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2034

Underground Garage Shelter, W.A.R.T.S

Sia releases a slow breath out her nose and tries to gather her thoughts before beginning to speak again. “ExplorerTech Industries.” Her interrogators step back to drop into their chairs, eyes ever watchful and interest clearly peaked. “What…do you know…about them?”

Sia hopes that things go as planned. Maybe she can get through this. No one has mentioned her resemblance to herself and Ika is one of the few people that could clearly identify her. They continue to refer to her as Marcus, her cover is intact, but for how long? The only other people who had contact with her were Eli, Turner, and those Wanderers. Who seem to be missing. Were they killed at the river?

She ignores that thought and moves onto the next. Hopefully, they’re on the road to understanding she isn’t a threat, but even if she convinces them not to kill her, she needs their cooperation, their manpower, and resources. If ExplorerTech Industries has no meaning to them, how can she convince them that they’re a threat? What do these people cherish more than anything? What could ExplorerTech take from them?

“What do we know about them?” He shakes his head. “This is where you tell us what you know. All of it. Not the other way around. Why do they matter?” The interrogator has a hand raised to rub his temple. His companion has a hand resting on her leg, an index finger tapping at her knee as she waits for the prisoner to continue.

Sia bites her lower lip, and wiggles against the floor, struggling to prop herself up into a sitting position. It takes a few moments, and her interrogators don’t raise a hand to help her, watching her every move with a look of distrust in their eyes.

Sia doesn’t meet their eyes. The fresh burn of embarrassment and shame settling in at the damp feel of her underwear rubbing against her skin. A sad sniff forces her to cough, the stench that clings to her is hellish. It’ll probably mask the smell of piss. A glance at her filthy torn pants eases the embarrassment a bit- all the mud and filth she’s crawled through has covered her with a way to disguise her…accident.

She leans her head back to avoid another whiff of herself and ignores the moist fabric…tries to ignore it, before finally managing to sit up. Testing the patience of her interrogators doesn’t seem like a good idea, so she starts again. “They matter. They….Their scientists have a habit of torturing people.”

“You mean the Underling. What does that have to do with us?” The male interrogator shrugs and shakes his head. “Underling are no friends of ours. Where are you from?”

Dammit. Sia is from a time when Underling, righteous pacifist sea dwellers, were an ally to all of mankind. There were people who disliked their secrecy and a few groups that petitioned for transparency and expeditions to illuminate the mysterious kingdoms under the sea. To learn their secrets, their weaknesses, and all about the incredible technology they’ve been steadfast in denying humans access to. But overall, people trusted them.

The nervous twitch of her lips barely registers as a smile. “I’m from here.”

From what Sia has learned from traveling with the Wanderers and mercenaries, something shifted in the relations between Underling society and Cinalia. The Underling attacked and destroyed much of the country, along with the coasts of several of Cinalia’s allies. The rest of the world scrambled to defend themselves and return fire, but none of the Wanderers knew of the success of any of those efforts.

The Underling vanished from all known contact posts and were never seen again. A ceasefire was ordered when they could no longer locate their aquatic enemy. Officially, the war ended in a stalemate, but the human participants knew no real damage had been done to the other side and no armistice had been signed. If the sea dwellers rose up to attack once more, how would mankind retaliate?

Sia never heard the reason for why the Underling began their attacks, but most don’t care to speculate over the exact reason. They annihilated millions of Cinalians without warning, the reason why will never be sufficient enough to calm the incandescent rage the survivors have against the species as a whole. All hate the sea and fear it.

Fuck. Shit. Fuck! She didn’t factor any of that into her hurriedly made plans. Why the hell would they put their necks out for an unknown Underling? They wouldn’t…she’s failed again…revealed too much. Sia rapidly blinks, but her body is frozen in terror. Being a Savage is one thing, but being an Underling sympathizer? What do they do to them? Is it worse than execution?

Sia…Maybe I can be of service to you? A calm port in a storm. Sia’s annoyed by how blank her mind has gone. What could the fish say to sway the sharks from biting? She’s doomed, and in the end, he’s doomed as well. They’re doomed. Sia doesn’t reply.

“You’re from here? And where is that exactly? What settlement are you from?”

