Jason waited on the Leviathan's dock, arms folded. It was early morning and the sunlight had yet to creep its way down and light up the lower houses of Refuge. The rock walls higher up blazed orange. He let out a huff as he realised he was staring up at the slowly shifting colours above, instead of concentrating on the task at hand.
Not that he had much to do. They were ready to go but Rebecca hadn't arrived at the dock yet.
He turned to find Sarah making her way towards him, carrying one of their handheld computers with the thick, drop proof moulding around its edges.
"I don't suppose you know what's taking Rebecca so long?" Jason growled.
"Yes," Sarah replied. "I think she's still getting on some of the clothes I gave her."
"What?!" Jason stared at the older woman.
Sarah frowned. "What's eating you?"
"She bought clothes right before she left the City!" Jason snapped. "Only dragged me around some shopping centre with a thousand people in it for like half an hour too. Never mind I'd just been hit by a bus."
"You got hit by a bus?"
"Yes,” Jason huffed. "And now I've got nanites in me. You know how hard they are to get rid of?"
"They die after about a year. Hang on." She began to fiddle around in her numerous pockets. Sarah always liked to have some of her small tools on her, so she made sure she had a lot of pockets. Though she never seemed to know what was in what pocket. Today it didn't take her very long. "Here," she pulled out a protection bracelet. "Give me your hand."
Jason held it out and let her attach the bracelet to his wrist. "Thanks. I don't want any nasty surprises if we run into Controllers." He repressed a shudder. Valerie had taken full advantage of his recently acquired nanites back in the City. Until the little beasts made their way out of his system he didn't want any repeats of that ordeal. He was lucky Valerie hadn't torn him apart from the inside out - she probably still thought she had reason to. But then, Valerie was probably dead.
Jason swallowed as he fiddled with the bracelet around his wrist and adjusted its fit. "Valerie Chase was in the City," he said quietly.
"What?” Sarah stared at him. "Jason, what happened?"
"Nothing," Jason snapped, suddenly wondering why he had even spoken aloud. "She tried to follow us through the Purge. She's probably dead."
Sarah was looking at him hard, trying to catch his eye. But then she just sighed and shrugged, as if she sensed he didn't want to talk about it anymore. "Well, at least she's gone now."
"I hope so."
Sarah changed the subject. "And I gave Rebecca a decent pair of cargo pants and some boots, if you must know. You take her anywhere in those ridiculous shoes she had she'll end up twisting an ankle. You need to be prepared, Jason. I mean, maybe if you'd taken a few extra protection bracelets with you to the City..."
Jason tugged his coat sleeve back over the bracelet and shoved his hands in his pockets. "I was prepared. If it was up to you, we'd prepare forever and not get anything done. This has taken long enough as it is."
Sarah looked him up and down. "Sweetie, the only thing you look prepared for is a dust storm."
Jason scowled and readjusted his coat self-consciously. "So what's that for?" He pointed at the screen she carried.
"Ah, yes." Sarah activated the screen, as if she'd almost forgotten she was carrying it. "I get the impression you want Rebecca to know what it's like out there, before you progress with your plans. You need to talk to her, so it might pay to have something to show her."
"Like what?" Jason moved around to stand next to Sarah’s shoulder. Sarah flicked through pages on the screen. It looked like a lot of maps, as well as some schematics of different machines. Well, the girl hadn't even believed below existed up until a couple of days ago. He hoped Rebecca could easily understand these and he wouldn't have to struggle to interpret them for her. He took the screen off Sarah.
"So, I'm assuming you haven't really told her yet."
Jason looked up at her sharply. "Told who, what?" he snapped with more vehemence than he intended.
"Rebecca," said Sarah calmly. She barely reacted to his aggression. She never did. "How things work down here, what it's like, its great to tell her all that. But have you explained to her exactly what it is you want her to do?"
"She was fine with leaving the City. She seemed keen to come here and see what's going on..."
