A thick wall of sand was blowing in the wind. He could barely see in front of him more than a few feet, but he still knew where he was going, so it didn't matter. He had walked this path so many times before that he was sure that if he knelt down on the ground and looked hard enough in the sand he'd see his footprints from earlier in the week when he had headed out into the zone with his comrades or from the week before when he'd returned with supplies. He hung his head low so the sand wouldn't fly into his eyes and pulled the tiger striped helmet off of his head, tossing it down in the sand, where the noise it made was muted by the wind. It was expendable to him, and considering what he'd lost this morning, he didn't much care if he lost material things. He began to remove the buckles that secured the gas mask around his face. The tips of his fingers were scraped and bloodied from the fight he'd put up, making it hard to get a grasp on them but he continued nonetheless, until they were all unhooked. He pulled the gas mask off of his face, not caring that it was caught in his longer hair and tugged at it as he tossed it to the side just like he'd done with his helmet only a moment prior.
He stopped his trudge home just before the barrier to the west Killjoy camp, the one that he'd devoted the last ten years of his life to putting together and guarding, and stared. The barrier wasn't an actual barrier like the one in the east had. It was more of an unspoken barrier and all those who had been there new where it was. There were guards positioned around its entirety but they did their best to stay hidden in the sands of the desert so that if any intruders would come alone they'd be spotted. He turned for a moment to face away from the blowing sand and dug into the pocket of his leather jacket. He squinted through the sand, down at the blood stained dog tags he'd pulled out of his pocket. The four men he'd gone out with earlier in the week to try and track a supply truck heading to the Dracs headquarters in the seventh zone hadn't made it back with him.
They'd been set up. The information he'd received from a usually reliable contact in Battery City had been wrong in every sense of the word. When they'd reached the sixth zone and split into their attack formation to jump the vehicle carrying supplies, they hadn't found anything. He had them hold their positions for hours and when nothing came he knew the information had to be faulty. He hadn't thought much of it other than perhaps the coordinates were wrong until it had been too late. He wrapped his fingers around the blood spattered dog tags and took a deep breath, continuing his march past the perimeter. Dog tags had once been used by the old military to identify soldiers. After the old United States had fallen apart and started to degrade, Better Living Industries had taken over to "protect" its citizens in the manner they saw fit. They had done away with the dog tag system immediately and had opted for computer chips inserted in the skin that could be picked up by scanners all around the city. He had suggested years ago that they implement the old military standard of dog tags for the Killjoys to keep track of their members and everyone agreed that it was a good idea. That had been back before the Killjoys had been split into two factions and he had been appointed a leader of one of them.
It was standard procedure to take the dog tag off of a body after a Killjoy had lost their life, no matter what the reason. They'd bring it back and put it up on a wall and hold a memorial for their fallen comrades. Today four Killjoys had been lost. Early in the morning they'd been jumped by a group of Dracs and easily outnumbered. It has been a set up. The Dracs knew that they would be there in small numbers and had come prepared. They had still underestimated their abilities though and in the end, the only one left standing was him. Tiger Beatdown kept walking as one of the guards from the perimeter came into view and walked past him to retrieve his gas mask and his helmet. He had been known to carelessly discard items to never be seen again so his men were always retrieving them and returning them to him at random moments as a favor. He had far more on his mind though right now than a few personal items that could be lost because of his carelessness. On his way back into camp he had seen dark clouds forming to the west and they looked like they'd bring an acid storm soon enough. He hoped they'd get lucky and the storm would turn away and head south.
Acid storms were much like regular thunderstorms, with the exception that the rain would eat away the flesh if someone were left uncovered in it. It was easy enough to take precautions to remain safe but not everyone knew exactly how to keep out of it. Metal and stone seemed impervious to the acid so all they really had to do was remain indoors or take cover to avoid injury. He walked through the sand, seeing his old friend walking toward him from the camp as he did. He soon joined his stride and they walked in silence for a few mere seconds before Agent Alpaca broke the tense air around them.
