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Authors: K.C. Finn

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BOOK: Sinister Sentiments
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Video, images and audio flash by so quickly that I can hardly make each one out individually. At first, the general theme seems to be rather ordinary - sunshine, blue skies, the laughing faces of children - but after a while, I begin to notice other things between the pleasant sights. Soldiers donning black fatigues salute the System’s flag. The bodies of rebels are strewn across blood-soaked battlefields. Captives strain for escape from overcrowded cells. And Governor Prudell, the stern leader of the new nation, is a regular feature among the pictures. Always smiling. Always approving of the System’s desperate measures to retain control. All of these images are peppered between the joyful ones, the System looking mighty and majestic, as though it is responsible for all the alleged happiness in our land.

Now I recognise what Reuben’s ‘courses’ entail. This is good old-fashioned brainwashing. Whatever the System has done to my body, this mental tune-up is supposed to be the next step. If they expect to be able to force my mind into loyalty and subservience, then they can think again. Anger begins to burn within me at the prospect, but the second my rage flares, a pulse of pain shoots into my nerves from the clips at my hands and feet. The band across my head must be measuring how I react. If I can’t get control of how I feel, Reuben’s technology will give me away. The stream of pain is constant, spreading like wildfire towards my heart and lungs as I try to hold it in, wishing there was some way to avoid the rage and indignation that I feel.

There is one way.

Malcolm. His memory brought me peace when I feared death, and the prospect of losing my mind is no greater a fear than losing my life. He must already think that he’s lost me. I can’t let him down. I must try to get through this moment, even just for the faint hope of seeing him smile on my return. That toothy smile, the one I fell in love with when we were both too young to know what was coming. That smile that he bears in triumph every time we beat the System back. The memory is strong enough to overtake my vision, sending me into a daydream that the pictures on Reuben’s machine cannot penetrate.

“Well, that seems to have done the trick.”

It seems like hours have passed when Reuben speaks. He snaps his fingers and Stacey appears, ready to unclip me from the equipment with hands that still tremble. Reuben seems happy with my progress, but his assistant isn’t so sure. He keeps looking over his shoulder at me as he wheels the screen away, and it strikes me that Stacey is probably the smarter of the these two fools. Reuben examines my face again, and I even let a dollop of drool slide down my chin for effect. The bigger idiot smiles at that.

“Perfectly catatonic,” he states. “Stacey, help me get her up. We’ll see if we can get her to walk around for us.”

It’s hard to conceal my eager nerves as the shackles on my wrists are removed. I stay in my seat at first, playing the docile role, until Reuben suddenly shouts at me, the way you might call on a particularly dopey pet. He claps his hands together sharply and I rise to my feet. I’d expected my legs to be weak and unsteady, but every muscle and sinew within me feels abnormally strong. The chainmail skin on my left side slides against my loose smock as I take a few steps. Reuben puts his fingertips on my back, guiding me around like an eager boy with a wind-up toy soldier. The irony of that image is not lost on my mind as I calculate a method for escape.

Stacey is still in the doorway, and what lies beyond him, I can only imagine. I have always been speedy and light on my feet, but never particularly strong. Before I died in battle, I was always far more comfortable with a gun in my grip. Now, I feel strangely superior as Stacey’s feet inch backwards with my every advance. If I rush him, there’s a good chance that his overwhelming fear will order him to get out of my way. The plan, then, must be to put Reuben out of action and get out of the door in record time.

“Turn this way,” Reuben commands.

I swivel in the opposite direction to his orders, now facing the door side-on. I can hear the doctor tutting, his footsteps approaching behind me.

“Daft thing,” he mutters. “I said this way, to face me.”

When he puts his hands on my shoulders, ready to turn me, I make my move. My arms shoot up and I grab his wrists, using his weight against him as I fling him straight over my head. I watch for a second as the brown-suited figure goes crashing into my hard metal chair, wincing at the crack where his head connects with the bands that shackled me. As I expected, Stacey is already running, but when I get out into the corridor to track him, I can see that he’s heading for a big red alarm button, on the wall some hundred metres away.

