Bagon unfastened Nic’s restraints, and he slid out of the chair onto the cold concrete floor of the Truth Chamber. He lifted himself onto all fours and spluttered sorrowfully. His shaking limbs could barely support his weight, and his head was thumping. Odessa’s words were ringing in his ears.
How in the hell can I open her eyes? He wondered. I can barely open my own.
‘Come on, Lieutenant,’ Bagon chimed, ‘we ain’t got all bleedin’ day!’
Blood slowly seeped from Nic’s wounds and began matting on the ground around his hands, knees, and toes. He looked up sluggishly and gave Bagon a look of the most desperate anguish, as though the requirement to move went against every instinct in his bones. He just wanted to curl into a ball and sleep. He noticed the worn features of Bagon’s face. His nose was still crooked from the elbow smash Nic had given him about a week before, at a time when they could only be described as foes.
How times have changed, he thought, somewhat ironically.
‘I guess I owe you one, now.’
Bagon’s grin revealed stumpy black teeth, before he roared with laughter.
‘Ha! Who would of thought it? The mighty Lieutenant on his knees, and now he owes me one! How blinkin’ rich is that!’ He continued chuckling softly, as he crouched down and placed his blaster on the ground. Then, he looked Nic in the eyes and soothed, ‘we been on our knees for too long, Lieutenant.’ He placed a hand on Nic’s shoulder. ‘Now’s the time for us to stand.’ He stood up straight and thrust out his chest. He reached an open palm towards Nic.
Nic paused for a moment before reaching a weary hand and clasping Bagon’s wrist. Nic’s legs wobbled as he stood, and Bagon pulled him up and held on until he was sure Nic could stand.
‘That’s the spirit,’ Bagon cheered, as he released his grip and slapped Nic heartily on the back, almost knocking him down again, ‘now we gotta get the ‘eck out of ‘ere.’
‘But where? Nic croaked. ‘And what of Odessa?’
‘Later, later,’ Bagon reassured, and he handed Nic a robe from the bottom shelf of the trolley. Then, he hurried towards the Doctor’s broken corpse at the back of the room and began rummaging through the pockets in his formerly pristine white lab coat.
‘There it is,’ he muttered, as he pulled a small object from the Doctor’s inside pocket. He looked at Nic and grinned. ‘You got a bleedin’ important meetin’ to keep!’
‘You can’t mean…’ Nic paused in shock as the realisation sunk in. ‘Is it the General?’ He asked. ‘Or Grand Visigoth? I don’t…’
‘That’s still the General to you, sunshine.’ Bagon interjected seriously, as he walked back towards the trolley with the object in hand.
‘But he will know, surely…’
‘That your eyes ‘ave been opened?’ Bagon interrupted. ‘Maybe,’ his tone became sombre, ‘but we just need to get you up there.’ He nodded towards the ceiling, and Nic knew exactly where he meant. Bagon took the fat bureaucrat’s manila folder from the tray and opened it to the front page. There was an identity sheet with a photo of Nic and a list of his actions, or so-called crimes, of the past week. He took the object in his hand, adjusted a few small switches on the side, and stamped the page with authority. He handed the folder to Nic.
‘Let’s move!’ He ordered. He flicked on the monitor and turned up the volume, before picking up his assault blaster and heading out of the door.
Nic opened the folder and saw stamped in bold green letters across the picture of his face: ‘RECONDITIONED’, and in small type underneath: ‘Ready for active duty.’
Nic gulped. There’s no way I’m ready for this. He slipped into the robe and sheepishly followed Bagon into the corridor.
After they had left the Truth Chamber, Bagon closed the door behind them, and Nic noticed that there was a sign on the door that read: Do not Disturb – Reconditioning in Progress. The sounds of the monitor, the people screaming and grinding of metal on bone sounded tinny and distant through the closed door. It only hinted at the horror of what was supposed to be transpiring inside.
How long will that fool them? Nic pondered, as he stared at the steel door.
‘We ain’t got much time,’ Bagon said, seemingly aware of Nic’s thoughts, ‘and we still have to meet the others.’
‘Others? But…’ Nic tried to interject, but Bagon cut him off.
