Leviathan returned to a home quite different from that which it had left. A stream of smoke wound its way up from behind the cliff face entrance. As the ship slipped slowly inside, the once neat cliffside came into view. Now it was covered in rubble, some of which was still slipping down to crash into the waters at the base of the inlet.
"What the hell happened?” It was only when Jason replied that Rebecca realised she'd spoken aloud.
"Peacekeepers," he said simply. Then he pounded a fist on the Leviathan's railing. "We haven't even been messing with their equipment, or their Controllers! We've hardly bothered the mines! All we've done is run from them. And protected people from them - they didn't need to do this!" His chest heaved and he drew in deep breaths.
"They've just... it just looks like they've just hit a lot of buildings," Rebecca said. She found her voice held a slight tremor. "They couldn't have really hurt anyone..." Like Nick. Gods, she hoped he was okay.
Jason turned and glared at her. "They know where we are.”
The Leviathan dropped down to the central dock. That at least was still intact. There were at least two dozen people milling around down there. Some of the runabouts were pulled up at the dock too, ferrying people from other, more damaged areas of Refuge. The majority of the buildings near the dock seemed intact and that at least was some small blessing.
Rebecca leaned hard on the railing, straining to pick out faces in the crowd. She couldn't see Nick anywhere.
The Leviathan slowed, but even before she completely stopped Jason put a hand on the railing and launched himself over and onto the dock. "What the hell happened?!" he demanded.
No one answered Jason immediately. These people simply looked tired, or stunned. Of course they would be. Rebecca was only worrying about Nick but this was their home. How would see feel if the City had been destroyed? She'd been forced to leave it behind but at least it was still there.
The Leviathan slowed to a stop, letting out one final chug, then a descending whine as its engines shut down. Rebecca slipped onto the dock behind Jason.
Jason was still waiting for his answer. “Well!?"
"Jason, you're back." Sarah emerged from the back of the small crowd. She looked haggard and tired, just like the others.
Jason let out a pent up breath and his shoulders sagged. "Sarah, you're alive." He drew her into a hug, squeezing her tight against his chest.
"Sweetheart, it's okay; I'm fine."
Jason held onto her for only a moment longer, then released her. But he kept his hands on her shoulders as he asked, calmer than he had previously: "What happened?"
"Peacekeepers. Two of them."
"How did they find us?"
"How should I know? Does it even matter?" Sarah let out a sigh. "It was only a matter of time, Jason. You know that. This place depends on remaining hidden. We lose that, and..." she shrugged. "What are we supposed to do? I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," Jason swallowed. “You should have had the Leviathan.” He looked back over his shoulder at the smoking buildings. "Only two Peacekeepers did all this?”
"Yes," said Sarah. "But we shot one down."
Jason stared at her intently and his eyes narrowed. "Really?"
"It crashed into one of the buildings. I'm not sure how much of it is still intact, but we might get lucky."
"You can show me where?"
Jason mulled over this for a moment. Then he drew in a breath and raised his voice. "Listen everyone, I know you're all scared. But we're going to find out who did this. Right now I just need you all to keep looking for... survivors. And whatever provisions we've got left. We'll find the Peacekeeper Sarah downed and we'll figure out what's going on."
Rebecca couldn't tell how well this speech was absorbed by the remaining rebels. No one said anything - nothing loudly enough for her to hear anyway.
"We'll take one of the runabouts,” Sarah told Jason.
The hatch on the Leviathan's deck hissed open, and Tobias emerged. He surveyed the state of Refuge, for a moment his eyes wide. Then he just let out a sigh and his shoulders slumped. He shook his head. "I see you’re just as good at taking care of your own, Jason. Good to know."
Jason squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, as if gathering himself. "We'll make sure your people are taken care of, Tobias. I promise."
"Heard that one before." Tobias turned back to the hatch.
Jason winced. "Alright, you're coming with us," he said to Rebecca.
"What? No, I need to find Nick..."
"Nick is fine," said Sarah. "He wasn't hurt." She let out a sigh. "But he..."
"We don't have time to chat right now," Jason growled.
"Sorry, you're right," said Sarah. "I'm not sure what condition that Peacekeeper is in. We should check it out as soon as we can."
Rebecca followed them to the waiting runabout. She could wait to see Nick until after they’d taken a look at the downed Peacekeeper.
"There. You can see it. We may still be able to reach it before that slab goes.”
Sarah pointed out the Peacekeeper, her arm hanging out the window to indicate the smoking wreck. The machine had crashed into one of the lower buildings, punching through its side and taking out much of the supporting structure. The wall that remained was crumbling still. The remaining concrete floor stretched out from the cliffside, sticking out over the now high waters that made their way into the inlet.
