Stephen King has been quoted as saying that the first draft of a work should be the longest, and that it should be trimmed down from there.
I ignored that advice when writing, however. My first draft was a little over 27,000 words long or, in paperback terms, ~108 pages. Not really a science fiction epic. But, for the most part, the characters and story were there.
The second draft, which fixed some plot holes and expanded on some characterization, came in at about 54,500 words, or 218 pages. Almost half as long. But it still wasn't good enough.
Now, with draft three, I have 176,700 words, or slightly over 700 pages. And I'm not even done yet.
Sometime in the second draft, I considered writing a companion piece, Descent into Sheol, a short story collection that would flesh out this book and the next one. In the end, however, I Incorporated most of the stories into this book.
Why am I telling you all this?
Okay, updates: I'm currently near the end of the flashback. The E.H.U.D.s have gone through the Gaza war, and we're getting to the point where John kills the little boy. After that, there is an *SPOILER!* E.H.U.D. insurrection, in which we get to Shaun's memory of John being burned by Mistlethwakey. Then, thankfully, the flashback is over, and we return to the core story. In previous drafts, John *SPOILER!* awakes in an E.H.U.D. safe house, gathers an army, confronts Mistlethwakey, and hurtles towards an abrupt end, with a little coda saying what happened to Edgar. Now, however, we get (this is all merely planned, not written, mind you): a confrontation with Edgar; a confrontation with Mistlethwakey; a continuing plot in which Rachel gathers allies and supplies; a resolution of Edgar and Amanda's relationship, ending with Amanda taking Ethan and going to live with the E.H.U.D.s (!); a reuniting with Frank, in which he helps to establish a new social order, along with the E.H.U.D.s; more plot about the civil war; and finally, a moment for all of the E.H.U.D.s introduced in the flashbacks to shine! Except for Merv, Allen, and Maria, all of whom are dead. Or are they?
After that, I need to go back, remove a few little plot threads, including the little case Mistlethwakey gave Edgar (I have changes in mind for that plot later in the book) and the insertion of Dr. Frease as the Latterndale family physician. (PLOT TWIST!)
And now that that rant's over, a brief intro to Chapter 24: We learn how the 'huds get some of their powers, we get introduced to Shaun, we... Aw, just read it yourself :)
John woke up and rolled to his left, looking blearily at the wall. There were scratches there, carved with his mind, covering most of the wall, starting at the ceiling and working there way down towards where John lay. He yawned, stretched, and reached out his mind, scratching a new mark into the painted concrete. He swept his eyes over the scratches again, counting up the orderly clusters of marks, adding them, coming out with a sum: 1,825. 1,825 little scratches. As best as he could figure, there was one for each day that he had been imprisoned here. There was some confusion, however; he hadn’t started this little calendar until he had been imprisoned for nearly two years, and he had had to guess his way backwards. But it was the closest thing he had to a sense of time, so he would have to use it. He counted up the scratches again, and divided the sum by three hundred and sixty-five.
Five. Five groups of three hundred and sixty-five. Five years.
John rolled onto his back and stared in disgust at the ceiling. Half a decade laying in this bed, staring at this ceiling… A spark of dark humor flicked through his mind. Half a decade was an important anniversary. Today needed to be immortalized; he would have to do something to make this day memorable.
To his right, Udarian suddenly snorted loudly and coughed several times, then returned to his usual ordered snoring.
Well, John thought, there was a start.
He relaxed his body, stretched out his mind, felt around the room and found Udarian. Once this action would have been exhausting, would have left him gasping for breath and unable to move. But now his mind flowed easily, nearly instantly plunging into Udarian’s mind, carefully avoiding the confusing, roiling mass of turbulent dreams, bypassing the active nerves that controlled the body, found the subconscious nerves, the controls of involuntary muscles. One by one he checked them and finally found the nerve he wanted. There was a pulse of power, a brief alteration in the impulses moving through the nerve, and Udarian’s bowels unclenched.
John smiled to himself, proud of the mischief he had caused, and then created a small sphere of energy around his head, a little balloon of fresh air, safe from the smell filling the small room.
There were at least twenty minutes left before the lights turned on overhead, so John decided to get a few more minutes of sleep. Unfortunately, he found that it was impossible to maintain his sphere of air while he slept. Several times he found himself drifting off to sleep, only to be abruptly woken by Udarian’s stench entering his space.
So instead of sleeping, John lay back and let his mind drift through the last five years, remembering the things he had learned, the changes he had undergone.
The most obvious change, the change that had come to all of the E.H.U.D.s once they began to use their powers on a consistent basis, was their permanent gauntness. It seemed that no matter how much they ate--and for the past three and a half years, their meal sizes had expanded to incredible proportions—the always remained thin, malnourished looking. The doctors explained to them that using their powers took energy, and that constant use of their powers would cause a constant drain. Extra calories were used almost immediately; stored fat was always burned away swiftly. Despite this use of energy, however, the E.H.U.D.s were all heavily muscled, honed to physical perfection by their training. This left their muscles pressed tightly against their skin, their veins tracing bold, protuberant patterns across their sleek bodies. The overall appearance the E.H.U.D.s had was one of alieness, of inhuman strangeness that set them even further apart from their guards. More than once, Mistlethwakey had been overheard commenting on it. “**** ‘huds,” he would sometimes mutter to the guards, “They don’t even look human anymore. My God, what have we made here?”
