The rumbling elevator seemed to discourage Air from telling Napal what had been bothering him over the previous three weeks. That he didn’t want to kill anyone.
The rusted steel box screeched and moaned as it lowered them both deeper into the basement of the cleaning center. The elevator box was made from grated steel. The diamond shaped holes showed layers of stone and steel braces lining the shaft.
Air looked official, dressed in a blue uniform and short-brimmed cap that matched his dark hair nicely. The 9mm revolver holstered on his hip was the finishing touch. It was unloaded, of course, but it symbolized what set them apart from the rest of the city.
“I’ve never been this deep,” Air started. It felt weird to be hesitant around Napal. That day, everything felt weird.
“What?” Napal grinned and cupped a hand around his ear. “You are going to have to speak up. This rickety piece of garbage gets really loud when we get down this deep.” Napal patted the elevator door endearingly with his palm. Jokes were never off-limits.
Air sighed and tried to ignore the anxiety. Whatever he said in the elevator would only be heard by Napal. And that’s what Air kept reminding himself. The others were in the basement already and it was impossible to hear anything over the elevator motor. It still felt weird to say anything.
“Is something wrong, Air?” Napal pressed.
“I’m fine,” Air lied.
“Something’s up. You have that look on your face again.”
“You look like you’re thinking too hard.” Napal tapped his temple. “You’re eyes get all big and you stare. If I didn’t already know you, I’d be a little freaked out. You always get that stupid look on your face when you’re trying to fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed.”
“I’m not trying to fix anything.”
“Come on, Air. What’s up? Something’s eating at you.” Refusing to let it go, Napal folded his arms.
“Okay, I think…” Air stopped to adjust the volume of his voice to avoid any more bantering. “I think I have been remembering something,” Air strained. Blood rushed into his cheeks, making it harder to hide his embarrassment. Suddenly, he appreciated the darkness.
“I’m not sure exactly, but ever since I started rifle training, I’ve been having these flashes. It’s like déjà vu, except more…” Air glanced down through the metal grate below to be sure they were still far from the bottom.
“You mean you can see the future?” Napal lifted his pale red eyebrows jovially.
“Don’t be an idiot.” Air shook his head, immediately regretting his attempt at a serious conversation with Napal. The light from the top of the shaft faded and they were slowly consumed by darkness. Chills crawled down Air’s neck and he stood quiet for a moment. He considered staying quiet, but the urgency of having Napal’s support nagged at him.
“What I’m trying to say is, I think I’ve shot a rifle before,” Air pursued delicately. “There is something about it that I remember.”
“You are a good shot, I agree,” Napal confessed, “however, there are a few problems with your theory.” Napal raised his voice to compete with the swelling crescendo of un-oiled pulley’s and thudding motors.
“First problem, the administration would not transfer you from being a purger, who uses a rifle, to an office clerk, who sits at a desk all day, and then back to a purger again. It’s against the rules. Second, there is absolutely no way you can remember more than a couple hundred years at a time.” A single flame flickered to reveal Napal puffing the end of a cigarette.
“You think I’m making this up?”
“I hope you are. One thing you’ll learn from purging is that nostalgia doesn’t do anybody any good. Lying on the other hand…”
“I know it sounds crazy,” Air admitted, “but I really think this memory is old, really old. I think I’m remembering something from before the city.”
Napal spit out a laugh like it jumped from his lips on surprise. “Now I know you’re full of it.”
Air sighed with frustration. Napal didn’t understand. Air genuinely believed Napal would understand. “Just forget it,” Air surrendered.
“No, come on, Air. I’m being serious. I can prove you aren’t remembering things from that long ago.”
A yellow light from beneath the grated floor illuminated Napal’s face demonically. His red beard glowed around his face. His blue eyes twinkled in a stupid expression. He seemed eager to make sure Air felt like a fool, only as a friend could. The conversation would have to end soon. Air wanted to keep this revelation away from the others, especially Dex.
“We’ll do an experiment,” Napal continued, “Tell me what happens next.”
“Never mind, Napal. Just forget it,” said Air.
“I’m serious, Air. If you remember shooting a rifle, you must know what the rifle is for,” Napal pinched the cigarette between his lips and sucked the smoldering tobacco to a shorter length.
“The rifle is for purging.” Air didn’t know why he was still playing along. Napal couldn’t help.
