Story – The Orange Marble (Part 4/6: The Settlement)

Synopsis: Michael begins training for the assassination.

A door opens, summoning light into a dark hallway. Candles are lit by two servants as another person walks in. He walks down the corridor - rusty, metal doors are set up at either side. This man is Jacob Axiom, the leader of the the Antipeace; the most feared faction in the world. He has a scar over his right eye, cuts over his body and a stare that's unbreakable.
Axiom: any new ones?
Servant: there's one in this room, sir. Another from the Survivalists settlement.
Axiom: the Survivalists…
The servant unlocks the door with a key. Axiom enters. The room, like all other rooms in the corridor, is small, damp and contains no light beyond that coming from the hallway and a small, barred window behind the prisoner. The rooms are even dirtier than the rest of the settlement. Rats occasionally scurry in and out of the holes in the walls. At the end of the room is a Survivalists member captured by the Antipeace, chained by his wrists and ankles and stripped to just his underwear. His knees are red from having to rest on them and his body is damaged, both from war and torture. He is almost lifeless. He looks up, seeing Axiom thud towards him.
Survivalists member: oh fuck, Axiom…
Axiom crouches, getting almost eye level with the Survivalists member.
Survivalists member: I-I… I…
The Survivalists member is shaking.
Survivalists member: I… I know nothing ok, I, please just, just let me go, please.
Axiom maintains his emotionless stare.
Axiom: I'm gonna ask you one question to start off.
The Survivalists member gives a light nod, his trembling not stopping.
Axiom: do you know who the person in charge here is?
The Survivalists member looks at Axiom.
Axiom: I'll narrow it down for you; is the person in charge here you, or me?
Survivalists member: w-well, you, of course, sir.
Axiom nods.
Axiom: follow up question… on a scale of one to ten, ten being hysterical, how much of a joke do you think this is?
Survivalists member: I… I… well one, o-of course, sir.
Axiom nods again. He reaches to his belt, pulling out a baton and flicking it so that it extends. The end of it is sharpened like a shank.
Axiom: THEN WHY THE FUCK DO YOU THINK IT'S ACCEPTABLE TO NOT GIVE MY MEN ANSWERS WHEN THEY ASK YOU?
The Survivalists member trembles even more, beginning to cry.
Survivalists: I-I’m sorry sir, I swear I, I… I'll tell you everything!
Axiom: unacceptable.
Axiom turns to the servants.
Axiom: Lock the door for 2 minutes or so.
He looks at the crying Survivalists member.
Axiom: make it 5.
The servants nod their heads, backing out of the room and locking the door. Axiom approaches the prisoner.
Survivalists member: NO, WAIT, NO, I'LL TELL YOU EVERYTHING I SWEAR, THERE'S NO NEED TO… NO… NO…
His screams echo around the stone structure. 

Back in the Survivalists settlement, Michael and Zoe head to the shower area outside to get out of their sandy clothes, wash and get into their settlement rags. The shower area is split into multiple sections, all with a few showers and small barricades in front of them to hide anything below the person's neck. They enter stalls at opposite sides of the room.
Michael: alright, let's see here...
Michael turns the shower on. Mud comes out, plopping on his feet.
Michael: I… uh…
He looks at Zoe, who is happily cleaning her hair with the dirt ridden water.
Zoe: Are you not going in?
Michael: oh, uh, yeah…
After five minutes of procrastination, he forces himself to enter.
Zoe: how you finding it?
Michael: you know, other than the grime, mud and blood sucking parasites, this isn't so bad. Where's the bathroom area by the way, for future reference?
Zoe gestures in a direction.
Zoe: just over there.
Michael looks.
Michael: I don't see any sinks there though?
Zoe shakes her head.
Zoe: fuck you.
Michael chuckles. They're interrupted by Ben.
Ben: you two still showering? I'm waiting to start the training.
Zoe: relax, we're almost done.
Ben: relax? We're fighting for survival, I don't think we're in a position to “relax”.
He exits.
Zoe: just a warning for the training; Ben is actually a decent guy, but he has zero patience. He cares about this settlement a lot, which is both a good and bad thing in his case.
Michael: noted.

