Sleight of Hand
Nav and April barreled down the hallway, nearly tripping over each other as they skittered around the corner. A second later, the entire corridor exploded. Nav tumbled forward and rolled just in time to avoid a saber of molten steel as it spun overhead. In the background, chunks of rubble rained down like hail, and wave of searing heat charged after them, a herald of the destruction wrought by their hands.
“Woohoohoo!” hooted Nav, looking back over his shoulder. “Would you get a load of the size of those flames!”
“Good thing you did not use the second charge! You would have brought the whole ocean down upon us!”
Laughing in tandem, they continued in their dead run, leaving the section behind them in shambles. They sprinted down three more corridors, and the sounds of mayhem receded. Nav re-loaded his gun in the midst of their mad dash, holding the spare cartridge between his teeth before clicking it into place.
“Jeez, Sector 4 seems to go on forever!” he said. “I mean, what the heck? We took out an armory and like three storage rooms – not to mention like forty of those freaky robot things. It never ends!”
Right on cue, three more of the robotic guardians leaped out in a surprise attack as they rounded the next bend. The two fronts collided in a shock of screeching metal and straining bone. The first bot launched itself onto Nav, knocking him to the floor. He landed with the creature on top of his chest, and his gun slid from his hand and spun away. Nav grabbed hold of the creature’s muzzle moments before its teeth closed around his throat. Sweat dripped into his field of vision as he fought to pry the jaws apart.
April narrowly avoided her assailant, pivoting on one foot while simultaneously pulling a handgun from the holster on her hip. One eye squinted shut as she aimed and pulled the trigger. The ensuing bolt of energy took the second guardian straight in the face, blowing off its metal jaws and sending it twisting and writhing into the wall. She spun around and, crouching to steady her arm, shot the front legs off the third. Its forward momentum carried it toward her, and she lunged and grabbed it by the hindquarters. She yanked out a knife and began to slash at the creature, snarling like an animal herself as she tore off sections of synthetic flesh and cast them to the wayside.
A few feet away, cyborg and machine wrestled against one another with all their might. The muscles in Nav’s living arm began to tremble from overexertion, and he called out to April.
“Babe,” his voice cracked, “not to interrupt your fun, but a little help please…”
April looked up, and in one deft movement, threw her knife at Nav’s attacker. The blade stuck in the robot’s neck, cutting off power to the head. Nav threw it off him, grabbed his gun from the floor, and put a permanent end to their duel. He turned to face his fiancée, shaking beads of perspiration from his hair.
“Nice save, O Gorlock-of-mine-eye! And I know I’ve said this before, but you are just so cute when you’re ruthlessly massacring the enemy!”
April wiped a blob of oil from her cheek and bared her fangs in bloodthirsty delight. “I will tear them all limb from limb!” she cried hoarsely. “I will snap open their ribcages and strangle them with their own innards!”
“And you’re such a positive thinker, sweetie! I am one lucky guy...”
April retrieved her dagger while Nav tacked some C-4 onto the wall. He set the charge, then flipped April a thumbs-up.
“Ready to make some noise?”
She thrust her fist into the air. “Raze this sector to the ground!”
He flicked the switch that started the timer, and the two of them took off running again. As they swerved down the pipe, Nav plugged his ears, tee-heeing like a naughty little kid.
“Fire in the hole!”
Rolling explosions engulfed the section behind them. This blast was smaller than the previous one, and April and Nav slowed their pace to a suave, self-assured stroll as currents of roaring flame flooded the hallway.
“Ho yeah,” said Nav, “we’ve got so much style. If only we had some rockin' background music to accompany us right now, we’d be the ultimate in badass.”
“The explosions could be our music,” she suggested.
“Good point. I have always liked explosions. They make me feel all manly.”
“Me too!” agreed April brightly.
As they rounded the next corner, their dramatic flair vanished. There, at the other end of the corridor, their next opponent was waiting. Future Carl stood motionless, arms limp, his red hair waving gently in the wind generated by all the destruction. Two bots crouched on either side of him, languid yet menacing in their coiled poses. April reached for her machine gun, but Nav grabbed her wrist before she could fire.
“No, don’t shoot! That pasty whelp is future chubby lumpkins…Aurora said he helped her escape, remember? He might be able to help us.”
Still brandishing her weapon, April shouted ahead to Future Carl. “Carl! We will gladly spare your life if you join with us. Call off your robots and come forward!” When he didn’t reply, April took a cautious step forward. “Carl! Did you not hear me? Please acknowledge!”