“No, tell me something that we haven’t gone over in training,” Napal dropped the butt of his cigarette between the steel grates as if it were a game.
“I don’t remember…”
“See? The experiment worked. You don’t remember. It’s just nerves. Everyone is anxious when they transfer careers,” Napal smiled and quickly adjusted his posture.
“Very helpful, Napal, thanks,” Air nodded sarcastically.
Air took a step back from Napal when he realized that he had unknowingly moved closer to Napal during the conversation. He glanced sideways and Napal pointed a single finger to his pursed lips to assure Air he’d stay quiet about his confession. He quickly dropped his hand just before the elevator screeched to a halt. Air took comfort in Napal’s gesture. At least he could be confident that Napal wouldn’t tell the others. They had a silent agreement to look out for each other since before either of them could remember. Air welcomed the transfer at first so he could work with Napal.
“Did you drop something?” An incriminating voice echoed from below the grate. Pale fingers parted the steel elevator doors. The doors squeaked as they revealed the head and shoulders of Dex. He had dark hair and deep-set features that seemed as stiff as though they had been carved from wood. He had a way of changing the atmosphere in an instant. Even Napal seemed awkward around Dex. He tossed a cigarette at Napal’s feet and gave him one of his fabled disapproving glairs.
“Sorry, Dex,” said Napal, “Just having a smoke. It’s a long ride down.”
Dex immediately ignored the excuse and pushed the doors the rest of the way open. He stood on a dusty concrete floor a few feet lower than the elevator floor.
“The elevator stopped short again.” With all the charm of a mortician, he walked out of view.
Air squatted at the edge of the elevator and dropped to the ground. Napal swung his short legs out and landed next to him. The purging floor seemed like the space under a rock where a reptile might hide. It was dim and strangely warm from geothermal heat. A single light bulb hung from a wire in what seemed like the center of a vacant warehouse. Blue suited men huddled beneath the light around a steel cart. Their shadows swayed in the light.
“Air, I need a word.” Dex flicked two fingers.
After half a second of preparation, Air followed Dex to an even darker corner of the chamber. “Yes?”
“You’re about to be part of the most important process in the city. Do you understand?”
“I don’t think you do.”
Dex let out a little groan. “You aren’t really capable of handling this job. I think you should understand that this is all far beyond you. If it were up to me, you would be back behind a desk, somewhere across town, where your biggest fear is a paper cut.” He leaned in closer to make his point. “Down here, if you fail, the entire city fails. I want you to understand that if it were up to me, I’d reject your transfer and send you back to pushing paper. But it’s not up to me, so in a few minutes, you’re going to do your job. Now here’s where things get interesting. If you can’t do your job, there is no going back. There are no more transfers. At this point, you know too much. Do you understand what I’m talking about?”
Air wanted to say something to defend himself. It was hard to think of a good come-back when he was being ambushed. He would have settled for a solid punch but that was out of the question. So he took the high road. It was the only option he really had. “I understand.”
“I’ll be watching closely. If I see any sign of guilt or regret…” Dex shook his head. He was deadly serious.
“Yes, sir” The phrase seemed to become more painful each time he said it.
Dex waved Air off like an insect. “Go.”
Air walked back through the darkness, giving Napal a look on his way. What a psycho.
Napal nodded. He agreed. “Just follow me, I’ll show you how things work,” Napal whispered.
They made their way to the rest of the purging team, Zeke, Alan, Helix, Terrance, Indigo and Talon. They stood with a reluctant reverence around the steel cart. It was good to see that everyone felt just as uncomfortable around Dex as Air did. Only one visible wall stood in the purging chamber. The weak light cascaded over its texture. It was made with red brick and sloppy mortar. The wall glistened with chips and pits too deep to be a product of normal wear. Large steel rings protruded from the center of the wall where most of the damaged tended to center. Brown stains spotted the floor below the wall.
“Okay, there are eight purgers and eight rifles,” said Napal, “Here’s the catch, only one is loaded.”
“Why only one?”
“We purge guilt, right? But we need to take precautions to make sure none of us feel guilty. It would defeat the purpose,” Napal stepped up to the cart and motioned for Air to join him.
“I don’t understand.” Air looked at the faces of the other purgers, hoping for some clarity. “Won’t whoever makes the shot feel guilty? We’ll all know who makes the shot.”
