The Collective: Part 4

4.

Sibling Rivalry

The GSS team breached Rachel Dahl’s apartment with the same master code Lex had used. Late afternoon sun now shone through the hall’s window. With the GSS squad was Calista Dahl, whom entered and ordered the men to fan out, search for her sister. Contrary to her way, Rachel had missed work. With the deaths of Li and Kay still fresh, it was obvious something had happened to her. When she reached the coffee table, Lex’s recorded hologram engaged.

Lex’s hooded silhouette stood with Rachel before her, a blade out and poised against the woman’s belly to show Lex’s menace. The hooded figure began to speak, her voice garbled through encrypted filters to slow the GSS’ eventual analysis. It came through deep, as though she were half machine, half human, with emphasis on the masculine end of that spectrum.

“Calista Dahl; you stand accused of crimes against the people. Your sentence is death. Your only choice is to come quietly or watch your sister die with you. The terms are not negotiable. At the end of this message, an address will appear, come alone or she dies.”

Lex and Rachel fizzed out of focus, fell away in static to a few, stationary lines of text. The address was somewhere on the edge of Tokyo, just outside the city’s concentrated innards. Calista knew it well; the land was open, flat, with plenty of trees for cover. Distant buildings and their orientation made for poor placement of any long-range security details in all but a few spots, but she was certain the area had a maze of sewer lines that led into them. Her people could approach unnoticed, but the question remained of if she wanted to risk Rachel’s life. When faced with her own, certain death, her answer was emphatically yes.

Across Tokyo, Lex kicked open the door of an old, bamboo and grass shed. It had been designed to blend into the garden park. Once the home of a tender, his job, livelihood, and purpose had been stolen from him by the Sleep. He hanged himself in the center of the small, one-room hut, was only after days of baking in the hot sun made the stench so foul the park’s visitors took notice.

Lex was there when they cut him down. She’d been a devotee of the garden’s calming nature since before her incarceration. The old, half-blind and hunched grounds-keeper’s death was a proverbial cherry atop her frothing cream of hatred, spite. The Sleepers knew not what they did, weren’t to be faulted. Like all humans, they’d merely succumbed to their desires. Unfortunately, unlike most humans through history, they could be given no reprieve, nor even hope that they might lift themselves from the throes of addiction. It was, like most things nowadays, nearly impossible to wake the Sleepers without some sort apocalyptic event.

Lex drug Rachel to the shack by the binds around her wrists, tossed her inside and across it to kick the door shut. Rachel collided with the wall of rusted garden tools, hands out to save her face from being impaling by a claw-rake. She immediately rebounded with it in hand, swiped at Lex. Her arms were up. Lex pulled it forward with Rachel, whom stumbled to her knees. Lex’s fist collided with her face. She fell sideways in the dusty floor, bleeding from the lip and weeping. She sobbed, screamed, cursed. Lex replaced the rake, calmly pulled Rachel up.

“You’ll find attacking me is useless,” Lex warned. “I am faster, stronger, and smarter than you. Do as I say, and you’ll go free.”

“Liar!” Rachel shrieked with a raspy breath. “You’re crazy! You’re just gonna’ kill me anyhow!”

Lex pulled a chair from a corner of the room, scraped it against the dusty, cement floor, set it down with its back toward Rachel. She threw a leg around it to lean against the chair-back, look down on Rachel.

“If I wanted you dead, I’d have killed you when you opened the door to the bathroom,” she reminded. “Now, either quiet down and listen or I’ll gag you.” Rachel’s head hung sideways as she quieted, wet sniffles audible every few seconds. “Good girl. Now, there’s something we need to straighten out before we go any further– the notion that I am crazed.”

“You are,” Rachel argued with a tremor.

“No, no, no,” Lex said emphatically. “It’s important you understand that I am not, or else what’s happening won’t have proper context. This is like a composer in a world without music imagining notes, writing and playing them: in a world without music, the composer is a heretic, a loon, one that hears voices and sounds. In our world, he is a genius.”

Rachel angled a squiggled frown upward that punctuated her wet eyes, “Every nutcase thinks they’re a genius.”

Lex gave a long sigh with a shake of her head, “You’re missing the point.”

