2308: Pending a God

Posted: April 29, 2009 by Brenda in league, stories, the world

For a while there was only silence between us. After Valentina pulled the earpiece out of her ear, and I carried her to the jet. It was enough. I could practically feel her heart pounding against her broken ribs, but she seemed to be unbothered by it. She always did. I’d seen her come in with broken arms and legs, a face so bruised that she was barely recognizable and worse. All in all she looked great, for someone who had just taken a dive of a steep cliff, and came out victorious. Adrenaline played a big part in that, I guessed. Her eyes were bright with it as she looked up to me.

“You’re really going to leave the League to Young?” she asked me as I walked us up the ramp to the jet. I shrugged. I was done with it. For over a decade I had used it to achieve everything I had wanted. Everything I had needed. As I gently sat Valentina down in the regen cabin on board the jet, I realized that I had nothing left to want. “It’s all his.” I said, cupping her face in my hands. All of it… Except for her. She smiled at me, before settling back into the seat. “You need to step back, unless you want to get scrambled.” she said, grinning broadly. I did, and flipped the switch to the regen device. A blue beam shot up from the floor, and dozens of monitors around the cabin sprang to life, assessing the injuries she had, and figuring out ways to fix them.

“Wouldn’t that be hilarious though?” she asked, her eyes still fixed on my face. “For me to win the World League, and then join you in retirement only to get turned into mush by a regen device before we can enjoy it?” I laughed wryly, thinking of the way Adhiambo had looked after Tijs de kler splattered her in that blue beam. Not a pretty sight. “I’m sure Young will put a nice spin on it if that did happen.” I offered. Something on the screen to my left caught my eye. I turned to look at it, but Valentina demanded my attention again.

“Stender?” she asked, her voice sounding oddly similar to the way it had earlier, right before she had almost passed out. I looked at her, worried. “I love you.” she said, repeating her earlier message. I walked over to the regen cabin, putting my hand on the metal next to it. Her eyes were bright with something more than adrenaline. “I love you too.” I said, smiling at her. “Always have.” We smiled at each other for a while, before she closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the wall of the regen cabin. I glanced back at the screen that had caught my attention earlier, but it was blank.

The regen cabin beeped, indicating that it’s cycle was almost at an end. At the same time the pilot called in, saying that we were two minutes away from landing. “I suppose there’s no use in hoping that Young hasn’t scheduled at least five press conferences already?” Val asked me, stepping out of the regen cabin and walking up behind me. I felt her arms slip around me, and her head press against my back. A press of a button showed us that the first press conference was due to start four minutes from now. “Ugh. I don’t even get the time to change?” Valentina complained behind me. I smiled, though I knew she couldn’t see it. “People like seeing you dirty.” I offered. “Sick fucks, the lot of them.” she concluded. Then the jet started it’s descent, and she removed herself from my back. I shivered slightly at the loss of contact. There would be more of that later, I promised myself.

~

Valentina was charming as usual. She answered the questions shot at her with patience and wit, allowing Young to walk us all through the game again. Ralph sat next to her, looking both nervous and excited. He looked at home already, and the press seemed to accept him as my natural successor. A new public face. I smirked. They were probably getting bored with mine already. This lead me to ponder the fate of the Southern League. It had just lost its front man. I shook my head, smiling at my own idiocy. It was time to let go. Young could deal with the Southern League.

The room around me went eerily quiet. I looked up, my eyes instantly locking with Valentina’s. She was pale, far paler than she had been when we left the jet. Her breathing was shallow and laboured. Next to her Ralph leaned over, placing a hand on her arm. “Valentina?” I heard him ask. There was panic in her eyes, and her hands moved to the collar of her shirt, pulling at it. Her lips formed a single word. Stender. There was no sound to go with it, but I could hear it as clearly as I would have if she’d shouted at me. I was on my feet and at her side in seconds. Not in time to keep her from falling sideways. I gathered her in my arms, holding her as she clung to me. Then her grip loosened, and I lost her.