"I'm taking it, by that look, that things didn't go very well, did they?" He could tell that his friend had a lot on his mind by his silence in response to the carefully phrased question. His jacket was covered in scuff marks and dirt and his hair was a nappy mess. Tiger stopped walking and turned to his friend. He grabbed his hand and placed the blood stained dog tags in them and forced his fingers closed over them and started to continue on his walk. He needed air, and no matter how far he got from the seventh zone he still felt suffocated by poison. He knew the poison he tasted on his lips was a far different one than what contaminated the air in the outer zones.
"Well, damn." Alpaca looked down at the oval metallic name plates in his hand with an upset look on his face and then put them in his pocket, so he wouldn't drop them or forget about them. They'd hold a memorial for them later in the night once he'd found out what had happened. "This isn't right. These men had no idea they were going to die." He followed Tiger Beatdown through the sand, past the buildings that mostly led to underground bunkers the Killjoys called their home. Most of the western Killjoy camp was underground. Acid storms had been more frequent which had led to them taking to their cellars for more of their business. An intricate tunnel system had been developed over the last couple of years and though it was still in the process of being built, mostly due to lack of supplies, they had moved all of their operations there over the last six months since the storms had become increasingly frequent. Alpaca hung his head low out of respect for the fallen Killjoys as he walked with his friends past the seemingly deserted buildings. There were rarely Killjoys seen above ground in this area, most of them operated either underground or outside of the fourth zone in the west. He knew the east was quite different, that all of their buildings were above ground which was a lot riskier and less efficient in his opinion.
"There are clouds coming in off the ocean. They look like they're heading this way." Tiger broke the silence as they walked slowly. "It'll be here by tomorrow night most likely. Or it could go the opposite way I suppose. I'm not a meteorologist. Big storm though
you should spread the word and let everyone know to dress heavy if they're going to stay out."
"I'll spread the word when I go to place the dog tags up on the Fallen Wall." Alpaca sounded apprehensive in regards to what they were talking about but Tiger didn't ask what his concerns were. He knew that if his second in command had something to tell him that he would in time and he wouldn't hesitate about it either. That was the good and bad thing about Agent Alpaca: He was brutally honest no matter what the situation.
"Tiger, I hate to add onto your pile of bad news here, but we've received reports from our Killjoys around the zones that Party Poison in the east has gone rogue." Tiger Beatdown stopped walking completely as Alpaca gave him this news. He immediately shook his head in objection to what he was hearing. There was no way any of this could be true.
"Party Poison? No way. He's more loyal to our cause than any other person I've met in my life
" Alpaca interrupted him and he knew by the look in his eyes that he didn't trust his judgment on the subject. He was known to trust far too easily.
"There were reports of a mass execution of Killjoys. They were told it was an example and that Party Poison was the one who gave the order. Apparently he didn't even stick around to watch his men die." He continued on as Tiger opened his mouth to continue his objections and to defend a man who had once been a close friend of his. "I know you were friends with him but that was a long time ago now. He's probably changed over the years and you can't even say you know him anymore."
"Not this guy, he wouldn't do that. He wouldn't even kill someone who stabbed him in the back as long as they were part of the cause."
"People change, Tiger and usually not for the better."
"Would you say that about me, Alpaca?" Tiger Beatdown cocked his head to the side and couldn't help but crack a small smile.
"You know very well that you've changed over the years
but I never said change had to be something negative. Sometimes, like in your case, change can be a good thing."
"You implied it was negative though." Tiger walked over to the small worn down building that he usually spent most of his time in. It was his home, but he felt like it was more a temporary place for him to sleep and eat so he hadn't done much personalizing.
"Regardless of that, we need to address what's happening over in the east
Possibly even take action if the situation is as dire as it sounds."
"Don't say anything you'll regret Alpaca, you never know whose listening." Agent Alpaca didn't continue but did look at Tiger expectantly. "Raise the guard around the perimeter
warn people that everyone, including other Killjoys, are to be treated as hostile enemies. Visitors must be escorted and interviewed by either you or me
got it? No exceptions."
