As Nic and Odessa ran through the network of caves, Nic felt his mind racing alongside them. His mind had been liberated from the Grand Visigoth’s powerful hold, but he had not accepted the fact easily. It had taken several extraordinary experiences to reveal the truth over the space of several weeks.
Odessa had searched his mind and, rather abstractedly, shown him the truth in the sub-conscious realm. From Hallogen’s highest point, he had seen the Visigoth’s energy shield that encircled the entire city, and the electromagnetic storms raging beyond it had piqued his interest. His experience atop the tower of Company Headquarters had all but confirmed it. Now he had to somehow relate those experiences to his former peers, who would not have the capacity to accept it, let alone the desire. He remembered his own stoicism in the face of Odessa’s probing, and the confrontational demeanour he espoused in the face of her heresy.
Another blast rocked the cave and Nic stumbled to the ground, mercifully interrupting his train of thought.
Sounds like they’re getting closer, he mused.
Odessa stopped and jogged back.
‘They’re searching for the entrance,’ she said, as she helped Nic up from the ground.
‘How long do we have?’
‘No way to know,’ she shrugged. ‘One lucky hit will destroy the cloak. Then they’ll know exactly where to find us.’
‘Do you think they’ll march right in?’
She grinned, and said, ‘Remember what happened the last time he sent his men to find you in that bunker?’
Corpses littering darkened corridors flashed through Nic’s mind.
‘That didn’t end so well for the Troopers,’ he said grimly.
‘Indeed,’ she nodded. Then gravely, ‘but he has other means at his disposal. And while my armour will protect me, the other two hundred or so citizens down here won’t be so lucky.’
‘No time to lose, then,’ Nic muttered. He ripped the sling from his arm and threw it on the ground. ‘I’ll move faster without it.’ He glanced mournfully at the stump where his right hand used to be, and then back to Odessa. ‘Well?’ He growled. ‘What the hell are you waiting for?’
Odessa let out a soft chuckle and said nothing as she turned and picked up the pace.
Nic followed closely behind her, and, in spite of his bravado, he felt a weight on his shoulders like never before.
After a few minutes, Nic heard a rabbling noise coming from ahead. The sound of panicked arguments being made and a general hubbub of disorder echoed along the corridor. When they reached the small clearing, Nic thought that, from the entrance, the glistening stalactites hanging above the small crowd of about fifty or so that had assembled there resembled the jagged teeth of a giant beast just waiting for the right amount of food to run into its mouth before its jaws snapped shut and gobbled it up.
As they entered the room, the crowd was silenced and the sense of panic seemed momentarily diverted, but almost immediately, another great BOOM! shook the cave.
Everyone braced themselves on the rocky walls, the limestone columns that were scattered all over the place, and each other, before the murmured discontent resumed.
Nic followed Odessa to the side as she climbed atop a boulder and addressed the crowd.
‘My friends,’ she began, ‘I know you are scared, but there is hope for us yet.’
Mika pushed her way to the front of the crowd.
'What bloody hope?’ She heckled. ‘There are barely two hundred of us left in these bloody caves. And half of those here still think we’re the bleeding enemy,’ she exaggerated.
‘We have to keep the Officers, conscious or bloody not, under guard.’
Another, rather untimely, explosion rocked the cavern just as the crowd was beginning to settle.
‘Yes, what hope?’ Delfin cried from behind Mika. ‘Our last stand is here. We are waiting to die.’
Odessa held out her palms and appealed for calm. ‘It’s true that the Grand Visigoth’s men are searching for us,’ she said seriously. Then, to audible gasps, she announced,
‘And they will kill you all if they breach our defences. That is why we must go, meet them head on, and destroy their work in the tunnel.’
The crowd became unruly as people cried to one another in shock.
‘And why,’ Mika hissed, ‘should we embark on such a foolish endeavour.’ She looked around and appealed to the crowd herself. ‘We’ve seen his power first-hand now; we don’t stand a chance.’
The crowd descended into chaos as people jeered and yelled from every corner of the cave.
‘He may be powerful, Mika,’ said Odessa, raising her voice, ‘but he only has four small ships in orbit, which can hold, at most, 400 hundred Troopers. We cannot allow him to reach the Earth’s core at any cost.’
