This time there was light, soft and blue, wrapping around shapes and making the whole world glow. John lay in a large bed, his arms held to side-rails by short padded lanyards. Tubes and wires descended from a tangle of devices that hung around him. Beyond those he could see milky-white curtains, cutting him off from the shadowy forms beyond.
This time, there was order, a dependable schedule. There was a day of discernible length, a night of dimmed light. Four times a day a person in a thick green plastic suit would come in, check the devices, check him, leave. After that would come a vibration in the tube running through John's mouth and into his body, then he would feel full and satisfied. Compared to what had come before it was a good life.
Except he couldn't sleep. Every time his mind began to drift away, every time his stomach felt full and ready to digest, he would see Suzanne slumped lifeless on the floor. Would wonder again if he had actually moved his finger, or if the two men had chosen arbitrarily. Compared to this place of rest, was it better to be dead? Was Suzanne in the best place he could have chosen for her? Had he protected her, or once again hurt her? Or had she chosen quick escape for herself, leaving him the painful choice and the even more painful life beyond? Every time he thought of her, he missed her. Every time he missed her, he hated her. Every time he hated her, he longed to have her back.
After twenty days, solace came to him; he had made the right choice. The person in the thick green suit had come, like always, had checked him over. But this time the person didn't leave. This time, John's straps were tightened, new straps were added to his ankles, across his legs and chest. He was trapped in the bed, unable to move.
His attendant left, returned a moment later with a large handled box. Inside were row upon row of syringes holding a clear liquid. A syringe was selected, fluid was injected, John was infected.
That night, as the lights dimmed and John tried to sleep, he felt hot. He was sweating now, his eyes stinging, his body aching. He tried to move, to curl in on himself to escape the pain, but it was no use; the straps were too tight.
By morning, he was not alone. Suzanne and Lucy lay beside him, both resplendent in frilly wedding gowns, the white lace pouring over the sides of the bed. They caressed his forehead, reassured him, told him that he had made the right choice. Suzanne had no one to return to; John had Lucy. It was is if the weight of the world had lifted from his chest.
They both leaned close, tried to kiss him around his feeding tube—
The attendant returned. John was poked, prodded. Notes were made on a small tablet. As the attendant left, as the food returned, John came to his senses enough to see the women fade and vanish. In their place was his body, strapped to the bed.
He was thin, his stringy muscles standing out in sharp detail. All along the pale skin were patches of purple-tinged red, like bruises, rising up above the underlying muscle. As he watched, the red patches grew, connecting in places. They bulged, hardened, oozed with pus, retracted, formed again. With each new growth, each change in his body, he became hotter, began to gasp for breath, faded away into the inferno that was boiling just beneath his skin.
His last thought before passing out was that perhaps he had died, and what he was feeling were the flames of hell...
This time there were voices. They spoke softly, incoherently, mumbling from every side. They woke John, brought him out of the pit with Suzanne and back to the bed. His body stretched out before him, pale and smooth, the matrix of scars completely gone. He didn’t know how long his mind had been away, but it must have been for a considerable span.
His mind... it must be playing tricks on him. The voices continued, but they were too clear. Thick plastic sheets still cut him off from the rest of the world, but they didn't muffle the sounds. In fact, they seemed to be completely unmodulated. The voices came to him, free of echo, pure of tone. It seemed less like he was hearing them so much as directly perceiving them with his mind.
Trying to listen to the voices, to take in what they had to say, was stranger still. There seemed to be no thought behind the words—or rather, too much thought. One voice would start: Oh, God, how could I let him... I shouldn't be here... Then another would break in: Kill then all... as soon as I can move, I'll kill them... Then yet another: How much longer, how much longer, how much longer...
The more John listened, the more the words broke down, the more he heard—felt—raw emotion. Images floated along with the words: hundreds of faces, all ages and races, most out in the sun, living in the world. Many, thin and naked, their hair shorn and pain evident in their eyes.
Whoever these mysterious speakers were, they seemed to have suffered just as he had.
And the voices continued.
