“Do you know how hard it is to find a kidney donor even if you are rich and live in the West?” Yu pointed the gun at Alex’s stomach. “You are young and fit. I will be able to sell your kidney for a quarter of a million dollars. And the operation won’t even kill you. You will live through it, and after that, we’ll be able to come back, perhaps, for your eyes.”
The gun rose up to the level of Alex’s head. “Your eyes will sell for fifty thousand dollars each, leaving you blind but otherwise in good health.”
The gun dropped again. “You can live without your pancreas. It will make me a further one hundred thousand dollars. While you are recovering from each operation, I will drain off your blood cells and your plasma. They will be kept frozen and sold at five hundred dollars a pint. And finally, of course, there is your heart. The heart of a young healthy boy could fetch up to a million dollars more.
"Do you see, Alex? Shooting you does me no good at all. But keeping you alive is good for business, and you might even get some satisfaction in knowing when you do finally die, that you have restored the health of quite a few people around the world.”
A pause, a breath, and Yu tilted his head in consideration.
“Although,” he said with the faintest glimmer of amusement. “A young healthy boy are not uncommon to come by. You on the other hand…” Yu smiled and Alex felt his heart plummet even further. “Perhaps I can find some entertainment in you yet.”
Alex woke up feeling hysteria bubble in his veins and agony pierce his brain somewhere behind his left eye. It was precise- a single flathead screwdriver wriggling its way deeper into his frontal lobe. Alex moaned, slapping both hands over his face in a weak attempt to stave off the pain.
He could remember the flight over, as distorted as it was. Some sort of sedative keeping him compliant, the two aboriginals holding guns to his side and the handcuffs that bit him like a scorpion. Wherever they were, it certainly wasn’t the rank smelling mud Alex was lounging about on.
The sun was bright but filtered through the canopy of tree leaves. Each different shapes and sizes, not like the parks he and Tom had visited to practice football. These branches were wide and arched, pale like bone in the wilting shade. It was unbearably hot, even with the feverish chill around Alex’s neck.
“Bloody Hell,” Alex moaned pitifully in the mud. His entire body throbbed in some sense, although the lingering migraine was the icing on the cake.
Alex sat up and squinted into the humid mess of palm fronds, itchy plants, and stinging nettle. This was equaling up to a horrible situation he couldn’t imagine the end to.
There was a sheet of paper sealed in a bright yellow waterproof folder, sticking its way up from a lobbed in half banana plant. The stump filled with water, a couple drowned ants swirling about around the small black bowie knife lodged in its trunk.
Alex knew that the note would only spell trouble- which it did.
“You’re bloody kidding me,” Alex rasped, paper slipping between his fingers. Seven trackers, fifteen surgical incisions. The knife was his, but already he doubted he could keep every surgical incision clean from infection.
He was abandoned somewhere in Kakadu National Park, one of the greatest expanses of things-wanting-to-eat-him he knew on this continent. If he managed to find water, it would be filled with crocodiles or large snakes. Were Anacondas in Australia?
“Shite,” Alex gasped, wiping sweat from his mouth. The sterile white bandage on the back of his forearm only cemented just how bad his situation was. Shite.
Alex yanked the black knife out of the banana plant, already figuring the best thing to do. He read somewhere that when in the jungle, the smartest decision was to find water and follow it to its source. Would Yu be counting on that? Setting him up for an ambush? Should he go down the water source and try to stay out of sight? Not to mention the fact he was a walking disease risk, already felt dehydrated, and couldn’t say the last time he ate.
“I can do this,” Alex whispered. He took three shaky steps away from his starting opinion, and promptly stumbled into a colony of biting ants.
Alex sat at the very far end of the garage- his back against prickling wet wood that felt nothing like the wood paneling Ian preferred. His body ached, cheeks burning with the flush of fever. He would have cried out, for Jack or Ian or Tom if he came around. There was no strength to his voice, just a whisper that emphasized the rotten swell and burn of his throat and lungs and body.
His breath quivered in short quick gasps every time he inhaled. Rigid and tightly accepting the chilled air that stank of molding lettuce and pungent wood. Ian left the shoe polish out or house cleaner or something that left Alex shivering.
Sometimes it was rough, other times he could manage, but every time he’d falter close to sleep a new animal would shriek or a telephone would ring or he’d hear Ian sigh in disappointment so loud Alex couldn’t hear his own sobbed apologies.
“I’ll be better. I’ll get better,” he repeated as rocking against Eucalyptus trees under the eyes of curious parrots accomplished little. “I’ll be better I’m sorry-...”
Alex feebly ran his hand along his arms to fling away the sweat. He kept trying to shake it off but it never rid him of the unsettling chill that made his spine twitch and his skin crawl.
All he wanted to do was sleep, but the prickling agony of biting ants felt like bullets rippling in his muscle. Uncontrollable contortions, the dizzying array of drugs and sedatives he didn’t remember getting. Worse than when he succumbed to bronchitis and spent a weak drinking watery soups. Worse than the flu where he relocated his bed to the upstairs loo. Worse than the news of a car crash where he hid under covers and left the curtain drawn all day.
It hurt and burned and distorted itself, and Alex knew that surely now, he had died.
Alex woke with sunshine in his bones, its heat radiated outwards through his muscles and his skin. He imagined he could see the waves radiating from his pink skin, shimmering in the air below the dense foliage. Heat licked its lips and coiled around his throat like a great tree python, caressing his cheeks and waiting to strike. Alex trudged with sore feet and a hazy sort of confusion; he had no memory of waking or walking only the invasive implicit memory that he was.
