"Whenever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear and another hand reaches out to take up our arms."
~ Che Guevara
Proxima stepped into Rustin’s office. It was a spacious room – book-laden shelves lining one full wall, two doors opposite [possibly a closet and a bathroom or perhaps a bedroom], a desk placed in the centre and a large window behind it. A Persian rug covered the wooden floorboards.
Rustin gestured for her to come in, “Close the door behind you.”
Proxima nodded, and closed the thick wooden door.
Rustin paced up to his desk, and sat down – wordless for a moment – and then got up; his back to Proxima, facing the window, pensive.
The silence remained – eerie, and dangerous. Proxima looked at the floor – wondering if Rustin had figured her out – and she could hear the veins in her temples throbbing furiously. Her heart barely murmured – skipping beats and pulsing carefully; as though Proxima’s whole being was determined not to break the silence. It took a while for Proxima to realize that she’d been holding her breath. She took a deep breath – as silent as she could – and then exhaled regularly.
Stay calm; do what to get yourself killed? Proxima scolded herself.
Then it came.
“I must say… I’m impressed,” said Rustin, his back still turned to Proxima, and then finished, “… assassin.”
Proxima’s eyes widened, but she didn’t dare move a muscle.
Rustin turned slowly, and saw the expression on Proxima’s face – animated with a mixture of surprise, worry and fear.
“Oh, don’t look that way;” he said evenly, tilting his head to a side, “You should be proud of yourself. No one has ever breached my barracks as unnoticed as you. Tell me: how did you do it?”
Proxima’s mouth parted, she swallowed the built up saliva in her mouth, but did not speak.
“Do not be afraid,” said Rustin, “At least, not yet. It seems that Methum has grown tired of their general if they are sending a child to do their dirty work for them. Assuming, that you are of Methum.”
Proxima shook her head slightly.
“No?” said Rustin, furrowing his brows in confusion – though, Proxima could not tell if he was faking it, “Then who sent you?”
Proxima sighed, and decided she could speak, “The E-empire,” she said, no more than a whimper emerging from her lips.
Rustin pondered the words for a moment, “The Empire…?” he said, putting a finger to his veiled chin, “After having screwed them up so bad, the best they could do is send you?” he laughed, “I wonder…” then a thought hit Rustin and he looked at Proxima, “But you aren’t Human, are you?”
Proxima chose her words carefully, “No… sir. I’m… I’m a Half-Caste.”
“Half-Caste?” said Rustin contemptuously, “The Empire’s been at it again, eh? Or…?” He regarded her briefly, “Or are you the result of Phase Two?”
Proxima nodded a little. She didn’t know why she was giving Rustin everything he was asking for. Perhaps she felt the need to tell it to someone she didn’t know. Or perhaps it was the means of delaying her death by his hands. Whichever it was; both seemed to be working.
“Do you understand what measures the Empire took to get you into being?” asked Rustin, sitting down in his chair and opening a drawer in his desk.
“Yes, sir,” said Proxima, her voice becoming more used to Rustin’s presence.
“And you accept it?” He continued. Rustin pulled out a sheet of paper and a fountain pen, and began scribbling on the paper.
“No, sir,” replied Proxima. She didn’t see reason in lying to the general.
Rustin looked up, genuinely surprised, “Then, why work for them?”
Proxima itched her nape uneasily. Her reasons were simple and would seem pathetic to the general – how could she tell him that she was fighting on behalf of the Empire for the sake of one life? The life of her guardian, Cato?
Rustin noted the pause and continued writing, moving on, “Do they pay you?”
Rustin leaned back in his seat, and thought for a moment, “Are they offering some sort of reward for your part in this?”
“… A reward of sorts, sir.”
The general pointed at her, “Are they holding someone you love at ransom?”
Proxima bowed her head. How could she even think on killing a man this smart?
The general chuckled, “The Empire, those Humans, have always been ruthless in their ways. It’s hardly fair, child, that you should be sent here to do their dirty work for them, while they sit back in gilded thrones watching and waiting for you to return – only to pay you a meager sum of their gratitude.”
Proxima looked up and met the general’s eyes. They were blank – not anything more or less than she expected. He wasn’t going to give up his life for such a stupid reason – it would be humiliation on his part.
