"The last we saw them, one of our trucks had rammed into them from the side and threw them into the forest."
The trench-coated man, standing still as he stood on the side of the road and surveyed the forest in front of him, began to speak into the cellphone again.
"We've searched the woods for the wreckage, but have yet to find anything. Wherever they ended up, it sure isn't anywhere near here."
"I see," the voice of Gabriel Arsene replied slowly. After a few moments of silence, he spoke again. "For now, call off the search. We'll begin a new search in the morning with more men. Finding the laptop is our top priority now. The teenagers are most likely dead."
Chris looked around the dimly lit room that he was in. After finishing his conversation with Gabriel Arsene, workers had escorted him to this storage room. Chris did not have the confidence to try and resist. Once inside the room, he was given a set of clothes — a red hoodie and dark jeans — and was told to be quiet until someone came for him.
Emerging from the floor he had been lying down on, he peered through the window to see what seemed to be dark pavement illuminated by nothing but moonlight. Suddenly, a hushed noise: footsteps. Regardless of whoever the approaching person was, Chris knew calling for help was a bad idea.
Light started to fill the room as Chris heard the sound of a door opening behind him.
Standing in the doorway was a set of three figures. Two gray, identical metal humanoids with patterned lights on their chest and thin limbs stood on either side of a bulky figure. The one in the middle wore a red suit of armor with a fogged helmet of glass that covered their face.
"Chris Wellington, I think you're ready. Please follow me," the middle figure said in a muffled voice.
"Ready?" Chris replied, unsure of the identity of those before him. "Who are you? What is going on?"
"I need you to come out and follow us. I'll answer your questions then." They replied slowly, not making use of any gestures in their speech.
Chris felt uneasy as he listened to the request. Though he feared whatever was planned for him, the android did not want to remain in the small space he was in forever. "Okay, let's go."
The figure nodded and gestured for Chris to approach him. As Chris took some steps closer, the identical humanoids began to shift their positions. They slowly seemed to move closer together, away from the person in the armor. "Go in between these two and we'll take you to where you need to be." Chris nodded, going between the two metal figures as the armored person shut the door behind them.
Chris started to follow the figure in red, carefully escorted by the two bodies of metal on his side. As they continued through a white, bleak corridor lined with a series of numbered doors, Chris decided now would be an appropriate time to ask questions.
"Do you care to explain what activity you're preparing me for?" he asked.
"Fine," the person in armor replied, their voice displaying a hint of amusement. "You'll be taken to a room where Doctor Arsene is waiting for you. We'll be having a look at your emotions there."
Chris froze. "You — who even are you?"
"Well, since I said I was going to answer: Baptiste Rousseau. I am a director of Alchemilia Robotics. The two things next to you are androids that were transferred here," the man explained. Chris took a moment to look at those beside him, somewhat interested in the appearance of newer androids.
"As I was saying, we'll be undergoing some tests to understand your emotions better. Once that's done, we'll be copying some things and uploading it into one of our servers."
Chris thought for a moment. Though he intended to cooperate as much as possible for his safety, Chris feared what could happen if Arsene had access to his thoughts and emotions. "Is there any way I could get out of this?" Chris asked.
"Weren't you told you had no choice?" Baptiste questioned Chris. "Your fate was decided the moment you arrived here. There is no escaping it."
Chris pondered Baptiste's stern words for a moment. "I suppose you're right."
"Right," responded Baptiste as they began to approach a corner. "You're a permanent business partner with Doctor Arsene now. It would be counterproductive for them to try and harm you, so just keep quiet and accept whatever's coming to you."
Chris found himself in a spacious area as Baptiste continued to escort him and the two androids. He followed them to the middle of the room where the group stopped in front of some decor: two long couches and a table separating them in the middle with Gabriel Arsene seated on one, a wine glass in his left hand. Gabriel was now dressed in different attire — a purple dress suit — from Chris' earlier encounter with him, suggesting to the android that quite a bit of time had passed. On the other couch sat a young man with light red hair and fair skin, dressed in tan lab clothes. The man eyed Chris as they walked closer.
