A Broken Winter
Kale Night © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Freezing to death took longer than expected. Auryn hadn’t moved in over an hour, lying in the snow, staring up at the stars. His toes burned and his bare fingers prickled painfully, flushed red from the cold. He’d considered a variety of other options, including shooting himself in the head, but feared screwing up and adding a traumatic brain injury to his list of grievances. He thought about hanging himself from a peach tree in Building A, but the fruit was being harvested and there were too many people around, even at night.
Forced to decide quickly, he hopped in a snowcrawler and sped off. He could’ve kept going, travelling beyond the oxygenated zone, opting for death by hypoxia, but he pulled over and picked a final resting place.
The radio in his earpiece crackled. The Special Activities Division were getting closer. It wouldn’t be long before they reached their target, terrorist Reisen Kaneko. Auryn hadn’t seen Reisen in over a decade, but his fondness for the man remained intact, uneroded by the passage of time. He’d hoped they’d be reunited one day, despite how impossible it was. No chance of that now. Abandoning his delusions meant being left with nothing, crippled under the weight of reality and longing for oblivion.
Countless stars illuminated the sky, radiant mothers to other worlds, a painful reminder of their own orphaned condition. His Holiness Emperor Haken swallowed planet Ankari’s sun centuries ago—punishment for widespread civil disobedience, or so the story went. While Emperor Haken’s fire-swallowing abilities were never questioned, it was whispered he may have simply taken credit for a dying sun’s disappearance. This explanation made sense to Auryn, but Reisen loved tearing it apart.
“A sun like ours doesn’t die the way most people expect it to. It burns bigger and brighter, swelling like an infected gash, incinerating planets nurtured from their inception. The final act of a deranged mother. Ankari is close enough to the sun that we’d all be burned alive instead of freezing our asses off.
“If the sun did disappear, it wasn’t due to natural causes.”
The radio blared with activity. Target location reached.
This was it. If he had any sense, he’d turn the radio off, but he needed to be sure someone hadn’t made a mistake.
Entrance is clear. Living room clear. Kitchen clear.
His heart pounded, chest constricting painfully.
Door’s locked. We’re going to break it down.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
There’s someone in the bed.
Auryn closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. The cold air choked him, scratching his throat and lungs like tiny, frozen thorns.
It’s a fucking kid. We do not have Kaneko. Repeat. We do not have Kaneko.
He struggled into a seated position, limbs stiff and heavy.
Kid says he’s Kaneko’s son. We’re bringing him in for questioning.
He pulled his hat and gloves back on, skin on fire. Reisen’s son would be sent to the capital and interrogated, treated not like a human being, but as an opportunity for promotion.
Auryn extracted himself from the snowbank he’d intended to be his tomb. He knew where they’d send the boy when they were done with him. Exhibiting the motor skills of a two-year-old, he climbed into his snowcrawler and turned the machine around, heading back to the Farm.
This wasn’t the way Keita Kaneko envisioned his first trip to the capital—in the back of a police cruiser, with a ring of light around his neck. An electric halo. One of the officers in front operated the controls. She glared at him frequently, furious for no reason. He sat quietly, eager to avoid another shock.
Tinted windows cast a shadow over streets lined with glass towers, drowning them in darkness. Keita pressed his nose against the cold glass, trying to catch a glimpse of the rising sun. He knew it was an illusion, but wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Grids of electrified mesh and high leather seats blocked his view. He craned his neck, trying to gaze out the front window. Metal cuffs gnawed his wrists, eroding layers of skin.
The officers exchanged worried glances, united in their terror of a seven-year-old boy. Keita knew he was in deep trouble. What he didn’t know was why—why policemen armed with gas masks and guns stormed into his room in the middle of the night and stole him from his bed. At first, he thought they’d broken into the wrong house and grabbed the wrong boy, but he saw how everyone shuddered when he told them his name. Someone made a mistake. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He wasn’t even allowed outside. There were monsters outside.
The car stopped. Keita’s stomach churned, pressure rising in his chest. The officers marched him towards the police station. He scanned the horizon, hoping for some indication of the coming light, but saw only blackness.
