Chapter 21 - Isaac
I sneak out of block 10a, escaping into the freezing winter night. It must be very close to zero degrees Celsius, but I stand out in the cold, breathing in the bracing air. I look up, and stare at the small stars that faintly illuminate the gravel space around me.
My . . . episode didn’t really go down well with Executive Teke, but with some luck, I managed to convince him that this is the best place for me. He, Gvidas, Hana, Peter and Cai kept my outburst to themselves, for which I am grateful. If I’m honest, I don’t regret battering the Antithetical, but it must have seemed like I was mad, which isn’t a very good reputation to have.
Eventually, the chilling temperatures get too much for me, so I go back into the block, and change into thick thermals and don my coat, before going back out.
I walk around the compound for a bit, letting my feet guide me. They take me to the deserted gymnasium. It’s a large, rectangle building, with a high ceiling, dark brown panelled walls, and racks of equipment lined on the longer sides of the place.
I fob myself in and pick up a ball, rolling it around in my hands. What I need is a fight. A memory from long ago resurfaces – some people watching an illegal organised fight. Several people challenged me. I can remember the exhilaration of the conflict. I need that now; I need it desperately. But I also need to wipe out all this violence within me. Someday, I might not be able to control it.
I carry the ball and bounce it around before throwing it into a net at the far end of the gymnasium. It spins around the circle metal at the top, then drops inside. Shoes squeaking against the ground, I fly to catch it, spin, and launch it up again, all in one fluid movement. This time it misses; I skip backwards, grab it, and aim it back at its target. It neatly falls through the mesh, and bounces noisily on the linoleum.
I retrieve the ball, and place it back on the rack it came from. Things that get my pulse racing help, but not as much.
My eyes drop to my watch. It has just gone one.
I sigh, and walk out of the gymnasium. It is going to be a very long night.
The Antithetical have really been ramping it up lately. There have been so many bells for 1s through 8s to depart immediately, so many sombre looks. Deaths, deaths, deaths. I can feel each one as if it is my own. Another life I have failed to save . . .
“We need to go into the NS,” I tell Executive Teke, who is propped against the side of our block, waiting for the rest of 10 to show.
He shakes his head, barely even glancing at me. “You need more time.”
“People are dying,” I say intensely. My fists clench as I move to face him, but he doesn’t change his position.
“I am aware of that, plebe,” Executive Teke replies tersely, his eyes cold, hard and piercing as he finally turns to me. “Remember who you’re talking to. You don’t make the orders.”
I clench my jaw and nod stiffly, though I don’t change my mind. I know that more experience is required, but with so many casualties like this, how can I just stand by and let it happen? There have been eight AH deaths in Brackleby’s force in the last week. Lack of strength? I don’t know.
But what I do know is that I am going to hunt some Antithetical.
I turn round at the sound of my surname.
Executive Lange, head of Block 8, stands behind me with her thin lips pursed together. She’s a tall woman, taller than me, with dark blonde hair scraped back into a messy bun, and a hard, square face. Her sharp blue eyes assess me. “I heard that you requested to go into the non-sector.”
“Yes, Executive,” I confirm, hope flaring up inside of me.
“We need everyone we can get,” she says, “so if you’re willing to go –”
“Always,” I tell her adamantly.
“Well.” She scratches at a spot under her left eye. “Block 8 are going in an hour, and you have permission to join.”
I want to jump for joy, but she already seems cynical of me – that will not work in my favour. “I’ll be there,” I say seriously.
She gives me a long look and gestures around us, her long arms spreading wide. “You may not come back here. I’m warning you. There are many new cadets who think it’s all just a big ride, and then they see the truth.”
“I know,” I reply. Dying for saving others, dying for avenging my brother – that is the way I want to die.
Another assessing stare. “Then I’ll see you outside the block in an hour,” she says eventually.
Executive Lange briskly walks off, and a smile spreads across my face. The NS, absolutely crawling with Antithetical. I am bound to find and capture one. How many lives would that save?
