DISCLAIMER: All characters who appear in this story belong to their respective creators, including Cameron/Eglee Productions and 20th Century Studios. No money is being made from the use of these characters.

Building Cages by pari106

I don't know how long it's been since I've come to this place. Years, maybe. Ten, at least. Twenty? Decades. It doesn't feel like it. But, then, in a way, it feels like it's been centuries.

I walk down the dirty streets of Seattle, kicking refuse out of my way. The streets are covered in filth garbage, broken bottles, broken bodies. I remember it was bad before, but its worse now. And I suppose I should have expected this. After the political revolution of 2032 Washigton became little more than one big home for the homeless. And we all know how the government treats its downtrodden.

Now there's hardly anything left. The buildings have disintegrated. Most every neighborhood is as filthy as the one I'm walking through now. Some are worse. A very few, poor souls wander through the mess, starved and diseased and barely wearing the rags on their backs. They search for salvation, knowing they will find none. They don't even bother stopping me as I walk by, with my clean clothes and healthy complexion. Somehow that's worse than if they begged.

The New Democracy began Reconstruction about five years ago now, but not in places like Washington and New York, where the worst of the war damage had been suffered. Instead our fine new democratic administraton started anew in places like Illinoise, and what remained of California, and Wyoming, where the new national capitol is located. Meanwhile their constituents here in Seattle rot like living corpses in the ruin of a once proud city. We the people for the people, my ass.

But it was always like this, wasn't it? It was always about the big man squashing the little man. Missions and priorities; discipline and duty. And that duty doesn't include wasting resources on the sick and the weak.

"Only the strongest survive, soldier," Lydecker used to rant at us kids. "Remember that."

Oh, yes, I remember. Manticore, sweet Manticore.

Back then we thought Manticore was a set of beliefs. A handful of doctors and soldiers, a cold, sterile institution and a bunch of war drills and lab experiments.

Only, we were wrong.

Manticore is the whole fucking world.

At least, it is now. Maybe it always was. Maybe we were just too fucking young and nave to know better.

We. The X5s. Me and my brothers and sisters Manticore's proudest acheivement and most shameful disgrace. We who escaped that cold, sterile institution and languished away in the cold, messy world beyond.

"Only the strongest survive..."

Yeah, I remember, asshole. Colonel Lydecker. "Deck". Father. Whatever the hell you wanted us to call you, I don't know. But I do remember.

And I'm here cause I also remember that time when I was young and nave. When I had my brothers and sisters and we were nave together.

The remembering is a special thing now that all the fuck I've got left is my memories. As painful as it is, I like to remember. I guess I came here to remember one last time, before the deed is done and even that is taken from me. The power to remember.

I've been walking a while now and I remember when this street used to be totally lined with fences and guard posts. This was the entry point to Sector 9, the high-rise district, when there used to be Sector Police and high-rise districts. The horizon used to be covered with tall, beautiful buildings of all sorts of designs.

I can still remember the first time I saw a city. Not like in the pictures back at Manticore, when they made us memorize the layouts of enemy population centers. But up close and personal. I was breathtaken. I thought it was the most gorgeous thing I'd ever seen. All the lights, the fancy architecture. Everything back in Gillette was uniform, utilitarian. It was a silly thought for a soldier even one who was only 10 years old but that night I looked up at my first skyscraper, I thought it looked just like a huge Christmas present, all lit up like with Christmas tree lights. It was December, you know, and there were holiday decorations and holiday shoppers everywhere; holiday programs all over television. So I learned all about Christmas. And looking up at that building, I wanted to live there. Inside a Christmas present, surrounded by light and activity and the total lack of uniformity and utilitarianism. And I made sure Zack put me in a big city any time he moved me after that.

I didn't tell him why. I didn't leave the discussion open for debate. I just listed a few possible new assignments and Zack chose one. I suppose he figured it was the least he could do, since I never gave him hell about leaving town like Max or Zane did. Or even Tinga, once or twice. He told me to pack and I did. So he always let me choose. And I always chose a place with buildings that reminded me of Christmas.

