“Palace” of the “King”- part 3 of 6

Below is part 3 of my continuing fantasy/sci-fi short story. The total is 7 pages. I’m taking a bit of a summer vacation right now, but I hope you will enjoy the story. Big announcement when I get back. All you authors and readers, stay tuned!

TWO HOURS LATER Cutter leaned back against the wall, ripped his shirt off, and allowed Tonya Redding, the Chameleon’s nurse, a five-four woman with reddish-brown hair, sharp auburn eyes underneath brown eyebrows, and a lot of spirit, to treat his wounds. After giving him some Novocain gel she moved her gloved fingers towards the piece of wood stuck in his ribcage. He struggled to get away but Tonya held him down. She was not nearly as strong as him but she was able to make sure he didn’t break free and let the wood splinters dig further into his skin.

Not that it mattered to Cutter anyway. They didn’t know his genetic code was devouring his body. They didn’t know he had agreed to allow himself to be permanently mutilated in order to live just a little longer, to give his body just enough life to take a single chance to stop the “King” from bringing some terrible ruin to world. But, as he sat back and let Tonya do her work, he knew any one of these battles would be his last; either he would be killed by an enemy or by his own body. Either way, he had no hope to see a war-free world in his lifetime.

All he could do was allow Tonya to patch him up just well enough to let him complete the next step of the mission. He knew she wouldn’t be able to do much; her best medical equipment was at the Chameleon’s hidden base in eastern Montana, where Pyrotek was now. She had to make do in a rickety wooden shack somewhere at the foot of the mountains with only as many supplies as Pyrotek could have delivered by drone.

Tonya gave Cutter some antiseptic to kill harmful bacteria on his skin and some ibuprofen for his pain. She ordered him to rest, but he couldn’t relax-the buzz of adrenaline hadn’t worn off yet. Everyday pharmaceutical drugs had all but disappeared under the new economy; these drugs were rationed in favor of producing more antidepressants, barbiturates, and steroids to keep the mercenaries fit and able to battle without feeling the negative emotions of the pain they were causing to themselves and others.

“How do you feel?” she asked. Cutter sat up.

“I’m fine,” he said. He groaned: the pain inside was really starting to hurt- and it wasn’t the pain of having some splinters in his body. “I need to smoke.”

“No you don’t. Smoking kills, you know.”

What do I care at this point? He thought as Tonya finished applying bandage gauze to the spots on his skin where the wood had penetrated. I don’t know long I’ve got but it ain’t much.

Cutter cleared his throat loudly and turned his head so he could cough out mucus into a bucket filled with ice chips next to his bed.

Grooosss!” Tonya exclaimed, smacking him with one of her gloves. “Cutter! That’s the ice I was going to use on your joints! Well, now you can feel your phlegm on your knees!”

“Yea, about that,” Cutter said indifferently. He looked around for a box of cigarettes but couldn’t find any. “Where’s my Parliaments?”

“No smoking!” Tonya exclaimed. Cutter was prepared to move but he soon felt the Novocain’s effect begin to sink into his skin. He groaned again and sat with his back upright against the wall.

Four hours later Cutter finally had his cigarette. Tonya relented and let him smoke one– and then promptly whisked the carton away before he could tempt himself into taking a few more.

The remaining Chameleons were gathered around a single night table in the center of the room when Cutter joined them. A six-two African American man from Chicago with a 1980s-style Mohawk and a bulky muscular body covered by a Kevlar suit removed a small lamp from the table and tossed it aside. The Chameleons called him Kevlar. No one knew what his real name was.

“This is it, then,” he said in a deep Chicago accent. He made sure to face the rest of the room so he could let them feel his presence. “We all that’s left.”

Cutter moved his eyes from left to right: Cherise Wright was the only woman in the crew, also African-American but five-six, lean, and with a scowl on her face she had so often Cutter assumed it was a permanent fix; she was also the only surviving Chameleon who went by her real name (or at least what she told everyone was her real name- in this brave new world, verifying personal information was almost impossible, let alone pointless). Then there was M.K., a slender six-foot-tall Algerian national who moved to America three years before the wars broke out. A defected former mercenary, he snuck away from a bloody mission in the ruins of downtown Denver and found Cutter, who was there trying to shut down a New Age Global Armor Tech production factory; Spezzna, who had washed some blood out of his hair and looked otherwise uninjured; and Rigatoni, a short Italian-American from New Jersey with big biceps and calves but who was sometimes referred to derogatorily as “noodle”, and that wasn’t for squishy muscles.

Kevlar removed a smartphone from his suit and placed it on the table while everyone else gathered around. This device was able to be tracked only by the satellite Pyrotek had put into orbit a year earlier- a structure disguised as a piece of space garbage from the not-quite-completed International Space Station. All other signals to the device were jammed.

“Can you see me?” Pyrotek’s voice said. The screen was black at first but a moment later they all saw their genius engineer’s unshaven face and blue eyes covered by thick glasses. “Okay, great.”

“What’s the plan?” Cherise said. “At this rate we’ll be dead before we crash the Labyrinth.”

“I sent KeyKey out a few hours ago into the mountains to get a head start on the next phase,” Pyrotek said. “There’s a path which must’ve been built some time ago, a dirt path through the mountains which so far as I can tell…” he moved away from the screen for a moment and then returned. “Is at least nine miles long. Five human guards on the path but they’re just patrolling, private military company I think but KeyKey couldn’t get a good read on them. They’re spaced out a mile and a quarter mile apart so you can take them out without alerting the others. Once you get to the other side you walk about…one mile to The Palace, and it looks to be about…three miles from end to end.”

