed close in step. I switched the box from one hand to the other. The cold air stung my bare fingers.

We crossed a main street and entered the lower level of a building through an open doorway covered in a lightweight, reflective thermal barrier fabric.

The entryway took us into the interior of Bellingshausen’s architectural chaos. It was a gruesome den of struggling humanity. Makabe introduced it as a marketplace. All I saw was human sorrow and deteriorating conditions. If Bellingshausen was ever a human city, it was well forgotten.

We worked our way down into a muggy labyrinth of dim spaces and dark passageways. Florescent lights flickered overhead, lending an eerie glow to an already dismal scene. The ground underfoot was damp with standing water that smelled like sewage and sulfur. The spaces overhead were a tangle of heating ducts, vacuum tubes, and steam pipes that hissed and dripped.

There was a clamor of calls and shouts, as vendors in makeshift stalls sold foodstuffs and products of all types. People scurried from vendor to vendor in a rush to secure goods while they lasted. Scarcity was the order of the day. There was a complete lack of anything organic. No plants, no fruits or vegetables. Anything edible here was processed and packaged. I thought back to my many months stranded aboard the SM5 with only IDSA-approved nutrition packs to eat. It was a distasteful memory.

As we walked, dark eyes looked up from sallow faces. Malnourishment abounded. A young man sat on a box, working on the repair of a handheld scanner. One of his hands was wrapped in a filthy bandage. A woman, clad in a purple plastic tube dress stood by a shop front selling stimulants. She clutched a small foil pouch and was sucking from it through a straw. One of her eyes was swollen shut.

I saw more and more of the same. Around each corner was a new vision of misery or horror. I was appalled and angry. “There’s no standard medical treatment, no food program?” I asked Makabe.

“Not here. Not for most of the human population in the outer rings of the city,” he replied. “Here it is beg, borrow, and steal.”

“These conditions are unforgivable, Makabe.”

“Yes, well… this area is now populated by the families of the labor that originally built the city. They were spared a short life of disease and starvation in the war-torn areas of the world. They were given a chance here. But at this point, their services are rarely required by the city and the LMO program. This is their severance.”

Nearly every vertical surface in the marketplace was plastered with advertising. I saw a curious number of banners promoting organizations and efforts in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, and Russian. Makabe told me that most of these signs represented calls for membership in gangs that operated in the deep underground.

“Dangerous work. Highly illegal,” he said.

Although crumbling from age and defiled with graffiti, the prevailing propaganda was from The Director and Dr. Robertson.

“Your labor is Our Strength,” said one notice.

“Rebuild civilization in Our Image,” said another.

Each advert showed The Director and Dr. Robertson, smiling, standing arm-in-arm together over a miniature representation of the city. Beams of white light erupted from behind them. It was a glorious fabrication. Curiously, I saw nothing of Spegg. I wondered where he fit in to all this vile mistreatment of humanity.

I saw a few surveillance cameras pointing down the hallways. I immediately lowered my head and let the hood of the work coat cover my face. Makabe detected my pretense and pointed out that most of the cameras were damaged or destroyed.

Shouts came from a corridor ahead and to the right. Makabe urged me along. As we rounded the corner, I saw two large LMOs accosting a man and a woman. Both of the humans were down on their knees. The man held on to the woman, protecting her. The woman was quietly sobbing. The LMOs towered over them.

Makabe pushed me back into a tight corner near the scene and stood in front of me. A few other onlookers gathered. All kept their distance. The LMOs didn’t seem to care.

One of the LMOs held a long metal rod with a rubber handle. At the end of the rod were a series of flanges that crackled and sputtered with electricity. He waved the device menacingly at the man on the ground.

“A live mace,” Makabe whispered to me.

The other LMO rifled through a bag obviously belonging to either the man or the woman. Food items and drink pouches fell out and mixed with the filth covering the floor. The cowering man spoke with a Russian accent. He was frightened and pleaded with the LMOs. They did not listen.

“How did you acquire this food?” asked the LMO with the mace. “These are unprocessed contraband items, part of a shipment that was raided this week.”

The man put his hands up. “Please. We were hungry,” he started, in a trembling voice. “I didn’t know…”

The LMO cut him short.

“Do not lie to me, chikushou!” the LMO shouted, as the mace crackled through the air and landed a savage blow to the man’s head.

A shower of sparks lit the scene. The man hit the floor hard, convulsing. A deep gash opened up on his forehead and began to bleed profusely. The crowd gasped. The woman burst into a loud wail and threw herself over the man.

The LMO turned to the crowd. “This goes for all of you here,” he shouted. “No one eats contraband food. If you can’t find processed and approved food items, you can go without.”

The LMO raised the weapon again and held it aloft over the woman. She screamed. He pushed the crackling mace toward her. Her screams turned to gasps. She tried to back away but the LMO dropped his boot on her foot with savage force and held her in place. She howled once more before the mace connected with her body.

This is madness. I thought.

The LMO prodded her chest and midsection with the end of the mace. Her body shuddered and vibrated. She held her mouth open in silent agony. Her face contorted and showed more terror than I had seen on any one human in all my years.

I dropped the box I was carrying.

The LMOs laughed loudly. The crackling, sputtering mace filled the air with the smell of electricity and singed fabric and hair.

I reached for the blade at my waist and put my hand on Makabe’s shoulder. He pushed back hard with a sharp elbow.

“You brought me here,” I spat. “Let me go.”

“No,” he replied, turning to hold me back. “I only brought you here to see.”

“I can help, Makabe.”

“You are hidden from them, Maxim. This is your strength. Now is not the right time. Do not be impatient.”

My anger swelled. My heart pounded. I looked at the woman on the floor. She was unconscious. Her male counterpart lay in a pool of blood. The LMOs threw the empty bag at them and ground the contraband into the muck on the floor under their boots. As they chuckled to themselves, reveling in their dirty work, I felt more disgust and hatred than I had ever known before.

This must end.

After the LMOs were satisfied with their little display of authority and terror, they left, taunting the trembling masses and shouting at passersby.

Now is not the time. I thought. But soon it will be. Very soon.

[Communication Relay:  18APR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]