“You say you aren’t a Savage… and you don’t act like any that we’ve seen, but what would possess you to partner with Underling? What are they paying you?”

“You said they gave you a device. Where is it?”

“Who else is on this mission of yours?”

“Do you know a woman named Sia?”

Sia can’t halt the shock from forcing her mouth slack with disbelief. Have all the idiots died and left the smart to inherit the earth? It can’t be that obvious. It doesn’t matter. She has to keep talking or it’s truly the end.  She uses the look of honest surprise and her mind works double time fabricating a backstory for her male persona and the settlement he’s attached to.

“Wow…Did she tell you her real name?” A sheepish grin spreads across Sia’s face. If this is her last hurrah, she should go all in.  “We were hoping she didn’t make a big impression on you guys.”

The interrogators share a look and a short laugh. “She’s done more than that. She’s been an absolute delight.” The woman’s words are dripping with sarcasm.

“Were you traveling with her before we captured you?”

Before you accidentally crashed into me you mean, stumbled upon me, before I allowed you to take me in…and screwed myself over. She doesn’t correct them. “We didn’t know River City was destroyed and we didn’t know what we would find in Coldstone, but we were able to make contact with a …valuable ally. The Underling I’m looking for is alive. We know who took him.”

They momentarily ignore the information about the Underling. “Will she be joining you?”

She’s already here. Sia smirks. She keeps the taut, tight grip of fear in her chest out of sync with her movements, staying relaxed and fluid. She nods her head toward the exit. “She’s more useful out there than in here. We didn’t know how friendly you’d be if you saw her again.” She flashes an awkward look around the empty tunnel entrance. “Actually, I imagined it’d be something like this.”

“Are all your people like this?”

“Like this?”

The woman gestures to her own neck.

Sia touches her neck. “Umm.”

“Are you and the woman the only mutated ones?” The man asks.

“N—Yes? It’s only Sia and me.” —Myself and I. She shrugs. “We were the first to volunteer. That was a part of the deal. In exchange for their help, we would complete this task. This is all they care about at the moment.”

“What kind of aid have they given you?”

“What do you think? All the things people need to thrive in this sort of world. Why else would we be desperate to please those freaks.” Sia puts up a confident front, giving an “I know what I’m talking about, so move this thing along” type of look. She takes a moment to meet each of their gazes before continuing. “I don’t know how you’ve all fared out here, but we’ve needed the outside help for a while. After a few years, we’d sucked the surrounding areas dry with our scavenging parties. The land isn’t ready to bare any fruit or vegetables. We were about ready to give up until they came. And that’s how these things work. We didn’t have a choice, and when ExplorerTech comes knocking you won’t either. Only difference is we know our allies won’t grab anyone while their sleeping. They don’t need to test and torture…things actually work at sea.” Sia ends her speech with a nod. Please believe me. The thought keeps replaying inside her mind. Please.

That gives the interrogators pause but not for long. “You mentioned a device? Is that how they mutated you?”

Don’t speak of that. Dernel advises with a whisper of thought. Sia grimaces at the command but concedes to the logic behind it. If she reveals too much, she will talk herself into a hole, an even deeper one. “There isn’t much to say about it. I’m not mutated, I’m just…more.”

The interrogators glance at each other for another moment of silent communication before the woman continues. “How do we know you weren’t experimented on and changed? What kind of contact have you had with the Underling?”

Intimate contact.

“Not much. Everyone met for the deal. I was given the device and told where to start the search. We headed out the next day.”

The interrogators are silent, then rise from their seats. Sia attempts to stop the flinch that works up her spine. They walk away a short distance to speak to each other. She tries to stay calm, slow breaths in, slow exhales out. She rubs her temple onto her shoulder, to wipe away the nervous sweat, but disguises the motion as a need to itch the side of her face and nose.

When they return to their seats, the man starts it. “They give you anything to back up any of your claims?”

Sia pauses. “Proof, you mean?”

“Yeah, proof. Evidence.” A pause, then. “How about you let us get a look at that device of yours.”

You can’t do that. Dernel is panicking now.

I’m not an idiot! I know that. Sia almost scoffs at the panicked Underling.

