Strong walls, concrete and steel fortifications that circle all we hold dear. Strong walls crisscrossing other strong walls, growing organically out of the burnt and blasted earth, protecting us from those who would do us harm. Entire lives lived out within those manmade barricades… lives which are happy and carefree, provided that they remain on the correct side of the wall. The wall stands for safety and strength, the living will of the people who built it.
Rumors of walled districts completely overrun and lost over the years of open warfare are completely false. The walls are strong, and even when destroyed, are quickly restored by the Builders. There is no cause for alarm, no matter how close the explosions seem to be. You are right to fear the explosions. You are right to fear the Enemy. But as long as we remain strong and are willing to fight, the walls will remain strong against their assaults.
Nobody knows why the Enemy hates us and wishes to destroy our way of life. Nobody knows how we got here. Nobody knows why any of this is happening. But it’s happening. The Citadel exists. We are here now. It’s growing every day, and bringing new citizens with it.
We live a life amidst the grim spectre of war.
If we’re going to conquer our foes, if we’re going to stay alive and remain strong, we need to learn to fight for the Citadel.
…citizens would do best to consider the following…
Life and the defense of life is a constant sacrifice. Our Citadel remains strong only when our citizens remain strong, and are willing to pledge everything to its safety. Your labors, your efforts, your families, your lives. The only way to survive and win this war is if brave men and women step forward, willing to give everything so that we may last one more day.
There are some who say we are asked to sacrifice too much. Some say the sacrifices in question are brutal and unforgivable. To them, I say: you are absolutely correct. Too many lives are lost so that others may be spared. The way in which they are lost is brutal and unforgivable.
But these terrible wastes of life are forced upon us by an Enemy who will not relent, who will not give in, who will sacrifice everything they have in the name of destroying us. What else can we do but match their determination with our own? We do not enjoy what we must do. But we must do it, all the same. We must put ourselves on the line, lest that line be pushed back to our very doorsteps.
This is the true heart of the Builder Program. Is it cruel? Is it brutal? Yes. Yes, it is both. But we honor those who are sacrificed so that our walls may remain strong. We sympathize with their plight, but know it is what must be. The sooner the war is won, the sooner the program can end. For the good of all, for victory itself, they must suffer…
//022: Trouble & Danger
He definitely went to sleep on his usual mattress that night. A mattress which had, during the two years since initial purchase, been gradually assuming a U shape. Difficult to stay horizontal when the universe wants you to sink into it, hammock-style.
The next morning, his mattress was gone. Someone had replaced it with an army-style cot. In fact, someone had replaced his entire apartment with an army-style barracks, loaded with army-style people, carrying army-style guns. Those guns were used to herd people like him, ordinary people who also did not go to sleep on a cot the night before, into rooms to be processed and given ill-fitting army-style uniforms. Army-style haircuts to go with them, too.
"Name?" his recruiter asked, after that obligatory crew cut.
He supplied his name.
"Full name, please," the recruiter clarified.
So he supplied his full name. An eyebrow was raised at the middle name, but they typed it up into his file all the same. Blood type, any pre-existing medical conditions, things like that. He calmly described the severe anxiety complex he had as a child, but they didn’t seem to care. Once his papers were in the system, so was he.
He endured everything they threw at him. What else could he do? No real choice in the matter. Meanwhile others around him broke down in tears, or tried to negotiate their way out of their fate. Again and again, the recruiters insisted this wasn’t Earth, this was the Citadel, and there was no going back home. This was their only home. Life as they knew it had changed forever, and now they had to fight the Enemy. Or die, he supposed, the death being implied.
Fear of the Enemy was drilled into them from an early stage.
"You’re not happy to be here, we get that," an instructor explained. "But for better or worse, you’re here, and they want you dead. If you don’t pick up your rifle and shoot back at them, you’re as good as helping them kill everyone around you. I promise you that while your hardest trial lies ahead, if you pledge yourself to defending your fellow humans against this menace, life will improve. All new recruits go through a mandatory three-year tour of duty before they can apply for full citizenship; after that, the Citadel’s your oyster, soldiers."