“Medic!” I heard myself shout. People stirred around me, but I hardly noticed them. Valentina’s skin was pale, clammy with sweat. Her breathing came in short puffs, and her eyes were closed. Moments later hands were pulling me aside, and she was placed on a gurney. I followed it, only vaguely aware of the fact that Young was at my side, talking into a mobile device. “What the hell is wrong?” I heard myself ask. “She was just in a regen cabin, and all her readings were fine. She was fine, Goddamn it!” The gurney burst through the doors of the medical wards, which closed again before I could get through. I stopped in front of them. I could enter if I wanted to, as there are no closed doors for me in the compound. A hand on my shoulder stopped me though. “Let them do their job, Stender.” I heard Young say. His words made sense, yet at the same time I felt that there had to be more. I had to be able to do more.

~

Hours after she was first taken to the medical ward there was still no news on the condition of Valentina Marin. Young and Ralph deflected the media, giving no details but assuring the public that she was doing well, and that she just needed some rest. I had spoken to a few of the doctors brought in, but they avoided my questions. That said it all to me. Valentina was dying. I watched her chest rise and fall with difficulty. She hadn’t been awake since she passed out at the press conference. I sat by her side, keeping an eye on the heart monitor. The signal was weak.

Eventually one of the doctors gathered the courage to speak to me. He was still young, no more than five years older than Valentina herself I guessed. He had the same look of self confidence about him that she always had though. The look that said he knew what he was doing. Of course he did. The compound didn’t work with anything less than the best, and Young knew better than to bring anything less than the absolute best into the medical ward now that Valentina was the patient. The look on his face was grave though.

“There isn’t anything left for us to do, sir.” he started. “When she was no longer protected from the radiation on the island her body took a serious hit. The original scans from the regen devices she was in all claim that they cleared her body of the damage completely, but the test results we’ve done now show serious tissue damage to all of her internal organs. It’s like her own cells are fighting against each other to get rid of the radiation poisoning that she’s suffered.”

His words washed over me. I sat quietly for a while, watching Valentina’s chest rise and fall. I took her hand in mine, shocked again to feel how frail it was. “You’re telling me there’s no hope?” I asked the doctor. I didn’t have to see his face to know the look on it was grim. “Little to none, sir.” he whispered. I held her hand between mine. So small. So cold. “Leave us.” I finally said. My heart felt like a stone in my chest, frozen solid and aching for that which I was losing. That which I never really had in the first place. Something shifted behind me. Young, I guessed. “There has to be a way…” I heard myself say to him. “It can’t end like this. There has to be a way.”

I heard the door open behind me. “If there is a way, I’ll find it.” I heard Young say, right before he left the medical ward. His voice was clipped, even more so than usual. It made sense. He and Val had been like siblings from the moment they met. Both in service of the great Stender. The man who was said to have everything. I laughed, a wry laugh that echoed through the room. “It’s not worth anything. What’s the point in owning half the world if I can’t even use it to save you?” I asked the silent woman in the hospital bed. The silent beeping of the heart monitor was my only answer.

~

Two days passed, and I saw or heard nothing of Young. I knew he was around though. I knew he’d entered the room several times, to check up on Val. I didn’t hear or see him though, as my world had shrunken to the woman on the bed, and the beeping of he heart monitor. Two times it had faltered briefly. Both times it had started up again, before the doctors could get there with crash kits and shots of adrenaline. The young doctor who had spoken to me before told me that she didn’t have much time left. Maybe two days, maybe less. I held on to Valentina’s hand, clinging to her in the hope that there was some way I could keep her with me.

