Chapter 31 - Isaac
I managed to scrape up several people, but it came apparent pretty soon that they weren’t prepared to completely disregard their schedules for the sake of Isolde.
This enraged me, but I altered the plans. Instead, we spent our nights sneaking out of the compound and looking in every place I can remember that Isolde went to. The forest near her cottage. Other nearby ones. The mall. Small alleys near my house. I racked my brain for every little location, and got the others and myself to scour them. They grew disheartened, but I always got up, sharp at midnight, and diligently combed through every site.
It didn’t take them long to stop coming. I persuaded them as much as I could, but many didn’t listen. Probably because we were almost always dead on our feet during the day, trying to snatch power naps in our allotted one-hour break, during breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I continued to search, and told myself that the numbers didn’t matter.
But they do, though I won’t let that deter me.
So here I am, sitting on my bunk-bed and wearily pulling on my boots, but lack of sleep makes my head loll and my body to collapse back into the bed. I struggle to open my eyes, but they don’t obey me.
I sigh, kick off my boots and cover my body with the duvet. I won’t be of much use if I’m so sleep-deprived . . . although it’s certainly possible that . . .
I’m asleep before I can think any more words.
I am jolted awake by Executive Teke’s booming voice. I groan into my covers. I want so badly to sleep that it makes my whole body ache. I nearly drift back off, but Executive Teke roughly shakes my shoulder, yelling at me.
I sigh and crawl out of bed, nearly collapsing when I try to stand up.
“It’s your fault for creeping out every night,” Executive Teke hisses in my ear.
My spine is replaced with a steel rod. He knows.
I avoid his eyes as I grab my towel and stumble towards the showers, but I am late – they are all occupied, with several impatient 10s waiting behind them all. I join the smallest queue, blinking repeatedly. My head keeps drooping; I almost fall asleep as I wait until the cubicle comes free. Because of my tardiness, I don’t get long under the hot water, though the heat and intense power makes me much more alert.
I dress quickly – there is not long for breakfast. Due to my night-time escapades, I find myself almost ravenous every day. I jog to the canteen and wolf down three slices of buttered toast and several sugared waffles. No-one comes to sit next to me. I have been, let’s say, cranky since Isolde went missing.
The food wedges in my throat and refuses to go down. It suddenly is thick, slimy and tastes like cardboard. I run to the bathroom and throw up, gripping the sides of the toilet seat and breathing heavily through my nose.
I squeeze my face, trying to collect my scattered self, but I feel so wretched. I find myself moaning Gideon’s name, and clamp my mouth shut. This is ridiculous. I need to take another leave; my vigour is rendered useless by the lethargy that comes as a result of looking for Isolde every night.
I stay in the toilet stall for about five more minutes, then go over to the sink to wash my mouth, face, and hands.
I catch sight of my face in the mirror. My eyes are wilting, with visible purple bags underneath them. My mouth is turned downward, and worry lines stretch across my forehead. The expression I wear is one of utter distress, and my ashen skin accentuates this.
Such a wreck.
I glance down at my watch. I have a minute and thirty-eight seconds to get back to my block, grab my weapon and listen to the morning’s assignment. Exhaling wearily, I exit the toilets and make for my block.
“Today,” Executive Teke says, “we are going to go into the NS.”
This makes everyone murmur anxiously and excitedly amongst themselves. I stand, unmoving, at the back of the line.
“Usually we don’t let 10s into the NS, as I’m sure you know, but we feel that it would be best if almost everyone hit the NS today. Those Antithetical would be overwhelmed by numbers and that would result in many captures . . . but usually when we do something like this, many deaths.” His eyes pierce each and every one of us. “So, no joking today. It’s all serious. Now – anyone stepping out?”
Everyone falls silent, looking at others. The ones who decided to withdraw before previous missions get eyed the most. As much as Executives try to stop it, people who get cold feet are mocked and looked down on as cowards and weaklings.
