I am running.
The smoke burns my eyes and rubble tugs at my feet, threatening to pull me down. Pieces of sharp glass are dug into my skin causing flaming pain around my body. I shove the pain down as I run. I rocket around a corner and crouch behind what’s left of a car. I can hear the dogs closing in. Their howls fill my ears and I clutch my hands to my chest. Nestled there, in my tar smeared hands is the answer. I press it to my chest.
I can hear the dogs, I can feel the soldiers closing in. I can’t get away, not like this. They have Gieger-Muellers, and the radioactivity pulsing from my body can’t be masked. They’re coming. The shouts fill my ears. My eyes shut, I mash them closed until I can see little white dots dance across my brain. The roar of the tanks, it swells until my bones shake. All I can do is open my mouth and scream-
And then I’m awake. Sharp, panicked breaths slowly deepen and I can feel my body relax muscle by muscle. That was right when another bomb went off and blew the troops to a fine pink mist. While hunting me, they accidentally walked straight into an active zone marked for another round of bombings. I can’t help but feel guilty for it.
I’m in the bathroom before I know it. It’s become a routine for me, something I can’t help. I quickly look over my body for any sign of disintegration. It’ll be any day now that I start to fall apart. My silvery skin will crack off and disappear into the air. When I turn the lights off I can see my eyes glowing blue in the darkness. They crackle with power.
The dingy motel room looks even worse in the light of day. The carpet is one big stain of leftover dead dreams and past regrets. On the nightstand sits the answer. It’s a flash drive and it’s shaped like an apple, which I think is rather funny since it contains the key to ending the attacks on the American people. It’ll stop the bombs, the killings, fires ravaging the earth, the children calling out to their mothers as they slip down the precipice of their own mortality.
I take another deep breath. I need to focus, I almost let my emotions get away from me. I force my radioactivity back down with much unease. I need to keep it masked, not only will high radioactivity levels give away my position to the troops but I could injure any humans around me. Which is the complete opposite of what I’m trying to do.
When I woke up on the middle of a road in an upscale neighborhood in Jefferson City, Missouri I knew immediately what I was. They say whenever one of us is born we already know who we are. I guess it’s the only upside when you have a twenty-odd day lifespan. Instant presence of mind. As the element Einsteinium, I was born from the fallout of the latest nuclear bomb dropped into the heart of an American city. I’m pretty sure my friend Uranium made it but I didn’t stick around to find out.
I’ve been made a couple times before, last time in an underground military lab in California. My maker called me Mason, after a famous politician from her home state of Wisconsin, and now as I fill out the motel’s guest book I scribble that name down as well as a five star rating. It wasn’t The Hilton but it kept me safe for the night. The concierge nods gratefully at me and just like that I’m on the road again.
The drive from Missouri to Washington is over 14 hours. It should have only taken one day of constant driving and hard shots of Red Bull but I can’t be too careful. They could be anywhere, looking for me, hunting me with their dogs. So I take several detours through small towns and seedy motels. I can’t help but lay my forehead onto the steering wheel of the truck I stole back in St. Louis. I’m already sweaty and the pungent stench of blood fills my nose. My body begins to shake, slowly then all at once and then I’m convulsing in the front seat of a car that I snuck from under the nose of a ninety year old couple on their way to their grandson’s birthday. Some hero I am. My head jerks back and then forward and I can see the steering wheel get bigger and bigger until everything goes black.
I come to and there’s a man above me. We connect eyes; mine are wide and frantic while I’m still drowsily blinking mine.
“...ake u…” My ears feel like they’re full of bees buzzing and I can’t hear.
The backhand to my face comes as a surprise.
“...up! Get up, son! Now!” He’s screaming with his face inches from mine. There’s blood running down his left temple, it’s fresh. There’s wailing in the background, kids. Their terrified shrieks are enough to bring me fully to the surface of my consciousness.
“Are you up? Get up, now!” I connect my eyes with his and mumble something probably incoherent but he gets the message. Einsteinium is awake.
He drags me behind a car forcefully. My limbs aren’t working yet but I know this feeling, I’m still being formed.
“Listen to me”, the man hisses, “There is a war going on. We don’t have much time. Take this.” He thrusts something into my hand but I hardly feel it. “It has the answer for what they don’t have, listen to me! You have to take it, take it to Washington.”
My head shakes back and forth, what is he talking about?
“You can! You can and you will!” My face is clutched in his shaking fingers, “You have to go now, they know Einsteinium was made here they’ll be coming for you.”
“Why is this happening?” That’s all I can choke out. He gives me a pitying look.
“You must have been asleep a long time. Everything is different now, the country is at war with forces they cannot beat. That is why you must take this and get it to the military!”
In the distance comes the rumbling of tanks. He springs up, rather spry for a man bleeding from his head.
“I’ll hold them off. You must run, now!” I must look as terrified as I feel, because his gaze softens. “Please, you’re our only hope.”
And then he’s gone.