Some of the E.H.U.D.s took these comments to mean that Mistlethwakey’s will was weakening, that any day now he might finally snap, leaving the E.H.U.D.s with an opening to take their revenge. Several times they had come to Allen, tried to convince him that the time had come. But each time Allen urged caution, insisted instead that they continue to learn new skills, to prepare for the eventual day of their deliverance.
Learning and preparing was just what they did.
Soon after Allen started his daily training sessions, a breakthrough occurred; a fundamental change in the E.H.U.D.s’ abilities. The breakthrough was not made by anyone person, but as the E.H.U.D.s as a whole: they found that they could carry on silent discussions using their powers.
Allen had taught them all how to open their minds, how to hear the thoughts of others, and had asked them all to continue to practice their new form of listening while he gave a lecture on the forces behind modern warfare. He was nearing the end of his speech when John suddenly noticed that a point that he had been meaning to ask Allen to clarify had been silently explained, directly in his mind. He refocused his mind, focusing more now on the thoughts that he was perceiving rather than on Allen’s voice, and realized that not only was the question he meant to ask shared across several minds, it was not even Allen’s mind that had provided the answer. John had picked up on someone’s thoughts, helped to broadcast them to the group, and had sensed a reply from someone else.
John shifted his focus again, this time not on the thoughts he could hear around him, but on a single, simple command: Raise your right arm.
He thought hard for several seconds, putting all his concentration onto those four words. Then he relaxed and looked around at the group. Some twenty people, evenly spaced throughout the group, had abruptly raised their right arms.
“Yes, what is it?” Allen asked, interrupting the lecture and lowering his own half-raised arm.
“I—I don’t know,” said Maria, who was sitting closest to Allen. “I just thought I should raise my arm.”
Allen studied her for a moment, lost in though. John could hear the thought to raise his arm echoing back at him from Allen’s mind. Finally Allen said, without taking his eyes off of Maria, “No one say a word. If you have your hand up for a legitimate question, I want you to focus on the word ‘no.’ But if you put it up for no rational reason, you just felt the urge, I want you to focus on ‘yes.’ The rest of you, keep focusing on getting reading, see if you notice anything.”
The group fell silent; along the walls, the guards stared in interest at their charges.
“****!” Cyd exclaimed. “I can hear them! I can actually hear them!”
Allen chuckled. “Cyd, think really hard about a simple question, something everyone should be able to answer. Everyone, focus on Cyd. After fifteen seconds, Cyd, you open your mind, the rest of you focus on an answer. Go.”
John shut his eyes and relaxed, hearing the jumbled maelstrom around him grow dim, changing from a cacophony to a single word, repeated endlessly: Cyd, Cyd, Cyd, Cyd…
Soon, another thought began to enter the chanting, emanating from the place where he could feel Cyd’s presence: Why did the chicken cross the road?
John pulled his awareness back into himself and focused on a single sentence, visualizing the words as print in his head: To get to the other side…
Cyd laughed loudly. “Holy ****, that’s amazing! Let’s do it again!”
“No, no,” Allen called, speaking loudly so that he could be heard loudly over the excited rumble that filled the room. “That’s enough practice for one day! You all need to make sure you eat before we switch back to regular training!”
“**** regular training!” someone yelled from the back of the group. John had the odd impression that it was one of the guards who said this.
“No,” Allen repeated firmly. “You’ve all had a little taste of what’s possible now: telepathy. And I have to admit, even though I thought something like this might be possible, I didn’t think we’d get it quite so fast. We all need to spend a night with it, get our heads wrapped around it, think up possible uses for it, training exercises we can do to get better.” He paused and took a deep breath. “We have communications now; our own little network. This is definitely something we need to improve, go slowly and steadily on. So tonight, just think about it. Try not to use it, just get used to it. And remember: do your exercises tonight. Find your ten closest cellmates and try to spend a few minutes in each of their heads.” He smirked. “But if you happen to get some cross talk, well, I guess it’s no big deal. Okay?”
All of the E.H.U.D.s, and a few bored guards, cheered at Allen’s words.
The group formal group broke up then and dissolved into smaller gatherings, filled with talking and eating. Minutes later, Mistlethwakey entered the room and ordered them off to their daily combat training sessions. They spent the next few hours sparring, trying their best to knock down their opponents; but they were all to evenly matched. John felt, deep in the pit of his stomach, that this simple training couldn’t last forever; something would change soon.
After the training they were off to bed. John lay awake for hours, exhausted but deeply interested in the thoughts he could hear emanating from the rooms around him. There were memories of old houses, friends long gone, trapped in the outside world… at one point John picked up on an erotic fantasy, but he was fairly certain that that was accidentally picked up from one of the guards who didn’t realize he wasn’t even safe in his own head anymore.
Eventually, all of the other minds drifted off, and John was able to sleep… although his dreams were sometimes filled with images that he knew weren’t from his mind.
When the next day’s basic exercises were done, the E.H.U.D.s eagerly gathered around Allen to not quite literally share their thoughts with him regarding their new from of communication.
Allen sat quietly, waiting for all of his pupils to settle down. When they had, he smiled mischievously and said, “I know you’re all desperate to tell me about last night, and about application ideas—“
He was interrupted by excited chatter from the E.H.U.D.s. He raised his hands and calmly waited for them to settle again.
“Unfortunately, I have a very interesting lecture to give today, so discussion will have to wait.” There was another uproar from the E.H.U.D.s, and this time a few guards even joined in.
Allen spoke, raising his voice over the roar of his less than captive audience. “In the nineteen forty’s, Russia, then known as the Soviet Union was fighting Nazi Germany and loosing quite badly! Now, Russia had several weaknesses, and yet-“
His words were drowned out by a chant that had started amongst the guards and had moved on to the E.H.U.D.s. “TP!” they shouted again and again. “TP!”