‘No time for blinkin’ chit chat, Lieutenant.’ He cracked a smile. ‘All will be revealed shortly. Follow me and keep up.’
They hurried through the empty corridors turning left and right and then left again, Bagon checking and double checking at each stage if the way was clear. The brightness of the ceiling lights reflecting off the pristine white walls hurt Nic’s tired eyes. It was a relief when they made their way into a dank stairwell and began descending into the bowels of the labyrinthine Company Headquarters.
As Bagon bounded down the stairs, Nic followed closely behind, one hand clasping his robe shut, the other tightly gripping the fat bureaucrat’s manila folder. Even though his adrenanlin had kicked in, he was barely able to keep up, yet for the first time in his life his head felt oddly clear. His thoughts were finally his own. Every inch of his being had been focused on the Company, his duties, or the tunnel. He had never realised how much these ideas had dominated his thoughts. He felt grateful for his liberation but abject horror at his years of belief in a system that inflicted such torture onto its own citizens. His time spent in the care of the sadistic Doctor had revealed the lengths his superiors would go if they needed to crush dissent. He felt as if he had been living in darkness, blind to the world around him.
As he followed Bagon down the dark and musky staircase, for the first time, he truly registered the sorry state of his appearance. While squat and stocky, he was malnourished and absolutely filthy. He was missing teeth and looked far older than his forty years suggested. Decades in the mines, and then the tunnel, had clearly taken its toll.
He remembered the same sorry state of all the Privates he had led into the depths. He’d never blinked an eye at their gaunt features and tatty uniforms, as he sent them to blindly chip away at rocks until they slowly became useless. Then, they just disappeared, to be replaced by a fresh batch whenever necessary.
Did they die of malnutrition? Exhaustion, perhaps? Or did they simply fall into the tunnel to be ground to pieces by the drilling pods? His momentary joy at his capacity for free thought quickly turned to despair; he thought of his comrades smashed corpses littering the mountains of the dumping grounds, which loomed in the distance as gargantuan monuments to their life in bondage.
The lower they descended, the more horrified Nic became. His complicity in such a regime was apparent. His position as Lieutenant had engendered him all sorts of benefits. Better food rations, better living quarters, more rest, and better healthcare. He had risen through the ranks, and he could now see the glaring difference in his life and that of his subordinates. Yet the Privates, unflinching in their belief, their conditioning, never wavered from their goals and welcomed the drudgery that was inflicted upon them.
Nic began to question his position in this great revolution he was now unwittingly a part of. A personal audience with the General. He remembered how it had been his greatest dream. When the fat bureaucrat had told him, he felt drunk on ecstasy. All Odessa’s revelations, and the imminent doom they were facing, had shot out his mind and left him basking in his own imagined glory. Yet now, only questions flooded his head. What will I say? What will I do? How can I even dream of facing this monster, this butcher General, this Grand Visigoth who has slaughtered how many? Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? There were so many questions that he began to feel dizzy.
And what about these Others?
As he bounded down the stairs in Bagons wake, his robe flailing behind him, barely covering his modesty, he pondered who they were going to meet, and what they would make of him. Yet somehow he knew that the only person who could truly help him now was Odessa. She was the one who could define his place in this new order of things. The visions she had shown him were so vivid and real. He remembered the suns of her world and the sight of them being extinguished. Then, with a sense of urgency, he remembered her appearance in the subconscious realm. Her skin, the whitest shade of pale, had made her look like an apparition, her life force slowly fading away.
She can’t have long left, he thought. He knew he had to wake her. But how?
So lost was he in his thoughts that he crashed into Bagon.
‘Woah! Slow down, Lieutenant, we’re here.’
They were standing in front of a door that read, ‘level -219 – Drill-Pod Maintenance’.
Bagon pushed the door open and entered.
The level was in marked contrast to the surgical sterility of the floor from which they had come. The lights flickered, and the walls were stained with blood. Upturned furniture was scattered all over the place.
As they made their way along the corridors, Nic saw that the furniture had been used as barricades at every every corner but had been unceremoniously blasted through. Among the detritus on the ground, small white rocks glistened as they protruded from puddles of congealed blood. Nic supposed they were pieces of shattered bone.