The Peacekeeper itself was perched towards the edge of the concrete floor. Parts of it were charred and dead, but some of the white metal still liquified and waved in tendrils, the surviving nanites trying in vain to repair the damage.
"If I can get a closer look," said Sarah. "I might be able to find out what they've put in this thing."
"There's only one thing I’m interested in in there," Jason growled, "The Controller."
"Jason, that Peacekeeper is new. I haven't seen that model before. And they only sent two. Those things were prototypes; they were testing them out on Refuge, I'm sure of it.
"Son of a..." Jason growled. “Of course you’d pick that up.”
Sarah pulled up the runabout next to an exposed steel girder at floor level and let the vehicle idle.
"You still wearing your protection bracelet?" Jason asked. He stared straight at the Peacekeeper, his gaze not straying from it.
Rebecca assumed he was speaking to her. She checked her wrist automatically, though she knew she hadn't removed it. "Yeah."
"Good. Because that Controller is still alive."
There was no sign of human life amongst the wreckage. None that she could see at least. ”How do you know?"
"The metal is still moving. He's trying to fix it. And if he can do that, he should be more than capable of answering a few questions." Jason opened his door, which was right up against the steel girder.
"Jason," said Sarah, her voice bringing him to a halt. "Keep your head, okay."
Jason glared at her then nodded. They climbed out of the vehicle through the passenger door, onto the steel girder, then moved cautiously out onto the concrete floor.
"If anything moves," Sarah warned, "get back onto the girder. I'm not entirely confident this is completely stable. I'll see what I can dig out of the Peacekeeper." And with that she moved to the back of the machine.
Rebecca approached the Peacekeeper cautiously; she sunk to one knee next to it, studying its form. One wing was missing, the NIASteel at the burnt break struggling to reform, but the shape it had held was obvious. It was fast. It may have been small but it had a lot of firepower. The state of Refuge made that obvious. This machine was more than capable of ruling the skies.
Back in the City, studying this machine would have excited her. But instead Rebecca found herself tense. She swallowed hard. She'd seen what this thing could do. She may have admired the engineering - but in the end this thing was just a weapon.
"There's our Controller." Jason spoke softly, but his voice held a note that sent a shiver down Rebecca's spine.
She rose to her feet and walked around the damaged wing to the front of the Peacekeeper. There was a cockpit that had smashed open on impact. Inside was a man barely older than herself. He had a bloodied gash on his forehead, but he appeared lucid. He looked up at the sound of Jason's voice.
Jason took a step towards the cockpit and knelt down. His movements were calm, controlled, but his voice was like ice. "You do realise what you've done, don't you?"
The Controller struggled against the metal that crushed in around him. The Peacekeeper made a buzzing, humming noise, then something in the cockpit sparked and the sound stopped.
"No point trying to control it, mate. It's broken."
"Don't you get it?!” said the man. “You're done! We've finally got you. We've destroyed most of your base; most of your people..."
Jason's eyes narrowed. He reached under his coat and came back with a knife in his hand.
The man went pale. "Ja... Jason... wait..."
"So you do know who I am? What gave it away?"
The man stared at the knife.
"Oh, of course. Someone started a rumour that I cut off the hands of any Controller I find. Who was that again? Oh yeah, me."
"Jason, wait..." Rebecca found she couldn't pull herself away; her voice was the only thing she thought might prevent what was about to happen.
Jason didn't look at her. "You want to know where we get the chips for our Controls, Rebecca?" he said, as calmly as if he was simply demonstrating the operation of a piece of equipment. “I’ll show you.“
Despite herself, Rebecca couldn’t turn away. Jason pressed the tip of the blade into the man's hand and with surgical precision slipped the tip under the skin, slicing in a crescent shape. When he pulled it out a small metallic, bloodied square clung to the end of the blade.
The man whimpered and pulled his hand back to himself.
"Relax, I've only cut off someone's hand once. All I want is your Control chip. You're lucky; they didn't install it too deeply. I honestly don't understand why you think it's safe under your skin."
Beneath them, Rebecca felt the concrete shift. "Jason..."
Jason gritted his teeth. "Shit."
Sarah reappeared from behind the Peacekeeper, clutching a black box with loose wires hanging out in her arms. "We have to go. This slab's about to go."
"Is that your professional opinion?!" Jason snapped.
"Oh, I'm sorry, did you want me to stop and do the calculations? Yes!"
Jason scowled, then turned back to the Controller. "How many of these Peacekeepers do you have?!"
Sarah gripped her shoulder and Rebecca let her pull her back to the safety of the steel girder.
"Why should I tell you?!"