“Okay, okay!” Allen yelled in good-natured acquiescence. “Telepathy! We’ll talk about telepathy!”
His audience cheered and then fell silent.
“First off: how many of you were able to communicate with each other? And I don’t just mean passively sensing thoughts and emotions; I mean a conscious exchange of ideas.”
Nearly all of the E.H.U.D.s raised their hands. “Impressive. Okay, you can put your hands down now. Second off: how man-- Yes, Talan?”
Everyone turned to look at Talan, one of the two MIT students, who sat with his arm raised in the middle of the group. Once acknowledged by Allen, Talan lowered his arm and spoke. “This telepathy thing is great and everything, but it’s not really practical in a combat situation.”
“It’s all passive. We scan each other’s minds, hoping that someone will talk. It’s like broadcasting something on a radio, waiting for a response, and then broadcasting a reply, hoping someone will pick up on it. Well, it’s not even really broadcasting. We don’t send anything; we just hope others pick up what we have laying around. In a combat situation, we’d all be too busy worrying about staying alive to be scanning through for new radio updates.”
“Do you have a solution in mind?”
Talan paused for a moment; he obviously hadn’t thought this far ahead. “Well,” he eventually mumbled, “if we have telekinesis…”
“Speak up please, so everyone can hear you.”
Talan began again. “We’re already telekinetic; we can manipulate matter with our minds. Matter is nothing more than energy vibrating at certain wavelengths, so in theory direct energy manipulation may be possible. We already know it’s possible to pick up on other people’s brainwaves, so sensing energy is fully possible. All of that put together, it might be possible to actually send energy bursts, the way we send objects, directly into people’s minds. That way, if we’re in combat and someone needs to talk, they can send directly to whoever needs to hear them, rather than the whole squad focusing on everybody.” Talan finished, remained silent for a moment, and then nodded.
Allen returned the nod, and then looked around his audience. “That… that not only neatly encapsulated our problem; it also added a neat solution.” He locked eyes with Talan and raised one hand in an imitation salute. “Good job. Now then, does anyone want to try to implement that?” No one answered. “No one? Alright, exercise time. I want everyone to pair up and try to talk. No passive scanning either. Talk, don’t listen. If you do this right, the only thing you’ll be able to hear is what your partner is actively trying to tell you. Go.” Allen clapped his hands, and the E.H.U.D.s sprang into motion.
There was a moment of confusion as everyone split off into pairs. John stood silently near another bunch of wallflowers, waiting for the tumult to die down so that they could partner up with the remaining ‘huds. He was just starting to actively look for a partner when he noticed Vince coming towards him. That was a sign to take action.
It wasn’t that John didn’t like Vince, it was just that Vince was… enthusiastic. He was one of those people who was always ready, always ready to throw himself into a project. Someone who was too eternally optimistic for John to stand for more than a few minutes.
John looked around wildly and noticed that Naomi currently had no partner. Before anyone else had a chance to take her, John had her by the arm and was dragging her towards one corner of the room. “C’mon, we can practice over here.”
Naomi sighed dramatically. “And what makes you think I want to do this with you?”
“Because it beats Vince for me or Cyd for you.”
Naomi didn’t respond.
They spent the next half-hour sitting across from each other, their eyes closed. Again and again, John constructed simple messages and tried to project them into Naomi’s mind while she, presumably, did the same. Little progress was made. John had no idea what he was doing. He tried alternately to focus on his thoughts and to not focus on them, to think of them as waves of energy flowing out of his body or to think of them as physical objects to be hurled across the room. This last met with some semblance of success: Naomi yelled and fell over backwards as some invisible force smashed into her head.
Eventually they had to give up. Mistlethwakey entered the room, and the E.H.U.D.s got up to return to their regular training.
The next day, after a brief restating of the instructions by Allen, they continued to try active communication.
Some time after they had started on their fourth day of communication attempts, John heard—or felt, rather—a message appearing in his head: Everyone, join in the circle…
He opened his eyes and looked at Naomi, whose own eyes were wide with excitement. “Someone did it,” she whispered.
Around the room the E.H.U.D.s stood and moved to cluster around Allen, who had been partnered with Vince. Vince was happier than John had ever seen him before.
“We have had a breakthrough, ladies and gentlemen!” Allen called out. “Vince has done it, after only four days! We now have an active telepathic communication system! Say a few words, Vince.”
“I didn’t actually mean say.”
“Oh, oh yeah! Um…” Vince stood straighter and then relaxed, his chest deflating and his shoulders sagging. Telepathy… a voice seemed to say in everyone’s heads. A year ago I didn’t believe in TP… But now I have it…
“Wow,” Naomi breathed.
“Yeah,” John replied.
No one else had anything to say.
“Okay,” Allen said, breaking the awed silence and slapping Vince on the back. “We have TP. And, in theory, Vince can impart memories of how he did it into each of your minds, giving us all TP. So the next step in our breakout is to all learn this skill. Is everyone with me on this?”
The E.H.U.D.s cheered enthusiastically.
“Good. Then I suggest you all sit down and start focusing your minds on Vince. Vince, you sit down and push out your thoughts and methods on everyone else.”
The rest of the day was spent learning at the feet of Vince. He sent out thoughts and memories, some half-formed but others disturbingly clear, of how he was able to telepathically transmit, of how he had learned the skill and of how he thought the processes might work. By the time that regular training commenced that day John could, with enough focus, transmit simple feelings and images to those around him.
