Contrary to popular belief, human flesh does not taste like chicken. The common chicken is a domesticated fowl, more specifically a member of the red junglefowl family. The flesh is light pink, with little or no blood flowing when cut in a high-yield area such as the breast. When cooked the meat turns white, and it is important not to overdo it so as not to dry it out. Humans, on the other hand, are large mammals. The flesh closely resembles that of a cow, mostly due to the high myoglobin count in the muscles. The taste has been described as close to pork, but personally I found it more akin to veal. A good, fully developed veal.
And it was the best damn piece of meat I’d ever had.
Dr. Anna Stokes took in the view with a certain amount of fatalism. The Millionaire, looking for all the world like he knew what he was doing. The scientist, standing idle at his side, eyes staring into infinity, not daring to even so much as glance at the hissing plate at his side. Nadia, vomiting loudly in the corner. The rest, transfixed on the scene in front of them, appearances ranging from wild disbelief, hatred, confusion, and the expression of those who might be joining Nadia in a heartbeat if they stopped to think of what was happening. And hunger. Above all, hunger. Hunger at the sight of fresh meat. Hunger at the smell of that huge, delicious slab of flesh slowly sizzling in the pan. Hunger and disgust and denial, all wrapped up in a conflict of emotions so strong that most couldn’t do any more than just watch, and wait. Wait and see what would happen when it was done.
It was done. No more delays. No more speeches. No more stone-cold looks, manipulations, fists swung in anger or just plain ignoring the situation. Just me, the late captain Reinholts, a small part of him anyway, and a steak that would have made any bbq-chef in Boston nod his approval. My stomach growled impatiently. I started to cut. Wells fainted.
The little scientist, Roger Wells, keeled over as the Millionaire started to cut. Nobody was close enough to catch him, and he thumped unceremoniously face-first on to the table in front of him and slid sideways down to the floor. Anna would’ve liked to check on him, but the moment had her in its meaty grip. The knife and the fork, the smell, the stares and the inhumanity of it all. And the necessity. She knew it was necessary, she knew that it had to be done, and she knew she would not have been strong enough to do it. But she had been strong enough to do the calculations. Oh, she had done them willingly enough, knowing all the while what the numbers would tell her. She had known, and thanked whatever gods may have been listening that she didn’t have to take any action based on that knowledge. The calories from the pre-canned goods and the crops would not be enough. Not yet. They needed more. And she knew what had to be done even before he approached her with his questions.
The knife sliced through the meat with easy abandon. In a single, fluid motion I skewered it with the fork and brought it to my mouth. And chewed. No delays, no hesitation. Hesitation could be fatal. I could have stopped to think about what I was doing, I could have listened to the voices screaming in my head, I could have stopped the hand, the knife or the fork. Or worse, somebody else might have. My grip on the situation was a feeble thing. Held together by nothing more than an appearance of knowing what I was doing and a willingness to plunge ahead knowing that I did not. Deal with what’s in front of you, plan for what’s ahead and forget what’s behind. The mantra I adopted while building my fortune served me well now. The meat was as tender as my brain told me it would be, the taste was akin to heaven and beyond, and I almost joined Nadia in the corner. Focus on what’s in front of you. A steak. Nothing more than a steak. Food, nutrition, survival. Power. Forget what it had been before. I had done what none of them would have. I had done what none of them could have even thought of. Left to their own devices they would have died, every single one of them. They were sheep, cattle, nothing! I was their survival, their god, their everything and their future.
And they hated me for it.
Anna hated him. Even as he saved them, even as he did what none of them had dared to think of. She hated him with a passion she would not have thought herself capable of. It was a funny thing, if eating another human being could be considered funny. It was undeniable that what he was doing had to be done in order for them to survive. The other option would have been to kill off half of the crew to make the food last longer. But that would have meant more work for the rest, higher requirements for acquiring nutrition, and less personnel in case of an emergency. Everything was an emergency these days. And, you know, the whole murder issue. She giggled. And caught herself immediately, but not fast enough not to attract a glance from those around her. They knew about her condition, so she wasn’t worried about letting the mask slip once in a while. But she did worry about her own mental state. Locked in close quarters for months on end, a dwindling source of food, constant danger and no hope for respite, rescue or any other good thing starting with the letter ‘R’ (raisins, raspberries, rice, roast, ragu, ribs). Ribs. A bit too close to what was happening. Her mouth watered and she nearly joined Nadia in the corner.
