Chapter 6 - The Lost Boys

 Chapter 6: The Lost Boys

Content Warnings: Gore, Violence, child abuse. 


    Silence. When was the last time that Fulgur Ovid had experienced such a prolonged period of calm? Sleep didn't come easy to him. When it did it was fleeting and evasive. The cool and dark he was experiencing now had stretched on for what felt like an eternity.

    He'd opened his eyes IIs a few times, found glimpses beyond his cocoon, but hardly paid them any mind. Flashes of a hospital room were all he had seen. Doctors panicked as they hurried to stem blood flowing from dozens of shallow wounds. Before he passed out his world had become a cloud of red. A stream of blood from his head dyeing an already limited world until only a single shade remained. Once they'd stopped the flow of blood they were at a loss.


    True silence then enveloped him for a while. A dark abyss that he could usually only visit briefly. That sinking, yet weightless feeling. IIs closed and cynets powered down, there wasn't much of his body that could be called alive at this moment. He didn't bother trying to move, knowing that his muscles would only struggle against the lumps of metal that made up his being. Consciousness faded along with the light, and Fulgur allowed himself to simply power down along with the other parts that had already been shut off. Sleep. Is that what this is?

    A familiar voice shattered that dream of silence. Fulgur did his best to ignore it. He didn't want to be drawn out of his rest, least of all due to the barking that berated him and howled incessantly as the work began on his limbs. The usually deep and rich voice from his memory was hoarse now. Strained in a way he'd never heard it. Why? This isn't that strange of a sight for you. It wasn't the first time he'd been recovered from a crime scene near death, and it wouldn't be his last. The Republic paid hefty sums to keep him on his feet, despite the inordinate prices that Professor Canis charged for each repair of his unique armaments.

    Silence once more returned to the small hospital room. The Legatus basked in it, allowing himself to fully disconnect from reality. There was a peace here that he couldn't find in the waking world. It reminded him of his childhood, laying in bed comfortably before the tingling turned to burning. Before the burning became a searing blaze.


    The pain... Fulgur tried to ignore that thought, desperately clinging to the peace he found in the dark, but it was no use. The beeping of hospital machines and dripping of various liquids as they pumped their way into his body was rising to the surface. Blinking open his IIs, he found an empty room around him. To his right, a monitor assured him that he still indeed had a heart. To his left, various IVs, some clear, some filled with blood, and the final two filled with a thick amber fluid.

    He lifted a hand, the red of his cynets catching the light and blinding him once more. Once they adjusted, his IIs found them spotless as the first day he had them equipped. When last he had looked down, they had been dripping with those same blue and amber fluids, as well as some of his own blood that created a sickly orange mess in his car. Looking at them now, he couldn't even be sure that they were the same arms. All previous marks had been erased. Not just those from the last battle, but any scratches and blemishes from the last few months too. A burn from a house fire that he had strayed too close to, a scratch from a screw driver as he had done his own quick repairs to the casing, even the small indents that he noticed in his left forearm where he had gripped it too tightly with his right.

    It was more likely that these were new cynets entirely. Why bother to go through all the effort of buffing and repairing something old when it could simply be thrown into the scrap heap and replaced with something new? Opening and closing his fist a few times, Fulgur put the thought out of his mind as best he could. Metal fingers found their way to his head, gently probing the flesh that had once been torn open. The gentleness ceased as he ran his fingers through the length of his hair, parting and poking at the skin beneath. It was flawless. They'd gone the whole way and replaced that too.

    Must've taken a worse knock to my head than I thought, he mused. Even a legatus wasn't worth the cost of that large a skin graft for cosmetic reasons. Just how close had he come to never waking up this time?


    Pushing his body down the bed, he let his legs hang over the edge, feet tapping a short rhythm on the ground. The sensitivity felt right. Fighting against gravity and the cocktail of chemicals in his system, he forced his body to stand, stumbling slightly but catching himself on a windowsill.

    Beyond the window he could see almost nothing, mid-day sun and the brown haze of pollution drawing a curtain on the outside world. He didn't bother to connect to the duoverse, instead taking a moment to examine his own reflection in the window. It wasn't just his scalp and hair that they'd replaced. The man staring back at him looked almost a decade younger than he remembered. The crow's feet that had begun to form around his eyes had been wiped clean, along with the patchwork of scars and blemishes he had received fighting to survive in this world. The ship of Theseus has to keep weathering storms after all.

    Silver IIs stared back at him in the reflection. In the real world these artificial orbs looked better than his duo. Iridescent, the grey caught the light and shone with hues of pink and yellow. The legatus stared into his own reflection for a moment, wondering why it transfixed him. The smooth, pale skin, the shining eyes, another looked back at him from the horizon.

    Ovidia... That's what her name was. I finally woke up in earnest, touching two fingers to my temple and connecting my IIs to the duoverse. The youth in the reflection gone, Fulgur Ovid, Legatus of division 505 looks back at me. Cold, colourless grey IIs, hints of crows feet that intensify when I glare or grin: this is me. Glancing through my short contact list, her name was easy to find. Why had I saved it? There was nothing that tied us together now that our mother had disowned me. I highlighted the number, a message popping up and asking for confirmation to delete.


    Hesitation. That wasn't like me. There was no reason to keep the number of a person I wouldn't ever speak to again. Still, I stared a moment longer at the name, lingering on the first. What a joke... a cruel one. My hand raised, fingers pressing forward to confirm the deletion.

    An electronic trill and small pop-up replace the confirmation and alert me to a high priority legatio. It expanded to take up most of my vision as I silently read the orders. Easy enough, was all I thought, closing all the dialogue boxes and looking out at the city. I was literally built for this.


