This will not end well
There were guns pointed at his head. Rashari stilled even as he felt the muscles in his spine twitch with the effort it took to keep phantom wings from unfurling. The scorpion wanted to strike, perceiving a threat and knowing only one way to react. He was more than the monster inside him, though, and so Rashari took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and gave the scorpion a hard shove back into the pit of his soul. He counted to five before opening his eyes.
“You didn’t bring me here to shoot me.” He told Baillargeon but his eyes were on Ruthy, very carefully ignoring the two soldiers on either side of him, their twitchy fingers wrapped around the triggers of their guns. The Doctor might be in charge of this facility – to whatever degree of actual command that might translate to in this madhouse – but Ruthy was the one with real power. It was Ruthy who took her orders from his father and Theirn Orlenaux. Ruthy had the authority to call off the Imperial lapdogs. “I’m not doing anything wrong.” He said clearly and emphatically.
“You killed that man with your bare hand.” Ruthy sounded, if not scared than at least somewhat disconcerted. If it didn’t run completely contrary to his needs Rashari might have taken some pleasure in it, as it was, the very last thing he wanted was for this woman to perceive him as a threat. If she did there would be no one to stop Baillargeon from dissecting him out of spite.
“I’m not the one who turned him into a geology experiment.” Rashari shot back. “Believe me; none of these people are alive in any sense that matters.” He kept his hands hanging by his sides and resisted the urge to point or gesture. The situation was precarious enough. “That man was dead. I didn’t do a thing. What happened happened because he,” and now he nodded toward Baillargeon chin jerking with all the violence he refused to let loose in any other way, “is a bloody idiot who has no idea what he’s doing. Whatever grand plan the Empire has for this place, they’d better scrap it now, this bunch of half-wits and sawbones couldn’t tell their arses from their elbows, let alone manufacture a sustainable source of deific energy.”
No one had shot him yet, so the chances were fair to middling that no one would in the next few moments either. Rashari relaxed fractionally. Turning his attention from Ruthy he glared at Baillargeon and the nameless female scientist standing just behind him. “Either you turn off the machines keeping these poor bastards breathing, or I’ll put them down myself. This experiment is a failure.” He spat, mouth twisting on the word, tasting bile against the back of his teeth. “You won’t get a Pure Soul out of any one of them.”
“Why?” The woman surged forward, sharp face hawkish and intent, fear all forgotten in the pursuit of knowledge. “What are we doing wrong? Is it the subjects? We’ve been using death row convicts. Is there something in their nature which makes them inferior?”
Rashari stared at the woman wordlessly for a long moment. Death row convicts? Gods above, this day just got better and better. “It’s not the subjects,” he could barely get the words out. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry (he knew what he wanted to do and it involved blood and screaming and a smoking pile of rubble when he was done). “What you want is not possible.” He said very clearly. “You don’t even know what you want. You...you have no clue.”
He clenched his fists and snapped his jaws closed. He knew better than to say more. Anything he said was a weapon these bastards could use against him, a weapon they could use to perpetrate yet another atrocity, but he couldn’t help himself. He felt like a kettle on the boil, frustration bubbling up in him like the thin, high-pitched scream of the kettle’s whistle. Why didn’t anyone understand? How could they not see that what they were doing could never lead to anywhere good? It wasn’t about what might be possible, or what could be accomplished – it was about knowing when something was a fundamentally bad idea. It was about basic cost-benefit analysis, weighing up the pros and cons, like any good raider did before a heist. Was the prize worth the risk taken to attain it? Once you had the shiny trinket could you get away with keeping it, or would you be hunted down like a dog until the rightful owners plucked the shiny trinket from your cold dead fingers? This reasoning was taught to the lowest of scallywags in the raider fraternity, and while there were always a few to whom ambition overreached ability, most of his breathren, that unwashed, illiterate violent bunch of reprobates, would have better sense than every last member of the DeLunde faculty.
“We are trying to safeguard the future of the Empire, young man.” The woman told him, clearly stung. “What we do here will revolutionise the Adran way of life.” She looked around at the remaining test subjects strapped to the tables. “I admit that the means are...less than ideal, but the ends,” she shook her head, eyes bright and fervent. “Think on it, a world without phantasma energy. Think of the lives that will be improved. No one will have to toil and get sick in phantasma mines. The Empire won’t have to spend millions of Orlens disposing of the toxic phantasma waste. Thousands of lives will be saved because we won’t have to fight needless wars to defend our right to the world’s dwindling phantasma reserves. Surely that is an end to justify any means?”
Rashari was not the only one in the room giving the woman a cock-eyed look. Jaquard, standing as far back from the examination tables as the confines of the glass box allowed, was staring at the woman’s back like he was imagining watching her burn slowly on a spit. There was an ugly, violent loathing on his face that Rashari filed away for further consideration.
“Enough of this,” Ruthy spoke up, scowling. She jerked her chin at the two soldiers, who had lowered their guns during the previous conversation, but had kept them unholstered. “Take the prisoner to his cell. I think he’s had enough excitement for one day.”
“Wait,” Baillargeon bestirred himself finally, shaking free of the silent reverie he’d been in more or less since Rashari had ended the unlife of the man on the table. “I’m not done with him yet. There are tests to run. I have questions...”