The Eucalyptus trees peeled like he felt his skin would. They curled in large spiral tendrils that revealed their rainbow entrails. It was so hot and suffocating Alex knew he would lay down at one point and fail to stand again. Nothing and no-one moved in this penetrating heat unless they were desperate. Alex was.
He walked, aimless and catatonic towards the bubbling noise of a small creek forged by granite rock. He could feel his shirt plastered to his back and nameless gauze pads, turning rancid from his filth. The water was a balm to both flesh and mind, evidence in some form of salvation.
He could not see any animals lingering about but he wasn’t certain of how many fingers existed on his hand. Roots twisted in his periphery like snakes investigating his weakness.
Alex dropped, his legs crumpling once his ankle brushed tepid water. It was all he could do to lie there sweating and breathing, dehydrating until he died.
He lay and the birds shrieked at him in confusion and curiosity. Perhaps hunger as they would peck out his eyes and eat his brain and ruin the money he had hidden in his organs. A heart in his chest worth more than a child’s life- he wondered at what point Yu would know his own heart.
Alex breathed fire and burned.
He fought bouts of fever, wrestling with mammoths and chewing through sinew. Flashes of prehistoric grumbling and the rumble of tectonic plates grinding. He could trace every cell in a molar and draw the chemical composition of his enamel. He peered into the abyss of what distortion was and asked if that was all it had to offer.
‘Australia is the oldest landmass on this planet,’ it told him through the fault lines in granite and the iron content of its soil. ‘We cradle our skeletons and love them dearly.’
Alex threw back his head and laughed. There was no love in this world, no genuine selflessness. Every time he believed he understood the world, just when he began to open himself up again- there existed visitors at his gate. Hungry wolves and mountain lions, with red claws and red muzzles. Peering at his insides.
Were the high and mighty filled with something different? Something better? What quality was Alex’s intestines, B grade or worse? Would his tongue fetch him a pretty penny?
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Alex thought. ‘I’m another piece in an unwinnable game.’
His heart politely knocked a rhythmic pounding, requesting entry past the doors.
No, it said with words not made to hear. I’ll meet you outside.
Alex woke up to a heart beating in his hand, pulsing powerful with its contractions that served no further purpose. It looked at him with worm-like vessels, attached by ligament and orange fat. Fermented and preserved, it beat in time to a pacemaker unattacked. Severed, it squeezed itself frantically.
“What,” Alex rasped soundlessly, “the bloody fuck.”
The heart beat steady and firm, pickled and useless. A timer that shouldn’t work.
Alex dropped it, flinching back as reality struck him. The organ squelched itself in the mud, dirtying its severed vessels which flapped about in amputated tassels. Bound itself with thin razor wire, the aorta sutured shut with flakes of rust.
It pulsed, beating on the ground. Alex found himself intrigued.
“You’re…” Alex grimaced and shuddered. “You’re really gross. What are you?”
It pulsed and Alex felt it through whispers behind his ears- behind his eye with forlorn sadness. A token, a memory.
Alex watched it under the flickering sunlight of the Australian Rainforest. He reached out and traced the vessels on its surface, abandoned and baren of blood or body. “But, what are you. Am I hallucinating? Am I talking to a- a really friendly turtle or something?”
It said nothing. Alex, beyond his understanding, stood and cradled it in his hands. It wasn’t warm- its chilled temperature more a shock given the sweltering power of the sun. It existed out of place, out of time for what it was.
“Were you made?” Alex asked it, tracing the razor stitches along the top.
I was a living thing, it said. Am I still?
Alex didn’t know why he took it with him.
“These trees,” Alex said quietly, keeping commentary to himself. “They’re Eucalyptus. They’re flammable, I thought I learned that during brushfires they explode.”
The heart thrummed in his pocket, as large as both of Alex’s fists combined. He tucked it into his shirt, secured by his belt constricting high around his sternum. It didn’t talk unless prompted unless Alex aimed himself and asked a question.
He looked at the trees, felt the heart breathe and it whispered to him: All things end, all things burn to ash.
“That’s strangely ambivalent coming from a severed heart jammed in my shirt as I’m hiking through the Outback.”
It existed as a present chill, soothing to his lungs and ethereal against his flesh.
The Australian Rainforest thrived on every level of existence. The sky barricaded from hundreds of trees reaching towards the light. The trunks so shrouded with climbing wisteria that Alex could no better discern bark from flowers and birds. The brambles and fronds on the forest floor loomed high over his head, the ant mounds raided broken bark and uprooted soil until every step vibrated and threatened pain.
It was not gentle or kind. Every touch sparked stinging, every breath left him salivating for a drink. Banana plants came few and far between, and even then their milky water left Alex retching over moss and scavenging nuts from fist-sized beetles.
His fever broke but his weakness did not. He paced slowly and burned like that of a rotting log. Spluttering and sparking, collapsing inwards without any noticeable signs. Birds screamed and laughed at him, vipers masked on vines waiting for his inevitable mistake.
He sunk to his knees at creek beds, drinking his fill with cupped palms until he vomited a sick mixture of bile and diluted acid.
“I hate this,” Alex moaned as his stomach cramped. His head ached from the light and the world which shone bright. “It hurts, it hurts so much.”
A lizard skirted around his ankle, flicking its tongue through the air. Alex smashed one fist down, bludgeoning its skull like a peanut shell. Reptilian legs twitching in his fist.
He had survived before, through horrible conditions. He could bare this- a rainforest was nothing. He had lived through so much, he would not falter to a forest and mud.
“I’m not giving up,” Alex said quietly. “I am not giving up. I can do this. I...I need to stop Yu. I need to stop the...organ... thing.”