"Good plan." Alpaca seemed satisfied with his friend's response to his query and stepped aside. "I have a lot to do now, orders to give. Get cleaned up and I'll come talk to you later." He gave Tiger Beatdown a reassuring pat on the shoulder and headed away. Tiger watched him walk away then sat down on the empty storage crate he kept in front of his front door. He pushed his dirty hair out of his face and just let his head sit in his hand for a moment. He had too much to think about and yet he couldn't concentrate on anything it seemed. He looked up and watched the dark clouds building in the distance. The wind from the storm created an orange colored cloud when combined with the sand near the edge of the zones. Usually the sand storms were tolerable with goggles; it was the rain that was deadly. He couldn't sit around here and just dwell on all the bad things that were happening around him. He had to get up and do something.
Tiger got up and headed inside his home, propping open the door with the crate he had just sat down on only a few moments prior. He descended the stairs to the one underground room he called his. He grabbed his dirty old leather backpack from the edge of his bed and began to pull some of the food he'd been storing for himself out from beneath the floor boards. He filled the backpack with as much of it as he could fit and headed back up the stairs and out the door. He left the crate in the doorway, not caring if anyone entered while he was gone, and began back toward the perimeter of the zone, but this time to the north, rather than the west.
"That storm is coming this way, where the hell are you going?" Tiger didn't stop walking even though he heard Agent Alpaca calling for him.
"The orphans on the edge of the zone at the refugee camp we have set up don't know about the storm. They'll need the extra food too if they have to stay underground for a few days while they wait out the storm."
"You can't go there alone. I just told you what happened in the East! You're a target now. We're all targets!" Alpaca stepped in his way, to block him from leaving.
"The orphans are always targets. No one ever holds their hand when they need to go out." Tiger walked around his friend. This was a distraction for his mind from everything that was so quickly falling apart all around him. If Party Poison had truly turned from the cause then they were all as good as dead. Alpaca started after him, refusing to let him go alone and eventually caught up to him and walked in stride with him.
"I'm going with you then since you won't listen to reason." They continued their walk, mostly in silence since they didn't seem to agree with each other on anything at this moment. Agent Alpaca kept trying to make conversation but the last thing Tiger Beatdown wanted was to talk about what was going on. He knew he had to deal with it sometime, and soon, but for right now he was dead set on ignoring it until he had gone to see the children at the orphanage. He still had the visions of his friends, his comrades, dying out in the desert to save his life. Their blood stained faces and dead eyes were staring at him from behind his eyelids every time he shut his eyes. It'd scar him for a long time and he couldn't focus on all the bad things happening around him right now or he might go mad.
He opened to the gate surrounding an abandoned looking building. The windows were boarded up and covered with graffiti and there were a few old toys lying out in the dirt looking like they had long ago at outlived their play time. Tiger walked inside and left the gate hanging open. Alpaca stood near the open entrance and watched his friend from afar. He knew he didn't want to spend time with him right now and respected that. He knew he'd been through a lot in the last twenty four hours and wasn't going to push him further than necessary.
Tiger tapped three times on the door, eagerly awaiting a response. He smiled as a little blond girl opened the door to peak out at him then ran out the door and gave his legs a tight hug. The kids all recognized him by now. He had helped smuggle half of them out of the city. He leaned down to hug the little girl and received a squeeze back. These kids had been through so much that it was easy to forget that they were just children sometimes, but when he had moments like this with them, he was reminded of how young and innocent they still were.
He spent the next hour or so just talking with the kids about silly things like music and games after he had warned them about the storm that was going to likely head this way He helped them cover up what was necessary around the area and then helped them store the food he'd brought with them in a cool dry place so they would have enough to last them. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Agent Alpaca spoke with a few other guards about something. He didn't really care what they were discussing even though it looked important, right now all that needed to be important to him were these kids and keeping them safe. They were the ultimate distraction for him. He knew that whatever Agent Alpaca was dealing with he would have to take control over soon, but for right now he just kept his thoughts as clear as he could, until he couldn't any longer. It wasn't long before his walkie talkie came to life on his belt and he was dealing with a whole mess of trouble.
