Next chapter, days 6 and 9 come around; Emily gets some attention, Shannon gives some and an old acquaintance turns up.
WARNING: this chapter contains graphic violence, above and beyond the normal levels. Please bear this in mind and if it's not your cup of tea, there'll be a spoilered summary below for your use.
This particular part of the facility wasn’t on the Elysium-class DROP schematics that Artemis had been using, but it was on the map Shannon had downloaded. Originally marked as a breakroom off the storage section’s lowest level – a large central chamber with three branching nodes: two for storage of personal gear and one functioning as a unisex lavatory – it had been... considerably modified.
All of the adjacent chambers had been repurposed into dungeons and the central chamber was now a macabre trophy room. Tables were ringed throughout the room, each of them stocked with weapons and debris from decades of battles. Most had been destroyed or damaged by the fights that had led to their capture, whereas others appeared to be in working order. Rifles and ammo clips, broken bits of armour, crude weapons presumably taken from other ‘lost’. Bones flensed of all flesh: elongated talons, mutated skulls as well as bits and pieces from ordinary men and women who’d died at the hands of one of the Masks.
A gauntlet and half of the right forearm of some ancient set of power armour. Rifles with chainblade bayonets, long-depleted energy weapons. Personal effects, idols and fetishes taken from the dead – lockets and rings, necklaces and bracelets. Their own weapons had been set aside on one of the other shelves, along with St. Cloud’s cherished ‘Betsy’ and other Artemis-issue arms. Shannon supposed there should have been some sense of reverence about this place – these artifacts were clearly well-guarded and important to the feral tribe, but the knowledge of what they’d done to gain these trinkets dulled any sense of enthusiasm Shannon might have otherwise had.
As did knowing that they were the newest additions to this macabre collection.
It was why she, Abigail and Louis had been left in their armour – for the same reason that defeated enemies of the Roman Legions were paraded through the streets in their own armour or daubed with appropriately terrifying and barbaric war paints. Look how cunning, how ferocious and mighty we are, to overcome such terrible enemies. They were supposed to impress and awe the rest of the horde and once that was over with...
Her people – what else did she call them now? – were looking to her, watching for a signal, a command. Something to indicate that she’d figured out the most oppurtune time to fight back. She’d seen those looks before, knew what they meant. That trusting assumption that the Halo will figure things out. She wished it was that simple, some magic ‘instant-win’ button in her head she could push to instantly know what to do, but it didn’t work like that. Especially now.
Shannon was grateful for Abigail’s presence; the other woman was more adept at reading these situations and if she hadn’t seen any possible turning point, it made the younger corporal feel better about her own failure to do so. But whatever else these ferals were, they couldn’t be called stupid. Several guards formed a barrier between the survivors and the trophy weapons (some of them did work, then), and the way they moved, the way they carried themselves – they were malnourished, sick, twisted and broken from what the Mists had done (were doing) to them, but they knew how to fight. How to kill.
Primal’s crew had remembered that, too. It takes pieces, Dead Man’s voice played over in her mind. And puts them back together. Patchwork people with patchwork flesh and minds. They’d lost their souls, but remembered how to strip them from others.
The survivors were led into one of the cells; chains hung from the spikes pounded into walls, and lay pooled on the ground, anchored to tines driven into the floor. The bulkheads and deck were stained with centuries of horror and blood that nothing could ever wash out. The room stank with years of accumulated urine, blood, sweat and chemical cleansers, the mixture of disparate odours acrid and cloying. It was as awful a place as any could be.
One by one, they were chained in place, arms above their head and ankles together, feet on the floor. There was some give in the chains over their heads, enough that the position of their arms wouldn’t cause them to suffocate, but not enough to allow them to make a grab for the guards or try to pull the spike out of the wall and free themselves that way. As they were locked into their shackles, the ferals’ guns remained levelled to ensure that any last, desperate attempt at freedom would end in nothing but a broken corpse collapsing to the floor. No, whatever else they were, these people hadn’t forgotten how to kill.