“Why don’t you join us?” offered the general, “If you join service in the Fyddin, you only need to serve five years – minimum. And then you can settle down with a substantial pension for the rest of your life. All this business of you wanting to kill me will be forgotten. Haven’t the people of Maraed treated you well?” he paused for effect, “Is your Human so precious that you’d sacrifice the lives of those who’ve been good to you for the benefit of those who have done you wrong?”
Proxima frowned, confused and disheartened. She sworn an oath – internally – to do anything and everything she could to preserve Cato’s life; and she remember explicitly the part she thought on killing anyone and everyone if she had to.
The general broke her chain of thought, “Child, what is your name? Your, er, real name that is?”
“Proxima,” she said.
“Proxima…” the general said the name like he remembered it from somewhere, but couldn’t quite place it. Then he shook his head, and said, “What is your decision? Are you still willing to fight with me, or will you join us – here, in the Fyddin? Your skill, I must say, is great. There would be much use of it here,” he put a finger to where Proxima assumed his lips would be, “I wonder if you killed Sweyn, that uniform you’re wearing looks befitting of him… except, perhaps, the boots.”
Proxima frowned. The general seemed more interested by her arrival than wary of her. That wasn’t a good sign. She was still scared out of her skin about fighting with him.
“Do not worry. If you seek to fight with and kill me,” he held up the page he’d written on and passed it to her, “I’ve given you a full half hour to do away with yourself. Just hand this note to one of my lieutenants. Anyone who manages to kill me, deserves to get away with it,” he looked up at Proxima, “Though, Proxima, I must say – you don’t stand much of a chance.”
Proxima stood aghast.
What is this maniac playing at? she thought, Does he want me to join him, or does he want me to fight him?
“The decision is yours to make,” he said, “Not mine. Either you honor your oath to your loved one whose life seems to be your driving-force, or you step down and betray your superiors in the Empire. The easier of the two is clear, but the harder decision is the more rewarding,” he stood up, “You cannot live in peace, knowing that you had the means to fulfill this task and spare your loved one, but you decided not to for your own sake.”
Proxima exhaled and said, “What… why… Who are you?”
“Make your choice!” barked Rustin.
Proxima pursed her lips together, and then nodded curtly, “I will kill you,” she rasped, folding the note into her pocket.
Rustin was taken aback by her words. There was a determined quality in her voice that almost made him shiver.
Rustin nodded, placing both his hands behind his head, “You, Proxima, would have made a good soldier here in the Fyddin. Your beloved – whoever he is – would be proud of you.”
There was a tearing noise and Rustin’s veil fell away.
Proxima clenched her teeth – in fear and shock – at the sight of Rustin’s face. The end of his nose lacked a bridge, and there were ragged holes in his cheeks were there would have been dimples. Yet there was a smile on his lips.
“Is your decision final?” As Rustin spoke, Proxima could see that his tongue had been split in half and his gums were void of teeth.
Proxima – her stomach doing summersaults in horror – nodded. Yes, she feared, but she had Cato’s life at stake. Rustin was right in saying that she would regret not killing him. Perhaps, in some other life, she would respect this man and work for him.
But not in this life.
“Very well,” said Rustin, “Few walk away from here with knowledge of what my face looks like. I hope you understand what that means, Proxima.” He threw away his jacket – revealing deep scars in his arms – and unstrapped his rifle, casting it aside, and drew his rapier, touching the tip of the blade, “Just so you know: It’s nothing personal.”
Proxima nodded, throwing away her own jacket and drawing her sword. The diamond edge gleamed in the dim lighting of the office.
There was stillness – the calm before the storm.
Then the torrent broke out.
Rustin lunged at her, the blade of his rapier whistling through the air, aiming for Proxima’s head. She blocked the blow with her sword; the two blades scraping and rasping. Proxima gritted her teeth. Rustin kicked out at her legs, but Proxima was well-balanced. She yelped at the sharp, numerous kicks, but did not stumble. Proxima welled up saliva in her mouth and spat into Rustin’s eye. He grunted – his grip on the rapier loosening – and Proxima sent her own flurry of kicks at Rustin. He took a step back – the blades parting and struck again; his violent cries punctuating the rhythm of their deadly dance. Proxima blocked and parried. Rustin swung the blade at her face, and Proxima moved back just in time – watching in fear as the blade cut a few stands of her hair in mid-air. Losing momentum, she stumbled back – landing painfully on the desk. She felt Rustin’s rapier slice into her right arm, the sharp blade slashing through her flesh and weeping blood.
