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From the Outskirts
He had never imagined that it would be any different than the others; a simple examination, a swift decision, and it would be over. Quick and easy—that’s how the job was supposed to be.
The notification had arrived with his morning black coffee in the form of a small white card: Mr. J. Morris, please report to the Post-D Recovery Board immediately, sector 5. New case.
Mr. J. Morris unperturbedly savored the last few drops of coffee as he rose from the rickety chair—who knew when his next ration would come. Donning a threadbare, ash-gray business jacket, Mr. Morris marched out of his dorm into the concrete halls of the apartment sector. They were empty, save for the echoing footsteps of other government personnel rushing to and fro on the multiple floors of the housing division. Probably trying to catch a rare hour nap, he mused contemptuously as he hopped onto a rusty elevator and pressed the glowing number 5 button.
“It will be quick and easy, I can assure you.”
“On the Outskirts? I hope you’re providing transportation, at least.”
His supervisor, Mr. Terrance, nodded brusquely. “A renovated R-22 automobile. That should suffice, especially for the hills. You’ll be traveling alone, as we wish to cause as little disturbance as possible.”
“Not much to disturb out there…”
“That’s what we thought as well. Apparently there is.” Terrance shifted uncomfortably in his steel chair, rubbing at his gray, wiry moustache. “Scouts have found something out there. Two of them.”
“Undesirable, I’m assuming.”
“That’s your job, Morris.”
Mr. Morris frowned, deep lines of displeasure creasing his forehead as his steel gray eyes narrowed. “Why weren’t they dealt with earlier?”
“They’re in the Outskirts. We’re lucky we even found them.” Terrance coughed harshly, his pale face flaring to a sickly pink. “They need to be taken care of by this evening. Send us the news of your assessment, and then we’ll finish it.”
“I’ll leave immediately then.”
“Good.” Terrance attempted a smile. “Maybe I can arrange for another ration of coffee on your return—my treat, Jay.”
The supervisor looked up in bewilderment. “What?”
“That’s what the J stands for. James.”
Terrance scowled, chuckling humorlessly. “Thanks for the correction. Now go get your R-22; it’s in the third Top Hangar.” He bent over his desk, scanning at the reams of paper littered across it. “I’ll expect you back soon, Mr. J. Morris—it shouldn’t take you long.”
Pellets of dark rain beat relentlessly on the R-22’s windshield. Mr. J. Morris grasped the steering wheel firmly as he struggled to guide the crescent-shaped vehicle across the jagged terrain. As the old R-22 shivered and bounced over each stone and crater, wheels pitifully squealing in protest, Morris mentally cursed the inclement weather; his last job hadn’t been near this difficult. Evaluating and deporting two decrepit ladies had taken only half of his present driving time.
Lightning abruptly shattered the sky, illuminating a lone, half-demolished, abandoned skyscraper, a wounded sentinel barring the way.
As a thunderclap exploded, Mr. Morris slammed on the brakes, skidding to a stop in front of the smashed doors. For a few moments, he stared at the crippled building—windows blown away, ivy tendrils creeping up the walls, and an open gaping side. Obviously, this was a D skyscraper—leftovers of the Destruction.
Mr. Morris shuddered and peered at the R-22’s glowing controls. It was impossible to tell where he was; the unexpected storm had effectively obscured all satellite data. He tried the handset; also out of commission. Morris delicately cursed as the howling wind outside grew stronger, twisting around the R-22 with a rough playfulness. Morris checked his pockets to see if he had a mobile receiver that might penetrate the storm. There was nothing save for his government ID card, his monthly ration of a piece of gum, and a pen. He frowned, dissatisfied.
Suddenly, a deep groaning began to swell outside, like the moans of a dying giant. Slowly, Mr. Morris swiveled in his seat to stare out into the lighting-illuminated darkness.
The half-shattered skyscraper was swaying gently in the unmerciful wind, as if to pay homage. Before Morris could turn around and drive away, he saw the entire building begin to fold and crumple into a mass chaos of cement, iron and bricks.
He floored the gas pedal, feeling the R-22 spring forward, but knew—even before the first debris struck the vehicle—that it would be too late.
Quick and easy, he thought dryly, and then the world disappeared.
“I can have it, can’t I?”
“Sure…why not? Don’t think he’ll be needing it.”
The crinkle of paper ruffled next to Morris’ ears, followed by a vigorous chewing. “It tastes like strawberries!” a voice exclaimed in utter astonishment. “Here, Jack; try it!”
“Nah, you keep it. I don’t want it.” A haggard voice; a man’s voice.
Morris slowly emerged into consciousness: his body throbbed all over, he could feel a hard, wooden floor beneath him, cold air around him, and could hear soft footsteps dance by his aching head.