I barely heard the footsteps of Young as he approached me. “Stender.” he said, calling for my attention. With force I pealed myself away from Valentina. Young was there, looking tired for the first time in his life. With him was a woman in her mid thirties somewhere. Dark hair, blue eyes, and a pleasant yet serious face. I looked at both of them, realizing that I probably looked like hell, but failing to give a damn about it. “I’m Charlene Pelletier.” the woman offered. “Doctor Charlene Pelletier. I… uh… well, I looked at the readings from the regen cabin in your shuttle, and I think I can save her.”

It felt like my heart jumped in my chest. Hope. I looked at Young, who smiled just the faintest hint of a smile. Hope. “There’s little time though. We need to move her to my lab immediately. I believe you have a shuttle?” she asked. I nodded, and looked at Young again. He grinned, then, and sped off, no doubt to arrange all that needed to be arranged for Valentina’s transport. “It’s not going to be easy, and there’s a chance the treatment won’t stick.” Charlene told me. I barely heard her. “It will get worse before it gets better, and it will take time. She’ll need you, there. She’ll need you more than ever.”

Hope.

~

Her body was floating in a tank. Through the clear glass I could see her, but I could no longer touch her. It had been three days since the transport, and there was still no sign of improvement. Still, Charlene was positive. Three days was more than the two that had been offered to me in the compound. There was a mask over her mouth and nose, which provided her with oxygen. Wires and tubes were stuck in and on her body. A complex mixture of gene therapy and nano technology was working to restore the damage done to Valentina’s cells. In time, her body would be restored to it’s healthy self, or so doctor Pelletier hoped. There was no way to be certain. She had had both successes and failures in the short time she had used the technique. I clung to the hope that Valentina would be one of the successes.

I took short breaks from watching her, when Young came by to visit. Some food, a shower, and back to her side as soon as I could. For the first time ever I even resorted to the same stims that Young used during the games. Anything to stay awake. I had to be at her side at all times. I had to be there when the therapy started working. I had to be there when she finally woke up. A strange sort of routine settled over us, with Young visiting twice a day. Mostly to keep an eye on Valentina, but also to make sure I ate. He talked to me about the outside world from time to time, and I found myself listening, and wondering what Valentina would make of the news.

“Ruiz da Costa survived the game.” he told me on the sixth day of Valentina’s treatment. I turned to look at him, surprised for the first time. Young smirked. “The coroners found him about four hours after the game ended. There was some confusion during that time…” Because that was also the time when Valentina collapsed, and every capable medical officer was trying to keep her alive. I smiled wryly. “But apparently the coroner they sent was able to keep him alive long enough for me to ponder on the situation. His pod was malfunctioning, obviously, otherwise we would have known he was still alive. He was messed up pretty badly, but he’s in good hands now.”

“You’re keeping him alive?” I was surprised. News like this could unbalance the entire league. Anti League Activists would jump on the chance to accuse the leagues of being rigged. “I gave a nice spin to it.” Young said, smiling vaguely. “Either way, he won’t be competing again. He has a few implants that make that… unlikely now. In time I’ll offer him Hugh’s spot over at the Southern League.” I pondered on that for a while, and came to the conclusion that it was a good decision. I said as much, ignoring the smug look on Young; s face.

The conversation did remind me of a loose end that had been like a thorn in my side ever since Valentina collapsed. On day ten of the treatment, there were still no signs that she was getting any better, and the Thorn named Hugh Sanchez Cuberes festered in my side more every day. His actions had directly caused the current situation. If he hadn’t tampered with Valentina’s inhaler, she would never have been poisoned by the radiation. She would have been at my side, alive and well. I began pacing on day eleven, walking in front of the tank like a caged wolf. Charlene avoided me, checking in only for the essential readings. She seemed hopeful, but I was beginning to believe that this was it.

Valentina was gone. The body in the tank would sleep forever, and I would never get the chance to hold her again. All the time we wasted weighed on me, pressing me down further. So I paced, thinking of Hugh Sanchez Cuberes, rotting somewhere in a cell until his trial started. That treacherous dog. I hated him, as I paced and waited for Charlene Pelletier to tell me that the treatment had failed. The mere fact that he was alive somewhere when Valentina was as good as dead tore at me, until I could no longer deal with it. When Young visited on the fourteenth day of the treatment, I asked him to stay with Valentina a little longer. I had matters to tend to.

