Chapter 19 - Isaac
Life in the Base is not quite how I expected it to be.
“Suit up, rookie.” Executive Teke slaps my back, jolting me awake and nearly breaking my spine as he does so. He’s a short man, but built like a tank, with an immense amount of power in his stocky body.
I sigh and yawn, wanting to go back to sleep so badly. But I roll out of bed like I have to, rubbing at my eyes.
Executive Teke’s booming voice fills the dormitory, waking everyone up from their slumbers.
Quickly heading into the showers, I rub the sleep out of my eyes. I have learnt that being slow out of bed often results in me stinking of sweat all day.
I get into a vacant cubicle, lock the door (forgetting to do so has embarrassing consequences) and make the water flow down on me, hot but gentle. It slowly wakes me up, warming my cold, aching joints. Winter has hit hard.
Impatient rapping on the cubicle’s door ends the relaxing spell.
“Patience!” I yell to the knocker. I switch off the shower and wrap a towel round myself before opening the door.
It’s Paul. His scrawny eyes glare at me. “You’ve been there for ten minutes,” he complains in his whiny tenor voice.
“Brilliant deduction, detective.”
“Oh, get out,” he snaps.
I roll my eyes, but comply. I grab my uniform – black leather, with the Brackleby AH emblem large on the front. It’s just the simple letters in cursive writing, hovering over the Brackleby Sector in the Circle diagram. They made me cut my hair, which extremely ticked me off. It is now shorn until almost non-existence, just slight brown bristles.
I throw on my clothes, running out of the changing rooms to listen to Executive Teke.
“We’re out at nine,” he alerts everyone. “Get back here by 8:55.”
I glance at my watch. It is eight thirty – we were quite late up this morning – so I quickly make my way to the canteen, which is a good quarter mile away from my dormitory.
There are twenty blocks, here – ten male and ten female. Each is equipped with an array of weapons such as dart-guns and tear gas as well as five showers, and ten bunk beds. The officials – Executives, they are all called – have their own sleeping quarters, the lucky things.
I’m in dorm 10a. 10 is the lowest grade, equal to 10b, which is the female dorm. Executives lead the groups (which are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10) and deal with new recruits. Executive Teke is the head of 10, which is the level after training. Those who fail training get cut, but I’ve survived the two-week course. Days spent in the woods with Isolde have made me physically fit.
I round the corner of block 10b, trying not to think of Isolde. Leaving the memory for another time, when I am alone and are able to act freely.
It has been just over two weeks since I came here. Two weeks of gruelling exercises, drills, and lessons. They haven’t let me go into the non-sector but I’ve been out patrolling with Executive Teke, and have had instructions of what to do in various situations. So much has been crammed into my brain in the last fortnight.
“Isaac.” Gemma runs out of block 10b from behind me, her long legs and arms moving fast.
“Hey,” I shout as I move. “Canteen?”
She reaches me, and we both slow our paces. “Yeah. I am dying for some coffee.”
“You really need to reduce your caffeine intake,” I chide. Gemma has a good seven cups of the stuff a day.
She makes a face at me, and breaks into a sprint. I start running too, loving the exhilarating feel of my feet pounding on the gravel, the wind blowing in my face. Gemma is extremely fast, faster than me. She runs so agilely as well, her movements all fluid and co-ordinated. We grind to a halt outside of the cafeteria, where I try to catch my breath while Gemma grins at me. “Accept defeat.”
I elbow her in the ribs, and she digs her own bony arm into my side before walking into the building.
“Your puppy is here,” I say wryly, looking over three tables away. A bunch of trainees from Block 9a sit around a table, roaring with laughter.
She sticks her tongue at me and goes to that table. There’s this guy who has insisted on tagging along with her wherever she goes. I’m shocked that he didn’t turn up to walk her to the canteen. She – somehow – appreciates his pathetic puppy-dog behaviour.
I roll my eyes at her and go to collect some food. I load a large portion of waffles onto my plate before locating a free table, and have worked my way through to my sixth waffle when Devyn smacks his tray down on the opposite side of the table. He’s from 9a – a higher rank than me. He’s seventeen, intimidatingly tall but quite thin.
