Barcode cavern of youth, p.1
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       Barcode: Cavern of Youth, p.1

          
Barcode: Cavern of Youth
BARCODE: CAVERN OF YOUTH

  Kashif Ross

  Copyright Kashif Ross 2012

  Dedication

  I dedicate this novel to anyone that plans to read it. You must enjoy Payne.

  ONE

  Peering down the barrel of a gun can make even the toughest man tender. Knowing the idiot on the opposite side of the chamber may piss his pants enough to squeeze the trigger prematurely is more unnerving.

  Stephen’s somewhere in his early teens. The sweat falling from his eyebrow and the white knuckles around the grip say he’s never been this close to killing a man. If that’s not enough, the rumbling sounds in his stomach confirm the notion.

  “That’s a Terry Madison 500,” I jeer to see if he’s actually scared enough to shoot.

  “Shut up, dude. And keep your hands where I can see them until my team gets here.”

  “They’re right behind you, dude.”

  “I’m not falling for that.”

  Tony clears his throat and says, “We’re here.”

  Tony and the other five members of his militia hold automatic weapons that make the handgun look like a pup. Stephen gets distracted when he hears his team cock their weapons. Though that gives me enough time to snatch his, I refocus his attention on me instead.

  “The gun is a replica for the ancient Smith and Wesson fifty caliber magnum.” He swings his head back towards me as I continue, “It converts dust and particles into ammunition. Do you really have data strong enough to fill the chamber? I’m impressed. You’re so young.”

  “Shut up!”

  Tony holds one hand up, and the others lower their weapons. He maintains a steady hand while focusing his 9mm fully automatic machine gun on my heart. “Calm down or you’ll do something irrational.” Listening to the advice from his commander, Stephen takes three large, controlled steps back.

  “Are you one of the dungeon’s gladiators?” Tony asks while staring into the empty space inside of my jacket’s hood. It’s a technology that was developed by the Gonzales family. It removes all light so that my face isn’t visible. Seth tried making a replica, but the hood kept sticking to my head. It removed flesh from my neck every time I undressed.

  I had Dennis request an updated jacket from the Gonzales family because my initial one was boring. I’m not too into fashion, but that thing was ugly. Now, there’s a bit more stitching, a more modern/sleek appearance, and it has a Punk Rap feel. Once I tore off the sleeves, it was perfect.

  “Guardians. Gladiators. Protectors. I hear there are a number of names for us. Each arena uses a different term. You’ll pull the trigger if I say yes, because that would mean I’m from Colt, and you hate them. Right?”

  “No. We try to avoid killing at all cost. I think I have a few tranquilizers left. But gladiator would mean you could dodge the bullet. Only thing, you’re not wearing armor. I’m trying to figure out why you’re here.”

  “I’m your life map. I’m here to tell you that you’re going the wrong way.” Tony smirks, but not much. He’s not the type of guy to laugh at something like that, but the girl next to him smiles. “My advice, leave Yang Arena alone.”

  That was all the motivation Stephen needed to pull the trigger. He fires a shot that’s meant to skim the side of my face. Jerking my head while still holding my arms up, I dodge the bullet. I don’t want to damage this jacket. It took Dennis forever to convince the Gonzales family to make it.

  “How do you know about our mission?” Stephen yells. Tony tightens the grip around his weapon.

  “Let’s say I’m a seeker of information.”

  “Let’s not.” Tony takes a small step forward. “Answer his question.”

  “Well Tony. It’s kinda complicated.”

  “How do you know my name?”

  Rachel’s a short, but muscular woman with a gun larger than Tony’s. She eases next to him and whispers in his ear, “Did you see him avoid the shot at the last second? I think that’s the faceless demon people have been talking about.”

  Matching her volume, he firmly replies, “They’re not some people. One guy started that rumor. A drug addict that shouldn’t be with the militia. We need this money, and we have to get through.” She doesn’t seem moved by his words. “Plus they said he had green demonic eyes, not just a blank face. That’s a hood we can’t see in. James is an idiot that wants to scare us away.”

  “Actually, it wasn’t just James.” All of their eyes widen as I lower my hands. “I normally don’t let people who see my eyes live, but they seemed like nice guys. You should really listen to Rachel.”

  “How do you know my name?”

  “Are we really going through this again? Let’s get this out of the way so I can stop surprising all of you. Tony, Michael, Rachel, Andrew, Daren, Jorge and Stephen. I’m the voice you’ve been hearing, warning you to turn around for the past two hours.”

