Listen to this post’s soundtrack here
Red has always been my favorite color. Wine and lips. Sunsets and blood. It is the color of desert rocks and lantern light. Red is home. Red is safety.
We talk of our pasts. Of the times we had no choices.
“I wish I could turn this off.” The Iron points at his chest and his red glow illuminates his scowl. It’s dark outside the DOC cabin. I can hear the Professor’s voice through the open window, followed by raucous laughter.
“Why?” I ask. Even though I know the answer. It screams through my head with Sal’s voice the way it often does. But I want to hear how he says it.
He thinks for a bit, “When people say something nice about me… ‘You’re so educated.’ or ‘You’re so well-adjusted.’ it always sounds like there’s this silent ‘for an Iron.’ at the end of it. Sometimes I wonder if that’s all they see. Do they value me for myself? Or what I do for them?”
I want to tell him that I think the glow is beautiful. Special. But Sal’s clenched fists and angry tears are in front of me and I bite my tongue.
“Ynk!” the cabin door opens, a yellow rectangle of light shining across the dirt. “Come do your Uncle Chuck impression!”
Our eyes meet with wry irony.
“In the middle of a conversation!” he shouts back.
“Dance, monkey, dance!” someone squeals from inside, and the cabin erupts in laughter. Ynk rises and paces to the door, knife in hand, mock-threatening against someone’s back. More laughter. It’s funny in a way.
But also, it isn’t.
Blue is the color of the Lonestar sky and my mother’s caravans. Wendy’s blue scarf rests against my face. Both token and talisman; it flutters out from my lips with each hasty breath then flattens against my jaw as I break into a sprint across train tracks and gravel. Left far behind are my skirts and bells and corsets – detritus of the daytime world. Tonight I move through the shadows unrestrained and unadorned.
I am not alone. Arms pumping, torsos low to the ground, the pack flows towards the train car, sharp metal glinting in starlight. They have their orders, these faceless killers. They move with efficiency and kill with dispassion. Blood splatters across damp grass. Raised voices cut off mid-shout. A clatter of metal. The train car’s door crumples inward and as we climb in I catch the first glimpse of the machine we are here to destroy. It twinkles jewel-toned; emerald and amber and scarlet. It pulses as the train shudders and lurches forward. There is no turning back now.
This car is nicer than the sort I know. This one doesn’t have chains and manacles clattering against stained beams. This one you could stand in without being bent in half. No sloped floors and no filthy hole in the center. It makes it easier to kneel next to the huge door opposite our entry point, my tools sliding from my sleeves into my hands. The metal is ice against my ear. The sound of tumblers clicking home quiet compared to the thump of my heart. With a groan, the hatch begins to slide upwards on well-oiled levers.
Ynk’s hand is twisted in my vest, ready to yank me back in an instant. The air coming from the aperture is musky and fetid. Train car rocking and lurching as something moves down the corridor. It enters the room and we all fall into stunned speechlessness.
It’s as tall as House Lux’s cabin in the Slums. Mouth like a Genjian’s knife collection – row upon row of gleaming curved teeth in a maw of green cracked leather. I’ve seen these before in Vegasia, but ours were much much smaller. Scrambling backwards as the pack flies into action, weapons slicing through the air and beating against the impenetrable hide of the beast. The sound of gunfire is deafening in the small space. I duck beneath the creature’s swinging tail and stab my knife up into its belly. It is like stabbing diesel jock tires, incredibly dense and thick. Fear is in my mouth, dry and sharp. Finally the creature lies dead. We heave it on our shoulders and toss it from the train car.
There are two more doors.
I try to quiet my racing heart.
Grey is the color of overcast skies and dirty cloth. Grey is the color of pallid grimy skin and sunken eyes. Grey is the steel of chains and manacles. Grey is ashes and despair.
I stand next to Ynk at the back of the car. Pushed back by the fighters. Nominally guarding the third, unopened, door. We watch as the second opens.
We knew coming in what the job was. Destroy the weapon. Take the loot. Leave the criminals and the slaves, we couldn’t know which was which. I had agreed along with everyone else to these terms. And yet…
The door is open and they pour in a stream into our car. These grey wretched ones. The train car beyond has stained beams, and a sloped floor, and, I would bet, a filthy hole in the center. Their eyes are bright and their hands are outstretched. Their emotions fill their voices.
“Thank you so much.” Grateful.
“How do we get out of here?” Excited.
“Who are you?” Curious.
“What are you doing?” Startled.