The heart thrummed gently. Alex lifted one hand, pressing his palm to the weight with a shaky breath. He stared at the lizard, headless and twitching and he asked it, “Do you know anything about this rainforest? Or Yu? Or the people? Which way do I go?”
They ship them in from the farming villages, the coastal peasants with daughters that can’t be fed. It said. I have been here before, or have I?
Alex listened and kept walking, fashioning a log into a broken tree to seek shelter from the sun. He curled there amidst the larva of giant flies, crunching them down like almonds. The lizard twitched in his stomach, disgusting on his tongue.
“Where are you from?” Alex asked.
The place that is the end of all things. And the beginning.
Alex frowned and rest his chin on his knees. The shades of green and brown burned his eyes, his sweat slid into his eyes and forced him to blink away the burn. “You know about Yu. About the people there, about things.”
Yes, the heart told him. I see the secrets held close to their chests.
“Do you think I can save them?”
Their fate rests on your effort. On the strength of your bones, and of your heart.
Alex walked and paused when he smelled fire above the heat- a burning ash and smoke that drifted above the trees.
“What is it?” Alex asked with a distant twist of curiosity. “What is out there?’
Can you hear them too? Crying out in the dark?
“What dark?” Alex asked under the brightness of the sun.
They have stolen their eyes, the heart said. They are burning the bodies.
The waterfalls of the rainforest were fed from the rain, the freshwater collections on the rock faces carved from eons. Alex drank the purified drippings, lapping his tongue on the rock wall. He cleaned the dirt from under his nails, washed out the oozing yellow abscesses of his incisions. The stitches had fallen out- torn from his movements. They stank like ruptured grubs under his molars. He asked, and the heart told him its secrets. Disease and death and murder. That is what Winston Yu has brought.
Alex dug his fingers in his injuries, biting sharply on bamboo branches as he screamed and sloughed off infection. He cried, wincing as the fever flared its tempting touch. A kiss on his brow to lull him to fitful sleep.
He saw the smoke from the camp- they likely knew he still lived if the trackers were right. He could not guess which incisions still held the trackers. He couldn’t afford to go digging with an unsanitized knife in his own body.
Alex stared at his arms, disgusting and ridden with so many insect bites he wondered how he had not yet lost his sanity.
“I have, haven’t I?” Alex said. “Lost my mind. I’m carrying around a beating heart. I’ve gone bonkers.”
It thrummed, and Alex laughed.
He found a pool of water undisturbed and murky from silt and algae. Its surface wriggled with hatched fly larvae, wriggling back and forth as freshwater eels ate them greedily.
The sun through the trees made the surface turn into a glare so bright, Alex could only see a shadow of his face. He ripped down on his neckline, exposing the heart on his chest through the drippings of his sweat.
“Tell me,” Alex demanded it. His eyes were bright and the shadows dark. “Tell me what you see.”
Discipline, pride, and courage. A dangerous combination.
Alex clenched his jaw and demanded: more.
For all his hard work, there is little reward for him.
Alex demanded more.
A boy who placed trust in men who left him in favor of obsession. Now he sees so well, Alex Rider.
The heart didn’t talk to him unless Alex prompted it, either verbally or with a gentle squeeze. The organ was larger than Alex’s fist and required two hands to hold it gently. He came to the uncomfortable realization that with the barbed wire sewing shut the hollow arteries, the muscle likely felt no more pain. It was slimy and cold and left his fingertips falling numb. More often than not, his palms were slick with mud and sweat; he dug his short nails firm enough to pierce its purpling flesh, often squeezing it so tight its pulsing felt more like a desperate thrash to freedom.
He asked it if it hurt, but it never suggested it felt anything anymore. Maybe it stole feeling from Alex’s fingers. He didn’t know.
Alex asked it only once a few questions of himself, able to receive an answer only when gazing into a watery reflection. The heart thrummed, faster in his grip or against his chest. It knew things that Alex had never confessed to another person, the type of dark confessions he was afraid to speak and then see his face in a mirror. The heart had no eyes, but somehow it could see right through him.
“Tell me why I- he is sad,” Alex asked the heart, staring into the darker mirrors of his eyes. The water surface distorted his features and made his face look longer. The shadows under his eyes looked like beetles, the zits and infected lines near his throat bloomed like daffodils.
He walks like his limbs no longer belong to him. It said with a slight hesitation. His life is a negotiation he has no power over.
“Rude,” Alex croaked through a sore throat and blistering lips. “I argue a ton to Blunt and Jones. I just keep getting thrown back in.”
The heart, impossibly, skipped a beat.
Alan Blunt. It said with an impossible sort of timbre. He views history like that of a conquerer. He does not think of the present. He thinks of how his Grandchildren’s children will read their history books.
Alex turned his eyes away, disturbed by his doppelganger. It bothered him, the whispers he heard so clearly. ‘You don’t actually know me, you know. Like, maybe you feel like you have a feeling for who I am or those things I don’t talk about, but you don’t know me.”
It was silent, and Alex chewed on this thought for longer. “I...don’t know what I’m saying. I thought that I should make an introduction but it got away from me…”
How can it be that I know such things?
It sounded wary, confused. Afraid. Alex didn’t know why the thought bothered him so much.
“Do you have a name?” he asked the heart, tucking it into his shirt. The belt had slipped over the past few hours, leaving the heart to nestle coldly into the soft give of his stomach.
It thrummed- reluctant. I don’t remember.
He nestled himself in the crack of a tree, waiting for twilight to fall. Soon the sky would shine with a thousand stars and give him the freedom to walk without care.
“It’s beautiful,” he said quietly. The thick lichen of the tree smelled of pungent tea. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine Jack had brought him a cup. “The stars.”