That night none of the E.H.U.D.s could sleep: they were too busy sending their thoughts into other’s minds…
The practice continued for several more days, and after a week the E.H.U.D.s had ceased verbal communication altogether. Whenever they had a need to talk, they just spoke into each other’s minds. If they had to speak to one of the guards, they did likewise.
So it came as some surprise to John when, after several weeks of near silence, Naomi accosted him in the hall and spoke. “We need to talk. Verbally, not telepathically.”
“Because I can’t trust the privacy of my own mind.” She glanced around nervously and then grabbed John’s arm. “And I can’t trust this hall either. C’mon, we’ll go to your room.”
She dragged him along the hall, pushing him into his barracks chamber and then into the bathroom, locking the door behind him. “Here.”
John took a deep breath and sat down on the toilet. Why here?
“I already told you! Use your words!” She pulled aside the shower curtain, flipped down the small bench mounted on the wall, and sat down. “We have to hurry, before someone finds us. I’ve been practicing something with Cyd and Sarah, a way to sort of fog our minds, a way to hide thoughts and make them harder to find. A mind block, a way so some of us can have some secrets from the others.”
“And why are you keeping that a secret?”
“We’re not! As soon as we get it perfected, we’re going to share it with the group. But right now I have to share it with you, because I trust you and there’s something I have to tell you!”
“If it’s so important, just tell me. And besides, if it’s important, we shouldn’t say it out loud; the guards can hear.”
“I’m not worried about the guards hearing.”
John didn’t know what to say. Naomi’s simple statement completely changed his current mindset. He trusted her, respected her; if she thought that there was something that the other E.H.U.D.s shouldn’t know about… Another shift in mindsets: for the past three and a half years, there had been two types of people in the world. E.H.U.D.s and guards, friends and enemies. The E.H.U.D.s were family, closer than family: they could go inside John’s mind, go to the very core of who he was.
But if Naomi thought she couldn’t trust one…
“Who is it?” John asked.
“Not yet! We can’t let this get out; let me show you the thought blocker first.” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and then sat still for a few moments.
John felt part of her entering him, depositing her memories over his own: Cyd and Sarah, staring at him, then a fractured view of Naomi seen form their eyes, repeated, back and forth infinitely, thoughts reading thoughts reading thoughts reading thoughts—something cutting off the flow, a difference, the mind slipping and patterns shifting and—
“Okay, I’ve got it,” John said breathlessly, his mind trying to accept what he had just been shown. The thoughts coalesced, a coherent practice emerged, along with the memory of hours spent perfecting it. “Test: I’m thinking of a number.”
Naomi’s eyelids flickered. “Seven?” she ventured.
John chuckled. Not even close.
Yes, that’s right, it’s safe for this now… just keep all of this lock away…
It’s… It’s… Fear, confusion, not sure if she should say this… I don’t trust Allen…
Relief, humor, disbelief… Allen? Seriously? You don’t trust him?
No, I don’t…
Is this another one of those ‘he’s to smart to be an electrician’ things?
On our first day, when everyone had no idea what was going on, if we would even live, he was calm… he seemed to know that nothing bad would happen… The whole course of this program, he’s known about every little thing: the scramblers, the possibility of telekinesis—
Which any reasonably intelligent person could have figured out—
He never makes waves with the guards, he didn’t make it a big deal when he got powers like the rest of us did—
He’s teaching us to fight! He’s giving us the tools we need to escape!
He’s forging us into a little army, supposedly to escape, but the guards don’t care! He teaches us new and exciting ways to use our powers, ways that make us superior soldiers… meanwhile, he fills our heads with dreams of escape, but if anyone tries to do anything to buck the system, he just tells us to hold tight!
So what, you think he’s a plant?
We’re not the first E.H.U.D.s, you know that… the army had some of their own—
Who all died—
Who all died conveniently in a plane wreck! They drop out of the public’s notice, then each one is sent somewhere like this, put in to get the prisoners to trust him and take to the training… the whole reason we do anything around here is because Allen told us to… If it wasn’t for him, we’d all be in rebellion right now…
John cleared his throat and spoke. “I can see why you didn’t want anyone to know about this. It’s crazy. Allen is the only person keeping us sane.”
“That’s what Mistlethwakey wants you to think!”
“That’s… that’s just so sad. You just can’t believe that there’s some selfless person here who’s looking out for us. You can’t trust him simply because he’s too nice.”
Naomi stood up and walked towards the door. “You know what, fine, don’t believe me. When you’re suppressing someone’s civil liberties twenty years from now, don’t blame me: I tried to warn you.”
She opened the door and gasped in surprise.
“So, what do you think you two are doing in here?” Udarian asked, leering. “And just what the **** do you think you’re doing Donalson?!” he suddenly yelled. “That is disgusting! I’m covered in **** and you’re happily sleeping away; don’t think that I don’t know that you did this—“
John’s eyes snapped open. He was lying on his bed, the smell of feces surrounding him. He blinked a few times and tried to order his thoughts, then sat up and looked around.
Udarian was out of his bed, a thick trail of brown slime showing his path to his cabinet and then to the bathroom. There was the sound of the shower being turned on, and then a continued tirade from Udarian. John ignored it and went to get some clothes from his own cabinet.
Ten minutes later, John and Udarian were standing in their usual places in the large room. As usual Mistlethwakey entered to review his troops. As usual, he stopped to deliver a short speech.