As the bindings around her feet were fastened together and the masked figures withdrew amidst unpleasant chuckles, Shannon knew how she and the others were going to get out of here.
The birth was getting closer. A handful of days, no more. Perhaps even less. The attendants and reaver packs had both harvested well recently; the last birth had occurred a month ahead of schedule and this one was already seven weeks premature. If one or two days could be shaved off that, it would be good. Not every birth could be as efficient – the attendants could only work with what they were given and the reavers’ predations must – must – remain discreet.
-hunt and slay, tear them open and feed-
Most of the New Ones had been accounted for, but even the recovered records couldn’t tell them who had been dragged off to a garden, or taken by the Lost Ones. There were always survivors.
-kill them all-
Frustrating, but there it was. Fortunately, any possibility of the New Ones interfering with the birth was already remote and as long as any organized response was crushed, that possibility grew slimmer still.
However, they would not repeat the previous team’s lapse. Remaining in the unsecured portion of the cairn was always a risk, but one worth taking if it insured that the birth went as planned. No interruptions. No witnesses. No new stories for the Lost Ones.
-warm and quivering in your mouth, red and running down your chin-
It wasn’t the Mists that whispered and beckoned, taunted and tempted with these promises. If only it were that simple... if only...
-find the prey as they shiver in the darkness-
I’ve sparred with you, remember. I was also right there with you in that brawl in The Black Locker.
It wasn’t something that they advertised, but Halos were strong. They didn’t really understand why themselves, what usefulness that particular trait could have possibly served in the Primaries’ vision. Like the rest of her planet – perhaps more so, given her training and chosen field – Shannon was quite physically adept. She didn’t like others to know. It... embarrassed her, made her feel... wrong. Ashamed. Halos weren’t supposed to fight and even though she’d joined a mercenary company, that unease had remained.
She wasn’t a short woman by any means, but she wasn’t the biggest, either and the squadmates who’d seen her heft an injured soldier in full body armour wrote it off as adrenalin. In sparring matches, Abigail had told her that she had a “pathological” tendency to pull her punches. The Darkknell had tried to break her little sister of that habit, with only partial success. Before this mission, the incident in The Black Locker had been the first and only time that Shannon had hit someone with full force.
His name had been Ryan Fortell, and he’d been one of the station’s maintenance crew. Just a nine-to-fiver, celebrating a friend’s birthday in a merc bar and he’d taken an interest in the quiet, red-haired young woman sitting in a corner booth, waiting for her own friend to finish her drinking and pass out.
He hadn’t taken ‘no’ for an answer. On the cusp of alcohol poisoning and egged-on by his equally drunk friends, he’d gotten aggressive. Abigail had been drunk herself, but she’d eager to teach the ‘duct rat’ some manners. Rather than let it come to that, Shannon had tried to get the Darkknell out of there, so that everyone could cool down. Fortell had grabbed her and in an angry, inebriated attempt at seduction, put his hand down her pants.
She’d hit him.
Shannon hadn’t been wearing her armour. Hadn’t been using combat drugs. Hadn’t had a club or brass knuckles; she’d just hit him with her fist, and only once.
She’d broken that side of his face. No, not just ‘broken’. Shattered. She’d crushed his cheekbones, knocked several teeth out and dislocated his lower jaw. Multiple fractures: simple, open, multi-fragmentary... that entire side of his face had been all but caved in. If she’d hit him in the temple, she would have crushed his skull. In return, she’d skinned her knuckles and gotten clean, closed fractures on two metacarpal bones. He’d been on the ground, writhing and mewling, clutching at his ruined face as Shannon stared in shock. There’d been so much blood.
Then the brawl had started, as Fortell’s friends pushed themselves up from their table and the mercenaries – whether Artemis or not (one did have to defend one’s position in the pecking order, after all) did the same. In the aftermath, she’d been sick with what she’d done to Fortell, what she’d started. Shannon had gone to see him in the hospital, where his gushing contrition had hardly let her get her own in. He’d been so desperate to apologize for his actions that he’d strained the healing muscles and bones of his face and started bleeding again. No, he hadn’t been a bad man, just one that had made poor choices. And she’d almost killed him for that.
