I'm back! (Again...) Sorry about the wait I just started the process of rewriting The Price of Defiance. Let me know what you think in the comments and I'll try to update soon with a new chapter!
Gun shots come suddenly through my earpiece. I nearly jump out of my seat but regain myself before it can leave from under me. Ben's hologram ducks behind the cover of a concrete wall. It slowly becomes part of his displayed image. Even through the fuzzy display, his heavy breaths are unmistakeable.
Worry starts to creep over my own body. I shake it away and adjust my earpiece. My eyes scan the screen in front of me for a possible target he can shoot at. Five red lights blink into my screen's view. I force my fingers to stop shaking. "You're surrounded."
Ben shakes his head. "Figures." He steadies his gun. "How many?"
"Five." Two more lights join them. "Seven."
I turn away from the heat signatures to the done projection on my left. My eyes quickly make out all seven ambushers. Ben's small figure looks even more so, stuck in the middle of it all. My heart hammers. I pinpoint the ones with weapons first. "You've got two at 12," I quickly instruct. My eyes dart around the screen for a way out. None present themselves.
Ben stands from his cover to shoot down two of his pursuers. The others fire back. His two targets fall though it doesn't matter. The others nearly reach him.
He turns to face them, all five within his ear shot. Their footsteps echo through my earpiece. "A little help," he suggests.
My hands are already secured around my glasses. I slide them on and join Ben's hologram. My own hologram joins him in the field. Everything comes alive around me, including the five men. One stops running toward us and raises his gun to shoot. "Get down!"
Ben falls to the ground. The holographic bullets go right through me and into the concrete wall behind my back. I hold my breath, no amount of experience able to prepare me for the battle field. There's a reason Ben goes out and I stay behind screens.
Ben shoots through me into one of the five. Their bullets fly toward him but do damage only to his vest. He takes down another as the remaining three reach us, none of which with arms. My heart barely calms and I take a deep breath.
One man secures a hand around Ben's gun which only results in his fingers being blown off. Never the less, his remaining hand tears it away as he falls in agony. Ben kicks him away along with his weapon and turns to address the others. I ready beside him.
His kicks one in the gut and blocks a blow from the other. I watch as the handless disarmer fights to his feet behind us. His useful hand clutches the gun. "Behind you!"
Ben knocks his arm away and shots fire into the air. He reaches for the weapon but arms from behind pull him away. "On your right," I inform, stepping back to get a better look.
Ben jumps and throws his weight in that direction. His captor only assists in the blow and all three of them fall to the ground. The armed companion points at the mess of limbs though doesn't dare fire, unable to secure his target. I watch beside him, suddenly useless in the mess. My eyes can barely distinguish my partner from the Rebels. His recognizable light blue eyes and black hair get lost. Sounds of flesh meeting flesh echo through my earpiece. I cringe with each new impact, unsure who's on what end.
I take off the glasses and move back behind the comfort of my screens. The barren scenery is quickly replaced by white walls. "Don't die," I beg as my fingers type.
"I'm trying," he manages to mumble back. I turn down the volume to fade the combat and focus. The drone previously capturing images of the fight is quickly under my control and I fly it toward the scene. The small device can't do much other than its initial job though it's all I've got. I speed it into the handless gun stealer and knock him off his feet. The gun lands on the floor beside him.
Ben scrambles away from the fight. "Come back," he begs, surprised by the absence of my hologram.
I reluctantly slide the glasses back on. My chair disappears from below me and it looks as though I sit on air. I stand and run to his aid, my fear from before almost completely gone. Energy surges through me. "The gun's on your left." The others realize this fact as soon as I say it, as though they can hear my voice in his ear.
Ben dives for the weapon. "Thanks." He turns on his back and shoots handless dead. The taller of the remaining two tackles him to the ground before he can stand. His armed hand is pinned to the ground before he can use it. The other rips the weapon away from him and aims at his head. I dive in front of the bullet's path as if my hologram can stop the bullet. It passes right through me and slams into my partner's ear.