Only now, if buildings are like gift boxes, then the old skyscrapers of Sector 9 were opened and discarded a long time ago. They rise out of the horizon like huge, metal skeletons, all bare and broken and ugly. I can barely make out any of the old sights.

Over there used to be the Space Needle. There's nothing left of it now. It was abandoned after the Pulse, and they tore it down in 2025. There's just an empty space in the skyline now where it once was.

And that hollowed out old complex over there used to be called Foggle Towers.

Max mentioned it once. Said it was real pretty not that you could tell now. Max's boyfriend had lived there Logan Cale. A couple of years after his death, some old doctor or something bought it when the government put it up for auction. Big black guy. I think he used to be a physical therapist before the war, and he was a friend of Logan's apparently. He turned the building into the Cale Museum of Historical American Art, but he had to relocate out of state when the fighting made its way to Washington. I hear his kids still run the place.

I met him once, you know. Not the therapist guy, but Logan. I met him the night of that fateful last mission to blow up Manticore's labs. He seemed nice enough. Real quiet, but with this strength and confidence in the way he looked at you that kind of surprised me, if you want to know the truth. He got his spine all blown to hell a year before, but there he was walking around. And he was just a norm, wealthy from what I could tell; he had no reason to side with us, but there he was, doing his part. I could understand what Max saw in him.

I never saw him after that, except on t.v. But Manticore saw a lot of him over the years. I think he went nuts after Max died. Some fucking X7 clone shot her in the heart on the night of the raid, and Logan was there with her when she died, screaming and crying and Lydecker had to knock him out to drag him away.

He was on the government's most wanted list in a month.

A few unfortunate press releases here, an explosion or a shootout there, and he made some very low enemies in some very high places. Krit said he was just doing his job the way he had before, as Eyes Only, only that he was doing it different now. I think he was out for revenge.

And he got it. The night Max died, Lydecker took off before Logan woke up. Before either Krit or me could get over the shock of losing two of our own and kill the fucking bastard like he deserved. I guess the X5s could have gone after him. Jondy said she was. But she never caught up to him. Then, one night there it was on the television set this unannounced pirate message spliced into the middle of the nightly news. Someone had gotten their hands on a news report that the government hadn't wanted on the air, and had apparently decided to share it with the public. Seems this discharged army colonel was found dead in a parking lot outside a hospital. Shot in the chest, right through the heart.

Imagine that.

The brief clip didn't include a name or a picture. But Jondy stopped looking, all the same.

And that was the first and last time we heard, either directly or indirectly, from Eyes Only. Because I know that pirate message was meant for us X5s. And a year later Logan Cale was shot and killed crossing the Canadian border. He was trying to smuggle this Korean family out of the country before the government could get to them. One of them was an ex-cop who used to be one of Logan's informants. I think the only one who survived was the ex-cop's son, who was probably about fourteen at the time. He disappeared after the massacre, but about four or five years later Eyes Only returned. And a totally different set of eyes started staring back at me through the t.v. screen. Dark eyes, instead of blue. I think they've changed twice since then, too.

I guess I should consider that to be something. Something to put a little hope into. All this time, all this death, and something, at least, is still there like it used to be. The eyes of Eyes Only have changed, and its location is different, but its still there. Somewhere. Protecting the downtrodden. Blah blah, Woof woof.

I guess I should consider that a reason to hope. But I don't. I guess I could look up this new Eyes Only guy. Try and help, like Max did for Logan. But I don't. I guess I should care. But I can't.

Because I'm not young and nave anymore. This screwed up genetic cocktail that is me still looks every bit the young, beautiful soldier I was back then, before everything went to hell. Before we lost Zack and Max, then Logan. Then Zane, shot down in his home with the wife and family he'd been denied while Zack was alive. And Jondy, who'd never really been stable in the first place. She'd started deteriorating the day we lost Zack, and she just kept spiralling downward until there was nothing left to do but crash. She committed suicide, is what she did. What else could you call rushing an armed batallion of Manticore soldiers unarmed? And finally Krit. Krit, who was closer to me than any of the others. I was there when he died. When the seizures went from bad to worse. I'd never had them as bad as the others, so when triptophan became impossible to get, it didn't effect me much. But it effected Krit. Without the necessary drugs, he just got worse and worse. He even asked me to put him out of his misery, but I couldn't. I just couldn't. And it didn't really matter, because he died the same night, anyhow.