Inside the station they escorted him to a stall with concrete walls and a drain. A guard with thick leather gloves removed Keita’s clothing, maintaining as much distance between them as possible. The cold floor stung his feet. He stood with one foot on top of the other, shivering in a corner of the stall. A masked priestess in white robes rubbed his bare skin with coarse sea salt and turned a strong hose on him, blasting him with water. The force of it rubbed his skin raw, like liquid sandpaper. Guards stuffed him into scratchy clothes without drying him, took him to another room, and then shoved him onto a metal chair.
Florescent overhead lights shone uncomfortably bright and filled his vision with colourful dots. Two men in black suits stood in front of him, wearing glasses with dark lenses.
“There’s been a mistake,” said Keita, rubbing his burning eyes.
“You are Keita Kaneko, son of Dr. Reisen Kaneko, yes?”
“Shut up and listen. When’s the last time you saw your father?”
A few days ago, he’d been playing in the basement of his house and entered his dad’s laboratory without permission. He accidentally knocked over a beaker of inkworm, the black slime responsible for killing his mother. Tendrils of sludge shot across the tile. It tried to creep away, but he didn’t let it escape. He stomped on the slime over and over, cutting his bare feet on the glass, until the inky goo stopped moving. He expected his dad to be furious, but the man hugged him and gently extracted the glass, healing his wounds with a swirl of luminous energy; a spiral galaxy of slowly spinning stars. His dad left shortly afterward, and Keita hadn’t seen him since, which wasn’t unusual. Dr. Kaneko worked with sick people—rarely sleeping, rarely eating, pausing only to stand by the window and light a cigarette. Keita’s dad often went away for days at a time, helping those who needed it. Those who’d been neglected or abused by the emperor.
“Did something happen to him?” asked Keita, voice raised in panic. He couldn’t survive without his dad. There’d be no one to protect him from monsters. No one to bring him food or play games with him.
“Take a look.” One of the men pushed a button on the table, displaying a photograph on its surface—a lady with part of her head missing, insides leaking outside. Keita’s eyes hurt so badly he couldn’t see straight. He felt dizzy and disoriented. Deep rusty reds and violent purples blurred together in a sea of human debris.
Keita bit his lip, swallowing the warm, sour fluid rising in his throat. “It looks like a monster got her.”
“Your father is the monster.”
“He’s not.” Keita closed his eyes, head reeling. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Your father has blown up more buildings than most demolition crews, kid. We have witnesses and security footage.”
“My dad doesn’t kill people. He heals them.”
“Does this look like the work of a healer to you?” Another photograph. An elderly woman torn in half. “We’re afraid he’s very sick. Healthy people don’t blow up old ladies.” Keita saw himself reflected in the man’s glasses, wet and annoyed. Shaggy blond hair stuck to his head in matted clumps. Blue eyes full of invisible stinging sand. “We’re not going to hurt him. We’re going to help him. You want your father to get better, don’t you?”
“My dad isn’t sick!” Keita didn’t like losing his temper, but he was tired, angry, and in a lot of pain. These idiots weren’t listening to him, resistant to the truth. “He’s a doctor, I told you! He wouldn’t hurt anybody!”
“We can’t do our job if you deny the truth, Keita.”
The use of his name threw him off, a human gesture from someone who otherwise failed to act the part. They were a bunch of fakers. It was a trick to make him feel like they were on the same side, and he wasn’t falling for it. “You’re a liar.”
“Listen to me.” The officer grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him. “You can either cooperate or face the consequences of being a stubborn little shit.” He gripped Keita’s arm, twisting it. “Choose wisely.”
Keita had nothing more to say.
A windowless railcar shuddered along unseen tracks. Bound and gagged, Keita focused on the monotonous vibration of the train, trying to disappear among the hypnotic clacking. He shared the car with an unknown number of passengers. They were silent for a long time, then all at once burst into muffled wails and muted prayers, forming a ghoulish chorus. Their destination was unclear, but he had the terrifying suspicion it was final. After weeks of trying to extract information he didn’t have, the government goons finally gave up on him. The experience left him convinced the monsters his dad spoke of wore human skins.
The train stopped. Swift hands unfastened Keita’s bindings, removing his blindfold and a chunk of rubber from his mouth. They’d travelled deep underground and entered an immense cavern. An artificial sun beamed overhead, small but bright, filling the cave with light. He recognised it right away—a hologram. Under different circumstances, he would’ve been thrilled to see it. Holograms tricked people into seeing something that wasn’t there. Like the sun that rose in the capital. Everyone knew it wasn’t real, but his dad said it gave people hope.
