He was covered in grime. Black, sticky grime that was so thick it made the color of his skin hard to determine. There was dried sweat mixed in with the dirt, creating a repulsive and pungent smell. When his bare skin was visible, it was covered in pink scars that were clearly left by small fangs. They covered every single inch of his body, and his entire face. Even his lips had them.
He had a thin and boney figure, as if most of his insides had been dried up and left with only a tiny frame. He had thin arms and thin legs. His clothes were ragged and threadbare, but he was dressed in layers. Slung across his shoulder was a bolt action hunting rifle.
Among the pink scars on his face he had a thin mouth that was full of bright white teeth, a contrast to the rest of his body. His nose was small, and seemed to fit with his small, triangular, face. One of his eyes looked big and watery, but the other had no pupil and no whiteness. It was a pure, luminescent green. It darted around in it's socket far faster then it's counterpart. Zoey felt a strange dread when she looked into that eye.
“Good,” he said in his raspy voice, seeing that the warriors had stopped. “She's not well, but don't worry, I'll set her strait soon enough.”
The warriors dispersed and Zoey got up. The man immediately grabbed her, using his surprising strength to restrain her arms. She struggled for a few moments. It was futile, but she kept trying.
“Keep struggling and I'll kill you,” the man said flatly. Zoey stopped. “Good, I'm Joshua, a associate of the man who you were just chasing. I'm not here to be your friend. In all honesty I think we should kill you outright, but then again it's not my call. Clooney went on this whole talk about being decent to your fellow man when I suggested it. So I'm going to snap that pretty little indoctrinated head of yours now, alright?”
He forced her through the market, to one of it's bustling stalls. The vendor was pouring out cups of some steaming brown liquid and selling it to children. The liquid had a strangely alluring smell to it.
“One hot cup for my girl,” Joshua ordered, throwing a coin to the vendor. The vendor then poured some of the liquid into a paper cup gave it to him. “Here you are,” Joshua said with a smile, and before Zoey could do anything, he had pinched her nose and forced her to swallow a significant amount of the strange stuff.
It was the most wonderful thing Zoey had ever tasted. It had so much flavor, so much feeling. It was creamy and thick, and the moment she tasted it she started drinking more. She forgot all about her mission and her kidnapping amid the wonderful taste. Joshua didn't have to hold her as she drank. She didn't feel like struggling.
“Nothing like chocolate to break indoctrination,” Joshua said with a smile as he let her go. “You see, all of The White Fleet's food is so tasteless that the routine indoctrination can't handle the overload of flavor that comes when you drink down something good. Breaks down the programing, and of course...”
Suddenly a stream of uncontrollable twitches tore through Zoey. The cup fell to the ground as Joshua stood back and watched as she lost any semblance of control. Then it stopped as soon as it had come. A flake of skin on the back of Zoey's neck suddenly felt loose. She reached back and was horrified when a piece of her skin tore off! When she brought it in front of her eyes she saw it was a maze of wires and circuits that had only been covered to look like skin.
“The control chip malfunctions,” Joshua said, his smile growing wider. His green eye zoomed around in it's socket, scanning the market. “Now lets find Clooney. You're not a pain in the ass anymore, but I'd still rather let him take care of you.”
He paid for another round of chocolate, and Joshua guided her through the streets. Zoey felt strange. Different. She was quite dazed and had a sudden feeling of fatigue, but there was another feeling. It was like the feeling she had gotten when George first called her by her name, only more so. She started considering so many things. The soldiers had tried to shoot her. Clooney was right, they didn't care about trials, they just wanted to kill off anyone who could be linked with the robbery. She was a fugitive from justice. Was it justice? Probably not.
As these new thoughts that would have been struck down in an instant only moments before raced through her head, she truly took in the market. It was so incredible. There was no place that came even close to it's energy in the fleet. Everywhere she saw something that she wanted. But each time she would ask, Joshua would say that he'd already spent to much money on her, and wasn't about to spend more. He did however, buy a wooden bird charm for himself that was supposed to ward off evil.
“What's with your eye?” Zoey asked. The luminous thing glanced down at her before going back to surveying the market. She was struck with the feeling of inescapable dread She didn't ask again.
They wondered around for about an hour before they found Clooney. Or to be more precise, Clooney found them.
“Joshua!” he called from a distance away. “Did you find her?”