Her blade clattered onto the ground.
She cried out, her eyes widening as Rustin raised his sword for the coup-de-grace. Proxima rolled off the desk, as the blade smacked down into the wood and was lodged there – splinters flying everywhere. Scrambling up, she saw Rustin cursing whilst he struggled to wrench the blade free. Inattentive for the moment, Rustin felt a fist connect with his jaw and his head jerked back. Then again and again. The rhythm had its drawbacks, though. He eventually caught Proxima’s fist and crushed it in his more powerful hand. She howled, and he kicked her in the stomach, knocking the breath out of her. She hit the far wall, knocking the books out of their shelves – many landing on her head.
Like I needed that to happen, thought Proxima sourly.
Panting, Rustin stood over her, his chest rising and falling whilst his muscles rippled. He unsheathed a dagger from his boot. Proxima stared up in horror.
This is it, she thought.
Her crushed hand ached and her bleeding arm moaned as more blood burbled out. Rustin fixed his eyes on her, his hideous mouth open wide taking deep, tired breaths.
“This fight didn’t last long, did it?” he said, “You’re lucky I’m allowing you to die this easy. I know of some Methists who would have locked you up and tortured you to your miserable death. Your stupid superiors back in the Empire better take your death as a lesson, and not interfere with the Fyddin again!” Rustin spat out blood. “Goodbye, Proxima.”
Rustin raised his dagger for the kill.
Proxima clenched her teeth, and lashed out her foot into Rustin’s shin. He fell forward, his dagger ripping into the spine of a book, and his body pressing down on hers. She pushed him away, her strength suddenly replenished, and head-butted him – a pain shooting through her mind and her world spinning from nausea – but she persisted and butted him again and again. Then with her last reserves of strength she straddled him, using her slight weight to pin him down. Both her feet crushed down on his hands, and she ripped out a dagger from her own boot and stabbed him in his side. No matter how small, if the wound did not kill him, the diamond would. He let out a shrill, Dyonuxiot cry; his split tongue shooting out of his mouth and his eyes pressed tightly together.
Then there was silence.
Rustin wasn’t dead yet. But the rise and fall of his chest was weakening, and white Dyonuxiot blood spilled slowly out of the wound Proxima had created and was being soaked in by the rug.
“What… are you… waiting for?” the general rasped, “Kill me.”
Proxima was speechless for a moment.
“End this… Don’t… stretch it… longer… than it has to –” Rustin turned his head to a side, and coughed up blood, “be,” he finished.
Proxima dislodged her dagger from his side, and raised the weapon to his throat.
“Wait,” he said.
Proxima looked at him, waiting for him to continue.
“Do you know… what happened to the…” he coughed again, and spat, “Dyonuxiot… ‘volunteers’ of... Phase Two?”
Proxima nodded, “They were all killed by the Empire after they’d been used.”
Rustin raised his eyebrows, “All…?”
“No,” said Proxima, “One… one esca…” The word trailed away as she looked once more at the general’s mangled face.
“No,” she said, her head shaking wildly in disbelief, “No!”
“Yes,” said Rustin, his voice more firm, “I am the one who escaped.”
Proxima’s heart shuddered in her chest, and her eyes bulged. She dropped the dagger, and groped at Rustin’s side wound, trying to stop the flow.
“Stop,” he said gently, “Stop. It’s too late for that… It’s time for goodbyes.”
There were tears in Proxima’s eyes.
He could be my father, she thought, He could be…
“Listen to me,” Rustin coughed lightly, “I did not say this to upset you. I too have been victim to the torture of tyranny,” he paused, “You’ve achieved your aim here and now, and you will escape from the Capital Barracks. But think wisely on your mission from here on, and think on whom you are helping,” he paused again taking a deep breath, “There is no enmity between us, is that clear?”
Proxima nodded. Rustin sighed and then exposed his throat. Proxima raised the dagger once more and made a straight, deep slit. Blood gushed forth from the cut – spilling out like water from a fountain. Proxima rested her palm on Rustin’s face and closed his eyes gently with her fingers, bowing her head in sorrow.