“Oh, you are done, alright.” Ruthy shut him up, lip curling in contempt. “I don’t know what Pit-damned mess you and the rest of your eggheads have made here, but you can be assured that it will be going in my report to Commander Orlenaux.” She brushed past Baillargeon, who spluttered indignantly, and swept out of the box. Her lapdogs prodded Rashari forward herding him out of the box after Ruthy.
He was marched back up the tower stairs, out of the basement and all the way up to the top of the tower. His ‘cell’ was the room at the top, narrow and windowless. The walls were solid, curved and cold, slathered in thick white paint. There were no pipes reaching this far up and no machinery buzzing through the walls. The room contained a narrow bunk bolted to the wall, a sink and a toilet, and nothing more. There was a thin, scratchy grey blanket folded at the foot of the bunk and a small square pillow that looked about as comfortable as a rock to sleep on. As far as it went this was shaping up to be one of the better prisons he’d ever spent time in, which was not to say he was pleased with the accommodation on offer, but he was relieved that he wasn’t being stuck in a glass jar and picked apart like an insect.
“I suggest you get some sleep,” Ruthy told him, tone dry as he was shoved across the threshold into the room. “And try not to piss off the eggheads anymore than you have already.” She looked at him keenly. “My orders are to stop them killing you with their experiments, but don’t think for a moment that that means I’m on your side.” Her lips curved in a humourless smirk. “It will be days yet before Director TreLawn and the Commander get here -and accidents can happen. After all this is Battlan, and you spent days on the Steppe alone before I found you. You could have picked up any number of injuries out there.” Her eyes were cold. “Incapacitating injuries, the sort that could require sedation for the pain; I don’t think you want that.”
“I see. Vivisection is against the rules but casual brutality is not?” Rashari arched his eyebrows. “I wish I had your job.”
Ruthy smiled, still with an edge. “I bet you do.” She swept out of the room and one of the soldiers slammed the heavy door closed behind them. There was a peep-hole wedge cut into the door above a larger cut-out hatch, covered by a metal grill. He caught a glimpse of an anonymous glower thrown his way before the grill was slid across the peep hole. He heard the echo of at least three separate locks clicking into place.
He stood in the middle of the room for several moments, just breathing. Every inhalation and exhalation sounded very loud in the silence. He wasn’t sure how long he just stood there, staring blindly at the locked door, but eventually he went over to the bunk and lay down. He was tired but sleep was impossible. His brain was buzzing with the rush of death energy and now the come down. He felt vaguely nauseous, like he’d gorged on too much food which was not a pleasant analogy considering what he’d actually gorged on. He fidgeted on the bunk. His skin felt tight and itchy, like it had grown a size too small. He felt like his bones were a cage, his body a hollow cell for a monster eager to break free. The careful stitchwork that made up the guise of Rashari was beginning to strain at the seams. He didn’t know how long he lay there, his thoughts in a thousand other places, but eventually he heard the rasp of deliberately conspicuous footsteps on the stone floor outside his cell door. The grill across the hatch in the door slid open and Jaquard’s yellow eyes peered at him.
“Grubs on,” the djinn rumbled laconically, pushing a tray through the hatch. Rashari got up to take it from him, looking down at a bowl of unidentifiable grey slop, a hunk of stale bread and something green, steamed, and slimy covered with a knob of oily butter. (He thought they might once have been string beans.) There was a plastic spoon stuck in the bowl of grey slop. It smelled starchy. “Try the soup.” Jaquard told him, yellow eyes fixed on his. “Think you might like it.” The hatch snapped closed and Jaquard was gone. This time Rashari could not hear his footsteps retreating.
He set the tray down on the floor, sat cross legged before it and lifted the spoon from the bowl of alleged soup. There was a loop of string attached to the spoon and a cloth pouch dangled free. It was covered in little cubes of grey meat and the thick, viscous soup. Rashari grimaced as he wiped the cloth pouch clean on the stone floor so that he could open it. The inside of the pouch was lined with plastic so the contents were protected. Digging his fingers inside Rashari palmed the dull greenish-grey piece of stone inside and stared at it for a long moment. He unfolded the note with stiff fingers.
Help me get my son back and I will help you burn every last one of these bastards to the ground.
The note wasn’t signed. Rashari folded it back up, dipped it into the lumpy soup, tilted his head back and swallowed it down, trying to avoid either chewing or tasting. He shoved the filthy cloth pouch under the board-thin mattress of the bunk and rolled the stone across his left palm thoughfully. (It was a fragment of scion stone – but was it part of Smythion’s stone, or had DeLunde found another secret seraph?). The fragment was not a perfect fit for the hollow in his palm. This fragment was a little larger, the edges rougher, and he could still feel a trace of residue energy from where the fragment had been taken from the chest of the dead test subject. Still. He could work with this. He’d just have to be a little inventive, and he was good at that. He rubbed the stone fragment between his thumb and forefinger. There was a slight charge from the fragment, a bite of cold and hunger much stronger than he had expected. When he looked down at the fragment, warmed by the run of his fingers over its surface, it gleamed like an emerald, its once opaque surface now glittering like a glass. Rashari clenched his fist around the fragment, quenching the light of deific energy. When he closed his eyes he saw the darkness of the Void staring back at him. This would not end well.
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