After changing into 2066 clothing, Michael and Zoe enter the training area in the back where Ben and two other heads of the settlement are standing. The area is a large, open space with tall walls encasing it. At the end, numerous items and targets are in place.
Michael: ok, I'm here for the training.
Ben hands him a purple sniper rifle.
Ben: this here is the X27 Sniper Rifle, a 2049 model perfect for this assassination. With it being built from alloys that bypass recognition in any metal detecting device before 2032 and a fold away function allowing easy storage in the belt or pants, you should be able to sneak this in and use it to assassinate the president with ease. That is, if you have the skills to assassinate him.
Ben presses a switch on a device in his hand. Five targets pop up in the target area. As Ben rejoins the two other settlement leaders, Michael takes a deep breath and steps forward to the shooting area. Zoe watches from the sidelines.
Ben: alright, let's see what skills you got already.
Michael: Um, ok…
Michael gulps and raises the rifle.
Ben: 3… 2… 1…
He looks down the scope.
Ben: GO.
Michael opens fire at the targets. He aims at them one by one, pulling the trigger as he believes to be over them. After shooting at all five, he lowers the rifle to see how he did; he hit three out of five.
Michael: w-wow, that's a good start, right?
He looks at the settlement leaders. All of them are unamused. Ben presses a button to raise the targets.
Ben: let's try that again.
Michael starts breathing faster. Zoe looks at the unamused leaders and then at Michael, seeing his lack of confidence and his disgruntled state as the result of them being unimpressed. Michael turns towards the targets.
Ben: ok, 3… 2… 1… GO.
Michael shoots at the targets again. After the shots are done, he lowers the rifle to see how he did. Three out of five again. He looks at the leaders, all of them equally unhappy. The targets raise again. Suddenly, the silence is broken by the sound of clapping. Michael and the leaders turn to the source of it - Zoe.
Zoe: great start Michael. I remember when I began, I couldn't even hit one.
A smile rises on Michael's face. Ben is confused. He shakes his head and turns his attention back to Michael, preparing for another of Michael's subpar attempts.
Ben: right, well, 3… 2… 1… GO.
Michael aims the rifle, opening fire at the targets. After a few seconds, he lowers the gun to see how he did. He scans over the field to see how many targets are remaining; except, he doesn't see any, because he successfully hit all five. Michael glances at Zoe.
Zoe: nice job, Michael.
After a few more practices, Ben puts the device down and talks to the other leaders. After a few seconds, they turn to Michael.
Ben: ok, uh, an interesting beginning. Let's take a little food break and then return, huh?
The settlement leaders leave the room.

Michael and Zoe get a seat in the canteen, sitting on an isolated table as they talk and eat.
Zoe: so what do you think of the training so far?
Michael: I started off a little rusty but I'm pretty confident. I wish Ben would let up a bit though.
Zoe: yeah, they aren't the most empathetic, I believe it comes from a good place though.
Michael glances behind him, spotting an open door with a video game system and TV in.
Michael: woah, there's video games here?
Zoe: oh, yeah.
Michael: … so, they can afford video games but not indoor showers?
Zoe: one of the Survivalists members had it and felt like donating it to the settlement.
Michael: aww, that's sweet.
Zoe: I think he's dead now.
Michael: oh, that's weak.
The two near completion of their meals.
Michael: hey, uh, thanks for what you did in the training area.
Zoe: huh?
Michael: you know, with the clapping? I know that took some doing since that's not usually the type of thing you do…
Zoe: hey, I've said this before, but you don't know me, we're not fr… you don't know me.
Michael: but I do know you now.
Zoe grabs her tray.
Zoe: we should probably head back to the training area.
Michael: you always do this.
Zoe: excuse me?
Michael: anytime I try to talk to you on a more personal level, you run. I want to get to know you. I consider you my friend now.
Zoe: I…
Their eyes meet. She darts her head away.
Zoe: I'm gonna go prepare for the next bit of training.
She puts her tray on the side and walks away. Michael watches her go, sighing. He finishes his food and heads back to the training area. 