Two of his squadmates committed suicide overnight. Three of them broke down completely, becoming immovable gibbering wrecks. In the end, the unit of twelve that he’d been assigned to became a unit of seven, and then a unit of six after a training accident, and then five…
Week after week, he drilled on obstacle courses and shooting ranges. He learned the dirty tactics the Enemy employed, and the counter-tactics developed over a century of open warfare. While he wasn’t particularly good at the business of soldiering, he wasn’t terrible, either. Completely average. And going along with every step of the program for lack of a better option, right up to graduating from the recruitment camp.
Instead of a mortar board and a degree, their reward for getting through basic was to go straight to the forefront of the war. The truck which carried him off to his mandatory three-year enlistment passed several trucks headed the other direction, each bearing wounded or dead.
By the time they actually reached the frontlines, only five Privates remained from the original unit. They used to be an accountant, a lawyer, a short-order cook, a day-laborer, and a graphic designer respectively. Now they were fully enlisted men in the Citadel’s army, stationed at the front.
He was in the army now, for certain. No more U-shaped bed, no more graphic art freelancing. He barely remembered how that collapsing mattress felt anymore. In fact, it was better to try and forget. Push it down. Go numb. Just like he’d done years and years ago.
It would end up saving Private Dave Smith’s life, in the end. And other lives as well.
"I am not dying out here," the lawyer had declared, after their first day of confusing and pointless trench warfare. "Screw this. I got in good with our instructor back there; he knows someone from my firm who got copied into this crazy world years ago, someone higher up the food chain. I’m gonna get out of here, maybe find a way back to Earth. You’ll see."
A single week in, they got hit hard by an ambush at night. The lawyer died instantly, throat slit, then slit again, and again until his head came off while the grinning Enemy straddled his chest and made playtime with a knife.
The day-laborer was hit during a wild exchange of gunfire, screaming on his way down as the Enemy put bullets in every non-vital part of his anatomy before finishing him.
The short-order cook dropped his gun and ran for it, only to be dragged away by the Enemy, disappearing into the night…
That left only two soldiers alive: the accountant (now missing a limb from a grenade burst) and the graphic designer carrying him off to safety on his shoulders.
The legless former accountant was clearly going to bleed out. To his credit, he begged the designer to leave him, to run for it and get clear. Still, the designer wouldn’t stop for anything. Didn’t dump his fellow man, even if it meant dodging gunfire the entire way, even as his lungs burned and his legs turned to jelly. The pair reached the rear guard supply lines with about a minute to spare to save the accountant’s life.
All thanks to the hero of the day, Private Dave Smith.
Not the best with a gun; could barely hit the targets, much less group shots in the center of mass. Not particularly bright, with no skills applicable to wartime. Even his graphic design talents were of arguable quality. Still, the boy stood at attention, took direction well, and never questioned anything.
Also he did technically happen to risk his own life to save a fellow soldier, which raised a few eyebrows with the mid-upper brass. Few new recruits had that kind of gumption, struggling to survive on the frontlines or dragging their heels all the way, doing as little as possible to get through their mandatory enlistment on the road to true citizenship in the Citadel. Most only looked out for their own interests.
With this new data, the file on Dave Smith was re-opened. New lines were keyed in to the clacky old metal typewriter, as a higher-ranking psychoanalyst interviewed him.
Remarkably adaptive, his file read. (He’d snuck a look at it, while the guy was at the latrines.) Remarkably high tolerance for anxiety. Remarkably high tolerance for trauma. Likely PTSD from childhood anxiety disorder, but shows no signs of current impairment.
They were particularly interested in Dave’s tale of the nighttime raid on his camp. In fact, he had to repeat it twice, down to every gory detail.
"And you saw all of that with your own eyes?" the shrink repeated, astonished.