The attendant came, the feeding tube vibrated, and the voices continued. Day dimmed into night, John tried to sleep, and the voices continued. He tried to block them out by thinking of Suzanne. As he focused on her, the whisper-pictures of the other victims became louder, and he shifted to Lucy. This brought about even louder whispers, but now of friends, of family, of good times in the world of the living. As the whisper-pictures continued to flood his mind, he was able to drift off to sleep, convinced that this had all been a bad dream.
And the voices continued.
Just before sleep claimed him, another voice joined the din, strong and sure, and completely clear in meaning. I'm sorry... I didn't want to, but you are the first sacrifice for the new world... there is no solace for you in this life, but there will be for some of you in the life to come...
Falling asleep in one impossible situation only to awaken in another was becoming routine by now. This time John was in a gymnasium-sized room, made of the same dark cement as the halls of this place. This time when he woke to find a sea of clothes-less, hairless people around him, he didn't panic; neither did the others. As they came awake, as they recognized they were not alone, they merely nodded greeting to each other, then scooted away and become obsessed with their own misery.
As the group fragmented, the whisper-pictures returned...
The sound of boots echoed around the room, distorted by the space: real sounds, not in his head. Standing along one wall, about midway down the room, were the two men who had stood behind the chairs. Based on the angry buzz that came through the voices, the endless identical whisper-pictures, these men had stood behind many chairs... or at least many occupants.
The shorter man took a step forward. “Greetings, everyone. My name is Allen. My colleague,” he gestured at the other man, “is Shaun. For now, those are our only names. And you,” he looked around the room, locking gazes with every hate-filled pair of eyes in the room, “have been chosen to become the greatest weapons humankind has ever made. We live in a dangerous world, always on the edge of cataclysmic end. Everyone is always so ready to give offense. What we need is defense. You... you will be Defenders.”
For a moment there was silence. For a moment no sound, real or imagined, disrupted the sanctity of what the man—Allen—said.
Then there was a yell, a single lungful of echoing noise, backed a thousand-fold by the voices. Someone leapt from the ground, rushed at Allen. The other man—Shaun—twitched forward, an eagerness glinting from his eyes, but Allen was faster, intercepting the attacker, gripping him in a massive bear hug.
John found himself unable to breath, the cable-like muscles of Allen's arms holding him more firmly then the bed restraints ever had.
“You,” he whispered into John's ear. “You would have defended her if you could. I'm giving you that chance now.”
John grunted, let out a short gasp of air. He prayed the others would follow him, rescue him, but he heard no sound of movement.
Oh, they want to help you... I'm not letting them, though... It's better that way... Your time to lead them will come John...
John. The shock of hearing his own name, the horror of knowing that the people here knew who he was, sent a wave of nausea rolling through him, and his legs gave way. Allen crouched, lowered him to the ground, laid him gently on the rough floor.
Hey... A new voice. I thought we'd agreed, no more of this touchy-feely shit...
The General agrees with my methods... What I do here, I do with authority...
Allen stared back out at the crowd, his eyes lingering on John. You're not supposed to hear that... But I need you to know that no matter what, we're on the same team... I'm just getting a head start on trust...
As Allen's voice spoke into his mind, John was aware of the man's true voice, air and vocal-cords voice, echoing around the room. This man could speak silently while he also spoke aloud...
And this man had just spoken silently into John's mind. The low voices, the whisper-pictures, had been vague and confusing, coming off a period of emotional stress and severe sickness. But this time he felt whole, felt rested, felt alert. And this man had just spoken into his mind.
The nausea that had hit him when Allen used his name returned, in greater force, and the last remnants of what had been in the feeding tube sprayed in an arc over Allen's boots.
Don't worry yourself... I can get them clean later...
Routine was once more becoming routine. Every day the lights would turn on, and Shaun would walk into the room. He would lead his horde of prisoners through exercises, then combat kata, then walk amongst them as they sparred against each other. He would correct them if they performed an action poorly, give a cold nod of acknowledgement if they performed an action well. If any of his Defenders refused to fight, or chose to fight him, he would send them to the ground, twitching and writhing in psychic agony.
