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All his life, since the age of fifteen, Nick had believed that his parents had been murdered by the Governor. All the signs pointed to that conclusion. The greatest people in his life had been killed by the greatest evil present. It made sense.
The thought that they'd been snuffed out by a low-ranking nobody, in a minor act of political maneuvering, made him feel like he was choking. The people he loved most in the world were not judged to be a threat to the Governor. They were not the centres of some larger battle between right and wrong.
They were just expendable pawns, terminated in a failed play for power.
‘I thought,' Nick said, but his voice came out a noiseless squeak. His licked his lips and tried again. ‘I thought there was a big operation against people in the music business. I was told you arrested everyone at the funeral.'
‘That had nothing to do with it.' Sierra said. ‘But given the Ostins' politics, one of our intelligence people suggested that the funeral would be a good opportunity to identify dissenters in the artistic community. They arranged for most of them to be brought in for questioning.'
‘What did you find out?' Charlie asked.
‘It was a long time ago, and I wasn't directly involved,' Sierra replied. ‘But I remember that Mr Smith was disappointed. Apparently there was a lot less dissension in the community than he'd expected. Almost all of them were released within a couple of days.'
‘So they died for nothing.'
‘Well, that's a difficult…'
‘They didn't die because they threatened the Governor. They died because someone thought it might get him a gold star! Isn't that what you're saying? I think that counts as dying for nothing!'
‘We need to go,' Charlie said.
‘I suppose this sort of thing happens every day,' Nick snapped. ‘Wires get crossed, or a trooper gets an idea in his head, and blam! Another kid loses his family. How many times a day would you say that happened, Sierra? A dozen? Twenty? A hundred?'
Sierra gave no response. Charlie crouched down next to Nick's chair, as if he were a child. ‘It happens too much, okay?' he whispered. ‘And every second we remain here, the chances of there being another meaningless death increase dramatically. Did your parents die for nothing just so you could die for nothing too?'
‘Don't even talk to me, Charlie,' Nick said. He dragged himself to his feet, and made an effort to keep himself upright without leaning against the wall.
‘As you wish,' Charlie replied. He stood and said to Sierra, ‘You know what to do?'
Sierra nodded, then went to the door and tapped on it twice. He waited for a moment, but nothing happened. He tried the handle, and the door creaked open.
‘That's strange,' Sierra said. ‘The guard is gone.'
Charlie pushed past him and scanned the corridor. To the left, it snaked away into darkness, lined with cell doors.
To the right, it opened out into a large room scattered with old crates, random bits of furniture and rusting equipment. There was no sign of life in either direction.
‘Something is wrong,' Charlie said as Nick stepped out into the corridor.
‘Something is very wrong,' a voice agreed. Mr Smith ambled out from behind a concrete pillar, and, with an almost genial air, waved the muzzle of a submachine gun at them. ‘This is not at all what I'd expected.'
The two warlogs hunched slightly and squared their shoulders. Charlie elbowed Nick so that he stepped back behind him.
‘That's quite an ability you have, Dr Ostin,' Mr Smith said. ‘Wherever you go, humanalogues seem drawn to you. First we found out about that Atu amilog, then we found out the hard way about this fellow.' He pointed the gun at Charlie. ‘And now our dear General Sierra spends all of ten minutes with you and he suddenly turns on his master of thirty years. I'm curious to know your secret.'
‘We don't want to hurt you,' Charlie said. ‘Lower your weapon and allow us to leave.'
Mr Smith tilted his head, as if trying to peer around Charlie.
‘It's not very polite, Dr Ostin, to hide behind your warlog like a frightened toddler. I don't think it will do you any good anyway. I'm told the ammunition in this thing would easily be able to go straight through both your warlog and you and leave a nasty hole in my wall. It's new. Very powerful.'
‘That's a dangerous weapon, Mr Smith,' Sierra said. ‘I don't think you really know how to use it.'
‘Thank you, General, or should I say Private? I didn't quite catch what your actual rank is. Lower than your new friend here, I guess.'
Charlie glowered at him as the realization sank in. ‘You had the cell bugged.'
Mr Smith chuckled, a sound like old ice splintering. ‘Bugged? You overestimate both our technology and our budget. No, the simple truth is that these walls are not as thick as they might appear, especially when a couple of warlogs decide to raise their voices against each other. The guard overheard enough to come and get me, and I've been amusing myself listening at the door. I didn't get everything, of course, but I got enough to encourage me to send the guard off for reinforcements.'
Charlie and Sierra glanced over their shoulders. Mr Smith smiled. ‘They shouldn't be too long. In the meantime, I decided to borrow this little toy from the guardroom. Just in case.'
‘It's not a toy.' Sierra said. ‘Put it down before someone gets hurt.'
‘Come now, General. I really think that's the whole idea of this thing.' Mr Smith looked almost jubilant as he squeezed the trigger, and bullets tore up the wall next to them. Nick instinctively raised his hands to shield his face, but Charlie grabbed him by his collar and kicked open the door opposite his cell.