    Hours later I find myself on the outskirts of the city. A stench assaulted my nostrils, snapping me out of the calm I'd lulled myself into while driving over. This far from the city center, the duoverse was never paid for. Citizens of repute would never venture out this far and the masses that did, generally only stayed as long as they had to.

    Tall skyscrapers were replaced with sprawling factories that worked 24 hours a day to produce everything the Republic thrived on. The only tall buildings around here were the thin towers at various intervals, all steadily releasing smoke and whatever waste they needed to keep production up. The sun had already set, meaning even with the intense artificial lights that illuminated each factory building, it was hard to see much more than the orange-brown haze which enveloped the world since The Fall. Was it any wonder the founders of the Republic had chosen to look away from reality and towards their own created vision? The pulse and shimmer of neon only became more alluring when the future was obscured by such miasma.

    With each footstep, I feel a layer of dust and dirt shift beneath me. In the city it was easier to ignore, the sight hidden by the duoverse and cleaning robots constantly working to ensure that it never piled too high. Out here where it was most produced, even the robots would have figured out it was a pointless effort. Wall-E would have been a much shorter movie if humans had stayed on the planet. He'd have powered himself down the moment he became sentient.


    I blink twice, opening a file that thankfully takes up most of the view on my IIs as I continued trekking through the streets.

    Acer Phelps, 21, a rich kid who had everything handed to him on a silver platter.  He was months away from finishing conscription and becoming a fully-fledged citizen of The Republic. At that point he would likely have a middle-management job working under daddy and be set for the rest of his years. It was the kind of life that people out here dreamed of. So why did the spoiled brat hack the security in his barracks, delete all of his own data and flee into this cesspool at the edge of the world?

    Had it been an average kid running away from conscription, no-one would have ever known they left apart from their parents. Draft dodgers didn't become citizens of the Republic and non-citizens were a non-issue to the rest of society. Due to his heritage, Acer has become a special case. Papa Phelps wanted his baby boy back and had the ear - or more likely wallet - of the Praetores. Rather than let the problem sort itself out as usual, the Republic had called in a wolf to track the scent of piss the scared pup left as he ran away before another predator snatched him up. Goodie, I always knew I'd be a great teacher.


    An automatic door slides open in front of me, welcoming me into the last location Acer Phelps' IIs had registered him being. As the doors shut behind me, I breathe a sigh of relief. The air in here is much cleaner, still weighed down heavily with the scent of industry, but much more bearable. Many of the factories in district 32 were fully automated with staff made up of machines and I'mprints, but it seemed this one still paid to protect whatever humans still clung to work here.

    I flash my Legati mark to the receptionist in the tiny atrium, eliciting a curt nod before I push open the large double doors behind them. All at once a cacophony of noise bursts through the silence. The entire building has opened up in front of me, the rest of the space beyond the welcoming wing all devoted to the factory floor. Hundreds of machines as far as the IIs could see added to the chorus with their own technological whines. Androids, I'mprints, and human workers alike sprinted from one location to another carrying small bundles in their arms before working on the parts, feeding them into the automated machines, or beginning to solder or tinker away themselves. Flashing lights and subtle chimes alert workers when any job is done and another rushes in to answer the call. The whole factory is a living, breathing machine; individual lost to the will of the whole.


    In the duoverse, the androids and machines were the only parts of this machine not pulsing and shimmering. The I'mprints and humans alike sharing vibrant and personalized duotars. I blink twice, shifting my view to reality, and instantly the vibrancy of the factory floor fades. Glancing around the dingy space, I only see a handful of flesh and blood humans. It's not surprising. Just watching the movement in the room was tiring, and there was little chance the job paid anything beyond a living wage. Anybody working here was either a relic that refused to evolve with the times, or desperate beyond belief. Once again it begged the question of why a rich kid would pay the factory a visit. Most of them didn't even think to question where their pretty toys came from, never knowing that the Republic even had districts beyond the teens.

    I make my way to a nearby station with a single human working at it. The man doesn't acknowledge me at all until I ask in a commanding voice, "Hey, you see a kid come in here? Fancy looking, sharp features, probably didn't need a TB suit."

    The chorus of mechanical sounds continued without fail as the man snapped back, "I didn't see shite. I work, like I'm supposed to. Go talk the ear off a foreman if you want someone with time to sit around. She's always riding our asses about the smallest shit we get up to."

    Not missing a beat, the man slammed his palm down on a button, eliciting a shrill beep and sprinted away to another work station without ever noticing he had just shrugged off a legatus.

    "Where is the foreman?" I ask, half shouting over the noise and distance.

    "Up above! Where else ya eejit?"

    My IIs dart up, above the frenzy below, and find metal catwalks, encircling and crisscrossing above. The grated surface and sparse railings allowed full view of the floor below, with access points to some of the larger machinery's working. The web of pathways was uninhabited, except for a single woman skulking in the corner, trying her best to fade into the drab wall behind her. When our eyes meet, she visibly quakes before smoothing out her dress, and signaling me to follow to an office she hastily makes for. I follow the catwalks around, finally finding a set of stairs I can use to join her.


    By the time I enter the room she's already sat comfortably at a desk, fingers haphazardly tapping at a virtual keyboard. Glimpsing more skin than either of us would be comfortable with, I blink twice and return to the duoverse, quickly tapping my temple to bring up the woman's info. In front of me sits Moira Bilis, a middle-aged woman who, up to this point, has only ever had 2 speeding tickets. She doesn't bother to so much as glance my way, whatever she's typing seemingly much more interesting than my presence.