We never knew how long these barcodes of ours were supposed to last; we were never told. But I guess, without the seizures, they last one hell of a long time. Because it's been years since I've been back here. Decades. And my body still hasn't aged a goddamned day. My blonde hair hasn't grayed. My blue eyes don't sport any wrinkles around them.

I suppose it just makes sense. Ole Manticore spent a hell of a lot of money and manpower on us. Lydecker spent most of his life trying to get us back. That bitch, Renfro, spent the last of hers trying to do the same. She very nearly succeeded, too. She rose right up through the ranks of Manticore till finally someone even more ambitious tore her down. Then he suffered the same fate. And so on, and so on. Different faces, same cause. Seems to be a recurring theme around here.

Anyhow, I guess it makes sense. If you had a few billion dollars to build, say, the world's greatest mousetrap, you wouldn't ever want to have to buy another goddamned mousetrap again. Granted, mousetraps don't assassinate world leaders or blow up countries. But the same basic idea applies. You spend a few billion dollars on something you want to last.

So I'm lasting. It's almost scary how I'm lasting. Maybe the lasting is even scarier than the thought of dying. No, in fact, I know it is. My body hasn't aged a day, but my soul feels ancient. And I don't want to last anymore. I don't want to feel old anymore, or to look young any longer. I want to wear my experience on my skin like a medal. I want to go gray and to wrinkle. I want some little sign that the last fifty or so years of my life really happened.

Because I'm not young and nave. I know that, in the end, that's all I'll have to show for my life. Little signs that I ever really lived. Scattered memories of the people I cared about.

I want some little sign that those people were a part of my life. But then again, I don't. I came here to Seattle because I want to remember. But then, again...I don't.

I don't want to remember because remembering just hurts too much.

That's why I made my decision. That's why I'll be leaving for Wyoming in the morning.

Because remembering just hurts too much. My soul is old and tired and I just don't want to hurt anymore. I don't want to live anymore not like this. When I was young, and my brothers and sisters were young, we thought we could escape the cold, sterile world that had been all that we had ever known. We thought we could escape and that everything would be better after that. Everything would be okay. We would be in danger, and we would be separated, we would be hunted, and some of us wouldn't make it...but it would be okay. Because we'd be free.

But now I know that there is no "free". Not for someone like me. Nothing that costs as much as my family has paid can ever be called free. We escaped the cold, sterile world we grew up in, but we were never free.

I'll never be free. So, really, the only choice I have is in what type of cage I really want to live in. This cold, messy world? With the illusion of freedom, and the pain of my memories? Or the cold, sterile world of Manticore? With no memory. No pain, but also no pleasure, no good and no bad. No me. Just missions and discipline and duty.

Manticore, sweet Manticore.

We build our own cages, you know. Lydecker built his when he signed up for a project that ended up meaning much more to him than just some lab experiment. Max built hers the day she broke into Logan Cale's apartment. I guess she sort of helped him build his, too. And Zack built his cage the day he started to love Max.

And I'm building mine now. I don't know if I can live with it, but then, it's not the living I'm really concerned with anyhow. It's the remembering.

"Only the strong survive, soldier. Remember that."

Bullshit. We were strong. Me and Krit, Max and Zack, Jondy and Tinga and Zane and Ben. We were damned strong. And Jace? Her and her baby girl? They were strong. A bombing in Cuernavaca took them and Jace's new husband out in no more than a blink, and they were strong. It's not the strong who survive. It's the strong who live. Who can capture some brief bit of life amidst all the death and destruction happening all around them. Like Max did with Logan. Like Tinga and Zane and Jace did with their families. I guess kind of like me and Krit did when we were together. The strong live.

And I don't know about survival. Do any of us really survive? My brothers and sisters were strong and they lived, but they didn't survive. And if you're not really living your life, what are you surviving for, anyhow?


Strength isn't about surviving. It's about living. And when you can't do that, it's about remembering the times when you lived.

So I'm walking these dirty, old streets of Seattle remembering for the last time. Because that's all I have the strength left to do.