The heart was a macabre reminder but also a companion. He knew that somewhere the drugs or tracker must have left him insane, suffering from hallucinations. In his worst moment when his stomach cramped worse than most times, he wondered if Yu had lied and he was simply a corpse still breathing.
“My uncle taught me how to read them, basic things like cardinal directions,” Alex said into his knees. Muffled and quiet, somewhere a nocturnal animal stirred curiously. Alex peered at the sky, tracing each planet in a spiderweb. “The stars are different down here.”
The heart asked him a question made of the minuscule increase in heart rate.
“His name was Ian,” Alex mused. “He died a while ago.”
Ian… it breathed. A brave man.
“Yeah,” Alex said as he saw comets burn bright. “The bravest.”
He would have died earlier if not for the invisible eyes watching out for his wellbeing. The subtle pangs of warning, like heartburn in his throat. Alex avoided countless mistakes- brushing against a toxic bush, climbing a tree with a sleeping python, or crossing the waters that looked a tad too strong below the surface.
“Thanks,” Alex said. He wiped sweat from his brow and ignored the deep ache in his joints. How long had it been now that he’d been trapped in this jungle? How long had his skin been burning and oozing yarrow flower pus?
After what felt like months, he made his trail towards one of the outbuildings. His bowie knife now was a blunt instrument, barely able to cut a frond in half.
Darkness covered his approach and the bright fires of the watch guard lit his way. He stared from the peeling silver skin of a eucalyptus and watched the dogs patrol on cycle.
“There,” Alex whispered.
He misses the days he spent at sea, it told him. When he protected cargo of crying children.
“Human trafficking,” Alex surmised grimly. “What about the patrolman, with the dogs?”
Miserable work, but preferable to life incarceration.
“Both of them then,” he sighed. “I need supplies from the inside. If this is one of those... hospitals, then I can get the trackers out.”
Be careful, they hear more than they see.
Alex took the words to heart and descended slowly from his perch.
The barbed wire fence would prove a barrier to anyone else, but with the night on his side, he had a leisure amount of time. He moved slowly to assure his skin would not catch, he had practiced on the brambles of the jungle. The dogs could not distinguish him from the bodies inside, only hearing the hundreds of animals watching with glowing eyes from the underbrush. Wombats and wildcats and keen owls with sharp claws.
He landed on the inside, where the path was trampled from the circling dogs and owners, and crept low to the ground with quiet movements.
The guard outside didn’t stare up from his fire, and Alex walked past under the glare of the perimeter lights. The generator haunted a loud roar, the solar panels hungry for starlight.
There are bodies inside these buildings, it warned him. Alex found a window, screened with mesh to keep out the biting insects. His knife was blunt but it still cut.
There were bodies spread out on cots, each equidistance from each other. Strange medical apparatus displaying multiple points of recovery and stagnation. Muted heartbeat monitors, ventilators pumping moist air. IV bags filled with fluids and nutrients and antibiotics.
His shoes were quiet and he drifted between each cot like a ghost. So many bodies, breathing and eating through tubes but with no life left to live. He didn’t know if they were simply unconscious, or if Yu had done something worse. A woman in her late forties had gauze wrapped clinically round her exposed abdomen; her skin had been surgically removed.
Alex stared at one man, looking close to death with more scars than freckles. Alex lifted his shirt and withdrew his silent companion, holding it with cupped hands.
On the first month of summer, it whispered. He meant to throw himself from the cliffs. He survived but never woke.
Alex tasted guilt in his throat as he painfully withdrew the long IV of antibiotics, tugging the needles free with an obscene wet sound. The man didn’t react, already lost to everything. Alex wondered if the brain could be removed for transplant.
He knew Yu would keep the bodies in good condition, no infectious diseases if he could help it. He jammed the IV into his arm, guessing the vein and blowing them twice. His forearm bloomed with blood under his skin and his fingers burned numbly. With a muffled curse he threw the bloodied needle aside. Yu had to have better medicine.
“Are they all alive?” he asked.
They are shells, their minds have long since departed.
Alex hung his head and resisted the urge to vomit.
The back stores of the medical main room had bottles of medicines by the hundreds. Filtered by blank plastic containers and translucent orange bottles. Gauze wraps stacked tall like papers, syringes dispensed like they were toothpicks. Alex squinted at the bottles, barely able to read their printed names with the nighttime running lights.
“I don’t know any of these,” he said stressed. The gauze he could work, the liquid skin and draw-tab bandages he knew. He had no idea how to find the trackers below his skin.
“Do you know how to clean these?” Alex said rhetorically. He rattled the body of medicine he took from the shelf, anything ending with ‘cilin’ was antibiotics, right?
There are ways to see without eyes. I do.
Alex paused and frowned. There was a thought.
Alex had never used machinery before let alone medical, but it wasn’t much harder than he thought. An X-ray machine was too intimidating, let alone he didn’t know how to read the scans or how long it would take to get developed. Something a screen, that he could then demolish afterward to hide his information, would make much more sense.
There he was, a little past four in the morning, sprawled awkwardly in the dark as he applied thick clear jelly over pus and moved a little ultrasound wand on his skin. The picture didn’t make that much sense- he kept thinking he’d see a baby like the television shows, but instead, he saw muscles and blood pumping. His body contracting, moving through the steps as he investigated all the incisions for something new.
“There you are…” Alex mumbled, finally spotting the bright white oddity. A chip implanted in his left forearm. Alex lifted his forceps and scalpel and pried off the scabs with shaky hands. He was really happy he found the painkillers before.
He dug around, watching the screen like a surgeon simulator. Find the chip, pinch the chip, avoid pinching the muscle on the screen, withdraw.
He let the chip clatter into the steel trey. One down, six to go.
