Chemical Numbers

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  • Published: 29 Oct 2013
  • Updated: 29 Sep 2014
  • Status: Complete
What if death didn't apply to you?

What if you could have infinite second chances at life?

That's what the Numbers seem to have, endless chances at life. They are mutants who come back to life every time they die. But, with the Numbers System in place, their chances of survival are zero. The Number System requires them to be tagged with numbers on their necks that drop as fifty more Numbers are executed each week using the chemical Agent-10, a chemical that strips Numbers of they're regenerative abilities.

Indie Caserento is a seventeen year old Number living with her sister, Adrian, in Manhattan. Working for a band of thieves has made them wealthier than most Numbers, but still on a count down to their deaths. They think they have a few more years left until their numbers are up, but when Adrian steals from the Monitors both of their numbers are dropped to zero. Their deaths seem imminent until the government makes them an offer that could change everything.

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37. Chapter 36

Chapter 36: Chemical Light

"When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat."

-Ronald Reagan

"Kern!" I didn't expect my voice to come out so loudly, echoing of the corpse like walls, their worn steel veins vibrating with the ferocity of life. It should have been small and weak at the sight before me, but it cracks like a whip instead, fast, strong, and full of bloody rage.

"Who's there?" I hear his voice clearly, but I wish I hadn't because it doesn't sound like his voice. It sounds like the boy in front of me is already dead. It's like his spirit already departed his body and his voice is just an echo of the past. 'He's not past tense yet,' I tell myself. 'Still here in the present, still time for the future.' It feels like a lie. Maybe if I lie to myself long enough I'll start to believe it.

"It's Indie," I tell him and take a tentative step forward, oh so cautious but only for my own sake. Is it worse to abandon a dying friend or to watch them die?

Kern tries to sit up but as soon as he does his body stiffens, his eyes widen, and the remaining color in his skin is bleached out. He collapses back to the ground, his pale body crumpled like a wilted flower, and cries out in pain. My tentative step forward becomes a leap backwards as fear and dispare suddenly burst my soul like a balloon filled with helium. I can't do this. I can't be strong. I feel selfish. I feel petrified.

Kern looks so drained as he just lays there. His chest almost depressed inwards like his lungs are to sloth to fill his body with oxygen. My horror and postmortem mourning quickly turns to an icy wrath that burns me from the center of my being. There is no word to describe how I feel right now except maybe homicidal.

I've never really had a desire to kill anyone, but I do now. They're killing my friend without even touching them. They're killing him as surely as they would be if they hand their bloody fingers wrapped around his throat right now. They're killing him. They're killing me. They're killing all of us. They might even end up killing themselves.

I push down my agonizing terror and sorrow just enough to let me approach Kern. He shakes as I approach him like each of my steps is sending an earth quake through his body and his body alone. How is he so sick and I'm not? Is this some kind of cruel and twisted punishment devised by Avalis? If so, who's the punishment for?

My hand touches his shoulder as I kneel next to him. He looks like a little kid, his cradle final reaching his grave. No one should be so young or look so young when they reach the end of their life.

"Hang in there," I whisper to him even though I don't need to. There's no one around. "Adrian's coming."

A slight red tint colors his face as some of his blood rushes there in anger. "How's that supposed to make me feel better?"

"She said she'd help us," I tell him, but I know how it sounds to him. It sounds almost as bad to me. If I didn't know my sister as well as I do, I'd probably assume the same thing he's assuming: that Adrian betrayed us once, she's the reason why we're here now, so she won't hesitate to betray us again. Not that I think she could possibly make our situation any worse.

"Yay, that's what she told me when she said gave me a note specifying this location. It sounds an awful lot like a se-" He suddenly breaks into a fit of coughing. The blood that had once been tinting his cheeks red with anger now splatters the grounds and dribbles from the corner of his mouth.

"Kern," I say quietly and then a lot louder, not caring if anyone hears us. "Kern!" He turns just enough so that I can see his eyes. They look dead already. No light reflects in them and their natural warm brown color now seems more black than anything.

"It sounds like a setup," he repeats himself in a voice much weaker than before. I had no idea that Adrian had given Kern a note too, but now that I know, it does sound awfully suspicious. Why would she try to hide both of us in the same place at once? A place the Monitors would know too.

"Yeah, it does, but I don't know why they would want to set us up. They already have their plan in motion." My gaze carefully drifts from each possible entrance someone could come through. I want to be ready if this is another setup. But, at the same time, what could they possibly be setting us up for?