“Yep!” Joshua called as Clooney ran up. “And broke her indoctrination. It's not hard in this market. You can get rich food pretty easy. I recommend being easy with her, she's still in shock. Should get some nasty withdrawal symptoms soon.”
“That's really how it's done?” Clooney said with surprise. “I thought that was just a crazy rumor.”
“Nope,” Joshua said, shaking his head. “I already explained to her that the sudden taste sends a shock through the system that breaks in the indoctrination and busts the control chip. I doubt she trusts us but she she's stopped trying to kill people. That's something.”
Clooney leaned close to Zoey. “Are you feeling more like yourself?”
Zoey nodded. “Your story makes sense now. I don't know what I was thinking before.” She couldn't think strait. Right now all she wanted to do was sleep.
“You weren't thinking,” Joshua interjected. “I know. I once had one of those control chips in my head. Tried to kill everyone who helped me. Got rid of it and widened my view quite a bit.” He turned to Clooney. “Anyway, are we leaving soon? I heard about the White Fleet troops that attacked her. I want to get out of here before they notice me. I've been captured by the White Fleet before. One of the worst days of my life.”
“Not yet,” Clooney answered. “There's another one I want to bring with us. A boy. The Gens have crucified him to break his indoctrination. I was hoping you would be able to provide an alternative?”
“Whoa,” Joshua said, jabbing his finger into Clooney chest. “I agreed to carry the girl because you promised a big pay once we arrived. If I have to transport another indoctrinated passenger it will mean another two grand.”
“That's outrageous!” Clooney yelled so loud that the market quieted and everyone turned to stare at him. In a significantly softer voice he continued, “We can haggle in my tent.” He turned to Zoey. “You're probably tired. You can rest there.”
They had a short walk back to Clooney's tents. Standing beside it was the same enormous man that had rescued her. She hadn't gotten a clear view of his face before. He was hideous. His face looked like it had been through a meat grinder. Scraps of skin barely covered his skull. Eyes and ears were out of place, and his mouth was at an angle.
“Master Captain?” he asked tentatively as they approached. His voice was soft and curious, like a child's.
“Shut up Giba I'm conducting business!” Joshua instantly ordered, a painfully harsh tone in his voice. He pushed Zoey toward him. She was cloudy headed and needed to be led. “Make sure she sleeps. She'll be going through withdrawal soon enough.”
“Yesh Master Captain,” Giba responded. He grabbed Zoey in a big brutish grip and half-led half-pushed her into the larger of the two tents.
Inside the tent was bare aside from a small bedroll and a much larger one made up of scraps of smaller ones. Giba sat down on the large one and motioned for Zoey to sit on the small one. Zoey reluctantly did so.
“Are yoo from da Big Fleet?” he asked.
“Do you mean The People's Fleet?” Zoey asked, and then said “yes,” answering his question without giving him time to answer her's.
“Der are no people in da Big Fleet. Only robots. Are yoo a robot?”
“There's people in the fleet!” Zoey said.
“No,” Giba replied with such simple and absolute certainty that Zoey was almost convinced. “All da creatures in da Big Fleet talk same, walk same, think same. Humans no do dat, only robots.”
“Zoey crossed her arms over her chest. “We're more then that.” The second the words came out she was already doubting their credibility. The only people she could remember from the fleet were George and the other cleaners. That couldn't be true could it? She twisted up her face trying to remember. “I have a friend, Twenty...Four! Or was she five? She could have been five I suppose. Or wait, maybe the girl I'm thinking of was Eighty-Nine. But wait, didn't she... I don't know.” The last sentence was one of confusion. How could she not remember her friend's number? It had only been a few weeks since they met last.
“No, Giba thinks yoo not more den robots,” Giba said. Zoey could almost swear she saw a smirk among the horrible mess of flesh. “Now yoos got to get sleep. We'll be travilin' tomorrow.”
Zoey didn't feel like sleeping, even though she was tired. She asked one of the ten-thousand questions she had. “Who are you guys?”
Giba looked confused. He looked over his shoulder. “Nobody here but yoo an' Giba.”
“I mean who is...” Zoey paused to think “Who is Joshua?”
“Jishua is da Master Captain,” Giba said solidly.
“What kind of person is he?”
“Da mean kind. He shouts at Giba all da time, an' he don't let me have friend. He gibs me some shiny coins sometibes.” Giba reached into his pocket and produced some silver coins that looked miniscule in his gargantuan hand.