~

The prison was dark and dirty, the way prisons had looked in movies of old. I didn’t even know that there were still prisons like these around, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Young had found the very last one of it’s kind, just to put Hugh in. The air was rank with fear and desperation, and the cries and shouts of other prisoners echoed through the halls. The guard walked ahead of me, glancing back anxiously every now and then. He had reason to be anxious. Behind him walked Stender, clean and polished as he always looked, with exception of the two weeks that had passed. Behind him walked the ruler of the new world. No one had dared to search him for weapons and other illegal items. It was as he had expected.

“We did everything as mr. Young said, sir.” the guard reassured him again. “We put ‘im in the darkest hole, fed him the worst food, and kicked him around on a regular basis. Bet he ain’t so uppity now, eh? Bet he regrets ever crossing you.” The guard sniggered, before glancing anxiously at me again. Worried he’d upset the mighty Stender, perhaps. A wry smile played around my lips. The guard didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was my destination here. “There it is.” the guard said, pointing at a door at the end of the hall. He handed me the keys. “No questions asked, sir. Just as mr. Young said.” With that final statement he turned, and scurried down the hallway. No doubt to wait around the corner for my return. Wouldn’t do to let Stender get lost in the prison maze, after all. No, that wouldn’t do at all.

I walked towards the door, trying to ignore the stench that seemed to saturate the place. The key the guard had given me turned easy enough. I opened the door, and gave the man inside some time to adjust his eyes to the light. It also gave me some time to adjust my eyes to the sight presented to me. Hugh Sanchez Cuberes was sitting on the ground, wearing a dirty prison overall. Every inch of his skin that I could see was covered in bruises and sores. He’d lost more weight than he could afford. “Hey, look what the cat dragged in.” he said when he recognized me. He tried a smile, but it looked more like a grimace.

“Hugh.” I said, stepping into the cell. “I have no doubt that you know why I’m here.” my voice sounded cold even to my own ears. Hugh shrugged. “Took you long enough. Figured you’d drag your sorry ass here the moment your hellcat got sick. Figured you’d be bent on revenge way sooner than this. Doesn’t matter though. I’m not going anywhere. Wasn’t ever going anywhere, old buddy.” Hugh rambled. Oddly enough it felt like old times. I half expected him to produce a cigarette from somewhere and light it with a merry twinkle in his eyes. That twinkle was gone now though. Hugh just looked tired. Bone weary. Ready for whatever it was that I had in mind.

“You shouldn’t have pushed me aside just like that, buddy.” Hugh said, looking up at me. “It was one thing for you to get that runt in, but to let him pass me by like that? You shouldn’t have done that.” He chuckled. “You weren’t trustworthy, Hugh. You proved that much, in the end.” He looked at me again, his eyes looking surprisingly focused. “I wasn’t ever trustworthy, you cunt!” he yelled, a shadow of is former strength passing over his face. “Remember why you came to me in the first place? Remember why I was the right one to help you start your Goddamn League? I wasn’t ever a trustworthy man. I was a Goddamn crook. A Salvador made man. Exactly what you needed.”

He let his head fall back against the wall. “You were always too clean. For all your manipulations and all your games, you never knew how to get real dirty. You always needed people for that. Young, he’s the same. He’ll break someones knees if they need breaking. Even Val is the same. Someone needs to be dead, she’ll take care of it. You never could do that face to face. That’s what made you great, but that’s also what makes you weak. You never expect people to come at you sideways. Then when they do, you get all pissy. Well that’s what people do, Stender. They come at you sideways. Even the people you trust. You think Young wouldn’t have pulled something eventually?”