    "A kid - rich one with sharp features - was last recorded here a few hours ago. Did you see him?"

    Bilis' fingers continued dancing across the keys as she turned her eyes on me. Jet black, like her hair, and without a trace of iris or white, they search me up and down. When she finally speaks after a long, drawn-out silence, her voice came out airy and leisurely. Every word pronounced in a way that made it clear she had thought it out meticulously before letting it slip past her purple painted lips.

    "And why, pray tell, would a rich kid end up in this part of the Republic, Legatus?" 

    Her eyes burned into me from behind thin-framed glasses. She had visibly panicked when I first saw her, yet seemed like a completely different person behind her desk. Composed and secure, she waited patiently for me to make the next move.

    "Couldn't care less," I state. "I just want to find him. You don't even need to end up in my report if you stop wasting my time and answer my questions."


    This drew a curt laugh from Moira, her fingers resuming their dance across the keys. Slender and graceful, the fingers tapped out a beat, before making a twisting motion in the air, her monitor now showing camera footage from her own viewpoint. Sitting on the other side of the desk where I now stood was Acer Phelps. Unlike his immaculate file photo, the boy looking at me had a rough appearance. Hair disheveled and clothes torn, exposing some fresh injuries, he was frozen with a complicated look on his face. Determination was visible in his unwavering gaze, yet it was marred with the worry that weighed down his parted lips.


    "That's the kid. Did you disable his tracking?"

    Moira's eyes narrowed, those pitch-black orbs glaring at me with suspicion.

    "Once again, I don't care what you did," I assure her. "His IIs aren't transmitting his location and I need to find him. That's my only objective here. The sooner you point me in a direction, the sooner I'll leave and never return."

    "Of course. Anything for the Republic, Legatus," she says, the image of Acer suddenly animating on the screen.

    "I need you to hack my IIs! Please, I have money... I-I know you've done it for others."

    Another dismissive laugh played over the recording, Moira not impressed with her client. "How much do you think this costs, kid? Pocket money isn't going to cut it. Bring your daddy next time and maybe I'll be able to help you."

    The first-person view from Moira's IIs fixed itself back on her screen as she started filling in a spreadsheet. With a tinny ping, a pop-up appeared in the corner of her vision.

    3,000 credits has been deposited into your checking account.

    The recording returned to Acer, that same complicated expression still fixed on his features. "There's way more than that. All untraceable. Give me a price, get it done and I'll pay anything you ask."

    An impressed whistle came out of Moira, along with the sound of slow clapping. 

    "Okay, you have money. Good for you, kiddo. Think that means I'll risk my own safety, performing an illegal surgery? When your IIs turn up on the black market after the next person you flash your money to rips them out, it's me the wolves will be sniffing out next." 

    There was a pause from Moira as Acer's hands gripped his trousers tight. 

    "Go back to-"

    "-I'm joining the lost boys!" Acer snapped back. "I'll never go back to training again! Just do the hack and no-one... no-one will ever find me." 


    His voice had risen to almost a shout and then fallen at the end.

    Moira's fingers drummed out another rhythm, not on the keyboard this time but rather on her desk as she considered the offer.


    "The lost boys?" she asked. "You actually know what you're suggesting?"

    A nod was the only response Acer gave, followed by his eyes darting down to the ground.

    "Better a lost boy than a citizen of the Republic. This city's worse than I could ever imagine."

    Another silence followed, this one longer than the last. When it was finally broken by Moira, Acer snapped his head up and met her gaze, hesitance seemingly lost.

    "Okay, kid, I'll take your money, but I don't want you ever coming back here. When you realize just how much you fucked up, you better crawl back to daddy and keep my name out of your mouth. If I get arrested, everyone in the Republic will know the Phelps kid ran away to join the lost boys and abandoned conscription. You'll lose everything long before I do."


    The screen disappears and I'm left with just Moira, staring at me, finger-tips of each hand pressed together as she considers me carefully. 

    "That should be all I need," I say.

    "Of course, Legatus. I trust my help in this case means that I can continue my business?"

    "...It won't go in my report. If another investigation leads your way …"

    "Perish the thought! I should have known better than to operate on one of the Republic's favored sons. Good luck on finding the lost boy." Moira flashes me a smile, only half of her lips lifting in a challenging smirk. Acer escaped this spider's web but that doesn't mean he got much further. The next predator may not be the type to bargain.


*************


    The Lost Boys. A term I long ago put out of my memory. Flashes of news updates run through my mind. A child at the time, unable to leave my bed, I had barely followed the story even when it was relevant. Two decades later I find myself searching for the details once more. It isn't news stories that pop up on my IIs, but rather social media posts and vlogs.

    Living the lost boy life, my unbelievable week with the lost boys, how I became a lost boy, the list went on and on. Glancing through a few of the pages, I was shocked at what I found. Every post was filled with young adults celebrating how free they felt now that they'd left the Republic behind and learned to live off the grid.

    Videos taught viewers to use simple scrap materials to build a small shelter, the best ways to collect and clean water and how to prepare lavish meals with just the ingredients you can find beyond the megacity.


    A laugh slips out of my lips as I drive even further from the center of the Republic.

    So this is Acer Phelps' plan? Flee conscription when he only has a few months left and live in an idyllic bohemian society? He really hasn't finished his education yet. Citizens of the Republic know that there isn't anything better waiting for them beyond its borders. The three megacities were the only thing keeping humanity from extinction, and thinking otherwise was just dreaming.

    Time to wake the rich kid up.


