Mika and Honza picked Nic up from his knees, and Delfin brought him a bucket of water. He drank it heartily from the palms of his hands, spilling plenty onto the front of his fresh Officer’s uniform.
‘Careful,’ she said softly, ‘we need you looking your best now.’ She splashed water onto his face and used an old, semi-clean rag to wipe some of the grime from his ashen cheeks.
Mika swiped a second rag from the table, dipped it in the water, and rather aggressively started rubbing at a splotch of sick that had somehow found its way onto his shoulder.
‘It wasn’t easy to find a bloody fresh Officer’s uniform,’ she huffed, as she brushed away some detritus and pressed her knuckles into his shoulder.
Nic composed himself and backed away slightly.
‘Give it here,’ he said and held out his hand. ‘I’ll do it myself.’ He glared at Mika. ‘You’ll put a hole in it at that rate.’
Mika slapped the rag into his palm, then turned and grabbed the manila folder from the table and thrust it into his chest with such force that it almost winded him.
‘You’ll be needing this, now,’ she hissed and began hurrying Nic and Honza towards the door with both her hands. ‘Honza, you know what to do. Don’t let him out of your sight for a second.’ She nodded towards Nic and stared.
‘We won’t fail,’ Honza said confidently. ‘We can’t.’
Mika immediately followed, alongside Bagon and Delfin, and they headed into the dark cave towards their drillpods, blasters in hand and desperation etched into their sorry faces. Except Bagon, of course. He flashed one last toothy smile as he said,
‘Just wait for the show to start, Lieutenant. Then, unleash the fire-eyed beast!’
Nic could still hear Bagon’s chuckles echoing as he disappeared into the darkness.
Presently, Nic and Honza stood in front of the elevator twenty floors up, where Nic had been interrogated by the sadistic Doctor. They waited for what felt like an eternity. The soft drone of the lift’s mechanism was almost hypnotic as Nic pondered the lead weight inside his chest.
Unleash the fire-eyed beast, he thought. Fat chance. I’ll probably be summarily executed the moment I hand over my folder. Then, he thought of Odessa. He looked at the small disc he was holding in the palm of his hand and the tiny dot in it’s centre. Just press it once, he reassured himself, slip it into her tomb’s energy field, and the EMP will do the rest.
He gripped it tightly in his right hand and looked at himself and Honza in the reflective steel doors in front of them. Honza was standing with his hands behind his back, his face expressionless and his white orderly’s uniform pristine. He looked quietly confident, and Nic wished he felt the same. Nic’s beige Officer’s uniform still felt slightly damp, but the stains weren’t noticeable. These rebels had even managed to find some promotion medals that were now glistening in the cloudy reflection above his left breast pocket. He looked down at them and noticed the engravings that signified his progression from Private to Lieutenant over the past fifteen years.
Fifteen years! He considered that for a moment and the thought depressed him immeasurably, and for what?
On the left was the brass Corporal’s badge. It was engraved with a shovel and pickaxe crossed at the centre, the most basic tools of their labour. In the middle was a metallic silver Sergeant’s badge engraved with two hands locked together in brotherhood, the forearms bulging as the hands gripped each other tightly. Loyalty was key to the success of their struggle. On the right was his bronze commission. It was a shiny golden brown and engraved with a raised clenched fist beaming lines of light in all directions. Power, authority, and an iron fist were needed to lead the masses into the light of a new beginning.
Labour, loyalty, and deference, Nic thought. That’s some motto. He allowed himself to chuckle.
‘Something funny?’ Honza asked.
‘Not at all,’ he said, dejected. ‘You have to laugh,’ he added sombrely, ‘otherwise you’ll cry.’ His voice was almost trembling. ‘Labour… Loyalty… Deference… was something I lived by…’
‘Best not to think about what was before, Lieutenant,’ Honza reassured, ‘otherwise you’ll go mad. I was a cleaning tech, Private class myself, before I met Odessa, that is. A wasted life scrubbing toxic chemicals from toilet bowls in the habitat zone, and I couldn’t’ve been happier...’