"Yes, sir. I saw Andrey’s beheading, and saw Martin get shot. I saw Louis lose his leg. I’m not sure what happened to Calvin, but I think the Enemy took him after he ran. I could hear him screaming in the distance, so he may be alive. Is a rescue mission planned, sir?"
"You saw the Enemy do all those things. And you aren’t the least bit… how do I put this gently… scared right out of your goddamn mind?"
"Calvin might still be alive, sir. We should probably act fast. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Yes. Yes, there is something you and you alone can do to help the war effort," the man replied.
In the end, no rescue mission was forthcoming.
Instead, Dave got put on a truck the next morning and shipped deep within the walls of the Citadel proper… to the secret laboratories underneath the Bulwark, where he’d spend the rest of his military career as a front-row witness to the most cruel and unethical medical procedures conceived of by man.
He’d see it all, take it in, and would wear the same neutral expression the whole way through. It’s for the good of all humanity, they’d explain.
This was how Dave Smith became the go-to man for the most psychologically scarring duty the Citadel could throw at a man: playing handler for the Builders.
The facility was actually not particularly threatening. They kept it as clean as they could manage; no spiderwebs or cockroaches or unidentifiable stains. Quite well-lit. Hardly a creepy old "bedlam house"-style mental asylum, despite the sealed cells they kept the Builders in. Despite the straitjackets the Builders wore, whenever they were led down the halls by hollow-eyed men in uniforms similar to Dave’s.
A reasonable-looking older gentleman in a white lab coat showed him around on the first day. Despite the room temperature hovering in the mid-seventies, he wore a deep crimson scarf. An eccentric fellow, with a wrinkly yet kind smile… and a scar on the back of his hand, which vaguely resembled the number 31.
His name was Doctor Bates, and he was quite open regarding the realities of the facility.
"The Builders are tasked to, well, build everything in the Citadel," he explained. "Thanks to exposure treatments during indoctrination, they have the remarkable ability to craft just about anything from their imaginations. Factories, barracks, apartments, tanks, farms, ammunition dumps, anything. These resources are the only way the Citadel can keep the population fed, housed, and defended. Yes, under the right conditions, a well-trained Builder can save a lot of lives…"
"So… they’re superheroes or mutants something?"
"Oh, nothing so comic-book-flavored, young Dave. There are… aspects of the Citadel that I’m afraid you’re not a high enough security clearance to know, so let’s just say that life is what you make of it, yes? Yes. And your role is quite important!"
"They said I was going to be a ‘handler’ for one of the Builders…"
"Indeed. Although, to be fair, your job is incredibly dangerous. You’ll be in direct contact with your designated Builder. The researchers can’t come into close range of the Builders; it’s far too risky. Instead, you’ll be taking care of their needs. It’s a bit like being a gardener, really. You keep them fed and watered, trim their branches now and then, whatever it takes to keep them growing."
Dave sliced through all the tortured metaphor to get to the heart of the problem.
"What’s so risky about being in contact with the Builders?" he asked.
"Ohhh, that would be the ever-present aura of terror they emit," Doctor Bates calmly stated. "It’s part of their programming, a result of the initial exposure treatments. Fear builds strong walls, you see. They must be terrified of the Enemy, or they wouldn’t be able to do what they do. Most handlers can’t, well, handle it and crack within months. But you’re special, aren’t you, Dave Smith…?"
"Not really. I’m just an enlisted man, sir."
"Yes, but something of a heroic enlisted man. I read your file. Obviously they’re keenly interested in your mental fortitude, but… I sensed an undercurrent, between the lines," Doctor Bates suggested. "The willingness to step in to dangerous situations, and save lives…"
"Danger is my middle name, sir."
"Hah! I suppose it would have to be, yes?"
"No, um, that’s not actually supposed to be a joke," Dave clarified. "It’s actually my middle name. It was my mother’s idea. Dave Danger Smith."
"I see. Well, Dave Danger Smith… here we are," the Doctor spoke, coming to a halt in front of one of the many steel-bolted security doors. "This is the cell of Builder 78, one of our young prodigies. Want to say hello?"