“Stop pushing me!” Frightened.
My sight is blurring. I turn away, sense Ynk do the same. I hate myself for doing it. Hate that I am too cowardly to hold their gaze as it shifts from hope to despair. There is a thud. Several voices cry out. Feet are scuffling, hands slapping against metal. Someone is screaming. I feel it carve down my bones.
“Stop!” Several voices shout, and I do. I stop breathing. My heart stops beating. I can’t listen. My eyes are burning, Wendy’s scarf hides the tears streaming down my cheeks, Ynk’s breathing thick and labored. Our hands meet in the darkness, we two who know what it is like. We two who once had no hope, now standing mute witness to those who are having theirs stripped away. We are impaled by our pasts, unable to move, unable to speak.
Someone hugs Ynk from behind, whispers, “I’m sorry, my boy.” Another claps their hand on his shoulder in camaraderie. I realize with a sharp pain how our hands, link of shared grief that anchors and comforts both of us, must look to these strangers like pity, not solidarity. His glow is his badge of pain and experience, displayed for all to see, always. It is as Sal said. He can’t take it off. And mine… Mine is always hidden behind the mask of a Slaver. Forever. There are no hands on my back, no apologies. Why would there be? They don’t know, and they would never guess.
Solidarity shatters. I drop Ynk’s hand and move away, seeking another dark corner to hide my pain. To curl up and try and block everything out but Alexa is there, and her face is indifference, her voice cold.
“We need them to stay in there while we find the manual brake. Go tell them it’s not safe out here. Say there’s a bomb. If they come out, they could set it off. They have to stay in the slave car.” she commands. She has handed me the weapon of penance. The perfect instrument of self-flagellation to beg for atonement. There is bile in my throat, as I stumble to the opening. Beyond, the slaves huddle. Grey eyes. Grey tears.
“What of my child?” The woman nearest the door is sobbing, her abdomen gravid and full. “I want him to be free.” Her companion kneels over her protectively, arms around her. He glares at me as I fall to my knees in the doorway and deliver the lie. It falls off my lips with an ease that disgusts me.
“It’s not safe out here.” I explain. It does no good, she sobs only the louder.
“And it is in here?” she wails. “Just let us go!”
“I’m sorry.” My mask is slipping, cracking. I can’t help you.
“Just leave!” the man shouts at me.
“Please, I understand how hard it is.” I try to explain, “I was one of you. I was a slave for five years.” Please forgive me.
“Was. That’s a nice word. Aren’t you a lucky one.” the man sneers. He storms towards me and slams the door shut, blocking out my view of their glow.
I stumble back to Alexa.
“It’s no good.” I only made it worse.
“Go back.” she instructs, “Keep them talking. Talk about their families. Distract them.”
I am the condemned walking back to the gallows of her own volition. The squeal of the unlocked door sliding back is nails down my spine. They are still there. Of course they are, where would they go?
“Please.” I beg this time, reach out my arm towards her. She is doubled over, mouth open as she wails. “Tell me about your son. Tell me his name.” She only sobs the harder, doesn’t look at me. Doesn’t take my hand.
“I’m so sorry.” There are tears streaming down my cheeks but she is crying alone, I am unseen. Invisible. Useless.
“Who are you trying to convince? Because if it’s me, save your breath.” her companion growls, malice in his voice.
I flee the doorway.
I am a Coward.
Golden are the headlights of the car racing alongside us. Golden the wood of the crates of loot retrieved from behind the third door. Golden the glow of flame as we race away from the train and our pursuers.
“I’m sorry to have brought you.” Ynk’s voice is distraught. We are still hurting, but now it’s a separate, isolated pain. Arms crossed, hugging ourselves against the cool night air. I listen to the conversations of the others. Excited voices rising over the noise of the road.
“Now to go home and forget we ever did this. Forget about the velocigecko and the machine.” a man’s voice, cultured and rich. Amused.
“Forget about the rest of them too.” a woman says coldly. I squeeze my eyes shut. I wish it was that easy but there they are, on the inside of my eyelids. Their cries ring in my ears long after the train disappears into the darkness.
Golden is the whiskey that is our payment. We take our bottles and slink away into the darkness. Golden are the bruises fading on our skin. Golden the candlelight caught in the prism of our tears. Golden the masks we slip back on to stumble into the cold night, two bottles down. Together we watch the golden mortars fall over the town and I am numb enough to find them beautiful.
On this night I have killed monsters and hope alike.