“I don’t need the context of a lunatic’s creation to know they’re insane,” Rachel spat. “You all have your stories, your reasons, and none of them change what you are.”

Lex watched her for a long moment as she leaned her chin against her forearms on the chair-back. The shack was quiet, tense. Rachel stared into Lex’s eyes, admittedly questioning her own judgment. There was something pained in them– somewhere beneath all the make-up, blood, and anger, a little girl wandered aimlessly for love, attention.

Rachel took a sharp breath, cast her eyes back on the floor. Lex nodded slowly to herself, “You know me– by reputation, if nothing else. I assume it was Calista, or your former position as head of the European Trade Union, that made you aware of me.” She took a breath, straightened in her seat, “Whatever it was, I know what you’ve done– what you did, anyhow. You went off the grid after you signed over your power– Europe’s power— to Viktor Steinsson and Ville Andersson– Swiss bankers extraordinaire.”

Rachel’s eyes rose again, more guilty than anything, “I did what I thought would protect the Union.”

Lex countered, “Or so you were led to believe.” She shook her head, “No, what you really did, and discovered for yourself soon enough afterward, was relinquish the only governmental control left to the Collective.”

“I didn’t—”

Lex was firm, loud, “You did!” Rachel’s throat squeaked from a sharp breath. Lex softened, quieted, “I don’t fault you for that. And in fact, provided you’re agreeable, you’ll be the only one of the Collective left alive when I am done. You are part of them in name only. I intend to coat my blade in the blood of the twelve, but I would rather see it be eleven if it means acquiring an asset. ”

Rachel was silent and still for a moment. Then, with a hard swallow, she met Lex’s eyes again, “Why?”

Lex rose from her seat to pull Rachel up, set her into it. She leaned against a table beside her, “Your sister’s crimes are irredeemable. To some, yours are too. But not to me. I know you were coerced, because I know your sister.”

She shook her head, “She’s not the monster you make her out to be.”

Lex leaned forward in a hunch, her arms crossed, “We both know she’ll sacrifice you for herself tonight without a moment’s hesitation.” Rachel’s eyes met the floor again, her hands twisted in the binds to tense against one another. Lex straightened, “You have a choice, Rachel. Maybe not much of one, but one nonetheless. Provided you choose appropriately, you will live. Either way, Calista will die tonight. There is no stopping that. It is inevitable. Imminent. Blood of kinship may mean something to you, but know it means nothing to her. If you look deep enough, you’ll see that truth.”

Missed part 3? Read it here!

Bonus Story: Stronger Without Them

Cold wind whipped snow and ice in drifts across a plain of white mounds and frozen boot-prints. The mounds were the size of a man tall, five or six men wide, and spotted the horizon for countless miles. The man was clad in furred leathers, well-insulated from the cold with only thick, wild hair and beard to shield his face. He planted each step with a stone’s determination. It made his resolve immovable. His head was kept upward, eyes small, squinted against the snow that pelted and plastered his face and furs, coated him with a fine layer.

His people had a legend, one that made the trek all the more unavoidable: if a man were to seek to rectify the past, he must first risk his future, his life, in the mounded flats. Only once he made it through, could he hope to seek out recompense for the slaughter of his wife and children. He made the journey alone, as a man should, was certain he would die before he found refuge in the Gods’ embrace. He refused to listen to reason from those in his tribe; the invaders, they said, were the ones to blame.

But he blamed the Gods. For millennia, their tribe had lived the way of the righteous, their gratitude and sacrifices never late nor without due praise or ritual. They had given to the Gods all that had been requested, earned nothing but their contempt in the process. He’d had enough. He was man, and no God– gracious or not– would keep him from seeking his bounty. The righteousness that compelled him forward was just as it had always been; with conviction of spirit, character.

The Gods had let the invaders come. In any case, had not prevented it. In the harsh of Winter, when their ardor was already dampened, his tribe had been half-slaughtered by the invaders clad in their fierce battle armor. With sword and musket alike, they pillaged, plundered, raped and conquered all they’d seen. It was only after their leader, in his bear skins and helm, was killed that the tribe had finally withdrawn.