"Why didn't you kill me when you had the chance?" He broke out of his reverie and finally addressed the situation at hand. He'd been lost in thought about the kids he'd spent the day with; about the way he couldn't believe that Party Poison had gone rogue, and now about this woman who had been sent to kill him. If she really had been sent from the east, he would have been dead. Unless of course the rumors about Party Poison were true and he had started just using any means necessary to get his way. He could sense the tension in Agent Alpaca as he interrupted his interrogation. The woman behind the table with the pretty blue eyes looked over at him too, though she just seemed surprised he was speaking. He wondered if perhaps she had forgotten he was there at all.
"Sir, she's not going to answer you. There's no point trying to reason with her." Alpaca turned to look at him, giving him a look that expressed concern.
"Quiet Alpaca. Miss, why didn't you kill me when you had the chance? You must have had the opportunity. I let my guard down, I wasn't even wearing my helmet and we could barely see ten feet out with all the dust in the air. I should've been more cautious." He hoped she would answer him. She was weighing her options in her head; he could read it through her eyes.
"I was told that you had committed crimes against the Killjoys that made you worthy of my gun. You have been shipping orphans off to the Dracs. Or at least that's what I was told you were doing." Alpaca looked shocked that the woman spoke and so much too. Tiger couldn't help but smile, even if it was only for a moment. The woman's voice sounded hollow and devoid of emotion. She was putting up her defenses. "I had my shot but you were feeding children. You were feeding them with the food we'd collected from the raids earlier in the week
why would you be sharing your personal store if you were just going to ship these kids off? You were helping them build a shelter to hide from the storm too. I decided as I held the gun on you that the men who passed judgment on you in the first place had to have been mistaken." She'd responded to him and honestly. He couldn't say why he knew she had answered honestly, but she had. He was astonished by this new revelation. Party Poison had thought he'd committed some kind of crimes against the Killjoys, just like he was thinking about him. Perhaps there was more to this than any of them had realized. His next move would be risky, but it had to be done.
"Alpaca, Lucky? You're free to go. Go make sure the doors are locked before the acid storm starts. I can take it from here."
"Tiger, I strongly advise against this, this woman has tried to kill you! She left five men unconscious on her way here
" Alpaca was red in the face at this point, clearly not believing a word she had told them.
"I know what I'm doing. You're dismissed." Tiger didn't say anything else to Alpaca and the other guard as they walked past him and out of the room. He could hear the door being secured as he sat down in the chair that his friend had once sat in to interrogate her. He stared into her blue eyes and she returned his gaze, equally in thought. "What made you think I was worthy of death? " She looked at him like she didn't want to respond at first. She was hesitating and probably for good reason. If the tables had been turned, he would've stayed silent, but part of him just knew she would respond to him. She had already told him more than most assassins would, he guessed that she was thinking the same thing.
"A good man I am very close to told me that you were working with Better Living to export children in the refugee camp to the Dracs for testing. I was also told you were squandering supplies that were supposed to be rationed to your troops." Tiger made a face of confusion that he couldn't hide. Why would anyone ever think that about him? He was puzzled by the whole notion. Anyone who knew anything about him knew that he would give up his life in a heartbeat for both the children and the Killjoys. He couldn't concentrate on that right now; he had to focus on the interrogation.
"So what is it that made you change your mind? What made you believe I was no longer worthy of death?"
"I already told you before. I doubt a man who intended on selling those children to the Dracs would sacrifice food from his personal storage right before a storm that could potentially keep them grounded. I heard your men talking about the clouds while I was on my way to find you." She didn't hesitate that time with her answer. Something in her eyes told him that he was trusted now. They almost had a silent understanding between them.
"What makes you think that I wasn't just trying to keep them deceived until I had sent them away? They would trust me easily if I'd done that."
"I saw the kindness in your eyes
The kind you can't fake. If I hadn't seen that, you would have never caught me."
"Kindness?" He cocked his head to the side and leaned over the table, close to her for a moment, his eyes narrowed as he thought about it. "Kindness gets you killed in this world." He stood up from his chair and stepped out of the room without looking back. He needed to think. He had a plan in his mind, but he needed to think it over. The Killjoys in the east seemed to think that he was the one that was corrupt. Clearly someone amongst the Killjoys was telling lies to confuse them, but he wouldn't know if the men in the east were responsible until he spoke to them. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes.