Which is how Dave met the woman who had been designated Builder 78.
Builder 78. Couldn’t be a year older or younger than Dave himself, despite the wrinkles from absolute levels of stress that crossed her face. The lightest blonde hair, so pale it could be snow-white… perhaps whitened from her experiences.
He could feel the fear pouring off her body; a tension under the skin that radiated outward despite the constant drip feed of sedatives she operated under, through a permanent I.V. port. Just because he’d gone long past fear and into numbness didn’t mean he couldn’t recognize fear when he saw it. On the contrary… in younger years, he saw it often in the mirror.
…pointless fear. Groundless anxiety. He lived a good life, all told. Family hardships, bullying at school… but he had a roof. He had food. He had toys. He had no reason for the constant terror he lived in, as a child. Anxiety disorder, the doctors called it, and tried to medicate it away. It barely worked, and after mother’s death, he simply gave up on the regime. Didn’t need it anymore. Broken beyond need…
For weeks, Dave spent time in Builder 78’s little bubble of terror. And he did his duty, without a single moment’s hesitation, without the creeping horrors that his co-workers experienced. Although he had to admit, it was a rather lonely duty, despite being in close contact with her.
She didn’t speak a word for weeks. Not when Dave changed her diapers, not when he helped spoon-feed her on the days when she couldn’t hold a spoon, not when Dave adjusted the drip of drugs being fed into her bloodstream. Dave tried to strike up a conversation now and then, but the Builder’s blank stares and drooling weren’t easy to play off of in a social context.
Still, he kept trying. He’d eventually switch to talking AT her, rather than trying to talk WITH her. He’d talk about his father, left behind on Earth, and how Dave hoped he was doing well. He’d talk about his college classes and his short-lived career as a graphic designer. About the mediocre corporate logos he’d drawn in a mediocre way for mediocre pay.
"I had a strange dream, during the night I came here," he admitted, one day. Something he hadn’t told anyone else. "I remember this… shape. It was clear in my mind just before I woke up in the barracks, even if it’s fuzzier now. Thought it might make a good logo. But, my graphic design career’s kinda hit the backburner, sooo… it was… it’s hard to remember, let me think, let me think… sort of… a spiral? A spiral that twisted back on itself…"
And then Builder 78 gave the first sign that she was even listening to anything he’d said all these weeks.
She reached up, lying on her cell’s wall-attached bunk bed… and traced a spiral across the padded white surface. Crossing back and forth, knotlike, spiraling downward.
Before Dave could ask how she knew that shape, a Leftenant knocked sharply on the cell door. Programming time.
Whenever it came time to program her, Dave would help 78 get into her straitjacket and gently usher her down the hallways to the theater. He’d gently apply the eyedrops to keep her opened eyes moisturized while blueprints for the next project were displayed on the screen, in between slides of the Enemy’s various atrocities. Builder 78 still remained quiet, even while ingesting the bursts of information and horror. Quieter still, once returned to her cell.
She didn’t trace out the shape again, after that. Had too many designs already jammed into her mind for the upcoming build.
Next they’d be shipped out in that telltale-red armored van to the site of a wall breach or a collapsed building. From there, Dave would lead Builder 78 on her leash to the heart of the disaster zone.
He’d give her the injection of stimulants to cut through the sedative haze, she’d scream, and the damage would be repaired. Bricks appearing where bricks didn’t exist a second ago. Entire buildings crafted from the imagination of the Builder, in mere moments. Defensive turrets, to hold back the Enemy. Mining facilities, to stoke the flames of the war machine. Apartment buildings and commercial blocks, for the growing population. Whatever the Citadel needed, Builder 78 could provide… with enough preparatory torment.
Month after month this would continue. Dave received praise for his fine work, for how he seemed immune to the aura of terror that accompanied Builders everywhere they went. Nobody gave praise to Builder 78, of course.