"Ah, Chris, nice of you to join us here," Gabriel said, pouring from a bottle of champagne into his glass. "I'd like you to meet my guest, Dexter Wellington."
"Never thought I'd see the day..." The scientist smiled as he got up and held out a hand. "Chris Wellington in the flesh — well, not flesh, but I think you get the idea."
"Dexter is a descendant of Andrew Wellington," Gabriel explained as Chris and the man shook hands. "Only fair for him to perform the analysis."
Dexter chuckled softly. "Yeah, that's right." He pulled a small, green device out of his pocket. It appeared to be a cordless pulse oximeter.
"Obviously, this isn't exactly what it looks like. This device will detail your emotions for us."
Chris took the device and put it on his fingertip. The Alchemilia insignia appeared on the display with an empty progress indicator beneath it. "How long is this going to take?"
"We've got quite a bit of time to kill. Take a seat, Chris. It's time we had a chat about your future," Gabriel said.
Chris reluctantly did as instructed.
"Gabriel's been telling me you've taken the opportunity of a lifetime," Dexter began. "Same rank and title as him, is that right?"
"Yeah, that's correct."
"Man, you've got it good. Y'know what I'd give to be in your shoes?"
Before Dexter could continue, one of the androids approached the couch. "Doctor Arsene, the video conference with Director Pavlovic is beginning. If you're busy at the moment, we can reschedule."
"No, it's fine," Dexter said. "Don't make him wait. This'll take so long we won't be halfway done when you get back."
Gabriel smirked. "He's right. I'll be on my way." He set down his drink and left the room.
Dexter looked up at Baptiste who stood idly by. "Rousseau, was it? Thank you for handling him. Dismissed."
Baptiste nodded and exited the room upon Dexter's request, the two androids following behind him.
With the two now alone, Dexter gestured for Chris to sit next to him. "Come here, Chris, let me tell you something."
The android got out of his seat and sat next to the scientist. "I don't need to tell you that this isn't gonna be easy. You're going to be at the head of Thales' leading technology company without any prior business experience. Honestly, you wouldn't be my first choice if I was in Gabriel's position. Then again, I'm not, so what do I know?"
There was an awkward silence for a moment before Chris quietly admitted, "I don't want this."
"What, you're gonna pass this up?"
Chris sighed. "I'd like to, but Arsene's already made it clear that I don't have a choice."
"So, being able to do something for the good of all mankind doesn't interest you. Would you rather sit idly and watch as the angels and demons destroy what little remains of civilization?" Dexter's response was quick and blunt.
"I obviously don't want that to happen, but—"
"But what? This is the path forward, Chris. There is no alternative. Gabriel has the ability to restore order, even in spite of the menaces that threaten us daily. Had it not been for him, I doubt any trace of humanity would still be here, 300 years after the Great War began."
Chris was furious. The closest thing he had to a family member was telling him to give up and disregard his own choice.
"I still don't trust Arsene. I'd like to, I really would, but nothing he's done indicates that I should trust him. He showed me his facility and then asked if I would like to join him. I politely declined, only to be carried off. Next thing I knew, I'd been held in solitary confinement for some unclear period of time.
"Don't I deserve the ability to make my own choice? You're at least trying to persuade me to consider — Arsene didn't bother with that step. He thought I was just another emotionless robot servant made to obey his every command. Odd, considering he only took an interest in me due to my complex emotions. Do you really, honestly, feel like Arsene knows what's best for mankind if he won't bother to let me do anything on my own?"
Dexter smiled, an unrecognizable gaze clouding his blue eyes. "No. I just wanted to be sure I was giving up this job for someone who wanted to escape."
Savannah felt a leather mat as her eyes peered open into darkness. She tried to move, but was restricted by a strong headache and what felt like a body. Gritting her teeth, Savannah used her hands and searched for a grip in the darkness. After feeling what seemed like the top of a car seat, she used what little strength she had to push herself upward. Sitting upright, she allowed herself to adjust to her surroundings.
