26 | TEAMS AND THEIR LEADERS
If anything, the demonstration that had sent Eli into a breakdown had strengthened the group’s unanimous resolve to get the hell out of 015 Military HQ.
The soldiers stepped into the room, Tess coming straight at them with her arms akimbo as Eli dropped onto the ground cross-legged, officially bursting into tears. Em pulled him into a hug, muttering soft reassurances in an attempt to calm him down.
“We were expecting better results, if I’m very honest, but it seems only she,” Tess gestured at Eris, “Is truly able to set aside the brutality of combat for the bigger picture—”
“Bigger picture? Bigger picture?!” Ethan exclaimed, face puffed as he gestured at Eli, “He’s traumatised! You—you can’t just throw a bunch of people at us and make us kill them! And without warning!”
“We’ve already been through this,” Tess sighed, “You people have to be ready for surprises when on missions. Plus, Poison Girl and Healer boy here has been training for this specifically. I was expecting that you’d be ready by now.”
The nonchalance on her face, the matter-of-fact tone, and the look on his face that told her Ethan wanted to lunge at the crazy lady and break her neck, but was forcing himself to hold back for the sake of their pathetic asses—it sickened Em.
Everything about the current arrangement was disgusting and unethical, but yet they had to live without dignity and watch this unfold. Em knew that they were all bad at emotions and being considerate, but it was pretty dang clear at this point that their training was not just about brutality and killing. It was not purely physical fitness or the ‘big picture’.
It was also a warning.
A warning, to show them the ends of all who went against the rules—just a training target, too weak for self defense and too broken to fight their death.
The kids found themselves back in weapon inventory after the briefing, loading up their pistols and gathering their protective gear. Em snatched the collection of blades from the cushioned tray, dipping the tips into a tiny bottle that held a dilute solution of her venomous saliva. They were going to have to go all out, kill their way out of this glass empire of a city with poison and blood. Not the most enticing plan, but Em knew something would have to give.
She only hoped that the soldiers wouldn’t be merciful—maybe then, she’d feel less bad about potential killings.
“So… everyone got the plan down?” Ethan grumbled as he stuck a dagger in a hidden pocket of his boots—a new perk that they’d found about their gear. “We’re gonna knock out our target and make it look like he attempted to kill himself by banging his head against the wall, by—”
“Actually banging him against the wall,” Eli finished calmly while earning two concerned glances. Eli had appeared to return to normal… but this indifference, this forced participation in discussing the brutality…
If Eli thought acting out of character would make them less concerned about his mental well-being with the people he’d known all his life… Sadly, mental health talks would have to wait. Em removed the knives and secured them on her belt.
“You guys know how what to do after that,” Eris added as she viewed the hologram of the neighbourhood they were headed to. The others nodded quietly as they tinkered with their weapons.
Take the Metro back. Cut communication and detour. Kill all monitoring drones and devices. And then… the fight. The attack that would either be smooth, messy or potentially ruin their lives.
Em didn’t like the stakes… but no guts, no glory.
She stood up and grabbed an extra, unpoisoned blade to shove in her pocket.
Of course, however, no one was.
“Walter Tan. Ex-CC Manager before Louis… wow, he’s old. Suspected of illegal activities against the city?” Ethan read off the SmartGlass Mini in Eris’ hand, “This is—this stuff gets wilder and wilder… What’s next, assassinating corrupt ministers?”
“We’ll see,” Tess quipped as she continued walking ahead, not once looking back, “When the boss man tells us, we’ll get to it. Focus on improving your skill for now, and we might even consider officially recruiting you four into the military when you’re legal. Then you’ll have a proper suite to stay in and a fine salary, higher than you could ever earn if you’d stuck with Project Correction. It was a hoax, anyway. Here in the military? We don’t care about how nice you are to your friends, give us a clean job and we’re good.”
“Proper suite?” Em wrinkled her nose, “So our current bedrooms are prison cells? Cool, I guess.”
“Holding suites,” Tess corrected, “We do a reward system here, oh-five-oh-three. We were thinking of waiting ten missions to move you Errors up, but if the bosses don’t mind, we’ll propose five missions instead.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” the brunette replied curtly, rolling her eyes at the ground as the sound of their combat boots against the ground and the clatter of the occasional manhole cover became the only noises in their walk towards the station.
Save for the few guards standing guard at the entrance of Military HQ Metro Station, the Errors quickly found that they were (quite obviously) the only commuters at such an hour. The guard had nodded with understanding as the quartet entered, turning off the gantry SecureScan for them to enter the platform. Only a mere minute later did the train come cruising into the station—and there they were, sitting in an empty train in the middle of the night, drugged with some fancy pills to help them survive their messed up sleep cycles, courtesy of their missions, geared up with weapons and on the way to frame a poor old man with a faked suicide.
After countless cycles of “Next Station” and “Doors Closing, bibibibbibip” and the standard warning against suspicious persons and articles, Em broke the silence.
“If I was more trusting, I’d actually think their offer was a—”
“No, Em, no,” Ethan cut in with a snarl, “Don’t even thi—”
“Ethan, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Eris’ eyes flashed with a brief spark of cerulean as she shot a pointed look, “At least we don’t have to eat that bitter gourd dish that Mrs Rita always cooks.”
“Oh. Oh, sorry,” Ethan grumbled as the emotionless one continued, the dead, cold stare in her eyes sparking with danger, “The walls have eyes and ears. Don’t say anything… sensitive. We don’t want to trigger an alarm for profanity, do we?”
The Metro is bugged, Ethan quickly realised. Even if Eris has her monitoring hack fixed, we’re not safe. And what was that? The birds, she said?