Every day, this was John. Every day he would follow the exercises, would go through the motions of the combat forms, would test his mettle against one of his compatriots. Then, just as Shaun passed by him, he would swing out, try to catch Shaun unawares, try to hurt him. Every day he would end up on his back, radiating hatred at Shaun's smiling face.
Every day, Shaun would have the last word. “Goddamn, Donalson, how are you ever going to please that girlfriend of yours if you don't even have the balls to hit me?”
Every day, John vowed revenge.
After exercises there was food and water. The same bean-paste as before, but much more of it. They were encouraged to eat. Not just to eat, to gorge themselves. They would eat until they were almost ready to vomit, then the lights were dimmed and they were told to rest. For the first few days, there was nervous whispering, hurried plans to overwhelm the two men and escape. Within a week, all discussion stopped, and all rested.
Nap time would end, and Allen would enter the room. In contrast to Shaun, he always smiled, always greeted his horde by name. “Ashleigh, you're looking well today. Vince, glad to see that arm's healing.” And always, a private word for John. I didn't mean for this to happen... Just give me a little while longer, and it will all make sense...
They sat in loose rows before him, their legs folded, hands resting palms-up on knees. The first day they had been nervous, uncertain. Allen led them through breathing exercises, through meditation techniques. Many, those who had spoken throughout the nap period, had fallen asleep.
Carefully opening one eye and looked around, John saw Allen stand, saw him approach one of those who slept. A young woman, honey-skinned with a round head and a flat nose. John flinched inside, already sympathetic to the pain this woman was about to endure.
Allen reached down and patted her bare shoulder. “Naomi? Wake up, I'm afraid there's still work to do today.”
Her eyes snapped open and she looked around terrified. Those sitting closest to her edged away, unwilling to suffer Allen's wrath.
Allen smiled, nodded in acknowledgement, and returned to the front of the room. “Now you all see the importance of rest before this exercise. If the mind can't stay awake while it is away from the body, it is useless...”
As the weeks slowly passed, Allen's instruction became steadily more bizarre. Yet even as it raised so many questions about why they were there, why they had been kidnapped and tortured, it also answered other questions.
Now, I know you all can hear me... I want to hear you... You've been doing it already, unconsciously... Now, I want you all to envision my mind, to seek it out, to speak purposefully to it...
There was a confused babble from the voices, sudden flashes of whisper-pictures. But they were quieter this time, less, clear, as if they had been focused at one destination, as if less of the signal were getting lost.
I hate you Allen... I hate you and Shaun, and this place and your goddamned mysterious General...
Allen smiled. “Very good, everyone; we've made progress. I think we'll end a little early today. Maybe tonight, while you're sleeping, you'll try to reach out and speak to someone with what I have shown you. I sincerely hope you do...” I'm not against you, John... I hate this place just as much as you do... This was not what I expected... Just give me time...
After Allen there was more food. Food, feasting, sleep. They all lay curled in a mass in the middle of the room. For some reason, sleep came easier to them after their time with Allen than their time with Shaun.
It was during this time, after a hard day of training, after the two men had left, that the Defenders talked.
“You know,” a short woman named Cyd said, “things might go better for you if you don't antagonize Shaun.”
A girl, no more than 16—Maria—scoffed and said, “He's the only one who's willing to do what we should all be doing. Just because it looks like we're stuck here doesn't mean we can't find a way out.”
“He keeps speaking to me...” John said. About ten others turned to stare at him. “Allen. In my mind. He keeps telling me that he's sorry this is all happening, that if we're patient, he'll get us all out of here.”
Cyd's eyes widened and she gestured at John. “Okay, then just keep your head down; he'll let us go. We just wait, and everything's fixed.”
“I'm sorry, how long have we been here?”
Cyd didn't respond.
“How long were you held in a tiny room, being tortured, huh? I'd guess for me at least a month, maybe longer. I wouldn't know; I was too busy being mind-fucked. And then, you know what? I killed the one person who was there for me throughout that time, the one person who needed me. Then I got infected with God only knows what. Did that happen to you too?”
“And how long do you think Allen's known about that, huh? At least since I killed Suzanne?”
“Harry...” Cyd muttered.