“Today is a very special day for all of you. It has now been five years since you were brought here. Five years working to become the most dangerous beings on the planet. And you have all made tremendous progress. Each of you is more than a challenge to any master martial artist, an Olympic athlete. Each of you is the best you can possible be. So today will be the last of your basic training. No more pointless exercises, no more endless drills. Tomorrow you start to practice in the field, earning valuable practical experience. Tomorrow, your true lives begin.” He smiled, nodded, and shifted his attention to the guards, each standing quietly behind their charge.
“And for you brave soldiers who have served as guards for this program, today is the last day of your long exile. Tomorrow you will be released for a year of leave, one entire glorious year to enjoy fresh air and all of the comforts of home. Before you leave, however, there is one last item of business to attend to. Today, we have twenty-five new guards who will be joining us to oversee the E.H.U.D.s while you’re all away. I would like each of you to meet with your designated replacements, make them feel welcome, help them get to know their charges. There will now be four E.H.U.D.s to one guard, so it may take some time to get this done. But I have faith in your abilities to handle this, and trust you all to handle this change over in the quality manner we have come to expect from you.” Mistlethwakey smiled proudly and gave his men a brief salute. “Dismissed.”
Mistlethwakey left the room, the guards chattered excitedly and the E.H.U.D.s did nothing.
That’s not good…
There’ll only be twenty-five of them, now’s our chance—
No! Now is not the time!
All of the E.H.U.D.s turned to look at Allen. He stood tall and stared ahead, never blinking. The guards will be at their lowest number, so other defenses will be on alert… Scramblers will be everywhere, doors will be sealed… probably mined, too… In their mind, it’s better for us to die, to be a wasted investment, than to escape…
No one argued; they had all seen into Mistlethwakey’s mind. Allen spoke the truth.
Despite this, some amongst them still wanted to take this opportunity to escape. Lemlin in particular was radiating restless energy. Now is our only chance! These new guards don’t know us, can’t understand what we’re capable of… we have an opportunity; we have to exploit it…
Some of the E.H.U.D.s resisted Lemlin’s ideas, but others, either through a lapse of mental fortitude or because of their own overwhelming desire for revenge, were deciding to follow Lemlin’s plan rather than Allen’s.
We can’t do anything… John left all of his apprehension and pent-up fear accessible to the E.H.U.D.s. Mistlethwakey’s been planning this for years… they’ve had more than five years to work through this change over; they’re not going to make a mistake now… If they think it’s safe to leave us hear largely unsupervised, then it probably is…
Even as these thoughts passed through his mind, another, hidden idea wormed its way through him: Allen’s first reaction was to caution patience… He thinks he knows more than we do about the guard’s preparations and he wants us to stay put…
With some effort, John was able to bury these doubts and keep them separate from the group.
Lemlin continued to press his point. We can’t stay here forever! The team here has an entire twenty-year plan! They’ll have everything worked out! We have to take a risk and make a jump sooner or later, so I say—
Shut up! Someone’s coming!
The E.H.U.D.s stopped their debate and focused on a section of concrete wall directly across form their door into the room. There were presences, minds behind that wall. They had none for some years now that this section of wall housed another door into the great room, but they had yet to see it used.
There was a grinding sound, and then a scraping, and the wall moved out of the way, pulling back and disappearing into the hall beyond just as the other door did. For a moment there was no movement, and then twenty five uniformed figures stepped out of the darkness: eleven women and fourteen men.
The newcomers stopped several yards from the E.H.U.D.s and spread themselves out in a ragged line, staring in fascination at the E.H.U.D.s.
John chose one of the men and, with some effort to push through the unfamiliarity of it, dipped into his mind. It was interesting to see himself through this man’s mind; to truly comprehend how utterly alien he looked, like a healthy, meaty skeleton. When John saw himself through the other guards, he certainly seemed strange, but they were used to seeing him, so not all of the strangeness was truly appreciated. But to this new guard, these strange specimens standing before of him looked like something that had stepped out of a horror film: gaunt, muscular… one of those sprinting zombies that had become popular in the nineteen nineties, not one of the shuffling corpses from the sixties.
John blinked and withdrew himself from the guard’s mind. Without even meaning to, he had stumbled upon the guard’s love of horror films; apparently it was something the guard thought about so often that it had been integrated into the makeup of his conscious mind, able to be picked up by any curious telepath.
They’re scared… someone said. Now… now we attack…
No! Whatever we do—
There was a split second to prepare; a moment when several minds made the decision to attack, and then the second E.H.U.D. insurrection began. Seventeen of the E.H.U.D.s spun around and rushed towards the guards standing behind them, another twelve ran forward to subdue the new guards.
The old guard seemed ready for something like this: they snapped into action, raising their weapons and taking aim at their assailants. Just as the weapons came into position, a sudden weariness swept over them. The rifles grew heavy; their muscles sagged; half of the guards instantly collapsed and began to snore. The rest merely stood helplessly by as their enraged prisoners charged at them and knocked them to the ground.
The new guards fared slightly better: their minds were unfamiliar to the E.H.U.D.s, who had only had the same hundred and a few minds to practice on. Three guards fell asleep, eleven more stumbled and tried to stay awake; the rest grabbed for the pistols holstered at their wastes. Before they could clear the holsters however, the E.H.U.D.s had them. They were pushed to the floor, their own weapons turned against them—
The buzz if the scramblers filled the air. The sound shook John out of the shock he had been in while he watched the attack and he realized that he was standing over one of the guards, a pistol in his hand.
Around the room the scramblers were having their normal effect: some E.H.U.D.s fainted, others screamed in agony, still others simply looked confused.