    Stepping out of my car, I feel my cynet feet sink slightly into the earth before hitting solid ground. Another two steps produce a sticky squelch, as the dull thud of the car door closing echoes through the dilapidated buildings. There were only a few more miles that legally counted as Republic territory. Out this far it wasn't just the pollution that had piled up over years of neglect, but also decades of discarded waste that had been illegally dumped away from prying cameras and IIs. Husks of former skyscrapers line the streets here, each holding up well against the elements and time despite their lack of care. While windows and decorations had long since been smashed and peeled away, planks of wood and scraps of metal had been fixed in their place to return some semblance of shelter to the creatures that survived here.

    Each step feels difficult, the grime desperately clinging to my feet, even it wanting to be anywhere but here. I can only imagine the damage that it was doing to my less synthetic half.

    Eyes follow my every move as I step away from my car and down a desolate alley. If I leave for too long, the car will either be gone or stripped for parts. Thankfully HQ's intel was right, and the voices of multiple men carry all the way to the main street from somewhere down the alley.

    Two fingers against a nearby wall helps me find the group with ease. Just inside a large opening of one of the buildings that was most likely once a parking garage I'm greeted by a small group of men, comfortably lazing around in the filth as they laugh about some shared joke. The laughter is cut short as I slowly bend open a piece of sheet metal, nails which once held it to the wall ripping free and clanging as they hit the ground.

    The men inside scramble to sit or stand, some grabbing makeshift weapons like rusty pipes and pieces of glass latched to sticks. The weapons don't concern me nearly as much as the bottles of alcohol piled in the corner by one man who quickly throws a construction blanket over them.


    "Oh, it's a wolf!" The men visibly relax at the announcement, some returning to their previous lounging spots. No citizen of the Republic would choose to live this far from society. As such Legati never had any reason to bother them and they had far worse things to fear than me passing through.

    "This wolf has some questions, the first being where you got all those drinks from?"

    A chorus of shushing and yelling came from the group as one man rushed over to complain in a loud whisper, "You tryin’ ta kill us!?" The man was older than the others, strands of gray visible in the dark patches of hair that cascaded out of his wrinkled hat. He leaned in close to me, whispering properly now, "We'll tell you whatever you want but keep it down!" 

    Each time the man moved, his entire messy outfit crinkled noisily and released a smell that told me he hadn't washed it in years.

    My nose wrinkled a little as I asked again, quietly this time, "Where did the alcohol come from?"

    "Bought it, we did," the man spat back. "Not all of us go out and take whatever we want."

    "Then where did you get the credits?" I ask. 

    The man pauses, looking over his shoulder for a moment before he returns to me. 

    I sigh, long and deep, tired from the exhaustion of all the talking I've already done today. "Look, I'm just looking for a kid who ran away from home. All I want is to find him before he ends up dead out here."


    The man shifts a little, smoothing out the noisy material wrapped around his stomach. It's only now that I realize the man is wrapped completely in dirty layers of aluminum foil, strips of duct tape holding it all to his body. The foil had been worn for so long it was the same dull shade of brown that covered the streets and sky. If you looked close enough, you could see small puffs of dirt and filth fly off the outfit each time the man moved.

    "He seemed like a nice child... you're not going to hurt him are ya?"

    "His parents want him back. He still has a chance to finish training." 

    Concern was replaced with hope in the man's milky eyes as he nodded slowly. The apprehension from before disappears as he sits comfortably on the ground, all but collapsing. He was likely younger than me, but years on the streets and who knows how long in the filth rendered him weak and tired.

    "Good for him. ...Wish all of us that ended up here had the same chance." 

    The man waited a moment, eyes focusing on something other than me before he snapped back to reality. 

    "Kid was here just a bit ago. Can't have been more'n a few minutes ago he left. We scared off the bugs that was following him and told him what he wanted to know - not that it will help much. Thinks The Lost Boys'll protect him out here. Asked him to stay at least the night but he left anyway. Paid little Cal a ton just for telling him where to go."

    "And he wanted to go find The Lost Boys?"

    "S'what I said isn't it?" The man stepped out of the hole I'd torn in their house. 

    "Three of 'em are still kicking out here. Couple'a buildings away in the basement. Hope he makes it before the sun sets."


    A shiver runs down my spine at the last sentence. I push past the man, out of the building as the filth and grime try to hold me in place. The scent of blood floods all my senses and I feel my left arm twitching erratically. 

    Drip, drip, drip. The sound of blood dripping into a pool below like a ticking clock. Occasionally a louder splash would be heard as chunks dislodged themselves from the roof or wall. I stared down into my small reflection, dyed red. The day I was baptized in blood and reborn.

    When I come to my senses I'm already several blocks away, left arm being squeezed as hard as my right hand is able. I've been gasping for air and stumbling as much as walking. The shallow gasps are replaced by deep gulps which then return to my normal breaths. Another childhood memory had been triggered, this one less pleasant than being a quadriplegic forced to listen to the news stations no-one bothered to turn off. One hand on a nearby wall, I steady myself, head leaning side to side as my neck cracks.

    I was literally built for this. My fist tightens on the wall, concrete crumbling in my fingers.


    It isn't long before another set of voices tell me I'm heading in the right direction. Laughter again, but this time mocking and boisterous. Around the next corner I find my target, Acer Phelps, but other hunters have pounced first. The boy is on his side, struggling to push himself up against a wall while a group of 6 takes turns kicking at him each time he almost stands.

    “Bugs”, I realize, must refer to these types. Clearly citizens of the Republic who have come out to the slums to blow off some steam. The group all have TB suits on, making them look like unidentifiable plastic-wrapped humanoid forms. They were smart enough to disable their duotars so that even if they were recorded it would be hard to prosecute. That doesn't help when a legati catches them in the act, though.


