“Don’t lose the prisoner,” Alexa said. “It’s going to be a long flight.”
“I can keep her still,” Anya said. “After all, you certainly couldn’t handle her if she got loose.”
“Now now,” Jenny said. “There’s no need for concern. We’ll be back in a few hours. Until then, Anya won’t have a problem keeping her still.”
“Well, the enemy is a hunkametal,” Katelyn said. “So there’s no need for you two to fight and or engage in BDSM foreplay.”
“Is it really a good idea to be heading back right away?” Sirvanna asked.
“If Michael says that the new base is fortified enough with the regular troops, you can bet it’s fortified enough,” Jenny said. “Or that if it’s not he’s got some kind of plan that involves the enemy taking it.”
“Or he’s over-excited,” Ines said. “He did seem really curious about the number of deaths.”
“The boss doesn’t let emotions get in the way of his judgment,” Anastasia said. “Ever.”
“You certainly trust him a lot,” Alexa said.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “We wouldn’t follow him if we didn’t.”
It was an unpleasant flight, for all of them. They hadn’t had time to rest or bathe. They were tired, sweaty and generally irritable. Except for Yuni and Christina who did their best to cheer everyone else up.
They touched down back at the base. Anya emerged first, with the prisoner floating behind her.
“Welcome back,” Michael said. “You all did very well.” He held out his hand. “Would you care for a kinder egg? They’re quite good.”
“Yay!” Yuni cried, taking one.
“Thank you kindly,” Christina said.
“I’ll have mine later,” Anastasia said. “I’m covered in fleshy bits and I really need a bath.” She stomped off.
“I’ll take hers to her,” Callie offered, grabbing two. She headed down the corridor that Anastasia had taken.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t save more of them,” Sirvanna said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Michael said. “Based on all of your reports, it’s apparent that there was no other option. Still, I would like to know what they did to them. Anya, could you bring her to my lab?”
Anya saluted. “Yessir!”
“Such a girl scout,” Alexa muttered.
“At least I’m not some mopey emo,” Anya said.
“What did you just call me?” Alexa demanded.
“The rest of you are dismissed,” Michael said, ignoring the exchange. “Anya, you may relax as soon as we have her under restraint.”
“And Zhao has completed another masterpiece!” Zhao exclaimed. “Zhao’s fangirls will go wild.”
“You don’t have fangirls, you goof,” a voice behind her said.
Zhao turned around and ran. “Jenny!” She jumped into the larger woman’s arms. “Did Jenny’s mission go well?”
“Not really,” Jenny said. “I… had to kill some of our kind.”
“Zhao is sorry to hear that,” Zhao said. “Zhao will get some melon sodas and you can tell Zhao all about it.”
Anya followed Michael into the restricted area.
“I’ve prepared everything,” Michael said.
Anya floated their prisoner into a large, metallic chair. Naoko and another woman secured large restraints around each of her limbs.
“Are you sure you don’t need me to keep her under control?” Anya asked.
Michael put a hand on her shoulder. “There’s no need for concern. She’s quite immobile. And, should anything go wrong, I’ve got Naoko and Florence to protect me.”
She couldn’t protect a mouse. But I can stop anyone in their tracks.
“Who would want to protect a mouse?” Florence asked. “The filthy vermin carry all kinds of diseases.”
“Please,” Michael said “have some rest and thank you for all of your hard work.”
Anastasia sat in the bath and closed her eyes.
“What do you want, Callie?” Anastasia asked.
“I can’t drop in all of a sudden?” Callie countered. “Here, let me wash your back.”
“The water’s too hot for you,” Anastasia said. “Find your own bath.”
“I can take the heat,” Callie said. “Can you?”
“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Anastasia asked. “I can take any heat you can throw at me.”
“Lovely,” Callie said. She climbed in behind Anastasia.
It’s odd. Her mind is unlike any other.
“Please, elaborate,” Michael said.
Sirvanna couldn’t focus on her reading.
“Something bugging you?” Ines asked.
“Ines, I… didn’t hear you come in,” Sirvanna said.
“You have a lot on your mind,” Ines said. She put her arms around Sirvanna’s neck. “Are you upset because we killed those guys?”
“Yeah,” Sirvanna said. “I know, it’s stupid. We’ve killed people before, but…”
“But nothing,” Ines said. “You don’t want anyone to die, even though we’re fighting a war. You’re a kind woman and I love you for it.” She kissed Sirvanna’s forehead.
“I have to stop under-estimating you,” Sirvanna said. “I forget how well you understand people.”
“I’m not that good with people in general,” Ines said. “But you, you I always understand.”
