CHAPTER 1 - EPILOGUE
TIERRA PODRIDA, M PREFECTURE, THE UNION
TUESDAY, JULY 6, 2010
Billy Lopez staggered out of Saint Basil's Cathedral and Nightclub partially seared and on the verge of death, his mouth stained with the blood of Clint Masters. He desperately wanted to head back inside and make one last attempt at dragging Clint out to safety, but it was not to be. His escape from the converted warehouse ushered in a gust of oxygen that quickly upgraded the inferno within to raging. The blazing heat forced Billy to make a feeble retreat into the desert. Whatever final knowledge the grizzled pornographer could have imparted to Billy was lost in the fire.
Doctor Timothy was trapped, lying face up amongst the piles of antiquated consumer goods that surrounded Saint Basil's. Given their uncomfortable history, Billy could have been forgiven for allowing his sexual assailant to bake, writhing in the scorching desert sun, forever trapped by the very apparatus designed to allow mobility.
Billy took the moral high road for purely selfish reasons. He had lost both arms and buckets of blood along with them. Doctor Timothy was to only person in the Prefecture with any hope of helping Billy live to see another day. Plus, in Billy's experience, leaving anyone to die at the hands of M Prefecture's harsh elements was one hell of a mistake. He had learned that one the hard way. With the last of his strength, Billy doubled over at the waist and bit down hard on Doctor Timothy's nose. He toppled over backwards; Doctor Timothy stumbled upright. Billy watched flames lick off of the top of Saint Basil's blue and white spiraled onion dome as he faded to unconsciousness.
Billy spent three days in the vault of Tierra Podrida Savings and Loan, lost in the fantastical dreams brought about by his induced coma. He awoke with a start, jolting up from his cot grimly determined. If his subconscious had imparted anything through its hazy broadcast of non-sequiturs and quarter-baked ideas it was that Billy had to start setting things right.
He would start small. He would make the trek back to the charred nightclub. He would give Clint a proper burial. He would reclaim his lost arms. But first, he would have to get out of the gleaming steel bank vault. Billy suppressed concerns of what may have happened while he was under, swallowed his pride and expressed his gratitude to Doctor Timothy for dragging him back and patching him up. It was time to get started.
At first, Billy insisted on going alone, counter to Doctor Timothy's wishes. This was Billy's mess to clean. He was less insistent following his embarrassing armless struggle to free himself from his cot and the spell of dizzy vomiting that followed. Doctor Timothy was far from the ideal escort, but Billy was in no shape to travel alone and he had no one else to turn to.
Billy's determination gave way to confusion and despair once he and Doctor Timothy set foot into the blackened brick husk of a building. Clint's body was nowhere to be found. Neither were Billy's severed arms. The remnants of the Black Pope's body still lay where he had fallen, but sticky brown pools of blood on the broken light-up dance floor served as the only evidence that either Clint or Billy had ever set foot in Saint Basil's.
Rather than conceding utter defeat, Doctor Timothy decided to rebuild Billy using the materials available. Billy was skeptical, and vocally so. Reliving the fight and the fire would surely be unpleasant and the prospect of having two reminders permanently affixed to his shoulders didn't sit well with him. But, it was preferable to the alternative of life without arms. Eventually Billy had to give in; it was the only sensible course of action. His submission to surgery came with the decision to try and ignore the poetic justice inherent in what Doctor Timothy was going to have to do to mend him.
It had been four days since the operation and Billy's rehabilitation was nearly complete. This was testament to Doctor Timothy's surgical skill, not to Billy's commitment to becoming a complete, fully functional man again. Billy wasn't happy with his new arms. But, if you asked him, he would begrudgingly admit that he was grateful to have them. He just wished they weren't so black. Black enough already from the melanin, blacker still from the fire. As far as he could tell, with his new ultra-high contrast skin, Billy would be an outcast anywhere in the U.S.A.
The lilting, Australian-accented assurances that it was 'far better to have four limbs and the ability to control them flawlessly' than it was to 'fit into a cracked and crumbling mess of a society' were repeated ad nauseam throughout the rehabilitation in an attempt to lift Billy's spirits. Billy couldn't argue against his surgeon's advice, or at least, by the second day of his recovery he couldn't be bothered to try any longer. Doctor Timothy's talk of Billy being 'as handsome as ever before, maybe even more so' was still wholly repugnant, no matter how many times he heard it.
Doctor Timothy's cot was in the corner of the vault closest to the operating table and the glass-front boxes that once held people's valuables, but had been converted to hold their body parts. Billy had shoved his cot from directly beside Doctor Timothy's into the opposite corner as soon as he had the energy to stand. He was further from the pails of toilet powder and wedged between an oildrum labeled UNSORTED ORGANS and the rickety bookshelf full of 'LaRue's Longing' romance novels that Billy blamed for rotting part of Doctor Timothy's brain. These concessions were well worth the peace of mind.