If he weren’t already broken, the heartbreak of it all it would’ve torn him to pieces weeks ago. This horrible thing was happening, was going to happen, and nothing would ever stop it. The real pain was her pain to bear, not his. And the best thing he could do, the only thing he could do with the gun of the Citadel at his head, was try to ease her through that pain however he could.
Perhaps to break up the monotony of his work with the Builders, perhaps because his warped mental state made him ideal for yet another questionable duty, Dave found himself reassigned to another project some time later.
He was going to protest. They wouldn’t understand, of course; why would anybody not leap at the opportunity to get away from those creepy Builders? But protest wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing Dave wanted mattered. What the Citadel wants, it gets, for the good of humanity.
And so: another series of secret facilities, with another series of researchers. Another series of lab coats. No Builders involved.
"So, here’s the deal," the heavily guarded Doctor Hayes explained. "I’m going to open a psychic bleed point at this location by forcibly adjusting the harmonic resonance in our host’s blood vessels while the Dreamcatcher MRI does its thing. That’s the hard part. You’re going to step through and try not to be eaten by a monster, then come back and tell us what you found. That’s the easy part. Got it?"
Dave got it. He got it better than the last three Privates they’d sent through these portals, two of which didn’t come back, one of which went completely insane. They expected good things from Dave, compared to those losers.
For a full month, he journeyed in and out of various portals, each one generated by identical clanky machines in the Doctor’s heavily guarded facilities. Typically he’d describe the indescribable monsters he had to run away from, and they’d cross that destination candidate off the list.
But once, he found a floating city in the clouds on the other side… a veritable paradise, full of friendly people. On returning, the Citadel thanked Dave for his service and that was the last he ever saw of the place.
Apparently something went wrong, because the next time Dave reported for duty, Doctor Hayes was missing an eye and nobody wanted to talk about why. Also the facility in question was gone, replaced with a freshly paved parking lot.
Finally, on his last mission, he found a perfectly ordinary bar called "The Greasemonkey" on the other side, where someone called him by name. A nice young girl, someone bright-eyed and optimistic. Dave’s eyes hadn’t been bright in some time. He tried to tell the Commander about the nice young girl on returning, but all they cared to hear about were the millions of people living there. They thanked Dave for his service and that was the last he ever saw of the place.
In the end, it was the Commander himself who pulled Dave off the bleed project. He marched right into a warehouse where Dave was collating various printouts and graphs, acting like he owned the place. Which technically he did.
"You. Private whatsisname. Dave whatsisname. You used to work with Builder 78, right?" Commander Gregory Yates asked.
"Yes sir, that’s me," Private Dave replied, because that was in fact him.
"Right. Good. 78’s refusing to cooperate, and by ‘refusing to cooperate’ I mean she’s maimed one handler and driven another bonkers. Just keeps screaming ‘Dave, Dave, Dave’ and coating her room in razor wire."
A tiny burst of concern punched through Dave’s numbness. Hopefully the Commander didn’t see it.
"As of today you’re reassigned back to Builder 78. I need her on task, Private. We’re going to have major recruiting in the days ahead… that means more barracks and more outposts. I’d rather not leave that to sloppy bastards like Builder 65 or Builder 71. Now get moving."
That day Dave found 78 curled up in one corner of her room, in which she’d built a smaller replica of her room, which itself was inside a smaller replica of her room. He had to crawl on hands and knees to get through the tiny door, past the razor wire…
On entering, he found himself drawn into a crushing embrace, as Builder 78 wept on his shoulder.
Life was good, after that. As good as could be expected for a combination inmate and lab rat. As good as it could be for the glorified orderly they assigned to keep her alive on some basic level.
Despite reports she’d been screaming his name, she still never said a word to him personally. Silent as a church mouse. But now, she was clearly listening attentively when Dave carried on enough conversation for the two of them. She’d react, sometimes with the tiniest of smiles.
Apparently her performance on the job went up considerably, even better than it was before Dave left for the portal project. To the point where 78 was the default option whenever anything of slight importance needed to be built.
To the point where she was straitjacketed and put in the red van at least three times a week. Strapped into the programming chair three times a week.