Melissa Brass, the heart told him. She was sold into this by her mother. She came from poverty and left behind riches.
Alex looked at her, spotting the tubes and hoses that kept her alive. “Is she in pain?”
They feel nothing know nothing. It paused, contemplating something as it picked its words. They wish for peace.
“Okay then,” Alex said, bowing his head. His eyes welled, his face turned sticky. He substituted his bowie knife for a machete stolen from the guard room- his clothes substituted with armor and the heart secured by paracord sewn through its beating cavities. He stepped forward, slitting the tubes connecting to their ventilators, and moved on to the next once he knew the alarms would stay muted.
They thank you. It said. You are merciful.
When morning came, the guards realized the extent of Alex’s actions. They found a room cooling with corpses, their riches turning to rot.
He could hear the alarms from a quarter-mile away, hidden in the treetops where they wouldn’t think to look. His clothing was poorly modified with careful hacks of a machete. The spare length of his trousers wrapped around the heart, protecting it from flies.
“They’re a tad bit upset,” Alex said. He felt cold with his realization, even with the multiple layers of clothing and belts and a canteen on his hip. “I wonder how much they lost.”
Yu will punish them for their negligence, they will be fed to the dogs.
Alex considered it, then nodded in agreeance.
He waited and watched, too tired and lethargic in the heat. A helicopter came in, landing on the tarmac roof of the hospital. Alex was too far away to see who came off- likely one of Yu’s persona; assistants given that Alex left the trackers behind. Did they think he was still inside? Hiding in one of the closets?
“They’ll come on out soon,” he said. Adjusting himself on the trees, he found a comfortable position to wait for how many hours it would take.
When Alex saw the man walking into the woods, wearing a rifle on his back and two pistols on his hip, Alex rolled his eyes and sighed.
He knew the man who walked his way across the forest floor. Jack knew as well. Ian certainly did. Jack said she had met Ash a few times before he vanished.
Now h was walking below him, peering around with a military form of sophistication. Alex sighed into his arms, knowing that even with a microphone, Ash could never hear him.
“He knew my father,” Alex explained to the heart. “Was partners with him on a mission. He knew my mother also, she was my dad’s nurse I think.”
The heart thrummed, patiently listening.
“I have my mum’s eyes and her hair too,” he said. “Ash was my dad’s best man. I set my watch to send out signals and he said he would get me but…”
Clearly, there had been some form of miscommunication. His last phone call with Ash had felt wrong- stifled and strained. The last time he saw him, there was a gun pressed to his head via Yu. Too many things didn’t line up with his actions, too many secrets were being stacked and now they were falling apart.
“I would ask how he got those guns,” Alex sighed. “But I have a bad feeling Yu knew Ash was working for ASIS anyways. This was a setup.”
Below them, his godfather walked through the forest quietly, scanning with crosshairs lifted in a rhythmic search. Unfortunately, Alex had an even better vantage point. He had never seen the older man struggle before- every time Alex saw him he seemed confident and strong, if not crippled by pain. The first time Alex met Ash, he was dressed in all black carrying an assault rifle. He said they knew he was there, because of a tracker in his shoe. Alex was getting sick of trackers.
He is crippled. Unable to sleep or eat. He swallows pills and uses them to count his lifespan.
“Yeah,” Alex agreed. “He got gutted by Yassen Gregorovich. A mission gone wrong apparently, just like this one.”
Everything slid together, slotting perfectly in such a way, Alex found himself exhausted and resigned.
Everything had gone wrong from the start. Ethan Brooke had lost two agents. The snakehead knew everything planned. Mr. Sukit spoke in French and English. Ash gave him a telephone number that led him straight to Yu.
“Oh,” Alex said. “He killed them. He killed my parents.”
Yes… it said. Confused, lost and stressed with the knowledge just as Alex was. He dealt in lies and bartered his blood. He didn’t want to, but money loosens the fingers held around triggers.
Alex nodded, barely aware of the wetness on his face. Sweat, he assured himself.
Ash... it said distraught. Always second to his...brother? No. But bound close like blood.
Alex tilted his head and wondered what tree he could saw away at to land on the traitor below.
Night fell and so did Alex to the mossy ground and unearthed leaves.
Ian once said that no man ever hit the same place twice.
Alex snuck back into the building, already the corpses had been moved out and the beds folded away. All except one, with a clearly living but thoroughly pissed sedated Ash. A broken... clavacle ( according to the charts) tended to do that. And the broken arm and dislocated spine. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree according to Ash; Alex had inherited his dad’s infamous luck. The eucalyptus tree branch slammed its way through forty feet of scraggly branches to bash right into his bastard godfather.
“I thought I’d have a family again,” he confessed in a whisper. Ash slept crankily under the heavy painkillers and sedatives. “I thought I’d have something.”
I am sorry, it said to him. You have lived a horrible life.
“It wasn’t all bad.”
Few enter this line of work by choice. You burn to be something different.
Alex shrugged and sought out new bandages and disinfectants. Some painkillers to balm the pain of his closing wounds.
He left the buildings like a ghost, quiet in his steps. He could have sought vengeance on Ash’s body, the thought had occurred to him.
You are a kind child, it said to him. Alex pretended it sounded proud.
Alex lived and slept. He walked quietly through the jungle, bathing in cold streams wondering what it was he should do. He knew that the operation was off now that Yu’s plans had been foiled. ASIS or MI6 would have intervened at the reports of his death. Alex was a hunted animal, wandering from one habitat to the next.
The next building was a two-story establishment, made for processing the bodies. The heart told him that many children had once passed through there, being pierced in the back of their necks with sharp implements.
The tools last forever, not so the poor children.
