Royce’s head throbbed horribly in pain so fierce it blurred his vision. He couldn’t remember what caused the headache, or where he was. The last thing he remembered was a boy. And the woman, he remembered, she was there too.
In fact, she was in front of him, walking towards him with a pistol in hand. She wasn’t getting closer, though. Royce looked down and could see his feet laid out before him, and he made the connection. He was being dragged somewhere.
“Whur am er?” His words came slowly to him, more so than he would have liked. In fact, it felt difficult to speak at all. He tried to move his limbs, but they proved sluggishly slow, and unresponsive. Something had gone horribly wrong, and he couldn’t remember what. “Wha h… h… pned to muh.”
Skie glanced down at him. “Rick, drop him. I think he’s waking up.”
Suddenly he fell again, but he braced himself with his left arm, the hard metal taking the brunt of the shock. He vision shook, he could hear the blood in his ears, and it became very difficult to breathe. “Wha pned to muh… me…”
Rick walked into his view. a sneer of disgust on his face. “I don’t think he remembers. Must have hit his head pretty hard, Skie.”
Her name was Skie. Royce hadn’t thought of a name so pretty, so wonderful to him. “I… luhk… yur name. Ish prettuh.” He smiled despite himself, happy to finally know her name. Skie. “Whuh um uhh?” Where am I. How hard could it be to say those simple words?
Skie’s face was nothing like he remembered. Before she was confused, lost. But now she seemed unrecognizably confident, or cocky. Maybe… angry? Royce couldn’t tell. He was much better with robots-
The robots. He remembered screaming, crying, and pain. He remembered a lot of anger and confusion. He choked someone, but… that wasn’t him. Something had come over him, taken his mind and made him a monster. Royce’s eyes watered at the thought.
Rick stepped forward. “Royce, you’ve hurt way too many people today. Almost killed a girl with your bare hands, and murdered another eight with your droids.” Suddenly Rick’s repeater was pointed at Royce’s chest. “Any last words?”
Royce cried a little to himself. “It wasn’t muh. I don know whuh that huppened. Pluz… help me.” This can’t be happening, he thought. I thought I knew these people. Rick was a solid, dependable hunter with a reputation for consistency and predictability. He never would be the type to become vindictive, or get personal about a job. As for Skie… no. She was angry, but she was understanding. Careful. She never sneered.
“Yur not yourshelves.” He said slowly, despite every part of his brain yelling at him to pick up the pace. “It washnt me. Please help.”
“A flicker of hesitation glazed over Rick’s face. “Help you? Why should we? You murdered eight people. Psychotic rage or not, that’s not something you do by accident, not the way you did.”
“It wasn’t me, hunter.” His brain was recovering very quickly, he noticed. A very good thing too, he was running out of time. “I’m careful. I plan things. The last thing I clearly remember was Skie, out here, with a boy. She was about to kill him.”
“We know, you were shouting that before. That’s the reason you went fucking nuts back there.” Royce could tell that both Skie and Rick were losing patience with him, but he couldn’t figure out what went wrong. He wasn’t even making sense to himself; if it wasn’t him, how could it be anyone else? What could have caused him to become a… self-righteous murdering psychopath. Something clicked in Royce’s mind, and all he needed were a couple of pieces of information. Information stored in Skie’s arm.
His eyes glowed and Skie’s arm screen powered on. He flipped through the loads of data he had sent her before about the genetic experiments taking place down in the old city, about the effects it had. The many, many failures and then several successes. Disturbing successes that he, in his hubris, had completely ignored in his hurry to understand why Skie was going to shoot a boy.
“I’ve turned on your monitor, Skie. I’ve already brought up the relevant data about the experiments that the CBI undertook down here. Tell me, did the boy have extraordinary abilities?”
Skie nodded. “Yeah, but how would you know? You’ve been down here all of five minutes.”
“Which ones?” Royce asked. His heart beat faster, and his headache got worse, but the pain was nothing compared to the adrenaline he felt keeping him sharp.
“He could do weird stuff to the brain, force you to do things. He’d been terrorizing the community here for some time, taking in the footsteps of his father who we met at the church. Apparently he had the same powers.” Rick was a sponge being wrung for information. Royce could see he’d rather focus on a problem he could solve than an execution. Dependable to the last, Royce thought.
“Genetically passed down from the father, I expect? Yes, makes sense. So who’s the girl inside?”
“Her name’s Cat.” Skie’s sweet, metallic voice gave Royce hope. “We met her at the church where we… I… murdered her father. She’s been with us ever since.”
Royce grinned. “So the real question is, who was her father? The same once as the boy? If so, I’d like you to take a look at the data on your screen, Skie. There’s something else you have to know about the person with whom you’ve been journeying with thus far.”
Skie stared inquiringly. Royce could see the cogs in her bright head turning as she began to read the screen. Come now, he pleaded inwardly, make the connections. Water the seeds of doubt I’ve planted. It’s not my fault those people died, and it’s not yours either. Her eyes widened, her mouth opened in shock, and she mouthed denial.
“No, she’s… she’s better than this. She’s a girl!” Skie backed away as she checked the screen again, and began to throw off the mind manipulation that Royce knew she was under.
Rick stepped towards her. “Skie, what? Don’t let Royce fool you. He’s a killer, remember?” Don’t worry Rick, Royce thought. I’ll save you next. He propped himself up to a sitting position and took in his surroundings. He didn’t remember the group of buildings in the distance, but the large building at the end of the sprawls must have been the temple of which the two spoke. His droids were probably still in there.