This is going to be the day when the likeliness for deaths is up the highest. All of us in 10 have managed to stay alive since I’ve joined. Two cadets, in block 10b, have moved up to 9. Surprisingly, no-one has joined 10 since I came. It is probably because of the frighteningly numerous AH casualties that have occurred lately.
We still have volunteers, though. They aren’t really part of the division, but come along every so often, usually with us 10s. We normally get at least ten of them at every delegation, although we had none in our first mission.
“We will be joined by AH from other sectors,” Executive Teke says. “It’s all a big storm.” He rubs his hands together. “Let’s go.”
It turns out that everyone follows him, which is surprising, considering the danger of this task. We stride out of the compound and cram into our truck, zooming off. The vehicle is full of chatter about the NS, with numerous tales being told. I am not affected much by our destination, maybe because I’m the only one that has already been inside the NS, but my goal is still the same, my determination unchanged.
I lay my head on my pack, hoping to get a few minutes of sleep. Despite the loud noises around me, I nod off quickly. Cai elbows me awake just before we arrive.
“Thanks,” I mumble, stretching out my limbs and blinking my heavy eyes.
The truck shudders to a stop. I grip my rucksack as I am jostled out of the automobile. I step on the frosty grass, inhaling the crisp winter’s air. It clears my drowsy head. Although I have seen it before, the vast field still takes me by surprise.
“Creepy,” a voice mutters beside me. “Like I’m in the middle of nowhere.”
“How big is this thing?” someone cries.
“Don’t tell me we have to walk ten miles,” another whines.
I try to zone out the complaining noises, but there’s no need as Executive Teke silences all, barking, “Shut it, plebes!” It only takes a second. “Right, we’re are going to have to walk. Not ten miles, but about four. Then we’ll wait for the 7s – they’re five, ten minutes behind us – and you’ll be paired up with them, two of them and two of you. So groups of four. Strategies – everything you’ve learnt in training. The NS is a very quiet place, so no talking unless absolutely necessary.
“You know the red signal – for trouble. No green ones. There’s an unlimited number of Antithetical here; if you send up your green sparks, all you’ll do is draw others to you, or send some into deeper hiding. Just haul the reprobate back, dead or alive. Use your maps. There will be some people waiting to take them off your hands.”
I thumb the safety catch on my weapon as the anxiety reaches me, but to be honest, I’m not as worried as I should be. Death doesn’t frighten me much, though I don’t want it to happen. There are things that I haven’t yet done.
Executive Teke starts walking, and everyone trails after him. I think about my previous time in the NS, how I was nearly killed by that shape shifter. I shudder at the fear I felt when it pounced, wide jaws open . . . And then how I felt when I saw the two dead hunters on the floor in the truck, medics knowing that they were gone and never to come back. Few times I had been so angry, so terribly angry, and I’m definitely not a very calm person. They shouldn’t have looked like that. No-one should look like that.
I had never seen dead bodies. The sight didn’t exactly scar me for life, but just brought more tenacity, more conviction that what I am doing – trying to prevent that from happening – is the best thing that I could ever do with my life.
A while later, we reach the border. Heads go up to stare at the intimidating, unending electric blue barrier.
We wait restlessly until the 7s arrive. Gemma and I are paired together, and then put with two 7s, who introduce themselves as Loukios and Enver. They both seem to be in their early- or mid-twenties. Loukios is of average height and robust with muddy brown hair and eyes. Enver is about six feet tall, towheaded, and has grey-blue eyes. They are grim and silent as they nod at us. I remember that there were two fatalities from 7 yesterday, which is probably why they look so unhappy.
Gemma fidgets in her nervousness, changing her stance every other second as we wait for others to disperse. More Hunters are arriving, from other sectors. So many. I follow Loukios and Enver as they move down the barrier, searching for a spot to enter through. We travel much further than I did last time, but I don’t complain, though I don’t think it is very tactical to lose energy before actually getting into the NS.
Eventually, Enver disengages a part of the force field and we all slip inside, surveying our surroundings while Enver activates the barrier again.