He shrugged. “Not that it matters anymore. You’re retiring. You’re leaving it all to Young. Now people are going to come at him sideways. People he likes will come at him. Stab him when he ain’t looking. That’s the price. You should’ve known that that’s the price.” I reached behind me, putting a hand on the gun I had tucked in the waistband of my pants. “You shouldn’t have messed with Valentina.” I ground out. “You think you’re here because of me? You’re here because of her, you shit.”

Hugh laughed, a weary, wry sort of thing. “Figured it would distract you a bit, at least. You always let your guard down when it came to the hellcat. And it did, didn’t it? I just forgot about Young for a moment. Didn’t think he was sly enough to have as many tricks up his sleeve as he did. That was my bad. I forgot that Young is like me. You’re not though. You can stand there, looking all tough, with that gun in your hand, but you’re not going to shoot. You’re a white collar crook, Stender. You don’t know how to get dirty.”

I let go of the gun, and smirked at him. “Suppose you’re right about that one. I guess the thing for me to do is to leave you here to rot. Maybe you’ll make it to a trial, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll make it to a death match, maybe you won’t. Time will tell.” I turned away from him, unsure of what it was I came to do in the first place. To kill Hugh? He was right. That had never been my style. I used people to get what I want. Hugh’s use had run out years ago. I used him to start the league in 2297, and that was where his usefulness to me ended. I should’ve cut him loose years ago though. Should have. Could have. Would have. None of those things brought Valentina back to me.

As I turned to walk out of his cell I heard Hugh choke a little. As if he wanted to ask me to end it, but couldn’t. Damned pride of his. Got in the way all the time. I could hear Valentina’s voice in my head. “She liked you, Hugh. Backstabbing bastard or not.” I dug around in my pocket, and tossed something to Hugh. “An aspirin? Gee, buddy, you shouldn’t have.” he said, holding the pill in the light. “I didn’t.” I pointed at the pill. “Your way out. Your choice.” He looked at the pill, and then at me, and back again. “Is it painless?” he finally asked. I turned back to him one last time. “Was Valentina’s disease painless?” I asked him, before walking out of the cell. “No chance in hell.” I heard him say as I turned the key, leaving Hugh in the dark with an easy way out.

~

The flight back went smooth as always. Smooth, but pointless. There was nothing left for me there. Valentina in a tank, floating and floating and floating and gone. My shoulders slumped, and I held my head in my hands as I grieved for the loss of the only person that had ever mattered. All the faces of the people I’d known and lost flashed before my eyes, all turning into the one face that I held dear. The jet landed, but I didn’t move. What was the point? The jet idled next to doctor Pelletier’s facilities, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. Couldn’t bring myself to talk to the doctor, to discuss the most logical course of action.

I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t move on. What was there to move on to? “Sir?” the pilots voice reached me. I looked up for a moment, at my hands. They were shaking. I’d never seen my hands shake before. I turned to look at the pilot, who glanced away. Uncomfortable in the sight of his broken boss, I imagined. “Uh… mr. Young asks if you’re coming inside. He… has something he wishes to discus with you.” I nodded, slowly rising from my seat. I couldn’t imagine what was worth discussing. Maybe he had news about Hugh. I didn’t care, but I walked into the building anyway. One step at a time.

There was no sign of Young in the living quarters. I dawdled, not wanting to go into the lab, where Valentina would be floating, lost to all the world. Eventually there was no choice though. I walked down the stairs, and into the lab. Doctor Pelletier was there. A man was standing next to her, with a hand on her shoulder. Her husband, I guessed. Young was standing a few feet away. Smiling. He saw me and walked towards me, just as I glanced behind him. “Good news.” he said, grinning like the cat that got the cream. I walked past him though, towards the tank.

Valentina was floating. Her eyes were wide open, searching. Sweeping the room, back and forth the way she had done so many times before, so many battles before. Then she settled on target. Her eyes met mine, and I could see that, behind the mask that helped her breathe, she was smiling.

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