He hurled Nick inside as if he were a coat being tossed into a closet. Nick tumbled across the floor, coming up hard against the leg of a table. As he scrambled to get up he could hear the machine gun barking like a mad dog, and he caught a momentary glimpse of Charlie jerking backwards as he was hit in the shoulder.
Then the room seemed to heave, as if something far bigger and more terrible had been awoken. Hot light flared in the corridor, and a split-second later, a noise hit him like simultaneous punches to both ears.
The doorway sagged and the door itself cracked in half and exploded inwards. Nick dived under the table as chunks of concrete the size of his head rained down around him.
The air filled with dust and a thick blanket of noise. He could only dimly hear the creak of steel grinding against steel and the groan of crumbling masonry. Slowly the dust settled across the rubble and debris. The doorway through which he'd been thrown was blocked by a massive slab of concrete. Around the edges of the slab he could see the flickering of a dirty orange light.
There were still titanic groans from the walls and ceiling all around him, but the rain of masonry had stopped. Nick crawled out from under the table and staggered to the back of the room. There was another door there. It was intact, but jammed in its frame. He kicked at it, and managed to open it enough to squeeze through into another corridor.
As his hearing returned he could make out the distant sound of an alarm, and the sound of running feet and voices coming from somewhere above.
‘Charlie?' he called out. His voice was a dusty rasp.
The corridor had three doors leading off it. He tried the one opposite where he had come in, but it was only a storage cupboard. He tried the other one, and the door was open before he really registered that the handle was warm to the touch.
The room beyond was a foretaste of hell. Almost every surface was blackened, and those that weren't blackened were on fire. To his left, the ceiling was more or less level, but to his right it sloped down and merged into a mountain of rubble. Shattered overhead pipes gushed effluent onto the debris.
The air was full of dust and fumes, and black smoke roiled above his head before slinking away through huge cracks in the concrete.
‘Charlie!' Nick called. Raising his voice above a whisper made pain lance through his head. He had to steady himself before he called again. ‘Charlie!'
‘Charlie?' Something that he'd taken to be a piece of wreckage suddenly rose up from a pile of rubble. ‘Is that what you call it. What an odd name.'
It was then that Nick realized that he had somehow circled around and come back into the room where Mr Smith was.
‘Once again, I should have listened to Sierra,' Mr Smith observed, with what he probably intended to be a wry chuckle. ‘Guns aren't toys. It was harder to control that I'd thought.'
‘What happened?' Nick asked warily.
‘I'm not entirely sure. But I do seem to remember that there was a propane gas cylinder standing against that pillar." He gestured at the place where the rubble was densest. "May that be a lesson to you, Dr Ostin. Never fire an automatic weapon if there's a chance you might hit a propane gas cylinder. Especially one next to a support pillar.'
‘Is there any way out of here?'
‘I suppose so. This place is a labyrinth. But I don't think I should let you leave just yet.'
The room was hot and stifling, but Nick suddenly felt a chill. ‘We're both injured. We need to get out of here and get help.'
‘I don't think so. The warlogs were probably destroyed by the blast, but you never know. The moment we step outside this room, one of them may just pop up out of nowhere and whisk you away. They seem very taken with you. Why is that?'
‘I don't know.'
‘You're too modest, Dr Ostin. You seem to have the only two warlogs in the Dominion firmly under your control, and, as I'm sure you'll appreciate, that's a state of affairs that cannot be tolerated.'
‘What? Is that a threat? Look around you!'
‘Yes, I'm looking. What I see is an absence of warlogs. There's no one to protect you now, little boy.'
Nick stared at Mr Smith. The man was more than twice his age, and blood trickled down his forehead where he'd been gashed by falling masonry. He was unsteady, but there was still menace in every movement.
‘Are you afraid of me, son?' Mr Smith asked. ‘Why would that be? I'm just an old man, and you're apparently indestructible. Why, just in the last few hours you've survived an assault by highly-trained troopers, a severe automobile accident and a gas explosion. What could you possibly fear from me?'
Nick knew that there were more things to fear than he could count. He cast his eyes across the debris. There were many lengths of broken pipe and lumps of concrete and splintered pieces of wood. He tried to imagine which piece would be best to defend himself with.
‘Maybe you've just grown soft from having your friend Charlie fight all your battles for you,' Mr Smith said. ‘I don't think I'd like that. It would be… what's the word… ‘emasculating'. Yes, that's it. What do you think your father would say if he knew?'
‘Don't you dare speak about my father.'
‘Why not? I'm sure he'd be very proud of you.' Mr Smith made a pained face, clutched his hands together and cried piteously, ‘Oh, help, help, a bleeding old man is teasing me! Where is my burly protector?'
His words were like sparks falling on tinder-dry leaves.
Nick felt his blood roaring hot in his ears, and he lunged at him. Too late, he saw Mr Smith smirk, and out of nowhere he brought up an iron bar and swung it straight at Nick's head. Nick tried to stop himself. The loose debris skidded under his feet and he tumbled forward into the rubble. The iron bar just scuffed the hair on the back of his head. As his swing failed to connect, Mr Smith overbalanced and toppled onto the floor. The iron bar clanged noisily into the darkness.