It is just how I remembered it – eerily soundless, obscure, unnerving. Gemma’s eyes are round and fearful as she creeps behind Loukios, who takes the front, while Enver stays at the rear, walking backwards.
I stray a few feet from the group, on the balls of my feet so that my footsteps are not loud. I listen intently for any sound of disturbance, my body taut and ready to spring into action.
Gemma gasps a few times, and I spin round, my gun to the ready, but what startles her turns out to be just a squirrel running up a tree, birds disturbing leaves, wind against a cave. She turns red each time, her long limbs trembling. The third time this happens, I squeeze her hand reassuringly, and stay by her. She presses her lips together in what I think may be a grateful smile as we move on.
I can’t help wanting that we’ll just randomly uncover an Antithetical right now. Meeting nothing just makes me incredibly tense.
My wish is granted in a few minutes. We uncover a hiding, snivelling rat under a hollow outcrop.
The malefactor has powers of super speed. He zooms off at once, just a blur. I shoot my gun, three times. I hear the impact of a body against a hard surface and run forward with Gemma. Loukios and Enver stay to see if there are any more of the Antithetical.
I clench my fists as I look down at the unconscious Antithetical, feeling the rage in me shooting up and threatening to explode. But I must not lose it like on the first mission, because that will be a one-way ticket out of my occupation, and I want to be an AH for as long as physically possible.
“Should I zap him again?” Gemma whispers.
“They’re supposed to stay down for a while once shot,” I mutter back. “But I shot thrice; if they all made contact, one more might kill him . . .”
“I’m not very worried about that,” she says, eyeing the villain with clear distaste.
I shrug. I’m not going to stop her. But she decides not to. I drag the Antithetical back to where we first spotted him, where Loukios and Enver look around, probably making sure that no one else was with the scoundrel.
They look satisfied when they see the stunned Antithetical. Loukios heaves him onto his back, and we set off, back in the direction we came in.
We have watches that double as compasses. On the top is the clock, underneath is the compass. I slide the uppermost glass to check that we are going the right way, which we are. Gemma looks quite relaxed, especially compared to her previous jitteriness, but I don’t lower my guard. Just because we caught one Antithetical doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for us to be attacked.
There’s a low sound coming from my right. I still, listening carefully. No, I didn’t imagine it.
The others haven’t heard – such bad senses they have. However, Enver has stopped to look at me questioningly. I point to my right, and we exchange a thoughtful glance. We need to get the lowlife we just caught on a journey to Confinement, but we can’t just leave this obvious disturbance.
It may just be stupid, noisy Hunters, but we can’t be sure unless we go and look. Enver nudges Loukios and converses with him, so quietly that I can’t even hear a whisper from their direction. I silently alert Gemma. It turns out that she and Loukios will go out of the NS, while Enver and I will seek the source of the sounds.
I nod at Gemma and part from them, soundlessly creeping through the shrubs. My ears are pinned right back, but I don’t hear anything more. The birds are silent, the wind is non-existent. Then I glimpse something – just a flash of tan cloth, barely recognisable in the brown earth. I dart towards it, my gun ready as I whip around, but I find nothing.
Enver crouches next to the material while I keep my eyes wide open and my ears alert.
He shrugs at me after inspecting it. “Cold, like it hasn’t been used,” he mutters.
I frown, and look around again. I’m sure that I saw it falling . . . My head snaps up, and I tense, expecting to have to act at once. But no Antithetical drops out of the sky to land on my head.
“Do you want to go back?” Enver mouths at me.
I glance to my right. I’ve just got an itching feeling that we’re missing something, so I shake my head and start jogging in the direction I think the voices went.
Enver doesn’t protest. We progress through the undergrowth, uncovering nothing. Yet I can just feel . . .
Suddenly, I break into a sprint, crashing through the plants barring my way. I heard that: a yelp, hisses, then silence.
I am not going to rest until I find out what this is.