Jason pulled a handgun from beneath his coat with his free hand. He stood to his feet and pointed it down at the man. "Answer me!"
The concrete shifted again, letting out a deep groan.
"Screw you! I'll be dead in a minute anyway," said the man, his voice cracking.
"Jason!" Sarah called.
Jason faltered. He lowered the gun slightly. Then his gaze hardened. He levelled the gun again. “Tell me. And I'll shoot you."
"No!" The man frowned. "Wait, what...?"
Jason shrugged. As calmly as if the man had just refused a dinner invite. “Well, if you’d prefer to drown." He turned his back on the Controller and headed to the girder, even as a crack appeared in the floor beneath his feet. The crack darted across the slab, reaching the far side just as Jason stepped off of it.
"No, wait...!" The rest of the man's words were lost in the roar of crashing concrete. The part of the slab hanging out over thin air fell away. The girder beneath Rebecca's feet shuddered, but stood strong.
The concrete, Peacekeeper, and Controller slid down the short length of slope and crashed into the waters below. The ocean, though nowhere near as rough as outside the inlet where Refuge nestled, surged and swallowed the rubble and machine in seconds.
Rebecca drew in a sharp breath.
Jason watched the waters until they stilled. ”Did you get what you wanted?"
"I hope so. This is different to anything I've seen on the older model Peacekeepers. I don't know what it does yet but it shouldn't take long to find out." Sarah paused before adding. "You enjoyed that too much."
"I'm not enjoying any of this!" Jason snapped. He drew in a deep breath and looked down at the chip, still on the knife tip. He slid it off and turned it over in his hand. The smear of blood it carried with it didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest. "At least these always help."
Sarah rested a hand on his shoulder. “It's going to take more than an extra Control chip to fix this, Jason."
Nick wandered aimlessly through Refuge. Somewhere inside he realised he was heading towards the main dock. Not that it mattered. His hands were thrust deep in his pockets, his gaze fixed on his feet. He made his way between the rebels who were moving the injured into the main hall and centralising the remaining supplies from damaged buildings.
He should have been helping. The thought crossed his mind like a flicker but he could not hold or muse on it for long. It didn't matter, because Steph was gone.
The sound of an engine drew his attention. A runabout pulled up at the main docks. Nick watched it dispassionately, until he saw Rebecca step down from its open door. His sister was okay. Nick’s shoulders slumped and he let out a pent out breath, which came out almost moan. There was no reason why she shouldn't be; she had been away from Refuge when the Peacekeepers struck. But she was still okay.
Then he saw Jason.
Something stronger than relief welled up inside him. Jason was the one who had said this place was supposed to be safe. He was supposed to be this resistance's leader. Steph had trusted him, and by extension so had Nick. Despite his misgivings. Jason was the one responsible for what had happened to Steph. And here he was, dragging Rebecca about to gods knew where. He hadn’t even told them exactly what he wanted her for! Would he take his sister too?!
Nick stomped down the wooden dock, shoving his way through the people around him. He focused on the one man who had done this, the one man who had brought them here with barely a warning of the dangers, with no care but for his own plans and desires. Whatever those were.
Nick stomped straight past Rebecca, grasped Jason by the front of his coat and shook him."You didn't tell me this was going to happen!"
"You were expecting plain sailing?" Jason growled. He didn't make a move to remove Nick from his person, not yet. But Nick could feel him tense and shift his footing. He was scowling at him. He was angry? Good. Though Jason was leaner than him, Nick doubted he stood the slightest chance of knocking the man down. But he didn't care if he made him angry enough to retaliate; in fact, he found himself hoping for it.
Nick slammed his bunched fists, still knotted up in the worn leather of Jason's collar, into the man's chest.
Jason took a step back but still gave no response beyond continuing to glare at him. No apology? Nothing!
Nick slammed him again, then pulled him forward so they were nose to nose. "She's dead!" he snarled, his voice cracking.
The hard lines that creased Jason's face softened. “She can’t… I’m sorry, Nick."
Nick stared at him for a moment. He wasn't going to get a fight. "Sorry isn't going to bring Steph back!" he continued desperately. "You brought us here! She trusted you and your pathetic little cause and then you go and get your base destroyed!”
”I know. I know I messed up. I’m sorry."
It wasn't fair! He wanted to fight, but he couldn't with the man looking at him like that.
"Nick, it's okay." Rebecca was at his shoulder, pulling his arms down and off of Jason.
Nick released Jason’s coat and let his hands fall down to his sides.
"Nick," said Rebecca again. She'd stepped between him and Jason, not that she needed to any more.
Nick wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her shoulder.
"I'm so sorry," Rebecca said, squeezing him back.
He couldn't bring Steph back. But he would not let them take his sister either.