Saturday, September 22, 2018

Chapter 11


“I hate to mention it,” Yeager said, as he propped himself up against the mud wall of a slave hut. wincing a little as he did so, “But I noticed something.”

“That is?” Jane asked. She glanced at the fields, and Bhutto puffing on her smoking tube. If they remained idle for two long, the serfs would begin to resent them.

“You’re alive,” he replied. “I doubted whether you would be.” His mouth formed a thin line. “What did it cost you?”

Now Jane grimaced and faced him. “Just a crate full of goods.”

“That it?” She saw that he knew it was not.

“And a session with our asset in the citadel.”

He was the one who grimaced. “Sorry.”

Absurdly, Jane appreciated the understated sentiment. She smiled faintly. “I’m just trying to make sure it wasn’t all for nothing.”

A small frown formed on his face, and he nodded. “Me too." He pushed himself off of the wall and forced a smile. “Right now, I have to say our chances look pretty slim,” he said.

Jane shook her head. “All the pieces are in place. All we need is some good storytelling.”

She did not have to wait long for the rumors of the miner revolt to reach the fields. The number of guards in the fields dwindled to a skeleton of the former detail. They had overreacted to the miner's resistance, and it would cost them. Yeager, Jane, and Bhutto conveniently spread the word that Jordan was plotting a coordinated strike on the Warden’s men. The farmers began to believe Jordan actually was planning a rebellion.

It took only a few days for the Warden to send Dives after the slave boss. From the wide tunnel entrance, the grinding of metal footsteps on rock and dirt announced the gang’s arrival. Dives’s prized power armor emerged from the entrance, the crimson rose and thorn insignia unmistakeable against the dull gray composite. A gaggle of men followed directly behind, guns and spears held in front of them at the ready. They trod over the high rows of leafy crops, crushing them underfoot as if they were tissue paper. They flattened a new path directly to Jordan’s hut. To the overseer’s credit, he strolled out to meet the lynch gang. He wore a nervous half-smile, speaking first.

“Sir Dives,” he said. “I’m of course flattered by the visit. How can I help you?”

“Overseer Jordan, you have been charged with treason against your Warden. You will come with us.”

Jordan’s eyes widened slightly, and he put his hands up as if he were half surrendering, half shielding a blow to the face. “Wait a minute,” he protested, “I think everyone has got the wrong idea. Let’s talk about it.”

Groups of farmers had ceased their work and began to gather around to get a view of the commotion. Jane formed a thin smile. She bent down and picked up a large dirt clod, firming it in her hands.

“You can talk to D'Arcangelo about the specifics of your crime,” Dives nodded towards the slave boss, and the guards advanced upon him. Yeager began chanting, “Jordan… Jordan… Jordan!”

It was a risk.

The rest of the farmers looked to one other in curiosity. Then one by one, more began to join in. The chorus of voices began to coalesce into one voice, a single booming report, a drum of solidarity beating the slave boss’s name. Jane almost wished she could have been drawn in with them.

Almost.

She raised the dirt clod high above her head, taking aim at Dives. It was a long shot. She threw the piece of hardened mud in a long arc towards the man who tortured her.

The shot landed better than she could have hoped, a direct hit on the power armor’s visor. Mud splatted on Dives’s helmet. He started in surprise—it could not have been from the force of the blow. The armor twirled around to face the crowd.

All it took was one dirt clod.

The booming chant was silenced before the farmers realized what happened. When it registered, the gaggle of human bodies exploded into a scattered riot. They rushed forward, carrying their shovels and scythes and sickles with them. Bodies piled on top of Dives, and even more filled the gap between Jordan and the rest of the men who had come to take him. Jordan slowly backed away from the commotion caused on his behalf, apparently too stunned to react with anything else.

Dives threw the climbing farmers off with his armor’s enhanced strength, crushing, maiming and trampling many of them. Some backed away, but many kept coming. They piled on top of him, burdening him down and testing the weight capacity of his armor. He struggled to move, and called for help from his comrades. They were worse equipped than he, and fared far worse. The mob stripped their arms from them, tore the makeshift armor sewn into their vac-suits, along with the material itself. The pathetic creatures thrashed naked in the dirt before hacked apart by various farm implements.

Some of the more innovative farmers diverted the irrigation lines to the power-armored wearing thug, turning the soil at his feet into a thick muddy bog. Jane could not read his face, but his movements indicated growing panic as he sunk into the newly formed swamp. That was when he opened up on the crowd.

A spray of energy bolts ran through the mass of bodies surrounding the armored man. Many of the attackers slumped into the mud. Some unfortunates, injured and unable to pull themselves out, sunk into the thick morass. Thick muddy bubbles broke the surface above their submerged heads, subsiding long before anyone could rescue the poor souls.