Devyn has a thing for violence – I have watched, amused, as he roughhoused with others from his block, often leaving them complaining. I have also seen him in more serious combat. He is absolutely deadly – fast, nimble, strong, everything a good fighter needs.
“Where you heading?” he asks before stuffing a whole muffin into his mouth.
I try not to laugh as I reply, “Executive Teke didn’t tell us.”
He suddenly spits out a good portion of the muffin, gagging.
“Can’t you eat like a normal person?” I say, cringing against my seat.
He grins at me, his lips and teeth coated in the dark brown bits. The food is smeared all around his mouth, some hanging, looking like they’re about to fall off.
“How old are you, five?” I wrinkle my nose in distaste.
He laughs and swallows down some of his meal. The rest of breakfast passes in friendly banter. My eyes catch the clock when I go to the sink to hand over my plates to the poor sap on cleaning duty, and I see that it is ten past nine – I’m late.
“What?” says Devyn, but I’m already running. I dart across the compound as fast as I can, trying to keep my breakfast down. I see Executive Teke and the rest of 10 outside the females’ block.
“Sorry I’m late,” I puff when I reach him.
“Cleaning duty if that happens again,” I am told.
I apologise again, and dash inside my block to retrieve my weapon, picking up the first thing my hands touch on: a dart gun. I quickly get back outside, and take my place behind Paul’s wide torso. It turns out that I’m not the last person; Fabian Mendelsohn, a ginger-haired nineteen-year-old, comes strolling in a couple of minutes later.
“Mendelsohn!” shouts our leader.
Fabian looks up.
“Get in the line! You’re late!” Executive Teke says.
Fabian doesn’t reply, but casually walks to stand behind me – he already has his armament, a stun gun.
Executive Teke does a quick head count. All of us are here. He goes to stand in view of everyone. “We’re searching,” he tells us. “Not far from here, there have been several offences lately – thefts with violence. They are all in a mile radius of one another. No-one’s been killed. The 5s chased an Antithetical roundabout the locations of the crimes, but it escaped. We’re here to try and get the miscreant. Questions?”
“Are all of us going?” asks Michaela, a black-haired woman in her mid-twenties.
“Yep. There’s strength in numbers.”
There are no more enquiries. We set off immediately, cramming into our huge truck. I manage to wedge myself between Jules and Aatto, who are brothers who look extremely alike, though there’s a three year age gap between them.
The journey only takes fifteen minutes. I spend this time staring at the brown inside of the vehicle, thinking about Gideon, grief threatening to overcome me.
He’d be proud, I say to myself.
I can’t do anything much better than this, to avenge his death. I’m doing what I couldn’t do for him.
We arrive at our destination and climb out. I wipe thoughts from my mind – a thing that I have practised often. Everyone would hear if I cried myself to sleep like I did at home, so I had to control myself.
We seem to be opposite a large forest. All that I can see of it is enclosed in tape reading ’Danger’ all the way round. Although it looks quite different, I think of the forest near Isolde’s house, how we spent much of our youth exploring it, and smile. The smile drops as I remember Isolde’s last words to me, how she –
I clear my mind again and survey the area, noting that it’s quiet.
“About half of the 5s have been scouring this forest last night and early this morning,” Executive Teke informs us. “It’s pretty large – you all know Brackleby and its excessive woodland. They say that the Antithetical has the power to control consciousness and unconsciousness, so stealth is much more important than force today. In short: be quiet. You find the Antithetical, you take it out as easily as you can. This means not alerting it of your presence unless absolutely necessary. This is a mission, your first real one. You could die on this if you don’t take utmost care.”
He takes in the fearful looks on many people’s faces. I, however, feel pleasant anticipation filling my body.
“You have cold feet? I’m not going to force you in,” Executive Teke adds. “But I tell you, when you back out of a mission and someone dies due to a lack of numbers, the guilt is unimaginable.”
Only one person goes to sit out: an ashen-faced guy who looks like he’s very much regretting joining the AH.
The joking, boisterous atmosphere that was in the truck has disappeared, replaced by grim expressions and nervous muttering.
“Right, once you’re out there, if you manage to stun or somehow incapacitate the Antithetical, send up your green lights. If the Antithetical has found you or you are in danger, send up your red lights. Yes, Gemma?” he says, looking at the end of the line where she stands.