‘You son of a bitch,' Nick gasped raggedly.
‘Playtime is over, little boy,' Mr Smith muttered. ‘It's every man for himself. But then again, you're not much of a man, are you? Hiding in your nice clean laboratory, playing robots with your little friends. You're a soft, weak, pathetic sniveling fool. If your parents were alive, I think they'd be embarrassed.'
‘Shut up,' Nick snarled.
‘You try to do the right thing, to be a good example, but still your son turns out to be a whining coward.'
‘Go to hell, you old bastard.'
‘He's so wet he needs not one but two warlogs to look after him.'
Nick scrabbled in the debris and hurled a chunk of concrete at him. His anger was greater than his aim; it flew wide of the mark and cracked harmlessly against a wall.
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones,' Mr Smith said, ‘but only if they actually hit me.' He picked up a length of wood, took a couple of steps toward Nick and swung it hard. But it was larger and heavier than he'd apparently expected, and it whistled past Nick's chest. Mr Smith managed to steady himself, then discarded it.
‘Charlie was right about one thing,' Nick muttered.
‘Oh. And what's that?'
‘We humans aren't very good at fighting.'
‘Speak for yourself. I have at least one broken rib. What's your excuse?' Mr Smith found a section of steel pipe and hefted it. He seemed to like it. He fixed Nick with a cold stare, and made his way carefully toward him across the rubble.
Nick tripped as he tried to step backwards, grazing his elbows against the rough concrete. Mr Smith raised the pipe to slam it down on him, but he winced momentarily as the motion aggravated some injury, giving Nick enough time to roll aside.
Mr Smith stumbled and pitched forward, falling heavily onto Nick's stomach. Nick tried to wriggle away, but Mr Smith grabbed his chance, drew his fist back and punched him in the jaw. There wasn't much behind the blow, but it cracked Nick's head back against the fallen concrete, and a blast of pain seemed to echo around the room.
Nick's vision drifted back and forth and the walls wavered. In desperation, he shoved Mr Smith away and managed to get to his feet.
‘Sorry, did I hurt you?' Mr Smith asked solicitously. ‘You only have yourself to blame.'
‘A good Dominion citizen wouldn't have presumed to take the sort of steps that got you into this situation. Did you think that you could set yourself up as some sort of power in this society? It takes a lot more than a pet warlog to do that.'
Nick focused, letting his anger and his pain sear through him, and the room slowly stabilized. He felt around his feet for a weapon.
‘To lead,' Mr Smith said, ‘you need strength, determination, the courage of your convictions… well, in short, you need a number of qualities that you simply don't have.'
‘You don't know anything about me.'
‘Well no, not specifically, but I do know your type. In my line of work, I meet a lot of them. You wouldn't believe how many people get ideas above their station. Overindulged brats, mostly. Just like you.'
Nick lurched at him, but was careful enough this time to dodge the punch that Mr Smith threw at the last second. Nick barreled into him, carrying them both back to collide heavily with a wall. Mr Smith pushed him away, and Nick rolled across a field of broken glass and thudded against a wooden doorframe.
He looked up. The glass had come from a shattered pane in the upper panel of the door. He could feel fragments cutting into his back through his shirt.
‘That's the problem with you young people today,' Mr Smith observed. ‘You're spoilt. If you think the Dominion is a hellhole now, son, you should have seen it when I was a boy. The blood. The violence. The things they did to women and children. Back then, we didn't have jazz musicians or public transport or universities. And we didn't have lazy faggots like you who take those things for granted.'
Mr Smith grabbed hold of a chunk of concrete and raised it up. Nick flailed out with his foot and hit the old man in the chest. He staggered a little, but he kept his grip on the rock.
‘Oh, I'm sorry,' he said. ‘That broken rib I mentioned? I lied. It's low, I admit, but we are none of us perfect.'
With that, Mr Smith bore down on him, aiming the rock at his face and using the whole weight of his body to drive it. Suddenly Nick could find nothing within reach to stop him, and he panicked.
He drew up his knees and held out his hands, to put some sort of last-ditch barrier between himself and his assailant. His knees caught Mr Smith in the stomach, and to his surprise the old man's momentum carried him over Nick and slammed him into the upper part of the door.
Nick rolled aside and staggered to his feet as Mr Smith drew back. The old man raised his rock again, but he slipped on something and had to steady himself against the wall. He opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a wet splutter.
He looked around, perplexed, as if some new enemy had entered the fight.
Then Nick saw that the rubble was glistening, as if it had been coated in oil. Mr Smith was standing in a pool of blood, with more splashed across the door and drenching his clothes. With an irritated frown, he reached up and pulled a long shard of glass out of his neck. They both stared at it.
‘No!' Mr Smith said, indignantly.
He slumped against the wall, and slowly slid to the floor, twitching. He tried to frame another word, but it died on his lips.
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