"It sounded to me like she would have been dead or arrested had she stayed," Sarah continued. "Not much of a choice, if you ask me."
"And I talked to her after you guys talked with Tim. She said you'd promised you'd tell her everything. When did you plan on doing that?"
"Eventually. She's from the City for gods-sakes; she's used to be told nothing at all!"
"Funny, I thought that was one of things you were all up in arms about?" Sarah said, a little coldly.
"I'll tell her when she's ready," Jason said firmly. He started shuffling through the schematics on the screen, if only so he didn't have to look at Sarah. Maybe she'd give up and leave him alone.
She didn't. "When she's ready or when you're ready, Jason? You know telling her the truth will only make her more willing to help. She deserves to know. So does her brother."
"Leave it," Jason said, his voice a low growl. He was trying really hard to concentrate on those schematics but they were blurring in front of him.
"You know, you don't have to make everything so difficult for yourself."
Jason paused on one schematic, one that stood out from all the others. Only because he had stared at it previously for hours on end, the only one he had tried to understand in every detail. He almost knew it by heart. The crab like body of the Galilee's mining bots, etched out in thin blacks lines and with labels detailing its every part.
"And what about you?" Jason said, his throat suddenly dry.
"You don't have to make it so hard for me either!" He shoved the screen back at her.
Sarah glanced down at the image. "You're going to have to explain this to her at some stage.”
"Just stay out of it alright!" Jason barked.
"So, these are actually way comfier than I thought they'd be."
Rebecca had made her way onto the dock with neither of the two noticing. She looked up from her boots, perhaps realising she'd interrupted something.
"Great, so let's go," Jason snapped. Though he wasn't ungrateful for the interruption. He gestured up to the ramp that led to the Leviathan's deck.
Rebecca glanced between the two of them, then hurried up the ramp. Jason started to follow her.
"Jason..." Sarah began. She was again trying to give him the screen.
"Keep your damn computer," Jason snapped. Then he bounded up the ramp before she could argue with her any further.
Conrad, Jason and Bruce were with her on the ship's bridge. Rebecca didn't really feel as if she belonged there; the mood was sober, the dim lighting only adding to the morbid atmosphere. But Jason had specifically invited her to come, so here she was.
“This was roughly here where I picked up Tim," said Bruce. It had taken them nearly five hours to reach their destination. Now they were approaching sensor range of the village.
"You made the right decision to leave when you did," Jason reassured him. "Anything suspicious, Conrad?"
The younger man had a few images playing across the screen in front of him but his gaze was far away. He was primarily reading the Leviathan's sensors through the ship's Control. "Well, there's certainly no Peacekeepers around," he finally said. "Not anywhere near the village anyway. Do you think it's safe?"
Jason drew in a breath. "There's only one way to find out. Bring the Leviathan in a little closer, slowly. But be ready to bolt. Rebecca, Bruce and I will take one of the runabouts all the way in."
"If there's trouble?" Conrad asked.
"You know what to do."
They made their way up to the dock where the runabout waited. It was about the size of the smaller delivery trucks that operated around the City. But this was where the similarity stopped. Every inch of the medium sized vehicle was covered in armour made up of sheets of metal and random bits of grating. The hum of its anti-gravs was deep, as if they expended a great deal of energy to keep the heavy vehicle alight.
"We're taking this?" Rebecca asked nervously. "I thought we needed the Leviathan?”
"The Leviathan will patrol the nearby airspace," Jason said. He opened the passenger door and gestured for her to step inside.
"What if we run into trouble?"
"The Leviathan will pick up anything," Jason explained. "And take care of it. If it can't handle the Peacekeepers sent against it Conrad will have to bolt, like I told him to."
"And what about us?" Rebecca baulked.
"We can escape in the runabout."
"If something's too much for the Leviathan..."