That incident had almost convinced her to leave Artemis and returned home, but Abigail had talked her into staying – in her own way. “That guy was an ass and he got what was coming to him. If you hadn’t been there, hadn’t put him down hard, maybe he’d have set his sets on some other girl. Maybe he would have done the same thing and because she couldn’t or wouldn’t do what you did, things would have been worse for her. He’ll live. Surgery’ll fix his face, and he’ll remember to keep his dick in check in the future. So what’s the problem?” Quietly: “You did better than I would have, Shannie. If he’d done that to me, I’d have put a knife in him.”
After that, she’d found it a little easier to accept her strength. Now, she was grateful for it.
The tine that her arms were chained to was secure. Rusted, worn and thick with the build-up of dust, grime and filth, it was welded into the bulkhead so well it seemed to be a part of the station’s superstructure and it didn’t so much as shiver as she tugged at it.
The pike pounded into the deck wasn’t had give to it. She could feel the welds straining as she pulled – it would have held anyone else just as well as it was supposed to (well, probably not Abby either, but the Darkknell was fixated on getting her arms free – she probably wouldn’t noticed the minute give in this tine). But they’d put her here. One mistake, that one slip-up. She’d found it.
“What...” Louis licked his lips and tried again. “What are they going to do to us?” He was on Shannon’s right; Abigail was chained up on her left. Emily and Ramone were past Hernandez – Salvador was farthest from Hayes. Relative to the entryway, this was the left-hand prison. Shannon had no idea if the center (the former bathroom) and the right-side dungeons had prisoner-trophies as well. She hadn’t heard anything from them.
Abigail tugged furiously on her own chains, cursing under her breath. “What do you think, Nine? I’m sure this is just their version of hazing. Once we hang out here for a while, they’ll break out the brews and then we’ll all have a good laugh about our new frat’s wacky initiations. Won’t that be fun?” She swore again, still fighting with her shackles.
Shannon wished the binders on her ankles were looser, or at least had more slack. She might have been able to pull off her boots. The hard way it is, she thought, giving her legs a powerful jerk. The tine twitched. “Do you want to know?” she asked quietly, turning her head to look out the door. There was a small window-and-shutter cut into the door to allow those outside to look in without coming into the cell themselves. There were overhead lights, but they were so dim as to be useless – the only light that came into the prison was through the open window from the fires and glowpanels that lit the main trophy room.
She could see Dead Man through the opening; his back was to them as he lifted St. Cloud’s armour off and reverently set it down on one of the trophy tables. He was thin but muscular and his back and arms were a criss-crossed nightmare of scars and burns. A survivor.
His hair was light brown, scraggly and sweat-soaked. Someone in a gas mask, their gaze turned away from Dead Man’s naked face, passed the pack leader a ballroom mask, the inside reinforced with metal. He put it on, canting his head towards the cell.
His mask was a male peacock, with a nose guard that extended down almost past his upper lip – this was the neck, head and beak of the bird, with the rest of the mask – from cheekbone to temple, the flirt of its open tail feathers. Though his lips were expressionless, their scars formed an abhorrent, leering smile as he stared back at the women. Abigail made a kissing noise. “See you soon, sweetie.”
Dead Man strode forward, glaring at the prisoners through the slot on the door. He touched two fingers to just beneath his eyes, then pointed them back at Abigail. I’m watching you. He slammed the viewing hatch closed and Shannon heard his footsteps tromp off. No, they weren’t stupid.
“Yes,” Louis said quietly, raising his voice to catch Shannon’s attention. “Yes, I want to know.”
“Okay,” Abigail kicked her feet again. Another infinitesimal movement of the spike. Little by little... “What kills small populations?”
Louis’s brow furrowed for a moment, then went slack. “They’re going to eat us?”
“Oh God,” Ramone breathed. Emily’s head twitched, a minute shake. Her eyes met Shannon’s. She knows, too.