Savannah made out the body of Atticus to her right. With his face planted into his legs, the boy was shoved against the car door. Melissa could be made out from the front, her body unmoving and trapped by airbags. Scanning the enclosure for Marshall, she failed to see any sign of him. Maybe he got out?
Noticing the car door was largely intact still, Savannah pushed it forward with what little strength she had left, opening it wide enough for her to slip out and onto the ground.
Landing on her knees, she turned around to look back at the van. Having a hard time seeing in the night, her eyes eventually rested on the van and she noticed it was slammed up against a large tree, all the windows shattered and the rearview mirrors hanging on by small threads.
Propped up by rigid, angular branches stabbing through his clothing, Marshall Rooke began to cough. Blood shot out in small flecks while also dripping down his split lip. As he moved his hand closer to his eyes, his blurred vision made out small cuts and peeled skin, revealing the raw flesh beneath. Though he attempted to groan in pain, the effort to do so simply made him dizzy with pain.
Biting down on his tongue, he mustered the strength to lift himself off of the fallen tree he lay against. Marshall could now see what had become of the car. Feeling a sense of déjà vu, he began limping over to it and noticed a figure knelt by the side of the van. Quickening his pace, ignoring the pain he felt, he walked closer to them and noticed it was a feminine figure, their features barely noticeable in the dark.
"Hey?" he spoke softly, hoping to catch their attention.
Hearing him speak, the figure slowly turned her head to look at him. With some faint visibility, Marshall was able to recognize Savannah, relief and worry etched on her features.
"Marshall, you're safe!" she cried out, the strain in her voice evident. Standing up warily, she placed her hand on the car door. "We have to get them out — I don't know if they're alive or not, but we have to."
"Yes," he replied through a wheeze. "Did you have a chance to look at them? What's it look like in there?"
"It's pretty dark and hard to see, but I saw Melissa under some airbags and Atticus against the door," Savannah replied.
Mulciber was starving.
The humans' land once provided plants and animals of unimaginable variety that were nothing like those of Eden. It was wonderful while it lasted, but the decades had eroded the count until there was little left over. Humans, in particular, had become increasingly difficult to hunt. It was not only their rarity — they were always armed and armored.
Xeren must have heard his cries, because the four humans he was stalking were completely alone and unprepared. They appeared injured, even. It would be too easy. Mulciber silently thanked his god for the upcoming feast.
Marshall clenched his shirt as he and Savannah walked over to the car's driver seat door. Dim lighting from the moons allowed the two to see the mass of airbags that obstructed the view inside.
"How are we gonna get her out?" Savannah asked, standing behind Marshall.
"Just gonna need something to—" Marshall looked around his surroundings before he reached forward and pulled back a glass shard from the shattered windshield, "—pop the airbag with."
Moving quickly, he slashed several cuts around the airbags, deflating them in a matter of seconds. Cutting the seat belt around Melissa's waist, he looked back at Savannah. "Are you gonna come help or what? You handle getting her out, I'll get Atticus."
"Okay, okay," Savannah said, tired. Moving past Marshall, she grabbed both of Melissa's arms and pulled her forward, removing her from the seat and sitting her against the side of it. Placing her hand on Melissa's neck, she felt a faint pulse.
Marshall, barely hearing the words of his companion, pulled open the side door to examine Atticus' state.
"Oh, come on, you bastard," Marshall grunted as he grabbed the boy's shoulder to pull him forward. Feeling the touch, Atticus stirred and slowly moved his body upwards, groaning in pain.
Resting his head against the back of his seat, Atticus looked at Marshall and spoke quietly, in a hoarse voice. "What happened?"
"We had a simple car wreck, but you're fine. I was thrown out the window and no one came to save me. Are you able to move your legs?"
Atticus nodded. "I think so, they hurt though."
"Of course they do, but let's get going."
Placing his hand on the side of his seat, Atticus pushed upwards and walked out of the van with small steps, his legs feeling sore and heavy. He placed his hand against the van for support once he was out.
"We're… in the woods now? And it's night?"