    "Go ahead, say it again!" A youthful voice shouts down at Acer before a foot crashes into his stomach. 

    Another voice, this one clearly a young girl, mocks from the side, "You heard him, D, the freak thinks you need his money!" 

    She finishes the taunt with a chiding laugh, throwing a large rock that collides with Acer's neck as finally manages to struggle to his knees, one hand out in the air as he tries to catch his breath.

    "Freak’s about done anyway. Give me the executor," the figure called "D" commands. 

    Another figure giggles as they produce an old sledgehammer, half the length it should be due to a broken handle.


    "Didn't expect to find good Republic children out this far from home," I announce, causing all the figures to shoot around and face me. 

    The children looked at one-another and me in equal turn, deciding what to do.

    "L-Legatus... we were … this guy tried to rob us! He must have gone crazy from starvation and tried to take Katie's bag!"

    "Don't say my name!" Another of the group snapped back, gently pushing the boy.

    By this point Acer had barely moved but managed to get out a desperate, "L-lying!" 

    A punch to the jaw from one of the group brought him back to the ground. "I'll shut him up for you, Legatus!" He calls out, excitedly beaming as Acer coughs up a tooth.

    I respond to the group with icy calmness, "Well, that idiot right there fled conscription, so it's not like he has human rights." 

    The group cheered at this, a few celebrating with exaggerated dancing motions while another of their members pull out a metal baseball bat, studded with nails they had hidden behind them. 

    Acer's eyes went wide, blood spilling out of his mouth as he sputtered out something that didn't ever quite become a word. "D" swung the half sledgehammer down onto a loose chunk of concrete on the ground, breaking it into several chunks before cackling as he and the other with the bat advanced on Acer.


    It was true enough. In most scenarios someone who did what Acer Phelps had, would simply cease to exist in the Republic. Without becoming a citizen, a person couldn't register to create a duotar or even access the duoverse. At one point that was its own punishment, but over the last century everything about the Republic ended up tied to the duoverse. All currency was digital, all forms of identification tied to a duotar, a lot of the megacity's facilities wouldn't even respond to someone who wasn't properly registered. Children only had access through their parents’ accounts until age 16, at which point the Republic itself had legal guardianship over them for 4 years during conscription. At age 20, when the child finished conscription, they would finally become a citizen and able to register with Mirari Industries and join the duoverse. For visitors from other megacities or immigrants who survived The Fall in bunkers or caves, the Republic would provide them with temporary access until they could become citizens.

    That fact and the weight of it seemed to have finally dawned on Acer Phelps as he stopped struggling against the wall, now frozen in shock as he looked around at the child-sized blobs, all cheering for his death. A death that he now realized wouldn't even be considered a murder. Tears spilled out of the boy's eyes as the sledgehammer was pulled back in a wide arc.

    "Unfortunately, I need this runaway." 

    The cheering cut off gradually, some needing a moment for what I said to sink in. "D", who was just preparing his swing, staggered backwards to correct the momentum. 

    "You kids need to get home anyway. The sun will be down soon and there's plenty of scum out here that would want those TB suits."

    A couple of the kids whispered at one another and seemed like they were about to argue but had enough sense to hold their tongues. "Okay Legatus," and "yes Legatus," were the only words they said before slowly filing away down the street.

    Non-citizens may have nothing to fear from the Legion but these children had their whole futures to think of. They'd probably go home and play some video games to forget about the incident and be back out in the slums in another few weeks.


    While the children made their way down the street, Acer Phelps had simply stayed on the ground, crying his eyes out while covering his head with one arm and chest with the other. I made my way over, kneeling at his side and examining his wounds. There was no struggle from him as I pressed two fingers against the side of his neck and let my IIs see an ultrasound view of his body. Swelling was already setting in in a few areas but I couldn't find any obvious internal injuries.

    "You'll live," I confirm, grabbing at his collar and dragging him into a sitting position. "Do you understand how stupid running away was now? If you weren't a Phelps this would be your final resting place; buried in the filth and forgotten by all." 

    Acer continued to sob quietly for a moment even as he locked eyes with me. Something about having to save a rich kid from his own actions left a bad taste in my mouth so I stood up, dragging Acer with me to his feet.

    "Come on, then. My car isn't far and you have to get back to the barracks." 

    I turned away from Acer and began walking, each step bringing with it that sticky resistance.

    "I can't go back." 

    The soft voice stops me in my tracks and I sigh in frustration, almost a growl.

    "Why the fuck not?" I ask, my patience already reaching its limit. I don't even bother to turn around as Acer whines from behind me.

    "I learned something I shouldn't have about the Republic! You ... you have no idea what they've been hiding from us! The Fall! It's all a lie..." 

    His voice was silent for a moment as he sniffled and tried to breathe through the tears. When I turn around, I see that same look of conviction he had back at the factory.

    "Look, kid, I haven't got all day here. Any minute my car might …"


    "The Fall wasn't caused by Doomers! It was us! We... the Republic -The others too! They did it on purpose!" 

    Acer had a wild look in his eyes, as if he was ready for me to dismiss him or argue, but the only response I made was to fold my arms silently. 

    "No really! I was playing around on my school tablet and I got through some firewalls. They have the whole real history in there. Doomers didn't kill the planet. They started it but the megacities were the ones that pushed it over the edge. They did it on purpose! They killed as many as they could and let the radiation do the rest!"


    A single chuckle escapes my throat. "You didn't hack your way through any firewalls," I say simply. "Congratulations, the Republic seems to think you may be worth something someday."

    "W-what do you mean?" 

