It’s a cold night by the docks. Looking across the river, downtown lights glisten in the distance with all the performative early Christmas cheer of a city graced by a well-timed snow, and the young man with waxy skin and fire-red hair crushes a lanternfly beneath his heel. It shouldn’t exactly be here, seeing as the opening act of a quiet snowstorm is hardly a place for an insect, but there it is, mutilated, struggling in its dying throes as the young man watches its half-flattened, upside-down, scrambling agony with electric blue eyes and a certain sense of relish. Like the young man, it must have slept, waiting for the summer, but after unearthing itself from its shell tucked deep and far away, it found itself in winter; a strange, cold world that didn’t suit it. Now, one red conqueror goes still in the cold, and the other was cold to begin with.
There’s the beams of flashlights dancing down the road, puffs of cloudy breath escaping through scarves and black coat collars, the handles of a crate gripped tight in frosted gloves; the small convoy of six carries the crate by foot, wheeling it along on a metal cart and sprinkling salt in front of its path like ceremonial offerings. It reaches the young man, the darting sunlight-on-lakewater green eyes of the caravan’s tall leader meeting unnatural, unmoving blue ones. A beat passes, a small brake lever squeaks, the dock clunks and shakes slightly as the young man steps off it, and the green-eyed leader pulls down her scarf to speak. Her face, standing maybe a head over the young man’s, is thin and weathered, lined and rough, and most importantly human. She has lived a life of fifty years, deeply uncommon in a profession where most die early to the subtle and intricate violence of organized crime, you can see the molars pulled by her own hands and pliers in dusty warehouses, splatters of blood and vomit, and cries of feigned cluelessness with each strike of the mallet, all within in her lake-green eyes. To her, they are nothing new or haunting, but the young man is both, and she speaks cheekily to get this off her mind. It’s nothing new however, just a meeting of two terrible people.
“Well, we’ve got it. Do you want to pay us for our work, or do you want to continue standing there like a horror movie villain?”
He responds curtly, his boyish face showing something close to only twenty years, no lines, but sunken eyes and mannequin skin. His eyes are still, corpse-like, you can only see their unnatural blue, glittering in the LED torchlight.
“You will be compensated fairly; thievery from a state facility is no small feat. First, though, might I see the contents of the crate?”
She nods, and under her direction, the convoy lifts off the wooden lid. Inside, wrapped in white foam blanketed by warning notices and hazard signs, are the ancient, long metal fingers of destruction. A magazine for each to end a family line, long scope and silencer to cut men down far and quietly like a scythe fells wheat, beam emitter slung under the barrel to utterly unmake people, each aspect and avatar of death meticulously designed to fit together and commit atrocities. The weapons in the crate are unnecessary, cruel in design, purpose, intent, and many in number. They are to take a city, blasting away chunks of flesh until it is carved down to its knees, the wanton spilling of innocent blood just to change half-inch lines on a map.
He speaks again, tone of voice overly warm in the way that one might speak with an infant, ice blue eyes opened wide and no longer as glassy.
“Perfect! I can reward you all with this, then.”
He pulls a nondescript folder from his winter coat, and hands it to the woman, which she subsequently inspects. Inside, signified by strange flat coins and cards, is enough money to purchase something extremely rare and grossly unnecessary, several times over.
She blinks, and choices begin to form within her head.
She thinks how easy it would be to leave this young man, beaten dead and robbed, a few fortunes lighter in weight. It’s a decision she has made before with others she collaborated with, and one of nonexistent downsides; if he is carrying more money, she becomes rich. If he is not carrying money, she keeps the crate and the reward, and she becomes rich. If the robbery fails, she is killed as deterrence from future violence towards that particular figure, and thus the situation is no longer her problem.
Greed manifests, turns to wrath, and wrath becomes a brass knuckle strike to the young man’s skull.
It clangs, metal on metal.
He does not flinch, but snarls as he holds his hand to his stricken temple.
“I’m sorry. Is this deal unfair somehow?”
The convoy takes a step back, leaving lakewater green and ice blue locked in a cold standoff.
She strikes again, a metal-fortified punch to his teeth, but he weaves left first, and with a quick jab to her side, several of her ribs break. It feels like a hit from a crowbar, and it sends her reeling.
The young man raises up, steps back, and stands tall. Where he was struck, his snow-pale waxy skin is ripped and hangs loose like rubber, there is no blood or battered flesh underneath, but steel. Only now does it occur to her, Herod, the man in front of her, the master puppeteer behind the crate heist and its destructive contents, is not a man of waxy skin, fire red hair, and corpse-like blue eyes, but something underneath.
“I can see right through your sickly, green eyes.”
She reaches for a holster tucked away at her hip. Her convoy dissolves, stepping away and pulling guns, raising and pointing them in a dangerous confusion.
“Behind them is someone who wants to bludgeon and batter me beyond any recognition, leaving my empty-pocketed and destitute corpse to sink away from anything but the icy river.”
She grabs her handgun, and turns off the safety.
“We both wear masks, that doesn’t mean we have to take them off.”
She draws the weapon, points it towards the metal thing masquerading as a young man, and fires several shots. The convoy follows suit when the metal underneath swats the bullets away effortlessly, bounding over to her in an instant to grab her shooting arm, and breaks it into splinters over his knee. Taking the firearm from the ruined limb, the metal underneath -now more exposed by two dozen dime-sized holes which permeate the disguise- empties the magazine and ends the convoy even as they attempt to run, leaving them either broken or flailing on the ground.
She is on the ground too now, cradling a mangled arm as the metal grips her collar and begins to drag her to the river.
“I’m not going to give some great speech before you die, that’s pointless.”
She unzips the jacket, and leaps forwards, escaping his grip for just a moment before her ankle is gripped and crushed by steel.
“But you should know this.”
She is dragged along the snowy pavement, leaving a trail of blood that starts to trace into the riverside snow.
“You wear a mask of steel, armor your fists in it, to both mask the greed beneath and facilitate its performance.”
He stops for a second, taking the folder from her non-mangled hand, and tucking it back into his coat.
“I wear a mask to make my intentions clear; facial expressions of rubber, eyes of glass, hair of plastic to convey the power-hungry sentiments that the unmoving steel beneath cannot.”
He swings her by her crushed ankle, and she plunges into the icy river.
“We are both of metal, we are both conquerors, the difference between us is how we wear it. That is why you die.”