“Flatterer,” Sirvanna said.
“You okay, Boss?” Florence asked.
“They actually did it,” Michael spoke low, with grit teeth. “Those monsters.”
What should we do?
“Call everyone here, Now.” Michael said.
To the lab?
“It doesn’t matter,” Michael said. “They need… they deserve to know what we’re up against.”
Zhao and Jenny turned towards the door as the knock faded. The door opened and Wraith rushed in.
“Ryu needs to go away so that Zhao and Jenny can get intimate!” Zhao said, glaring at him.
“It’ll have to wait,” Ryu said. “My Lord needs you both in his lab.”
The two of them looked at each other and turned back to Ryu.
“Zhao will hurry up and wash herself,” Zhao said.
“No time,” Ryu said. “Get there, now.”
“Professor wants Zhao in his lab, when she’s still covered in grease?” Zhao asked. “Really?”
“Yes,” Ryu said. “He wants all gifted operatives there, as soon as possible.”
“It must be very important,” Zhao said. “Normally Zhao has to go through all kinds of decontamination steps to be allowed in.”
“What could this be about?” Sirvanna muttered.
“Must be important,” Ines said. “A voice doesn’t come into your head and say ‘come a running’ for no reason.” She rushed into the laboratory with Sirvanna in her arms. The members of Omega Theta Sigma and Theta were there. As well as the other members of Omicron and several people they didn’t know.
“Were we the last ones called?” Sirvanna asked.
“Probably,” Alexa said.
A young woman rushed in, out of breath.
“It’s the computer lady we captured,” Yuni said.
“Is the forbidden zone everything you dreamed of?” Katelyn asked.
“I just don’t know why it’s forbidden,” Yuni said. “Seems like a normal sciency place to me.”
“Professor doesn’t like people in his lab,” a voice from behind them said.
“Who’s the kid?” Alexa asked.
“How rude! Zhao is not a child,” Zhao said, crossing her arms. She is a grown woman and definitely older than you.”
“Sure you are, Kiddo,” Katelyn said.
“No need to fight,” Yuni said. She smiled at Zhao. “Would you like a sweet?” Yuni held out a lollipop.
“Zhao is an adult!” Zhao cried, grabbing the lollipop. “But she is not too much of one to enjoy a sweet.”
“She really is older than she looks,” Jenny said. “Her gift stops her body from aging, though.”
“Attention!” Everyone turned towards Michael Wagner. “My Lord will now speak.”
“Please don’t call me that, Ryu,” Michael said. He stepped forward, slowly. “As some of you know, Jenny and Sirvanna’s teams recently encountered several gifted individuals who would neither speak nor do anything besides try to kill them. We’ve examined the survivor of this group, both medically and psychically. Naoko, please share what you found.”
Most minds contain a lot of noise. there are immediate thoughts, subconscious thoughts, memories and much more. Some minds, she glanced at Michael for a brief moment are so complex that even I can’t read them. When I examined the prisoner, there was no noise.
“So, she’s a television producer?” Katelyn asked.
“Florence and I examined her brain,” Michael said. “There’s a device implanted in the cerebral cortex that’s blocking higher brain functions, but that isn’t all. They somehow wiped her mind. All of her thoughts, memories, feelings, experiences and ideals are gone. The person she was, is dead. Florence and I can remove the device, but that won’t return any of the information she’s lost. Rather, it’ll leave her at the mental level of a child. It’ll take time to reteach her and get her back to the level of a functional adult.”
“How is that possible?” Rose asked.
“I believe it to be the work of a classified project known only as Project Golem,” Michael said. “Trojan and I encountered some information about it some time ago, but were unable to break too deeply into the files. It appears that this is the ultimate result. The transformation of human beings into mindless shells. Acting on their programming and denied any agency. It’s the most heinous method I can envision of dehumanisation.” Michael took a deep breath and looked around. “Needless to say, we can not allow such an atrocity to continue unabated. We’re going to have to end this war quickly and many of us are going to have to take greater risks to keep the count of victims to this procedure as low as possible.”
“What do we have to do?” Jenny asked.
“It is possible,” Michael said “that someone with increased mental abilities could survive the Golem procedure with their faculties intact. If the enemy were to capture such a person…”
“My Lord, you…”
“You can’t really…”
“Professor, think, if you…”
Michael held up his hand and the voices rising in protest went silent. “Please,” he said “let me finish. If the enemy were to capture such a person and, if they were to use a device they’d fortuitously captured to link them into their computer systems, then that person could sabotage Project Golem from within. Thus creating a vulnerability within their lines that we could take advantage of in order to end this war in one fell strike. I have considered it carefully and determined that I am the logical choice for this assignment.”
