“Stop it!” The interrogators are hesitant at first, in shock that Ika would lose control so early, but Sia’s words break them out of their stupefied paralysis. They scramble out of their chairs to separate the two. One goes for his hands to peel his fingers off Marcus’s throat while the other put their hands beneath his arms to haul his body off the prisoner’s chest. “Calm down!”
Ika doesn’t fight their interference but throws out a kick to the body before being tugged back toward the chairs. He licks his gums and spits off to the side. The woman releases her hold on Ika but doesn’t turn her back on the man. His breathing is erratic, trembling fists are clenched at his side, and when she blocks his view of Marcus, he sidesteps her to glower at the motionless prisoner. The woman places a hand on his chest and takes a step another step forward, to stand in his way.
“Wait! Wait.” She can’t think of a suitable way to rebuke the furious man, but he pauses, and she swallows her words. A bead of sweat runs down her temple, he’s allowed her to stop his progress, and she’s grateful for it. She drops her hand and turns to her companion and the prisoner. “Is he—”
The other interrogator has his fingers pressed to Marcus’s throat when he shakes his head. “He’s unconscious.” He fixes the pink folding chair to sit upright and rises from his crouch.
Ika moves in her peripheral, sidling over to the prisoner to retrieve his gun. She watches the second-in-command warily as he snatches the weapon off the ground and nonchalantly examines the weapon for blemishes.
The woman’s brows meet, her forehead wrinkles in confusion. She opens her mouth, shuts it, then forces a breath through her nostrils. Someone’s got to be professional here. Her eyes meet with her companion, and he squints at her exasperated form before nodding.
The other interrogator places his hands on his hips and presses his lips into a line. “Did he look threatening to you?”
“No.” Ika quits eyeing the superficial scratch on the side of his gun and flicks a finger to engage the safety. He reholsters his weapon at the small of his back and moves toward Marcus.
“Then what was that? He was cooperating.” The female interrogator steps within reach of Ika and gestures at the prisoner’s body. Ika glares at her and tilts his head up to meet her gaze, ignoring her gesture. He doesn’t have to acknowledge it, he knows what he’d see.
Marcus’s legs are sprawled out and his head is lolled to the side. His black hair is spilling over his face. The bruising on his neck is already beginning to fade at the edges.
“He’s a lying Savage. That’s how he got in here, and I won’t listen while he drags Priya’s name through the mud to save his ass.” He scowls at the arm the woman raises to impede his path, snorts at the attempt.
“We need the information he has,” the other interrogator interjects while stepping closer to the others. “Think of the children.” Ika rolls his eyes at the man’s melodramatic tone. “Seriously, Pheno hasn’t figured out why they’ve gotten sick. What if he knows what’s really going on?”
“It might not be what you think. You didn’t let him finish.”
Ika isn’t given a chance to reply. Marcus’s body shudders against the dirty ground before taking a few violent breaths. His wrists strain against the rope bindings while coughs wrack his form. All three of the mercenaries turn to their prisoner and wait for the coughing fit to end.
The female interrogator spares a glance down at Ika and is satisfied to see him retreat to sit in a metal chair. He ignores Marcus and the interrogators, gray eyes peering off into the darkness, clearly in wait for the interrogation session’s end; when he can finally get rid of the Savage.
“Marcus?” Down one chair, the interrogators decide to stand to show a unified front and patiently wait for the prisoner to respond.
Oh my god. Oh my god. Did I die? The blessing of air burns on its way to her lungs, but after the initial irritation- a feeling descends over Sia, a numbing balm on her tortured nerves. All the aches and pains that ailed her prior to Ika’s attack have vanished. Sia blinks behind her curtain of hair, at the legs of her captives, and doesn’t miss a beat before pretending to have a hard time to breathing.
You’re back! She didn’t think she’d feel this much relief at hearing the contemptible device’s monotone voice but there it is.
S.I.D.! Dernel is bursting with joy at the artificial intelligence’s return.