“I can’t do that.” Sia is reluctant to say it. If they decide to search her, a hand through her hair would easily reveal something fishy. “But I can prove it. You’ve seen me heal.” But Savages can heal just as well, she would need something extraordinary to prove the device was superior technology, something no one else has their hands on. “Ask me something I shouldn’t know about you that’s on your public records, or I can…” Sia bounces with excitement at an idea and gestures with her head toward the outside. “I know! Place someone or something outside. Far away…far enough you know that I couldn’t possibly know what they’re doing. Not in a million years, with no radio or phone. Ask me what I see. I’ll tell you exactly what they do. I’ll prove it to you!”

                                                                    ╚╗╔╦╩╗╩╝╚╗╔╦╩╗╩╝╚╗╔╦╩╗╩╝

While they set up the test, a middle-aged man stirs on a thin cot. His mop of rust colored hair moves against the cloth filled pillow. He struggles out of the comforting grasp of the medicated rest the doctor has kept him under. His eyelids are heavy and he can only open them a tiny bit before the light from outside irritates him. The medwing entrance is open, letting in the bright glow of the afternoon sun’s rays into the dim room. A sheet is propped up over the glass door, making it impossible for it to do its job of blocking the light.

The clink of glassware and the sliding of wooden drawers draws his attention from the doorway to the shelves and desks along the side wall. A tall, dark skinned man is rushing around picking up items and shoving them into a brown satchel.

“Nar…Nard.” It tastes like cotton covered in muck was shoved into his mouth as he slept. He coughs to clear up some space for air and speech, but it makes him feel even worse. “Wha—” He struggles to say anymore.

Nard opens and shuts another drawer after pulling out an unnecessary amount of gauze bandage rolls. He slams the drawer closed and his eyes frantically search the labels of the containers on the shelf for a recognizable name. His frantic movements jerk to a stop when he hears one of the patients cough. It’s a deep cough with a slight wheeze when they try to breathe in.  He whirls around, closes the satchel, then crosses the room.

A quick flick of his eyes shows him the child in the other bed is still unconscious. When he reaches his comrade’s bedside, he sets down the bag and places a hand on the man’s shoulder. He puts a knee on the cot and tries to sit the man up. “Turner, aaiy calm down. It’s alright.”

Turner throws out a hand to grasp the other man’s forearm and stops him from moving him, an electric shock jolts up his leg. Tears leak out his eyes as he wrestles with his next breath. “I—” His breathing calms down and the coughing stutters to nothing. “I’m…I’m okay,” Nard frowns in sympathy at the hoarse voice. “Wat…water.”

Nard stands fully, casts a look around the room, and spots the pot on a side table between the two occupied cots. There are three short cups beside the metal pot and a rag is hanging off of it. Nard grabs a cup, checks the bottom for any contents, sees nothing alarming, but just to be sure— he blows into it. The cup is dipped into the pot of lukewarm water then he hurries to the other side of the bed.

Turner hums a thanks and loosely grips Nard’s wrist while he holds it against his cracked lips. There is a moment of satisfaction between the two. One satisfied that the other is alive and the other satisfied that the condition of their throat has improved substantially. Turner’s ear twitches at the loud slamming of car doors outside the small medwing. He finishes drinking from the cup and fully opens his eyes.

Nard pulls away when he sees Turner has finished drinking. The cup is placed next to the flattened pillow, he taps it to slip it underneath and keep it from sliding off the cot.

Turner’s forehead creases and he lifts a brow before raising a hand to gesture at the doorway. “What’s…up?” His jovial personality is weighed down by a slate of disorientation usually coupled with medical accidents, but is tripled by waking up in the middle of a turbulent situation. “Are we under attack?”

Nard bends down to pick up the brown satchel that is stuffed with supplies. He shakes his head and looks over his shoulder. “Nothing that bad, we’re just about to go on an outing. Big news. We found a little wasteman with a lot of loot while you been napping. It’s fishy, so Ika wants us prepared. You good?”

Turner looks warily at the blanket covering his lower extremities and squeezes a hand into a fist. Nard frowns and knocks his knee into the cot’s metal frame. It creaks and Turner is shook out of his inner thoughts. “You good, man?”

Turner’s smile is thin and shaky. “I’m good. Go on, I don’t want to keep you.”