Jason drew in an exasperated breath. But it was Bruce who answered. "Runabouts are small; they're a lot easier to hide. If something big enough comes to chase the Leviathan we'll be a lot safer in this. Right, boss?"
Jason calmed down a little. "Right. Are you still coming?"
What did she have to lose? Well, her life, maybe. Rebecca hadn't seen much of below but she was certain by now it could be dangerous. But perhaps the safest place was where these guys told her was safe. And a part of her was curious to see what Jason wanted her to see. What made these guys feel they needed to fight against the System, and by extension the City?
She climbed into the vehicle, dragging herself up by the edge of the door and onto the tattered seat. The boots Sarah had given her made it a little easier. She slid over to the middle. Bruce took the driver's side and Jason slid in nimbly beside her.
"Alright, Conrad. We're good to go." Bruce said to the inbuilt communications screen in the runabout.
The doors to the dock slipped open and Bruce brought them out. Outside were more towering cliffs but they were near a pinnacle of land with a flat, relatively green surface that stretched away almost as far as the eye could see. A short distance away were clumped a set of squat buildings. And they were smoking, trails of grey ash floating up into the air.
"What's that; what happened?" Rebecca asked, though as soon as the words were out of her mouth she thought it should have been obvious.
"That kid was right," said Jason through gritted teeth. "Peacekeepers were definitely here."
They approached cautiously, the Leviathan following slowly behind them, though at a distance. The runabout chugged over the grassy plateau. Approaching the small, smoking village Rebecca saw there were fields of crops surrounding it. What remained of these looked healthy, though there were some blast marks scorched through it, likely from the Peacekeepers.
"I don't get it," Jason growled. "There’s nothing wrong with those crops. There was no reason for the System to decide to cut them loose. If they were in any danger we would have stationed Controllers here, or let the Leviathan patrol past it, or..." He almost sounded as if he was talking to himself. "No, I had to drag the Leviathan all the way up to the City, didn't I?" He caught Rebecca looking at him and fell silent.
“Yeah, well they got other reasons to destroy peoples homes, don’t they?” Bruce growled, hands tensing on the steering wheel. It was the first time Rebecca had seen any sign of anger from him. “Conrad's saying he's picked up something on sensors," he added, glancing at the communications screen in the dash.
"Peacekeepers?" said Jason, his voice tense.
"What are..." Rebecca began.
"They're not as bad as Peacekeepers. And no System Controllers; they're automated. They have a bad habit of leaving them in places they've destroyed, in case anyone survived,"Jason growled. He started digging in his jacket pocket and then produced both of the Control gloves. He tossed one to Rebecca. "So it shouldn’t be hard for us to take care of them."
"Okay," Rebecca slipped hers on. This time she didn’t hesitate to do so. ”What am I looking for?"
Jason smiled at her faintly, but then he seemed to catch himself, and the look vanished. "Those." Standing above the ruined buildings were two spindly grey robots. Tripods with a heavy looking head that swivelled towards them as they approached. "You should be able to pick them up with your Control in about a minute.”
Rebecca stretched out her hand. It took a couple of seconds. But the only other machine in the vicinity was the runabout they were currently in. It was easy to make out the near identical signatures of the two Sentinels.
"So what's the plan, boss?" Bruce asked.
"Take us in fast, Bruce," said Jason. "They'll start shooting, but by then Rebecca and I should be able to destroy them."
Bruce stomped on the gas and the runabout leapt forward with a roar, its power surprising for something with its bulk.
But Rebecca was concentrating on the first Sentinel.
"Rebecca, I need you to…“ Jason began.
"I've got one," she said squinting. The systems were easy to find and in a couple seconds she was able to shut it down. Its head sunk, the whole thing going limp like a sick spider.
"That's not..." said Jason. He frowned. "You shut it down from this distance?"
"I thought it would be better to keep it, I don't know maybe we can use it? I can still blow it up."
Jason stared at her. "You've got a better range than me."
