The first floor of the reprogramming station has been hastily converted into a mess hall, its glossed white walls and polished concrete grey floors remain spotless from the Assimilated’s occupancy. Ammunition crates, weapons containers and rolled up clothes litter the floor, with Hûms atop them slurping soup from any container without holes in it and nibbling bread and jerky from cupped hands and crumb laden laps.
“Pristine isn’t it?” Lance asks the group.
“Like a fucking morgue” Davis surlily quips, looking at every part of the room Lance did with a certainty to his disgust
“It lacks imagination if you ask me” States Blister.
Elix jumps in with:
“Well someone had to imagine it; either way its purpose outweighs any beauty it might hold”
Lance slyly smiles.
“If you want beauty, I’ll have to show you the paintings our Cluster has collected…”
She smiles in return, blushing slightly under the dirt on her face.
“…That will have to wait for the war to end though… Moving on, Mac and I will be in the command room, Blister, Davis, you can join us once you’ve eaten”
Lance and Mac walk away to the top right corner of the gigantic room, where partitions have been set up, segregating the Cluster leaders from the others. Lance stops a soldier on his way, tells him something, then points to Elix, Davis and Blister. The soldier runs off to the kitchen while the trio of tired Hûms find themselves a spot to sit.
Blister finds a patch of unclaimed floor next to one of the four load bearing pylons in the centre of the room. Davis sits to his left and Elix to his right.
“Feels good doesn’t it?” Blister asks.
“The floor is really hard” Elix giggles as she ends her sentence.
Davis shoots snot from his nose trying to hold his laughter in.
“Feels real good” He says as the coolness of the concrete travels through his pants into his buttocks.
The room is noisy with lame anecdotes and tired jokes made fresh, heard by new ears. The mixing of Clusters blends well with the aroma of hot soup and fresh bread being generously handed out. The scent is strong in the room and mostly foreign to many of the Hûms within, including Elix, and when the food rushes over to them on a tray carried by an efficient soldier, the only thing stronger than Elix’s curiosity of what ingredients have been used is her hunger to eat them without question.
“Pea and potato soup with fresh bread guys” The soldier says.
Elix and Blister barely hear the man over their loud guzzling and bread slopping as they furiously dig into it. Davis takes a slower approach, he knows his stomach has shrunk and feels it foolish to stretch it, as his next meal may not be as hearty and filling.
“Oh and… Elix…” The soldier lingers, and looks to his left and right for prying eyes, before handing her a small piece of something Elix has never seen.
“This is from Lance”
Elix pauses with her mouth full of soup-soaked bread, looking up at the man dumbfounded. She extends her hand and grabs the dark red item. The soldier walks away.
With his mouth also full of soup-soaked bread, Blister sputters:
Elix turns to him in time to see him swallow a mouth full of food bigger than his throat should be able to handle.
“…I can’t believe he gave you jerky” Blister concludes, with absolute jealousy crippling his face from any other emotion.
“What the hell is jerky?” She asks, holding it to the lights above, witnessing the light turn reddish brown through its membrane.
“It’s victory food” Blister spits through his food.
“Just put it in your mouth and chew Elix” Says Davis.
Elix takes the smallest of bites with the largest look of inquisition her face could manifest. It’s tough at first, but once its mixes with her saliva it softens to release its sweet and spicy flavours, vanilla dances with bourbon, the chilli bathes in maple syrup and Elix is transported to another planet, far from the woes of her world.
She opens her eyes and stares lovingly at the rest of her jerky, then snaps back to her earthly self. She tears it in two and hands a piece to Blister. Blister snatches it, gulps the last swallow of his own food, and scrubs his mouth clean with his tongue before gingerly placing the jerky inside. Elix turns to Davis and offers the remaining piece.
“Don’t you dare Elix, that’s your bit. Besides, my hands are still dirty, I’d ruin the flavour”
Elix wanted to dispute him but realised he was talking metaphorically. Davis is full of guilt and hungrier than ever, not for jerky, but for victory against the Encephalon. He took a loss tonight, one that will haunt him for the rest of his time, and looking around seeing all the Hûms celebrating, made it worse.
He finishes his meal in silence. Silence, he thought, was better for morale than carving his heart out with a discarded plastic fork and showing everyone in the room how black it was, and why.
Elix pockets her remaining jerky, and Blister asks:
“You guys here that?”
Elix tries to hone her hearing in.
“Is that buzzing?” She queries.
“Must be a tremor…” Davis says, nudging Blister’s leg suspiciously.
“…I hope Trace is okay…” He continues hoping Blister catches on.
Davis is receiving a message from Trace on his emergency Morse responder; he relays it to Blister by tapping his elbow just out of sight.
“Sub… Ready… Leaving…”
Any more and her signal could be tracked. Davis adds to his message for Blister.
“Tell… Elix… Prepare… Battle”
He looks to Davis a little confused at his choice of words and how exactly he is to repeat the message to Elix. He turns to her with a cheesy grin and eyes full of seduction.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Elix asks.
Blister leans in to whisper:
“Sweet nothings” In her ear.
She cringes and giggles at his breath on her neck. Now she’s twice as confused. He goes in again.
“Trace is coming to get us, be ready for anything and laugh when I pull away”
She laughs as requested and adds a punch to the arm to aid the ruse.
The feast ends and most of the Hûms in the room saunter merrily off to their tents to retire for the night; full bellied and sapped of most of their energy. Those left who aren’t Elix, Blister and Davis trudge off to relieve other Hûms from their guard posts so they can rest too. As the room clears, the trio from Cluster F walk into the command room.
There’s a few soldiers cleaning away the remnants of the leader’s dinner, as a few more people enter the room.