“You think if maybe, maybe he was going to get us out of here, he would have done it before we were tortured, or before they turned us into killers, huh? You think he might have done it while we were still human?” John was trembling now, breathing heavily. “If he was going to get us out of here, he should have done it by now. At this point, I don't want his help. I'll do whatever I need to, to get out on my own.”
He glared at Cyd, waited for her to say something. She looked away. He sighed. His anger released, he fell back to the concrete, then turned on his side and tried to sleep.
It continued like this for over a year. Wake up, Shaun, food, sleep, Allen, food, sleep, wake up, Shaun. They grew stronger, faster, their bodies honed to perfection. Sparring was no longer a challenge, was just a game of blocking each other's moves. Their minds also grew stronger, also neared perfection. They had long ago moved past speaking to each other through their thoughts, long ago moved past simple matter manipulation. They had all moved together, their minds linked, passing through an entire human body, seen its intimate workings, healed its maladies, found a hundred thousand ways of killing it without ever leaving a mark. They had moved beyond thinking of themselves as single isolated humans, had now become something more.
And then one night Allen spoke to them while they slept.
Soon, others will come into this place, to test you, to use you... You will be asked to do terrible things... And now, I will ask you to do the most terrible thing of all... I will ask that you trust me...
And with those words a dream began. The memory of being Allen entered their minds, and they were all corporals in the United States Army, standing in a sterile room, dressed in nothing but a thin paper gown.
“You understand the risks of this?” an older man asked.
“Sir, yes, sir, proud to risk my life for my country, sir!”
“No need to be so gung-ho, Corporal Fendleton. The tests have been very effective with animals; your prognosis looks good.”
Fendleton nodded as a doctor led him to an examining table.
The older man continued. “Fendleton, if this works out... Well, not only do we have that promotion I mentioned, but also the possibility of training some others. It won't be immediate, mind you, we still need to find out what you're capable of, but if you meet our expectations, we're looking to increase the scope of the program, and...” He shrugged. “You'd be in on the ground floor.”
Allen laughed around a tongue depressor. “Sou's goo' 'a 'e.”
The scene faded, shifted, and now they all lay in familiar beds, with the familiar tension of restraints on their arms as familiar pain racked through their bodies.
In the next bed over—the only other bed in the room—lay Shaun.
“Goddammit,” he yelled, “this was a fucking mistake!”
All Allen could do was groan agreement.
The scene faded again. Now First Lieutenant Allen Fendleton stood before the desk of the older man, Colonel Robert Mistlethwakey. “You've done good, son. Much better than our initial estimates. Hell, all the chimps did was make the researchers give them bananas and get horny. Unfortunately, your prowess leaves us in a bit of a predicament.”
“I've already spoken this over with the President, and he agrees. Drawing volunteers for an augmented intelligence force is one thing, but for fucking superheroes? We can't have acknowledged people on our pay with those kinds of powers, not if we don't want the rest of the world to nuke us to hell and back. This goes a bit beyond Project Stargate. No, we're going completely black ops on this one. We're recruiting from the populace, doing this in such a way that no one can trace it back to us. Matter of fact, we've already started. Now, we just need you and Lieutenant Wendleferce to train the unfortunate motherfuckers.”
“Sir, I...” unease passed through the multitude that shared Allen's mind. “Sir, I have some reservations about that...”
“Come on, now, Fendleton, where's that gung-ho spirit you used to have? We need it for this. You said you were willing to do anything for your country, yes?”
And now they were back in the bright cubes, hiding behind the prototype powered armor the General had passed on. They stood next to Todd Frease, the program doctor, as Shaun mercilessly beat one of his victims. The thin little man, freckled skin, mid-thirties—Harry—tried to stand, but Shaun hit him again, cracking the skull, spraying blood over the woman in the room—Cyd.
That's enough, Shaun... You can't just kill them...
Shaun reached out and pinched a vessel in Cyd's brain; she collapsed into unconsciousness. Then he began pushing together the split side's of Harry's head, fusing the skull back together.
Doesn't really matter, does it? One of them is going to die anyway...
Allen felt a wave of revulsion, and marched out of the room.
The scene faded, and now there was only darkness.
