Zeke squeaked almost like a little girl, leaping to his feet, only to slam his head into the underside of the fairly large dish. The huge thump of Zeke's skull upon the dish had been preceded by two simple words. "Hi there." He had turned to see a face hanging upside down from the lip of the concave cavern formed by the satellite dish and the sand, a grin upon it the size of Atlantis Prime Space Station. Panicked, he fumbled for his rifle, and fired wildly, trying to bring it to bear. He ended up ducking himself as the bullets ricocheted off the metal dish and slammed into the sand around him in the confined area. The face disappeared quite quickly. As the ringing in his ears from the gunshots subsided, Zeke began to wonder if he had imagined the face entirely. It didn't return. Thirst-induced hallucinations? But then he heard a voice.
"I'm sorry to scare you. Can I come down?" said the disembodied voice. Silence greeted the voice. "Um....you alright down there?"
"Habla Englez?" Val tried again. "Parlez vous Francais?"
"Just stick your head down again, bugger. I dare you.", snarled Zeke. He was embarassed, angry at himself. That squeal...and his poor head. This sandfly wasn't going to live long enough to laugh about it.
Val hadn't really gotten a good look, in the second or two he had looked over the lip of the dish, but he had seen enough to determine that this fellow was seriously abnormal. His black "skin" couldn't be called skin at all, but was rather black scale plates, one over the other, shiny like a beetle's carapace. These plates continued down his neck, and under his jacket, suggesting they covered the entire body. Val had seen some extensive modifications before, but this took the cake. His "Hi there" and friendly smile had been to determine whether this fellow was even human. Some people up there were still convinced that space really could not be as lonely as it seemed, and that contact would be made eventually...unless of course they looked at what had been done to the planet and decided humanity was best left alone. Val had come to a realization, with regards to this, or rather a question. If people kept modifying themselves, beneficial or not, extensively or not, how was one to recognize the alien? They could very well be among the populace. However, without significant proof otherwise, Val thought it best to follow that old adage, the one that said if you found a hoofprint on the ground, you probably should be looking for horses, and not zebras. The saying was kind of moot now, the only places that horses survived these days was on the Australian continent, and as far as he knew, zebras, forget it. Nonetheless, the premise was sound. The guy was human, at least originally. He spoke in a recognisable tongue, walked on two feet, and had a decidedly disagreeable temperament, at least when startled. Sounded human to him. Not that he wouldn't be shot on sight by most of the primitives on the planet. Val mentally kicked himself. Just being in the proximity of a fellow orbital and he was falling back into old habits. He had basically called his new brethren primitives. He would have to be careful, and of more than just bullets.
"Look, sir...I don't appreciate being shot at. I came to offer my assistance. I have a little bit of water, not much, but a little.", called Val. The water had been planned as an ace in the hole, rather than an initial offering, but the skittish (and violent) reaction of this black-carapaced creature had made him fairly certain that little else was going to pique his interest.
Zeke blinked, and his lips opened, the idea of water bringing his parched tongue out once more to attempt to moisten equally dry, chapped lips. This fellow didn't speak like an Atlantean. He didn't speak like a primitive either. His accent was hard to place. Freelance? No, Atlantis Enterprises would prefer to keep this matter in house. Unless this person was just the spotter. He slid back further into the hole, and began piling a ridge of sand ahead of him, to provide a modicum of cover. "Throw in your radio, and your weapons, and then we'll talk."he called.
There was a moment's hesitation. "Got no radio.", came the reply. "And if you really want, I can throw in my spears and blades. That's all I got."
"You expect me to believe that?" growled Zeke.
"Not if you're as paranoid as you sound. Maybe everyone is out to get you. I personally wouldn't know. There must be some reason you're out here without water."
"Who says I haven't got water?" Zeke cursed as his voice rasped and squeaked.
"Me. I've been watching a couple of days."
"So you are a spotter.", spat Zeke. "Where's your team?"