“Shut the door on your way out…” Lance orders.
“…That’s everyone isn’t it? Good…” He asks and answers himself.
“…Let’s begin” He concludes.
Mac walks to the head of the room, made to feel small by the thirty odd Cluster leaders filling it.
“Today we put fear into the Encephalon; we crippled a major component of their operations”
The room cheers, Mac raises his voice to surpass them.
“Now this is not the end of the war…”
The leaders quieten.
“…The Encephalon is still out there, still taking our fellow Hûms, still Assimilating them. We all know something of Davis’ plan, and it’s a good plan, but it comes with a cost, one each and every one of you needs to understand fully before undertaking it. Davis, fill them in”
Davis clears his throat superfluously as he steps up to take Mac’s place. He’s nervous as he looks around at all the faces; most of which eagerly anticipate his words so they can disagree immediately. A few want his blood soaked deep into the pores of their hands, and even fewer wish to genuinely hear him out.
“I fucked up. I won’t deny it; all of you are here because I wanted to save one person and a lot more of us aren’t here for the same reason. I will never forgive myself for what happened to those Hûms underneath us…”
Davis sighs to keep from breaking down.
“…Everyone in this room risked their lives for Elix, my brother and myself. I owe you my life and I intend to see it as the only future casualty in the final attack… But my Cluster needs your help, we need enough time to slip into the Encephalon unnoticed, so what we need is for you to draw out as many Assims as you can; by attacking the bridges that lead to the Encephalon”
The room erupts in a furious chatter. Ki, the leader of J Cluster stands.
“You managed to kill all the Hûms in the basement and now you would have us run head first into Assimilation, why? So you can run off to some other basement and have the Encephalon finish US off. Fuck that. Fuck you Davis”
Davis cops the insult, he was ready for worse. Jones of Cluster C stands before Ki gets a chance to sit.
“Guys, all failures aside, it’s actually a great plan, provided it works; the Encephalon would just think were being the dumb humans they already think we are, running to our inevitable demise in classic human nature. But Davis, those of us who can see past your recent transgressions, we want to know how you’re going to end them; how will you stop the Encephalon?”
The command room roars once again in agreeance with Jones
“I can’t, I just can’t tell you that. If I tell you and you get Assimilated, it’s over. Everything we’ve worked for, everything Artemis built, every Hûm that was ever Assimilated would have been for nothing, and we would be nothing. That’s the only way we can win, you have to believe me”
Blister stands from his seat, he’s been itching to say something this whole time.
“If you can’t trust Davis, trust me, and trust Artemis” He says.
Elix joins her companions.
“I stand with Davis…” She says.
“…Anyone else here brave enough to stand with us?”
Korvo stands, Blister and he exchange nods. Mac stands too.
Lance paces in front of everyone, his hand clasping his wrist behind his back.
“Hmm, how very interesting, it seems we have identified the Hûms that plot against us, against the Uprising. Davis, I didn’t want it to happen this way, but I’m going to have revoke you and your companion’s right to be a part of our collective, with the support of the rest of the Uprising of course. A show of hands?” He asks the leaders loudly.
“…Who here thinks Davis has over stepped his bounds, who here thinks Cluster F has taken the Uprising for granted? And gambled with the very lives they so proudly claim to protect and emancipate? Who here thinks they should be relieved of their positions in the fight against the Encephalon? Stand now if you agree”
All those standing for Davis quickly reclaim their chairs as the majority thrust to their feet. Blister yells at them from his chair.
“You’ve all been tricked; can’t you see Lance is working for the enemy”
They remain standing. Elix steps in, finally realising Lance’s role in the attack.
“He’s the one who shut down the life support generators. He killed the Hûms in this station, not Davis”
Barlon from Cluster A roars his opinion at Cluster F.
“If Lance hadn’t shut them down we would have a faced a far more formidable enemy than the few Assims guarding this place, you know what they are capable of, we would have surely been wiped out”
“Yeah, they would’ve killed themselves to Assimilate us” A random sub Cluster leader states.
“It was the only way” Another says.
Davis has been silent for too long and his anger has been rising since Lance opened his mouth; he stands.
“Look around you, look at the person next to you, across from you, ahead of you. Today these people, these Hûms; if you can still call them that, they’ve become worse than any Assimilated we’ve come across, worse than anyone in the Encephalon. All of you, every fucking one of you has turned from your humanity. You would kill your brothers and sisters just to gain another day? Of what? Fucking hiding in the sewers? Starving in the cold? At least in my pursuit for my brother I was the only one being sacrificed. And then you mother fuckers showed up, and it all went to shit…”
The room falls silent; there weren’t any comebacks to what Davis had said. They were right in their way and he was right in his. All they needed was someone to tell them what they had done was righter than what Davis had done. That person was Lance. He spoke to them on a level every man, woman and child knew all too well in the world the Encephalon has built. He spoke to them through a filter of fear, he made them scared, too scared to see that Davis is right, too scared to even stand against one man, let alone the Encephalon.
“…Lance, don’t do this, you can’t stay h…”
Lance butts in with a sharp piercing whistle, a squad of soldiers run into the room and look to Lance for direction.
“Take Davis and his Cluster to the secure room on sub level five. Korvo, Jones, Mac, you’d be wise to follow…”
The soldiers snatch Cluster F by their arms, and drag them out the doorway.
“…Oh, and wake up Nox, I’m sure he’d love to see his brother one last time”
Davis kicks and struggles as he screams:
“The Assimilated will reclaim what you’ve taken, you can’t escape them” His words echo into the mess hall and ring out in the ears of the Cluster leaders.
Under his breath: “And neither will you” Lance says.