He looked to Rick now. “Rick, do you understand what’s happening here? You were sent down here to look for the horrors from before. Wipe them out, or take one alive for testing, either way the CBI would be pleased. They would be contributing to the safety of the new city. Picture the news: the CBI finds new threat, helps local guild wipe them out. The good publicity would have been astounding, especially considering that the CBI was behind every one of those failures.
“In fact, the CBI must have been; we wiped out every single Adam Son soldier back when the new city was made, or so we were told. Any survivors must have been protected by the CBI.”
Rick stared at the dirt as he tried to process the information. “Okay, so the CBI is rotten. What does that have to do with what you did?” He raised his repeater. “Why am I even still talking to you?”
Royce held his hands up to protect himself. He hadn’t counted on Rick becoming suddenly hostile. Dependability is compromised. Just as he thought he was done, Skie grabbed his arm and pointed the gun down.
She shivered. “Rick, think about it. The CBI has monsters, but they don’t want to waste them. I’ll be the first one to say they’re fucking good at killing people. They’re quiet, can hunt you down for miles, and are fucking fast. You don’t throw that out, you make a way to keep them on a leash. You make someone who can control them.”
Rick shook his head. “Why does that matter? Get to the point. We don’t have all day, every second we spend out here is a second closer to dealing with the freaks.”
Royce could finally see the end in sight. “The controllers are genetic nodes of control, much like myself to my drones. They can influence and heavily suggest normal people as well, but over the ‘freaks’ as you call them, controllers do just that. The horrors do as they are bid, naturally. As you can attest, Cat has many of the genetic trademarks of the controllers that the CBI was working on. In fact, she has all of them.
“The only reason you aren’t dead is because she allowed you to live.”
Rick thought about all the times the monsters attacked. In the church, he stopped Skie by shouting. They survived in the church by hiding in the crypts. He and Skie were lucky when they hid out in the buildings of the village as the monsters passed by.
Monsters were everywhere, but they survived every time. Every time, and there was a village when he no one should be living in the area. How could they? It was infested with monsters. So how did a village actually grow in an area overrun by genetic rejects?
Rejects that could easily have sniffed them out in the crypts. Easily have killed them while they were recovering in the huts. Slaughtered them at any time, really, like so many others. Every time one shuffled near, it left the building alone when other people were found out and killed.
Every time the monsters were near, so was Cat. Not that correlation meant causation, but every time a monster got close, they turned away. They didn’t find them. Was it because Cat was there?
Rick’s mind raced, thinking through what Royce said. It was possible that could control the monsters, but how on earth was that a bad thing? “Royce, even if that’s true, that she can make the monsters do what she wants, how does her keeping us alive make her a problem?”
“You’ve only worked through half the equation, Rick.” Royce, despite being hunched over and barely able to really stand, still oozed confidence, his voice unwavering. Methodical. Planned. “That she saved your life is one thing. Why save your life is another.”
“Because that’s what normal people do, Royce. Look out for one another.” Rick’s mind clung to a stranded thought in a sea of turbulent emotions and conflicting ideas as he tried to work out what Royce and Skie had seemingly already figured out.
Royce shook his head. “Not down here, Rick. Down here, everyone looks out for themselves. You don’t do yourself enough credit. No, you’re much too hard on yourself. What use could a fledgling controller have for a skilled hunter and a motivated, angry killing machine?”
“What are you talking about?” Rick’s head hammered from the internal conflict. “We saved her, we spared her life! Not the other way around.”
“No, Rick. She had us by the balls since we met her.” Skie whispered. “I didn’t hear you shout to stop when I had her by the throat. I just suddenly stopped wanting to kill her, which was weird because I was killing literally everyone else. Cat’s been playing us since the beginning.”
Rick mind was about to split, with one part f him screaming that Royce and Skie were wrong while the other forced him to keep asking questions. He fell to his knees, gripping his aching head. “Why? Why even bother?”
Skie knelt down next to him. “Because when I killed Cat and Damien’s father, only one of the two kids could take his spot as chief asshole of the group. Cat saw us as valuable, got us close, and took us for a ride. We murdered the next highest priest, took out her half brother, and acted as decoys and soldiers for her. We were played, Rick, and she used her powers to do it.”
Rick curled up in a ball, the headache practically causing him to black out. One small shard, one nagging issue, kept bothering him. “Royce, why did you kill those people?”
“I didn’t. Remember that the boy had similar powers; when he was killed, the last thoughts going through his mind would have been of anger, and of revenge. Combined with the shock of seeing Skie kill him in cold blood, I was infused with his need for revenge and violence. Even I didn’t understand what I was doing, let along why. The woman, Cat, did not know I was down here, and when i walked in she tried to solve the new situation by controlling me as she had done with you and Skie. It didn’t work though, since the boy’s leftover suggestions, the shock, and my rebelling against the effects of her powers all came together to make the worst of me.”
Royce hung his head and spoke softly. “If I could change what happened, I would. As it stands though, it seems clear to me that no matter my actions, Cat has been using you as bodyguards and assassins for several days now. Thanks to you, she has overthrown not only her father, but her brother as well. She’s now in charge of the entire commune. She’s no angel, Rick. Cat’s as power hungry as the old CBI, and will stop at nothing to control everyone around her to do what she thinks is right.”
Rick crumpled in a heap and wept as the last of his inner conflict died.
End of Part 27