This time, Alex waited until the building drew quiet even with heightened security. Alex watched and waited, and then he burned the building to the ground.
They sent shifts into the forest, led by dogs sniffing for his skin. Alex hid, crackling in dried river muck he smeared over his skin. The trees hid him, the waters sheltered him. They walked every day and found no trace of him.
The heart warned him far ahead, indicating the direction and party that hunted for him. Alex didn’t ask for any more details, not after the one guard drowned a prostitute in a bath after he choked her unconscious. He couldn’t stomach the knowledge of how foul every foe seemed to be.
They will come in waves of desperation. Offended by their failure.
“Oh yeah?” Alex asked, perched on a river rock as he rubbed the grease from his scalp. It wouldn’t cleanse, but it worked the best it could. “Let them try.”
He is wealthy and wears fine clothing. Winston Yu takes this plot as an insult to his pride. He has killed more than once for less.
“Then let him send his best man,” Alex said darkly. “I’ll topple this whole goddamn forest on them.”
Alex knew something had changed when the heart flared with desperation. He was moving before it finished its words: Quick! Underground! The spiders reside in such a place no sane man would dare trespass!
Once Alex may have paused. The forest was home to deadly things, but underground hidden in the collapsing burrow of a wombat, he listened intently to the sound of crunching leaves.
They have called for this man, at the price of several lives. His wages are high- his coins covered in blood.
He walked, pausing at the neck of the burrow. Alex did not breathe, he watched the slight dimming of the sunlight. Claustrophobia and soil suffocated him.
Oh, it said quietly. He is very tired.
The footsteps began to move, languid and prowling like that of a hunter.
There is nothing you can do for him, but keep your distance.
He felt like a startled deer, young and gangly. Running with boney limbs unproportionate to his body. His scabbed palms tore under the heavy gloves. His armored vest bled black from his sweat.
The treetops had always been his comfort, able to hide his scrawny size behind the surprising bulk of peeling bark. On rare occasions, the strips of skin would peel away and turn the forest a rainbow of colors. They were no longer safe, instead, they lifted him high as a target.
Kakadu National Park split itself into a dozen different geographical zones, shifting from landscape to climate in startling succession. Alex was lost in a world the size of Slovenia, struggling to stay quiet as wallabies darted at his entrance. He hid in the brushland, feeling elephant grass split the thin skin of his cheek as he listened to the dingoes prowl at dusk.
Surely he couldn’t be hunted forever- surely his pursuer had to give up due to exhaustion. All men had morals and limits, though as Alex found himself wringing the neck of a plumed duck, he wondered wherever his was.
He crawled through silt of the nearest estuary, listening for crocodiles drifting lazily in its slight current. He had been running for miles now, hiding between stinging mangroves and the festering pools of freshwater filled with flies. There were no snakes here, no threats beyond that of the large reptilian giants that prowled and hissed in lurid voices. That, and the cane toads Alex killed with a spear and dragged a knife through with leaf-covered hands.
Be wary, he has been underestimated all his life. He has survived longer than all.
“Don’t worry,” Alex gritted, chewing on a bit of rotting leaves. “That’s why I’m dragging the handle through the toad slime.”
It wouldn’t kill his hunter, but with luck, the man would forget to wash his hands of the toxin. An hour of hallucinations was all Alex needed to slip away forever.
Grevillea flowered themselves in long red tongues, intricate like lace webbing on frog fingers. Alex ran his finger through their soft petals, touching their sticky sap.
His hunter was smart, he hadn’t bothered with the decoy knife at all. The floodplains were no place to stay, so Alex hauled his arse inland once more in the direction of warmer blood. The heart guided him, confirming more lies and dark secrets on the horizons. A man who sent messages to his family he was doing well in the Uranium mines as he milked blood from vegetative children. A nurse who had been removed from her practice in Italy due to medical errors. One man who came by willingly, and realized too late he wanted to leave.
On the horizon, the sun will rise. There are only five left to see it.
“The five people to watch out for,” Alex summarized. “I can sneak in and out. I’m hungry anyway.”
All things are hungry. Greed, Lust, begging for salvation.
“Which one are you then, eh?” he asked. “Or which were you. How did Yu get you?”
The heart paused in wordless contemplation. I sought a dream. I was foolish to think it possible.
“You’d be surprised,” he said. “My uncle always said we could get impossible things done if we tried. My dad was like that too I think. Maybe it’s luck or maybe I like to spit in ‘impossible’s face.”
Ian… it mused. You burn with hope. It was my end.
Alex frowned. “What, hope?”
Hoping for something better.
He hadn’t heard the heart say such a somber thing before- objectively he had, but this felt more...personal. Pained in its utterance, like each consonant was a regret on its nonexistent lips. Nostalgia or grief wound itself tighter.
Alex wet his lips. “Were you happy?”
It beat its song, heart chords wound tightly in Alex’s throat. I had a wife I think.
“I’m sure she was beautiful,” he said.
Yes. It spasmed on his chest. She demanded the world come to her heel. It did.
It was when Alex was leaving the building, his third strike now, that the heart stuttered its beat in soundless alarm. Alex obeyed, slouching into the shrubbery where marsupials had hid so often they made a path.
Alex squinted, unable to distinguish shadows from foliage. He breathed a question yet refused to give his words sound: who is it?
A man who wound sadness about his skin so tightly, he knows naught how to breathe anymore.
Cryptic, as usual.
Alex waited, hunkered and frozen in the shadows. His stomach rumbled quieter than a grasshopper. His new cargo shoved into a tactical side bag felt like a beacon in the dark.