Blood splatters out of it. His yell fills the air and shatters my heart. I rip the earpiece out, horrible silence now emanating from it. I look back at the gun, knowledgeable the next shot won't miss. Ben jerks under his restraint. The rebel's back turns to block the bullet. He falls limp to the ground, barely alive enough. Ben doesn't hesitate. The gun is quickly in his own hand, his opponent too distracted to react. The lone rebel quickly joins his friends.
Eery calmness surrounds us, paired with silence. Ben's hand moves to his ear and pulls back as bloody as his neck. He looks to me, more surprised than scared. I raise my eyebrows in the obvious question. Does it work? He shakes his head.
A helicopter hovers to take him home. I smile sadly and he taps the device taped to the side of his bloodied head. His hologram disappears and leaves me in the nearly empty office. All my screens turn off and the painfully plain white of everything else hurts my eyes.
Every day in the dreadful place makes me more sick of it. I never truly leave the office. Even Ben rarely does. Our bedrooms are against the wall behind me, two white doors that match everything else. This is home, if that word is even applicable. I prefer to acknowledge that I don't have a home. I simply have a prison.
Ben and I belong to the government. Us and four other pairs were born and raised to destroy rebels of the Inner. Those who survive are sent to the Outer for interrogation. The man Ben kept alive will face a similar fate. Whatever Kaine can get out of him will drive our next assignment. We eat sleep and kill like clockwork.
Or at least Ben kills. I just track and watch from my screens. Rarely am I sent into combat. The other four, hunters as the organization refers to them, are usually called on for that. Their partners, trackers, monitor with me. Not that all ten of us can't fight. We were all trained together since we were old enough to walk. It's just that five of us preferred the protection of our screens over combat.
We should have worked together for this assignment. Ben and I expected to go up against three people at most. What we got today could have easily killed him. The concept is too fresh to scare me. If there were just a few more men he would have failed. My heart hammers against my rib cage with the idea.
There are likely more somewhere near the area. That's where Kaine steps in. Whatever he does to the poor man will reveal any relate rebel bases. They'll be destroyed within the week.
I leave for my bedroom. Four blank walls greet me and I tap on the wall for the controls. The smooth white surface slowly fades away to reveal the Inner, right in the city center. I sit on my bed to study it as I have many times before. Tall buildings line every street. People walk in lines across the ground, blissfully happy with a simple life. Blue skies surround the area. Colors shine from every direction.
It's fake of course, but the images are real. I long to walk among the normal people of society and talk with somebody other than the same ten people I've known my whole life. Even the ten of us barely communicate outside of combat and the gym. At least not since we finished training. It's meant to keep us brutal. I find it more compatible to insane. Ben's the only tangible thing in my life anymore, though even he is an object of the government's control. Our partners are all of the opposite gender, for obvious reasons. I would hate the system if Ben wasn't everything I have. I don't even know the names of the men I hate. They likely know I would track them down and kill them myself if I could.
But instead, I keep Ben and I alive. Anything out of line would be deadly. There's even a tracker in my neck if I manage to override everything else. For all I know it can explode with the touch of a button. It already electrocutes us for rebellious behavior. I'd hate to find out what else it can do. Better to stay in line than find out.
The city fades away to be replaced by the dreadful voice that I know only as my boss. There's no face, name or title to refer to. Just the slow spoken, dreadfully deep voice. "Ben's currently receiving medical attention," he says blankly.
I assumed that the moment the bullet ripped his ear apart. My concern was weakened when the bullet didn't slam into his face though now it resurfaces. "Is he alright?"
"He will be."
"Is that all?"
The voice disappears. My Inner pictures don't resurface. I try to pull them up again but am unable. I replace them with a beachside view and settle in on the bed within it all. The artificial water sounds through the speakers surrounding me. I take in deep, heavy breaths though they fail to relax me. Even my fantasy of the city was taken away.