"Who said anything about being a spotter? You would have spotted a spotter. You looked behind and around you often enough." Actually, Val wasn't at all certain that was true. Despite his many glances backwards, and around, the man had seemed fairly oblivious to his surroundings. Awareness came with experience, and experience came out of necessity. To the untrained eye, the desert seemed almost never-ending, and unchanging. The dunes would give way to barren dirt, and then sand once more, but to all appearances, despite shifts made by the wind, the desert usually appeared pristine, untouched. Even the glassy crater created by that nuke was likely almost gone now, unless of course this man was right and there was pursuit. Then the area was likely being combed by men in orange space suits, those triple triangle symbols blinking in the sun. However, flattery couldn't hurt in this situation, by appealing to the man's sense of accomplishment in staying alive this long, and also, the more skilled this fellow thought Val to be, the better. Respect had to be mutual, or this situation could fast become ugly.
I suppose that's true, I was looking." grunted Zeke. "But that doesn't mean I have any reason to trust you."
"I'd just throw down the water, but you might think it was a grenade or something.", Val called back, digging in his backpack.
"Bah...if you had a grenade, ya woulda used it by already. Unless you get a bigger bounty by bringin' me in in one piece. Either way, I'll trust it isn't a grenade."
"Not tossing all of it, sir. This canteen is nearly empty, but it's more than you got, and it's enough to show good faith. I'm not giving up my supply to a voice in the ground. Incoming!" Val quickly let his arm swing over the lip of the satellite dish, and tossed the canteen into the darkness underneath. "Drink slow! If you puke it up, or spill it, I will have to kill you. Can't afford that kind of waste out here."
Zeke paused, having just been about to guzzle it. He conceded the guy up there probably had a point, and took a deep breath, and forced himself to take a small sip, ignoring the pangs his two stomachs gave, demanding more. His stomachs clenched so hard, that he wondered a moment if it was poison...but then it eased, and he was able to pull down some more of the liquid he had been desperately needing. "Thanks. Name? I'm Zeke, though if you're out here for me, you probably already know that."
"Had no clue. I'm not." Val stated simply. "I'm out here for me, and my name is Val. I've been down here for a while."
"Hell no...though I'd say any time out here is long enough. I meant on the ground, planet-side." "You got that right" said Zeke, referring to time spent in the desert.
"Can I come down?" asked Val. "I'm baking up here."
"Okay...but you do it like this. Step out from the lip there, facing away from me, and walk away. Then turn back when I say, hands out-stretched, and empty. When you reach the opening, crawl forward, so I can see your hands the whole way down."
"You're not a murdering bastard, are you?" said Val casually, as he stepped down from the lip as instructed.
"Only on Mondays, before my soy caf."
"It's not Monday is it?"
"You know what? I've lost track. Guess you'll have to take your chances.", chuckled Zeke. _______________________________________
Her scream echoed off the walls. The man at the door yanked his hand back and cowered, hunched against the wall, looking more startled than Angela.
"No, no, no....must not scream...silence, silence...quiet is safe...silence golden. Rabbit says so. Rabbit says run. Rabbit says hide. He says grab the girl, if I must. I must. I must...must take sister with me." said the man.
The man's voice was monotone, but rapid, betraying a hint of urgency. The cadence was familiar, and Angela blinked in surprise. Clutching herself, covering her breasts and body as best she could, she immediately stopped screaming, and looked at him. "Michael? Mikey? Is it really you?" she whispered, her voice incredulous.
He clutched at the wall, as if afraid to let go. "Michael...yes...Michael. Rabbit too. Michael wouldn't go without Angie. Angie takes care of Michael. Rabbit says..."
"Who the hell is Rabbit?" Angela stepped forward, reaching out, momentarily forgetting her nudity in her consternation at her brother's odd behaviour.
"For fuck sake, bitch! Put some clothes on!" shouted Michael, looking at her with sudden malice, straightening to stare into her eyes, in a manner that was certainly not in keeping with her brother's timid demeanor. There was a hint of lasciviousness under the impatience and scorn she saw in his gaze. None of these expressions were familiar to her. "We gotta move, and if you think some ditzy blonde is going to slow us down, you got another thing coming."