It felt like an hour he waited in the tiny shrub, holding the heart aloft as if it would calm his own. Finally, it talked as in the moonlight of the perimeter fence, there walked the hunter in his darkened clothing.
He once ate gruel and slop, nursing wounds and broken bones. He served a dog who slept on a pillow. It talked sad- it was always so sad. He has lost all he ever cared for and knows nothing more than to take from others.
Alex hid lower, pinching his eyes shut. He could hear the scruff of trampled grass, of old rocks being disturbed under rubber soles.
He was tasked to kill a man, and yet he refused. It sounded so exhausted, so tired. Why did you refuse? You were trained, and still, you refused.
Alex froze- the secrets were always haunted things. Not like this.
He was a slave sold to another master. He has yet to break his bonds. He has given up.
Alex looked up slowly and stared into the darkness. Perhaps it was luck or timing, but in the moment where starlight of constellations shone down on his skin, Alex found recognition stirring in his bones.
Yassen Gregorovich placed a gun to his head and asked the world what it wanted of him, the heart cried silently. His world wanted him to live, but not like this.
Yassen Gregorovich was as relentless as the day Alex first saw him. He was thorough, careful, and eerily aware even when visibility was a foreign thing. He walked with silent strides, methodical as he scoured every hiding spot. It was only through luck and hope that Alex was undisturbed, that his hiding spot was unbothered. No fault to the man, the shrub looked too small to hide even a child. Alex was tired and thin and very flexible when he needed to be.
Every movement of the man left Alex thinking of what Ash had once told him, back when they were in false friendship. Yassen Gregorovich was trained by his father- John Rider. Yassen Gregorovich risked his life to return and demand what Ash knew; he plunged a knife so deep in his entrails even now the wound burned.
He still grieves, it confessed. There are lessons from your father coursing through his head.
Alex felt something at that. He wasn’t sure if he liked it or not.
Ash hunting him was one thing, but to hold up against Yassen Gregorovich was an entirely different matter. Yu had to be stopped, surely if he continued to destroy enough merchandise (those pleading hearts beating out their quiet tandem), the man would come. Alex had to last long enough he could finish this.
“Does he have a weakness?” Alex asked.
He bore his throat only once, expecting to die. He refuses to bare it again.
His throat. The scar that his father shot through it. The job before all else, that was what he had been trained.
Alex felt very tired and very alone.
So many places I wanted to visit with you, the heart told the stars when Alex drifted off to sleep. It did that sometimes, confessing to the sky as if the recipient could somehow hear it.
When this is over, you know I must go.
“Of course I know that,” Alex argued. The heart had been acting odd recently, quiet and contemplative. It had no eyes but gave the impression of staring skywards for many hours. It was tired, weary of its continued existence. Alex thought he would have to burn it.
The fourth outpost was the largest yet. Three buildings; one central with two outer sheds or supply cabins. Men cycled in and out, some with dogs or added security. Landmines planted at the main entrance, dogs snapping through their corrugated steel.
We are close to something familiar but...unknown.
Alex took the warning to heart and fashioned himself a crook to hide in. There was nothing but thick grass, tall enough to bisect his eyebrow and whip his exposed skin. He couldn’t cut the strands, any unnatural edges would be a siren to his trail.
In his dreams, he saw the faces of every man dead due to him. I see...me? No...no...He watches! Run!
Alex didn’t think, he sprinted through grass that rose above his head, staying low to the ground as the air rang with the excruciating rattle of a sniper rifle. Crack!
Alex ran, breathing in harsh pants. He could see no more than an arm in front of him, constantly compressing and parting reedy grass as he ran. Any moment a snake could strike- a goanna hunting vermin in the strands. A water buffalo could be taking shelter, one wrong step and a horn would gut him.
Alex abruptly stopped running and dropped to the ground. The grasses wove, weaving themselves from the slightest breeze. A sea he hid himself in, keenly aware of his blood pulsing through his ears.
So many times... the heart moaned. So many...such cruelty by my hand...Yassen! How great you were!
The man moved like a jaguar, a predator unhindered by grass or gait. Alex counted his seconds, a timer in reverse. One- his heart thrummed- two - it pulsed in his chest - three.
Alex looked up into the muzzle of a gun, pointing between his eyebrows. From this point, the purples and oranges of the sunset created the most beautiful painting.
“Alex Rider,” Yassen said with a tired sort of agreeance. The threat of a flicker tilting his mud-splattered face into a small smile.
It was so long ago... the heart moaned. They- no… we were inseparable...there was no comfort...those brief days shared- we were friends, Yasha. The happiest times you have known…
Alex, unthinking as always, said: “Yasha.”
Yassen Gregorovich stared at him so long, Alex wondered if the man had turned to stone. Then, with mechanical unpracticed movements, he switched the safety on.
He did not lower the gun, but the message was more clear than glass. He was offering something, time or salvation for his demand.
Alex hung his head in relief. How long had his hands been shaking? When had he lost a nail?
“You have two minutes,” Gregorovich said robotically. “Then, I will kill you. How do you know that name.”
The heart, for reasons beyond Alex’s understanding, started to laugh.
“I…” Alex croaked- had his throat always been so sore? “You won’t believe me.”
“I have a…” a severed heart strung up like a necklace with stolen paracord. “A...voice. In my head. That tells me things.”
“Tells you things,” the man deadpanned with such boredom Alex would have glared if not for the Glock.
“Secrets, okay?” Alex snapped, feeling itchy and tired. His eyebrow kept bleeding into his eye. Swiping across his face only rubbed sweaty salt into his thin cuts. It burned worse that way. “I can...hear secrets from people.”
Yassen Gregorovich lifted one eyebrow flatly. “I don’t believe you.”