    I'm silent for only a second before Acer continues, "i-it, it was some sort of test? They wanted me to … what!? … get punished for looking at things I shouldn't?"

    "Not quite, kid. It was a test, but not of your ability to behave. The records you found are of the true history. The test was to find out what you'd do if you found the information by yourself. Everyone gets told near the end of conscription. It's part of growing up and becoming a citizen. Just like when your parents used to lie about Santa or the Easter Bunny." 

    The kid's eyes were darting around as his mind struggled to find an argument against what I said. He'd expected me to lie to him or try to soothe his concerns, not to outright confirm them. 

    "I guess you failed their test. You were probably supposed to confirm it yourself or bring it up to your training officer and instead you ran away. My guess is they were rightfully worried that someone as influential as you may be someday was going to become an Apoloshit-sympathizer."

    "B-but... the Doomers. They..."

    "The Doomers started it like you said. They only cared about serving themselves and set our planet on this course. Then yes, the megacities were conceptualized. The think tank that came up with the megacities simply tipped the needle over the edge."

    "You're serious? …everyone knows?" Acer stumbled backwards again, stabilizing himself against the wall with an elbow.

    "Most citizens are told after the final exam. Learning the truth of our past is one of the final steps in becoming a citizen. A secret that we keep until children are ready to become part of the Republic."


    Acer Phelps had failed his mid-term. Had he handled the information properly, it would have likely led to him being fast-tracked towards politics. Instead, he had broken over such a simple truth. Children in the Republic were taught to hate Doomers, being told stories of how the old world had seen signs of The Fall for generations and turned a blind eye for the sake of convenience. While that much was true, they were lied to about the original founders of the megacities. In the stories, the founders built the megacities as a beacon of hope and refuge. They invited all the smartest, fittest and of course richest people to live in a technologically advanced society that would protect them from whatever happened to the world. In reality, the final part of the megacity project was The Fall itself. The old world was lost as the megacities ripped the ozone right out of the atmosphere, causing the most catastrophic extinction event of all time. Influential figures who had been offered places of prestige in one of the three megacities fed into the hysteria, fanning the flames of war and revolt or directly launching wars while citizens of the megacities hid in their ivory skyscrapers as life everywhere else burned and choked to death. Three centuries later, the three megacities were the only form of society left on the surface of the planet.

    "Then... we really are the bad guys?" Acer mumbled out.

    "We, who?" I ask, "did you cause The Fall? I sure didn't. Besides, who's to say anything would be better if we'd reached that tipping point any slower? The whole point is we're here now. Talking about the morality of it is useless when it happened centuries ago."

    "We killed all those people! Why should we be allowed to live instead of all those billions?"

    "And your plan is to run away and join The Lost Boys?" I ask, sarcasm oozing from each word. "You want to live too, you were desperate for it when those kids were about to end your life. You just want to feel superior to the rest of The Republic and pretend you can live a better life without them."


    "I can! The Lost Boys live off the land! They went back to a simpler lifestyle."

    I laugh callously. "You ever met one of The Lost Boys?" I ask. 

    Acer puffs up his chest snapping back, "I've been following them for years now! I even donate to them!" 

    Another laugh from me makes the kid angry. 

    "I'm gonna join them! I won't go back!"

    "Fine," I tease, "let's go meet your Lost Boys. They shouldn't be far." 

    Acer pushes himself off the wall and begins limping down the alley, each footstep echoing between the concrete walls. I follow closely behind, arms still crossed over my chest in amusement.


*************


    "This isn't right..." Acer's voice was even more pained than when he had struggled to speak though mouthfuls of blood.

    It took a little while to find the basement the homeless group had sent us to. Acer had refused help and needed to take breaks twice even though it was nearby. When we entered the basement there was no fanfare or greeting of any kind like Acer expected. Instead, we were met with the stench of rotting flesh and raspy breaths of those barely clinging to life.

    The basement was set up like a school dormitory, with bunk beds lining each wall. Close to the entrance were the only two occupied beds, each with a bed-ridden man wheezing in them. The men hadn't even noticed me and Acer enter, IVs in their arms likely keeping them sedated while they tried to get down the air being supplied to them through masks. Their bodies were covered in layers of burns from the sun and beyond that their skin bulged and stretched tight from the different growths the radiation had produced. Guess another boy has been lost since the last time the homeless man had counted three.


    "What do you know of The Lost Boys?" I ask quietly.

    "I watch their videos all the time," Acer replies, emotion completely drained from his voice. "They left The Republic to live a simpler life. They just wanted to live free out here."

    "You know how they became The Lost Boys?"

    "Uh-huh. Everyone knows that. It was years ago …"

    "Decades," I correct but Acer continues unabated.

    "They were all from the same class in some all boys' prep school. Their teachers cheated for them and gave them the answers for their final tests before conscription. The Republic made an example of them by failing the entire class and making it so they couldn't graduate. They were never able to begin conscription and become citizens."

    Textbook answer. Acer really did have a promising future before this. "You don't even want to know what they did to the teachers," I tease but Acer is still just focused on the men in front of him.

    "What happened to them?" he asks.

    "Exactly as you said. They weren't allowed to graduate so they couldn't become citizens. A couple hundred 15 year olds had their futures taken away. Some of them were thrown out of their houses immediately. For the luckier ones, their parents took care of them for a while. Eventually their parents got sick of them eating their food and draining their bank accounts... or they simply passed away and the kids were thrown out of their apartments. There's probably a couple still living with their parents safely, even into their 40s. The rest eventually end up out here, where, if they're lucky, their parents will still give them a gift now and then like these air purifiers and medicine. You're lucky if you can survive 5 years out here without a TB suit or cynets. Those that make it 10 or more end up like this. The same end that The Fall caused all those centuries ago."

