“Mac, err, Sir, we’ve managed to destroy the main generator, but have been unsuccessful in locating the back-up” A foot soldier reports.
“No need to search son, they’ll be scampering out soon enough. Move in the Clusters, focus on the south towers first then converge on the central. We take the yard, we fortify, we move inside the station and sweep floor by floor” Mac orders.
“Yes sir” the soldier complies.
Mac returns to his overwatch position to the West of the station, just inside the cover of the ocean crust’s forest. As he gets there, Mac notices Lance talking covertly with a soldier. Lance’s face is wrought with intent and then the boy rushes off into the fray.
“What was that about?” Mac asks.
“Oh, he was just nervous about the fight, it takes a few inspiring words to be seasoned veterans like us, aye mate?”
Mac knows that kid.
He’s fearless, what are you plotting Lance?
Mac doesn’t let Lance get a whiff of his suspicion, he throws a casual insult to elude.
“Hey you’re the only seasoned one around here, although I did used to be a Vet” he jests.
The two Hûms chuckle like old chums, Mac sighs, and his sanguine words follow:
“I hope what we’re doing is right”
Calmly Lance replies:
“Everything we’ve done so far has been right, even if it didn’t feel that way while we were doing it”
Mac smiles at Lance and extends his hand towards the battle field.
“Shall we?” He asks, gesturing for the two of them to enter the fight.
“I thought you’d never ask” Lance jokes, and they then change their faces to serious mode to engage in combat.
Davis peeks through the crack of the barely opened door leading to the reprogramming floor.
“Now’s our chance Elix, all the Assims have gone to fight up top”
“What do you think’s going on up there?” Elix asks
“Trace better not have done something stupid” He replies.
The two of them leave the maintenance corridor into a wide low-ceilinged room, filled with rows and rows of Hûms strapped down to chairs with helmets covering their heads. A giant steel centipede scales down their spines with wires and tubes going in and coming out of them, they sit; defiantly awaiting completion of their reprogramming so they can enter the solace of Assimilation or the void of ocean and death.
The rows continue like pews in a church under the soft blue light that the back-up generator emits until they blend with shadows in the distance. Elix and Davis stare silently in awe. The whole room reeks of sweat, bile and all other conceivable excretions that don’t quite make it from tube to mouth or Hûm to drain.
“Fifteen floors just like this” Elix states despairingly.
Davis would’ve replied if his brain wasn’t still processing the scale of the search he and Elix were in for.
The pair walk down the aisles, twenty Hûms on their right and twenty on their left. Davis scans their body shapes extensively.
“Look for black hair like mine and a scar on his thumb” He says, and then he returns to his determined search.
Elix scans the room but her mind isn’t focused like Davis’.
“These machines, is this what we’re in for if give in?”
“No Elix, this is what you get if you fight to the end. I think they’re some kind of sensory deprivation device, look at these masks, they look like they’re exposing these Hûms to a different atmosphere”
Elix has become fascinated by the process.
“They block your ears, they blind you, they make you breathe smoke and eat sludge, Davis we have to stop this” She says compassionately.
Elix knows his reply by the look on his face, his eyes are peeled, mouth closed like an overtightened vice, breathing heavily through his nose. His brain has long since shut down his smell receptors to focus its energy to his eyes.
They continue their search for a tedious amount of time, and then, of to the side by the walls cloaked in a darker shadow.
“NOX” He cries out.
More than fifty rows deep into the stations lowest floor, Elix whips her gaze to Davis’ voice. By the time she makes it over to him Davis has already ripped the mask from his brother’s head.
“Davis, be careful” She warns.
The chair hisses and releases the rest of the restraints from Nox.
“I’ve got you, I found you” Davis reassures, as he lifts his brother’s weakened body from the chair.
They both fall, Elix flinches forward as though to try and catch them, but they fall too fast. Davis lands with Nox on his lap, he rustles his body, turning Nox to see his face. Nox coughs up some of the brown sludge that should be food, and then opens his eyes as he sharply gasps for air.