“They might,” Shannon conceded. “But remember the size of the population. There were dozens – and these were just the people closest to us when we were brought in. Many children, several pregnant women. There are hundreds in this entire complex. They’ve got enough food for all of them – they can’t rely on ships to provide enough sustenance, not if cannibalism’s a staple of their diet.” That didn’t mean that they weren’t oppurtunistic cannibals, though, but she didn’t mention that part. “They probably hoard MREs. Maybe they’ve got a hydroponics garden. Certainly they’ve tapped the water system – maybe a cistern grows algal. So they’ve got a constant source of food and water. Not enough to keep them all healthy, but enough to keep everyone alive.” She bit her lip and pulled on the chains again.
“What kills small populations is allele fixation. Homozygosity. When there’s no more gene flow coming in, and little diversity in the population.” She had to use the these terms, had to build up to it. Stay detached, don’t think about it. “Deleterious mutations and physiological defects build up. It’s called a ‘mutational meltdown’ that leads into an ‘extinction vortex’. Inbreeding destroys small populations over generations. If you sleep with your sister or your cousin, it won’t matter that much for your kid. But if they do the same, and those offspring do it too – then you get spinal deformities. Autoimmune disorders. Defective sperm. Birth rates plummet as the fitness of the surviving adults drops and fewer and fewer embryos, let alone children, survive. The only way to prevent this is to bring in new genetic stock. Emigrants from other populations.”
As she’d been talking, Louis’ expression had changed from one of confusion to dawning comprehension, to revulsion and shame. “I’m... I’m... sorry,” he stammered, gritting his teeth. “I won’t... I won’t let-”
“Before you let pitying chivalry eat you up,” Abigail replied, “I’d just like to point out that you’re here with us brood hens too.”
Louis’s expression slackened for a moment as the implications of that hit him, then he shook himself. “But then, why haven’t they...”
“We’re trophies,” Shannon nodded towards the door. “Something that has to be earned. The man wearing St. Cloud’s armour – it wasn’t his usual garb. It was something he was allowed to use.” The fear bubbled up inside her and her clinical detachment faltered. “The same with us. There’ll... be some kind of proving and the winners...” she let that thought hang in the darkness, interrupted by clatter of desperate tugs upon unyielding chains.
They came for Ramone first.
The viewing hatch snapped open, a spar of light shining into the cell, two faces silhouetted briefly before the hatch closed just as abruptly. The door’s hinges squealed as it was pulled open and a pair of women sauntered in. Both of their masks only covered their noses and eyes; one was of cat’s whiskers and ears. The other was a cracked porcelain ballroom-style affair. Both them wore surgical masks over their mouths and filthy nurses’ uniforms that had been unbuttoned to show off a fair amount of cleavage and trimmed to be as short as any miniskirt. Cat wore knee-high leather boots; Porcelain had ankle bracelets. Behind them, Shannon could hear squeaking as something was slowly wheeled closer.
Ignoring the women and Louis, the ‘nurses’ sauntered over to Ramone, stroking his face. “A doctor...” one of them began in an eerie singsong.
“...needs a staff,” the other finished. “That’s why...”
“...we’re here,” Cat amended.
Ramone swallowed. “That’s, uh, it’s, uh...”
“Hush...” Porcelain purred, pressing herself up against him. “Just let us...”
“...take care of you,” Cat said.
It was if the doctor’s brain had short-circuited and he couldn’t formulate any coherent response. He stammered, getting out half-sentences, mentioning a wife, but the feral women didn’t pay any attention to his protestations, nor the imprecations and demands coming from the other survivors. Cat was rubbing her rear against his hips and Porcelain sunk down to her knees, pulling the doctor’s pants down. “Isn’t that...”
“...so much better,” Cat purred huskily. Then, like flipping a switch, the ‘nurse’ whipped around to glare out the door. “Now!” she screamed, high-pitched and fierce as a banshee.
A man in a rebreather rushed forward, fumbling a set of jingling keys in his hands, pouring out an all-but-unintelligible rush of apologies in the local dialect.
