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The Gift of Death
by Christina Sng

“I’ll trade you my life for a quick death,” the woman says. She pulls back her hood slightly and tilts her head toward my torchlight to identify herself. I see her sunken bruised face and crooked nose, clearly broken many times.

She looks 50 or 60 but I can’t quite tell these days, especially not in this dank, dark alley between two crumbling apartment blocks. There is only a single flickering lamp post to ensure you’re not tripping over the cluster of trash cans huddled up in the corner, stirring the ire of rabid cat-sized rats rummaging inside.

I turn the woman’s eyes toward the night sky as I examine them. They are good and will fetch a good price, unlike those of most donors, half-blind from a lifetime of staring at wrist screens. Deep wrinkles frame those emerald eyes, still bright with cold fire. Her nose and cracked lips, however, are too broken to sell. She notices my frown and grabs my arm.

“Please, my ovaries are still good.”

She has caught my attention. Reproductive parts are a huge market. Despite attempts otherwise, babies still need to be grown in wombs, and our polluted world has ensured that conception is now a rarity. Infertility is sky high. Those grown in artificial sacs come out… wrong.

“I have five children, all healthy,” she continues, pulling off her entire hood. 

I gasp. A part of her head is gone. Hammered away with what tool I cannot even imagine. I’ve seen a lot in my line of work. But this, I have not seen in a long time.

An unexpected emotion burns in my chest, one I’ve not felt in decades. And with it, a long-forgotten childhood memory stirs. 

A man with a hammer standing over a woman, her eyes looking at me, pleading for me to stay in my hiding spot and never come out till he is gone.

The woman pulls the hood back over her head, turning those perfect eyes to mine. “I am ready to die, to get away from… him.”

She grits her teeth and stops, leaning against the brick wall to steady herself. Tears fill her eyes and I hate myself for theorizing in my head that it was all the crying that kept them good and clear.

She turns away and I grab her arm this time.

“Let me help you get away,” I find myself saying. 

“No,” she pulls her arm back, “I am too broken. I am tired. Please take my organs while they still work and send the money to my children, before he destroys them.”

I grasp her by her shoulders now. She flinches in pain and I release my grip. 

“I am sorry,” I apologize, hands up as I take two steps back from her.

I see her crushed skull. The blood pooling around my mother’s head. Her eyes staring blankly at me. And the roar of my father’s voice. “Girl, you come out now! Clean up this mess! Come out now or else when I find you, I’ll make you pay too!”

My brain is malfunctioning. I’d erased those memories years ago. This woman is rewiring those old circuits. The technician warned me this might happen but only with the right trigger. This is the trigger. The same wound Mama had. Except this woman has survived—for now.

She nods, exhaling deeply. “It is okay. But I mean what I said. Please do this. Now with microchips, there is no getting away, anywhere. Mercs will hunt me down. Whatever little he has, he will use to find me or threaten to hurt the children so I return. Better I die and my organs be recycled so others may live.”

I am proud of how steady I keep my voice. “Clearly the problem here is him. Not you. Or your kids. Why haven’t you hired a merc to get rid of him?”

She leans against the lamp, collapsing beneath it. “I can’t afford to hire one. Unless my death covers merc fees in your contract?” She looks up at me, hopeful for a moment. “It would be good, keep my children safe from him forever.”

I shake my head to get rid of the memory that is beginning to creep up on me like a fast growing weed. Tomorrow, I will get it removed. But now, I will not get involved. I will not get emotional. It is not my mother speaking to me.

Before I can stop it, my mouth starts moving, “I’m not taking your contract but I will help you get away. First, I’ll get you a Safe Suit to block the signal and keep you well for a while. I’m sure you’d like a good night’s sleep.”

She looks up, surprised, as if she’s never experienced a kindness in her life. Her eyes run through a gamut of emotions before she softly exhales and says, “I can’t afford a Safe Suit.”

“You can afford goodwill,” I tell her, offering her my hand. She takes it and we move in the shadows of alleys, avoiding all patrolling Sentinels on a constant lookout for rebels.

I place her with my pal Jon who runs a Hardware Van, carrying all sorts of black market equipment. His van has a blocker that neutralizes all trackers if you’re in it. That kind of tech can only be acquired by Sentinels. I often wonder what Jon traded for it but I never ask.

Jon is glad for the company and drops me at the Vault to fetch my Safe Suit.

The Vault is one of the few buildings that survived the early bombings meant to destroy the rebellion. The Sentinels were successful, killing almost all of of the uprisers and squelching any hope of the rebels ever forming again. Those who survived are still hunted and rounded up daily. Yet the underground community exists. As long as we don’t gather and rebel, the Sentinels let us carry on our business. For now.

With half of its ten storeys in ruins, few will even consider entering the Vault, but it has stood for five decades and continues to provide safe storage for anyone who can pay in an era when Sentinels can raid your home anytime they please.  

Vault security lets me in after verifying my identity. My 10×10 box contains an assortment of illegal tech and my mother’s photograph. The Safe Suit lies in a pile like any other discarded jacket. I grab it and gently close my box. It closes with a soft click.

Jon gives me a nod when he drops us home. He and I have been good friends since I took care of a contract for him some thirty years ago. I rarely ask him for favors so he knows this one is important.

Home is a dingy old two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a crumbling apartment building at the edge of the district, beside the desert. 

Most nights, when I sleep with the windows open, I wake up with sand in my mouth. Desert storms are frequent and fierce. From the roof, all you see is an unending beach and occasional dust devils giving the impression that graboids are on the loose. Even if you aren’t afraid of being eaten by a graboid, no one survives out there. You’d be buried standing up in hours.

Back here in the outskirts of the city, despite the 50-foot breakwall, sand still gets into everything, particularly vehicles, which is why our district is usually the last stop of any Sentinel raid since they need to get out of their fancy tanks 10 blocks back and move on foot. This always gives me fair warning and that suits me just fine.

At midnight, most of the block is quiet, except for 152 year-old Henry who waits up for me to come home like he’s my grandfather. Henry never had any kids but has always yearned for one. 

Some years ago, his husband got dragged off by the Sentinels because someone who had a beef with him made a false report. The next morning, his head was on a pike. Henry paid me to put him out of his misery. It was the best use of his savings, he told me years later.

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…and then what happened?!? Find out for yourself in this month’s issue—on sale now!

Copyright © 2020. The Gift of Death by Christina Sng