I’m against it!
“My Lord, please, there must be someone else,” Ryu said.
“Could I survive?” Trojan asked, her voice quiet. Nevertheless, all eyes turned to her. “Could I… go instead?” Trojan asked.
“It is possible,” Michael said. “However, your chances of success would only be approximately 47.3%. My chances, on the other hand, are around 72.8%. As such, the risk should, logically, be mine. The greatest risk to me isn’t surviving the procedure, it’s getting them to not block my higher functions and getting them to actually use my interface device. Still, I am confident that they will believe in their technique enough that I can get them to use it on me in such a way. I have made up my mind. Tonight, Omicron and I will sneak into an enemy Power plant near the western border. We will prepare a bomb, an alarm will be accidentally triggered. We will attempt to escape. I will trip. Sirvanna will turn back and try to reach me. Ines will stop her and carry her to safety. I will be captured while the others escape. They will put me through the process and, within a month, I will enter this facilities systems through a backdoor and play Ride of the Valkyries over the sound system. At that time, you will launch an all out attack and we will end this war.” He stopped to take a breath. “That is all, you may disperse.”
“The operation is a success,” Michael said, removing his gloves.
“Maybe you should stay and see to her reeducation,” Florence said.
“I’ll have to leave that in your capable hands,” Michael said. He bowed. “Pardon me, I have preparations to complete.”
“Good luck, Boss,” Florence said.
Michael walked away from the operating room. Trojan was waiting outside of the door when he came out.
“Ummm,” Trojan began. “Maybe… if it’s okay with you… I was, you know, thinking that…”
“Speak clearly, Trojan,” Michael said. “Please. I want to hear what you have to say.”
“Well, that is…” Trojan took a deep breath. “Take me with you. If we both get caught… Won’t the plan have a better chance?”
“I can’t do that,” Michael said. “They’re going to need you here. Someone has to discover the alliance’s stratagems, and you are the most capable of doing so from a distance. I’ll be fine. Just wait for my signal, okay?” He gave her a slight smile.
Trojan nodded. “I’ll wait, definitely. And when you get back maybe… um… never mind.”
“You can tell me when I return,” Michael said. He tousled her hair and moved along.
He walked in relative silence for a while “What is it, Ryu?”
“My Lord, you knew?”
“I heard you,” Michael said. Ryu turned visible. “You want to come with me?”
“Ye, My Lord,” Ryu said. “Let me be your guard during this ordeal.”
“I appreciate the offer,” Michael said. “However, the truth is that you would likely be detected and the ruse would be revealed. I simply can’t take that risk.”
“I understand, My Lord,” Ryu said. “Please, take care of yourself.”
“You as well, My Friend,” Michael said. He made his way to his main room.
You can’t go.
“I have to,” Michael said. “It’s a logical plan.” He grabbed a small leather pouch and started filling it with various items.
It’s still wrong! You hold them together. Without you… “What chance do we all have?”
“It’s been a while since I’ve heard your real voice,” Michael said.
Don’t change the subject!
“If all goes as planned you’ll only have to hold out around a month,” Michael said. “I know that you can all manage that much. You’re more than capable.”
And if all doesn’t go as planned?
“Then I’ll have to trust you all to manage in my stead,” Michael said. “Try to work with the others as a team, okay?”
I suppose I can but… you’re the only one who understands me.
“That’s because you don’t let anyone else in,” Michael said. “I’m sure they’d see what a wonderful person you are, if you would give them a chance.”
“Thank you,” Michael said. “Well, it’s almost time. I have to meet Sirvanna and the others. Please, take care of Sebastian while I’m gone.”
I’ll feed the mutt.
He waved behind him on his way out, hoisting the pouch over his shoulder.
Blair approached him on his way out. “I guess…” she sniffled. “I guess I couldn’t protect you from the monsters after all.”
“It’ll be okay, Blair,” Michael said. “Have a brave heart.” He grabbed a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped her tears.
“I will,” Blair nodded. “So come back, okay?”
“I shall do my utmost,” Michael said. He handed her the handkerchief and continued on his way.
“General on his way to a mission,” Jenny called.
“Let’s give him a great sendoff,” Rose said.
The members of Omega Theta Sigma, Theta, save Blair, and several other gifted soldiers were lining the corridor. They all stood at attention and saluted. Michael passed between them, stopping to shake the occasional hand or give an encouraging comment. He eventually made his way to the hangar, where Omicron was waiting.