When I first joined the military with Malcolm, I wasn’t the fastest hundred-metre girl by anyone’s standards. Now, when my feet lift from the ground, I can feel an impossible pace quickening with every step. It must be seconds before I reach Stacey who, after a quick look over his shoulder, drops to the ground to cower. I come to a dead stop, fishing for the back of his neck between his flailing hands, and lifting him up to meet my eye. I don’t even have to drag his considerable weight; my left arm is more than capable of holding him steady.

“Best exit?” I ask. No reply, just mumbling. I shake the poor man until his mouth falls open. “Come on,” I urge. “Which way? Which way do I get out?”

Stacey points in the opposite direction to which I have run. “East block…. fire escape,” is all he can manage to stammer.

I drop him and start running, the echo of a horrible thump at my back. Perhaps I dropped him a little too hard; this body doesn’t seem to be one I can control all that well. At least it runs where I want it to, though, and it’s pretty good at barreling through droves of scientists. All of the corridors in this facility are full of white-coats and brown-suits of indeterminate number, and most of them are sensible enough to get out of the way when they see a wild rebel woman on the loose. It must be more than simple fear, though, because even the largest and the strongest of the staff are bowled over as I speed by. I am more than a rebel now. Whatever the System did to fix me, I have become the thing it may come to fear more than any of its enemies.

Someone else must have sounded the alarm, because when I find the fire escape to the east, a set of solid steel shutters are coming down on it. Even my newly-improved grip cannot reverse the motion as the heavy blockade falls, but I’m nothing if not ingenious under the promise of getting home to Malcolm and my people. The System, like all good bureaucratic buildings, is a stickler for health and safety. There is a fire alarm right next to the fire exit. Clenching my left-hand fingers tightly, I ready myself for the punch.

It is only when I’ve shattered the fire glass that I really look at my hand for the first time. I don’t know why I was expecting it to look the same, after it’s been so much stronger and better coordinated all through my escape, but now I know that it has been vastly altered. My fingers are coated in the same chainmail skin that was grafted to my middle, and they are thicker and wider than the natural, caramel-hued fingers of my other hand. Seeing them together, it’s like someone has ripped half of me away and fused me together with somebody else. I stand for a few long seconds as the fire alarm and the security alarms blare out, staring at my hands as I turn them over in the air.

The fire alarm has overridden the shutter, and the blockade is lifting once again. When it’s a foot off the ground, I drop and kick the fire doors open beyond it. Rolling out into the hillside, it’s not hard to see that I’m not too far from where I died in the first place. Scaling the hill isn’t something I would normally consider, but when I glance down at my legs and bare feet, the glint of metal there tells me that I could run up any mountainside from now on. I bolt up the steep hill, reaching the peak in mere minutes as I leave behind the alarms from the facility below. If they’re going to give chase, it will be with a mobilisation of real soldiers, against whom I might not fare quite as well. The memory of the flamecannon that brought about my end still sends a shiver through my modified body as I gaze around on the hilltop for an indication of where to go.

That’s when I see the bodies strewn across the valley. Their insignia and camouflage colours tell me that it’s not my squad of rebels, but a fellow group that I once admired very much. A rough scan of the number of corpses would suggest that they have all been wiped out in this fray. A pang hits my heart as I realise that I was one of those bodies, in another battle not so long ago. I am lucky to be standing here, alive and stronger than ever. I remember what it was like to lie there with my life ebbing away, to hear that peculiar buzzing, the drone-sound growing as the blackness hit my vision.

The droning. That sound is here right now.

There is another hill on the far side of the valley, and over it there emerges a squad of small black vehicles. They are not large enough to contain a driver, unless he were to lie down flat within the structure, and they hover close to the battlefield, making that awful sound that I heard when I was dying. They are heading for the bodies of the rebels below us, and the machines reach them with good speed. It looks to me as though they are running them over where the corpses lie, their sleek black shapes roving atop the bodies, until one suddenly stops.