Kern lays flat on his back, watching the ash-gray sky through a hole in the ceiling. He's not breathing heavily or shaking any more, but I'm not sure if that's a good sign or a bad sign. Either way there isn't much time for either of us. If he's already sick then it can't be much longer for me. Craggier said it'd be only three hours until I'm contagious, maybe that's also when the symptoms of illness will show up.

"Why aren't you sick?" Kern asks me and my heart breaks. He didn't sound accusing or even envious, but it's still a sharp reminder that I'll most likely see him die.

I let my eyes look back at him and force the tears and the terror to stay down for a little while longer. "The only thing I can possibly think of is that they gave you a more concentrated dose of the virus. Mine might have been diluted." I don't know the first thing about chemistry or biology, but this sounds about right to me.

Kern must realize the implications of this. No only will he die first and I'll have to see him die, but Avalis and the Dynasty intentionally set it up to be like that. "Why would they do that?" he asks the question that I keep asking myself. Why?

"Because they're sick and twisted people. They're putting on a performance and we're their tragic heroes," I say simply. We're the poor victims of unfortunate circumstances.

"No," Kern wheezes out, looking drained again. "A tragic hero is someone who could be good if it were not for some deeply embedded flaw in them. We're not the flawed ones. Numbers aren't flawed, we're human."

"Of course, we're just the latest victims of life."

"They say 10/10 people succumb to it eventually," he states factually. It's hard to tell if he's trying to joke or being painfully serious.

"Yeah, I heard that too," I reply a smile distantly like the humor of the situation is a dim fire in winter, noticed more than it's felt.

"Indie! Kern! Are you in here?"

My head snaps to the side, looking for the origin of the voice. Neither to my shock nor dismay it's Adrian and she's carrying something in her hand. "We're back here!" I call out.

She scampers over a pile of rubble, her clothes gathering a layer of dust as she does so. "Thank god you both made it."

"It doesn't seem like we're going to make it much longer," I say, drawing Adrian's attention to Kern's condition.

She looks more shocked than she should. This was always a part of the plan according to Avalis. Adrian should have known about the rather lethal consequences. "How is he so sick already?"

"More concentrated form of the disease," I explain; though, we still don't know of that's true.

Adrian looks uncertain but nods in agreement anyways. The object I noticed in her hand earlier refracts light into my face as she rolls it between her fingers. It's a small glass syringe with an almost transparent burgundy liquid in it, like the color of blood mixed with dirt. The liquid sloshes in the tube from the needle back to the plunger before settling in the center as Adrian stops moving the syringe.

"Adrian, what's that?" I ask, eyeballing the syringe glinting in her hand.

She pulls back from Kern and looks me in the eyes with a deeply furrowed brow. Annoyance paints her face like a mask, hiding what she does not want me to know underneath it. "Oh, this? you can't have this yet."

My anger rises to match her annoyance and I say, "Then you should have done a better job of hiding it."

"Yeah, I should have," she says sharply, carefully pulling her hand holding the syringe behind her back. "But you still can't have it."

"What can't I have? Why are you trying to keep it from me?" I want to lunge for the syringe but I restrain myself. Whatever it is it must be important or she wouldn't be trying to keep it from me.

Her annoyance mixes with anger and panic, contorting her face in a strange way. She tightens her grip and replies, "I'll tell you when I can give it to you later."

Kern looks at Adrian critically. His eyes narrow in suspicion and his mouth flattens into a singular line of thought. The focus alone looks like it's straining him.

"Adrian, just give it to me. Why can't I have it?" I'm loosing my patience. We need what's in that syringe and Adrian doesn't want us to have it. "I thought you wanted to help us."

"I do, but..." she looks terrified for a second before collecting her thoughts and continuing. "I can only help one of you and not yet."

"It's a cure, isn't it?" Kern says it at the same time it dawns on me. she told me to come here just in case. Just in case the Dynasty wasn't going to save me.

"And you can't give it to us yet because we need to spread the disease first," I add on as blood rushes to my ears.

Adrian nods her head slowly, her dark hair falling out from behind her ears as she does so. She looks traumatized with her hair covering her face like that and her eyes wide with terror and shame. If only she hadn't traumatized herself.

"Adrian, listen carefully, you have to give that cure to Kern. He'll die if you don't," I tell her in a desperate attempt to save my friend. "I'll spread the disease instead."

"I can't. It won't work on him. He's too sick for the cure to work," she says without dismay or glee.

"What?" I ask, my body growing cold. Kern doesn't say anything, but I can only imagine how he feels. He really is going to die.

"The disease has progressed too far into his body. It can't be reversed." She says it so simply, so factually, so honestly, that I can only accept it as the truth.