‘Let him have it and he’ll leave on his God forsaken search,’ someone yelled from the back.
‘Yeah let him go,’ several others shouted in agreement.
‘If we let him go,’ she pleaded, ‘he will harvest your core until there is nothing left. Forgetting for a moment that everyone left on Earth will be razed to dust by solar flares when the magnetic field that surrounds your planet disappears. Or perhaps they will just suffocate when your atmosphere floats off into space. He will then use transmogrification technology to turn the seven hundred and fifty million tonnes of iron in your core into a fleet of ships, and his crusade to locate the supposed creators of all life in the universe will continue unimpeded. Any race, any system, even, that stands in his way will be obliterated. I…, no…, we have to stop him here and now.’
‘But he’s too strong,’ someone cried from their midst.
‘The beast atop the tower can never be stopped,’ they all chorused.
‘The beast atop the tower is no beast at all,’ Odessa shrugged. ‘Strong? Yes, absolutely. But what you saw was a mere projection of mental energy. You see what he wants you to see. Our attack led to this. He has exposed himself for the charlatan that he is. Nic, step forward.’
Nic hesitantly stepped up on to the rock and looked at the desperate faces that stood before him.
‘Ahh Lieutenant Nic,’ said Mika sarcastically. ‘The Officer who started it all.’
Nic looked desperately at Odessa and whispered,
‘How am I supposed to convince the Officers if the Privates who are supposed to be on our side don’t believe you?’
Odessa ignored his question and turned back to the crowd.
‘Nic has seen the truth,’ she announced confidently. ‘Bring in the Officers,’ she roared.
From a tunnel on the opposite side of the cave, the thirty-three officers were led in at gunpoint, their hands tied. The people in the room parted and allowed the group to be led into the middle, where they looked up at Nic and Odessa standing on their podium, burning hatred in every one of their eyes.
‘My friends,’ she began, in her most magnanimous tone, but she was interrupted almost immediately.
‘We ain’t no friends to traitors,’ yelled a voice from their midst.
‘The General is the only friend I need,’ screamed another.
‘You may all feel this way now,’ Odessa soothed, ‘but I’d like you to hear what we have to say.’
A tall, broad-shouldered man barged his way to the front and authoritatively said,
‘We won’t listen to the words of a charlatan. Your mind games won’t work on us, traitor.’ He accusingly pointed to the crowd of rebels and added, ‘you should all be ashamed of yourselves,’ he stabbed his finger in the direction of Odessa as a bead of sweat trickled down his face, ‘falling for the parlour tricks of this jezebel.’
Nic noted that his square jaw and hard features gave the impression of a man more used to giving orders than receiving them. Then, he noticed his bronze Officer’s commission gleaming under the torchlight of the cave. It was surrounded by three further shining strips of bronze, signifying the rank of Captain.
‘And do you speak for all your fellow Officers here?’ Odessa asked, with more than a hint of sarcasm.
‘I am the ranking Officer here, Madam,’ he barked. ‘And my name is Captain Drevo. I will speak for all of us out of the duty that befits my rank. I have no doubt that each of us would rather die a thousand deaths in the name of the General than give one ounce of credence to you, your ridiculous rebellion, or your shameful lies.’
Nic frowned and almost groaned out loud. He glanced at Odessa, whose confident air had been somewhat betrayed by an ever so slight furrowing of her brow.
Of all the people they could have rescued, Nic thought, and they managed to bring back Drevo! His exploits and conduct were famed throughout the city, and he was known, by name at least, to just about every Officer in commission. He leant towards Odessa, but before he could speak, Mika yelled incredulously,
‘Ahh, the famous Drevo, clearly here to lead us on a merry goose chase, and even more clearly a spy. He’s even more a Company Man than the snivelling Lieutenant standing….’
‘Mika, please,’ Odessa cut her off, ‘Lest you forget that Nic was also a spy, and he’s also the reason I’m standing here right now, not rotting in stasis at the boots of the Visigoth.’