“I’ve got you, I’ve got you” Davis repeats, choking up his last three words as he rests his head on Nox’s, rocking him gently.
Nox has been still for too long and Elix suspects he has either passed out or passed over. Elix is visibly distressed.
“Davis…” She starts, but before she gets a chance to continue Nox seizes to life, his back arches, hands curl to his chest and teeth grit.
“Rarrlgh” He gargles as though screaming out for his stolen vocal chords, Davis desperately tries to keep his brother within his arms.
The seizure subsides, Elix is in tears, watching helplessly as Nox twitches and tenses his muscles.
“Nox…” Davis asserts “…Look at me”
Nox opens and closes his jaw like he’s trying to adjust to a new altitude, his eyes roll, but eventually he meets his erratic gaze to Davis’. With his body in a foetal position Nox reaches out to touch Davis’s face.
“D… Da…” He begins.
Davis eyes enlarge with hope, his face wrinkles a smile through his tears, and he nods to encourage his brother.
“Dad” Says Nox.
Davis presses his hand onto Nox’s.
“It’s Davis, Nox; it’s your little brother”
Nox stares blankly up, the name doesn’t register. Davis looks to Elix, each of them choking on a lump in their throats.
“I’m too late, they’ve taken me from his memories” He holds his brother close and cries an unashamed cry, Elix turns away to unleash her own tears.
And then, between a whimper and a breath:
“Davis. Have to protect Davis” Nox recites.
“Yeah, bud, that’s what Dad said”
Davis’ smile returns, Nox’s face scrunches with confusion. He’s thinking, remembering more. Visions come to Nox, as he twists and spasms in Davis’ arms.
“RUN” Nox screams.
Then thousands of clicks echo from all sides into the ears of the three Hûms.
“RUN DAVIS” Nox yells.
“Elix help me lift him”
Her mind switches from its saddened state to one of high alertness as she snaps into action. They grab Nox by his arms and throw them over their shoulders; they run dragging Nox’s atrophic legs behind them.
As the three flee, a familiar hissing sound ripples into their ears.
“Davis, the Hûms, they’re…” Elix starts.
“They aren’t Hûms anymore; the Assims must be losing up top”
The thousands of freshly brainwashed Assims stand in unison, they remove their sensory depriving masks, the spinal attachment unscrews itself, whizzing and whirring its deep screws from their bones.
Halfway to the maintenance corridor, the feint blue light gets consumed by the cold darkness of sub level sixteen in the reprogramming station, held captive indefinitely. A cascade of thuds rumble in the shadow clad room. A whisper is all Elix can muster:
“Davis, what do we do?”
“Keep moving Elix, we have to get to the maintenance room”
Davis cracks a glow stick with his free hand, illuminating only a few metres around them. Elix gasps.
“They’re…” She says “…But why would they…” Her shock prevents her from finishing her sentences.
“Elix we have a window, let’s use it” Davis says.
The trio make it to the corridor and rest Nox against the side wall, Davis pants before saying:
“They must’ve killed the back-up generator” He claims, hands to his knees breathing heavily.
“But… How could they… have known?” Elix asks between her inhales and exhales.
Davis doesn’t have an answer for her, as much as she’d like him to; Davis is equally confused. The thumps of their hearts subside along with Davis’ glow stick and the hum of the room is lost to the blackened atmosphere.
Silence takes charge for only a moment, leaving Elix and Davis to their thoughts about what could be happening. Nox resumes his babbling.
“Someone, some, someone, someone Davis” and then in the distance a single set of military boots taps a loudening rhythm.
“Elix, get behind me”
She complies, quietly.
The three Hûms huddle in the dark; waiting. A flashlight scans the vast room outside the corridor, Davis watches it illuminate the door jamb, as it aims to their side of the room; Davis draws his pistol and cocks the hammer, it gives him something other than shade to aim for.
