General Sway watched with her hands behind her back and her posture stiff and straight.
She could have been watching a parade at the Seneca Academy or the investiture of a new commanding officer. There was a glint of pride in her eyes, which was there to cover her disappointment. It had taken fourteen of her troops to subdue one male. Fourteen! For one man, not even fully matured.
Even without access to their organics, it shouldn’t have taken fourteen of them.
But then, it turned out that he was a remarkable specimen. Had this been normal space, she would have taken him back with her and had him thoroughly examined by the Corps’ research department, molecule by molecule.
In any case, despite the disappointing results of their efforts, the important thing was that they had succeeded in suppressing him. Even if it now required four of her soldiers to hold onto each of his limbs and the rest encircling him in case he managed to get free
“Get off! Ow. You’re pulling my hair. Stop pulling — Ow! Did you just scratch me? What is wrong with you people?”
“Silence!” Before the General reached the end of the word, the boy had stopped struggling and looked at her with a gloomy expression. He might be willing to fight without reservation against the cream of the Seneca Corps but at least he showed the appropriate level of fear when faced with her angry rebuke. It afforded her some satisfaction, although it felt like a hollow victory. To have to go to such lengths to get any kind of reaction from him. There were world leaders who trembled at the sight of her, but not this ignorant child.
“What do you even hope to achieve by resisting?” she asked him. “There is nowhere to run. Better for you to be obedient and then, perhaps, I will take you with us when we leave this place.”
He scowled at her, not even considering the option she had placed in front of him.
He was a slippery one, this man — still a boy in her eyes — with a preternatural ability when it came to the way he moved, the way he understood movement. What a waste to bless a male with such a divine gift.
If only she’d come across him when he was younger, he might have been suitable for Seneca’s foundling program.
Not every Seneca soldier was born a woman. Exceptions were made for exceptional individuals, but only if they were caught young enough. It was too late for this one.
“Get him up and make sure you have hold of him this time.”
Four of her strongest women had him pinned on the ground, face down. They let him up so he was on his knees, his arms pulled out to the sides, ready to be snapped if he resisted. A fifth kneeled behind him and put him in a chokehold. She lifted him up so his legs straightened until his feet were off the ground.
The two women who had been holding his legs stepped to the sides. His dangling feet were a problem. The two women looked for something to tie him up with, but everything they pulled out was useless without power.
A belt or strap would have been enough, but their suits were fully integrated and impossible to take apart without the necessary tools.
It was a valuable lesson. The Corps relied too much on technology. Cuffs and braces didn’t need to have a tronic element to them, but it was more convenient when they did. The same went for weapons.
All the troops here were trained fighters and could kill with their bare hands, but when it came to subduing and restraining someone for questioning, things became a lot more tricky.
This had always been true, but not a big issue since the Corps preferred to take an uncompromising stance to all forms of conflict — it was simpler and cleaner. But sometimes you had to show a little restraint. And, if you weren’t careful, that was when you could get yourself into trouble.
“You, Famke, you have a knife, don’t you?”
“Yes, General,” said the woman standing behind him with her arm around his throat.
“Good, get it out and stab him if he tries to escape again. Make sure you don’t hit a major blood vessel. We need him alive and conscious. It’s fine if he’s maimed or disabled.”
“None of you fight fair.” His voice barely managed to escape from his flattened windpipe.
“Of course we don’t,” said Sway. “That’s why we always win.”
“How do you even know I won’t answer your questions?” he squeaked, somehow managing to keep breathing and talking despite the restricted airflow. His lung capacity was impressive. “It’s not like I’ve got any secrets. We’re all stuck here with no idea where we are.” He sounded annoyed and upset.
General Sway relaxed a little. At least he wasn’t trying to get free. “We don’t require your assistance with our survival in this place, but we do need help capturing your two friends.”
“And you think I won’t help? If I knew where they were, I’d shoot them myself. Lend me a gun and I’ll prove it.”
“None of our weapons work here, and we have no intention of shooting them. Whatever you may have heard about my Corps, we aren’t bloodthirsty savages. We only take the steps necessary, which sometimes may be excessive from an outsider’s perspective, but that’s only because outsiders rarely have the full information.” He didn’t look convinced. “You’re Hollet 3.2, correct?”
“Good. The Null Void, what can you tell me about him? What are his weaknesses? Does he have flaws?”