  Rachel lowers her gun. “I thought I was going crazy.”

  “You are if you try to get by. Let’s think about this. You need to get to Yang’s old arena because some wealthy idiots that know they’re better than you—because let’s face it, they are—hired you over the phone two weeks back.”

  “Tony. He knows too much.”

  Continuing to push their buttons, I add, “I’d consider letting you pass in hopes that the rich bastards get caught in the crossfire, but I’m not allowed to. You’re just trying to make a living, especially you, Tony.” A bead of his sweat falls to the ground, disappearing in the fog as he clenches his jaws tightly. “But your worthless lives could actually amount to something one day. You should try using what little skills you have to do good. If you’re killing others just to feed your family, you’re no better than the criminals you despise.”

  Stephen’s fingers twitch. “I’m proud of what I do. The Colt family is a mob of criminals that have taken over the Yang Arena. They probably killed them to do it.”

  “You’re preaching to the choir, man. I killed a friend trying to get that through his head. But no, the Colt didn’t have much to do with that. It was a Helios thing, and I ended up doing most of the killing anyway. Now, I’m living with Dennis. It’s crazy.” Tony’s raised eyebrows turn into a frown. My previous speech belittling their progression may have reached him until I mentioned being a Colt. Or was it that I killed the Yang warriors? “Tony, you’re the more sensible one. Do you really want your men and slightly attractive lady to die here? You two could make a cute couple. Have some babies; a nice life.”

  Rachel rolls her eyes as though Tony could never understand settling down. He’s not the type of guy to let something like that happen, I guess. Stephen looks over his shoulder with a fearsome sneer.

  Tony grunts, “There are seven guns pointed at you. You should stop acting like you have the upper hand. With no armor, you’re as good as dead if you try resisting.”

  Several gears tick at the top of the cave. The sound is too faint for a normal human to notice, but every click and zip comes through clearly in my ears. That sound signals the end of my shift.

  The small gap in the above classroom fully opens and a faint light shines in. Only Andrew responds by quickly glancing up. He timidly leans forward to observe Tony’s face. After a few seconds, he pops his bubble gum and cocks his Mac XII—a revolutionary machine gun with unparalleled precision.

  I listen as Dennis sits down at an empty desk next to the cave’s entrance. Sluggishly, he devours the last bit of his bagel. Sounding slightly fatigued, he yawns, “Wrap up whatever you’re doing, Kay. It’s not like you to be late.”

  Finally, I open my eyes. Each man and woman lowers their weapon minutely. I flash my barcode to see them clearly. The tanned colors of their skin and richness of texture in their hair is all revealed to me. With my eyes open, I can finally see the vibrancy of their life.

  Uncontrollably, I smile. Without Tartarus limiting my sight, the world is visually stunning. Animated. The simplest things captivate me.

  I assume that the militia is just as mesmerized. Seeing the barcodes must be a wild experience. Most people can’t understand why I’d have them in my eyes, but it’s simple. Evolution.

  A large portion of our society believes barcodes share power with gods. That’s nonsense for devout idiots. Barcodes began as steroids. As technology advanced, so did humans. Not long after, hundreds of people were born with the power already on their skin. Sure, prophets relate some data to gods. It helps to categorize a gladiator’s level of power, but there isn’t a superior being looking down on us and answering prayers. You could ask the soldiers I’m about to kill. Regardless of who they praise, no one can save them.

  “I apologize, but I won’t be able to allow you all to live. I have an appointment with the Seal of Solomon.”

  Stephen is the first and only person to fire a shot, but all the others see is a pile of smoke dancing where I was standing a second ago. It’s a technique I learned from Takashi, the liminal being that predicted my birth.

  It requires releasing small forces directed at the eyes. The energy disrupts whatever debris lies behind the eye and creates a shadow in the onlooker’s vision. If you’re unaware of what’s happening, your reaction time will be delayed, creating a window of opportunity to close in.

  These killers are obviously experienced. They cover each other’s’ backs and fire into the distance. It’s natural to assume mortal-level fighters without the power of the gods are easy to kill. That’s a gladiator mentality. In the real world, it’s best to not underestimate anyone’s skill.

  That’s why I’m hiding behind a large stone, listening to the patterns of their shots. They’re ricocheting bullets off rocks to cover more ground. I don’t have much time until one finds me.

  I wait until Andrew empties his clip. He releases it and radiates the barcode on his palm. His reload time is amazing, but it provides me with just enough room to launch Shiva, in trident form, at Tony.