Billy hadn't measured, but he was pretty sure his new biceps were almost as large as his thighs, or maybe just a little bit larger. They were big enough to necessitate removing the sleeves of his prized pink western shirt and adding slits through the shoulders. Billy was pleased to see that the embroidered chest panel depicting a chase on horseback made it through shirt surgery, but he kept that information to himself. Even as unfinished pieces of surgical art, Billy could tell that these new arms were incredibly powerful. His strength hadn't just returned, it had multiplied. But, to what end? Billy still had to run his way to the border if he was to leave M, and by his uneducated estimate he would have to run at top speed to make it there before the desert did him in. How badly would these bulky new arms slow him down? It was almost time to find out.
Sitting in silence in his corner, Billy played with the Halo device Doctor Timothy had nicked off what was left of Life 29, tossing it back and forth from one oversized black hand to the other. He had been doing this for days, trying to teach his new synapses to get along with the old. The pings and clangs that resonated when the device hit the tiled floor were now a memory, relegated to days past. His new fingers had yet to betray him that day and he'd been tossing the shiny golden ring back and forth for hours. As his success rate climbed, so did his self confidence. He gripped the Halo tight in triumph after one last toss. 'I'm fixed.'
He wasn't just fixed. He was hungry, really hungry. The sustenance gel pouches stamped 'FOR DISTRIBUTION AND CONSUMPTION IN M PREFECTURE ONLY' were every bit as disgusting as he had been warned, but not in the way he had been led to assume. It wasn't the taste that turned Billy off; they weren't exactly appetizing, but they tasted no worse than B pouches. It was the strange, hot sensation in his stomach that lingered long after he ate that kept Billy from sucking back any more gel than he felt he had to. He wondered how Norm and Ry managed to catch those tasty lizards and cursed himself for failing to ask.
Billy looked the Halo over for what seemed like the hundredth time, idly poking at the inset metallic buttons. Had he cared to learn of the latent abilities held within the seemingly inoperative device, he might not have treated it as an idle plaything. Billy held no interest in the mysterious technology itself; it was the words of the homicidal Holy Man who once wore the Halo that concerned him. If what he said about his father was true... Well, there was no way to verify his story now, not with the Holy Man dead and Billy stuck within the bank vault. One thing was clear; Billy's questionable lineage left him a marked man.
If the first ambush was any indication, there would be no warning before the second. The time for action was now; even if Billy wasn't exactly sure what form that action would have to take. Plan or no plan, it was time to move. Aside from 60% of his skin, there was no reason for Billy to stay in M. Not anymore.
Doctor Timothy had been immersed in God-knows-what on the safety deposit box side of the vault, finally taking a break from doting upon Billy. This was his chance. 50 feet and a heavy steel door were all that separated Billy from freedom. There would be no farewell speech. He strode for the door, wearing everything he owned, eager to start anew. Again.
**BZZZZT** **BZZZZT** **BZZZZZZTT** The buzz of the intercom stopped Billy in his tracks.
"Oh good. He's here." Doctor Timothy spun to face Billy, large, battered suitcase in hand. "Get the intercom, would you?"
'Christ... what now?'Billy's recent experience with strangers had been uniformly unfortunate. But, no matter who or what was waiting on the other side of the huge vault door, they couldn't do any worse than taking his life. Billy knew that in M, life wasn't worth a whole lot. "Yeah, sure." Billy walked over to the panel next to the vault door and smothered the small red button underneath his black sausage of a finger. "Hello?"
The reply came after a long pause. "Lopez? That you?" The gravelly growl was instantly familiar and, strangely enough, the most uplifting thing Billy had heard in some time. Billy smushed his finger back against the button.
"Oh my God! Yeah, yeah, it's me!" Billy chirped in his excitement, quickly shifting tones as he let up off the intercom and turned to Doctor Timothy. "Do you plan on telling me just what the hell is going on here?"
"Sweet, simple Billy. You weren't planning on leaving without me, were you? When I said I would forever be by your side, I meant it quite sincerely. After all, you cannot hope to survive in this cruel world with your feeble wits acting as your only guide. You spoke volumes while you were under, mumbling a plan you could never hope to achieve alone. You wish to kill your father and I wish nothing more than to help you do so. It will be ever so romantic."
'What? No! NO! ...Kill my father?'Billy considered the brief time he shared with Doctor Timothy to have been far too long already. He did not relish the prospect of spending another hour together, let alone forever. And his father? Billy got to wondering what his coma dreams knew that he didn't.
"Lopez? You OK in there?" The growl held what sounded like a twinge of concern.
"Yeah, sort of. Hold on." Billy didn't want anything to stand between him and the man who would be his only guaranteed ticket out of the Prefecture, even if that ticket did come attached to a living load of baggage that made his skin crawl. Billy spun the wheeled lock on the door and shoved, the pneumatic hinge started slowly cracking the door wide.
"Thanks. Told myself I'd never come back here, y'know? Man, I hate everything about this place. No offense, Doc." The visitor growled as the door crept open. "But, hey, I'm not dumb enough to refuse a taxi job that pays in Ashanti Orthodox gear. Dr. Timothy, how'd you even get your hands on..." The visitor cut himself short as the vault door swung wide enough to reveal its contents, his surgically altered face showing as much of a confused expression as it possibly could. "Jesus Lopez, what the hell happened to your arms? And who the hell is that?"
"C'mon in, Garbage Bag. It's a long story."