I stare hard at the vehicle, watching as the rebel body beneath it is sucked up into the hull. The black craft has taken on a passenger. It turns sharply and zips off through the battlefield, suddenly scaling the base of the hill on which I stand. Its speed is so great that I can scarcely do anything but dive into a clump of bushes to get out of its way, but the unmanned craft doesn’t seem to care that it’s gliding past an escaped experiment. When it shoots by me, I glimpse for a moment the dark, yet transparent interior, where the body of the rebel is lying supine, as if in a funeral hearse.

The black vehicle descends the hill, heading straight for the facility from which I have just escaped. The pieces come together as Reuben’s words ring through my mind.
The Reavers are bringing in new meat today.
This is how the System picks its subjects to save and transform into brainwashed servants. The man who has just passed me by will be close to death, but the price of living in the System’s hands won’t be one he has a choice about paying. I was ‘unsuitable’, after all. It unnerves me to think how many ‘suitable’ ones there have been. Enough to build an army, perhaps.

I can’t waste any more time here. I have so much information that I can give to Malcolm to help the rebels thwart the System’s latest plan. I bolt down the hill and straight through the corpse-field, up the next pass to see where the Reavers had come from before they found their new bounty. I barely have to pause for breath on this rise, and it is only the sound of gunfire that gives me cause to halt. There is life here, and a familiar formation of dark-fatigued figures moving in a retreat-pattern below. I should be with them. And, in mere minutes, I will be.

My squad are retreating from a section of automatic guns that have popped up from underground. These rotating pistons spray bullets at ankle-height to try and disable advancing soldiers, but as I reach the guns, I land on the first one with the full weight of my new metal side. It collapses in a flurry of malfunctions, and I scramble up to give the second weapon a good square kick. The whole rotating head of the gun comes flying off and clanks to a landing a few metres away. I turn with a smile, expecting to see my fellow rebels pausing to give a cheer, but they are still backing away. I begin to walk towards them, my brows furrowed at the sight of their raised guns. When they increase their pace, I start to run to make sure they can’t get away before I join them.

And then they’re shooting.

They’re shooting at me. Can’t they see who I am? Don’t they know at this close distance that I’m Delilah, their chief tech and espionage woman? Isn’t Malcolm there to stop them firing endless rounds as I walk forward, shielding my weaker side from the bullets as they bounce off the chainmail skin?

“Hold your fire!”

Yes. He is there. Emerging from the centre of the pack, I see his greying hair, that was so jet black when we first met. He looks like he’s favouring an injured shoulder, but it doesn’t stop him keeping the gun raised as he jogs to approach me. His cool blue eyes survey me, and I realise what a state I must look. It seems ridiculous to feel bashful after all I’ve just been through, but Malcolm is the only person in the world who can still make me feel like the girl I was when we met.

“Delilah?” he asks.

I nod. I want to cry, but no tears will come. It’s now that I finally raise my hand to my face, like I wanted to so long ago in my cell. It is now that I feel the slippery, metal skin all over the left side and completely covering my jaw. There is barely a patch left over my right eye which is my own natural flesh. No wonder the squad couldn’t tell it was me. But Malcolm could. Any minute now, that smile of relief and love will overcome his war-beaten looks. Any minute now, the smile I survived for will reward me for all the pain I’ve been through.

“It’s been three weeks,” Malcolm utters. “I thought you were… What happened? Delilah, can you speak? Is it really you?”

The smile never comes. Through all my stories, the return to our mountain base, and even when I’m cleaned up and put back in proper clothes, Malcolm’s beaming smile never comes to greet me. When he does break a grin, it looks strained, and it’s never when he’s looking me in the eye. Sometimes, I feel like it might have been better if the System had turned me into his enemy. It might have been less painful to look into his fearful eyes if I had let go of all the times when he’d looked on me with love.

BOOK: Sinister Sentiments
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