‘What happened here?’ He asked solemnly.
‘Purge.’ Came Bagon’s reply. ‘They took no prisoners ‘ere. The Troopers came through, guns blazin’ a couple days ago’
‘So, why are we here, Bagon? Seems risky,’ Nic muttered.
‘Seein’ as it’s already been purged, be a bit silly of ‘em to come through and purge it again.’ Bagon chuckled. ‘It’s much easier to hide in plain sight, Lieutenant. The plebs don’t have any idea we’re even at war, so it’s easy enough to blend in. Just hail the greatness of the General, The Company and the greatest search the galaxy has bla bla bla, and they salute themselves in a fit o’ smugness right up their own arse.’
Nic allowed himself to chuckle. ‘Just like I did,’ he murmured.
Bagon nodded and stopped. ‘We’re here.’ He said.
They were standing in front of a non-descript brown door that was directly opposite a large hole that had been drilled into the wall. It was approximately two metres in diameter and looked oddly out of place, like a giant cave built into the building.
Nic looked at Bagon and nodded towards the hole.
‘It leads directly to the tunnel. Drill-Pod Maintenance, remember?’ Bagon chuckled, ‘the repair zone is at the other end.’
He motioned to open the door, before pausing.
‘Brace yourself Lieutenant.’ Bagon’s tone became serious.
‘For what?’ Nic asked, quizzically.
‘There’s a few things you still don’t know, and behind this door are some people who don’t like you so much.’ Bagon let out a nervous laugh. ‘Some of us don’t think it was so smart of our lady to go after you, an Officer. And since she did, ‘undreds ‘ave been killed. We was building our little revolt for four years before you showed up…’
‘Four years!’ Nic blurted, ‘that’s when the Grand Visigoth supposedly first arrived!’
‘A lot you don’t know, Lieutenant,’ Bagon added matter-of-factly, as he pulled down the handle and pushed the door open. ‘It’s been four years, almost to the bleedin’ day, since I first met Odessa.’
Nic hadn’t had time to react, before he was bundled through the door. He stumbled onto his knees and looked up to see three people, two women and a man, speaking in hushed tones around a small circular table in the corner of a dark and hazy office. The air was thick and acrid. Silence descended as Nic fell through the door and they all looked up. A broad-shouldered woman with a long gaunt face and matted brown hair extinguished her hand-rolled cigarette and stood up.
‘You’re late,’ she said, as she exhaled her final draw. She approached Nic confidently with her hands behind her back, looking him up and down as he rose from the ground. Her voice was deep and authoritative. ‘So, this is the famous Lieutenant, is it? He don’t look like much.’
‘I could say the same.’ Nic retorted, slightly offended. He saw that her face was stained with black smudges and her uniform was ripped and worn. The other woman looked in similar dire straits, but the man was fresh faced and wearing an immaculate, white orderly’s uniform.
‘Well, some of us have been building a revolution, Lieutenant,’ she snapped back. What’ve you been doing? I mean, aside from blowing our cover?’
‘I… I…,’ Nic stammered, before Bagon interrupted.
‘I was as fast as I could be.’ He said, quickly changing the subject. He pushed past Nic and grabbed a beige Lieutenant’s uniform, which had been carefully folded and placed on the table, and thrust it into Nic’s chest. ‘Get dressed,’ he ordered and looked back at the woman. ‘We’ve no bloody time for this, Mika’ he said mournfully.
‘No thanks to that lunatic, Odessa,’ she snorted, ‘what was she thinking, Bagon? Exposing us like that. And all for this.’ She nodded derisively back to Nic, who was busy pulling on his trousers.
‘We needed someone who could get us close to him, Mika.’ Bagon nodded upwards. ‘Lieutenant Nic ‘ere give us the perfect chance. And when he falls, we’ll need Officers to ‘elp deprogram the masses…’
‘But we weren’t ready, Bagon,’ the second woman interrupted, her voice was softer than Mika’s, and filled with sorrow, ‘and now there are fewer than a hundred of us.’ She shook her head in desperation. ‘For four years, we’ve been slowly building our numbers, yet in a day they slew entire divisions, loyal to us or not. The Troopers rolled through any unit suspected of the slightest deviation, and they purged the lot. What’s left of us has retreated to the mines. We’ll put our backs to the rock and make our last stand there.’ She paused. ‘If this fool’s errand doesn’t end us all right now.’