The footsteps stop and immediately the light turns fully to the maintenance corridor. Elix holds Nox’s head and covers his ears, he squeezes Davis’ arm. The steps resume, the rectangle brightens as it nears and at its brightest it flicks off, Davis fires at the door, no thud, he fires again and then a third shot. Nox screams out, his eardrums rattle; the prolonged deprivation of his senses has tuned his hearing to make a pebble sound like a boulder crashing. Davis fires one last time before he realises he’s hurt his brother.
The shots ring out for a few seconds, smoke from the barrel floats around them and the casings settle themselves, bouncing into their final nooks. From the quiet comes a young man’s stern voice.
Elix looks to Davis for guidance, he doesn’t give it, his face is ponderous yet he can’t think of what to do. Elix aims her voice to the door.
“Hûms” She replies.
The shuffling of the man’s gear is all the three can hear on the other side of the door.
“Sir I’ve found them… …Sixteenth Sir… …Yes I will sir”
Davis and Elix look to each other once more, both of them unsure of who the man is talking to and what intentions they have for them.
The door creaks open cautiously, the man flicks his flashlight on, Davis raises his gun, Nox flinches, and Elix stands. The light shines directly into her eyes then straight to the floor. The three’s eyes adjust.
“Davis?” the man asks.
He lowers his weapon and grumpily replies.
“Yeah, well who else were you expecting”
“We have to get you top side Sir” The man says, reaching for Nox to help the two of them stand.
“Aarrgh” Nox screams.
“Have to protect Davis” He recites, clawing his hand at the soldier, the man backs off immediately.
“We’ve got it thanks, Elix grab him, slowly”
The two grab Nox and the four of them walk up an out of the station.
Nox exits the station with Davis and Elix under each of his arms, his legs have regained some off their functions and the exercise of stair climbing has jogged his memory when he sees:
“Blister” He calls out.
Blister turns to them from his huddle amongst the Cluster leaders; he runs to them and relieves Elix of Nox’s weight. Davis and Blister look at each other across Nox’s weary face, and in that moment, Davis silently apologises and Blister silently forgives, abolishing any animosity that previously stood between them.
“Medics! Bring a stretcher, and help these Hûms” Mac commands, pacing straight for Davis and Nox.
Two soldiers run up to Nox, they try and grab him to ease him onto the stretcher, but:
“NO!” He squawks kicking his legs at them wildly.
“Whoa calm down, we’re trying to help” One of the medics says defensively.
Davis and Blister take a couple of steps backwards.
“Nox, cool it” Davis orders.
“Hey medic, you got any of those Molly-pops?” Blister asks.
Still on guard; the medic steps closer and throws from his satchel an ocean blue Molly-pop. Davis snatches it from the air and unwraps it.
“Nox, here check this out” He says.
Nox looks to his right; Davis tastes the Molly-pop.
“Mm your favourite: Blueberry”
Nox steals it and swiftly wraps his lips around it. The flavour explodes on his starved tongue, honey and blueberry seep into the cracks of his tongue, his salivary glands flood his mouth and aid the medicine down his throat; his pupils dilate. Davis and Blister ease him onto the stretcher and the medics take him into one of the many tents erected in the front yard of the reprogramming station.
“Mac…” Blister begins “…We have to get those Hûms out and ready to leave, we can’t keep them here while they’re recuperating”
Mac stands with his hands held at ease behind his back.
“It’s already underway, I’ve got men combing the station as we speak, they’ll be in homes soon enough”
Davis senses something is out place.
“They won’t find anything” he says grimly.
Mac furrows his brow at Davis.
“What do you mean? What happened in there?”
Davis pokes two fingers into Mac’s chest as he says:
“You and your soldiers shorted the power to the re-programmers. You killed them. If we didn’t get Nox out, he’d be gone too”
Mac is offended but holds his composure, he pokes Davis’ chest as he says:
“If you weren’t here at all, none of them would be dead and we’d have more resources to carry out our primary mission. You do still want to stop the Encephalon, don’t you Davis?”