“Hey, Jack, I think he’s waking up!” The little girl’s voice grew agitated. “What are we gonna do, Jack? What are you gonna do with him?”
“Shush, Missy. Leave the room.”
“Cause I said so. Now get out.”
“That’s not a good reason. What are you gonna do?”
“He was sent by them, Missy. I can’t let him go back.”
The words dreamily began to solidify into Morris’ understanding. He stirred, struggling to open his eyes. At first, the surroundings consisted of only shadowy blurs, then gradually condensed into shapes. He was lying against a wood-paneled wall on the floor; his gray jacket was gone, as well as his shoes. Across the small, square room stood a husky figure of a man. At his side was a little girl. She wore patched jeans two sizes too large with a cord of twisted wire as a belt. Dark brown hair fell in chocolate ringlets underneath a floppy green beret, and large, blue eyes stared curiously at him.
“I don’t wanna leave, Jack,” she pouted petulantly. She couldn’t have been more than six, but her voice was much older. “Maybe he’s got more of that strawberry stuff!” She smacked loudly.
Morris instinctively reached in his pockets. His gum was gone.
The man stepped forward, coming into full view. From where Morris lay, he seemed stories high although his back was hunched like he carried a gloomy burden. Gray eyes sank into a weathered face of deep lines and furrows; a roughly hewn, grizzled beard created a wild appearance. Silver hairs evidenced age. However, none of this caught Morris’ attention as the man’s hands did—or, more accurately, the absence of hands. Both arms ended in rounded stubs, with ragged scars etching his leathery skin.
Morris clenched his jaw. How had this man survived so long? Surely someone in his condition would have been found and taken care of…
His focus suddenly swerved as the old man, Jack, spoke up roughly. “I don’t have time for this, Missy. Get out.”
“Whatcha gonna do to the man, Jack?” She tugged insistently at his sleeve, shrewdly ignoring his orders.
The man shook her gently off his arm. “You want to know who this man is, Missy?” he growled as he turned his dark eyes toward Morris. “This man thinks he can decide what happens to our lives. He came to take us away.”
“Where?” She scrunched her nose, staring suspiciously at Morris.
“Somewhere far away.” Jack turned to a short table in the middle of the room. On top of the table were two custom gloves made for his arms—both ended in hooks. Carefully, he placed both of his mutilated arms into the gloves as the little girl helped shove them in for a secure fit.
Morris tried to prop himself up on his elbows, to try and get to his feet, but a slicing pain cut into his ankle, and he sank back despairingly. It was certainly sprained.
“But why?” the little girl persisted noisily.
“Just because.” The man hooked open a drawer on the table to probe in it.
The girl scowled, crossing her arms. “That’s not a good reason.”
“I know, Missy. I know.” From the drawer, the man carefully removed a short, rusted artifact that Morris had only seen on display: an ancient handgun. With a practiced precision, the man navigated the gun until it balanced on one hook while the other curved over the trigger.
Before he could protest, the girl set up a wail. “Jack, you ain’t gonna kill him, are you? Are you gonna shoot him?! No…!”
“Shut up!” Jack snapped. “Now get out of here before I toss you out!”
“You shut up!” she retaliated furiously. Morris’ fear turned into astonishment as the little girl began angrily beating the man with her fists. “Why, Jack? Why are you gonna kill him? What’s he done?”
“What’s he done?” Jack scoffed, releasing the safety on the gun. “It’s not what he’s done; it’s what he’s gonna do.”
She glared at him, blue eyes wide and icy, and hissed, “That’s not a good reason either.”
For a split second, it looked as if the old man might point the gun straight in Morris’ face and fire. But instead he froze, staring first at Morris, then at Missy, then back at Morris. His expression was unreadable.
Morris said nothing, his hands held out defensively in front of him, and held his breath. If he believed in prayer, he would have been spewing divine appeals in every direction. For a few more breathless moments, an eerie silence remained suspended in the small room.
There was a sharp click and a clatter, and Morris breathed an exhausted sigh of heavy relief. The gun had been dropped back into the drawer.
Jack remained standing motionless for several seconds, his forehead furrowed in deep concentration. Neither Morris nor the little girl spoke.
“…You’re right, Missy.” Jack’s voice hung so low, it was little more than a faint rumble. “It’s not a good reason.” Wordlessly, he pivoted and stalked out of the room. When he opened the door, Morris caught a glimpse of a midnight blue sky speckled with stars.
A strange, foreign confusion descended upon Morris as he openly gawked, as if he couldn’t quite grasp what had just happened…It must be the shock, he decided. He was suddenly aware of the little girl’s presence when he heard a clumsy thumping. He looked over. She was wearing his shoes. She is a cute little thing, he thought distractedly, just like Emily had been, before the Destruction…
Keeping a watchful eye on him, she inched closer, just out of arm’s reach, and sat down decisively with the shoes folded up carefully underneath. “What’s your name?” she promptly inquired.