I gasp like a fish thrown onto concrete. I flop around like it too. My chest is burning but my hands still claw at it, frantically ripping into my skin for release. All I remember after that is running. There’s blood clotting under my fingernails but I don’t stop. I can’t breathe.
There’s a person walking near me. A woman, I can see her out of the corner of my eyes. As she passes close to the car I’m in I can see her stumble and clutch her head lightly as if in pain. That’s how I know my radiation is running rampant. It’s pushed out of my skin and is spreading through the air.
I need to get it together, now. Trembling, I reach into the center console and pull out the car’s cigarette igniter, thankful it’s already burning red hot. Then, with little hesitation, I press the fiery metal to my skin, and listen to it sizzle.
As I wail in torment I can feel the radiation streaking back into my body and it makes it all worth it. No more lives will be lost because of me. Letting the igniter drop is less relief than seeing the woman straighten up and keep walking.
The engine rumbles to life beneath my fingertips and I drive off, narrowly missing the same woman as I speed out of the parking lot. Goddamn it.
I make Washington by nightfall. The city is crowded and soon my car is abandoned near an empty Chinese food restaurant.
About an hour ago I heard the soft sounds of hound claws clicking on concrete. Of course they would know where I’m going. Hiding in a large dumpster was the only way to stay hidden. I heard them a few minutes ago, the drones giving out a report on who to look for.
“Attention to all troops. Keep your eyes open and your wits about. We are hunting for an element unlike many others. Einsteinium is very dangerous.”
They proceeded to give the basic profile of who I am.
“Einsteinium, alias Es, is a metal and an Actinide. It has 99 protons and electrons and 155 neutrons. It only has two valence electrons but do not let that fool you. Einsteinium is extremely dangerous. It is highly radioactive, violent, and should be approached with extreme caution.”
They told the troops that even though I may look human, I am nothing but a jumble of atoms.
“When faced with Einsteinium it is important not to use any type of heat or electricity; Einsteinium will conduct it. If all else fails, it can be melted at 860?.”
After that they just moved on. Finally being able to climb out of my dumpster hiding spot might be the greatest pleasure I’ve had all day. There’s a banana peel stuck to my leg and I’m covered in a fine layer of stickiness. I’ve never felt worse.
Even so, when I hear the subtle clearing of a throat behind me I don’t even hesitate a fraction of a second. I pick up my feet and I’m gone.
Running full speed after being cramped in a dumpster for God knows how long is hard. My legs are wobbling like jelly and my back twinges with every step. But I don’t stop, not when I’m this close.
Vague shouts from behind me reach my ear but I push them back, grinning. They’re fading and I turn the corner into a small alley, leaving the voice far behind me. I’m going to make it!
And then I run smack into a large barrel shaped chest and land right on my tailbone. Pain shoots up my spine but I’m still back on my feet in an instant. Three men stand across from me in varying sizes. Troops of the enemy, no doubt. The look on their faces suggests they’re just as surprised to see me as I am scared that I see them.
“Look Jasper, it’s him!” The littlest one whispers. At least he didn’t call me an “it”. The biggest one has a gleam in his eyes.
“He already done know who it is, Jacob. Shut’yer mouth up.” The other smaller one smacks Jacob and he falls silent.
“Well boys, look who we have here. The rotten element the whole front seems to be in a big tizzy about.” The big guy sniffs the air. “Don’t look like nothin’ special to me.”
My silver tinted skin must be all but invisible under the trash and my blue eyes are probably dim from exhaustion. They look at each other and the small ones pull rope out of their pockets. At least it’s nice to know they came prepared.
I don’t even have time to turn around before the biggest one grabs me by the shoulders and I’m shoved against the wall. I keep struggling but my hand is starting to feel funny. Numb, and cold.
“We’re gonna eat like kings tonight, boys!” The big guy crows and the smaller ones cheer.
I get my hand up, they’re big boys, but they’re weak and I’m still slippery from my time in a dumpster. Just as I go to make a fist, it happens. What I’ve been dreading since I got away the first time. Right in front of my eyes, and the boys’, my pinky and ring finger snap off my hand and turn to dust in the late night breeze.
I close my eyes. It’s started and it’s only a matter of time now. The three boys seem quite taken aback as well. I guess no one warned them about body parts snapping off.
“What the -” That’s all the big guy can get out before he’s punched straight across the face. His jaw goes crunch and he crumbles to the ground. The little guys get the same treatment, attacked by a yellow blur.
Only when they’re dead and stuffed behind a bike rack does my savior turn to me. It’s a Thorium. I breathe a sigh of relief to see the Actinide. She smiles at me and then looks mad.
“Why did you run away? This all could have been avoided, people will be looking for them.” She speaks softly but her voice carries strong to me.
“Yes! I found you covered in garbage - nice look by the way - and then you started running. Very rude if you ask me.”
I just shrug an apology. Now that I have a good look at her, I can tell she’s around my age. Her yellowish but strangely colorless skin is hidden under many layers of black fabrics. She has a nose ring, a lip ring, and five earrings on each ear. Flame red hair pokes from under her beanie. A teenager through and through.