Em sighed dejectedly as she slipped into silence next to Eli, who was busy twisting his fingers around, a nervous tic of his.
Garden Drive was serene, quiet, the air fresh with the faint scent of flora in the same way that Merlion Street did. The only thing which proved Merlion Street buildings superior were the buildings, clearly less extravagant and probably cheaper, too.
In the dead of night, the quartet brisk-walked through the streets until Eris stopped the group.
“Shh,” Eris shushed, “Watch.”
The other three watched as her eyes glowed brilliantly as she stuck out a hand into the air… as the mynah dipped from its flight, flapped its wings and glid through the midnight wind, landing on Eris’ hand—
The bird’s beady eyes glowed with the same sharp sapphire colour.
“Holy crap,” Em muttered as the boys stared in awe. “It’s—they’re fake? Full robots?!”
“Our lives have been utter lies,” Eli added quickly, his eyes still on the black bird as it chirped, moving its feet slightly on Eris’ finger.
“No, they’re all cyborgs modified by the government, like me,” Eris explained, “The government uses them to collect data and stalk people. This one’s under Group Z, meaning it works on minor data collection—the least important kind. Group A through E are the ones that spy. And now that we’re done here...”
Eris’ eyes glowed. The bird’s eyes flickered as it let out a small squawk, its feet losing grip on her fingers as it dropped to the ground, unconscious.
“Eris!” Eli’s eyes widened in horror as he looked at the mynah at his feet, then back at her deadpan face, “You—did you kill it? He’s just a bird enslaved by the government! Why—”
“I did not,” Eris replied plainly, “It has simply been knocked out. It’ll wake up in an hour or so. I just needed to demonstrate that I am able to shut down birds. All you need to do is tell me your exact location and I can track the bird and stop any monitoring.”
“What? Can’t you just…” Ethan’s weird look morphed into shock, “Are you not coming with us on the mission?”
“Indeed, I am not,” Eris met their bewildered, somewhat horrified faces, “I have other vital matters to see to.”
Em was the first to question with a frown, waving her poisoned dagger in a gesture, “What could be more important than tonight? Eris, what is going on?”
“Yeah, did Tess tell you to do something that we don’t know about?” Eli joined in.
“Not Tess, someone else did. But that’s not the main point. I need you people to trust me on this,” Eris continued, “We’re running out of time. You guys will have to go to Walter Tan’s place and settle that, then head out. I will meet you back there when I’ve gotten what I needed. We’ll communicate by SmartGlass Mini, but try your best to keep things to a minimum unless it’s a tech issue. You know the drill.”
Eris knew the best potential outcome was unanimous agreement followed by an instant leap into action. But something on each of their faces told her that they weren’t about to do any of that. Something told Eris that they harboured a fear of going it alone, and distrust of her new plans. And the bird? She’d lost Eli’s trust in the past couple weeks of training; he now saw her as what she probably was at the core—a heartless, desensitised robot at the beck and call of the government, with no humanity, no hesitation to kill. All statistics, metal and binary code.
“No, we don’t know the drill!” Em hissed, “You can’t ditch us like this and prance off to do whatever! We’re supposed to be in this together… aren’t we?” Her voice dropped sadly.
“Yeah, I don’t know what shit you’re up to, girl, but other than the part where we’ll flop horribly without you, we’re supposed to be a team, like the woman said,” Ethan argued, “I know we don’t mean a thing to you, but this is a perfect time for you to sit down and remember whatever you gathered from therapy with freaking Roxanne.”
Eris stared at them, attempting to make sense of the frowns and the looks of what she saw as ‘hurt’ as she elucidated, “What I have to get done is beneficial to our cause; I can’t say any more than that for now. You’ll understand later, but you’re just going to have to trust me for now and go on the mission. You won’t fail; you’re well-trained enough.”
The three exchanged worried glances.
“I don’t like this at all, Eris,” Em began, “Right now, we need you to be the leader—”
“Do you believe what Tess says, hundred-percent?”
Em blinked. “Uh, what? No, of course, but what does this—”
“Then get that ‘leader’ talk out of your minds. Delete it all,” Eris deadpanned, “Forget about how I’m supposedly better than you all in the eyes of adults who wish to manipulate us. Delete the notions that I’m better off. Emotion is not equivalent to weakness; it may have caused some trouble for you, but it is a strength in times like these, where rules are nonexistent. Go wild. If anything goes wrong, at least you’ll know you went out with a bang. Best case scenario, the bangs are from the sound of bullets hitting the border guards we will shoot tonight.”
Eris scanned her audience of the motivational speech for a second.
“It’s just…” Ethan shook his head in awe, ”This is the longest thing you’ve ever said to us in one shot. And motivational, too.”
“Yeah, it’s surprisingly inspiring, coming from you,” Eli added, his agape jaw finally moving to speak. “Thanks, Eris.”
“No problem… Em?”
Em remained unresponsive—but only for the briefest moment before she lunged at them with a bone-crushing hug against shock and Ethan’s protests. After she let go of them, she hugged Eris individually.
“You better not screw up either,” Em said, “I know you’re in control, but I kind of prefer you in one piece, okay?”
“So do I. Goodbye. Remember to let me know if anyone’s after you,” Eris reminded, before she brisk-walked off, on a path that only she was aware of, with the other three standing there, almost lost without the girl who they’d always thought to be the one contributor of perfectly-executed ideas, common sense and decently-operating brain cells.
But then again, each of them had spent months in solitary, waiting, training for today. Like it or not, they were going to have to do this without Eris.
“Well…” Ethan adjusted his gloves, “Let’s do this, I guess. Walter Tan’s home… let’s go.”