‘A fool’s errand indeed!’ Mika hissed, ‘are we supposed to put all our hope in him.’ She looked at Nic with daggers. ‘Just yesterday he was upstairs in the fat bureaucrat’s office spilling his guts to anyone who’d listen, all for the glory of the Company.’ She spat on the floor in disgust.
‘But he’s finally seen, hasn’t he, Bagon?’ The white robed man piped up from the table, ‘Odessa said he would probably have to give us up, if she couldn’t break his programming in time.’
‘He’s seen it all,’ Bagon enthused, ‘Odessa’s plan worked perfectly. An’ after the Doc tried to turn ‘is brain to mush, I don’t fink ‘e’ll be up for ‘eadin’ back any time time soon.’ Bagon let out a brief chuckle. ‘What do you say, Lieutenant?’ He looked at Nic earnestly.
As Nic buttoned up his freshly starched shirt, he looked around the table at the two unfamiliar faces and the hostile figure of Mika, who was now standing with her back to him in the corner and muttering to herself, apparently too disgusted to even look at him. His mind was racing. Something within him yearned for Odessa. Their last connection had been so intimate that he felt as if he had known her his whole life. Bagon was staring hopefully into his eyes and the other two just sat there, their faces swollen with a look of defeat.
‘Who the hell are you guys?’ He asked. ‘And what plan?’
‘Ha!’ Bagon slapped him on the back, and bared his teeth in that all too familiar grin. ‘That’s Mika in the corner, don’t mind her, she don’t trust no-one. This fella in the white coat is Honza, and that’s Delfin. We were the first to meet Odessa.’ He grinned. ‘It’s been a blinkin’ long road, but we’re almost there…’
‘And the plan, Bagon?’ Nic interjected, ‘what is it?’
‘Well, Odessa realised, after she first joined with you, that it’d take too flamin’ long to break the programmin’ without the serum? And…’
‘The what?’ Nic interrupted, already confused.
‘The serum. The Doc must’ve given it ya. It relaxes your mind, and allows them to fill your ‘ead with whatever mumbo jumbo they fancy. A bleedin’ ‘andy tool, if you ask me.’
‘I remember,’ Nic mused. ‘It was almost euphoric. A stark contrast to the torture…’
‘It was the final step to breaking your will,’ Honza interrupted, ‘to relieve you of your pain and imprint the Company values of brotherhood, and backbreaking labour, as the answer to all your doubts and worries.’
‘So, what happened?’ Nic asked. ‘How am I here?’
‘Odessa’s body may be encased in energy,’ Honza explained, ‘but her mental implants are still active. She can exist in the sub-conscious realm, neither here nor there, as it were. During your previous telepathic episodes with her, she planted a seed. When you lost consciousness, she was able to hijack your reconditioning and project her own memories. What did you see?’ His tone became curious.
‘I saw the Grand Visigoth raze her home planet.’
‘Anything else?’ He prodded.
‘The Grand Visigoth’s face became the face of the General. I saw that the people of the great free city of Hallogen have been living a lie for a hundred years.’
‘Hmph.’ Mika guffawed and rolled her eyes sarcastically. ‘And now judgement day is upon us Lieutenant,’ she condescended, ‘the tunnel will be finished in less than a month, and we’ll be left to rot. When the ore is gone from the core, our planet’s magnetic field will destabilise, and we will have handed over our lives and home, as a blind paean to a megalomaniacal zealot.’
‘It ain’t over yet, Mika,’ Bagon chimed, ‘we still got one card left to play.’
‘So you’ve said, Bagon,’ she sneered, ‘we have this pathetic Officer, this Company man, in whose hands we must place our fate.’ She turned away and spat on the floor again.
Presently, Nic remembered that fateful day on the hill when Odessa had given her prophecy of impending doom. ‘I’ve seen the shield surrounding our city,’ he blurted. ‘And the electromagnetic storms raging beyond it. I know what’s at stake here…’
‘You’ve seen the storms?’ Delfin interjected, as she sat bolt upright in her chair, a fresh wave of panic stretched over her pale white face.