She stood there, staring, mouth open. Michael suddenly hunched back against the wall, looking forlorn and miserable, the outburst over almost as soon as it had started. "No...no, no,no....don't be angry. Don't hurt Angie...don't hurt me...don't....don't..." he muttered as if to himself.
"I'll get dressed Michael, I'll keep moving...it's okay. It will all be okay...I don't want to be here anymore than I have to either..." she whispered soothingly, her mind in turmoil. She didn't understand what was happening, with her brother, with waking up in this nightmare, any of it. The only thing she was certain of was that her brother was here, and he was distressed. She hated seeing him upset. "Where are my clothes, Michael? Or any clothes in general? I'd prefer my own stuff, but..."
An impatient, angry look crossed her brother's features a moment, but Michael's nervous, somewhat slack-jawed countenance quickly took over. "Michael knows...follow Michael..." he whispered, and inched his way out the door, his hand trailing along the wall, leaning into it. He began to mutter to himself under his breath, scratching softly at the back of his head. Angela followed, and caught a glimpse of metal under his mane of dark hair, as his fingers dug and itched. An implant of some sort, she realized. "Third level, storage facility 3711...3711...down two and left....left....two doors...third door on right..." muttered Michael. He would repeat this like a litany, several times over, as he walked.
"He never gets lost, your brother." said Michael...or at least, the voice came from him. His hand left the wall, and he straightened. "He has an eye for detail that amazes even me. One look at a map, and it's all there for him."
Angela's breathing stopped. The voice was her brother's, but the utter calm, the clear, smooth delivery, it was definitely not her brother. Even before the accident, he had never been this cool and collected. He was relaxed, confident, but there was a tension that ran under the surface, as if violence might run under the surface. This was not Michael.
"You're right. Angela, is it? I'm not him. I know you can tell, and I can tell it scares you." he said, his voice slow and measured. "I can't do much about that. I can tell you I'm stuck with him, though. And he's stuck with me. Better get used to it. Do you know that the damage done to his brain was minimal? A pathway here...a neuron there. Nothing really repairable, unless surgery and cybernetics have advanced a bit while we slept...but also nothing that couldn't be worked around. You can't get back what was lost, but...you can make new connections, if you have the experience."
Angela had frozen in her tracks, her arms instinctively going to cover her nakedness from this stranger in her brother's body. The weirdness of the situation was more than a little over-whelming. She gazed at the familiar form of her brother, as he stopped ahead of her, but didn't turn. She realized that she was waiting for something...perhaps for her brother to suddenly morph into some horrific predator, some nightmare that was going to turn around and feed on her soul.
"This is a dream, isn't it?" asked Angela, perhaps more to herself. "I mean...all of this...it's so goddamn surreal. You're my brother...but you're not. These gray corridors, the blinking lights on the coffins...they belong in an old science fiction movie...right down to these pale, flashing hallway lights...maybe that first one by George Lucas...what was it called?"
"I think you must mean THX 1138..." he said, a little impatience in his voice. "And if you think this is a dream, then by all means stay here. Just to up the creep factor, I could turn around and ogle you a bit. I'm not your brother, after all. But then, he might get confused. If you can keep that ass moving though, behind me, I won't bother taking that last peek, get me? Stop covering up and get your feet moving. Now...which way was it, Michael?" The last bit was directed inwards. "Okay...the elevator's over there...and down two, huh?" As he reached the elevator, Angela soon caught up, shivering at the thought of his eyes upon her, and then even more at the thought of being left behind. His hand hovered a moment, over the button, a concerned look coming over his face. "That's cutting it a bit close, isn't it? The detention blocks?" he whispered, asking himself...asking Michael. His hand began to shake slightly, reaching out for the button, and then snatched away. "Michael...no time for this. Is that where her stuff is?" He paused a moment, and sighed. "Okay, kiddo...you're doing fine...we'll be in and out as fast as possible."
He hit the button to call the elevator, just as the dim fluorescent lights began to flicker. A rumble was heard as seldom used machinery fired up. A thump was heard in the distance, and a squeal of metal on metal. Both Angela's and Rabbit's heads snapped to the left...that particular sound had not found it's source in the machinery firing up. A muttered curse and a growl escaped her brother's throat, one Angela was fairly certain had never before escaped his lips.