"Why didn't I kill her?" He sighed heavily, speaking to himself. This woman confused him. He hadn't known her for more than an hour, if even for that long, and he was having second thoughts about killing her. He was even contemplating protecting her and that wasn't in his nature. He didn't form lasting friendships easily but he had some kind of unspoken connection with her. He knew this was dangerous, considering she had been sent to end his life. He knew he should call a meeting of his Killjoys, bring her out and shoot her in the head. He would show them what happened to traitors. But he couldn't do it. He could never do that to this woman and it was eating at him to know that.
The door squeaked open and Agent Alpaca stepped back into the room. He clearly had come to listen in on the interrogation, but he also made no effort to hide what he had intended on doing either. He looked surprised to see that Tiger Beatdown was done already, but he didn't express any concern.
"So what are you going to do?"
"I'm letting her go." Tiger leaned away from the wall, but still stood close to the door.
"She tried to kill you! She came in here with a gun! A gun that was designed specifically to kill you and you're letting her just walk out of here?" Alpaca had always been a bit of a hot head, and this situation was steaming him up inside. "I told you earlier we had received reports of corruption in the east and now proof walks up to us and points a gun at your head and you still ignore the warnings?"
"Watch your mouth. I'm not afraid to put you in your place just because you're my friend." Tiger's stern tone let Alpaca know he wasn't messing around. "I think that the information we're getting is wrong. I think that in the east they're receiving similar claims about us. I'm going to send a messenger to deliver a letter to Party Poison personally. I'll have him meet me tomorrow afternoon after the storm in the second zone at an old hang out. We'll clear my name and if he's corrupt then I'll take him down. I want to give him a chance to explain what's happening here." Tiger stepped away from the wall and looked surprised as the door from the interrogation room opened up. The woman who would have been his assassin was looking up at him now.
"Sorry, but I was listening through the door." She closed the door behind her and stepped into the room. "I think you're right. I think someone lied to Party Poison and someone lied to you. I know you won't believe me when I tell you that Poison isn't corrupt
so I'd like to come with you to show you that he isn't. You can't tell me not to. If I'm free to go then I have to return to the east camp anyway and I'll just end up going with Party Poison to the meeting regardless of your wishes."
"She does have a point. And she's good with a gun. I think that's good enough for me."
"You can't honestly be telling me you plan on going with a woman who you don't even know
anything about! She could be a Drac for all we know!" Alpaca's objections were bordering on a tantrum now. He couldn't believe what was happening in front of him. Clearly something was amiss with this woman and his friend was refusing to see it.
"I'm going and she's welcome to join me if that's what she wishes to do. And she's welcome to walk around our camp until we head out tomorrow after the storm too. I'm sorry but I'm not returning you your weapons until we leave tomorrow, just to be safe. What is your name? Now that you're talking to me I don't really see the point of calling you just the assassin."
"You're going to laugh." Her demeanor had changed completely now that she wasn't on the other side of the interrogation table.
"Try me. Some of the names here are ridiculous. He's Agent Alpaca, for instance." Tiger smiled and pointed to him. Alpaca stared at them both, slack jawed.
"Oh, in that case, I don't feel so bad then
I'm Disco Bitch. Most people just call me Disco." Tiger did smile and laugh just a little bit.
"Well you already know who I am
so I'd say we're formally introduced. Get some rest. You can get some food down in the mess hall if you're hungry. You're going to need your strength tomorrow if something goes wrong. We'll be too close to Battery City for it to go unnoticed if it does."
"Hold on, just hold on a fucking minute!" Agent Alpaca couldn't honestly believe what was happening in front of him.
"I'm coming with you. I don't think you're using proper judgment here and I'm not going to watch you foolishly die because some woman batted her eyelashes you!" Alpaca said defensively.
"You can come, but rest assured you don't need to protect me from this woman. Now go on. Rest, tomorrow is going to be harder than you think."