The rest of the farmers scattered away from the gunfire, but their frenzy had built too much momentum to be turned. Stuck in the mud, the power-armored Dives could not move from his location, and he did not dare to exit the suit. The farmers took turns feinting, drawing his fire. He seemed to have lost rational thought, acting on instinct alone, like an animal caught in a trap. It made no sense to waste his ammunition, but Dives fired a burst whenever one of the farmers came near. The serfs danced around him like hyenas around a wounded wildebeest.

Jordan stood in stunned silence, slack-jawed at the spectacle. 

If he could not seem to wrap his head around what happened, Jane would have to do the wrapping for him. Having retreated far away from the initial melee, she circled around behind Jordan and strode up beside him.

“Are you just going to let them kill him?” She asked.

Jordan turned, startled at her presence. A look of realization hit his face as if it had punched him. “Shit.” His eyes widened, and he turned to face her. “You did this, didn’t you?”

Jane smiled. “Dives would be a decent bargaining chip in case things don’t work out.”

Jordan narrowed his eyes at her and sneered, but then turned to the crowd. Dives had spent all of his ammunition, and the farmers were working at prying him from his suit. The armored man swung wildly, but he was wearing out the gears of his suit going nowhere. Some farmers used captured weapons to take shots around the separations in the armor where Dives would normally exit. Once they had chipped away at it enough and wedged a shovel into one of the joints, they would rip him out as if shelling a nut.

Jordan took one last look back at Jane and then jumped into the fray. “Remove that scum from his shell, but leave him alive.”

Some of the men kept hacking at the now disabled power armor, but many stopped to listen to Jordan. “He is worth more to us as a hostage. And death is far too good for him.”

The farmers cheered in a thunderous uproar. Jordan cracked a disbelieving grin. At that moment, a moaning creak of twisting metal grabbed the attention of the mob. They became giddy with the expectation, the farmers that were working on the powered armor wrenched open the cockpit. The crowd jeered and booed and hissed, shouting threats and curses that would have frightened even the most hardened Regulator.

Dives clung to the sides of the cockpit, pushing himself as far back as possible. His eyes were big as eggs, and his arched brow revealed true fear. The farmers lunged at him, ripping his grasp from the armored cocoon and dragging him through the mud in front of the hut and at Jordan’s feet. He propped himself up on hands and knees and looked up at the slave boss. Jordan’s grin diminished to a smug smirk. He had a taste of victory. He seemed to like it.

“Sir Dives, second man to the Warden,” Jordan mocked. “This is quite the reversal.”

“I never did anything to most of you,” Dives muttered. The crowd would have none of it. They cried out and shouted him down, listing real and invented crimes that he needed to account for. Dives shut up real quick after that.

“You are going to get us into the Warden’s hall,” Jordan said. “And if you don’t… well, I think I will let the men decide what to do to you.”

Dives eyes lowered to the soil underneath his hands. 

Jordan had been a good choice: just the right amount of charisma and a little bit of wisdom. He only needed to be placed in a situation where he was forced to use it.

With a few suggestions from Jane, the farmers barricaded the entrance to the farms, and Dives reluctantly used his authority to bypass the gates. Slaves flooded out and overran the first unsuspecting guards, gathering more weapons. From what Jane could tell, many of the guards were still dealing with the strikers in the mines, giving them time to move with little resistance.

When they had hit the inner sanctum blast doors, the group came to a standstill. They had picked up weapons and armor from the stragglers outside, but as much as they tried, they could not break through the door. Even Dives, held at gunpoint in front, could not gain access. Then everything went dark. The Warden had cut the power to the hallways and the nearby chambers, and maybe to the entire outer chambers for all she knew. There were shouts of alarm, complaints, and arguments among the rebels.

Light flashed from overhead, accompanied by an unceasing thunder. Screams echoed, nearly muffled by the roar of gunfire, the full horror only heard during the short intervals when the guns were silent, acquiring new targets. The mob tore itself apart in their effort to escape the slaughter of the guns unloading on the crowd. The muzzle flash strobed through the hallway, making the terrified farmers look as if they were running in slow motion. After they had taken off, the blast doors opened, and a cadre of the Warden’s men stood behind it.

In the pitch black, the farmers could scarcely retreat, but they could not move forward without being cut down. They were stuck in place, disoriented and quickly becoming fearful. That could not happen. Jane clung to the rock wall, hoping that she would not get trampled by the quickly panicking mob. The Warden’s enforcers moved forward, emboldened by their prey’s hesitation.