“If we’re trying to be sneaky, why are we standing right next to the forest as we’re briefed? If the Antithetical is close enough, they would be able to hear us and prepare, right?”
“There are about two dozen hidden AH stationed round outer perimeter of the forest to make sure the Antithetical does not escape. So take care before you shoot anything.”
“Oh,” she says.
“Is that everything?” Executive Teke pauses to verify. “Right. Silence, remember, plebes. Spread out in small groups. You should all come back to the spot we parked the truck in three or so hours if nothing has been found. Check your watches.”
“Uh, how do we find our way back?” someone asks.
“You leave a trail of breadcrumbs,” he suggests. He waves a bunch of papers in his hands – maps – and throws them to Gemma. She takes one, and passes it to the person on her right.
Once all the maps are distributed, the murmuring dies down. Executive Teke organises us into small groups of five, and points at places on the maps, allocating the teams a certain area to scour – to make sure the search is more efficient. We don’t want to be bumping into each other and shooting our own comrades.
I am put with Cai, Hana, Gvidas and Peter. Executive Teke ducks under the warning tape and advances into the forest, and we follow him soundlessly. I can feel the adrenaline flowing through my blood, making my heart beat furiously and my breaths come laboured.
You could die.
The words turn my limbs into jelly. I stop, trying to gather myself before I am paralysed. The eager anticipation has been replaced with fear. Fabian bumps into me from behind, and hisses in my ear. I force myself to move – a split second’s hesitation could be fatal in this situation.
Although the plants are a similar type here, this feels nothing like Isolde’s forest. It’s probably the fear talking, and not rationality, but it seems more . . . ominous. The heavy clouds which grow ever darker do not help the already gloomy atmosphere. I think about the Antithetical running about, capable of turning us all unconscious before we even know what’s hit us, and a shudder runs through my body as I walk quickly forward.
All through my training, I’ve imagined and dreamt what it would be like on my first mission. Visualised chasing down a fiend, feeling the rush as I tackle one to the ground and stun him. Running and chasing, not slowly advancing. I did not imagine such tension, filling my mind with so many scary situations, turning my palms clammy.
I study the faces of those around me. Some grim, other determined, many fearful. This person I am looking at right now may not return to the Base. Or that woman over there. Or me. Or even Executive Teke, at the front.
Everyone starts to break off into their respective groups. I stuff my map away – I want to know where we’re going, but I also want my hands free, and I only have to follow since I’m at the back. I would like to be the one to shoot the Antithetical, but I’m still going to keep to the rear: I detest the idea of anyone seeing how jittery I am. Repeatedly, I try to calm myself, angered by how heavily I’m breathing, how fast my heart is pumping, even though I’m moving at a slow pace.
Cai brushes overhanging leaves away with his left hand, causing me to flinch at the quiet sound. I squeeze my eyes shut, shaking my head, then continue onwards, my feet lightly crunching on the carpet of leaves underfoot. The trees become denser as we move deeper into the forest, and when I raise my head, almost all the sun is blocked by the thick canopy above. Dim light falls in thin strips through gaps in the branches that entwine above me. A trapped, claustrophobic feeling takes over me as we progress. My eyes are adjusting to the lack of lighting, but I still wish it was brighter.
A feeling that I am being watched itches my back. I pause, bringing up my weapon defensively as I turn round, my eyes carefully taking in my dark surroundings, but everything seems normal. So I slowly lower the dart-gun, casting one last look before hurrying to catch up with the others. But that nagging feeling does not leave.
Suddenly, I spot something out of place – a black boot, half-concealed by a bush . . . I stare at it for a second, then my hands fumble to bring up my gun, and I’m shaking terribly as I shoot a dart at it. Accuracy is non-existent. The tip is driven into the earth a good few inches away with a low ’thwack’.
I try another shot, but it lands wide again. My hands are shaking too badly; I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it. I’ve sentenced us five to death. I wait with bated breath for the Antithetical to kill me, while the others turn to look, stricken.
But then a familiar head appears – Ariel, from 5b. She glares at me, and I relax despite her ferocious look.
Sorry, I mouth.
Ariel directs another scowl at me before ducking back into her hiding place.