My delusions of grandeur lasted until the food hit my stomach. Not ‘the Captain’, not ‘Andrew Reinholts’, not ‘that delicious piece of human flesh’. Food. Nutrition. Proteins. That was all. I looked up and found Dr. Anna Stokes looking back. I did the tour of the room with my eyes, looking each and every one of them straight in the eye. No backing down. All of them would do it, or it would end right here, right now. Nadia was the first to come forward, straightening from the corner and wiping vomit from her chin as she came. Always figured her for a strong one. I cut another piece from the steak.
Anna was about to take the plunge forward when a shadow passed her by on her right side. Nadia. She was close enough that the blonde hair brushed Anna's shoulder as the woman swept by. No other way to describe it: sweeping. That woman was on a mission, vomit in the corner all but forgotten. Anna would have to collect it later, couldn’t waste that much nutrition. Nadia reached the table, looked Him straight in the eye, grabbed the fork and skewered the piece He had just cut. Not breaking stride, she turned to face the room, put the meat in her mouth, chewed twice and swallowed. She had tears in her eyes from all the vomiting earlier, but the color underneath was solid steel. Anna had not figured Nadia for a strong one, but in that moment she was an amazon. Steel-blue eyes, blond hair, back straight and tall, beautiful as the sun and radiating just as much heat and passion. She would not die, not that one. Not this day. The red sand glinted outside the pressurized window, and the dust started to rise.
One by one they all came forward and ate the flesh, and left their souls behind.
Robin Johanson levelled the gun at the youth kneeling in front of him. The clouds rolled in the narrow strip of sky visible in the gap between the buildings on either side of them. There was a certain poetry to the scene; one man kneeling, one man standing, the shadow of the gun levelled like a spear into the strip of dirt between them. Sunlight flickered on and off as the seconds ticked by, each one an eternity for all the actors in the play.
“Why did you do it?” Robbie’s voice broke at the end, and the gun wavered for half a ragged breath.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The man, a kid really, looked him straight in the eye, not a sliver of fair showing in his blue eyes.
“Why did you do it!?” The scream echoed down the alley before disappearing into the hard asphalt.
The youth flinched a little, and a smile formed on his smooth features. “You know why. You and your friends are the result of our actions. This country needed a wake-up call, and I was proud to be a part of that alarm clock. A few dead mommy’s boys and girls was a small price to pay to cleanse this country of evil. And speaking of evil, that gun of yours is not exactly standard national guard issue now, is it? In fact, it kinda looks familiar.” He cocked his head as he studied the gun in Robbie’s hand.
“You little bitch, I finally found you. I finally found you.” Robbie cocked the big handgun with his thumb and took a step forward. His finger tightened on the trigger, but before it hit critical pressure a figure dressed in the same urban camouflage fatigues as himself stepped into the alley.
“Hey Robbie, what’s taking so..” The figure stopped and seemed bewildered by the scene in front of her.
“None of your business Becky, get back to the unit.” Robbie did not take his eyes off his target.
“Like fuck this ain’t any of my business, what the hell is going on here?” The woman took a few tentative steps towards the duo, but stopped as the gun was raised almost imperceptibly as she closed the distance. The sun briefly caught the small red cross on her helmet and the larger one on her chest.
“Don’t, Rebekka, just don’t. Stay away, this is something I’ve been waiting years to do.” Robbie’s voice was again as rock steady as his gun.
“This is him, isn’t it?” Rebekka Loams, or Red Becky to the national guard unit she was attached to, carefully raised her hands in a complacently way. “Are you sure it’s him though? It’s been four years since your daughter was shot.” She braved another step forwards. “Can you be sure?”