The squeaking grew louder as the man unlocked Ramone’s bindings. Porcelain’s hand was in his underwear, stroking him. The doctor’s eyes pinched shut and his face was contorted in disgust and shame. “Now, now,” a new masculine voice interrupted. “There’ll be time for that later.” It was the feral doctor, pushing a surgeon’s cart. Dented stainless steel, there were bindings for wrists, elbows, ankles and thighs. “First, the procedure.”
“What-what procedure?” Ramone’s mind re-asserted itself as the ballroom-masked woman’s hand withdrew, each of the nurses taking one of his arms and leading him out of the cell. “What are you going to do? What are you going to do to me?” His panic rose as he dug his heels in and he was pulled out of the chamber and strapped down to the cart.
Shannon could see another man in a broken gas mask holding something... No. No, God no. Don’t let this happen. Please. “Leave him alone!” she shouted, pulling at her bonds, only dimly aware that the others were doing the same. “Don’t do this! You don’t need to!”
Cat looked up at her and in a petulant, child-denied-a-treat voice, said: “But we need a doctor.”
“What are they going to do?” Louis demanded quietly.
Shannon closed her eyes, trying to will the nightmare away. “You don’t need legs to be a doctor,” she said, the words hollow and sick-sounding in her throat. “But you need them to escape.”
Ramone had caught sight of his feral counterpart. “What are you doing? No! No, get away!”
The ‘doctor’ was holding a reciprocating saw, sliding a fire-heated blade into the machine. “Nurse,” he said. “Prepare the patient.”
Porcelain withdrew a dose of painkillers – one of hers, Shannon realized – and injected Ramone with it, then tightened the straps on his thighs. They were just above his knees. Tourniquets. She stroked Salvador’s face and whispered in his ear, before looking to the other man. “He’s ready, doctor.”
“Excellent. Orderly, are the prostheses ready?”
The man carrying the false legs – one of wood, sculpted to look like a real lower leg and foot, the other of black metal and plastic, intended only to be functional – nodded. “Yes, doctor.”
“Then we’ll begin.”
“What? No! No!” Salvador screamed as the feral doctor started the saw. “No! Please, somebody! Help me! Help meeeeee!” he shrieked as the red-hot blade was driven through his skin, just below his right knee, ripping through bone and muscle. He thrashed, but was held too securely to accomplish anything.
Louis vomited, pink bile spattering down his lips and splashing his cuirass as the stink of cooking meat and bone filled the air. Shannon had her eyes squeezed shut, unable to watch. Hearing it – smelling it – was enough. Her breath was hot and heavy in her chest, muscles tensing almost painfully. Abigail was silent, with that look on her face. Emily had her head turned away. Like Shannon, she couldn’t bear to see this. They didn’t even bother to take him out of here.
The whine of the saw abated. Leather rasped and buckles clicked as the amputated limb was taken away. Mumbling as the tourniquets above Ramone’s knees were checked, confirmed for tightness. The clack of the blade being ejected from the saw, followed by the click of a fresh heated, crudely sterilized blade being locked into place. There was a whiff of medicinal alcohol, the wet splashes of it being doused over the amputated end of Ramone’s leg, the clothy rasp of bandages being drawn. Whimpered prayers and pleading: “No more. No more. No more. No more.”
Then the machine growled back to life.
When it was over, the cart squeaked as they wheeled Ramone away as ‘orderlies’ cleaned up the mess, closing the door to the cell and leaving four survivors, awaiting the sounds of their own guests.
In the darkness, Shannon found that she was feeling something new. Something she’d only tasted in the hall as she’d struggled against the gravity plates and a voice whispered to her, telling her to stop fighting. Something dark and raw, red and violent. It frightened her, but after what she’d seen, she wanted more. She... wanted to share it.
God help me, I do.
She tugged on her chains again, feeling something give a little more.
God help me.
Shannon is working on an escape attempt, but it hasn't come to fruition yet. She reminisces about the incident in 'The Black Locker' that led to her severely injuring another person and watching Salvador's mutilation has triggered something in her; it's not a nice something.