“If you make the shot, it isn’t your fault. You didn’t load the gun Dex did. For all you know, you’re just going to dry-fire.”
“Won’t Dex feel guilty?”
“Why should he? He doesn’t pull the trigger.” Napal smiled. “Come on. We make a game out of it.” Napal cranked his neck to make sure there was plenty of space between them and Dex who seemed busy opening a metal crate as loud as possible.
“Okay, gentlemen,” Napal spoke in a hushed voice, “you know the rules, but since this is Air’s first time we’ll have a little review.”
Air’s throat dried out in an instant. He fought hard to appear willing. He swallowed to moisten his throat. It didn’t work.
“Whoever makes the shot goes to celebration early tonight.” Napal glanced back toward Dex.
Helix, a large-framed man, insisted he pick a rifle first. The purgers smothered their laughs. Helix had a reputation for never getting the shot. He justified his failures with the belief that the odds were in the favor of the first to pick.
Air felt a nauseous gloom settle inside his stomach. He didn’t like being led into the unknown. He tried to recall the haunting memory that seemed to be warning him. The transfer seemed like a mistake. He was already missing his old desk. Silently, Air wished the whole thing was another one of Napal’s jokes.
Helix selected a rifle and the group deferred to Air to make the second choice.
“I’ll pick last,” he said, “The odds aren’t any different.” Air willed a smile.
One at a time the purgers selected their rifles and stood in a line facing the marred brick wall, until Air and Napal were the only purgers remaining unarmed.
“Is there any way I can sit this first one out just to see how it’s done?” Immediately Air recoiled inside himself, surprised his excuse was the best he could come up with.
“No chance,” Napal cringed, “Unless, of course, you want to see Dex ignite into flames.” Napal lifted a rifle and stepped backward into his position, shoulder to shoulder next to Helix.
“Sure, I just thought Helix deserved better odds,” Air spoke under his breath to no one in particular.
He gripped the remaining rifle by the cold black barrel. Immediately, he recognized it as an M14 bolt action rifle. He smoothed his fingers over the carbon-black stock. A significant upgrade from the .22 caliber he used in target practice. His organs reeled and he began to feel sick. The uniform, the rifle, and the darkness all seemed vaguely familiar. He took comfort only in the fact that he trusted Napal. This thought repressed the sickness until he heard sobs resonating from the void behind him.
Two of Dex’s assistants scuffled around the firing line dragging a shackled and broken man between them. They hissed under their breath as they fought to pull him. Tears coated the man’s face as they dragged him closer to the brick wall. He twisted and drove his knees into the cement floor like a defiant animal. His cries grew louder and shot out in spurts separated by shallow breaths. He violently pulled back when they attached the chains to the metal loops in the wall. He pushed off the wall with his feet and leaned testing the stability of the chains.
An image flashed in Air’s mind. Men cowering in fright. Explosions in the distance. Strong men, reduced to tears. Dead bodies heaped into mass graves. The stench of death. The memories tumbled over him all at once and only in a moment. Then he remembered shooting a man in the woods. Everything seemed to stop. He knew what came next, death. Air stood frozen. As the man in shackles pleaded for his life, Air realized the gravity of the situation. The man’s life was about to end. One rifle had a bullet and one purger would end life for the man. Life was not eternal as he believed it was for so long. He had forgotten about death entirely. Suddenly it seemed ridiculous to forget such an ominous future.
“Ready,” Dex shouted.
An impulse to run shook Air. He wanted to escape but he knew there was no way out. Not without looking guilty himself. He hoped his rifle didn’t contain the bullet. He tried to absorb any comfort coming from that hope. Chances were he’d dry fire.
Air lifted his gun in unison with the purgers. He pressed himself to control his emotions. He couldn’t let the others know what he felt. Screams and sobs escalated until Dex shouted the command.
A dissonant crack burst through the dimly-lit basement. The rifle butt drove against his shoulder, a blast shook through his bones like thunder and the man convulsed. The bullet penetrated though his right lung, ricocheted off his scapula and traced a rib around his chest. The man sucked one last gurgling gasp then he slunk foreword and drooled a stream of blood. His body hung from the brick wall as if he were a hunting trophy being displayed. Silent and dead.