“It’s him. What the hell do you think I see every night when I close my eyes!? The face of this fucking murderer!” Robbie screamed in the face of the youth and his gun briefly flicked to the side as he leaned forward to lend power to his words. The kid dropped his hands and lunged forward, failing miserably as he tried to get his feet under him. The shot rang out and echoed down the alley. The lunge turned into a slump as the bullet took the kid between the eyes, killing him instantly.
Robbie held the smoking gun for a brief second, still pointed at where the kid had been a moment earlier, before lowering it to his side. His head slumped forward, he released his white-knuckled hold on the gun, and the clatter as it hit the ground was almost as loud as the shot had been.
Rebekka stared wide-eyed at the dead kid on the ground before turning to the silhouette of Robbie. “You’ve been hunting him all this time?”
“Every second of every day.” The words were flat, dead.
“You never told me.” It was meant as a statement, but came out as a question.
“No. I knew you’d send me home. “No place in the gunners for personal vendettas.”. Your words, that first day of the draft, back in Florida.”
Rebekka nodded and walked over to him. “I would have sent you home in a heartbeat. I almost did when I heard your girl was one of the very first victims of the university shootings. You volunteering the information barely saved you.” She knelt beside the body on the ground, checking for a pulse almost by instinct. She pulled her hand away and examined the weeping third eye between the kids’ eyes. “You will go to jail for this, you understand that?”
“Yeah, I know. Was worth it though. Some monsters just can’t be allowed to run free.” He straightened and looked at her. “You shouldn’t be here, you might catch some flack for this.”
Finally an emotion besides shock broke through Rebekkas features. “’Some flack’!? I’ll catch ‘some flack’!? This will be my job, right here, right there on the ground! I vouched for you! I put my word on the line, guaranteeing that you were stable and ready to do your duty for the country! ‘What I experienced will be my strength as I help clean this country of guns.’. Your words! That first day of the draft! You lied to my face, and now you’ll go to jail and I’ll be out of a job! Nobody will take me after something like this, not these days!” Her knuckles were white and her nails burrowed into her palms as her fury rode through her like a wave.
Robbie flinched and took a step back, but did not break eye contact. “I’m sorry it went down like this, but this was always the way it would turn out. This bastard shot my girl at that first university shooting, and I’ve had my eyes peeled ever since. No way would he live while my baby was in the dirt.”
Rebekka let out a pent-in breath and looked back over her shoulder at the sound of running feet. “That’ll be the sarge and the boys, I told him I would look for you when you didn’t show up for the briefing. Been nice knowing you, Robbie.” She turned and walked back the way she had come.
“Hey, Becky!” The shout stopped her, but she did not turn back.
“Sorry ‘bout your job, I’ll let you know if something comes up in the next forty years!” The trademark laughter was back in Robbie’s voice, and despite herself, Red Becky felt the corners of her mouth twitch.
“You do that, Robbie, you do that.”
She went to meet her sergeant.
The Colt Peacemaker was designed by two of Colts best engineers: William Mason and Charles Brinckerhoff Richards. Production began in 1873 with the Single Action Army model, and it was referred to as the ‘New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol’. Quite the mouthful. I liked its more romantic nickname, ‘The Gun That Won The West’. The production was discontinued twice over its illustrious career, but it was brought back both times due to popular demand. Its power, accuracy and handling made it a winner with both the government and the general public. It is usually loaded with a .45 bullet, but models were made that utilized the .44, the .38, the .38 special and the .357 magnum. The third generation of the gun ran until 1982, and the serial numbers ran in the range of SA80,000 to SA99,999.
The gun in my hand had a dull sheen, it was well oiled, powerful and deadly, and its serial number had been filed off.
It made a metallic clank as I put it on the table between myself and the large man in front of me. We were in a holding area, row upon row of identical metallic tables and chairs. It was a quiet morning, with the sun making the dust in the air sparkle as it shone through the bars. The man was muscular, clean-shaven, had short, brown hair and was almost a match for my height. The nametag read ‘Robin Johanson, #3344’. He had a vacant stare in his blue eyes, and the sound of the gun hitting the table made more impact on the table than it did on him.