This time, Ben gives him a few tips. They practice for around an hour, Michael perfectly hitting the targets every time by the end. They move into the next phase - moving targets. After Ben gives the usual three second countdown, the targets start moving and Michael opens fire. In his first attempt, and then all the subsequent ones, he hits all five. Zoe and the settlement leaders look on, impressed. Michael smiles with pride.
Ben: very nice, Mr. Drake. Now, let's replicate a similar scenario to what you'll truly be dealing with. Head up to the balcony area there while we set up the target.
Michael heads to the exit. Zoe gives him a thumbs up. He reaches the balcony and looks down on the training area. Oddly, the targets haven't been raised again. Instead, there's a sheep.
Ben: alright Michael, you ready?
Michael: uh, so, the targets will pop up, right?
Ben: the sheep is your target, Michael. Ok so, 3…
Michael: woah wait, what?
Ben: 2…
Michael looks down at the skinny sheep. It tries eating three blades of grass protruding from the floor.
Ben: 1… GO.
The settlement leaders wait for the sheep to drop. They wait a few seconds. Silence remains. Michael lowers the rifle.
Ben: I counted down Michael, shoot.
Michael: I… I can't.
Ben: w-what the hell do you mean, “I can't”?
Michael: I… that's a sheep, I can't shoot a sheep.
Settlement leader: I didn't realise we were members of the PETA settlement.
The other settlement leader laughs. Ben remains emotionless.
Ben: so, how can we expect you to assassinate a human when you won't even shoot a sheep?
Michael: I, well…
Michael gazes at the sheep. He's correct.
Ben: it's getting late. I suggest you spend the rest of the night thinking about this, Mr. Drake.
The settlement leaders head to the exit. Ben invites Zoe to the group discussion in his office. She accepts and tells Michael she'll see him in a bit. He responds with a glum nod. He glances at the sheep before tossing the X27 down to Ben. He exits the balcony with his head lowered. Zoe sighs. 

In Ben’s office, Ben, the two other settlement leaders, Zoe and a few other heads of the Survivalists settlement discuss various topics. Ultimately, Michael's practice is brought up.
Settlement leader: so, what's the thoughts on this Michael Drake?
Settlement leader 2: the kid's a buffoon. Yeah he had some beginner's luck, but I see no hope in him.
Settlement leader: completely agree. He's a good marksman, but he's no hero.
Head of weaponry: I overlooked the last bit of training and yeah, I was quite underwhelmed.
Zoe: now hold on a minute.
They all turn to her, surprised. Ben is especially curious what she has to say.
Zoe: I think you guys are being WAY too harsh on him. This is his first day, and already he's aced the targets and moving targets courses. Yeah he didn't shoot a sheep but so what?
Settlement leader: so what!? He's our one shred of hope yet he can't even shoot a fucking animal, you must be blind, woman! Why is she even here? She has no sense. She's blinded by comradery.
Zoe: blinded by comradery? You consider supporting a friend having no sense, who's truly the blind one here?
The settlement leader laughs.
Settlement leader: we can give training another shot, but I hold no hope about our future.
Zoe leaves and slams the door behind her. A few of the leaders and heads mumble and laugh between themselves. Ben leans on a window sill in silence. Just outside the room behind a pillar is Michael, who overheard Zoe defending him. He sees Zoe walking off, smiling in appreciation of her action. His smile drops as he overhears the others’ laughs, their words of him being unable to do it ringing in his head.