I suddenly feel like I'm looking through the critical eyes of death. Everything that is alive is temporary. Everything that is dead is made of rot and decay. Everything that was, that is, or that will be will eventually fall apart. It's all one hazy view of death in the form of life and life in the form of death. There's no light where light cannot live. There's no light here for life to thrive on, only darkness to swallow life whole. Even light has an end when you can only think of death. The light ends where you end and the dark begins.

Something goes off in the back of my head. The bleak thoughts of my mind feed the animal part of me. All of my human instincts shrivel up slowly. These are human thoughts that torment my mind. It would be so much easier to live off of only my survival instincts, but also more dangerous.

"Indie," a raspy voice says, forcibly pulling me out of the dark abyss in my mind and back to the human way of thought. An animal knows no right or wrong. It's better to be a human and see the wrong, so that you can believe the right. "Don't worry about me. It was over from the beginning. Ironically, as a Number, I was never meant to live."

"Shut up, Kern. You're going to be fine," I growl, still trying to maintain control of my human instincts. This is not the time to lose it.

Adrian grabs my arm urgently, her hands like a vice, and says, "Indie, we should leave. I can't get caught here and I still have to save you." It sounds like the reasonable kind of thing a crazy person would say.

I ignore her ignorant pleas and turn towards her with rage building inside of my like a tsunami rising after an earthquake. "You did this intentionally." She looks petrified like some poor soul caught on the beach before the wave hits. "Adrian, you set us up. You only brought one cure on purpose!"

She breaks down into tears, even though if anyone should be crying it's Kern. "I didn't! I swear I didn't. I could only find one cure. That's all there was. I was going to bring two. I swear! I swear I was!"

I don't know what to do. Look after Kern or yell at Adrian. Neither of them are effective, but they are the only things I can do. "This is your fault no matter what. It doesn't matter if you were going to bring two cures because it's your fault that we have this disease anyways! And you're not even sick. What? Did your Dynasty buddies give you a vaccine? They did, didn't they?"

"Yes," she mumbles through her tears. It's the only part of her sobbing speech that I can understand.

"You should go with Adrian."

"I'm not going with her!" I yell at Kern. There's no containing the rage now.

He doesn't look phased by my wrath and continues, "You need to."

My mind is screaming, my heart racing. "No, she killed both of us. She's the one who signed our death certificates."

Adrian continues to sob and I want to tell her to shut up, or to go away, or to just die. "She can save you, Indie," he says to me loud enough for Adrian to hear over her own crying and then drops his voice so it's only me who can hear. "Or just forcibly take he cure from her and save everyone."

That's what I has been planning to do, but I have no intention of leaving Kern to die alone. "Not yet," I insist.

He can tell that I'm not changing my mind so he lets out a shallow sigh and then whispers, "Keep her occupied until then. Make her think you'll go along with her."

I nod my head in agreement before I place my hand on Adrian's shoulder and try not to snatch my hand back immediately. Nothing about comforting my sister feels natural like it should. She's curled up in the fetal position on the ground, wallowing in her own self pity. It's kind of disgusting.

"Breathe, Adrian. You're going to be fine. Just breathe," I instruct her, my gentle touch turning into a soothing circular motion across her back.

She lets out a long, shaky breath that shows some attempt at controlling her crying. Her skinny limbs slowly unfurl from her body like a wilted flower coming back to life. Tears still pool in her blue eyes, making her irises seem all the more like bottomless oceans. She grabs on to me like a little kid with her arms around my neck and her head on my shoulder. To be honest I can't tell if she's going to attempt to strangle me or if she's looking for comfort. I rub slow circles into her back again as the tears still in her eyes drip on to my shirt, miking with a variety of dirt and other stains.

I can hear Kern's breathing slowing down behind me, but I'm not allowed to turn. Not allowed to look. I have to keep holding on to Adrian if I want to live and if I want to save everyone. His breath has become so quiet that it sounds like a figment of my imagination, a whisper of something that isn't here anymore but is still remembered.

Silence.

Nothing stirs the air behind me anymore. It's dead silent back there. I don't need to look to know my friend is dead, but for the first time I want to look. Water falls onto my cheeks and for a moment I wonder if it's raining before I realize that it is raining but only on me. The clouds fog up my eyes so that I can't see and the rain dribbles down my cheeks in hot, salty streaks. Flashes of light make their way through the clouds, lightning perhaps. It doesn't matter because the gray clouds seem to engulf me and i Can't breath anymore.

Adrian doesn't move. She just keeps holding on to me like it's just us and there isn't a dead body behind us.

"Adrian." There's no response. "Adrian," I say again and this time she tightens her grip on me so I know she can hear me. "We need to leave."