‘How severe were they, Lieutenant?’ Honza asked abrubtly. ‘Were they truly raging, as you said?’ His tone was urgent.
‘Who gives a damn what he’s seen!’ Mika yelled. ‘Our numbers are a tenth of what they…’
‘Oh shut up, Mika,’ Honza blurted, his wiry frame and calm demeanour belied his authority now. ‘Let the man speak. Don’t forget, Mika, not one of us have laid eyes on this phenomenon. We have only Odessa’s word. I, for one, am very curious what he has to say.’
Mika backed down and huffed as she sat at the table and crossed her arms. Her eyes never wavered from Nic’s.
‘Before she allowed herself to be captured,’ Nic began, ‘she flew us both to the top of the Southern hill and showed me. I saw the soft red glow of the shield glistening in the sky and violent lightening strikes crashing into the earth beyond it. They covered the horizon in seeming perpetual motion. One, then another, then another, spewing dust into the air that seemed to blend with the clouds in the sky. The red hue of the shield made it look quite beautiful, actually. It reminded me of the old oil paintings we saw in the school conditioning sessions.
‘Fascinating.’ Honza muttered.
‘The future of our planet will be decided today.’ Delfin said solemnly.
Even Mika began to thaw. ‘So, today really is judgement day.’ She said with a sigh as she shook her head.
‘Judgement day?’ Nic looked at Honza.
‘Your personal audience, Lieutenant,’ he answered. ‘Odessa was adamant the Grand Visigoth would never let her out of his sight when he captured her, so we need you to get up to the top floor, free her, and get out of the way, so she can finally end his reign of terror.’
‘Oh just get up there and free her!’ Nic was incredulous. ‘What if the Grand Visigoth’s already figured all this out? He’s been two steps ahead, every step of the way.’
‘It’s a possibility I’m afraid, but we have no choice.’ Honza said solemnly.
‘And how exactly am I supposed to free her?’ Nic asked, despondent.
‘She gave us this.’ Honza handed Nic a small metal disc, one centimetre in diameter. ‘It contains a device that will emit an electromagnetic pulse,’ he explained. ‘You must activate it and somehow insert it into the energy shield that encases Odessa. The pulse should deactivate the shield and release her.’
‘Our fate is in your hands, Lieutenant,’ Delfin added desperately. ‘A plan four years in the making. If you fail, we all die.’
‘So, no pressure, then.’ Nic’s heart was almost beating out of his chest. ‘Do I have any backup?’ He asked meekly.
‘We got it all figured out, pal,’ Bagon slapped him on the back and he jerked forward and almost fell to his knees again. ‘Honza ‘ere will escort you up to the 'undred and eightieth floor, 'and over your bleedin’ folder and await your audience. Given that you were never expected to survive the reconditionin', we’re gamblin' that 'e’ll be very curious to see ya.’
‘Gambling!’ You’ve got to be kidding, Bagon?’
‘The rest of us'll make our ways to the tunnel.’ He ignored him. ‘We 'ave drillpods we’ve kitted out to put on a bit of show.
‘What do you mean?’ Nic asked nervously. ‘What the hell kind of a plan is this?’
‘The General has announced there will be a grand display of victory this evening,’ Honza explained, ‘where he will announce the capture and execution of our lady. The masses are already forming at the podium in anticipation of the announcement. Most people have no idea about the insurgency, but there have been so many purges and so much upheaval that now they have to answer it publicly.’
‘It’s happening now!’ Nic exclaimed, and he felt his knees begin to tremble as if his adrenalin had finally run out.
‘It’s scheduled two hours from now,’ Honza added matter-of-factly, ‘we’d really better get moving.’
Nic’s head was swimming. His guilt and fear compounded an overwhelming sense of impending doom. He started to feel light-headed and felt his knees begin to buckle. He dropped to the floor and vomited.
Mika let out an ironic laugh. ‘Ha! Humanity’s last hope, my friends. Why don’t you bring that sick up there too, maybe the Grand Visigoth will be scared of the smell!’