“Bhutto?” She hoped they had not been separated from all the commotion.

“Yeah, Red?” The voice was closer than she expected, and calmer, but she detected a hint of annoyance.

“Do you still have that mist tube?”

“Mist tube?”

“The one you’re always sucking on.”

“My cigarette?” she asked.

“Sure.” Jane had no way of knowing if that was it.

“Yeah, I have it… Heh. Good thinking, Red.” After a short search, Bhutto unpocketed the now glowing stick. She unscrewed it revealing a hot coil of wire.

“Someone give me some cloth, or dry husks, or something,” Bhutto said. One of the farmers passed her his tattered shirt, and she held the coil to it until a flame sprung up. She quickly wrapped it around one of the implements, holding it up as a torch. Bhutto did similarly, and she passed the flame, and eventually every farmer with an implement held some form of torch above their head. Without ventilation, smoke filled the tunnel, but they could see for now. Now they would just try not to suffocate.

Jane scanned the tunnel and the advancing guards and realized that the guns had stopped firing, and Dives was gone from her sight. Guards and slaves exchanged fire, but the revolution was slowly regaining steam. The handheld flames gave them unity, somehow, and they must have realized their desperation.

Jordan must have realized it as well, because he took position behind the army of torches, and cried out at them:

“We’ve come too far, now. The point of no return is long past. The Warden must die, or we will.

“And I say, good! We have nothing left to lose. Our lives? What good were they, propping him up? Our only option is to destroy him.”

The torches lifted, like a wave of fire, and a cheer rang out that should have sent the Warden’s blood cold if he were in earshot.

“So, fuck their weapons, fuck their wealth and their women. It has made them soft and weak. Storm their homes, storm their pleasure dens! We win, or we die!”

Another cheer, and the torches rushed towards the last line of defense. The guards fired, but to no avail. There was no stopping the mob.

They broke through, looting, maiming, raping, and otherwise horrifying Jane. She had unleashed this horde of barbarians. In a way, all they did was her doing. She reassured herself that she had only done what was necessary.

Jane turned to Bhutto and Yeager. “We need to act quickly, before the Warden realizes there is no hope.” She rushed forward, past the fighting, counting on the chaos to cover her advance. Most of the slaves were busy with destruction, and most of the rest were busy with retreat. Jane ran to the first storage locker she could find.

“Why did we come here?” Bhutto asked. Jane was about to answer when she nearly collided into a vac-suited figure. A familiar voice came from inside.

“It seems we had the same thought, my friend.” D'Arcangelo. “I have to say that you have impressed me enough that I will be glad to provide you with any assistance you might need.”

“Why would we want your assistance now?” Bhutto asked. “We’ve already won.”

D'Arcangelo raised his finger. “Not at all. You have merely ensured that the Warden loses. Once he realizes his fate, he will surely take the rest down with him.”

“Most likely by venting the atmosphere,” Jane replied. “Everyone without a suit will suffocate.”

“I’m so glad to see you two think alike,” Bhutto replied, “but it’d be better if we could prevent him from murdering hundreds of people, don’t you think?”

“I think I can help with that,” D'Arcangelo said. “If you will so kindly follow me?” He left and began walking down the hallway, even among all of the chaos of the battle. The Warden’s forces had been pushed back, and now the violence was more in the vein of revelry than combat. He approached one of the heavier crates among those that filled the interior of the colony. After a moment of pause, the crate opened, revealing a false floor and a corridor underneath.

“Just wait here,” he said mysteriously. He disappeared for a few long minutes, and reappeared with an armful of pistols and a small child trailing behind him. “I made a deal.” He said simply. “The Warden won’t vent this place if we protect his family line.”

Jane and Bhutto shared an exasperated look. Slaves were already looting bodies and piling them on top of each other when they emerged from the bunker. Jane made sure that the Warden’s son shielded his eyes, but she suspected the psychological damage had already been done long before she came along. When the slaves caught sight of the secret compartment, they rushed to D'Arcangelo.

“There’s a secret bunker down there,” D’Arcangelo announced. “It’s small, but there are well armed men down there. Best idea would be to collapse it, or use firebombs.” The liberated slaves nodded in enthusiasm and they scoured the area to find explosives or flammables to trap the Warden in his hole. They didn’t recognize him at all. Most who had laid eyes on the man must not have lived long after.

“You and Yeager go on ahead,” Jane said to Bhutto. “I need D'Arcangelo to do something for me.”

Bhutto narrowed her eyes. “You wouldn’t plot against your good friend and business partner, would you?” She asked. The levity in her voice was forced.