"Okay," she mumbles into my shirt and climbs off of me. I can safely say that I'm glad she's not touching me anymore.

We walk slowly away from the corner of the building and towards the nearest hole in the wall. I can't leave Kern. I mean I can, but I shouldn't. I won't. He didn't die in some dramatic fashion like he should have. He died with while his friend turned his back on him and pretended like she didn't hear the end of life and feel the beginning of death. That's not what was supposed to happen.

Without telling Adrian what I"m doing, I run back into the building and stand over Kern's body. I thought you were supposed to look peaceful in death, but Kern doesn't. He looks traumatized and scared. He looks like what he is: a poor kid who didn't get what he deserved.

There's nothing I can do for him now, yet I need to do something. I need to say goodbye, so that's what I do. I kneel next to his body and pretend that his hearing extends into the after life. "Hey, Kern, it's me, Indie. I just wanted to say goodbye. That's a lot to ask for in this shitty world, but I figureed it was worth whatever I had to do to get it. You know, there's a lot of terrible people in the world but you weren't one of them. I kind of thought you were when I first met you. I was wrong to say the least. You weren't the kind of person to sleep in the shadows of the world, pretending that if you didn't see it then it didn't happen. You stood up tall and you walked in the light. You saw the horrors of the world but never ran back to the shadows and hid from it all. You took one look at all of the cruelty and injustice and said, 'I can change this.'Now you're gone. You're gone and there's no one who can replace you, but I also know that you taught me that maybe I can walk in the light too. For the longest time I only thought about myself and my sister. I was a selfish person who just went along with the Number system. I was going to die someday, so I figured why not live for myself now? But, you taught me that there are more important things than that. You taught me that nothing is set in stone and sometimes it just takes one person to wash away what is already written there. So, since you can't be the one to change everything, I'll do it for you. I may not be as strong or as selfless as you were, no are, but I can try. I can try for you and for all of the Numbers. This isn't goodbye, this is see you later."

That's it. That was my goodbye, my eulogy, and my promise for a see you later. I stand up again after carefully closing Kern's eyes. I'm glad to see that his eyes have returned to their warm coffee color in death. It feels like a part of him will live on because of that spark of life he always carried in his eyes. I'll carry that spark for him.

Adrian follows me without a word when I walk past her. The storm still fills my eyes, but at his slowly decrescendoing into a drizzle. This is something I can deal with. It may feel like I'm being dragged down by pounds of sopping wet clothes after the storm, but I can still run and jump, speak and yell, fight and protest. I can still win.

We keep walking until I'm certain we're in an area devoid of Numbers and Monitors, not that we saw any on the way here. It seems like everyone is hiding for now. This area has no apartments or factories so Numbers are rarely here and Monitors rarely patrol it.

I suddenly stop in the middle of a narrow alley, causing Adrian to run into me. I turn to her, grab her frail arm, and say, "Adrian, give me the cure."

"Not yet," she murmurs, looking at me with her big, blue eyes as she tries to wiggle out of my grip.

I throw her against the wall, not very hard, but I'm certainly not restraining myself at this point. Her eyes grow even rounder and her hand begins to tremor at her side. This feels wrong on so many levels, throwing my baby sister around like this. Yet, she's left me no choice. She won't give it to me willingly so I'll take it by force. She's pushed me past my breaking point and I won't take it any more. "Give me the cure already. Make it easy for both of us."

"No! You're the one who's making things difficult! Why can't you just go along with the plan?" She's yelling. Her temper snapped at the same time as mine but at least I'm keeping mine under control despite the animal in my head.

"Because I'm not a psychopath!" I regret it as soon as I say it, but that doesn't make it any less true. She got Casprie and Kern killed now. She'll get the rest of us killed off soon enough unless I stop her now. She thinks that she's doing the right thing and protecting, yet she's only caused more damaged. She's gotten us all caught in the whirlwind if her selfishness.

To be fair, I deserved what happens next. To be honest, she deserves it more and I only wish I had made the first move. Her arms may be skinny but they're certainly muscular, so when her fist slams into the side of my face I go sprawling sideways and fall to the ground in a heap, surprise written all over my face. My cheek bone pulses like a glowing hot ember and the swelling already seems like it's compromising my vision. 

"I won't let you control me!" Adrian screams at me and I'm taken aback. When have I ever tried to control Adrian? Not any time that I can think of. Maybe this is one of those things that only makes sense in her head like working for the Dynasty to save both of our lives.

I don't respond to her screaming with more screaming. Clearly words aren't getting through to her. Sheer force is the only way I'm ever going to get that cure from her. With that and mind I slowly rise to my feet, trying to keep Adrian focused on me, and when I'm fully standing I wait for her to make the next move. She's impulsive and angry so I know she'll move first and when she does her attack will be sloppy because she's letting her emotions dictate her responses.