It was much warmer underground than on the surface. High walls wrapped around a massive collection of buildings. The wall surrounding an entrance marked Building C was painted with colourful animals. Smiling pigs. Dancing cows. Suddenly, Keita knew where he was. The Farm. The source of all the food in Terasyn.
“Move!” Soldiers with electric cattle prods kept the small group of people in line, herding them towards the building.
They stopped at a station manned by medical personnel, where a woman silently drew his blood, her face concealed behind a gas mask. She failed to warn him of the impending sting and didn’t appear to care when he flinched. She shoved him forwards, moving on to the next in line.
He stumbled and collided with the back of a fellow prisoner. She steadied him with a hand. “It’s okay, sweetie. I know it hurts.”
“I don’t recall giving you permission to speak,” interrupted a solider, raising the tip of his weapon.
“Sounds like someone needs a nap. Stay close,” whispered the lady.
The soldier grabbed her, shoving her against the wall. “Hold on. You’re coming with me. Research purposes. I’m developing a vaccine for problematic bitches.” He gripped the tattered fabric of her shirt in a fist and squeezed her. “All it takes is a quick stab.”
“I’ll bet.” The woman glared at the solider and spat in his face. He slapped her, forcing her to the ground, plunging a boot into her stomach.
“Leave her alone!” Keita’s throat was dry and swollen, his voice barely audible. He pounced and sank his teeth into the soldier’s thigh—a long-toothed cat, taking down its prey. He tasted blood and bit down harder. The soldier clubbed him on the head with the hilt of his prod and he hit the ground, moaning.
Keita closed his eyes. He curled up, waiting for the electric sting to come, but a deep, firm voice pre-empted the shock.
“Hyder. Stand down.”
“The little bastard took a chunk out of me!”
He opened his eyes. A tall, blond soldier crouched nearby, healing Hyder’s leg, closing the gouges left by Keita’s tiger teeth. The soldier wore more medals than the others, more decorations. He must have been more important. Some kind of soldier boss. His eyes studied Keita critically; bright blue and very serious.
“Who’s the boy?” asked the soldier boss.
Hyder scanned his collar with an electronic reader. “Kaneko, Keita, sir. Age seven. Terrorist contact; awaiting sacrifice on orders of His Holiness. Only child of known terrorists Kaneko, Reisen and Glass, Naida—deceased.”
The soldier boss’s gaze softened, but it did nothing to water down Keita’s fear. He stood there, shaking, heat slowly draining from his body.
“I’ll deal with the kid. Put the young lady back in line where she belongs.”
“Yes, sir.” The soldier saluted and turned to collect the woman from the floor, forcing her to her feet.
Keita clutched his stormy stomach.
“My name is General Auryn Tyrus. Follow me.”
Keita knew he was going to die.
Auryn led him away from the others. Machines worked noisily in the distance, humming and grinding behind bright white walls. Their clatter gave way to the gentle lowing of animals. Keita approached a pigpen and peered inside. He felt Auryn’s gaze on him as he leaned over, reaching out to run his fingers over the prickly, leathery skin of the nearest pig.
“Reisen Kaneko is your father, correct?” asked Auryn.
Keita flinched, expecting to be struck. That question meant bad, bad things were going to happen. He pressed his palms to his forehead and shut his eyes tight, breath catching in his throat. When nothing came, he lowered his arms, peeking at Auryn, terrified and confused.
Auryn didn’t look angry. He frowned instead. “I’m sorry, son. I’m not interrogating you.”
“Why are you being so nice to me?” asked Keita. They were on opposite sides. Auryn worked for Emperor Haken, and the emperor wanted Keita dead. Erased from memory.
“Good question.” Auryn crouched beside him, patting a sow on the hindquarters. “I was friends with your father. I know he’s not a bad man, despite what people say.”
“Why does everyone think my dad is dangerous?”
“It’s a lie Emperor Haken told. He wants your father captured because he’s afraid of him.”
“Why?” Keita swallowed a lump in his throat, blinking rapidly and trying not to cry. He didn’t want Auryn to think he was a baby, but his resolve was melting, and he hurt all over. Nothing made sense.