‘And how do we know that he isn’t also still a spy? No-one saw how he lost his hand. Bagon and Honza are at death’s door, along with God-knows how many others. Not forgetting the hundreds who died when you brought him to us. Now the mighty Drevo is here too. Who next? Are you going to wheel out the General maybe, or the Visigoth himself and serve us to him on a platter?’
There were rumblings of discontent among the rebels now, too, as Mika appealed to their fears.
Nic wasn’t worried about Odessa holding those same fears. She had seen inside his soul and opened his mind. He tried to ignore the eyes, from friend and foe alike, that were now trained firmly on him. He leaned in towards Odessa again and whispered,
‘Odessa, she’s right about Drevo. Words will be no use. I’ve heard of this Captain, too. His loyalty and dedication are things of legend. If he’s been exerting his influence since their capture, the challenge of bringing them in just increased tenfold. He can’t be here by accident.’ He paused briefly, before pleading, ‘they have to see with their own eyes.’
She let out half a sigh and addressed Drevo directly.
‘Captain,’ she began seriously, ‘as we don’t have much time…’
‘Given the discord in your ranks, it seems your reckoning will be coming even sooner than I could’ve hoped,’ he scoffed, ‘it’ll be the Truth Chamber for the lot of you.’
The on-looking crowd of rebels began to murmur as they intently watched the scene unfolding.
‘As we don’t have much time,’ she began again, this time through gritted teeth, ‘I’ll make this simple. Hear what we have to say, and if you don’t like what we show you, you are free to go. Are we in agreement?’
‘You expect us to believe that?’ Drevo asked incredulously.
‘She thinks we’re morons, Captain,’ chimed an unnamed Officer standing beside him.
Drevo flashed a reprimanding glare, and the Officer sheepishly backed down. He turned back to face Odessa.
‘It sounds like a desperate plea from a desperate woman. I stand by my previous statement. We will not treat with traitors.’ He spat on the ground in front of him.
‘Well,’ said Odessa with a smirk, ‘we do have other ways.’
‘My men have spoken of your mind games, woman,’ he shot back. ‘The beast with the fire in her eyes, my foot.’ He looked her up and down disapprovingly and sneered, ‘you don’t look like much to me, just an uppity drillpod bitch who doesn’t know her place.’
The crowd began to get restless.
‘Unfortunately, we don’t have time for that. But maybe you’d care to hear from one of your own?’ She motioned to Nic beside her.
‘Ah, so this is the Officer I’ve heard so much about,’ he said with a smile. ‘What was it she said,’ he glanced at Mika, ‘the snivelling Lieutenant, by your own people’s admission.’ He laughed hard and continued. ‘The only thing worse than a traitor,’ he paused, ‘is a traitor with a commission.’ He spat on the floor even more fiercely than before and then circled the room pointing at everyone.
‘I hope that the general cleanses you all from this great city, but this man here,’ he turned and jabbed his finger at Nic, ‘I truly hope that before this day is out, I will get to cleanse him myself.’ He then addressed Nic directly. ‘I want to watch the life drain from your eyes as I rid our glorious Company of the stain of your existence.’
As Drevo’s eyes burned into him, Nic diverted his eyes toward the rest of the prisoners. He saw the same contempt in every snarl and grimace that looked back.
The crowd of rebels became more restless, and Nic wasn’t sure their faces looked much better than those of the prisoners.
It really was a fool’s errand, Nic thought, as he glanced mournfully at his stump.
‘Nic, step forward,’ Odessa ordered.
‘Step forward, Nic,’ she said again. ‘Please do enlighten the Captain.’
He hesitated again.
‘Ha, looks like the cat’s got the craven’s tongue,’ chided Drevo gleefully.
He theatrically shrugged his shoulders and appealed to the surrounding crowd.
‘Does he know that a truly loyal Officer would never accept these purposely vague half-truths and outright lies?’
As he watched Drevo mindlessly spouting Company propaganda and playing to the gallery, he was reminded of himself just weeks earlier. After sharing in Odessa’s visions, he’d been the same obstinate block determined to spit in the face of any who dared question the most noble goals of an even nobler Company. After a few moments he finally managed to blurt,
‘It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not.’