  Rachel steps in front of its blades and releases an exceptionally mournful cry. Tony catches her and lowers her to the ground. While the others are distracted, I sneak behind Andrew. The anxious one, Stephen, shoots four wild rounds, striking his friend in the heart when I hold him for cover. I vanish into the cloud of smoke as he rationalizes what he’s done. The others lose focus, which allows me to pick them off until only Tony and Stephen are left.

  Rachel cries herself to sleep, possibly praying to see heaven or some other nonsense. Still broken over his loss, Tony grabs his gun and calms his breath. Knowing Tony is the most experienced, I wish I still had Shiva as a shield. With his thoughts focused, I’m likely to enter a tough battle.

  The barcode on his neck glows orange.

  Stephen shouts, “Tony, he has Andrew’s—”

  I release a shot from Andrew’s gun that pierces through Stephen’s skull.

  Though the blood spills on Tony’s face, he hardly flinches. He instantly lifts his rifle from the ground and fires a round in my direction. The swift motion causes me to accidentally throw my hands in the air and release a slightly feminine cry. Laughing at myself, I duck behind another rock.

  The tattoo on Tony’s neck probably means he’s an ex-soldier. Though I don’t know his ability, I’m not willing to risk finding out what he can do.

  Still hiding, I shout, “There’s no way to leave without one of us dying and both of us getting hurt, you know?”

  Tony nods. “But there’s a 34.8% probability that I’ll find and kill you. I think you’re behind one of two rocks. I could bounce a bullet off the smooth stone forty yards ahead of me and strike you in the arm, but that would give you enough time to plant one in my head.” He holds his gun pointed at the correct rock.

  I could still dodge this bullet and possibly kill him without a scratch, but I don’t know my chances. He’s obviously the mathematician.

  “Leave.”

  “I thought you said we had to die.”

  “I said that because I need to get out of here. You’re the idiot that wouldn’t listen to all my other warnings.” My breath is heavy.

  Killing people with their level of skill takes a lot of energy, and I know going after Tony will be a monumental task. He’s not like gladiators, who only think about fighting head-on. Tony’s experience makes him consider every possible outcome. Taking on ten thousand mortal level gladiators is the equivalent to someone of his caliber.

  “You know if I leave, I’ll come back for you.”

  “I killed Rachel. That’s fair.”

  “How’d you know so much about us?”

  “I listen.”

  Tony wipes his forehead, and notices the blood on his hand. Checking his armor, he sees half of a bullet lodged into his chest. “Hmph,” he wheezes. “Where’d that come from?”

  “I guess one of Stephen’s four shots got you. I didn’t notice in all the commotion.”

  “Shit.” Tony laughs at the blood leaking from his torso. “I told his mother he wasn’t ready yet.”

  “Who’s his mom?”

  “My wife.”

  “Who is Rachel then?”

  “My sin.” Tony’s gun falls to the ground as he stumbles to his knees. “Hey.”

  “Yeah?” There’s no longer a need to hide. I slowly and quietly approach Tony as he trembles and gasps for air.

  “This hurts.”

  I hasten Tony’s death with Andrew’s Mac XII.

  Though I hate to disrespect her corpse, I step on Rachel in order to tear the weapon from her body. It doesn’t help that Shiva produces electricity to shock me. She always zaps me whenever I’ve picked up another weapon.

  “I’m sorry, alright?” Once her fit is over, I convert Shiva back into the wrist guards I’ve worn since I killed Spencer. Though I loved my signature gloves, Dennis changed my image to help me go unnoticed.

  I run past Tony’s body, and dash into the dark, up what feels like an infinite spiral, stone staircase. It takes two minutes to sprint all the way to the top.

  The second I resurface, Dennis wraps me in his arms, like always. I’m quite a bit taller than him. Two grown men hugging seems strange, but I’m not going to complain. I didn’t even know what a hug felt like until he gave me one last year.

  Dennis analyzes my situation with the barcode on his pinky finger. Once he processes the data, the big man in a nice black suit asks, “Why’d you try that hard to get Tony to turn around?”

  “You can read my thoughts with that code. Why do you always ask obvious questions?”

  “I can read your situations and do my best to interpret them, but I have no insight into thoughts.”

  “Didn’t seem like that the first time you touched me.”

  “I had both you and Spencer’s corpse to get a lot of information from. Not to mention, I shook Blake’s hand before seeing you.”