As nightfall looms, Michael returns to the training zone. No one is present. He grabs a weapon off the wall and walks up to the shooting range, climbing over the fence and walking up to the doors at the sides. He opens them to reveal the sheep. Michael leads it into the center of the shooting range and climbs back over the fence. He grabs a pistol and aims it at the sheep's head. He takes a deep breath.
Michael: ok… ok… I can do this…
Upstairs, Zoe is headed to bed. The door to the balcony is open and, while glancing into it, she notices a figure in the practice area. She walks out onto the balcony, seeing Michael. She ducks to avoid detection.
Michael: ok…
He raises the gun, pointing it at the sheep's head. He stands there for a few seconds, trying to pull the trigger. Trying to suppress his concerns. Trying to block the morals he's been taught for the benefit of those around him. He rests his finger on the trigger. His hand starts shaking. He takes another deep breath. He steadies his shot. He closes his eyes and starts pulling the trigger. Then, he lets go. He lowers the gun, grunting. Zoe finds this intriguing. Not because of Michael, but because of her reaction to it. Had this been a few days ago, before she met Michael, she'd find his inability to complete the task infuriating. Yet, her initial reaction here is one of remorse. Of empathy. Of appreciating why he can't do it, and respecting him for it. She's never felt these emotions before. Michael shakes his head and jumps up and down. He switches the pistol for the X27 and takes aim once more.
Michael: alright, maybe if I do it quickly, without thinking about it.
Michael activates the moving targets. After a three second countdown in his head, he opens fire. He takes down all five targets in quick succession. Then, his reticle drops onto the sheep. Michael’s body freezes up. He hurls the X27 to the ground in a burst of frustration and disappointment.
Michael: I can't do it.
Zoe watches his wallowing with a frown. He climbs over the fence and sits down beside the sheep, stroking its cheek as he thinks to himself. He reaches into his pocket with his other hand and pulls out some crumbs. The sheep eats every last bit of it from his open palm.
Michael: haha, who's a good girl?
A brief smile flashes on his face.
Michael: it's hard being the one everyone relies on, you know? Especially when those relying on you don't have any faith in you.
He strokes the sheep's cheek.
Michael: well, except one. I think. There's this girl who, deep down, has a heart of gold. A girl who supports others, who is friendly to others, who loves those who love her… but who also has a hard life. Who has been taught to suppress those feelings, to suppress that level of optimism no one else around her believes in.
Michael sighs again.
Michael: then again, what do I know?
Michael stands up and grabs the sheep's collar, leading it back into its storage area. After shutting the wall, Michael climbs over the fence and exits the training area, walking to the game room to play for an hour before sleep. Zoe watches him leave. He enters the game room, lights some candles and prepares to play a round of "Bullet Ranger 3: Reloaded."
Voice behind him: that game two player?
Michael turns around, seeing Zoe standing in the doorway. He smiles.
Michael: yeah, I think it is.
Zoe shuts the door and sits down next to him, grabbing the other controller. She presses the button to turn it on, a “Player 2” prompt confirming her input.
Michael: have you ever actually played a game before?
Zoe: you kidding? I'm a God at this game.
Michael: very modest.
Zoe: I have the right to be braggadocious, I've put hours into the emulated version on the library computer.
Michael: well, I'm pretty sweet at first person shooters myself so…
She smirks.
Zoe: alright, let's see if you're right.
The two play for an hour, exchanging wins as they chat, joke and giggle. Eventually, the duo become weary and put the controllers down.
Zoe: hey, uh, thanks. I had a great night.
Michael: me too. I haven't enjoyed myself this much in a long time.
They exchange smiles.
Zoe: well, I’m gonna make my way up to bed. The mattress is as soft as a steel grate, but it's gonna feel like heaven after the long day we've had.
They blow the candles out and head to the bed they have to share.
Michael: well, goodnight.
Zoe: night.
Zoe turns on her side while Michael remains on his back. While Zoe quickly falls asleep, Michael lies awake for a while. As he lies there, Zoe, in her sleep, turns over, causing her head to rest on Michael's side. He looks down at her, unsure what to do. After some contemplation, he gently puts his arm around her. The following morning, Zoe awakes. She realises her head is resting on him and that his arm is over her. Her immediate reaction is to sit up. However, she stops herself. She inspects everything for a moment before deciding to lower her head back down. She goes back to sleep in the comfort of his arms.

End of episode four.

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