“Does he have flaws?” Hollet 3.2’s face was a picture of astonishment. “Does he have… He has nothing but flaws. He’s a mistake wrapped in a disaster covered in a blanket of stupidity. You want me to share my Ubik stories, no problem. There’s no need to hold me like this, I’m willing to work with you. Just tell me what you need to know.”
Sway was bemused by his reaction. Males were treacherous and underhanded, to say the least, but they usually displayed a modicum of loyalty to each other. This one seemed ready to betray his colleagues without needing any inducements whatsoever. Some sort of reverse psychology to make her drop her guard?
“Give me a couple of your girls and I’ll even help you hunt him down.”
“Who are you calling girls?” hissed Famke, pushing the tip of her knife into his cheek.
Hollet 3.2 moved his head just enough to make eye contact with her, pushing his cheek into the knife so that a drop of blood oozed out. He didn’t seem to notice. “I was referring to those girls.” His eyes shifted to indicate the two mercenaries stood a little further back, watching.
Sway watched the two ex-Corps members for a reaction. She had been surprised by their seeming loyalty to him, but they didn’t display the usual signs of a woman under the thrall of a man. Anti-seduction training was one of the mainstays of the Corps’ basic teachings. There was nothing wrong with being in a hetero relationship, if you were into that sort of thing, but it should always be as the instigator.
Perhaps the younger one might be susceptible — her file showed she had been involved in a failed relationship — but both sisters seemed to be accepting of him. Their faces might show displeasure but their body language clearly indicated both were ready to fight beside him if necessary.
“Girls, come on, put in a good word for me. You can vouch for my desire to see Ubik get the beating he so richly deserves.”
Neither woman said anything.
“This act you’re putting on to buy time,” said General Sway, “it won’t work. We will extract the necessary information from you whether you cooperate or not.” She turned to the woman beside her. “Lieutenant, prepare a torture station for this young man.”
The lieutenant looked confused. “General, how will we power the extraction utensils?”
They really were too reliant on technology. This was how the Corps would lose its place at the top of the food chain, by growing soft.
“We don’t need tronics to cause the required level of suffering. He has testicles, doesn’t he? We’ll do this the old fashioned way.”
Hollet 3.2’s face paled, which was the expected reaction.
“Don’t you think you’re being a little unreasonable,” he said.
The women around him all stiffened. That word, who would dare use it in their presence? The records showed how often there had been a plea for reasonableness. Fairness. Good faith.
And whenever someone had been foolish enough to compromise, the records also showed the results. No, being an unreasonable woman was far preferable to being an enslaved one.
“You have no idea how unreasonable I can be,” said General Sway. “We’re only getting started.”
“Really? I didn’t see you being unreasonable to Ramon Ollo earlier. Very accommodating, back then, weren’t you? Face it, you’re just a bully. When you’re the strong one, you use your strength to take what you want, and when you aren’t, you run around like obedient maids.” He snorted coldly. “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going to help you. I’ll deal with Ubik myself. I doubt you’ll get anywhere near him without my help. He’d wipe the floor with you.”
His words stung. There was an element of truth to what he said. When it came to Ramon Ollo, the Corps was the obedient one. What choice did they have? He was a terrifying existence. Not only his ability to negate other organics, but his fighting ability was nothing to look down on. Tactically and intellectually, he had few peers.
Fortunately, he showed little interest in the Corps — other than in the one woman he had taken from them, in the face of massive opposition. As long as they left him alone, he ignored them. Now she had no choice but to try and form some sort of alliance with him. If anyone could get them out of here, it was him.
“Lot of help you two are,” Hollet 3.2said to the two mercenaries, blood trickling down his cheek. “Not going to repay the debt?”
Neither woman said anything.
There was a loud clang from the tower Ramon Ollo had disappeared into, followed by a whirring sound and the sound of wind blowing very strongly. A gust of air came blasting down the slope.
The boy squinted, a strange smile slowly creeping on his face.
“Never mind, I think I got this.” His legs went up and over Famke’s head, wrapping around her neck and sliding out of the inescapable hold she had seemed to have on him.
His arms retracted as though they had been held in limp handshakes, not the tight grip of trained professionals.
Twist and Famke went flying. He was free in a single move.
He was fast, already moving while her own troops were stunned. This didn’t happen to the Corps. No one defied their might.
“Move,” screamed General Sway.