"Boss..." Bruce began, his voice tense.
Rebecca and Jason both looked up to find the second Sentinel spitting out its first round of energy bullets. Bruce braked hard and swerved to the side. Despite the evasive manoeuvres Rebecca still heard the ping off the vehicle's heavily armoured roof.
Jason held up his hand and the Sentinel began to spark. Then it spat grey smoke and instead of simply slumping like its companion, trembled and crumpled completely to the ground.
Bruce brought their runabout to a halt and let it drop down to the scorched grass. "Sorry, I thought you had it."
"It's not your fault; I was distracted." Jason jumped down from the vehicle and cautiously walked over to the still intact Sentinel. He held his glove up to it. "It's okay; it's safe."
Rebecca slipped down behind him. Bruce went to the back of the runabout.
“So there's no Peacekeepers, just the Sentinels... shit!" Jason snapped.
"They only leave the Sentinels if they're done with a place; if there's only a small number of people left to deal with..." Jason kicked a piece of metal from the Sentinel he'd completely destroyed.
Rebecca watched it bounce away and Jason's words sunk in. "You mean... they've killed everyone... almost everyone..."
Jason's shoulders slumped. "Yeah."
Rebecca stared up at the smoking village. How many people had lived here? Nothing like this happened in the City; and they never heard of anything like this. It was happening right below them. But then they didn’t even know below existed. “This is what you wanted me to see?" she said, her throat suddenly dry.
Jason shook his head. "I would have rather this hadn’t happened. But we're here so," he shrugged. "Welcome to the real world." With that he stomped to the back of the runabout, where Bruce was unloading some weapons.
Jason took a handgun, Bruce a rifle. Jason tried to hand her a handgun too but Rebecca pushed it back at him. "You've already shoved this Control on me," she snapped. "I have no idea how to use a gun!"
Jason just put it into his coat pocket without a word.
Rebecca felt tense, her throat was dry and her hands had started to shake. She didn't want to see this; she shouldn't have come with them. She should have stayed with Nick, back in Refuge. Or back in the City.
Though she had felt uprooted before, the world below had at first seemed interesting and strange. Now Rebecca realised she hadn't truly felt out of place. But now she more than ever just wanted to go home.
She followed Jason into the razed village anyway.
"If they left Sentinels, they had to expect there were at least a few survivors," said Jason. It sounded as if he were trying to convince himself.
They continued on through the rubble. Many of the buildings had been destroyed. The ones that remained seemed deserted and old. They were dingy, made of crumbling stone and mud. What made people work in these sort of conditions? Did they have a choice? Rebecca swallowed, and found she had recovered enough from the initial shock that she could speak. "What... what do people get paid for working down here?"
"This!" Jason thew his hands upwards, encompassing the ruined buildings around him. "Death and destruction..."
"No shares," Rebecca pressed, although a part of her sensed this might irritate the man.
"Shares are for you City," said Jason. "Whether they're really worth anything there anyway."
"Each one is worth a vote," she began to explain.
"I know how it works, Rebecca. More shares. More votes. Congratulations, you get the opportunity to sway the System. But you have no idea what happens in the rest of the world, so how can we count on you? What good would shares do the people down here anyway?"
"Look, I don't have shares anymore either, remember?"
"I know," Jason drew in a breath. "But do you really think the System wants anyone down here to have a say? Look at what's right in front of you eyes! I visited this town a few months ago. It wasn't like this. There were that many people working, struggling to make sure they reached their quota. Well, obviously they didn't. And they were destroyed for it. They're not here, Rebecca, they're gone. That's what they got for this. And that's what your City does. It sucks the life from everything just to keep you comfortable. To keep your cars running and your bellies full. And it makes no sense because the vast majority of you don't even know we exist. I can't... understand... why it has to be this way..." Jason looked at her, now no longer angry, but like he expected her to have the answer for him.