I lope off towards my block to alert Executive Teke of my future absence.
I stand with the group of 8s. They are mostly older than me; in their twenties. There is one person of my age; a petite girl of less than five feet, with dark skin and dark eyes. I heard someone call her Ivanka.
“Moving up from nine? I haven’t seen you there. What’s your name?” she says, simultaneously assembling her gun.
“Isaac. I’m in ten.”
Her eyebrows nearly reach her hairline. “They let you go?”
I shrug. “Needed the people, I guess.”
“Yeah . . .” She bites her lip. “One person from 8a died this morning,” she tells me quietly. I scrutinise her. There is an undeniable sadness, but mostly pronounced fear.
Before I can reply, Executive Lange appears and we leave almost at once, in a grim, almost silent line.
“Have you been to the NS before?” I whisper to her, wanting to know details of what it’s like.
“Once.” Her small index fingers runs across her thin arm, and I notice an angry red burn.
“Fire wizard,” Ivanka mutters in reply to my thoughts.
“What type of –?”
It’s like she can read my mind. “Powers?” She shakes her head, as if unable to believe something. “So many. Anything you can think of. There are predictable ones like fire, water, air, earth, and other ones like mind-reading or mind-controlling. The ones who mess with your brain are worse. You have a small chance with them, unless you catch them unconscious. Has anyone from ten been injured or killed?”
“Not that I know of,” I say. “I’ve only been on one mission, really. A guy – Peter – was turned unconscious by an Antithetical, but that’s it.”
She nods as we reach the 8s’ truck, and all get inside.
“You’ve been briefed on the NS?” Ivanka asks.
“Yeah. First day of my training. I joined with three others on the same day.”
“That’s good, then.”
We both lapse into companionable silence.
Finally, the brakes are applied and we get out. I look around, frowning. All I can see is grey sky and a long, seemingly never-ending field. Once everyone is out, someone drives the truck back.
“We have to walk?” I turn to ask Ivanka, but she is no longer next to me, but in conversation with a ginger woman to my left.
The 8s, and Executive Lange, start walking north-east. I follow them. It’s over an hour’s trek along long, unbroken grass, spent in almost complete silence. The tense atmosphere unnerves me. I grasp my weapon tightly. I won’t lose my courage. Especially not now.
Eventually, after about seventy minutes, we stop, and I take in the view. The electric barrier. I’ve never seen it in person, but man, it’s something. A humongous mass of various shades of blue, ripping with a buzzing noise. Against the almost silence of the field, the sound is very loud, and extremely unnerving. I want to it to stop with a passion that surprises me. It’s messing up my thoughts. An intangible enemy, easily penetrating my brain and barring my thoughts, inserting a cynical voice to mock my self pep talk.
I can’t escape it – not mentally, not physically. The thing stretches up seemingly as high as the Wall, in an unbroken curve too. But the Wall, though intimidating, isn’t as daunting as this.
The pulsating blue of this electrical barrier is translucent, teasing the onlooker into thinking that they could look through like it is coloured glass, or easily step beyond like it’s just darkened water. But it would zap them unconscious with just the briefest touch.
Executive Lange approaches me, and hands me what looks like a large watch. A communication device, with a small number and letter pad. I try to look bold instead of the scared child I am. She organises us into groups of five. I am put with Ivanka, an unfriendly looking male in his mid-thirties, a man about five years older than me, and a muscular woman in her late twenties.
I know what’s going to happen from here; we walk down the barrier and find a spot. Then one of us de-activates a small part of it, and we quickly go in. After that, we will search the woods and take out any Antithetical we come across. Same as my mission with the 10s, red lights are a distress signal. We need to get out in six hours.
“Rookie,” mutters the athletic woman.
“Isaac,” I say curtly. The word makes it clear that she thinks I am incapable.
“Yeah. Whatever. You’ve shot with that?” She nods at my weaponry.