  I take a seat directly next to his table. I practically have to stand all night because I’m too paranoid to sit in the dungeon. There are all types of nasty creatures on the floor.

  “Did you convince your brother to wrap me in the bandages?”

  “Yeah. It came with a hefty cost, but I let him know it was you. He’d get the information from the ring anyway.”

  “What cost?”

  “The arena.”

  I stand abruptly. “What the hell, Dad?”

  Since Dennis adopted me, he’s never done more than smile. But right now, his face twitches. “Trust me.”

  “It doesn’t make sense. Why can’t I just stay the same?”

  “We’ve been through this. Too many people saw you fight with Spencer on my floor. If one of them pointed you out, it could cause me serious problems.”

  That’s still not logical. He has to have another reason. No one saw me actually kill Spencer and not many people know about his death. I scrutinize his face, searching for the real reason, but he has an excellent poker face. My body aches and I’m too tired to fight something he seems so adamant about. I wipe my face and find my seat again.

  “But this is your entire legacy. It’s everything you’ve built.”

  “I still have control of Yang Arena, though the people don’t want me there. If I need to start another stadium, I can. For now, I’d like to remember what it’s like to experience life. Travel for leisure, not business. Smoke a cigar without paperwork in front of me. Maybe being a real dad.”

  “I’m eighteen years old. It’s a little too late for that.”

  “I’m thinking of having another kid.”

  “If you even try getting at Hayley, I’ll kill you. There’s no way I’m letting you have a relationship with my mom without telling her the truth.”

  Dennis grunts, “Are you ever going to call her mom to her face?”

  “I didn’t call her mom. I said Hayley.”

  He smirks briefly, but the joy doesn’t last long enough. Dennis is an expert at reading my facial expressions. Once he notices my slight head turn and scrunched eyebrows, his shoulders tense up.

  “What do you see?”

  “Someone’s about to die on your campus.”

  “Who? I’ll have security tail them.”

  My eyes trace an unfamiliar guy as he stalks a group of female gladiators near the front of the school. The suspicious-looking student casually peeks over his shoulders nearly every fifteen seconds. Two strange men in armor are also on the premises. They’re pretending to be students, but the one checking his phone hasn’t changed his screen since I’ve exited the dungeon. The other is hiding in an empty room.

  I’m not sure who they’re after, but something’s not right. Unfortunately, the phone conversation hasn’t revealed enough yet.

  The hitman is heavyset but wears sleek brown armor. He has short, greasy hair that shines as though he moisturizes with petroleum jelly. Judging from his demeanor and swag, he’s a cook for a food truck from East Los Angeles. The Spanish and Indian accent tradeoff is a dead giveaway.

  The small barcode imprinted on his cheek means he’s a mortal-level student, but he’s received training from somewhere special. For being so overweight, he’s extremely light on his toes.

  His fat tongue looks as though it’s dripping with fish oil as it rolls off his lips and he wheezes into the phone, “No. I see her...She’s not alone, but she’s never alone...Yes. I can make it seem like an accident...I told you, yes. I’ll do it now...You’ve known me for a year. When have I ever messed up a hit? It’s you that kills off everyone I work well with...Dustin of course. If he were still around, she’d be dead by now. The weak tramp couldn’t put up a fight if she tried.”

  Dennis removes his phone and pulls up the contact page to his head of security. I cover his screen with my hand. “No time.”

  “Tell me, and I’ll stop them.”

  Zipping up my hood and closing my eyes, I repeat, “No time.”

  “Kay, if I let you do this, you have to be subtle. Don’t kill him.”

  I frown with disgust. “Are you serious?”

  “Try bringing him in safely.”

  “He has a team of two guys. You want me to bring all of them in safely? Give me a break.”

  “I’ll help.”

  “You can’t come. One sight of you, and they’ll run. I want to know who they’re chasing so I can protect them.”

  “You think it’s a cute girl, don’t you?”

  Frowning, I turbulently question, “Why would you say that?”

  “Just the other day, you listened to a ten-year-old girl get beaten to death, but you didn’t interrupt because I told you to lay low. You still need to do that, and you’re only minutes away from making sure you’re never exposed. We can walk upstairs right now, and no one will ever know you’re Kode. But you’d rather risk it. She must be very easy on the eyes.”

  “If I’m correct, it’s a really cute girl, and I’ll gladly volunteer my protection services.”

  “Alive, Kay.”

  I stand and stroll out of the room. “We’ll see man.”

 
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