"C'mon....C'mon..." muttered Rabbit repeatedly, pushing the button again and again, despite the knowledge that it would do no good. The nervousness displayed was catching, all the more so considering his erstwhile calm demeanor. Angela glanced towards the sounds in the distance, her agitation increasing, hearing doors slamming against the cement walls, ever closer. "Move you fucking thing!" swore the stranger in her brother's body.
"What...who...what is that?" she whispered, inching to the other side of her brother, away from whatever it was. The thumps were becoming regular, accompanied by a clanking sound as they approached, as well as a dull scraping noise, not metal on metal, but perhaps metal on the cement walls.
"There are a few options...none of them good. If it's who I think it is, he's a bit out of his way." He glared at the elevator angrily, as if will alone could speed it up.
"That's it? That's all you're going to tell me?" said Angela, her eyes repeatedly darting towards the sounds, her body flinching with each slamming door.
"You might be seeing for yourself, soon enough. His name's Troll, if that tells you anything." The elevator finally opened. He rushed in, and pulled her in quickly, making her stumble against him a moment. She pulled away quickly, shuddering at the touch of the seeming wraith that had controll of her brother. He didn't seem to notice or care. His attention was on hitting the close button of the elevator. It began to shut just as the doors to the corridor burst open, the vibrations knocking loose one of the remaining fluorescent lights, and plunging the area outside the elevator in comparative darkness. Angela barely caught sight of a craggy face, looking enraged, a gleaming red mechanical eye, and a lot of steel.
The elevator began to move, falling rapidly down, as the creature in the hallway roared his anger, and bashed at the elevator doors. Both of them visibly relaxed. "He was a guard here. More machine than man. He was also an inmate, one of the first patients here. A psychotic strangler. Reformed, they say...but really, I never thought so. His appetites were just....curbed...I'd say. And now he's a bit senile, and more than a bit dangerous. He doesn't think anyone should be awake, certainly not without permission. I don't know why he would leave the detention levels though."
"Senile? He's old?"
"Batty as hell. I don't think he slept half as long as we did. That means he's a damn old cyborg. Old or not, he can put the hurt on you. They gave him a clean bill of health and a job here, but the job entailed giving him the right to get violent, and of necessity, to advertise that he might. They may have sedated the old boy, but they certainly didn't pull his teeth. They didn't remove the metal in him, a usual first step in dealing with cyber-psychosis, so I'm inclined to believe he wasn't as cured as they said, either. I'm thinking that all he has left is a protocol booklet, and can't figure out why noone's on the same page. Hell, we never worked here, and when we woke up, noone was there with a shiny new rulebook or anything. Noone is supposed to be awake, unless the Director punches in a code. He knows no director awoke us."
"Just shut up for now. There'll be time for twenty questions later. Let's just say that we need to keep our eyes and ears open, because there's worse than Troll out there."
"Worse?" Angela blinked. "There's worse?"
"Let's just give one example. Maybe that will shut you up. The bottom most level is nearly empty. There was a computer malfunction, of sorts, and half the violent offenders stored down there were killed. One of the cyborgs locked down there had a fail-safe mechanism, and when his heart stopped completely, an adrenaline burst shocked him....maybe I should say it... it wasn't exactly gender specific... not only alive, but awake. All the cyborgs were given a training program, something to fall back on when their violent tendencies tried to assert themselves, usually a crafting skill. This one was taught macrame."
"What's so bad about that?"
" Do you see any wool in here? It's been improvising."
There was a moment's silence, as Angela fought with herself, not wishing to ask the next question, but unable to stop it. "What...how did it improvise?"
"Each body down there...including the ones still under stasis...had a good twenty feet of small intestine. That's not to mention sinews and other assorted goodies. You figure it out."
"Oh God..." was all Angela could muster as a response.
"Yeah...I'm sure he's listening." muttered Rabbit. They rode down in silence.