“Yay, just like I said you wouldn’t-.”
A man approaches, desperate to prove his worth, although he knows he is doomed to fail.
Alex turned sharply to stare in the direction the heart warned. Already he prepared to run. Yassen Gregorovich with a flair for dramatics lashed out, smashing his leg into Alex’s side to drop him soundly into the mud. His Glock shifted off safety, aiming solidly into the grass where with record speed, Ash emerged with a pistol in his single good arm.
It took a moment to survey the scene. Alex sprawled in mud from Yassen’s combat bootprint on his side. Yassen steadied in a mechanical posture, gun steadied at Ash’s forehead. The sling on Ash’s body, supporting his broken bones from a fallen tree.
“ You,” Ash growled from grit teeth. “You goddamn pest.”
“Sorry about the logging accident,” Alex said around a mouthful of mud. “It was a real tree’t-.”
“Step aside, Gregorovich,” Ash snarled, lifting his gun to aim at Yassen. “I’m going to get rid of this-.”
“I was hired by your employer for your failures,” Yassen said. Alex knew that the chilly timbre had never been directed at him. It was horrific, complete disdain and disgust manifesting with sharp pronunciation. “I advise you to step aside, lest you aggravate your condition.”
“Oh fuck you,” Ash growled, jerking the gun down-.
Yassen disarmed him with clean precision, smashing one heavy boot into Ash’s kneecap. The man howled, clutching his right knee the best he could with his left arm. Yassen clicked his tongue, steadied his gun, and shot Ash in the thigh with detached interest.
He hates Ash for many things. He wounded Ash forever, but Ash claimed the title that hurts him more.
“Godfather?” Alex blurted gobsmacked. “He-
Ash stared at Alex in agony, his skin washing out in horror at his revelation. Yassen shuddered with his entire being. It took seconds to smash the hilt of the Glock against Ash’s temple, sending him unconscious in the elephant grass.
Alex stared at Yassen comprehensively. “You were supposed to be my godfather?”
“You can’t know that,” Yassen said quietly. “Nobody knows that.”
The ghosts do.
Alex said: “The dead do.”
Yassen looked at him and Alex laughed. He had always a strong intuition- his ability to read faces. Although, it was never that simple. Blunt always made it sound like only the trained agents could do it, that they could look at you and know what you were thinking. That wasn’t the case, was it?
Alex always looked at someone and ignored their eyes. Who needed windows to a soul when he always preferred smashing down the door and dramatically unveiling himself inside.
Yassen Gregorovich, Alex knew, was terrified.
He loves you, I can feel it now.
“You won’t kill me,” Alex said. “You’re afraid to kill me, because I’m all you have left.”
Yassen was a statue, unfeeling and blank. Bound to the mortal plane and unable to move on his own. Alex forced himself up, wincing as his side throbbed angrily. He stood, and Yassen still refused to move. “You won’t hurt me because…”
You have your mother’s eyes.
“-because I have my mother's eyes-,”
You have your father’s heart.
“-and my father’s heart.”
Yassen dropped his gun. He looked at Alex as if he found himself meeting a ghost. Alex could relate. He had been carrying one.
“What?” Alex whispered to himself, feeling cold. “I- no. I don’t- no. What do you mean- no…”
Yassen reached out quickly, grasping Alex’s thin shoulder with one hand. “Alex?”
Hastily, Alex jerked, scrambling to unlatch the paracord from around his throat. He threw it, letting it slump amidst grass as it beat to a rhythm impossible. “No. No. What the- do you think that’s funny? You- I can’t-.”
“Alex,” Yassen urged, squeezing gently. “You need to be quiet. There is a nearby outpost.”
“I…” Alex choked, feeling his face sticky and hot. He couldn’t afford to cry, he hadn’t much water left to drink.
“No- no you shut up!” he shouted, his words muffled as Yassen quickly slapped a palm over his mouth. Hands much larger than his. Yassen scanned around, trying to spot whatever distressing stimuli had set Alex off. His eyes fell on nothing.
I remember the last day I saw you, it said quietly. You were so small in your mother’s arms.
Alex hunkered forward, letting Yassen hold his entire body weight as his muffled sobbing choked his lungs.
“Alex,” Yassen said quietly. “What is it? What do you hear?”
I am sorry, it said. I remembered you at once. I wanted to protect you.
I fail, even now.
“Shut up,” Alex sobbed, squeezing his eyes closed. “You should have- you could have told me!”
Yassen squeezed his shoulder tighter, pausing before tugging Alex to his side where he wrapped one arm around his slighter ward. Blue eyes scanned the elephant grass, turning purple from the sunset. Alex shuddered, trembling and exhausted. He was so tired of this all.
I love you, Alex.
“You were supposed to live!” Alex cried into his assassin's side. “Not- not-...”
Yassen stared at the grasses, face shifting into a surprising display of vulnerability. He looked unnerved, looking for a threat that clearly did not exist. Alex’s babbling had given way to worse things, an inconsolable grief that Yassen knew could not be faked. There was something there, something he could not see or hear.
“Alex,” Yassen asked quietly. “What did you mean by the dead?”
Alex shook his head, refusing to answer. Yassen twitched, fingers tight around the Glock in his right hand. “Nobody knew about that. Except for Ash and-...”
Alex could tell when the man saw the paracord monstrosity. Held together with barbed wire and sinew. The heart was made from muscle and sinew, but metal and glass as well. Yassen looked at it in disgust and abhorrent fascination.
Sometimes I remember the sea air on my skin, and your smile. It said quietly. Hello, Yassen.
Yassen made a noise in his throat, like a gag or a retch or sob. He choked it down, like vile medicine and said wetly, “hello Hunter.”