[Warnings: allusions to rape, slavery, human trafficking]
Julian Lindholm stood on the balcony above the warehouse floor, assessing the scene through the scope of the sniper rifle he held in his hands. Below him, young men were being escorted onto a stage at gunpoint. Some were wounded, most of them naked, all of them cowed and quiet.
Slaves, Julian thought. So my contact was right. The Cartel have been running a slave auction out of this warehouse.
He looked at the crowd, hungry businessmen salivating at the mouth, young women in gaudy hats chuckling to themselves, whorehouse madams assessing the merchandise with calculating glances and old men sitting with twisted smiles etched onto wrinkled faces.
Both the cartel and the clients grow bolder with every passing day, Julian thought. Even us Knights cannot stop the rising tide. A sick feeling rose in his gut and old memories threatened to swamp him. Not now. I need to stay focused, if I’m to help them.
Julian focused the scope on a thin businessman smoking a cigarette on the stage. A hungry smile crossed thin lips as he eyed the greedy crowd. Julian looked at his bodyguards, five big men circling the stage, keeping the crowd from touching the young men on auction.
A young, feminine looking man with long almond-colored hair was pushed to his knees by the thin man, who looked him over as one might regard a pile of excrement.
“Here’s our first lot,” he announced. “This young, sweet man has been trained in the pleasure houses of Belgium and New York to serve your every sexual need.” The young man looked at the floor and the thin man forcibly lifted his chin to look at the crowd. He put up no resistance, and Julian could see why; ugly whiplash scars crossed his back, visible to Julian from his vantage point. Julian winced inside at the sight of those ugly marks on such a delicate form.
“Let’s start the bidding at a thousand dollars.” One hand shot up, then another, and another. The bidding rose faster than Julian could keep count until it stopped at a hundred thousand dollars.
“Going once… Going twice… SOLD!” The old man who had bought him handed the auction master a briefcase of cash, which his aides counted. Satisfied, they pushed the young man into his arms. The young man looked up directly at Julian, or perhaps to God in a silent prayer to save him from his fate.
There’s no way he sees me, Julian thought, but I see him. I see all of you. I’ve seen enough tonight. His is one prayer that shall be answered.
He focused the sniper rifle’s sight on the ringleader and took the shot even though his hands were shaking. It hit the man in the throat and he dropped, hitting the floor before his cigarette. The crowd went wild as they realized what was happening. They rushed for the exit in a mad stampede, crushing anybody who fell underfoot in their selfish clamor for survival.
The dead man’s bodyguards shot their automatic weapons up into the rafters and Julian ducked behind a pillar, putting down the sniper rifle and pulling an uzi from his trench coat. He rushed out from his hiding place, dashing across the balcony, his red ponytail dancing behind him as he sprayed fire down on the small group of bodyguards that had carelessly grouped themselves together.
“It’s a Knight! Get the fuck out of here! Move!” The thin man’s business associates raced for their cars and sped away just as Julian saw red and blue flashing lights across the parking lot. Looks like the cops are here. It’s time to make my exit. They’ll handle the rest. He felt a tug on his arm and looked to see the young man from the auction looking right into his eyes.
“Thank you,” the man said, piercing blue eyes looking deep into Julian’s soul.
“You’re welcome,” Julian said. “Be safe.” He walked forward but the young man followed him.
“Let me come with you.” The young man looked at him with a searching expression.
“You can’t do that,” Julian said. “I’m a Knight. Wait here for the cops. They’ll take care of you.”
“No, they won’t,” the young man said sadly. “They’re as corrupt as everybody else in this world. The Cartel will pay them off and we’ll end up at another slave auction. This is my fourth one, now.”
Your fourth slave auction… What are you, eighteen, nineteen? God, what is this world coming to? Julian shook his head.
“Make a run for it, then,” Julian said. “My world isn’t safe for you.”
“I’d rather take my chances with you,” the young man said. “Please. Just get me out of here. Take me somewhere safe.” His eyes were tired and sad. Julian felt a million memories reaching up for him from his soul, his own body bloody and beaten on the floor, his own voice begging for mercy from any soul who would listen.