"What, Indie? Are you afraid to hit your little sister?" she asks cruelly and sarcastically at the same time, her words so sharp that they should cut her tongue.

Still I don't respond. My breathing is still heavy from getting the wind knocked out of me, but I'm standing and I'm in control of myself. I have the advantage as long as Adrian holds onto her anger. She stands as perfectly still as I do except that her breathing isn't as heavy and her muscles are much more tense. She's trying to mime me and beat me at my own game, and she's doing a decent job of it, not that it will last long.

I give her a mocking smile, telling her everything I want to say. It tells her that I think she's weak willed and that she's crazy. It tells her that I'm disgusted by her and that she reminds me of our mother. It sends her right over the edge.

She lunges for me with most of her body weight, cleverly putting some of her force in her feet to both propel herself and keep balenced, but she was too busy watching me instead of taking note of our surrounding like I did. The grounds covered in dirt so the shifting of her feet kick a cloud of it up into the air.

I dive to the ground at the last moment just out of Adrian's reach and toss some more dirt into the air as I hit the ground and role. She manages not to fall over, but her sudden stop has only filled the air with more particles, making it harder to see.

The dirt floats all around us, abscuring both of our mmovements. I stay low eenough that the dirt wil cover me even as it begins to fall back to the ground but not so low that I can't move quickly. I also positioned myself so that I'm where Adrian was when we started argueing and the wind is now blowing against my back, which means the wind is also blowing dirt directly into Adrian's face, stinging her eyes and filling her lungs.

This time she stops and analyzes the situation as I taught her to do when we were thieves. She knows that stupidity and rashness are the two terrible sins of a thief. Those are the kinds of mistakes that get you caught. So, now she's waiting for me to do something. I can't throw anymore dirt into the air without revealing my location, but I can use the dirt to trick her.

A fire escape hangs off of a nearby building. If I go there Adrian will be able to see me, but I'll have the advantage of height. Throwing up as much dirt as possible as I sprint for the fire escape, I reveal my location to Adrian for a chance to end this fight now. I jump up into the air, grabbing the side of the fire escape instead of trying to find the latter. She charges after me, though with more care for her actions this time, I desperately try to use my upper body strength to pull myself over the railing. These are the time when I'm glad I've scaled building my whole life. I make it over the top of the railing and land on my feet just before Adrian has time to grab my ankles and pull me down.

"Adrian," I call down to her. "Just give me the cure. You're never going to win this."

She looks infuriated as she screams at me, "No, I can beat you. You don't need to win every time. Let me protect you." So, she's attacking me in order to protect me. That's sound logic right there.

"No can do," I say, trying to bait.

It works. Adrian takes the bait and steps backwards to get a running start at the fire escape. As she sprints towards it I take a position on the edge of the railing and wait for her feet to leave the ground. This could go one of two ways; either I tackle her to the ground effectively and take the cure or I miss altogether and give Adrian the advantage. Adrian springs from the ground and I almost miss my opportunity. I jump from the railing head first and arms open, so that when I slam into Adrian I can grab her.

Adrian's body hits me full force, but I was prepared for that. My arms latch onto her frame and we both crash to the ground with Adrian pinned underneath me. She looks absolutely stunned and I have to wonder how injured she is. She fell onto cement with the force of two bodies, that had to have really hurt.

She's too dazed to do anything when I pry the cure out of her hand and take off running down the alley, only stopping to say, "Bye, Adrian."

I run, and I run, and I run because that's the only thing to do now. I have to run until I'm in a place safe enough to give myself the cure. The only place I can think of is one of the shacks at the beach, so that's where I go. The shacks are a worn out and disgusting as always, but they're away from the Court House and Adrian and that's what really matters.

I'm about to force open the door to one of the shacks when a crackling noise fills the entire city and a voice envelops all other noises. "Hello, Numbers. This is Judge Remus Axis, one of the two leaders of the Axis Dynasty. You may have seen my soldiers fighting General Avalis Axis' Monitors through out the city. They are fighting for you as am I. My sister Avalis has failed to see the light. She does not understand the concepts of freedom and equality. She wishes to oppress you, torture you, and kill you. But, I will not stand for this, so together we will make her feel the heat. Fight with me, Numbers, and we will win the war that should have happened a long time ago."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~''

Wow, that was long chapter to write, but it was totally worth it. The scary part is that this chapter is the second to last chapter of the book. After that there's only one more chapter and a reading from The Book of Regeneration. 

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