“Your father knows things that could get Emperor Haken into a lot of trouble. As a result, Haken goes to great lengths to discredit your father, minimising the threat of anyone taking him seriously.”
“My dad told me Haken is horrible,” stammered Keita, shivering, tucking his clammy hands beneath his armpits, trying to warm them.
Auryn stood up. “He’s not wrong.” Keita’s heart pounded rapidly, his breath coming in strangled hitches, gasping for oxygen, swallowing so much air he belched uncontrollably. He worried he’d throw up or piss himself or pass out or do all three at once. “Keita.” Auryn picked him up with ease, carrying him away from the animals. “Let’s get you fixed up.” Keita clung to him, terrified.
Had anyone asked Auryn why he was carrying a distraught detainee, he would have told them he was taking Keita for questioning. One final attempt at extracting information. He was grateful that hadn’t occurred. He didn’t want to give Keita the wrong idea and risk frightening him further. The boy was already trembling in his arms. He unlocked the door to the Director’s Quarters and stepped inside. The previous Director of Operations set up housing in the basement of Building D—research and development—away from the barracks, granting him the privacy to do whatever he wanted. Auryn preferred not to think about what went on down here; when he’d first moved in, the floors and walls had been covered in stains of dubious origins.
He carried Keita into the bathroom, standing him next to the sink. “I need to see where you’re hurt. Please remove your uniform.”
Keita shook his head, protectively clutching the bloody fabric covering him, eyes wide and fearful.
Auryn held his hand out, demonstrating his intentions, light pooling around his fingers, spinning into loose spirals. “Keita. Let me help. Your father would never forgive me for standing around watching you bleed.” He focused on healing the wound on Keita’s head while the boy shakily manipulated the buttons on his uniform, working his way out of it.
Seven years old. A year younger than his son, Sasha, had been at the time of his death. Buried two months before his eighth birthday.
Sasha’s memory haunted him like a relentless ghost, never drifting far from his thoughts. Auryn no longer experienced an erratic fluctuation between anger and grief, as he did in the aftermath of the incident, only a sense of pervasive agony. Without rage, there was nothing to mask the suffering.
Keita’s distrust appeared well-founded, his torso a macabre rainbow of colour—purples so dark they were nearly black, green, yellow, hints of blue from within the last few hours. Burn marks circled his wrists and ankles. Dried blood coated his inner thighs, the result of a recent circumcision. Sacrificing someone unclean was unthinkable.
“They cut me.” Keita stared at him with swollen blue eyes, searching for an explanation.
“Emperor Haken believes the skin they cut off makes men behave badly. He helps us avoid temptation by removing it.” Auryn related to being born outside the system, remembering nothing before arriving at a government orphanage, no idea where he came from or what his parents looked like. His first memory was of being stripped and gawked at, the cold metal of crushing forceps.
Auryn healed Keita with the same meticulousness employed in counting body bags, energy slow draining from his body. He drew a bath and helped Keita into the warm water. Whether it was exhaustion, relief, or absence of pain, the boy’s body listed. Keita remained barely awake for the duration of his bath, numbly enduring Auryn’s presence.
He dried Keita with a towel and wrapped it around him. Auryn glanced in the mirror, verifying he appeared as worn out as he felt. Despite approaching 75 years of age, he still looked in his mid-20s. After age 26, cellular degeneration slowed to a thin trickle of sand in a human hourglass, barely flowing for at least another 500 years. Emperor Haken’s gift of extended life.
Auryn carried Keita to the second bedroom. Had he not seen it for himself, he never would have known the room was used by its previous occupant as a torture chamber/necrophiliac retreat. A fresh coat of paint went a long way.
He sat Keita on the edge of the bed and reached for the pyjamas he’d laid out earlier, blue with white snowflakes, helping him dress.
“Whose clothes are these?” asked Keita, voice thick with sleep, blinking tiredly.
“They belonged to my son.”
“Where is he?”
“How?” Keita rubbed his eyes with closed fists, crawling beneath the covers.
“That’s not a pleasant bedtime story. Get some sleep, Keita. You’re safe here. Don’t worry.”
Keita put his head down and yawned widely. “You must really like my dad.”
“He was a good friend.” There were plenty of stories Auryn could tell about Reisen, but he’d be forced to omit the best parts. The parts that kept him awake at night.