John glanced around the room, trying to decide what to do next. There were at least twenty E.H.U.D.s still standing, most holding captured weapons. There was Naomi, Dr. Frease, Sarah, Cyd, Talan, Vince… And Allen.
Allen noticed John looking at him and he inclined his head. “Well?” He pointed to the man at John’s feet. “Are you going to do it?”
“I-I didn’t want this—“ John still wasn’t sure how he had ended up here; he had been deadest against an attack.
“It doesn’t matter what you did or did not want. You’ve chosen a course of action: you can kill this man and start the path to our salvation, or you can put the gun down and put us back under Mistlethwakey’s heel.”
“You… You want me to kill him?”
Allen shrugged and went to stand by John, his voice lowering as he drew near. “I want out of this hellhole as much as you do. I want this man dead and this whole mess over with.”
“Then why didn’t you have us attack before? Why didn’t you give Lemlin the go-ahead?”
“Because Lemlin isn’t the leader; he doesn’t decide what’s right for the E.H.U.D.s.”
John was surprised; he knew that Allen was their leader, everyone knew that. But it had always been a reluctant leadership; Allen only did what his people wanted him to do for them. “And what makes you think that you’re able to decide what’s right for us?”
“I don’t; I’m not the leader.” He glanced thoughtfully around the room. “You are.”
“Whenever Lemlin tried to start anything in the past, I kept him quiet. Whenever someone wanted to take a major course of action, I dissuaded them. Not for my sake, not for my timing, but for yours. We’re not leaving here until you’re ready.”
John had no idea what Allen was talking about, but he knew that the E.H.U.D.s newfound position of power couldn’t last forever; they needed to act.
“So you want me to kill him?” John waved the pistol at the guard.
“It really all depends on what you want. If you kill him, the others will follow you. We kill all the other guards, shut down the scramblers and escape. All you have to do is pull the trigger.”
“Why me? What if someone else shoots one of the other guards?”
“They’re too afraid. Even you’re too afraid. But you have me to spur you on; you can do it.”
John swallowed and looked down at the man laying unconscious at his feet. He couldn’t see the man’s face; that helped. As John considered pulling the trigger, it became apparent to him just how human this other person was. Allen could think of him as an obstacle to freedom; even John could. But faced with shooting him…
It would mean freedom, a chance to escape. The guards were complacent today; after this they’d be constantly alert. Lemlin was right; it was now or never.
John slipped his finger behind the trigger guard and took aim at his prisoner’s head… Freedom was just a bullet away… Twenty-five bullets, a hundred bullets, a sea of blood…
John yelled and fired the pistol into the floor next to the man, showering chips of concrete over the three of them. “I can’t! God ****it, I can’t!”
He dropped the pistol and stared down at the man he had almost killed. A moment later he felt Allen’s arm resting on his shoulder. “You couldn’t kill him. That says a lot about the kind of person you are. You’re the good kind, the kind who would be forever haunted by this act. I can’t say if you made the right choice or not, but you made the choice that defines you. You’re a good person.” Allen dropped his arm and walked away.
John looked up at the others standing in the room. They all stared back at him, wide-eyed, their rifles hanging limp beside them. He couldn’t see their thoughts, but he knew what they were thinking: They were still human, still themselves. If the only way out of this mess was to become killers, to change who they were, would it be worth it to save themselves? If they had been the ones to decide if this guard lived or died, if the E.H.U.D.s were to remain victims or transgressors, would they have been able to make the right choice?
One by one, they all dropped their weapons and walked to the middle of the room. John joined them and sat down next to Naomi, who stared blankly at the floor. John knew what was troubling her; he had seen her mind right before the scramblers had closed it off. She was like John, refusing to join in the violence, and then finding herself caught up in it when the time came. And then John knew: she had been faced with the same choice he had been: to kill, to lose herself to the fury. And she had chosen to shift responsibility to someone else, just as John had tried to shift responsibility to Allen.
If Allen had told him to kill the man, John could have done it, could have justified the killing as being truly committed by Allen. But Allen had left the choice to him; let him become the guilty party… And he couldn’t do it.
Despite the years of slavery that stood before them, despite the anger that he knew would be directed his way by guard and E.H.U.D. alike, he felt proud knowing that he had faced his inner darkness and come out unscathed.
But his pride was somewhat overshadowed by what Allen had said to him: John was the leader. He didn’t believe it; Mistlethwakey was the leader, and all that the E.H.U.D.s could hope to do was to maneuver around him and usurp his authority.
Of course, maybe Allen wasn’t thinking about the here and now. He was always planning, anyone could see that. He was always preparing for something, staring carefully and humming to himself. Presumably, he was preparing for the escape.
It suddenly dawned on John: Allen was planning the escape, and was going to use John as a central figure in that plan. Again, pride swelled within him. Allen had chosen John to lead the escape. He was trusted, he was respected, he was deemed worthy of the task.
Next to him, Naomi leaned against his arm and fell asleep. John moved his arm and wrapped it around her shoulder, and then stared out at the far wall.
Above them, John could hear the clicking of dress shoes on concrete; Mistlethwakey had been watching them.
Over the next several hours the guards woke up, gathered their weaponry, dragged the incapacitated E.H.U.D.s kicking and screaming to the center of the room. Only then did the scramblers shut off.
It felt strange to suddenly have the omnipresent buzz gone, to feel the world, the two-hundred familiar minds flooding back into his own. John felt the tension in the room rising: Lemlin and his followers seething with rage that their plan had failed, that they had been taken down so easily; the E.H.U.D.s loyal to Allen wondering if they had made the right choice in surrendering to their better nature; the guards building up resentment against the prisoners who had defeated them so swiftly.