“Ready to go?” Sirvanna asked.
“I am at your disposal,” Michael said. He started climbing into the craft.
“Wait…” Zhao came running up. She gave Michael a tight hug. “Professor will come back, right? It’s a promise to Zhao, isn’t it?”
“I can’t promise that for certain,” Michael said, returning her hug.
“But Professor is the only family Zhao has,” Zhao said. “He has to give Zhao away when she marries Jenny.”
“Do people still do that tradition?” Katelyn asked.
“Is that a tradition?” Yuni asked. “Ive never heard of it.”
“They do!” Zhao cried. “So Professor has to return.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Michael said. “I’m honoured to be chosen.”
Zhao let go of him and watched him board the craft. Which promptly took off.
“That was quite the grandiose exit,” Michael said.
“It’s because everyone loves you,” Yuni said.
“True enough,” Michael said. “Some of them may be overly attached.”
“It’s a good thing your chances are so high,” Alena said. “Otherwise they’d have never let you go, and they’re not so high that anyone bothered questioning your figures either.”
“Wait, what are you saying,” Sirvanna asked.
“It just seems a bit fortuitous,” Alena said, staring at Michael.
Michael chuckled. “I really must stop under-estimating people with ordinary intelligence.”
“I thought so,” Alena said.
“What?” Yuni asked. “What is it? I’m lost.”
“Basically, his chances aren’t as high as he said they were,” Ines said.
“You found me out,” Michael said. “Well deduced.”
“How high are they really?” Sirvanna asked.
“Does it matter?” Michael asked. “We’ll be at the target point in less than an hour.”
“It matters,” Sirvanna said.
“Very well,” Michael said. “My chances are more accurately at around forty two point zero seven percent.”
“That low?” Ines asked.
“And you plan to go anyway?” Sirvanna asked. “I should have this mission scrubbed right now!”
“I suppose you could,” Michael said. “But hear me out first. If I succeed, against the odds, then we win the war. With fairly light casualties. Should I fail, then I become a martyr. Casualties will be higher, but I estimate that, after my loss is known, everyone will come together in my memory. As your friend so keenly observed, they love me. They will be fierce in the act of avenging me. Casualties may be heavier, but the war will still end within a few months of my loss becoming public. Sometimes a martyr and his ideal are more useful for a cause than a living person could hope to be. In either case, this mission will be instrumental.”
“Why us?” Alexa asked. “Why do we have to take you to your little suicide?”
“Because we’re fairly new to his team,” Sirvanna said. “We’re probably the only ones who could bring ourselves to leave him behind.”
“Precisely,” Michael said.
“You want me to tell the pilot to turn around?” Ines asked.
“No,” Sirvanna answered. “We’ll go through with it.”
“Are you serious?” Yuni asked.
“I don’t like it,” Sirvanna said. “But what he says makes sense and if it’ll serve the greater cause, I can bear to lose him.”
“Thank you,” Michael said.
“Just tell me one thing,” Sirvanna said. “Why are you going that far?”
“Because they’re all children,” Michael said. “Many of them may be, strictly speaking, older than I. However, I can’t help but think of them all, you six included, as my precious children. If sacrificing my life will help my children live in peace and safety, then I will sacrifice it. Without hesitation. Without regret.”
Omicron carefully approached the fence. Michael signaled for a halt.
“Jitters?” Alexa asked.
Michael shook his head. “I’m going to shut down the alarm systems for five minutes.” He brought a miniature computer from his bag and began his work.
“I thought the idea was to fail,” Yuni said.
Alena put a hand on her shoulder. “Can’t make it too easy.”
“Exactly,” Michael said. “We have to make the mission appear legitimate so that they don’t suspect anything when we fail. Got it.” He handed the computer to Sirvanna. “Take this. If you don’t hear from me in thirty-five days gather everyone and play the file titled ‘Will.'”
“Got it,” Sirvanna said. She placed the computer in her pocket.
The group hurried forward. Ines and Alena brought down a couple perimetre guards and secreted them in the bushes. They went inside.
“Plant the explosives,” Michael whispered. “Hurry.”
“Got it,” Ines said. She ran at significantly less than her best speed, but still faster than any normal human could have hoped to move. The explosives were all planted in a hurry. That’s when the alarm went off.
“Get out!” Sirvanna cried. They bolted. Sirvanna electrocuted several guards who stood in the way of their egress. Bullets flew after them. Ines caught any that threatened to hit. Yuni blew a hole in the fence and they hurriedly made their way through and towards the jet. Michael tripped over a protruding rock.
“Help!” he cried.