Nard doesn’t go right away. He adjusts the shoulder strap of the bag and watches Turner, then glances out at the people running around doing tasks. He swivels his eyes from the doorway to his injured pal and back again, then sighs.

Turner rolls his eyes. “Go on, I’ll go back to sleep. I’m exhausted.” Turner lays back against the flat pillow. He closes his eyes and pretends to get comfortable for a moment, wincing at the pain the movement brings him. He forces out a weak yawn and waits.

Nard stands at his bedside for several long seconds and Turner almost thinks the man will stay before he takes a few loud steps toward the door. There is a rustle of fabric before the squeaking of the glass doors signals the man’s full retreat outside. Turner releases a heavy sigh and opens his eyes. Nard has let down the shade cloth to block the sunlight and closed the doors.

Turner sits up a bit, moaning as he shifts and looks around the room for any signs. Signs that Priya has visited him, something…maybe a note. The corner of his mouth quirks up as he thinks of what she might write on a tiny slip of paper. After a short search, and no note in sight, he drops back against the pillow and knocks the cup to the ground. The clatter is loud and irritating, and he whispers a little “Sorry” to the small boy in the bed beside his.

He grips the side of the cot and leans down to grab the cup…but it’s out of reach. He grasps for it one more time ignoring the cot’s groans, but his legs move a bit too far to the right and force him to still. He backpedals with his hand on the ground, pushes up on the side of the mattress, and lies back, breathing out a sigh of relief that he didn’t fall over. A layer of sweat trails down the back of his neck and forehead, another thing to complain about to Priya when she finally gets her beautiful ass up to visit him. If she ever does.

He chuckles. He looks at the dark featureless ceiling and chuckles. A car door slams and several vehicles ride out. The chuckle dies out and he’s left with silence.

I’ve really screwed up this time.

He would have asked Nard about Priya, but he already knew what the conversation would be. Him, the pitiful invalid, reaching for his friend’s arm, asking about the woman that owns his heart and Nard shuffling by the bedside, close mouthed. “Women, man, just give her time.” Nard would reply.

 It would result in the same sulking later, but maybe…maybe she wasn’t here. Maybe she’s just busy. She went on an outing, she didn’t know he woke up, she still cares.

Turner can barely look down at his leg, can’t bear to look beneath the blankets and see what that spider has done to him. He knows it’s bad. He’s probably been hopped on more drugs than would usually be allowed in the world before…and he knows it’s bad. And now he might lose his only chance with the most wonderful woman. Someone you wouldn’t even dare to dream about before.

It wouldn’t be smart to take on a liability like him. He’s seen how people view his boss’s brother, Dennis. Dennis, the one who started this whole settlement, who’d never ask anything of anyone that he wouldn’t sacrifice himself. Who is stuck with sending his younger brother out into the world, without him to watch his back, since the accident. Except he isn’t in higher management like Dennis, he doesn’t have any skills outside of his training. He’s a dud. That’s all he’d be, a weak invalid with no place. Useless.

He’d seen that woman fight with the best and worst and come out with no more than a split lip and a slight limp. “And here I am,” He grumbles.

He stares up at the ceiling as tears leak out the corner of his eyes and places his forearm over his face to shield it from view. His lips are a tight line trying to hold all sounds at bay. A wet sniffle escapes him before he rubs his forearm over his eyes and grunts.

Is it selfish to want a chance even now? He chuckles darkly. Before, this was awful shit, but people got through it. Families got closer. It showed how loyal your woman truly was, how loving. But now, big guy…if she tosses you aside that’s good on her. Common sense. His breath hiccups, his chest feels tight. But I’d do it all again…I wouldn’t stop protecting my people for some dumb leg. He struggles to take a deep breath after admitting that fact. The fact that his leg is forever altered. Gone.

“We’re ready to survive, but that only works if we’re together.” He mutters that under his breath, words he remembers Dennis uttering in the old days when W.A.R.T.S was a couple of survivors and a broken-down truck. He grasps the sheet with a trembling hand and squeezes his eyes shut. “That only works if we work together.”

Priya, please don’t… He blinks at the ceiling, tears spilling from his flooded eyes. Please. give me a chance. 

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