    "But the videos! I always watch Lost Boy vlogs!"

    "Did you ever think about how good those videos look?" I ask. "Actors pretending to be Lost Boys and asking for donations while they go through scripted stories about them building shelters and thriving out here. Then they take your money and live comfortably back in the Republic. Believe me, if there's one thing you can trust, it’s that there is no life left beyond these walls. I've been on dozens of missions out there and the most I've ever seen are a handful of mutated creatures, normally genetically engineered by one of the megacities anyway."

    "There's no hope then..." Acer slumped against the closest bunk bed, hands gripping the frame tight to the point his knuckles turned white. "They killed the whole world."

    It took all my self-restraint not to ask the kid when the "we" turned into a "they." Instead, I simply reached out a hand in his direction and offered a simple, "Come on. Let's get out of here."

    The kid took my hand, silently, and I positioned his arm around my neck and shoulder, supporting him on the way out. The whole way back to the car he just let me carry him silently. Once in the car and on the road, he seemed to wake up a little, suddenly asking, "am I going to be punished?" 


    The question brought a slight smile to my lips. If it were just about anyone else's kid, they'd already be a corpse slumped against the concrete and left to become more of the mess that still clung to our feet.

    "They want me to bring you back to finish conscription." 

    A sigh of relief escaped the boy's lips as he sat back more comfortably in the car. "I'm sorry. Everything I did... I reacted poorly. It won't happen again."

    "I'm gonna see that it doesn't."

    "Excuse me?" Acer searched my face for answers that weren't there. After all the parts they replaced, there wasn't even a blemish or a wrinkle.

    "They don't want you punished. That doesn't mean I can't execute a test of my own. Legati are authorized to take command of any legion member below them in rank, especially those who haven't finished training."

    "W-what are you gonna do?" he asks, fear creeping back into his voice. Predators come in all shapes and sizes. Escaping a spider's web was hardly difficult. Outrunning a wolf that already had your sent on the other hand.

    "It's what you're going to do. They gave you a test to see if you deserve that silver spoon life stuck up your ass. I'm going to find out if you deserve your life at all."


*************


    Acer remained silent the rest of the way back to the barracks. Returning to the city proper, my car transformed from a hunk of metal with wheels and cameras to the simple sedan style it was registered as in the duoverse. My own looks suddenly cleaned up as well, sweaty hair drying itself and parting perfectly out of my eyes while little else changed. Acer remained exactly the same, apart from the telltale pulse and shimmer of his form. Children going through conscription had to make due with duotars that matched their looks. They were just assets of the Republic after all.

    Entering the barracks gave me a moment of nostalgia I didn't expect. Most citizens of the Republic spent 4 years living here during their conscription. For those who made it a career, they might do another 4-8 years here before moving to their own houses. I'd arrived 5 years early. Dr Canis needed to prove that his pet project was worth the funding. I'd only made it through 3 years myself when the slaughter in the slums happened. Just like that I was sentenced to 8 years in the Auxilia and took on a voluntary third tour before becoming a legatus.


    The guard at the entrance barely glanced our way before opening the gate, his IIs already telling him a legatus was approaching with the missing Acer Phelps. 

    "Thank you for your service, Legatus," he said with a salute, voice modulated for anonymity. He did a double take as we made our way in, slamming open the door to his office as we entered. "Ovid!?" He asked in shock.

    "...Legionnaire?" I salute the man before making to move past him but he raises his voice again.

    "You don't remember me? It's Fyll -Oporin. We were in the Auxilia together."

    I make a curt nod and reply, "Hey, sorry, I don't remember a lot from those days."

    "I bet!" Oporin cried out. "I thought you were dead! They took you away in pieces after Hammerhead and you just never came back." 

    Another quick nod from me in response. I didn't remember what Hammerhead was, whether it had been an operation or location but it was true enough that I got moved around squads a lot... and injured even more often. 

    "If you need anything sir, please just let me know. It would be my honor to serve you again."

    Not sure what I did to earn such high regard, I simply pounc on the chance to make my job easier. 

    "Any chance you can prepare a self-evaluation chamber?" 

    The man gawked for a second, looking between me and Acer, before nodding and calling in the request.


    Acer was silent as we made our way through the lower levels of the Legion's barracks building. Several floors down was where members of the Auxilia lived and trained. A huge sign announced that we were entering Self-Evaluation Room 3.

    "Mr Ovid sir... what are we doing down here?" Acer finally asks as I guide him into an elevator barely big enough for him to stand comfortably.

    "You say you're doing fine now, but I'm worried you might break and go full Apoloshit if left to your own devices." The see-through door to the elevator closed over and a low rumbling sound made Acer jump as the machine began its work. "So I'm making sure, if you're going to break, you do it sooner rather than later. This is the self-evaluation. It's an ironically named test for those trying to join the Auxilia." 


    A quiet ping sound rang out in the room and Acer began lowering to the level below. Behind him, another door opened, letting him out into a room the size of a tennis court. Acer stepped out cautiously, looking around at his surroundings.

    The room was stylized to look like the world outside the Republic. Piles of rocks were the only decoration other than the sandy, desolate earth.

    "What am I supposed to do?" Acer shouted out. 

    From the upper floor, I looked down at him in silence, the one-way window letting me asses the test.

    On the other side of the room, the seemingly endless landscape disrupted as another elevator door opened and out stepped Acer Phelps, even more confused than when he had stepped in. The pair of Acers stare at one another, not sure what is going on.