I look at the other four, who are several metres ahead. The expression on Cai’s face automatically makes me flinch, and heat rushes to my cheeks. He turns back round, wordless, and progresses through the undergrowth. I follow suit, knowing that he’s probably marked me down as unreliable. But how would I know better? Executive Teke said that the Antithetical could attack way before we realised, so why not shoot first and ask questions later? Although shooting Ariel would have meant that we’d have to carry her out of here and alert everyone else, failing the mission.
I suppress a sigh, and trudge on, making sure I keep my tread light.
On we go, Hana at the front and I taking the rear. We spent ages in the forest, searching, with a few false starts created by only birds chirping, speedy squirrels dashing up trees, a hawk cawing above. After each, there is muffled cursing and enough dirty looks to fell a tree. I don’t use up anymore of my darts, but Peter shoots with his stun-gun three times, earning the most death glares. The silence is stifling, interrupted only by the quiet sounds of nature about us. I notice that my breath is becoming more pronounced in the air – it is getting colder, and darker too . . .
I look up. Angry dark grey clouds hang low in the sky. I stifle a groan – it is going to rain. Only a minute of anxiety later, the clouds unleash their contents onto us, the water a huge, blinding mass. My uniform is dripping with water in mere seconds. I grab my goggles out of my small backpack and put them on. They’re a bit uncomfortable, but help me see well.
I notice that my teeth are chattering, and clamp my mouth shut. The cold and wet is distracting, though. Gvidas falls down twice in the thick, oozy mud, slipping to his front with a muffled yell of surprise. Hana helps him up both times, barely able to maintain her own balance as she does so.
I glance down at my watch regularly. When I notice that almost three hours have past, I nudge Hana, who is closest to me, and tap my watch. Her amber eyes flicker down to her wrist, and she alerts Gvidas, while I notify Cai and Peter.
Cai motions for Peter and Gvidas to watch, pointing to his eyes and then gesturing to the area around us. He studies the map intently, head down, and Hana and I also peer at it, trying to locate exactly where we are. We eventually find our position, and begin to make our way back. I join Peter and Gvidas, who stay on red alert. Hana and Cai man the map, directing us with low whispers and gesticulations.
We have gotten lost, and Hana and Cai are trying to regain knowledge of our bearings, when my eyes note a movement, a flash of colour. When Peter suddenly collapses, my suspicions are confirmed.
This is it. What we’ve been waiting for. I just hope I don’t mess it up.
I squeeze the trigger of my dart gun, and hear a cry of pain and a squelchy sound as the Antithetical slumps into the mud. An amazing feeling of victory and satisfaction lances through me, as well as relief at how easy that was. I hope Peter is OK, though. Gvidas shoots another two darts to make sure that the fiend is down.
Cai stuffs the map into his pocket and crouches next to Peter, probably checking his pulse. An expression of worry flashes across Gvidas’ face, but he leaves Peter and approaches the Antithetical with me.
The Antithetical is male, and looks around thirty. He wears scruffy brown trousers that stop way before the ankle, and a big shirt which I think was once white. His eyes are closed but he is still twitching. My hand swipes down to slap his face, but he doesn’t stir. I’m not sure whether the dart-gun I have was the one which turns the target unconscious, or incapacitates the limbs. I hope it’s the latter, because I want him to feel the pain I inflict on him.
Fury suddenly fills me. I shoot two more darts into the Antithetical, and drive my fist into his neck with as much force as I can muster up.
“Isaac,” Gvidas warns.
I ignore him. I kick the Antithetical in the side.
You and your kind killed my brother.
I launch myself up the air and land on the Antithetical’s torso, hearing a satisfying crack. I hope all his damned ribs have been broken.
At the corner of my vision, I see green sparks being sent into the air, but I don’t pay attention. I hit the Antithetical again and again and again and again. It’s not enough. It won’t ever be enough until all those devils have been wiped down.
“Isaac, calm down,” Gvidas says, and pulls at me. I push him away forcefully, sending him skidding and falling into mud, and keep on beating the Antithetical, unleashing my fury. I crunch and snap and break.
It takes all four of them to drag me away. I scream so loud and hard that I bring tears to my own eyes.
See, Gideon? I think. Your death will not go unpunished.