Morris hesitated, staring dazedly past her. “Why’d he do that?” he asked, his voice scratchy. “He knows why I’m here. Why didn’t he just…”
“I asked first!” she sputtered, raising her small, shrill voice above his. “Don’t be rude.”
He felt a condescending eyebrow arch. “You’re a bit…outgoing, aren’t you?”
Missy glared at him. “You’re a bit rude, aren’t you?” Ignoring his amazement, she delicately clasped her hands and repeated with supreme patience, “What’s your name?”
“Morris. J. Morris,” he mumbled, finally managing to drag himself up to a sitting position.
“What’s the J stand for?”
He cast her a bewildered look. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. What’s the J stand for?”
He stammered, “James.”
“I’m Missy. How do you do?”
Morris didn’t respond, instead gruffly asking, “Is he your grandfather?”
“Sort of,” she explained matter-of-factly. “See, we adopted each other. His family’s all gone, an’ so’s mine. They went to Heaven to God,” she whispered reverently, “cause all the people wanted to fight down here.”
Mentally, Morris rapidly did the math; the Destruction was four years ago…Missy had been about two. Same as my kid, he distantly remembered, but Emily didn’t make it. It’s a miracle Missy survived…Though for some reason, I’m not surprised. With a sickened shock, he faintly remembered that he had come to change that.
“I’ll be going to Heaven someday, did you know? Jack says we don’t know when though; he says we’re still in line, and God’s keeping track.”
Morris swallowed, trying to moisten his parched throat. “So where’s this Jack from?”
Missy sighed impatiently. “I dunno… He was in that fight though. He lost his hands in it,” she murmured secretively. Proudly, she held out her small fingers. “Jack says I’m his hands now.”
“Missy!” Jack’s gruff voice came from outside, followed by his heavy footsteps.
Unexpectedly, Missy leaned closer, blue eyes solemn. “Mister James,” she began, “Jack said something about you when you were asleep. He said you could put us further up in line. Is that true?”
Morris couldn’t reply.
Accepting his silence as an affirmative, her mouth dropped open. “James,” she whispered slowly, “are you God?”
The door suddenly swung open with a bang as Jack stepped in, a long walking stick cradled in his handless arms. Outside, shadowy clouds had begun to shroud the stars, and a cold roll of thunder sounded from a distance.
“Storm’s turning round,” Jack said bluntly. “It’s a result of living out here—a lot of weird things happen in the Outskirts.” He shuffled in, holding the door open. “Better get to bed, Missy. Go on.”
Casting Morris a knowing glance, the little girl skipped blithely out in his large shoes, stopping only to brush a kiss on Jack’s cheek.
The old man shut the door behind her. “We’ve got a lot of outbuildings,” he confessed awkwardly. “She’s got her own little castle—that’s what she calls it.” He let the walking stick roll down his arms to the floor, and kicked it over to Morris. “Guess you could use that.”
Silently, Morris seized it and pulled himself up to his feet, staring suspiciously at the older man. “You know why I’m here,” he said in a low voice. “Why pull me out of the wreck, and then on top of that, not kill me?”
Jack chuckled dryly. “Cause we ain’t like you, sir,” he said sarcastically. “I don’t make it my occupation to go round killing innocent folks. Trust me,” he muttered. “It’s for the right reasons.”
“You fought in the war, didn’t you?” Morris acknowledged the missing hands with a nod. “In that respect, I guess we’ve got one thing in common.”
“I’m nothing like you,” Jack snapped viciously, taking a threatening step forward. “I was drafted into the Destruction. After the war, with my hands gone, I began to hear rumors from the Recovery Board,” he spat, “about the ‘dwindling resources’ and a need to save the ‘desirable’ people who were able to contribute.” He took a seat on a wooden stool, smiling tightly. “Well, that ruled me out, didn’t it? No hands, a soldier without a war… Pretty soon, I noticed people—friends—disappearing. Nobody knew where to, but nobody cared enough to ask.” He paused. “I left, came out here, and tried to wait it out, hoping it would eventually end.” Jack frowned, his eyes misting over with memories. “It didn’t. Soon, children were disappearing: the disabled and deformed. Then it got even worse.” He glared at Morris with a kind of weak pride. “I may live in the Outskirts, but I know more than most people. I know about the Disposition Screenings, the ‘homes’ for those with rebellious, inquiring and potentially anarchist tendencies.” He jerked a thumb at the door. “Missy was on her way to one of those murder houses before I picked her up.”
Morris’ conditioning should have allowed him to respond to this man’s misguided notions, but no words would form.