Given the adrenaline burst needed to hyperstimulate her terror, to kick her into Building mode. Drugged back down to the haze of sedation after, yo-yoing in and out of absolute fear…
Those few tiny smiles she’d managed to find in herself vanished soon after.
Finally, after a very close call where she had trouble getting out of her Building state… after helping her to bed, and staying by her side until she fell asleep… Dave decided he’d had enough.
Well, technically, it was when Doctor Bates announced that she’d be programmed and shipped out in the morning to go improve the facilities at Camp Washington that Dave decided he’d had enough.
He’d gone along with everything, everything asked of him. He’d been a good soldier. Didn’t even protest when they originally pulled him from Builder duty. All for the good of humanity, all so Dave Danger Smith could be as close to a hero as this world would allow. But now… he had to put in an objection. Had to.
"Builder 78 can’t work tomorrow. She’s exhausted," Dave complained to the lead researcher in charge. "She can’t keep getting doped and stimulated and panicked, over and over. It’s wearing her down."
The man in the lab coat who always wore a scarf to work, despite the obnoxiously high room temperatures in the Builder facility, agreed wholeheartedly.
"I’m aware. And I suspect she’ll burn out soon… maybe even tomorrow, if we’re supremely unlucky," Doctor Bates stated. "But the Commander is quite adamant. He’s taken a shine to our little Builder 78, and wants her involved in every one of his new escalation initiatives. Now that we’re in open war with the City of Angles, that other world, things are only going to get worse."
"Then put a different Builder on the task tomorrow. It’s just a barracks; the others can do that work," Dave insisted. "I mean… I’m not in charge here, but you are, right? The Commander would listen to your recommendation if you make one…"
Doctor Bates paused in his report typing, to consider it. Pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
"Hmm. Well… he may have taken a shine to her, but he hasn’t taken a shine to me," he suggested. "And I’ve not given him much reason to. He needs me, of course—I understand the Builders and their source aspect far more than anyone else—but for the Commander, need and trust are not doled in equal amounts."
"But you’re in charge! You assign the build orders and task them out…"
"Normally, yes. I’d hold her back, assign the others to these projects, keep the rotation consistent. Alas, these seem to be strange days we’re living in, Dave Smith. If the Commander wants Builder 78… I’m afraid I have no say in the matter. He’s called ‘The Commander’ because he commands us all, in the end. Martial law is absolute."
Dave continued to push, regardless. "She has to rest," he insisted. "We have to make him understand that, she can’t go out again so soon…"
"I’m afraid it’s out of our hands. The work must continue, for the good of us all."
In the end, Private Dave couldn’t question the logic. What right did he have to do so? If fear built strong walls and strong walls were needed to keep out the Enemy, then the torture of Builder 78 had to continue. It was a sad truth of life, but a truth nonetheless.
Even if he hated it, even if a little broken piece of him broke into smaller pieces every time 78 wept silently in her cell… he’d faced the Enemy. He saw the Enemy torture and maim and kill other people just like him, the innocent and unlucky souls dragged into the Citadel. Without Builders, every soul would face that fate.
In his youth, Dave dreamed of being a fireman. Even with the perpetual anxiety that crushed him on a daily basis, he felt strongly that he wanted to help save people. Today, he finally was a fireman. Difference being that to save the building, he was throwing people into the flames.
Camp Washington. The place where it all began.
Three years ago he dropped into these barracks, and his life changed completely. He’d fought in a war, he’d participated in surreal experiments, he’d been tagged as the keeper of a tormented soul. The Dave Smith which walked on these grounds today was hardly the Dave Smith who walked on them back then… the wayward refugee from Earth who rode a wave of chaos for lack of a better option, dreaming of Earth. These days, Private Dave Smith didn’t dream of Earth any longer. He couldn’t remember much of it, honestly.