‘Oh yeah,’ Nic cut in sarcastically, ‘how many men did you send to be tortured by that dreadful sadist?’
The ensuing awkward silence was broken when the magnetic lock on the elevator crunched open. The doors slid apart to reveal two Troopers in full combat gear poised to march. They clearly hadn’t expected to find anyone standing in front of the elevator.
‘Identify yourselves!’ They barked in unison.
Nic and Honza both stood bolt upright and froze.
The Troopers stepped forward and raised their assault blasters. They were so close that the barrels were almost poking them in the chest.
‘Identify yourselves!’ They threatened once more, this time louder. ‘We won’t ask again.’
The sight of his own reflection in the Trooper’s visor, and the medals on his chest, stirred him. He clenched his fists and thought of Odessa.
‘Lieutenant Nic Horshmire, Trooper,’ he snapped suddenly, ‘and who the hell are you to talk to an Officer in that manner. Name,’ he glanced at the insignia on his shoulder, ‘sergeant,’ he ordered.
The Troopers paused for a moment and noted the folder in Nic’s hand.
‘May I see your paper’s, Sir?’ The Trooper’s tone weakened.
Nic handed the folder to the Trooper, who inspected its contents closely, before closing it again and handing it back. Nic could feel his heart beating so hard he thought his shirt might be moving with it. Now we’ll see if the dead Doctor’s stamp was worth a damn.
‘Apologies, Sir,’ the Troopers lowered their blasters and stood at ease, ‘may I ask who this man is?’ He pointed at Honza.
‘Are you blind?’ Nic chided. ‘He’s an orderly, Private class. I have just finished with the Doctor, and, as is written in the folder I just handed to you, he is escorting me to the eighty-seventh floor as ordered by the General himself. Now, can you read, Trooper? Or would you like me to keep explaining? I can inform the General that my tardiness is due to the imbecilic questions of a pea-brained Trooper named…’ Nic paused and glanced at Honza, and the beads of sweat that were dripping over his temple, and then back to the Trooper. ‘I believe I asked your name, sergeant.’
‘Apologies, Sir. Sergeant Drake, Zeta squadron.’ Both Troopers saluted, and the one in front of Nic continued. ‘We were ordered to check your progress, Sir, and escort you to the tenth floor if you were deemed ready.’
‘Very well, Sergeant,’ Nic replied authoritatively, realising the advantages of a military escort. ‘You may proceed. I have crucial information that must be reported immediately. The very future of the search depends on it,’ he urged before turning to face Honza, who was too stunned to move. ‘Report back to the Doctor and continue with your duties, Private. I’m sure you have more important places to be.’
The Troopers backed into the elevator and Nic followed. He turned about face and subtly winked at Honza as the doors slid shut between them. The anti-grav thrusters blasted Nic to the eighty-seventh floor, before Honza had had time to turn around.
Nic marched out of the elevator ahead of the Troopers, who followed closely behind. The thud of their boots hit the floor in time to the pounding of his heart. His clenched fists felt moist and clammy, and the small metallic disc inside his right one felt like it would slide out if he he unclenched them even a little. They rounded the corner and Nic saw the door for meeting room 78242 straight ahead. He maintained a constant pace and remembered Bagon’s words.
The plebs have no idea, he had said, just hail the greatness of The Company, The General, and and everything they’ve been conditioned to believe, ‘and they salute themselves in a fit o’ smugness right up their own arse.’
He strode through the door and turned to face the low-level bureaucrat sitting at the desk beside the door. He stood bolt upright, thrust out his chest, and saluted in the stiffest pose he could hold. He could practically feel the breath of the two Troopers as they straddled directly behind him.
‘In the name of the Company,’ he began, ‘I, Lieutenant Nic Horshmire, formally request an audience with the General.’ He slapped the folder on the desk, trying desperately to ignore the chaos that was unfolding in the room.
‘You can’t meet the General,’ the bureaucrat scoffed, not looking up from the papers in front of him ‘he’s due to greet the masses in less than an hour.’