Future Carl didn’t even look up as he wearily lifted a gun and pointed it in their direction. Nav backed up a step and raised his hands.
“Whoa there buddy, let’s not do anything rash…"
“Do not be foolish, Carl,” hissed April. “You do not want to fight us. Lower your weapon, or we will not show mercy.”
Future Carl didn’t respond; he merely stood there, his weapon trained on his targets, eyes hidden from view. Nav shrugged and turned to April.
“Well, I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this…would you like to kill him, or shall I?”
“Joint effort. I will take precision. Swap?”
They tossed their respective weapons to each other, exchanging Nav’s handgun for April’s AK 47. They squared off with Future Carl across the passageway, guns cocked and at the ready.
April touched her finger to the trigger. “Last chance, Carl…you cannot beat us this way. I am a trained sharpshooter, and I will not hesitate. If you do not want to die, then either join with us or surrender.”
“Seriously, bro…do yourself a favor and quit before her bullet gets up-close and personal with your internal organs. And if you won’t do it for yourself, then do it for me, man. It really goes against my personal code of villainous conduct to kill a hapless Igor like you.”
Future Carl’s gun arm shook, but he held firmly to his position. At last he flipped his chin up and engaged with them. “Don’t come any further this way. You’ll just wind up dead. Please leave while you still have the chance.”
April and Nav exchanged glances.
“Hate to burst your bubble, my feckless freckled friend,” quipped Nav, “but we have our orders. We’re going that way whether you like it or not.”
“Please go back. I’m asking you nicely. He will kill you for sure if you keep running around like this. You need to hide until it’s all over. I can help you if you…”
April lurched forward, both fists clenched, her face twisted in anger. “Coward! Soldiers never hide! We must continue carrying out our mission at all costs. Whether we die or not is irrelevant!”
Future Carl retreated a step, frightened by her outburst. Seeing that his strategy was not working, he lowered the gun and reached out to Nav in entreaty.
“Please, you have to listen to me! I know you. I see you on the news from time to time – Nav, the 7th Samarkandi, right?”
Nav touched a finger to his lips, looking up at the ceiling in an exaggerated imitation of deep thought. “You watch the news? Hmm, I took you to be more of a “Barney” kinda guy…no? Blues Clues, maybe? Muppets? …Sesame Street? Come on, you gotta tell me 'warm' or 'cold' here, man…”
“Stop joking around! I’m serious! You’re not a bad guy, and I don’t want to see you get killed.”
“Ha, tell that to the Galactic police,” shot back Nav. “I’ve defrauded twenty-two multi-billion dollar corporations and stolen priceless goods from more pompous windbags than I can count. I’m a con artist who charms and manipulates unsuspecting victims before making off with everything they own. I’ve held up banks and stolen church supplies and led terrorist attacks on my own planet. I’m a felon, unscrupulous and thoughtless and rotten to the core.”
Future Carl shook his head. “I don’t believe you. You can pretend to be heartless, but you’re not. Just because you sometimes do bad things, that doesn’t make you a bad person, right? Like that time you robbed the bank on Tounk, or the time you hijacked the train station. Remember? You let all the women and children hostages go.”
“You’ve been following my career?” frowned Nav.
“Not exactly…I, err, it’s just…” Future Carl stuttered, embarrassed. “Well, if you’re still a good guy despite doing all those bad things, then I thought that maybe…maybe I…”
“How many times have you looked the other way while the Dictator murdered people?” asked Nav softly. “How many friends have you betrayed by your inaction?”
Future Carl slapped a hand to his chest. “I want to change. I really do! I want to do something good, even if I’ve done bad stuff before. I just…I just don’t know where to start!”
Nav smiled, then shouldered the AK 47. “I’ve just decided that I like you, Carl. And to answer your question, the fact that you’re sticking your neck out like this proves that you’ve already started. I’d be honored to have you as one of my companions, if you’re willing to take the risk.”
“I didn’t come here to join you,” he said, turning away. “I can’t. I can’t do that to him either. Jimmy would…” he broke off. “I just don’t want to see you guys die. You’re not a bad person. You don’t deserve that. So please…please go back.”
“You want to know the truth?” sighed Nav. “To be honest, I’d love to turn back. I’m scared witless right now, but I volunteered for this mission and I’m going to see it through. Not to sound cliché, but that’s kinda of what loyalty is, isn’t it? Doing what you promised even when you’re about to pee yourself because you’re so afraid? Now I may be a lot of things, but I’m not somebody who scuttles away with my tail between my legs when the going gets rough. So thanks for the warning, but we really need to get moving.”