THE SYNTHETIC INTELLIGENCE DEVELOPER NEVER LEFT
Sia rolls her eyes and tries to bring a realistic end to her coughing fit. The eyes scrutinizing her make the side of her head itch with anticipation. What happened? What did you do?! What did you do to the mercenaries when I gave you control?!
The Synthetic Intelligence Developer doesn’t waste time describing the past and accesses its memory files to share the events that occurred the last time it was operational in the underground parking garage. To the interrogators, it’s merely a few seconds of Sia lying slack against the dusty floor, but within Sia’s mind images flicker by at an incredible speed. Before she can fully form a question, her mind grasps the information held in each image and processes the next incoming bundle of sights and sounds. When the rush is over, Sia releases the breath she’s been holding.
You really screwed me over…You don’t like me, do you?
THE SYNTHETIC INTELLIGENCE DEVELOPER IS
NOT CAPABLE OF EMOTIONAL REACTIONS
SUBJECT 001 IS MISTAKEN
Sia can’t put her finger on it, but she thinks the device is definitely lying. I don’t have time for this.
TIME IS A CONSTRUCT MAINTAINED BY AN
AGGREGATE’S UNDERSTANDING OF IT
FURTHERMORE IT IS UNQUANTIFIABLE
SUBJECT 001 IS—
You— Sia frowns at the device’s response. She definitely feels it now. It’s not even a little repentant. You piece of –
-S.I.D.! Do not exasperate Sia. Do as she says.
“Marcus, can you hear us?” Sia hears a familiar woman’s voice speaking from above. She flinches when a hand is placed on her neck. “Marcus?”
Sia grunts, and squints behind her hair. The woman crouching beside her is the interrogator that had been sitting across from her moments before. The woman’s face is set in a deep frown, and her eyes have an apologetic slant to them. “Can you talk?”
This would be a great time to deepen my voice. Sia’s tone confuses the device, but the order gets across.
The woman sighs and pulls her hand away from Sia’s neck. She rises to stand beside her companion and gestures to the folding chair. “You can—”
“No. I’m…fine…down here.” Sia slowly moves along the ground to keep everyone in view. Her eyes fix on the side of Ika’s head for several seconds before focusing on the interrogators. Both have their hair shaved low and close to the scalp, Sia has seen many armed mercenaries and shelter dwellers with a similar haircut. The woman is wearing civilian clothing, a loose shirt paired with dirty jeans, but stands the same as the man- straight with her shoulders rolled back. The man is wearing a dark outfit similar to Ika’s, a tight-fitting t-shirt and cargo pants.
They wanted to calm their prisoner’s nerves, bring in a woman to play the good cop, but this woman is clearly military of some sort. Sia tests the rope bindings on her wrists.
After a quick glance to her superior’s tense back, the woman begins the interrogation again. “I think we were talking about who sent you here? Your boss.”
“I think—” Sia’s eyes leave the interrogators to observe the crazy man before she begins again. It’s my best plan. I have to go for it. She eases out a slow breath before beginning again. “I think you’ve got it all wrong.” Sia studies the side of the sniper’s face for any signs of insanity, any signs he might jump to his feet to give her another taste of true fear. Sia gulps, she can feel the dampness in her pants and is sure there’d be a puddle of piss beneath her if she’d had more liquid in her.
They wait for her to continue. “I’m not your enemy. I’m not a Savage.”
The woman snorts. “We’d love to believe that, but after all you’ve done to convince us otherwise…”
“Savage or not. You injured and killed many of our men.” Her companion sternly glares down at Sia’s pathetic form.
“Killed?” There goes the hope that everyone had survived their wounds. Fuck. Dammit. Shit. Okay…okay. Sia pushes past the shock and continues. “I didn’t mean for things to get out of hand. I was attacked by a guard…”
“After stealing from our reserves, after lying to us, after pretending to be a weak merchant that was lost in the Wastes.” Sia flinches at the calmly uttered words, Ika doesn’t need to yell to get his point across and averts her gaze to meet the enraged eyes of the sniper.
“You seemed ready to talk before…” The woman trails off a moment before making eye contact with her companion, he nods and takes a step away from Sia. “If you’ve changed your mind we can—” She takes a step away from Sia, leaving a clear path from Ika to her.