“What’s in there?” M.K. asked.

“Ummm…” Pyrotek turned his head again. “I can’t tell. It appears to be open-air but some type of fog keeps blocking my view of the actual inside. All I can see is the outline of this so-called Palace. Cutter, you and the others need to be careful. If I can’t get a reading on what this place looks like I can’t help you. If this fog doesn’t clear out, then KeyKey’s solar-powered battery may not be able to recharge in there and he can’t help you.”

“Got it,” Cutter said. “Thanks, Pyrotek. Stand by.”

“My pleasure.” Pyrotek kept his line of communication open but moved to and from the screen.

Cutter started to cough hard. He tried to control himself but his coughs grew so violent he fell to the ground, using one arm to prop himself up as he kept coughing.

Cutter!” Kevlar yelled.

Cutter staggered to his feet and felt his insides ready to heave. He moved as fast as his decrepit body could go towards the edge of the cabin and vomited in the corner. No one approached him as he bent over and panted.

“This isn’t good,” Cherise said as she bit her lip. “Cutter, if you can’t move, then you should stay behind and let us go.”

“No,” Cutter said. He coughed again but now he felt a little better- but if he could get a cigarette he would feel a lot better. “I’m going. We need to do this. We need-“ he coughed again and stumbled as he made his way back to the table.

“Kevlar, give Cutter his shot,” Pyrotek said through the phone.

“Give me-“ images of needles penetrating his skin entered his mind.

“You got it, Tekkie,” Kevlar said. He kicked Cutter’s right knee, causing him to yell and fall to the ground, clutching it. Before Cutter could stand up, Rigatoni and Spezzna held him down while Kevlar took a syringe filled with green liquid out of his suit.

“Hold him real still,” Kevlar said.

“STOP!” Cutter ordered.

Hold him!” Kevlar shouted over Cutter’s voice. There would be no cleaning wipe, no disinfectant. Kevlar jammed the needle into Cutter’s bicep and he gasped as his eyes closed and saw only black.

He blinked a few times and noticed the hut looked darker than usual. He blinked again and thought he saw some light from the corner of his right eye. He turned his head and saw Kevlar and Cherise surrounding the table and talking to it in low voices. He figured they were talking to Pyrotek.

He lifted his body up one hand, then one arm, then one foot at a time. Outside he saw darkness and inside he saw Rigatoni, Spezzna, and M.K. asleep on the ground. He cleared his throat and Kevlar and Cherise turned to face him.

“You’re ill,” Kevlar said somberly. “That’s the third one of these I had to use on you in the last two days.”

Hunnnhhh.” Cutter moved to the table and sat next to it. He felt his insides vibrate like guitar strings.

“How are you feeling, Cutter?” Pyrotek asked.

“Fine,” Cutter said untruthfully, and somehow he had the feeling Pyrotek knew it too because he cleared his throat very obviously and said, “I think you should tell them.”

“Tell us what?” Cherise asked. “Cutter, are you alright or not? If we’re going we gotta go. Now.”

“I’m…” he was prepared to tell them, well Kevlar and Cherise. But he did not want to let them down. “I’m fine for this mission.”

“If somethin’s up you gotta say it now,” Kevlar said. “Pyrotek, what’s the deal with Cutter?”

“He’s…” Cutter braced himself for Pyrotek to blab. “Very ill.”

“We know that,” Kevlar said.

“He’s dying very quickly,” Pyrotek said with a hint of sadness.

Pyrotek!” Cutter shouted. For a brief moment he felt well and strong, but as soon as he stopped talking the pain returned and he laid down on the ground.

“Dying?” Cherise asked. The worry in her voice was unmistakable. “Cutter, how long has this been going on? And why didn’t you tell us before?”

“I didn’t want to,” Cutter said. He felt around his suit for his cigarettes but couldn’t find them. “We need to keep focused on the mission, not my problems.”

“Your problems are our problems,” Kevlar said. “You’re the Chameleons, Cutter. All this stuff about shutting down the global war economy, about stopping this so-called King from building a new monstrosity on the graves of the dead, this is all you. We joined because of you. We fight and risk our lives because we believe in what you believe in too. Without you, man, there ain’t nobody ready to lead.”

“You’ll do well enough, Kevlar,” Cutter said. He put his hands on the ground. There had to be cigarettes somewhere. “You’re ready to take over when my time is up.”

Kevlar sat down next to Cutter and Cherise sat in front of him. “We’re all mortal,” Kevlar said. “You, me, all of us. We all goin’ to the same place and we don’t know when or how soon it’ll be. But as long as we’re here we might as well make the most of it. Even you, you sick old man.”

Cutter forced a smile. A few tears came down from Kevlar’s eyes, but he wiped them and managed to hold himself together. Cherise, normally tough and worry-free, turned her head and moved her hands to her face. Cutter heard sniffling even from the phone, but when he got up to look, Pyrotek had stopped, clearing his throat to speak.

“Well you’re here now,” he said. “Cutter, KeyKey’s finished mapping the pathway to The Palace. You have to go now, before dawn. It’s the only way you’ll get the jump on the guards patrolling the path in front of you.

“And how long until dawn?” Cutter asked.

“Six hours, and you have to go twelve miles to make it to The Palace. The later you wait, the more enemies you can expect to encounter.”

“Then let’s go,” Cutter said. He tried to stand up but needed Kevlar’s help. “Wake the others up. We need to go, while I can still move.”

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