Mistlethwakey’s voice boomed out through the room. “Good job! Much better than last time! If you had actually been able to kill anyone, you might have made it out! Now if you’re all done acting like spoiled children, perhaps you’d like to get back to meeting your new guards! Your old guards will introduce you!”
Silence enveloped the room again, interrupted only by the clicking of Mistlethwakey’s shoes.
“C’mon,” Udarian growled, slapping John on the back of the head and walking towards one of the new guards. John pulled himself to his feet, swaying slightly; after the psychic exertion of the insurrection and the hours of mental lock-down produced by the scrambler, he wasn’t feeling well.
None of us are… Vince confirmed.
Udarian stopped next to a tall, muscular man and beckoned John forward. “Donalson, this is your new keeper: Lieutenant Shaun Wendelferce. Wendelferce, this is the little **** that I have to take care of. I hope you get a chance to kill him while I’m gone.” Without a backwards glance, Udarian walked towards the second doorway and disappeared.
John stared after Udarian for a few moments, wandering what Udarian would do with his time off, and wandering what the chances were that he would die. They were probably considerably higher out there in the real world, what with car accidents and muggings. The thought of Udarian being shot in a robbery gone bad filled John with a small amount of hope.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t spend too much time thinking about Udarian’s death; there was this Wendelferce to worry about now. John turned and looked over his new tormentor. For some reason, he looked oddly familiar…
“So…” Wendelferce drawled, staring blankly up at the ceiling, “I guess you decided not to shoot me.”
That was it—rushing forward, his mind merged with the others, the human shape looming up in front of him, Wendelferce raising his pistol—John took a deep breath and cautiously probed into his guard’s mind. Anger, hate, urge to kill, hold it in, hold it in…
This was not a good start to the next year.
Moments later Lister, Allen’s guard, passed off his charge to Wendelferce and also left the room. Next to join the little group was Vince, much to John’s dismay. He didn’t yet know what the significance of these new prisoner-guard distributions, but he had an uneasy feeling that it would require spending an inordinate amount of time with his group mates.
The final member of the group was Naomi. Her inclusion in a group that already included both John and Allen made John feel more than a bit suspicious. As Allen was always assuring them, Mistlethwakey was not stupid; so why was he putting the three biggest trouble makers in one group together? And if he really was grouping the troublemakers together, why would he include Vince with them? He was annoying and useless.
On the other hand, he had been the first to open up true telepathic communication in the E.H.U.D.s. And now he was lumped in with the troublemakers… John changed his estimation of Vince; there was definitely something hidden behind that amiable face.
John’s thoughts broke off as Wendelferce cleared his throat. “In case any of you missed it, I’m your new overseer, Captain Shaun Wendelferce. Some of you may have heard a different rank, but I assure you that it is captain. Now, I’ve been briefed on what goes on around here, and I have to say you’ve all been pretty lucky; you’ve done nothing but sit around and do basic training. Well, I’m here to tell you that that’s all going to change.”
John couldn’t help it; he laughed.
Wendelferce glanced at John and then, after a moment of hesitation, smiled. “What’s so funny?” There was something frightening about that smile.
John instantly stopped his laughter. “Getting kidnapped and tortured is not my idea of having it easy.”
“Really? Tell me, besides today, how often have you tried to kill your guards?”
“I can’t say individually, but as a whole, just once.”
“I see.” Wendelferce nodded, then pushed a small button on his belt. The sound of the scrambler filled the room, followed by the gasps and screams of the other E.H.U.D.s. “And when you tried to kill your guards, there were no consequences, correct?”
Reluctantly, John nodded. He couldn’t tell what Wendelferce was thinking… and that frightened him…
“Well, that’s what I call having it easy. Unfortunately for you, that’s not the case anymore. For the last five years, you’ve learned how to fight. This year, you’ll learn how to obey orders.” As he spoke, his hand drifted back towards his belt; it emerged moments later with his pistol.
There was a small explosion and then John was rolling on the ground, clutching his mangled foot and screaming.
Allen glared at Wendelferce. “That was uncalled for.”
The pistol aimed at Allen. “Mistlethwakey doesn’t seem to think so; I have complete discretion in these matters. All that he cares about is that you live through this.” He nodded down at John, who was now curled in a ball and sobbing. “He needed to learn that it’s not his place to try to kill us, and I believe that this is the best way for him to learn that. Would you like to try out my method?” Allen stared stonily at the far wall. Wendelferce glanced at Naomi and Vince. “Do either of you have an issue with my methods?”
The mutely shook their heads.
“Good.” Wendelferce re-holstered his pistol and shut down the scrambler, then pointed nonchalantly at John’s twisted foot. “You might want t take care of that.”
John wanted nothing more than to lash out and kill Wendelferce right then and there, but he was too tired; he hadn’t eaten for hours, and his near constant usage of his powers that day had used up almost all of his spare energy. And besides, the guard was right; he needed to heal his foot.
With some effort, John was able to calm his mind, fight back the pain, and concentrate on his foot. His consciousness floated down his leg and rested in the foot, feeling the shredded flesh, the shattered bone. Thank God the bullet had passed all the way through; having to push it out or work around it would simply have been too hard. The remnants of the bone began to dissolve, liquefying and disappearing into the pulped flesh. The ends of the bones began to grow over, covering the exposed marrow in calcifications. Thick ropes of sinew extended from the flesh, wrapping themselves around the growing bone, pulling the limp flesh tight against it…
Somewhere far away, John could feel a gaping hole inside himself, a yearning, a cry of hunger from every cell in his body; the foot was taking more than its fair share of food.