‘I have been awarded the honour, comrade.’ Nic stood his ground and tried to stiffen his pose even more. ‘Valiance in the line of duty. Check the folder.’
The bureaucrat sighed and looked up at Nic with disdain. The sight of the two Troopers imposing themselves either side of him jolted the desk-jockey into action, and he hurriedly opened the folder and began reading it closely.
Nic stood firmly at attention and waited patiently. His adrenalin was pumping and his hands and head felt wet, but the folder had worked on the Troopers, and he had no reason to believe it wouldn’t pass this next test. Odessa had opened his eyes and he’d be damned if a low ranked pencil-pusher would stand in his way now. He glanced around the room and noticed other low-ranking officials frantically rushing to and fro, ferrying papers to none other than the fat bureaucrat, who was sitting behind the very same oak desk where Nic had first met him just two weeks before, and wildly signing form after form, whilst breaking every few seconds to remonstrate with whoever had handed them to him. There was a heavy Trooper presence as well, at least an entire platoon, and they were loading and unloading unrecognisably advanced heavy machinery and arms to the security lifts located on the far side of the room.
What the hell are they planning? He worried about Bagon and his show. He hadn’t seen that kind of tech since Odessa had blasted her way through the corridors of their cave hideout. The rebels were no match at all, he panicked, but Odessa? She had cut through them like a pickaxe through chalk. I have to wake her!
‘Impossible, Sir,’ the bureaucrat finally said, ‘The General will greet the masses in less than hour. There is too much to prepare.’
‘Unacceptable, comrade,’ Nic blurted, his voice almost trembling with anger, ‘I have crucial information, unfit for your ears.’ He leant forward and smashed a fist onto the table. ‘I demand to speak to your superior,’ he roared.
The bureaucrat stared into Nic’s eyes, and then glanced at the two Troopers. His eyes met Nic’s again, and he held them for a full ten seconds, before the bureaucrat turned and pushed the button on the microphone that was on the table next to him.
‘Code 14. Assistance, please.’
At the sound, the fat bureaucrat looked up from his table and noticed Nic. He immediately threw aside whatever it was he was signing, slid his chair back, and rolled out of it. He tried to hurry across the room, but his burdensome load meant he waddled in an ungainly fashion towards Nic.
Here we go again, Nic thought, as the fat bureaucrat approached. But not this time.
‘It’s a pleasure to see you looking so well, Lieutenant.’ The fat bureaucrat rolled his head to the side. The surprise in his voice was noticeable, and his eyes were still as glazed as before. ‘It appears your trip to see the Doctor was an unexpected success.’
Nic saluted and stiffened to attention again.
‘Lieutenant Nic Horshmire, reporting as ordered, Sir.’ He spoke firmly and with an authority he didn’t know he still had within him. ‘It is my great honour to serve The Company and The General in pursuit of our noble goals. The search for the creators of all life in the galaxy is the most noble cause that can exist in all lifetimes.’ He leant forward and whispered in his ear. ‘The Doctor is dead, Sir. Murdered by rebel scum. They’re everywhere, Sir, and no-one can be trusted. The alliance with the Grand Visigoth, our intergalactic comrades, and our great search itself is at stake.’ He stood back and raised his voice again. ‘If my personal audience is still warranted, Sir, it would be my greatest honour to deliver the news to the General himself. I presume this information is too sensitive to be delivered here. May we at least step into the back room for debriefing?’ It wasn’t hard to give the fat bureaucrat his most convincing look of desperation.
The fat bureaucrat’s muddled brown eyes searched Nic’s for the truth. After what felt like an aeon, he pulled a communicator from his pocket and turned. He mumbled into the receiver too low to be heard, and turned back to face Nic.
‘Follow me, Lieutenant,’ he said seriously, ‘The General will see you now.’ He turned and hurried towards the security elevators at the back of the room, and the clumsy momentum of his waddle seemed to make it easier to barge past any Trooper who happened to step in his way. Nic followed confidently, his hand firmly gripping the EMP.
Here we go, he reckoned, now’s the time to live or to die.