The door slides open hours later. I don't move to see the intruder, perfectly aware of who it is. Nobody else has ever or will ever join us in this place. The door slides back to seal seamlessly against the wall. Ben slowly crawls onto the bed with me, dressed in clean, thin clothes from the medical center. "Miss me?"
I roll so he can brace himself above me. My hand grazes the bandages just above his sharp jawline. He holds it there and smiles. "It's alright."
"It's broken," I correct. My hand slips through his hold.
He falls over on the bed beside me. "What difference does it make?"
He means to say he's already broken, which I can't argue against. I couldn't have said it any better myself. "Does it hurt?"
My lips fall into a line. "I'm sorry."
"You're the only one who shouldn't be." Our lips touch and mold together. He pulls away before I'm satisfied. I move in for more but he rolls off the bed. "Where's the city?" His fingers tap the wall and try to pull up my beloved view.
I sigh. "They took it away."
His face twists into something scary. I shoot him a warning glance though his neck tenses before he can take the thought back. He's far better at hiding the pain than I am. A yelp almost always leaves my mouth from the shock. Even thinking about it makes me flinch. Ben downcasts his eyes and lets his face fall back into a neutral expression. I know his mind still spins with hatred just as mine does. They can control almost everything but our thoughts. Those are mine no matter how much they tamper with everything else.
"Are you hungry?" Ben nearly whispers.
I offer a small nod and follow him to the office. He tampers with my desk to make the slightly larger table appear and we sit on either end. Holes form in the table where we sit and come back up with the usual bowl of rice accompanied by today's entrée of overcooked steak. Water fills the small glass beside my tray.
We eat slowly. Ben's eyes constantly find mine though no words come from either of us. I constantly look to the bandage to wonder what sort of injuries hide beneath it but eventually conclude I don't want to find out.
A week passes without any assignments. Ben seems to catch on to the abnormally as fast as I do. He whispers into my ear one night as I crawl into his bed, as if they can't hear what he says. It's fun to at least pretend like some form of privacy exists in our lives.
"They killed him," he says simply.
I jump to multiple conclusions. "Him" is presumably the man Ben left alive; the fact that him dying is significant means they likely killed him before interrogation, hence the lac of further assignments. "Where'd you figure that out?"
"Records," he says simply.
Almost everybody we hunt and kill is filed into a list, each name attached to that person's connections and any other information that Kaine pries out of the survivors. Their deaths are also clarified, which leads me to assume our lone survivor has a death unmatched with any other information. "Maybe he was hard to crack."
Ben raises his eyebrows. Everybody cracks.
"What else could have happened?"
A shock emirates from my neck before either of us can think to answer the question. Electricity pulses through me and seems to set off tiny explosions against my nerves. I bite my lip to muffle the yelp against my tongue. Ben's eyes seal closed and both of us fall silent.
My head, though, swims with new ideas. Something's wrong enough that even we can't know. What could be too dangerous to let imprisoned government tools try to figure out? How would it effect us anyway?
A smile creeps onto Ben's lips. I let a similar one fall on my own. A flaw in the system means a flaw in our captivity. Though the idea is childish, I can't help believing whatever this is could mean our freedom. Ben's mind swims with similar theories. His hope radiates through his pale blue eyes.
Another shock ripples through me, far harsher than the last. I can't help the scream that follows. Even Ben releases one beside me. Pain makes it hard to think and tears clog my vision. It's slow to fade, and everything that could possibly fill me with joy dies with the pain. I try to leave my head empty, desperate to prevent another blow. Ben sucks in heavy breaths beside me.
I rest my head on his chest, ear against his heart. He sets his chin on my forehead and I reach up to touch his mangled ear. Scar tissue coats it in uneven bumps that add to the deformed feature. I doubt he can even feel it anymore. "Still nothing?"
"Still nothing," he concludes.
I let my hand drop and wait for sleep to relieve me. It never comes. "I'm gonna go on a run."
Ben unwraps his arm from around me. "All right."