"Simple car wreck," Marshall replied, moving back towards Savannah, who was awake and alert now, but still seated.
"Everyone seems to be okay, thank goodness," Savannah was saying to Melissa as he walked up.
Hearing rustling among the bushes near them, Marshall turned his attention to them before speaking to the group. "I know we're still in pain and such, but it will probably be a good idea for us to go now. Alchemilia might be looking for us still and..." Watching the bushes, he dropped the sentence.
Journeying through the woods, the four helped support each other as they walked.
Gripping Melissa's arm, Savannah spoke up. "Maybe we can head to my house?"
Marshall shook his head. "No, that's not safe. Alchemilia knows your names now, they could easily check your homes." He turned his head a bit, taking notice of a few lights through the trees. "Streetlamps. That means we're close to Silivia." Excitedly, he pushed through the brush to be met with a metal spike placed against his throat.
Looking around, Marshall realized his mistake. There was no city in sight, with the only light coming from lanterns held by hunched individuals clad in grey, beaten down armor. The helmets could only be likened to that of a hungry piranha, or perhaps a ravenous bird. The assumed leader, who was dressed in metallic green armor that covered their whole body and therefore hid their identity, held the lance to Marshall's neck. Cocking their helmeted head to the side, feigning confusion, they whispered to Marshall in a hoarse voice.
"Children shouldn't be running off from the city at this time of night, should they?" one of their subordinates growled as Marshall stood frozen in fear. "Don't worry. As penance for your... sins... you'll be having a little playdate with Mulciber."
Gabriel straightened his tie as he walked back to his office. He muttered a curse to himself; Director Pavlovic and the bio-engineering department were an unpleasant bunch. Seating himself in his swivel-chair, he pressed a button on his laptop and the image of a blonde man wearing a lab coat appeared.
"Ah, Doctor Arsene, so glad you could make it. One of your androids told me you were busy."
"I was. Try and make this quick, Pavlovic. I put an important meeting on hold for this."
"Of course," Pavlovic responded, straining to keep his eyes from rolling. "Have you reviewed the recent progress on Project Voight?"
"I have," Gabriel spoke, opening windows on his screen. Lines of scientific jargon and x-ray images of humanoid skeletons appeared, and he quickly scanned through them.
"Hermann is on his way to you, we've almost finalized the move to Remnant Rock. But —"
"The product is more stable than ever," Gabriel interrupted, "thanks to me, but it looks like you've run into a minor obstacle?"
"We have. Here, I'll send you over an image." Pavlovic averted his eyes to his keyboard, and typed a short sequence. A picture opened on Gabriel's screen, displaying a burnt table and melted surgical instruments.
"And this is a result of Project Voight?"
"We believe so," Pavlovic nodded. "The donor seems to be growing unstable with every extraction. Doctor Udin has been reassuring me that everything is going according to plan —"
"Doctor Udin doesn't understand his limits."
"— because we've been able to manage some functional field tests." More images showed up on Gabriel's display, featuring gray and red-skinned humanoids with cybernetic implants in an improvised wooden structure. Some of them had firearms grafted onto their hands, and cardboard dummies riddled with holes and scratch marks littered the ground. "Sensory overload is still an issue for them, but we've rectified that in the visual department."
"I'm not entirely certain we'll need to continue this pet-project after the move."
"You can't be serious, can you?"
"Doctor Wellington is already making great progress on the new android I acquired."
"Your new business partner."
"Precisely. If we can replicate his quirks in other androids, we can have an endless army of super-soldiers and scientists. Enough firepower to rule the world."
|Season One:||Catching Smoke • White Room • Bare Trees • One Night in Gladea • Ceasefire • Hide & Seek • The Hounds • Reunion • Saccharine • In Somnis Veritas • Carpe Diem • Primo Victoria • Don't Fear the Reaper|
|Season Two:||Crumbling Castle • Roaming King • Safe Haven • Marked Map • The Less I Know the Better • Riding the Wave • Centuries of Damnation • House of the Rising Sun • The Master • Everybody Plays the Fool • Loyalty|