She stared back at him. "I... I don't know," she finally said.
Jason huffed and that lost look vanished from his eyes. "Well, that's a first."
There was the briefest clatter of rubble behind her. Rebecca thought nothing of it, until Jason pulled out his gun, grasped her shoulder, and placed himself in front of her. Rebecca turned, letting the man cover her. But before she could figure out what was going on he'd lowered the weapon.
"I didn't think anyone would still be alive," said Jason.
"And I didn't think any of your lot would show to help. Better late than never, I suppose." The man who approached was weathered, his skin tanned to a deep bronze, and Rebecca found it impossible to guess his age. He held a shovel, though not in a threatening manner.
"Tobias, I'm sorry, we came as quickly as we could. One of my men found a boy escaping in a small ship. We figured something had gone wrong."
Tobias stopped a few meters away. "Who'd you find?"
Tobias let out a pent up breath. "Thank gods. His father managed to survive. He's with the others left, helping collect bodies. The boy's mother?”
"She didn't survive. I'm sorry."
"I heard you were working on some sort of project and didn't have the time for this sort of thing anymore," said Tobias tersely. "I didn't expect anyone to come.
"There's always time for this sort of thing."
"Yeah, when you get around to it," Tobias gave a tired shrug. "It doesn't matter now. You couldn't have done much good anyway, except, I don't know, maybe have one of your Controllers take over those Peacekeepers and send them packing. Set the Leviathan on them, maybe."
"We're here now," Jason growled. "And we took out those Sentinels..."
"Yeah, thanks for that. I mean, we're almost finished anyway. But we'll be able to move the last few bodies out the front now, that might make it a little quicker..." Tobias turned away and rubbed a hand across his face.
"We'll help you finish," said Jason. "Then we can take any of your survivors back to Refuge. You'll be safe there."
Tobias smiled faintly, but there was no humour in it. “Yeah, well lets hope you take care of your own better than you do everyone else."
It was quiet up on the deck of the Leviathan. Rebecca had come up, once she had checked with Conrad that it was safe, to escape the press of people that had boarded the ship. Perhaps twenty men and women and a couple of kids. It wasn't exactly crowded. But it was depressing.
Before they left it had been necessary to assist Tobias with the one task he had yet to complete - burying the few remaining bodies of those who had been killed. Rebecca had never seen a dead body. And though she had not seen them up close, remaining back as Bruce and Tobias finished piling dirt on the last corpse, the whole procedure had sent chills down her spine. Luckily there had not been many left to bury, and though it must have been devastating for those left behind, they had not stayed long to mourn.
I mean, how would she feel if she lost Nick? Rebecca wasn't even sure.
The hatch creaked open behind her and Rebecca looked back over her shoulder. Jason stepped up onto the deck.
"Seems I'm not the only one who needs space," he sighed.
"I can go back down if..."
Jason shook his head, and came and stood beside her.
"I'm sorry, I get why you're angry at the City now."
"... they don't even know this sort of stuff goes on down here..." he growled.
"It's not your fault," Jason cut her short. "This whole thing is messed up."
"It's just..." The thought had been bugging her for the last few minutes. Rebecca couldn't deny what she'd seen. But she couldn't shake the feeling that where Jason placed the blame was wrong. And she couldn't be sure if speaking her thoughts out loud would end up upsetting Jason, but old habits were hard to break; she couldn't stop herself from speaking her mind. "What makes you think the System is responsible for all this?"
"How could it not be?" said Jason, a growl creeping into his voice.
"Because things like this, they don't happen in the City! The System makes sure everything runs smoothly, everyone is safe. Out here - look, I get it, I'm not denying what happened back there - but what if it's not the System? What if whoever's in charge down here has just gone rogue and they're doing their own thing?"
Jason didn't grow angry at her, or snap back a retort. Instead he actually seemed to pause and gather his thoughts before he replied, almost calmly. "The System knows what goes on down here, trust me. And the City? You might enjoy some level of protection but it's not so different from below. The System just uses a different method. You're just as much controlled as we are, perhaps more so."