Nav strode forward, and Future Carl jerked the gun toward them again, a bar of light gliding across his glasses.
“No!” he shouted desperately. “I won’t let you go! Get out of here, or I’ll…I’ll shoot!”
Nav raised an amused eyebrow. “Oh, is that so? And here I thought you were trying to prevent us from getting shot…”
“I don’t – I mean, I don’t know, I’ll just injure you or something. I mean it, go back! I won’t let you come any further!”
“Wrong,” said April.
She squeezed the trigger, and her perfectly aimed shot knocked the gun out of Future Carl’s grip – just in time for Dictator Jimmy to step around the corner and snatch the spinning weapon from midair. The onlookers could barely believe their eyes.
April only hesitated for a second before she opened fire – but her shots bounced harmlessly off a force field of some kind, which seemed to be issuing from the high-tech watch on his wrist. DJ twirled the gun around his finger, taunting them from across the hall with his self-satisfied smirk.
“Thanks for delaying them, Carl,” he said in a falsely thankful tone. “It would have been bothersome to track them down had they strayed any further.”
Dictator Jimmy cocked the gun. “If you want to leave, Carl, I won’t stop you. This will be over with quickly anyway.”
Carl looked from one face to another, stricken like a deer in the headlights. Nav was the first to react – he smiled sadly at April, then lifted his shoulders in a resigned shrug.
“Well, looks like our number’s finally up, babe. It was only a matter of time, really. I’ve had the Devil’s luck for eight years running. It had to end somewhere.”
Beneath this outward nonchalance, Nav’s mind raced through every possible course of action. He analyzed the situation from every angle, and in a flash, his mind hatched a plan. He crossed his fingers and silently asked whoever might be listening for one last stroke of good fortune.
Nav shrugged again. “Well, you know what they say. When you’re dealt a losing hand, there’s only one thing you can do…”
“What's that?” prompted April.
He winked at her. “Cheat.”
Nav yanked April’s dagger from her belt, and, stepping between her and the line of fire, rammed the blade into her stomach. April’s strangled grunt resounded through the confined space, and a river of thick liquid trickled down her legs and pooled on the floor. Future Carl covered his mouth, sickened by the sight of blood, and even DJ paused at this unexpected action. But only April saw the truth…that Nav had stabbed through his own mechanical hand, and that it was only purple coolant which leaked from the gash, mimicking blood as it dripped to the ground. April touched the rapidly spreading stain, then raised her gaze.
“I’m sorry, honey. I guess in the end, I’m just selfish after all.”
“But…why?” her voice trembled. "I would have gladly..."
“It’s better this way, April,” he smiled, continuing the charade. “I can’t stand the thought of you suffering the same kind of torture that Aurora endured. I don’t want to leave you at the mercy of that madman. Die in peace, knowing that it was me who took your life, and not him.”
He twisted the knife, snapping the synthetic ligaments in his hand. Nav’s body obscured the true nature of his action; Dictator Jimmy saw only purple blood spurting from what he believed to be a serious wound. Nav ripped the dagger out in a flourish, splattering the walls with lustrous droplets. Hands clasped over her abdomen, April stared up at her fiancé, desperate for one more moment, one more word, one more touch. Brushing his fingers across her cheek, Nav leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
Before she could stop him, he drew back and bashed the stock of the machine gun across her face. April fell to the floor, knocked unconscious, but otherwise unhurt. Her helmet rolled from her head and stopped just in front of Future Carl, who jumped back in horror. DJ’s eyes traveled over April, who laid motionless, face-down in a glistening violet puddle. After surveying the scene without comment, he looked at last into Nav’s determined face.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had the occasion to say this, but I’m impressed,” said Dictator Jimmy. “Murdering the woman you love to save her from death at the hands of the enemy? That takes a lot of nerve. I was going to kill you without ceremony, but you clearly deserve better than that. Any last words?”
Nav swung around lazily to face his executioner. Flashing him a crooked grin, he spread his arms wide.
“Ya. Say hi to Aurora for me when she’s kicking your ass.”
Unable to watch, Future Carl turned and plunged blindly down the hall, running with all his might, running from the blood and the shame and the guilt. Plugging his ears, he prayed not to hear the gunshots, which rung out a moment later in a wordless testament to another senseless killing…
Guest art at the top by the ridiculously talented Ni-NaJ