I change and leave out the third and final door. A long, windowless hallway coated in the same dreadful white as everything else leads me to the gym. The doors open as I step up to it. Kaya looks to the side of her punching bag to catch sight of me. A small smile shines between her full lips. "Hey, Amber."
I offer a curt wave. "Hi."
It's nice to see any of the other eight. I know them so well it should be hard to like any of my lifelong friends anymore. They're just as heartless and cruel as Ben and me, yet I continue to enjoy their company. I guess being put under the same horrible control makes it easier to relate to all of them. That and the fact that all of us still have some good left buried deep enough to not leak to the cameras.
My company continues to beat the equipment. Her whole face changes into something so evil even I grow slightly terrified. If she's here for the same reason I am, that anger isn't directed towards the rebels. Kaya's a hunter, though like all of us, she hunts to stay alive, not to kill. The only way to preserve who we are mentally is to imagine the rebels are the real enemy. Years of this lifestyle has almost convinced me of that, though I won't let my captors win that easy.
Rebels aren't the enemy. It gets harder and harder to convince myself of that every day.
I step onto the track and start running, unsure for how far or long. I wish I could run forever, right through these walls and into the real world.
Kaya's pounding seizes. She moves slowly around the gym, like a shadow against the light. I watch her in the corner of my eye until she settles under one of the weights. Her arms thrust it up. "Hey, Amber," she musters, her voice barely strained despite her effort.
"Yeah?" I heave back.
She lowers and raises the weight slowly above her. "You and Ben get any assignments recently?"
I'm glad she brings it up. "No. You?"
"Not in two weeks."
She lowers the bar down so low it looks as though she'll strangle herself. "Xavier sent a drone to the Outer," she starts, though I can't hear the rest. My neck tenses so hard I nearly fall to the ground.
The pinching sensation of being electrocuted lasts far longer than normal. I kneel and whimper until it stops, now more curious than ever of what she has to say.
When it finally subsides, I look back up to see the weight still inches from crushing her throat. I know it's what prevents them from shocking her. If they pull her attention from the weight she'd crush her own throat. Sweat sparkles against her dark skin. "It's gone," she finishes.
Another shock pulses through me, though the girl already did her damage. My head swims, first with amazement at Xavier's ability to send an unauthorized drone out in the first place. He's the smartest tracker of all of us, but that is simply incredible from anybody.
Now I know something is truly strange about the Outer. Even another pair noticed, so much so to investigate it themselves.
It's gone. What does she mean? I can't just ask her. I don't think I could bare a third shock. Instead, I stare at the girl with the blankest expression I can muster.
She sets the weight back in place and heads for her and Xavier's exit. "Nice talking," she calls, voice sweet and innocent.
I rub my neck and offer a sideways glance. "Maybe for you."
She throws back apologetic eyes before leaving completely.
I can only imagine the hell they'll give her for doing that. I run back to my office. Ben smiles from the desk to greet me before turning back to the screens. I lean over his shoulders to watch. "Whatcha looking at?" Kaya's news still sits fresh on my mind though so are the torturous shocks I just received.
The light from the screen makes him appear as a talking skeleton. "New assignment," he explains glumly.
My heart falls. "Where?"
I shake my head in denial. The words leave my mouth before I can stop them. "The Outer's gone."
A shock renews the sore nerves left from my previous ones. Ben watches, horrified. My grip on his chair tenses and his reassuring hand squeezes my arm. I open my mouth again once the torture leaves but he shakes his head. "Don't." I seal my lips. He nods in approval and turns back to the screens. His fingers move until he closes the report. "You can read the details in the shower."
I make the water so hot it hurts. The assignment projects in front of me. Five fugitives escaped from Kaine. A live projection shows their progress toward the Outer from the Ruins. They're in a helicopter, the sight only made less odd by the fact that their images show children. One of the girls looks no older than eight. Not only that, but if what Kaya says is true, they have nothing to run to. I quickly finish my shower and dress in combat gear. All 10 of us are on standby if they reach the Inner.