“No. I’m going into a place packed full of Antithetical and I don’t know how to shoot.”
She directs a poisonous look at me, but doesn’t reply.
“Mona. How far do we go?” Ivanka asks her.
Mona raises her broad shoulders as she looks at our group, her eyes sliding past me like I’m not there. This angers me, but I know, I know, that I’ll show her.
“Timoteo?” Mona asks the older man.
“Let’s go about half a mile along,” he replies in a gravelly voice.
So we set off at a trot. Most of the other groups go much further, but we slow after approximately eight hundred metres. Timoteo stops, and removes the Disabler from his pocket. Stepping back, he presses the button, and draws a rectangle about eight metres high and six across. The section of the barrier disappears, opening up to the NS. Ivanka walks towards the gap, weapon to the ready. Mona follows. I am imagining the barrier reappearing just as I begin move past it, which is definitely not helping my nerves.
Get through, I tell myself. I can feel my throat contracting with fear, but force myself to enter. Relief washes through me as I enter without getting zapped, but the hard part hasn’t even begun.
The two men follow behind me, Timoteo re-activating the barrier. They quickly overtake me, jogging. I speed up, trying to match the paces of my unit.
To say the forest is ominous place is an understatement. It is eerily dark, all the trees above preventing most of the sunlight from reaching below. It’s so quiet, as well. I can barely hear any birds chirping, any leaves rustling. Our soft footfalls on the ground layer seem so ridiculously loud in the unnatural silence.
I don’t know quite what I expected, but it wasn’t this. The palpable creepiness of the place belongs in mouldy history books. Not here and now. Unlike the forests in Brackleby, it is not bright, or lively. Colourful birds do not chirp happy songs. Gnarled trees grow close together, their roots spreading incredibly wide. I scramble over the roots of one, muffling a curse as I nearly trip. My eyes quickly but carefully look about. No Antithetical are ducking behind trees, or retreating into foliage.
I look back in the direction my team are heading. I’ve almost lost sight of them. The last thing I want to happen is to get lost, so I hurry after them, careful to keep quiet. I engage all of my muscles as I move, landing mostly on the balls of my feet.
Ivanka looks back to give me a brief, encouraging smile, and I’m grateful for it.
A movement – a black shape diving down before me. I clamp my lips together, screaming with my mouth shut as I fire with my stun gun. Ivanka acts immediately – positioning herself sideways to keep both an eye in my direction, and in front of her. The other three whiz round simultaneously, guns to the ready.
My stun bolt did not make contact with anything – it hits a tree, which shudders and blackens slightly. I look upwards to see a bird rapidly flying away. Heat washes over me, and I shake my head at Timoteo, who’s closest to me. The message spreads, and we continue again. I do not miss Mona’s murderous glare. She mutters something, but I can’t hear – she’s too far away, and too quiet. Not sure I want to hear, anyway.
I berate myself for creating a false alarm – again. If I don’t learn to control my fear, I will never be successful. Rather than a help, I will be a hindrance.
Quietly, I blow out air, imagining that I’m expelling all the weakness. Then I breathe in, filling my lungs with courage. Stupid, maybe, but it helps. I go on, feeling more confident.
I don’t know how much time we spend there, running and searching, but it must be a lot. I’m thinking that we’re never going to do anything, but then I hear a distant cry, and my eyes catch crimson sparks. A jolt goes through me as the meaning clicks – distress. “Someone let off their red lights,” I mutter to the others, turning to assist the person in danger. After a while of fruitless searching, I feel like we can do something now.
The rest immediately sprint in the same direction without a word. My body feels weak from the time we have spent jogging, but I am good at ignoring the demands of it. Fresh adrenaline courses through my body. I am expecting it to be like my first mission – a small injury, a single stun beam.
A sudden, high-pitched scream sends shivers through my body. I gasp, and run faster, desperate. The seriousness of the situation fully hits me as the agonised scream rips into my soul. Shudders run through me in mid-run as I strain to reach the sound, leaping up and down over tree roots.