“Okay,” Julian said. “Stay close to me. Hurry.” The other slaves were running for the exits as well as the cops descended on the warehouse. Julian opened the emergency exit and hurried the young man through into the night. They raced down a tight alleyway, the young man keeping pace despite his injuries, desperation giving him energy well beyond exhaustion.
A nondescript black SUV was parked at the end of the alleyway and Julian got in, ushering the young man to the other side. The man jumped up into the passenger seat and Julian started the vehicle and pulled out slowly, merging into city traffic.
“We have to hurry!” The young man said. “If the Cartel or the cops catch us…”
“They won’t.” Julian was calm and composed. “Trust me. We’ll attract less attention if we drive like normal citizens.”
“Okay.” The young man bit his nails nervously, suddenly aware of his nakedness. Julian reached into the back seat and tossed him a folded up blanket.
“Here. Cover up.” The young man took the blanket and spread it over himself.
“What’s your name?” Julian asked.
“Wynter,” the young man said.
“No, not your slave name. The name your parents gave you,” Julian said.
“Oh.” The young man thought a moment, as if searching for a long lost memory. “Daniel,” he said finally.
“Daniel. I’m Julian. It’s nice to meet you.” Julian extended his hand and Daniel shook it timidly, as if expecting a blow for daring to do so.
“Thanks for taking me with you,” Daniel said.
“Hm.” Julian said. “The cops really returned you to the slave auction?”
“Yeah,” Daniel said. “I was starting to think there was no way out. To think I’d meet a real live Knight–”
“I’m nothing special,” Julian said. “I was like you, once. A slave with no memory of his name and no free will.”
“Really?” Daniel’s eyes were wide.
“Yeah.” Julian sighed. “That was ten years ago. Since then, I’ve made it my mission to end the slave trade when and where possible.”
“You’re brave,” Daniel said. “Not many people have the courage to go up against the Cartel. Even former slaves. Especially former slaves. They say it breaks something inside of you.” He closed his eyes as if silently agreeing.
“Anything that is broken can be fixed,” Julian said. “It’s up to you to make the journey. Some never find the courage and remain slaves in one way or another for the rest of their lives.”
“I don’t want that,” Daniel said. “I want to go back to the way I was… I was going to college, getting a degree in computer science. It was my own stupid fault that I got lured to a shady club and captured. I let my desires get the best of me.”
“How old are you?” Julian asked.
“Twenty-one,” Daniel said. “I would have finished my degree by now, but I’ve lost three years of my life that I’ll never get back. Three years of servicing old men in Belgium and New York, never knowing where I was or what drugs they were giving me…”
“It’s okay. You’re safe now.” Julian felt a bead of sweat run down his forehead as the past he had kept pushed down flooded into his mind, every memory and action of those five years burned into his brain with a hot iron. “Let’s just get to the hotel and get you cleaned up.”
They reached the hotel and Julian carefully snuck Daniel in past the reception desk and up to his room where he slid the key in and hushed Daniel, drawing a handgun and kicking the door open. He checked out all the rooms and then ushered Daniel in.
“Sorry,” Julian said. “Can’t be too careful. There are a lot of people out to get Knights.”
“I guess so,” Daniel said. “The Cartel, the cops, even the government.”
“Everyone’s in on the slave trade,” Julian said. “My mission is dangerous even for a Knight, but a calling is a calling.” He pulled a case out from under his bed and packed his guns away. “You should clean up. You’ll feel better.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Daniel said. He walked into the bathroom and shut the door, and soon Julian could hear the shower water running.
I shouldn’t have brought him here, Julian thought. I can’t offer him anything, not even his safety. The most I can do is turn him over to a friend. Perhaps if I make some calls I can find him a home somewhere I know he’ll be safe. Maybe my sister will take him.
The door opened and Daniel walked out wearing just a towel. He looked better, the grime and filth of the slave trade left behind in the shower. He stood before Julian and dropped his towel, and Julian could see his growing erection. He turned away, as if burned by the sight.
“I want to repay you,” Daniel said. “Don’t turn away.”