Mac’s retaliatory temper wears off and he and Davis come to a simultaneous realisation. For Davis, it’s that his actions have been reckless and that his brother’s freedom has come with a severe cost. And for Mac, he understands exactly why Lance was so adamant about taking this place as a beachhead and what he was talking to his soldier about before the attack.
Mac starts again in a softer tone leaning in close:
“Davis something’s going o…”
But he’s interrupted by Jack running over from the station.
“Mac, there’s people alive in there…”
Davis’ drooped head rises and his guilt shrinks by a fraction.
“…We’ve got a handful of Hûms on each floor, they’re a mess, but the docs think they’ll be alright”
Mac looks to Davis, his gaze; implying he’s not yet finished with him before he turns back to Jack.
“Jack! I want everyone helping those Hûms up to ground level”
Jack nods and runs away as quick as he came. Elix can’t hold her tongue any longer.
“Was it you that gave the order?” She asks Mac, her fists clenched tight, her heart racing with adrenaline.
“That’s not what happened here…” Mac states.
Her voice rises:
“Did you cut the power?”
Mac puts his hands up gesturing her to calm down.
“Yes, I gave the order to shut down the main generators, we wouldn’t have been able to take the station if I didn’t”
Elix’s voice trembles as she raises it louder still:
“NO, you shorted the life support, you killed everyone, you ripped away their chance of freedom, and now you’re trying to blame it all on Davis. You’re pathetic”
Mac can see why she would come to that conclusion; it all makes sense to her.
“Hear me out, please…” Mac pleads.
“Spew your lies all you want” She states, arms crossed, mind made.
“Elix…” Davis starts “…Give him a chance, I trust him, and something’s off here, what were you going to say before Jack came over?”
“Yeah, what’s going on Mac?” Asks Blister as he herds the group into a huddle.
“The Clusters are being compromised, I can’t confirm anything yet but I think Lance is cooperating with the Encephalon, but still, even that doesn’t feel right, they’ve never acted like this before”
Mac ponders on his unsure thoughts as Blister jumps in.
“Mac, this is just like what I saw in the sewers, after the Raven’s Tongue was attacked. Davis, Elix, the Encephalon isn’t what it used to be, someone on the inside is trying to gain control and I think they’ll do anything to end us”
Elix is quiet, Davis curiously asks:
“You really think they’d bargain with a Cluster leader to kill off some Hûms?”
Elix eats her grudge with Mac.
“They’re scared, they must be… Mac I’m sorry for what I said, but if there’s a mole, we can’t trust anyone, we can’t even trust you, so how do we move forward”
“Elix!” Blister says, shocked.
“No, Blister, she’s right, the one telling us there’s a mole is highly likely to be mole themselves”
“But that doesn’t make any sense” Blister says, also thinking that it might make perfect sense.
Mac puts his hand to Blister’s shoulder.
“Blister, it’s okay, I’ve been called worse. What’s important now is that you lot get out of here and follow through with your plan. What is your plan by the way?”
The three of them look to one another, painted in their scepticism.
“Ha haa, got you…” Mac jests, and an unexpected chuckle overwhelms them.
“…Don’t tell me your plan. That would be stupid, I’ll get you on your wa…”
Something catches Mac’s attention; Lance is closing in on them.
“…And then I threw parsley at him and said “Now who’s a ‘seasoned’ Vet””
The group turn their dying chuckle into a merry laugh as they break their huddle, turning to face Lance.
“Not conspiring against the Uprising, are we? Haha” Lance jokes.
Mac perks up his voice:
“I ran out of inspiring words to give them so I told them a joke instead”
Lance giggles falsely as he slings his arm over Davis’s shoulder.
“Come on, let’s go inside, my boys have fixed the lights and prepared some food for us. Tonight, we eat like there is no war, and later we talk strategy”