It’s probably only about thirty seconds later – though it feels like thirty minutes – when I spot a clearing up ahead. The sounds of pain are getting louder, more pronounced . . .
I don’t shoot my dart gun blindly, for fear of hitting a comrade. Instead, I stumble into the small, open area, and take in the scene before me. In the single second I have, I process a fatally large amount of blood, three still bodies, and a terrifyingly, unnaturally huge bear. My mouth falls open, and I am momentarily paralysed, staring in horror at abnormally sized animal. Its massive brown head turns towards me, and its ugly lips pull back, revealing enormous, dagger-like, yellow teeth, very capable of tearing me apart.
Suddenly it bounds towards me, a virtually indestructible mass of shaggy fur and endless body. My instincts are to take flight, but I am not a normal citizen anymore. I have to fight.
I skip to the left, my eyes not leaving the beast. I gain a couple of seconds as it clumsily swings its gigantic body around to face me again. The bear is extremely powerful, but . . . but nothing. I can’t fight a bear. That’s the very definition of ridiculous.
My eyes flicker to my partners, and that split second glance is fatal. The bears leaps into the air, its mouth open. The deadly array of teeth glint in a small bit of light, and I just think about how easily they will break into the thin barrier of my skin, slicing through my flesh and delivering the killing crunch to the neck.
My hands bring up my gun, but I know that it’s too late, it’s just too late. Even if I manage to shoot it, the enormous animal would surely crush me. Before I can press the trigger, the bear is right in my face. I brace myself for the sudden weight that will pin me down, but I don’t feel it.
What I do feel is a distinctly human-shaped thing falling into me, not heavy enough to knock me down. My eyes snap open and I stumble away, unable to speak as choking sounds find their way out my mouth.
Ivanka runs towards me from my left, her brown eyes wide. She looks at the man who lies still on the grass, not a metre away from me, then at me. “Injuries?” she says breathlessly.
I don’t reply, but stare at the unmoving body on the ground. “W-what?” I get out.
“Antithetical,” she explains impatiently. “Shape-shifter. They turn back into human form when unconscious . . . Isaac. Isaac?”
I am keeled over, retching into the grass, every part of my body pounding intensely. I can see the bear, blade-like incisors just inches away from me . . . I feel like I am literally about to explode.
“We need to get him back to the Base,” Ivanka says to someone gravely.
The words jerk me out of my state.
“No,” I say. My voice is all wrong; croaky and wheezing.
Ivanka sighs and tries to help me up. “Isaac. You –”
I push her off, my hands clammy. Shakily rising to my feet, I inhale the crisp air. “I’m fine,” I insist, my voice a little steadier.
Ivanka purses her lips, unconvinced. “What were you thinking when you ran into here?”
“Help the other Hunters,” I reply. What else?
Her face pales, and her small fists squeeze together.
A cold sensation runs through my body as I remember the three injured people I saw just before the dreadful attack. “They died?” I whisper, swallowing. It’s more of a statement than a question. I wait for something to hit – pain, grief? – but I just feel hollow. Numb.
“One is . . . in bad condition, but he’ll survive.”
I bite my lip and nod. I start to feel lightheaded again, but I won’t let my bodily reactions get the best of me again.
“I guess I didn’t help,” I say.
“Richard’s still alive,” she points out, her voice cracking over the name. “Richard’s my brother,” Ivanka adds, and rapidly blinks, for tears have been welling up in her eyes. She presses her lips together and tugs on my arm. “Medics are coming.”
I stay put. “Is everyone going?”
“No. But you need to go.”
I shake my head vehemently. I was half a second away from dying, and what have I done, being an Antithetical Hunter, apart from shooting just one of the demons? “I’ve only got a few scratches. I’m fine.”
“You’re going,” she repeats.
And despite my protests, I am soon shoved inside a truck with two lifeless bodies and a severely injured, half-dead, groaning man.