Ben is equally shocked by the circumstances. His eyebrow creases as he reads over the information again. "Let's just get this over with."
Out of all the absurdities, that's the worst one so far. "They're kids!"
"So are we."
Every one of us is just a tool. I look back to the live footage as they reach the Outer boarder. My heart flutters with the possibility of answers though it cuts out. Ben notices this as well. "I'm going to the gym."
I turn off the screens and follow him.
Kaya and Xavier had the same idea. Xavier paces the room though Kaya sits. Her energy seems completely drained. I shake my head in disbelief. "What did they do to you?" My feet carry me quickly in that direction.
"Doesn't matter." She addresses Ben with a weak nod. We all fall silent, unsure how to address the situation. Ben's eyes settle on the distance as he struggles to put two and two together. Xavier's deep brown eyes watch my partner as if to figure out what he knows. I'm unsure what I know at this point.
"What are they running from?" I ask, hopeful that my peers will know the answer.
"Kaine," Quinn, answers from behind us. Her black uniform perfectly frames her slender body. Her blonde hair hangs in a high pony tail. Her shoulders shift confidently as she walks, as though this assignment is like any other one we've had. Obviously not, or she wouldn't have come like the rest of us.
Her tracker doesn't enter behind her. "Where's Gage?"
She rolls her light blue eyes. "Researching."
I crack a smile. He's always one for that. It's likely the only reason she knew the answer to my question. I readdress it. "Somebody got away from Kaine?"
She shrugs. "Apparently." Her eyes turn to Kaya. "What happened?"
The girl rubs her neck. "I'm fine." Her voice comes out far harsher than I expected.
Ben turns back to Quinn. "Was he torturing the kids?"
She sits on the track. "Apparently. One of them is his little prodigy or whatever."
"You mean Oliver," Xavier offers.
Her eyes light up with recognition of the name. "Yeah, that was it."
We all turn to Xavier. Ben looks more confused than ever. "Who's Oliver?"
Xavier smiles, glad for the attention. "They designed him in the capital. He's like a human computer. He came up in one of our reports a few assignments ago."
The answers do little to answer my questions. "So Oliver and some other kids just escaped? Why are all 10 of us needed for this?"
Gage runs into the room with his screen projected in front of him. The light bounces with his urgency. "Check this out." He quickly acknowledges the five of us before continuing. "Kaine's little assistant designed an infection."
Kaya offers a weak shrug. "Seems pretty normal given his job description."
Gage shakes his head. "But look." He taps into Capital documents and pulls up a file labeled "Core." ERROR flashes across the screen. "It's gone," he says. "All of it, just deleted."
Ben steps back. "So they're running because…"
"Oliver destroyed everything and ran. It's pretty self explanatory, isn't it?"
"He works for the government," I start. "Why would he give them the Core and then destroy it?"
"We work for the government," Ben points out. "I'm sure him creating the Core could be very much involuntary."
Quinn shakes her head. "Why is it so crucial that they get it back?"
We all open our mouths to answer though nothing comes out.
The video they took away earlier returns onto Gage's screen. We all look to the four teens, now against the fence that marks the boarder between the Inner and Outer ring. My heart drops. "One's gone."
Ben shoots a warning glance in my direction. "Let's hope they're all gone before they can get over that thing."
He's right. The less we have to kill the better. None of our eyes leave the screen. We simply wait for our part in this whole ordeal to be over.
The two girls climb. I watch as the boys face the advancing officers with nothing but their fists. "Which is Oliver?" We watch as the taller of the two is overtaken. His arm is soon to suffer. The three trackers in the room flinch. Even Ben puts his head down. Another blow knocks the kid unconscious. The blonde kills the two guards on top of him before they can do more damage.
Xavier points to the standing one. "That's Oliver."
Oliver addresses the boy as the older girl joins the younger on the other side of the fence. The two stare at each other from opposite sides of the threshold.
None of our eyes avert, desperate to see the next series of events.
The video cuts out again. "Get to your bases," the voice barks at us from the walls.