Julian walked over to him and knelt down, picking up the towel. He fastened it around Daniel’s waist.
“Your body is not currency. You’re not a slave any more.” His hands were shaking, fear and revulsion at Daniel’s eagerness running through him.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to anger you,” Daniel said, almost cowering.
“Don’t ever talk to me like I’m your master,” Julian said. “I’m your equal, damn it!” He sat back on the bed, his whole body shaking. “Have some self-respect.”
“What’s going to happen to me?” Daniel asked.
“I’m going to call my sister in London and see if she can take you in,” Julian said. “You’ll have a safe place to live, food to eat, and time to learn how to be yourself again.”
“I want to stay with you,” Daniel said.
“You can’t,” Julian said. “What I do is dangerous and requires a strong will and independent thought. You’re still programmed to be a slave, and will only put both of us in danger.”
“I can be useful,” Daniel said. He saw Julian’s laptop and walked over to it, opening it and watching it load. He typed with amazing speed, bringing up several Net windows and downloading programs. “Watch this,” he said. He ran some code that Julian didn’t understand.
“Turn on the TV,” Daniel said. “Turn it to Channel 21 News.”
Julian did as he was told. In the background, behind the reporter, a ticker ran by on the New York building: “THANK YOU KNIGHTS” was repeated across it.
“That’s nice, but hardly useful,” Julian said.
“That’s just a party trick,” Daniel said. “Given time and equipment, I could hack into banks, records, even private security companies. I could open this whole world for you, gather any data you need. Julian, let me help.”
Julian saw a fire in Daniel’s eyes as he recovered some of his old self, as he opened mental pathways and exhibited free will that hadn’t been felt in years.
“It’s too dangerous,” Julian said. “I could get you killed. Just because you’re behind the Net doesn’t make it safe. They could find out our location and kill both of us.”
“They might,” Daniel said. He closed the laptop and looked at Julian. “I could go to London. I’m sure your sister is a nice person. I could get better, and then what? Get a regular nine-to-five job? My skills could earn me a lot of money, but I was never strong willed or socially adept, Julian. These hands could be used in the slave trade, twisted against me without even knowing it. So many companies are wrapped up in this secret world, and I don’t want to be a part of it. But you, you’re a Knight. I can trust you. I know you’ll use my abilities for good.”
“I’m no saint,” Julian said. “I kill people. I show no mercy to the Cartel. Sometimes innocent people get caught in the fray, too. Sometimes I make mistakes and good people get hurt. The cops are after me for a reason, and not just because they’re in with the Cartel. It’s because I’m a vigilante who’s above the law.”
“I know,” Daniel said, “but you still have good intentions, which is more than can be said for most of the people in this world.” He closed his eyes. “I offered myself to you and you said no. You could have had me any way you wanted.”
“I don’t desire anybody who offers themselves up to me like a slave,” Julian said. “Sex isn’t about duty, obligation or the repayment of debt. It’s about two equals coming together in mutual desire.”
“Except it isn’t. Not any more,” Daniel said. “People take what they want and have what they please. They’ve learned that there are no consequences for their actions. You could have had me, and nobody would have known.”
“I would have known,” Julian said. “You think I became a Knight out of selflessness, Daniel? I became a Knight because I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about the things I did as a slave. The things I was ordered to do to others… I live with it every day.”
“That’s what makes you a good person,” Daniel said. “That’s why I want to help you. You’re different. The world wants to make excuses for its behavior but you don’t. I admire that. I respect that. I want… I want to become like that. Please, Julian. Please let me help you. Please help me as well.”
Julian looked down into Daniel’s bright blue eyes and let out a sigh. “Okay,” he said. “You can stay. But no more offering yourself to me, you hear? No more groveling and no more apologies.”
“Okay,” Daniel said, and a smile crossed his lips, the very first smile in his life for three years. It felt alien to curve his mouth up, yet good.
Julian saw it and his heart warmed, his shields melting. I promised myself I would trust nobody, but here I am, charmed by this young man. Perhaps it’s just because he reminds me of myself, but the desire to protect him grows stronger by the hour. I pray I do not find cause to regret trusting him.