“I didn’t…Yes, I’m ready to talk. I just…wanted to clear up some—” Sia licks her lips and fidgets her legs. “I…”
Ika springs up out of his seat. “Underling!” Sia shouts, curls up as tightly as she can, and closes her eyes. Her breath picks up and she waits for the sniper to charge forward and beat her. But…nothing happens. Everyone is silent. No footsteps echo off the walls.
“Underling? What do you mean Underling?” the woman tentatively asks.
Sia opens her eyes to see the woman holding a hand to her companion’s chest, stopping him from moving forward. Ika is frozen in front of his chair.
“I—” Sia uncurls herself and tilts her head up to look the woman in the eyes. “—I need to rescue an Underling out of an ExplorerTech Industries facility…several days from here.”
No one speaks to interrupt her, so she continues.
“I was given a special device. It can help me…in a lot of ways, but I need more manpower to break into the labs. So, I went searching for more people. You…you people were the first ones I’ve come across after setting out in that desert. Then we were attacked, and I didn’t know what to do…how to help. I didn’t know if you would help me, so I lied.”
“And the supplies?” the male interrogator interrupts.
“I got it from a storage container depot outside of Coldstone. It’s all in my truck. I thought it would be a good bartering tool, but the bugs happened and the storm…”
Silence. Her questioners seem to be involved in a silent conversation, but Ika continues. “Why did you mention Priya?”
“The device I’ve been given.” Sia bites her lower lip after uttering those few words, but Ika isn’t satisfied by that vague answer. One of his boots advances toward her and waves of explanations stream out of her mouth one after the other. “It gives me access to a GPS program that scans everything out there! I saw signs that she was still alive. I tried to tell you. I didn’t think you would believe me.” Ika doesn’t stop his approach.
“I wanted to save her! I needed supplies. I went through the trucks. I stole medicine. I gathered as much as I could, but the guard stopped me…he was going to kill me. I just wanted to help. She was alive!” Sia repeats the last sentence and cringes as Ika continues to advance toward her.
Ika marches past and tugs a radio from his side pocket. “Dennis? I need transport and medical supplies.”
There’s a slight pause before the radio comes alive in his hand. “When, Lobito?”
Ika glances over his shoulder at the pitiful mess the prisoner has become, attempting to shrink into the ground and escape his wrath. “Yesterday.”
He exits the tunnel, changing the frequency to bark short orders into his radio and get his team ready.
MEASURES HAVE BEEN TAKEN TO ALLEVIATE
SUBJECT 001 SYMPTOMS
IS IMMERSIVE MODE REQUIRED
Shut up. Sia’s cowering halts when she can no longer hear his voice. She sighs and small pebbles near her face shift under her heavy breath. Pretending to be injured is tasking, but the fear that grips her when that man is near doesn’t need to be feigned.
When they were with the Wanderers, she’d thought he was a teenager. He was shorter than all the other men and had such a baby face. She thought he was some poor kid stuck with the shit end of the stick, forced to grow up early. She’d pitied him. When he’d ruined her escape plan, she’d feared him telling someone she was suspicious, but figured he had no real authority. He was quiet and unimportant.
At least, that’s what she’d thought right up until Vanessa held a gun to his face, the indifference he’d shown was otherworldly. She’d seen a teenage boy with that kind of demeanor. What had he gone through to make him so…
She’d hoped to never encounter someone like that ever again, but ‘lo and behold they met again, and she’d ruined her second impression being deceptive and constantly incriminating herself. That moment of distraction, when she’d touched his shoulder, had shown her how ingrained his skills were. He wasn’t some harmless kid. If she’d had her hands free, he would have destroyed her easily. Without the device, she’s no match for someone who’s survived this nightmare, who without an advantage like S.I.D. has prospered.
The others aren’t done with her. “We’ll die if they come next?” the interrogator slowly pronounces each word and brings Sia’s attention back to her. “Who is “they”?”
Sia clenches her eyes closed. Out of the frying pan and right into the fire1.