‘So, it speaks,’ Drevo boomed, ‘what do you have to say for yourself, Lieutenant?’
Before Nic had the chance to speak, a distant explosion echoed through the tunnels, and a minor tremor caused powdered limestone to lightly dust the crowds in front of him. The intensity of the blast was not enough knock anyone onto their backsides this time, and the guards kept their blasters firmly trained on Officers.
Are they heading away from us? Nic thought mercifully. He looked back at Drevo, whose sinister smirk chilled him.
‘Your reckoning is almost upon you,’ he roared, before letting out a booming laugh that echoed through the caves.
The mood among the prisoners visibly elevated, and they jeered and hurled obscenities at Nic.
He appealed to Odessa with his eyes, but her expression was blank. She was facing the crowd and appeared to be watching intently, but something in her eyes seemed vacant, and her head was very gently twitching. It was unnoticeable to the crowds, but standing right beside her, it was clear to Nic something was not right.
Meanwhile, Drevo was standing tall in front of the prisoners, his palms outstretched and urging them on. He dragged his finger across his neck in a slicing motion, and silence resumed.
Drevo turned back to face Nic, and as Nic looked into his eyes, he saw Drevo’s smirk blossom into a full-blooded grin. He looked past him and tried to address the pack behind him.
‘It doesn’t matter what you believe,’ Nic finally managed, ‘when you walk out of these caves and meet the Visigoth’s men in the open air. You will all meet your end anyway.’
‘Piffle,’ yelled one woman.
‘Codswallop,’ yelled another.
‘Your words have no weight among us, Lieutenant.’ The Captain laughed.
Nic again searched Odessa’s blank face for help but found none forthcoming. Rather confusingly, she just smiled and nodded. Nic pressed on.
‘Under orders from the General himself,’ he began, his voice shaky. ‘I was sent to infiltrate these very rebels you see around you, and to bring this woman,’ he motioned toward Odessa, ‘to face the General’s justice.’
‘It looks like you did a marvellous job,’ spat Drevo, ‘is she always this chatty? Seems like something’s got her tongue, too.’
The prisoners sniggered, but Nic continued.
‘And when I delivered her, do you know what happened?’
‘Why, please tell us, noble patriot,’ Drevo sneered, ‘did you piss your pants at the sight of her fiery red locks?’
Nic tried to ignore him but felt his blood beginning to boil.
‘I delivered her into his arms,’ he said confidently, ‘and he repaid me with torture…’
‘Lies! Heresy!’ came the cries of the crowd.
Nic tried to speak over them.
‘…And unimaginable pain.’
‘How could we believe such a flagrant lie?’ Drevo boomed. He then addressed his followers. ‘Even a fool knows the General would repay such loyalty with honours galore.’
The prisoners grew unrulier and heckled.
‘Hear, hear! Bless the General and long live the search!’
‘The search, the search, the search!’
Nic looked desperately at Odessa’s blank expression, and suddenly, she twitched into action and roared,
‘Your planet is dying!’ But before she could continue, a mighty blast struck directly above them and sent everyone flying to the ground.
Without warning, Drevo shouted, ‘NOW!’
Several captives had somehow managed to slip from their restraints, and they sprung on top of their guards, some wresting their blasters from their hands. Shots were fired into the air, stalactites dropped from the ceiling and smashed on people’s head’s, and Drevo lunged forward at Nic.
He didn’t get far.
As he sprung up towards the rock that had become Nic and Odessa’s makeshift podium, Odessa caught him by the neck in mid-air and held him out in front of her, so his legs were dangling a full metre off the ground.
Nic, meanwhile, had slipped off the rock and crashed into the floor beside them.
‘Enough!’ She roared, as Drevo’s face began to turn blue.
She sighed loudly, and as Drevo’s eyes began to close under the pressure of her grip, another blast, closer again, rocked the cave, sending everyone sprawling. Odessa dropped Drevo, and he thudded into the ground beneath them, gasping deeply.
The melee continued as rebels piled on top of the prisoners, attempting to wrest back control of the weapons.