“Of course not. I just want to take care of some of the unfinished business I have on this planet. And I need you to have our transport ready when we get there.

“Did you forget that Yeager has some unfinished business here of his own?” Bhutto asked. “And there are a lot of things that need to be done before we can go. We need to get a network up and running, remember? I swear, Red, it’s like no one exists but you. You act like everything should just fall into place because you will it.”

Bhutto would never understand. Jane was inconsequential; it was not that no one existed but her. No one existed. Not by themselves, anyway. They were all a part of humanity, and Jane’s loyalty was to them.

“Hmmm…” D'Arcangelo said. “It is interesting that you did not realize this. The Warden has had a neural net getting through the barrier for some time.”

“Since when?” Bhutto asked with skepticism.

“Since I built it for him. It is short range, and the implants have to be calibrated with the system I jury-rigged, but it is able to reach orbit. How do you think we kept orders going through? The Warden’s gang has been intercepting care packages and sending out requests through the market to get whatever they needed to subjugate this place.”

“You mean you had access to the net the whole time?” Jane asked. “All you had to do was access it for us, and none of this would have been necessary.”

“I disagree,” he replied, with his cold eyes burning into her. “I needed to know who what kind of people you were. I needed to know that you would do whatever it takes to win.”

Win? 

“Now you know,” Jane said. “And you have wasted precious time, resources and lives. I hope you are pleased with yourself.”

“I am pleased with you,” he replied. She fought a sneer. He had no clue who she was.

She turned to Yeager. “Look, I want to find Dives, for my own reasons.”

Personal reasons. She should have been ashamed. “I figured you might understand.”

“No,” Yeager said. “It’s fine. After what you have been through, I don’t blame you.” He glanced at D'Arcangelo. She knew what he was thinking. She should hate him more. And she did hate him, but not more than Dives. D'Arcangelo’s machine had simply given her an empathic connection to his victims. He had done it to harm her, and he was a disgusting bag of scum. But she valued the experience he had given her.

“I don’t want to keep you waiting,” she said. “You helped get us here, now it is time to help get out.”

He half smiled. “Like I said, I never intended on leaving.”

“Well, now you will. That’s a promise.”

His smile faded, but he nodded. “Okay, let’s go.”

Coming in the opposite direction was Jordan, a big grin on his face. “So,” he said. “You all made it through that alive. I’m glad.”

“Dives,” Jane said. “Where is he? He’s not dead, is he?”

“I gave orders not to kill any of the upper echelon if they can help it. But those kind of orders are difficult to enforce.”

“He’s a coward,” Jane replied. “He wouldn’t fight to the death in the fields. If he could be taken alive, he would be.” Jordan nodded.

The fighting was largely over. The Warden had been collapsed in his bunker with his retinue of guards, and Dives was nowhere to be seen. They would have given up, until they found a wounded slave covered in mud with serious bruises and contusions on his face. 

He would have been unrecognizable to anyone who had not had his visage burned into their memories.

“D’Arcangelo, I think we can find a suitable punishment for him, don’t you? One that fits?”

The vile bastard grinned from ear to ear. It nearly made her sick. The Collective would have mind-wiped him, and just a few days ago, she would have advocated the same. Humanity was a terrible resource to waste. But there was no way to fix Dives at the moment.

Jane did not want him to be fixed. She wanted him to be punished.

Dives’s self-inflicted bruises masked most of the emotion from his face, but Jane liked to believe that he would feel the same fear she had felt. Dives struggled when they dragged him into the interrogation chamber, but he was weak from battle, from his injuries, from the inevitability of it. He could put up no real resistance.

Still he fought, even after they had strapped him to the table, even after they had wheeled the tube over his head. That was when he began to beg.

“You aren’t like me,” the bruised man spit from within the chamber. “You’re better than me, right? A Freyjan Regulator? This is against everything you stand for. Why sacrifice all that for me?”

“What do you think?” D'Arcangelo asked Jane with amusement.

“Play it,” Jane said. “All of it. And put it on repeat, if you can.”

“You’re the boss,” D'Arcangelo said cheerfully. As if he did not realize he deserved the same. As if he did not realize that Jane would make certain he got what he deserved.

D'Arcangelo flipped the switch, and Dives went limp. Jane took no pleasure in Dives' punishment the way D'Arcangelo did. She felt only relief that he was paying for his crimes. Everything he had done to others would be visited upon him ten-fold.  Dives now would torture himself, over and over, until the slaves decided to kill him, or the machine ran out of juice.

Jane had only lasted five minutes, with intervals between each one. However long Dives was in there, Jane could leave the planet satisfied that she had made her point.

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