I didn't want to do this, but... It was supposed to be for the best... You were supposed to be a first-line defense against global threats, but now I see that won't work... You're greater than a single nation, a single cause... You are gods among men, forces of a global scale, and you must defend all of humanity... You are strong now, I trust you now with what power you have...
I ask now that you savor what power you have tasted, and stay with me as I feed you more... Stay here and learn all you can, become more powerful than you could ever have imagined, and together we will rise from this pit and ascend to a world in need of what we can offer... I asked you once to be Defenders... Now I ask you again... Forgive the unforgivable thing I have done, and use this power to truly defend the defenseless...
And throughout the room, forty-nine freighted, desperate, hopeful mind answered Yes... And one mind answered No...
The next morning lights turned on, and Shaun strode into the room. He stopped, fell into a pose, performed a swift set of movements, stopped and watched as his students did the same. Then, another set. Both were movements taught long ago, returned to be fresh in the student's minds. More movements, his students following them all exactly. Then he walked amongst them, reaching out his arms to touch two, telling them to fight, touching another two, the same.
He passed by John, sneered at him, just as he had every day.
The fighting began, a fluid dance of twenty-five pairs swirling and striking, flowing around each other, never quite hitting. Shaun continued to walk amongst them, to become a sudden third player in the dance, to move through and be gone. He passed by John, readied himself... but John ignored him. John continued to be engrossed by the tall, thick-limbed body of Merv the Soldier, continued to participate whole-heartedly in the dance.
So Shaun passed through them, confident that today there had been a change.
The dance ended, small doors on either end of the room slid open, and bowls of food were passed through. Shaun watched as his students stood, got their food, began to eat.
John watched Shaun. He kept track of the man—the monster—as he went to the wall, picked up a bowl, sat down with Cyd and Naomi to eat.
Shaun started towards a door. John picked up the bowl and poured its contents onto the floor.
He stood, threw the bowl, held it in his mind and flung it at Shaun, crashing it into the side of his face, spraying blood.
John leapt forward, all concentration on his hips and legs, reaching Shaun in under two seconds, grabbing him, throwing him to the ground.
Shaun took the weight of the thin Defender, rolled, came up to his feet grappling with John. They both broke apart, began swinging at each other, neither hitting, too evenly matched. John struck out with his third fist, his invisible fist, flattening Shaun's face and spraying out even more blood. He reached inside with the fist, found Shaun's heart, began to squeeze it.
Shaun gasped, clutched at his chest, narrowed his eyes. John was flung backwards, scraped along the rough ground for a yard, his back torn and bloody. He came up, lunged, found all feeling below his waist disappear, stumbled and collapsed, his legs flopping and twitching, trying to find a signal from the brain.
John glared up as Shaun leaned over him, his flattened nose extending, snapping back into place, the flow of blood drying and stopping.
“Before, back when it was just a swing or two at my head? That was kind of cute. You were just trying to show you weren't broken, were still fighting back. That was good, that was spirit. But this? This is just goddamn sad. You don't get it yet, do you? You can't beat me. I rule here, and you have no choice but to fall in line.”
John tried to muster a wad of bloody saliva, to spit it up into Shaun's face, but it merely fell back into his own.
“I know all about you, Johnny-boy. I've read your files and I've read your mind. What you don't seem to realize is, while you're stuck here, I can leave whenever I want. What's to stop me from going up to Philadelphia, from finding Lucille Dawkins, from doing whatever I damn well please to here?”
John began to twitch.
“You may think the outside world is gone. In a way, it is. You can't touch it. But it can sure as hell touch you. I can come back and tell you just exactly what I did to her. Hell, I can do one better. I can show you, I can give you a nice vicarious conjugal visit to your little girlfriend. How'd you like that?”
John continued to twitch, his eyes growing wider.
“Good.” Shaun straightened and walked away.
As feeling returned to John's body, as he was able to roll over and stand, to see the stunned and piteous looks of his compatriots, a voice came into his mind.
Now will you do it? Now will you bide your time with me, join me in subverting men like him? Now will you be one of my Defenders?
John walked stiffly back to Cyd and Naomi, scooped some bean-paste off the ground, ate it.
What do you want me to do?