After only a few minutes, John’s energy ran out completely and he was left gasping on the floor, his skin sealed and blood no longer flowing, but with the underlying bone and muscle warped beyond all practical use. He gazed down, wandering if he would be able to fix it later. So far, all their experimentation had been on direct healings, speeding up a simple, natural process. But if they foot stayed like this, if the it remained warped, could he try to change its growth? Or would he have to re-injure it and hope for the best?
A jolt of pain shot through John as his foot began to twist and straighten.
It’s alright… It’s fine… everything is going to be fine…
The short chant repeated itself several times, in three distinct voices. It finally ended when the foot was completely straightened and John was able to stand on it. He looked to his three companions and nodded. Thanks…
No thanks… we are a team, a family, a people… this is what we do…
The thought seemed to come from all of them, but the sentiments were distinctly Allen. John felt a moment of unease, remembering Naomi’s suspicions; it seemed now that Allen was maneuvering him, that he was filling them all with false camaraderie.
A voice spoke, distinct and alone. Not false… I’m doing this all for you, weaving your army, preparing your people for what has to come…
John was about to ask for clarification on that point, to find out what Allen meant by saying that John was the E.H.U.D.s’ leader, when the scrambler turned on again. Somewhere in the distance Lemlin could be heard bellowing in agony.
“Okay, you’re all spending a bit too much time in your own heads. From know on, you don’t get to have your little psychic chats without my say-so.”
“Unless another guard turns off the scramblers.”
Wendelferce closed his eyes, turned to face Allen, and opened them again. “What makes you think the others have access to the scrambler system?”
“First, this is a room-wide system, meant to neutralize a hundred of us; you’re only in charge of four. Second, at least one of the other guards is a major; I highly doubt that she would allow an underling exclusive control of the system.”
“Now, here’s where you’re wro—“ Wendelferce was interrupted by the sudden silence that filled the room. “****.”
Allen smiled. “I thought so.”
Vince snorted. “Looks like you’re not so all-powerful after all!”
Wendelferce’s face cleared of expression and his breathing slowed.
John closed his eyes; he didn’t want to see what he knew was coming.
When his eyes opened, Wendelferce was, to his surprise, lying on the ground, clutching at his throat.
Naomi spat on him. “You have the guns, you have the scramblers, but we have the five years of hand-to-hand combat. Don’t **** with us.”
It was too much; John smiled. He regretted that he hadn’t been the one to hit him, but he was certainly glad that someone had been able to humble Wendelferce.
Several minutes later, Wendelferce was able to stand. “Okay, okay, you’ve proved your point; we each have strengths.” The frightening smile returned. “But I still have one advantage over you. You see, I know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
“And so will we,” John replied. His anger had cooled, and he now saw the guard for what he was; a weak bully. He had been given power over the four of them, and he had been quick to use it. This man was to be pitied, not feared. And then John realized something: he could do it now, could kill this man without any qualms. He wasn’t really a person, a true human. He was just an animal, a male trying to be the alpha of this little pack, and willing to do anything to assert his dominance. He wasn’t a person, just a roadblock to their freedom.
When next he got the chance, John would take it, and Wendelferce would be dead.
There was a glint in Wendelferce’s eye. “I never said that I wanted to keep this information private.”
John was taken aback; he had assumed that this last little bit of posturing was just a bluff. But if they were expected to find out what it was that Wendelferce knew…
I’ll do it… Allen expressed his vitality, the energy he had left to go into the guard’s mind and find out whatever he could. Vince, Naomi, and John needed to conserve their strength.
A moment later a wave of revulsion hit them as Allen emerged from the guard’s mind. He took a step backwards and stared incredulously at Wendelferce. “You can’t be serious…”
Next to Allen, Naomi was staring wide eyed at the floor and Vince was firmly shaking his head. All John could do was tremble.
Wendelferce smiled. “I think we have a new understanding here. For you four, I am god. I will take you and make you into the perfect soldiers. And if you don’t conform to my mold, you will die.”
There was a sharp whistle from somewhere near the ceiling. Wendelferce looked up, glanced around at the other groups, and then returned his attention to his own E.H.U.D.s. “That was the signal for lights-out. It’s coming a bit early tonight because-“ his face split in a huge grin- “you have a big day tomorrow. Return to your normal barracks; you’ll all sleep alone tonight.” With a brief, mocking salute, he turned and strode off to where a group of guards was congregating near the second door.
“Naomi…” Vince mumbled. She turned and embraced him.
All around the room the other E.H.U.D.s seemed to be in shock, either standing still or pacing in tight circles and muttering. John knew they had all seen what he had seen: what they would have to do tomorrow.
He looked to Allen. “I won’t do it.”
“What choice do we have?”
“I couldn’t kill him today and I certainly won’t kill them tomorrow.”
“If we don’t, we die.” So saying, Allen left the group, heading towards the first door, and the barracks beyond.
“I won’t do it,” John repeated. No one heard him.
As he began the short trip back to his barracks, John reevaluated Wendelferce, based on what he had seen in his mind, what he was taking part of tomorrow, how much he enjoyed it. John had been wrong: Wendelferce was not a simple bully, not a roadblock to freedom. He was a threat.
And John knew that what he had done earlier that day was a mistake, a sign of weakness. If he got another opportunity, he would kill Shaun Wendelferce.