Nic picked himself up and saw severals bodies strewn on the ground, their blood staining the grey stone floor. He saw Mika in the pile, holding a prisoner in a headlock as another yanked at the blaster he was carrying. Without thinking, he charged forward towards the nearest Officer, and swung a non-existent fist in his direction.
The prisoner dodged his stump easily and started towards him, his thin-lipped smirk left Nic feeling helpless.
The next blast was like an earthquake that caused the whole cavern to shudder violently.
After the third blast, the shelling stopped.
Odessa was the first to pick herself up and dust herself off. She surveyed the carnage in front of her, and saw Nic just two meters away covered in debris. She yanked him to his feet.
‘I guess they found us,’ Nic managed, as he coughed up a healthy amount of dust.
Drevo also stirred, alongside prisoners and rebels alike. As they dusted themselves off and remembered they were enemies, they began to wrestle once more.
Drevo stumbled to his feet and spluttered,
‘You’ll… regret… that, …woman, the Troopers will be here to kill you in no time.’
‘I wouldn’t count on it,’ she said proudly, ‘why don’t you ask the lieutenant what happened the last time they came for me at close-quarters.’
He didn’t bother asking. His snarl returned with his senses, and he motioned to charge Odessa again.
‘I said, ENOUGH!’ She boomed.
With a flash of her arm, her armour instantaneously unfolded from within her skin. It enveloped her entire body, save her head. She crossed her arms and then fired them outwards, sending bright orange energy beams across the cavern above everyone’s heads. The hanging stalactites and columns that they crossed were vaporised instantly, lightly sprinkling everyone with yet more dust.
The prisoners who’d managed to hold onto their weapons dropped them along with their jaws. One managed to fire on her, but the blaster beam was deflected by her armour into the walls of the cavern, again spraying limestone residue onto anyone who was standing beneath it.
With a flick of her wrist, she fired a light blue pulse into the attacker, rendering him unconscious immediately.
She looked down at Drevo.
‘Are you ready to listen, yet, Captain?’
Drevo looked up, aghast.
‘It’s the beast atop the tower!’ He screamed. ‘She’s here to slay us all!’
Almost hysterically, he charged, but Odessa effortlessly grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, lifted him up, and stared deeply into eyes.
‘That’s enough words,’ she said, ‘it’s time for you to see.’
Odessa’s eyes blazed that familiar orange and gold, and the crowd was captivated by the extraordinary scene unfolding before their eyes.
Nic, perplexed at the charade he had been made to perform earlier, wondered why it had taken so long for Odessa to use her formidable power. Instead, she had made him flounder in front of Drevo. She must have known he would never be able to reach one whose ideals had been so ingrained, so conditioned, into him. He felt his blood boiling again, and he focussed. He stared intently at Odessa, and he felt a heat burning in his retinae. Eventually, the cave scene in front of him melted into an artist’s palette, colours melting and merging together, into that which he had already seen. Again, he saw the electromagnetic storms thrashing into the barren wasteland that extended beyond the pulsating shield that encircled the city. Again, he watched as the General transformed into the Visigoth and crushed Bagon and Honza to within a millimetre of their lives. Again, he watched as Odessa cut through reams of the Visigoth’s men in the cliffside bunker. Finally, again, he saw the images of his dreams. He watched as the star went nova and the surrounding planets were incinerated to dust.
As the flames enveloped him, he was jolted free of Odessa’s psychic hold.
He turned and examined the room. Not only had Odessa transfixed Drevo, but she was radiating an intense orange glow that had transfixed everyone in the room. He scoured the cave and saw the awesome power which Odessa possessed. Everyone was transfixed. Prisoners and rebels alike. As his eyes moved across the room, he finally came back to Odessa. Only now she was not staring into Drevo’s eyes, but intently at him, aware that he had broken contact.
Her appearance had become almost as monstrous as the Visigoth himself. Her hair extended away from her head, as though it was charged with a thousand volts, and the golden aura that surrounded it resembled a shining corona. Golden-orange beams emanated from her eyes and hypnotically stalked down towards Nic as he lay helpless on the hard cave floor. As they pierced his eyes and entered his neo-cortex, he heard her say,
‘Show me what you have seen, Nic, and I’ll show them all.’
Although her lips didn’t move at all.