Sirvanna turned around and moved towards him. Ines grabbed her. “Forget it,” she said. “We have to get out.” Ines took Sirvanna in her arms and ran.
Michael watched them go. Several guns cocked behind him. He slowly put his hands behind his head.
“Did we just catch who I think we caught?”
“I think we did.”
“Yeah! It is him!”
“Command is going to love this.”
Katelyn was the last to hop aboard the jet and they lifted off hurriedly.
“Well, we did it,” Sirvanna said. “We got him caught and we made it convincing.”
“Yeah,” Yuni agreed. “It was a total success. So… why do I feel so terrible?”
Alena wiped her tears and kissed her forehead. “It’s okay,” she said, in as soothing a tone as she could manage.
“No one feels good about this one,” Sirvanna said, turning Michael’s computer in her hands. “We may have just given him a death sentence. Even if it’s what he wanted… Even then…”
“It’s not easy to accept,” Ines finished. She slid her hand into Sirvanna’s.
“Why were you at the power plant?”
“Isn’t it obvious,” Michael said. “We were going to blow it up.”
The Colonel shuffled his papers. “Yes, but why were you with them?”
“The methods I use to determine a mission’s team are irrelevant,” Michael said. “Obviously, you aren’t going to let me live long enough to make that information useful to you. You may as well just kill me and get it over with.”
“Kill you?” The Colonel asked. “We’ve got better plans for you.”
“Using your Project Golem process would be ill-advised,” Michael said.
“How do you know about that?”
“Simple,” Michael said. “We hacked into the files and we’ve seen the effects first hand and I can tell you that it will not work on me. My enhanced intelligence will render me immune to the effect. Even if it should succeed, I would be useless to you with my higher brain functions suppressed.”
“What do you think, Doctor?”
“He’s wrong,” the blond woman crossed her arms and looked at the monitor. “Even if the plague did grant him some kind of hyper intelligence it wouldn’t allow him to resist the process. Still…” She started pacing.
“It would explain that design we stole from them,” she said. “If it was designed for someone with an enhanced mind then it would explain why we haven’t been able to find anyone with a mind that could survive trying to use it.”
“Do you still intend to put him through the process?”
“Yes, General,” she said. “I can alter the chip so that it doesn’t suppress his brain functions. Rather, it’ll program him like a computer. Afterwards we can use his own machine to connect him to our systems.”
“For what purpose?”
“Clearly, our security system is inadequate,” she said. “His mind will provide us with a very versatile firewall. We can also use him to improve our system’s efficiency and to suggest the most logical stratagems. He’ll be a very useful tool.”
“What do you want?”
“We’re here to take the prisoner to Doctor Preston’s lab, Sir.”
“Very well, just don’t let him out of your sight.”
The guards took Michael down several corridors and flights of stairs until they arrived at a secured door. It promptly opened for them.
“Doctor Chelsea Preston,” she held out her hand. “So, you’re the smart guy who thinks he can resist my procedure?”
“And you doubt that?”
“It’s impossible,” she said. “But thanks for telling us how to put you to work. We probably wouldn’t have thought of it if you hadn’t mentioned your ability.”
Michael kept his expression blank.
“The procedure will take twenty one hours and thirty seven minutes,” Chelsea said. “The pain seems to be proportional to the subject’s intelligence but don’t let it bother you too much, you won’t remember it.”
She nodded to the guards. They led Michael to a large metallic slab with tendrils protruding from it. They positioned Michael on the slab and several of the tendrils wrapped around him to hold him into place. Doctor Preston connected several devices to him while her assistants started shaving his head.
“It’s a pity to get rid of such pretty hair,” she said. “But I can assure you that it is an important part of the process.”
Michael steeled himself.
The pain. Have to take my mind away from the pain. Think of the past. Those days before the experiment. Before I lost my family…
No. That’s the wrong way. Think of the present. Think of those people relying on me. Zhao. Naoko. Ryu. Trojan. Jenny…
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I guess I…” Yuni shook her head. “No, I’m not. I can’t help but think about what he’s going through and wondering if, just maybe, we shouldn’t have left him.”
Alena put a hand on Yuni’s shoulder. “He knew that the greater good could be served by him taking this risk. He’s doing it for all of us. The best we can do is honour that gesture, by winning.”
“Thanks,” Yuni said. “Hearing all of that helps. Still, it’s painful.”
“I’m here,” Alena said. “As long as you need me.”
Have to stay strong. For all of them. For myself. I don’t want to forget them all. This isn’t just a battle of wills. It’s a fight for my very essence. My entire sense of self. I don’t want to…