I pat my pockets to make sure the flash drive is there. Without it, all of this was for nothing. Thorium’s eyes follow my movement and upon seeing my missing fingers she tuts, with vigor.
“Already, huh?” She doesn’t sound the least bit sympathetic.
“There’s nothing I can do.” I say it indifferently. There really is nothing I can do. Now that it’s started for real, it won’t be long until all of me drifts away into the wind.
“Exactly why you need to get moving!”, she yells, eyes wide with excitement. Jeesh, the mood swings of a teenager too. “Move your butt, come on. The fate of America lies on your potato peel shoulders.” Reaching out she plucks a few of them off.
“I need to get to Washington, like now,” I explain.
“Um, well first of all we’re already in Washington dummy,” she declares, “But I’m just going to assume you mean the military. And that part’s easy.” Thorium produces a map from one of the folds in her outfit and shoves it into my hands. “Pay attention, Mason. The rest of the Actinides are here as well. They’ll hold back the troops as long as they can. Take the route marked in red. Run, and don’t stop.”
Opening the map I see it indeed does have an easy to follow red trail leading to a neighborhood a few blocks away from the White House. Next to the trail the words ‘Don’t mess this up. We’re counting on you, dummy’ are written in bubbly letters.
Thorium is all but gone when I look up, whisking around a corner. And I don’t even have the time to ask her how she knows my name.
When I finally make it to the end of the red trail it’s almost dawn. It was a grueling journey, in which I lost two and half more fingers, most of my toes, and one ear. I’m basically dragging myself along.
As soon as I reach the house circled in red on the map, men descend upon me, all dressed in Army fatigues. I have 25 guns pointed in my face before I can even ring the doorbell. What’s left of my hand clenches, I am so not in the mood for this.
“When I was first discovered in 1952 by some man named Albert, I almost killed half a city. Up until now I’ve kept my radioactivity under check. For the sake of the people. But I just crawled through half of Washington. I’m covered in trash. My body is disintegrating and I’m in so much pain so I swear to God if you put one more Goddamn gun in my face I am going to freaking lose it and I will burn this-”
“Put the guns down right now, come on guys! I can vouch for him.” The female voice is pleading yet commanding and I’d recognize it anywhere. It’s the scientist who named me Mason, the one from the lab. Her name was Maggie.
Slowly each of the guns are retracted from my face. I’ve calmed down; my radiation is in check. Maggie reaches down and gently pulls me up. I’m so tired. She’s older now, but it’s her. The house opens up and she leads me stumbling into it. The light is so bright, blinding really.
“You know I wasn’t going to hurt them, Maggie, don’t you?” I whisper at her. I just wanted to scare them enough to get into the house. Maggie just lays her hand on my back and she smiles at me, nodding. Her lab coat is wrinkled with soot and there are deep bags under her eyes.
She seats me at a large table near the middle of the house. There are men in suits all around me, medals glinting in the light. It hurts my eyes and I just want to sleep.
The man at the head of the table speaks up. “Ah, Mr. Einsteinium. I’m glad you found your way here at last.” His voice booms towards me, so loud and piercing. I glare back at him, enraged.
“At last?” I can feel my eyes growing stronger and stronger, they crackle outwardly. “At last?”
Maggie gently touches my arm and softly tells me, “Density is 8.84 g/cm3. Standard state is solid.” It works to calm me some. She used to do that back at the lab; whenever an element was feeling upset or struggling for control she would remind us of our properties, as if to ground us to ourselves.
The man at the head looks less sure of himself. He starts to speak and then stops himself. I take up the airways for him.
“I didn’t wake up in the middle of a warzone and slink all the way here to be disrespected.” I maintain, and then add, “My name is Mason.”
“My name is Mr. President, but you can call me Isaac. We know you travelled a very long way to help us. You- You’re our only hope. Please Einst- Mason.”
In the end I give them the flash drive and the place explodes with activity. I’m in too much discomfort to enjoy the end of a war. Maggie ends up leading me to the basement, where it’s cold and dark and there’s no sound.
She doesn’t say much, just lays me down on a cot and holds my hand. She doesn’t need to. She knows what’s happening, I’ll be gone soon. After a while she pulls out her phone and we listen to Mozart. I smile in relief. He always was my favorite and she would play his melodies as they ran tests on my body.
I reach down and my left leg is no longer there.
“I’m cold,” I murmur and Maggie throws a blanket over me.
She grips my hand while she still can, breaking the silence. “You saved them all Mason, you know that? People are going to live because of you. The country will survive.”
I giggle as my hand turns to nothing between her fingers. Maggie simply lays her hand by my head. My legs are gone now. And then my arms and hair and I can feel my stomach disappearing. Mozart’s track ends and Maggie reaches down to put on another one. She doesn’t even see the rest of me leave.
When she turns back, it’s just my eyes fizzling out on the empty mattress.
I am falling.