The shocked women snapped into action and tried to grab him but he dodged and slipped through their attempted embraces, leaving them colliding into one another. Then he ran up the slope towards the tower.
“Grab him,” ordered Sway, staring at the two mercenaries who were directly in his way.
They didn’t stop him. Rather, they parted to allow him to run past.
The troops that had been in control of the situation but no longer were, gave chase. But the man had already entered the tower.
Hole in the Ground
Chukka squatted in the corner of a dark hole. There was a faint light from a small brick that was also emitting a little heat. Figaro Ollo had left it there, to keep her warm and cosy. A gift from her master.
It wasn’t clear to her what was powering it or how it was operated. It looked like a block of metal, about the size of her palm. She crouched over it and did her best impression of a poor, forlorn woman who was broken and lost.
She had been beaten and abused by the young prince, who now thought of her as his personal serf. She was happy to let him think so.
He might be talented and trained by a god-like being, but he was still a teenage boy with no real experience of the world.
Did he really think he could break her with a few kicks and some kind words to soothe her fears? She was an executive of VendX’s PR department. Psychological warfare was what she lived, breathed and fed on.
He might be physically stronger than her, but so what? His kicks and punches had been restrained and carefully aimed to do no long-term damage. She was well aware of that. She knew all the same spots for maximum gains.
Even if he had gone harder, it would have made no difference.
She had been on a team-building retreat for work where she’d nearly lost an eye, and three of the twelve participants had lost their lives. The beating the boy gave her was laughably feeble.
But she had done her best to live up to his expectations. She wanted him to believe he had broken her. That would make it far easier to bend him to her will when the time came. Patience was the key.
There was a sound from above and Figaro Ollo dropped into the space he had found for them to use as their base. He was resourceful and adapted shockingly well to an alien environment. He was definitely someone you wanted working for you.
“Are you alright?” he said, kneeling beside her and sounding concerned. All part of the act, his attempt to draw her into an unbalanced relationship, where she would accept him as her lord.
Chukka nodded hesitantly, pushing fear into her eyes so that he could see his plan was working.
“Okay. I’ve spotted your VendX colleagues over that way.” He pointed up and to his right. “Quite a few of them made it. They’ve spread out in small teams — I think they’re trying to map the place out.”
That sounded like standard operating procedure. She would try to stop him from contacting them directly. It was still too early for her to go back. Her mission would be deemed a failure and she would face a number of disciplinary hearings, none of which she would win.
He pointed in the opposite direction. “And over that way are the Seneca Corps.”
She felt her heart speed up. The Corps was even worse. She definitely didn’t want to encounter them right now. No sane person would.
“I think we should head over there.”
“What?” Her voice was naturally horrified by the thought, helping her keep up her charade. A little too realistically for her liking.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.” He took out the gun he had taken from her. It now had an attachment fixed to it. He raised it to his eye and looked through it. A scope.
How had he made that in such a short time with no tools?
“Lucky you brought this with you, probably the only weapon that works here.” He patted her on the shoulder.
Chukka forced her contempt down and looked at him with large round eyes. He smiled at her. She would wait. She would let him drop his guard, and then she would teach him what true domination felt like.
Figaro winced, his face contorting. He fell forward and she grabbed him, catching his head in her lap.
“Now, do it now,” he whispered.
Her eyes flashed with a pale light as she pushed her mind into his. There was a presence there, waiting for her. They clashed and Chukka was thrown back, hitting the ground hard.
He came and scooped her up. “Thanks. Well done, you got him.”
This was her role, to stave off the psychic attacks that came once every hour. He was dependent on her, needed her to survive. He thought he had her captive, but it was the other way around.
She felt dizzy and couldn’t sit up. He pulled her into an embrace and held her while she recovered. It wasn’t unpleasant. She would allow him to think he had won her over, comforting her, using her. He would regret it. But for now, she rested in his arms and the shivering ache retreated.
“Okay, we have an hour. Come on.” He got up, lifting her up with him.
“Where are we going?” She wanted to stay here. It was safe here.
He checked the weapon. “There’s more to this place than a bunch of junk. We have to go deeper.”
She tensed up. If they encountered one of the other groups, they would take him away from her. He was hers. She wouldn’t allow it. She would never let him leave her.
“Hey, it’s okay. We’ll be together.”
His words calmed her thumping heart. Yes, they would be together. She would find a way to take his mind over. She was the one in control here. She was only allowing him to think otherwise.
“Good. Let’s go.”