    "Who are you?" The Acer on the far side of the room asked. The Acer who had entered first spun around, dumbfound at what he was seeing.

    "Who are YOU?" Acer asked in astonishment. 

    Both Acer's began to panic, each turning around and slapping at the doors that had let them into the room, even though they just looked like empty air.


    "One of you is Acer Phelps," my voice was cast directly into the room as I said each word, "the other is an I'mprint which was just created. Only one of you is allowed to leave." 

    The rules of the self-evaluation delivered, I simply stood by, waiting for it to sink in.

    Both boys slammed on their respective doors before turning to face one-another.

    "Mr Ovid, I don't think I can kill an I'mprint of myself."

    "What!? You're the I'mprint! Mr Ovid get me out of here. I promise I'll follow all the lessons from now on!"

    "I'm not an I'mprint, you-" both Acers fell silent as they stared at one-another. They studied each other's bodies noticing the various injuries they'd received just that day. 

    "Which one of us is the I'mprint!?"


    Realization finally set in on how the self-evaluation test worked. Both forms of Acer Phelps remembering stepping into an elevator and then entering the room.


    "I came in first! You were clearly created then came down after!" one accused.

    "That's so obvious! Why wouldn't they have opened both doors at the same time unless they let you in first to mess with me more!?" 

    Acer Phelps was an intelligent young man. That made the test all the harder. Most citizens destined for the Auxilia simply charged at their I'mprint, fighting tooth and nail against an enemy who knew their every move. 

    "Legatus, I demand you let me out of here!"

    Demands now? This kid really hasn't learned his lesson yet. Daddy can't protect you from this one. Only you can conquer yourself.

    "Like I said... one of you can leave that room. The other has to be dead." 

    I press a few buttons on the wall panel beside me and slowly a platform rises out of the center of the room. On the platform is a single handgun which both the Acers stare at in silence before meeting each others' gaze.


    The movement is instant, both boys dashing to the center of the room, yet despite their same thoughts and injuries, one of the boys rips the gun off the platform before the other, pointing it at what they assume is an I'mprint.

    "Please... I know. I do. You think that I'm the I'mprint but I'm not. If you kill me, we both die." 

    There's a moment of hesitation where the Acer with the gun looks down at his own arm to see blood leaking out of his sleeve. That moment was all the unarmed Acer needed, pushing forward with all his force he tackled the other Acer, the pair becoming tangled on the ground and the gun falling into the dirt.

    "I'm real!" Acer called as he gained the upper hand and began punching the other Acer in the face.

    "Fuck you, I'mprint!" Acer kneed the other Acer in the side, pushing him off himself and clawing towards the gun.


    Acer grabbed at the other Acer's leg, pulling him away from the gun.

    Acer kicked at the other Acer, desperately pushing his whole body through the dirt towards the gun.

    Acer was shaken by the kick to his face but managed to hold onto the other Acer and ripped him back through the dirt again. Grabbing out to the side he managed to snap up a rock the size of his fist and brought it down into the back of the other Acer's head.

    Acer screamed a guttural, horrifying noise as the other Acer pulled the rock back and brought it down into the same spot again, blood spraying over the both of them this time.

    Again and again Acer brought the rock down until he was just smashing red chunks of meat. When he finally stopped hitting the other boy, he pushed himself back, collapsing on his butt and crawling back as far as he could.


    Acer dropped the rock, letting it roll along the ground and find itself resting by the corpse. Blood continued to leak from the corpse, the rock quickly being surrounded by a pool of red. Acer raised his hands in front of his face, looking at the gore they were both covered in. If it were an I'mprint, the other Acer would have gone back to looking like an android as soon as they died, but despite the amount of times Acer slammed the rock into the red lumps, they stayed red.

    "I was the I'mprint... what do I... what's gonna happen!?"

    There's no sound, just a pulse as the duoverse corrects itself. Acer is now covered in a mixture of blue and amber liquids as the head he just finished crushing returns to being an android skull.

    "...W... what?"


    "Acer Phelps, you have finished your self-evaluation." My voice rings out through the room. "Do you understand now?"

    Acer pushed himself backwards until he hit wall, finally bringing his knees to his chest and crying as he wrapped his arms around them and buried his face in that darkness.

    That went on for a while as I simply tapped out a tune on my thigh waiting for the crying to stop.

    "We... we do what we have to to survive." Acer's quiet mumbling snaps me out of my thoughts. "We're not the bad guys. We just did what we had to."

    I sigh, long and slow before responding, "Sure, kid."

    Killing the I'mprint and answering in a way similar to Acer is enough to get a pass on the self-evaluation but Acer still wasn't Auxilia or Praetor material. Anyone wanting to become part of the Auxilia or a Praetor someday had to get the lesson right too. When Fulgur Ovid had done his self-evaluation at age 14, he had responded clearly, "We may be the bad guys, but at least we lived." Then they reset the room, but instead of another copy of himself, it was his entire training squad of boys 5 years older than him that had stepped out of the elevator and tried to kill him. A week later they'd repeated the test 6 more times with different variations. Sometimes his I'mprint was with his squad. Sometimes the I'mprints begged for their lives rather than fighting. Once, they were foolish enough to try using his mother's I'mprint to tug at his heartstrings. They'd never needed to provide a gun for him.


    I file my report with HQ by tapping two fingers to my temple in silence. In shock, I stare at the first message I've received in my personal inbox in months. The sender and topic are enough to give me pause. Ovidia Occido - To My Brother.

    We do what we have to, to survive.



Artwork by Kurohiko: https://x.com/meikurohiko/status/1797314096972599765

- The Star Won't Fall Yet

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