“Your nemesis.” I slowly twirled the gun around with a finger. No reaction from him.
“Robin Johanson, Robbie to his friends. Murder in the first degree. Killed a kid with an illegal handgun. The very same gun that four years earlier had shot and killed his daughter in the university shootings that sparked the cleansing of handguns from this country. The gun that changed his life, was his life and ended both the life of a first-year student, the kid who shot her and the life of Mr. Johanson as he was sentenced to thirty-five to life for murder.” I gave the gun another spin on the table.
“This gun, as it so happens.” This finally got a reaction from him, and he turned his head to face me.
“You don’t think I recognize it? I slept with that gun under my pillow every night for over four years, dreaming of the day I would get to use it.” His eyes wandered over to the barred window again. The chains holding Robbie to his chair were not thick, but they were there, for every move reminding him of who could walk out of here and who could not. Not that he moved much.
I nodded. “Yes, I thought you’d recognize it.” I slid the gun over the table to him. “You want it?”
Robbie arched one of his eyebrows and gave me a suspicious glance, but made no reply.
“It has already dominated your life for years, why not take it and let it dominate your death? Or do you have so much to live for in here that the thought never crossed your mind?”
The chains shifted as he half-turned away from the gun. “That thing never dominated me. It was used as an instrument of death, both by the bastard who shot my girl and by myself. I make no excuses, and I knew what my punishment would be.”
“How very noble of you, taking one for the team. Of course, you could’ve just brought the kid in. The surveillance footage from the shootings were good enough for a facial recognition, as you well know, and then it would be him sitting in here, not you.” This finally sparked some emotion as Robbie leaned towards me and put his chained hands on the table.
“But he would be alive! And my daughter would not. I made my choice, now I’m living with it. And speaking of choices, I think I would like to leave now.” He raised his hand to signal the guard, but I waved him off before he could make his way over to us. Robbie glared at me.
“And who are you anyway? What do you want? Besides bringing me an illegal handgun that by all rights should’ve been destroyed a long time ago.” He nodded over at the guard in the corner. “And what about him, how much did you pay to get him to ignore a fucking gun in the holding area?”
“I didn’t have to pay him anything. I asked politely, and when he refused I asked him again. Not so politely. You see, I am a man who usually gets what he wants. And right now, I want an engineer.”
Confusion flickered over Johansons features. “An engineer.”
“Yes. The man I had lined up for the job failed his psych evaluation quite miserably, and I have some very specific demands for the position. First off, singlemindedness. I need somebody who will not stop before the job is done. I need somebody with a top-notch education who can fix just about anything with limited resources. I need somebody who has nothing to lose. In short, I need you.”
He glanced down at the gun in front of him. “How did you find me?”
“The search programs these days are excellent, and I have a very high degree of access to databases. Your name popped up at the very top of a very short list of people fulfilling all the requirements I set. Of course, I could settle for second best and go with somebody further down the list, but in general I do not like second best. But, you are of no use to me if your life is still fixated on that gun. You might as well take it and end it properly.” I gave the gun another shove so it rested against his fingertips on the table.
“You can get me out of here.” It was not a question, but I answered anyway.
“You want to give me a job.”
“And I guess this job is both dangerous, difficult and long-term, or else you would’ve just gone with second best.”
“I see.” Robbie twirled the gun around a couple of times with his forefinger. “I have no regrets, you know.”
“If I do this, I will owe you nothing. As I said, I have no regrets, and I was prepared to serve my sentence in peace. I will do your job, and nothing but your job, and then I will be done.”
“All right. I won’t ask how you can do this since you obviously can, but you have a deal.” He shoved the gun back to me.
“Excellent! You will be out of here tomorrow. I would tell you to pack your bag, but I gather you don’t have much to bring along.” I carefully put the gun back inside my jacket.
“Nah, I don’t have much. I do have a request however.” A small smile had formed at the corners of his mouth.
“Do you have need for an excellent medic?” The smile broadened.