“Huh?” Rebecca frowned. It didn't make any sense, Jason must be... what crazy? Again? She pushed that thought down. She knew now that wasn’t true. "No... we have, I had it better than what I saw back there." She gestured back over her shoulder, indicating the general direction of Tobias' village.
"Maybe," Jason conceded. "Maybe you don't get you homes destroyed for every little wrong. Or even if you've done nothing. Maybe you don't have to live with the threat of Peacekeepers finding you. But down here, the System uses our bodies. We're made to work the land, or dig for minerals - all resources for the City's use. And to make us do that the System controls us through force. Peacekeepers, Controllers, Sentinels...
"But for those that live in the City?" Jason tapped the side of his head with a finger. "The System needs your minds. It can't harness that through force. So instead, you're lied to. You're controlled by the beliefs forced on you since birth. It's only when you see below for yourself that you realise none of it is true. How many more things do you think you might be wrong about, Rebecca?"
Rebecca stared at him, hard. "I haven't been controlled... I've... I may have thought those things back in the City, but once I came down here... it wasn't like I didn't believe what was right in front of my face."
"But you still struggled to let go of those beliefs," Jason continued. “Why was it still so hard for you to break free from what you've always known?"
"I'm... I'm trying to!" Rebecca flushed. "I'm not stupid, why do you think I keep asking questions?"
"Well, keep asking questions," said Jason. "At least there you're on the right track."
Rebecca drew in a breath and tried to calm herself. For once, she saw Jason actually made sense. Perhaps that was what had her so irritated. "So you'd rather you were bullied around with Peacekeepers, rather than be told what to think?"
"Maybe." Jason gritted his teeth and leaned heavily on the railing. "Rebecca, they can push me around and they can destroy everything I have left. But whatever they do to me my thoughts and what I believe will still be mine. My mind will still be my own. I..." he faltered, and swallowed. "I couldn't think of anything worse than your thoughts, your mind, who you are, imprisoned." He stared out at the towering cliffs slowly slipping past. His hands tightened on the railing and he drew in a steadying breath. "That's... that's why I brought you over here. The person I told you about, the one I need you to help me save..."
He was cut short as an alarm blared out on the deck behind them.
Jason stiffened. "Conrad wants us off the deck. Something's happened."
Rebecca looked around about her, she couldn't see any threat of impending attack. "What's...?"
"I don't know," Jason snapped. "Move," He grasped her by the shoulder and pushed her towards the open hatch. At the bottom of the ladder he pushed past her and headed to the bridge. Rebecca followed him, struggling to keep up with his stride.
"Conrad!" Jason barked as he entered the bridge. "Are we under attack?"
"No," Conrad looked over his shoulder. "We just..."
"I needed to increase our speed..."
Conrad drew in a breath. "I just received a message from Refuge. It was automated. An SOS."
"An SOS?" Rebecca asked. "What does that mean, I mean..."
"It means they're under attack!" Jason snapped, hands balled in fists. "What do you think?!"
"Hey! My brother's there too!? Does it... does it say what's happened?"
Conrad shook his head.
"So increase our speed; get us back!" Jason growled.
"I already have! It'll take us another hour, full speed." Conrad swallowed. "Look, we don't necessarily know they're under attack; they might just need the Leviathan for something."
"Like what?!" Jason demanded.
"I don't know! But we won't know until we get there, alright?" Conrad drew in a breath. "I'll get us there fast as I can, Jason, I promise."
Rebecca could feel her heart pounding in her chest. She'd just seen what the Controllers down here were capable of. That had only been a tiny farming village. But Refuge... surely they could protect themselves? What about Nick?
She was startled out of her thoughts as a clang rang through the bulkhead beside her; Jason had just pounded a fist into the wall.