The snows of the village were stained crimson like the hands of the Gods that had neither prevented nor appeared during the massacre to stop it. The seasonal perma-frost had been breached by the pyres of a dozen men, their women and children. What few did not die by the sword wished they had. Only the fear of reprisal in the after-life kept them from turning their weapons upon themselves. The echoes of men and their families wrenched billowed cries for absolution through the blizzard that came after the battle.

But he would no longer stand for it. They had done all the Gods had asked of them, more even, in the promise that the Gods would watch after them, protect them. They had failed. He would not. Once he found them, he would paint the hallowed grounds of their hidden refuge with their blood. He would bury his sword in their bellies for every life lost and given in vain. Then, satisfied with the carnage, he would turn the sword on himself to die alone, the Gods vanquished and his work done.

He had fought the cold and the snows for five days to cross the flats. Like others of his tribe, he’d taken to resting only to conserve his strength, eat stored morsels and drink from a water-skin. He was no fool, knew not to take the journey lightly. If he did, there would be no one left to avenge the fallen, seek retribution for the sacrificed.

By the sixth day, he stood before a clearing in the mounds where the storm that raged seemed not to exist. In that emptiness, the ground was stone, clear of snow. The mounds around its perimeter formed a wide circle open before him. A furious huff of hot breath blasted from above his white-covered beard, fogged the air with the fire of his heart and ready wrath. His last steps were even firmer than the thousands that had brought him here.

He stopped in the center of the clearing, in his tribal tongue, demanded an audience with his Gods. It was answered with an intense, blue glow of light that deposited three, elongated figures with bulbous heads and black-eyes before him.

“You seek an audience, primitive?” The center God asked.

He spat at their feet, then in his tribal tongue, barked, “You have forsaken us! Broken the bonds that bound us to your servitude. Your treachery must be answered for!”

“You speak of the battle passed,” the left-most God said.

“Yet there is little that can be done for the dead,” the right God said.

“No!” He shouted in defiance. “There is one thing that can repay us for their loss.”

“Blood.” The three chimed in unison.

Your blood!”

He drew a thick blade from his side with a sound of metal that rang through the open air.

“You mean to stand against your Gods?” The middle God asked.

“I mean to seek vengeance for all the blood spilled in your name, both in sacrifice and in the battles past– those you failed to protect, as was your promise to our people.”

The three Gods fell silent, as if to speak mentally. Then the middle one spoke with a bargaining air about him, “We cannot resurrect the dead. What is is what what must be. But we can offer something for the sacrifice your people have given this winter, both from the battle and when we did not think to aid you.”

He was unconvinced, his mind unchanged. He demanded they speak, “And what is that?”

“Bountiful harvests,” the middle God said.

“Warmth and fertility,” the left God added.

“And strength and protection in the battles to come,” the right God finished.

He growled from his throat. In a quick charge, he launched himself at the middle God, kicked him backward to rebound at the gut of the left God. The blade slice deep at its belly to ooze green. The curiously-colored blood did not faze him– blood was blood and it was to be spilled. With an outward spin, he moved for the God at the right, buried the blade in its belly as he’d planned. More green spilled out, leaked from the God’s mouth. He twisted the blade, heard the crunch of soft bones, then pulled it back. The second God fell dead.

His blade dripped a trail toward the God that still lay dazed on the stone ground. He dropped a heavy knee to its chest as it eeked out a few, last words.

“We would have… given you anything, made you the most powerful tribe,” it said, barely drawing breath.

“Your cowardice and bargaining only weaken us.” He grit his teeth, “We will be stronger without you.”

Then, the blade plunged into the belly of black-eyed God. The bulbous head gave a shudder with a last, rattling breath. Its eyes shut. The smallest bit of green oozed from the God’s mouth as the tribal rose to his feet, readied to bury the sword in his own gut and finally end things. Instead, something compelled him to look at the carnage around him, his three Gods slain about it. His own words resonated deeper than he’d first realized.

He lifted the blade to examine it, “No.” He sheathed it, spat at them once more, “Enough has been lost to you. I will lead my people now. Protect them as you should have. I will show them they are strong– stronger even without you. Then no man, woman, nor child will ever think to play servant to your kind again.”

With a steadfast resolve, he turned away from the green-stained ground, and left the mysterious clearing to show his people the way.