Black as the coldest winter’s night.
The kind of dark that made you wonder if you were dead.
Which you might have been, of course, but it wasn’t the most helpful thought.
Altar groped around in the darkness, as if he could grasp the light. He didn’t know where he was, or how he came to be there, but he was determined to find out none the less.
There was something beside him, but as he reached for it, a cascade of gravel came sliding down and shoved him away.
It was a while before the dust cleared and he stopped coughing. At least there was light now, fading as it was. He managed to stand up, grasping for handholds. When he stood up, the first thing he noticed was that he was in a small room, a bunker or stronghold of some kind. It looked like it had fallen into disuse long ago, as it was dusty and empty. The gravel pile that had disrupted him had blocked a home in the wall, probably the entrance or exit.
The second thing that he noticed was that there was something else there beside him.
Pointing a gun at him.
Pierce couldn’t feel his hands on the trigger.
In fact, he couldn’t feel his hands at all.
It as was if his hands were made from lava, melting with fear but hardening with anger.
“Goodbye,” he snarled through gritted teeth. But no sooner than he had spoken than Altar had tackled his legs, bringing him crashing down. The gun flew out of his hands.
Altar swept up the gun in his trembling hands and pointed it at Pierce’s face.
“I ain’t never shot no-one,” he said, panting. “But I will, cos if I don’t, we’re gonna die anyway.
Still pointing the gun with one hand, Altar used his free hand to scrabble at the large rock pile blocking the entrance to the room.
“There must be some way out,” he muttered, but didn’t succeed in moving any of the rubble.
“Seven years,” sneered Pierce, “fighting, and losing, and all for this? What a pitiful way to end.”
“Shut it,” growled Altar. As a spy, he was used to fighting his enemies, not talking to them. Protocol dictated that those who did inhumane thing were not human. They lived as monsters, outcasts, outsider.
It had been eight years, anyway.
Pierce wasn’t looking for an exit like Altar. He was looking for a chance to kill.
He could see that Altar wasn’t really focused on him, and he didn’t think that he would kill him anyway. He’d had plenty of opportunities to kill him over the years, but the coward had never had the guts to pull the trigger.
“So,” he said offhandedly.
“You’ll kill me.”
“I suppose,” replied Altar, still not looking at him. “Payment, for all the murders. A life – “
“For a life, yes, but my life is worth nothing anymore,” sighed Pierce. “For an exchange, you must have two things of the same worth, yes?”
“But when you can’t, you bargain with what you have.”
“Hmm.” Pierce considered it.
“It’s no use,” Altar sighed despondently, changing the subject quickly. “There’s no way out.”
“I could have told you that,” Pierce grinned. Altar suddenly took firm hold of the gun.
“Find a way out then.” he said, “since you’re so smart.” Pierce got up, with his hands mockingly in the air. He walked a couple of steps, and then, with the blink of an eye, pulled a small knife from his pocket. He pointed it at Altar’s throat.
“Seven years!” he yelled. “Seven years of my life, and for nothing! My life, with one purpose, now has a certain end. Death, and all of it wasted!”
“If you kill me,” cried Altar, “the world will see you as a killer. A murderer!”
Pierce put his face closer to Altar, and whispered slowly, “And how is that different from what they already see?”
Altar did not answer for a while.
“Because,” he murmured, just loud enough for Pierce to hear, “how you look at yourself defines how other people may see you, if they value anything good in this world.”
Pierce stood as still as a statue; his arm still locked with the knife at Altar’s throat. Out of nowhere he spat, missing Altar by an inch.
“Stalling,” he said. “Well played, Agent Altar. But…”
He paced for a while, twirling the knife through his hands, “… I suppose my desire to escape outweighs my desire to kill you.”
As Altar exhaled and relaxed, the knife flew past his face like a bullet and hit the wall with a clatter.
“Just,” Pierce smirked.
Altar reluctantly lowered the gun. He shuffled away, seeing that Pierce was too preoccupied to notice. He started hammering the walls, trying to see if they were hollow. Pierce was yelling at the top of his voice. It started to annoy Altar, so much that he said, “No one can hear you, you know that? No one can hear!”
Pierce whipped round. “How do you know, huh? We’re stuck down here, but there could be people up there!” He stamped his foot in rage, but as he did this, the walls and ceiling shook like a mini earthquake. Altar looked up; his face filled with terror.
“Stop!” he yelled in panic.
“You’re gonna kill us!” The walls didn’t stop shaking for a while, but when they did, Pierce turned to him.
“I’d rather die by my own hand than by some stupid rocks!” he shouted, but it sounded more defeated than angry. Altar stared at him, and then at the roof. By the look of those cracks, they didn’t have long unless they found a way out.
If they found a way out.
Pierce slumped to the floor, his head in his hands.
“It’s no good. We’re both gonna die here.”
Altar looking at him strangely, but also then slowly slid to the ground. Pierce put his hands in his pockets and brought out his phone. The screen was flickering, with cracks linked across it like a spider’s web, and there was no chance that he could phone anyone, but the screensaver was still visible. A woman’s face looked up at him. She looked like she was laughing, and she was holding a child, a baby. Altar looked over at Pierce with a wondering look.
“None of your business,” snapped Pierce, even though he hadn’t said anything. Altar turned away, but then Pierce said, “My wife. She had a baby a couple of months ago. Only saw it once.” He didn’t say aloud what he was thinking, which was that he had missed his wife’s last birthday and their anniversary over work. Work being fighting Altar.
“I told myself it was for them,” he continued.
“The fighting. Paid money for them. Only…”
He didn’t finish. He didn’t think that he could.
He knew that he didn’t really do it for them. He only did it for himself. It was like a drug; addicting and taking up your life, eating it away slowly. You want to get away from it, but you can’t.
Because, deep down, you don’t want to.
Altar sat and listened to Pierce. He was thinking about the same kind of thing. Regrets. He saw Pierce’s phone screen finally die, but Pierce carefully placed it in his pocket. He swivelled round and faced the wall.
“My girlfriend,” said Altar. Pierce turned around, confused.
“We broke up. It was too dangerous. I loved her more than anything. Funny. The things you love most are the thing you have to let go.”
He could still see her, standing atop the hill where they first met, the wind whipping through her long brown hair, her soft brown eyes glistening with tears.
He had told her it was the best thing. That way, nobody would ever get hurt. But it hurt him.
“Regret.” Altar spoke his thoughts out loud without realising it. “You create it, yet it destroys you. It’s made from hard choices, but in the end, it only creates doubt, shows you how wrong you were.”
They were both silent for a while. Eventually, Pierce turned to him and nodded.
The rumbling and the shaking came again, but this time it had more power. Tiny little pieces of rubble started falling, and cracks spread across the walls and ceiling like rivers.
It was the end.
Pierce looked up at the damage. He stood up slowly and closed his eyes.
‘What am I thinking?’ he thought. ‘This guy’s done nothing but make my life a misery for years.’
Dismissing his thoughts, he held out a hand to Altar. The agent looked at him in wonder.
“Nothing like a life ending crisis to bring enemies together,” he sighed.
Altar gripped his hand and Pierce pulled him up. The both paused, each trying to read the other’s face.
But they weren’t hiding anything.
The shuddering started to get worse. Now whole chunks were falling from the roof. Dust was forming. They both gritted their teeth, shook hands and waited for the inevitable.
They saluted each other; a kind of show of respect, after all the years.
Because for some, while death is the end of the journey, it can be a successful end.
A fulfilling end.
Or one to regret forever.