Zoey felt a pain of sympathy. “Why don't you run away from him?”
Giba emitted a low, guttural sound that Zoey assumed was a laugh. “Where Giba go to? Master Captain is only one who ever help me, even if it only for himself. Used to have village. Used to be happy. Not anymore.”
“Really? What happened?”
“Soldiers come. Soldiers in gray.”
The sentence sent electricity up Zoey's spine. “Sphere soldiers,” she spat out with hatred. “Fighting their endless wars of extermination for The Defender no doubt.” If the fleet had a list of top Enemies of the People, his picture would be number one. If a picture of him even existed. As much as Zoey's belief in The People had been shaken, she was sure above all else that he was evil. “I was raised hearing the stories of their atrocities.”
“Da Master Captain say der not half bad as yoor people.”
That got Zoey's temper flaring. “Not as bad? They're twice as bad! Ten times as bad! At least The People try to help the tribes! The Sphere tries to wipe them out!” It was clear now that Joshua couldn't be trusted. He was a collaborator with The Sphere. He would betray them the first chance he got.
“We have to escape here!” the words came out of her mouth almost before she thought it. She started looking around the tent to see what could be stolen in the escape. Giba caught on and did the same.
She lowered her voice to continue. “We can pack up and sneak through the market. We'll be gone from the village and escape before Joshua even realizes we're gone. And then we can...” Zoey hit a mental roadblock when she tried to think to far ahead. The future was not as urgent as the present it seemed. What was important was that they escape Joshua, and Clooney too. After all, anyone that would do business with a Sphere collaborator couldn't be trusted. Maybe Clooney was an agent of The Sphere who was negotiating her enslavement! It seemed likely to Zoey, although something at the back of her mind told her it didn't make sense. She brushed the feeling off quickly.
“Why we got to escape?” Giba asked. He had bundled up a load of useful looking supplies in his arms.
“Because if I don't I'll end up a slave like you. And this is your chance to escape your enslavement too.”
Giba once again looked very confused. “But Giba isn't slave. Master Captain said Giba could leave whenever he wanted.”
“Come on! We need to get going!” Zoey said. She hadn't even stopped to listen to Giba's response.
She had put plenty of food and a knife that could be used as a weapon in a pinch into a shoulder bag. The next second she was out the door and into the market. Giba was the only guard. There was no need to sneak. She broke into a run, moving toward the woods, praying that nobody saw her. Giba was left blinking behind her.
The market was a hard place to run through. More then one merchant blocked her path. She shoved them aside, although careful not to hurt them. It seemed endless, but she kept moving in the same direction, knowing that eventually she would get out.
She eventually came out of the busting market into a much quieter part of the village, with larger but more spaced out tents. Villagers peered at her as she bolted past. A few children tried to run and keep up with her, but she shouted at them to go away.
Finally, Zoey got out of the village and into the woods. She was instantly lost. Every tree looked the same, every rock was unremarkable. Escape seemed less likely now. Wandering around in the woods lost until she starved was more probable. She wandered from tree to tree. She stopped running. Her feet dragged.
Why did she think that escape was a good idea? It had seemed like the only option. But it was a stupid. She didn't know how to survive in the woods. Besides, on an island it wouldn't be to terribly hard to find someone. Joshua and Clooney would find her, if she didn't starve. Escape was impossible. She hadn't been thinking clearly.
Zoey heard a noise that stopped her thoughts. She stopped walking and cocked her head to listen. It came again. Slow, labored breathing. She started moving towards it, being careful not to make a sound. Of course, anyone would have heard the multitude of twigs she snapped or leaves she trod on, but she thought she was being very sneaky.
She came to an unusually large and willowy tree I the middle of ground that had been cleared of debris. But she didn't really pay attention to that. Hanging from the tree was a person. He had been tied with rope to the highest branch, and left to hang. He was about Zoey's age, if she had to guess. He was alive, as the breathing Zoey heard matched his chest's rising and falling.
“Do you have any water?” he asked in a cracked, dry voice. He spoke softly, and Zoey had to stand right under him to hear anything.
Zoey though for a moment. “No,” she realized, mentally punching herself. She had plenty of food, but no water. She cursed her stupidity for a moment, then asked, “Who are you anyway?”
The boy let out a long, extra dry sounding breath that Zoey assumed was a sigh. “My name is Derek Wheeler.”