I look around at my friends, eyes wide. "They're kids."
They all stare back at me, wordless. Xavier helps Kaya up and they slowly step back into their hall. Quinn and Gage leave through their's.
Ben pushes me toward our exit before anybody can say something they regret. I ignore his attempt. "This is the actions of a kid working for the governor," I tell him, as if it's new information. "This isn't just another rebel base, Ben."
He nods as we leave the others through our hallway. "I know."
The door is already open when we reach the office. It's the only one that leads outside. Normally it's hidden from sight, opening just to let Ben out into the field. I hesitate to walk through it. "Why do they need the trackers out there," I argue.
Ben shrugs and pulls me through. "Just come on."
The sunlight is blinding. I let my skin absorb it, desperate for the exposure. Happiness floods me despite the current situation. An aircraft waits for us outside. Phoenix and Millie wait inside when we get there. Phoenix's evil smile shines bright. "Anything wrong?"
Unlike the popular majority, Phoenix supports our cause. His power hungry nature is far too acclimated to taking away the power of others. Ben frowns at the company. "Just having to do this with you."
They exchange bitter smiles.
I move to sit next to Millie. She smiles curtly at my presence. "Hi, Amber."
"Weird assignment, huh." Her casual words can't hide her fear. Unlike her partner, Millie is the most emotionally aware people I know. Then again, considering I know nine people I guess her caring demeanor isn't as rare as it is within the 10 of us. She tucks her dark hair behind her ear and turns to look at me. "You know something," her mousy voice suggests.
I nod slowly. "I doubt you want me to share."
She simply nods and turns forward again.
The voice echoes through the machine as the door closes. "You four need to stop their progress into the city. The other six are headed there in case you fail." The propellors start.
Phoenix shoots a warning glance at Millie and I, as if failing could only result in our participation. I roll my eyes. My heart hurts for the girl, forced to live with the guy. His very presence is all but tolerable.
"Millie and Amber will monitor from the aircraft unless you two need assistance."
The words cause my heart to flutter with glee. I tap the wall beside me to pull up the screen and organize the information until it looks like my office desk. Millie does the same. I let myself slowly relax, the assignment slowly resinating those we normally get in the past.
Phoenix looks around the machine. "Where's our weapons?"
"We need them alive." No further instruction is given.
The voice disappears and the four of us sit in silence. I project my screen on the wall beside me to get it out of the way. Ben watches me carefully. I raise my eyebrows. "What?"
He doesn't respond, though I doubt his thoughts are very different than my own. Oliver's escape likely tortures him just as intensely. He's simply a government worker gone rogue. Until now, his plan almost worked. And they're kids.
I can only imagine what we can accomplish.
Phoenix laughs. "What is this?" He motions stupidly between the two of us. "Some sort of telepathy going on between you two?"
Ben slowly turns to him. "I would only hope our relationship is similar to one of the sort." His jaw hardens.
Millie looks down, embarrassed. Ben offers her an apologetic look to override the glare casted her way from Phoenix. I send one right back at him.
The aircraft slows. I find Ben's eyes though they fail to sooth my panic. He smiles sadly. He and Phoenix advance toward the slowly opening door. "See you in a bit."
I pull the screens I set aside back in front of me. "Sure." My earpiece clicks on and Ben's breaths fill my ear for a brief moment before they disappear.
Xavier's voice comes through instead. "Don't talk. I'm sending you something. Use it quickly."
He disappears. I wait for more but nothing comes. Instead, a small box blinks across my screen. I open it and quickly look through its contents. Lines of code flood my vision. Their purpose only occurs to me seconds later.
Before they can see, I tap into the mainframe and implant the code. Nothing seems to change, thanks to Xavier. I'd hug him if her were here. Instead I listen to Ben's breathing to be sure he's there. "I cut them off."
"They can't see or hear anything we do."
Millie looks at me now, eyes wide with what I can't decipher as shock or horror.
"Never mind that just get the kids and let's get out of here."