Jack’s lip curled disdainfully. “Yes, Mr. Morris, I know why you’re here. I know what kind of a person you are.” His voice dropped lower. “I also know that we’re not like you.” Slowly, he pulled himself to his feet, wincing. “And if that means scum like you are gonna rid the world of us ‘undesirables’,” he grinned sadly, “then it can’t be much of a world, can it?”
Morris licked his lips nervously, opening his mouth to speak.
Jack didn’t turn, still gazing at Morris with a resolute sorrow in his gray eyes. “That’s Missy,” he explained slowly. “Guess she wants a story; Cinderella, probably. At least that’s got a happy ending.”
As Morris watched the old man limp outside, his confusion only grew, creating its own Destruction in his mind.
“Morris! J. Morris!”
There was an unfamiliar voice shouting to him, Morris sleepily realized as he felt smothering tendrils of slumber slowly begin to slip away.
“Morris! You’re safe now; do you hear me? Morris!”
“Wha--?” Morris mumbled incoherently as he felt hands shake his shoulders vigorously. He was drowsily musing how hard it was to open his eyes, to focus, to sit up, and to wake up when he heard an explanation come as if from a distance.
“Breathe in, Morris, this will counter the drug…”
A sharp, sickly sweet smell stabbed its way into Morris’ head, and he suddenly became acutely aware that he was now on a cushioned seat inside a bouncing, elongated vehicle. Terrance’s pulpy face loomed in front of him.
“There you go, Morris. Glad to see you’re better.”
“What…what happened?” Morris asked breathlessly, looking around wildly. “Where…”
“Calm yourself, Morris,” Terrance said reprovingly. “Everything’s taken care of. When your R-22 crashed, we sent in a squad to get you and the two others. Quick and easy! See, we had an idea that this would work out better…”
“Wait. What would work out better?” Morris questioned hastily, running a rough hand through his dark hair in frustration.
“Would you calm down? These two have been eluding our Evaluators for months… After a bit of research, I concluded that it wouldn’t be unlikely for these two to have values,” he scoffed, “and that by sending in a solitary team member—lost in a storm—it would force them to help you. You see, we tagged a locator in your shoes.”
“My shoes?” Morris glanced down. One was back on his foot; his opposite ankle was swollen. Missy…
Terrance nodded proudly. “Genius, isn’t it? It made it quite easy to find you and the Undesirables.”
“But what if they hadn’t helped me?” Morris sputtered furiously. “I could have been killed!”
Terrance pulled away from Morris to sit on the adjacent seat. “You really should calm yourself, Mr. Morris,” he advised gravely with a curious expression. “One would think you’re getting rebellious tendencies yourself…Of course there was some risk, but the greater need justified it.”
Morris felt a compressed rage swell up in his throat, but he checked it. “Where are they now?” he asked in a low voice.
“The Undesirables? In the back…Why?”
Morris did not reply, rising to his feet and hobbling to the back of the long vehicle. A guard stood next to a locked steel door, and Morris waved him away. For a split moment, he hesitated, and then opened the door to step in.
The small compartment was very cold, and the roar of the vehicle’s engine echoed against the metal walls. Suddenly, a little voice spoke up hopefully from a shadowy corner in the back. “Mister James?”
“Keep away from him, Missy. He’s…He’s putting us further up in line.” Jack’s voice trembled unexpectedly.
“Oh…” Missy fell into silence.
Morris couldn’t speak, feeling the pain in his ankle overwhelmed by the painful tightening in his throat. “I…I’m sorry about all this,” he muttered, his hand fidgeting in his pocket. “You were right, Jack. You aren’t like them. I…I only hope I can be less of them now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jack inquired, and Morris could see his hunched shoulders straighten.
Missy spoke up before Morris could answer. “Mister James?”
“Yes, Missy?” In the darkness, Morris didn’t see her approach, but he felt her hand slide into his. “Are you taking me to Heaven now?’
The loud hum of the engine muffled the sob caught in Morris’ throat. He shook his head firmly. “No.” He rubbed his thumb over her small fingers. “Do you want to know why?” Her hand pulled away as Morris returned to the door, pausing to look back at them. “Because I’m not God, Missy.”
Jack interjected as Morris turned back to the door. “Where are you going?”
“Here.” A shining object arced through the air into Missy’s small hands. She held it up; it was a key.
When Jack spoke again, his rough voice had softened. “Why are you doing this for us, James? You know that they’ll hunt you down for this, and…” He stopped.
“Trust me,” Morris said. “It’s for the right reasons.”
“Even if we get out of this room, there’s still about five more to deal with. Why do you think you can stop them all?”
There was another hesitation—a still, contented pause. Then Morris held up his hand; he held a shining gun. He smiled tightly. “Because I’m cutting you in line.”