The camp itself looked virtually identical to how he left it. The same creaky old barracks, the same concrete building full of typewriters, the same shouting in the distance from drill instructors informing people of the Citadel’s hard realities. Despite having risen exactly zero ranks in all that time, Dave felt like he’d grown beyond this place now. Watching row after row of hapless, out-of-shape Americans trying to become Citadel fighters was almost amusing. Except, of course, for the whole conscription and despair angle which would no doubt leave many of them dead…
But his business wasn’t to watch the trainees. He rode on up in that armored van with his Builder in her leash-and-straitjacket ensemble, Dave equipped with injectors of various drug flavors. Both of them ready to do their duty, if not entirely willing.
Still, he could fake appearing to be willing. And would have to, given who had turned up to oversee the facility upgrades.
Commander Yates, along with his uniformed honor guard.
Each time Dave interacted with the Commander, part of him wobbled inside. (Never outside.) The man was… well, he was power. He expressed himself in such a way that radiated complete power over any situation. The Citadel was his to command, his to save from the Enemy at the gates, and he made sure everybody around him damn well knew it. Whomever he interacted with, they got his full attention, even if he might forget your name afterwards. (He’d forgotten Dave’s name twice already, in fact.)
The Commander was studying blueprints for the upcoming build, and no doubt if he disapproved he’d change them on the spot. Which would be tricky given re-programming a Builder meant another trip to the theater, so hopefully he’d be satisfied…
"Right on time, Private," the Commander acknowledged, without looking up from his schematics. "Good work."
A snap salute. "Sir, thank you, sir," Dave proclaimed. (Despite some other Private doing the driving while he rode in back with the Builder. Didn’t seem wise to publicly correct the Commander.)
"So, I’d like to start with the wall," the man declared, gesturing to the basic reinforced concrete that encircled the entire camp. "The frontlines have been shifting lately, and since this may take a few sessions of building today, I want the external defenses ready to go before we focus on interior details. The new barracks will come next; now that the City’s gone into open rebellion we’ve got a blank check for recruitment and I intend them to be filled by week’s end…"
And on and on he went, explaining in detail the order of operations for the build. Dave nodded all the way, hoping that Builder 78 was following as well. It was more for her ears than his, after all.
"…and back around to the front, where I want a bronze statue of General Washington on his horse, leading the charge," Yates finished. "Instill a little latent patriotism into the ignorant, overprivileged City types we’ll be dragging in here."
"That wasn’t in the plans," Dave found himself saying, before he could stop.
Strange. He never spoke out of turn before. Knew damn well not to speak out of turn, after seeing others shot for far less. But the words rushed to his mouth, when he caught a twitch from the corner of his eye. Something not in Builder 78’s plans, something she’d be judged on…
Fortunately, Yates wasn’t feeling particularly vindictive. In fact, he took this opportunity to express a different thought.
"Builder 78 is the best of the best. I’ve seen her work in the past… and I’ve seen her improvise little details here and there," the Commander spoke. "Subtle things. Different mortar arrangements and such, improving upon what we’d asked her to make. I don’t think you give her enough credit, Private… Private… Smith, was it?"
"Yes, sir. But sir, the thing is, and in all due respect—"
"I can count on one hand the amount of times someone’s said ‘in all due respect’ to me and then stated something without implied disrespect, soldier. Choose your words carefully."
"…in all due respect," Dave continued, despite the dangerous territory, "I’m concerned about Builder 78’s health. Changing the plans may result in traumatic injury, thus a loss of building resources which could be used to strengthen our Citadel. Um. Sir."
The tension which hung in the air at least didn’t hang in silence, thanks to the shouting of drill instructors in the distance.
"We’ll proceed with the build as I’ve detailed," Yates declared. "Get to work, Private. I’ll stay back to observe."
On the plus side, Dave didn’t get shot in the head. On the negative side, the build was going forward.
For lack of a better option… he gave the leash a slight tug, pulling Builder 78 along with him as they approached the wall. He could see the tiny jitters in 78’s movements, the anticipation of what was to come. Even through her sedated haze, being put through the wringer over and over burned the patterns into her memory. She knew the injector was going to be pressed to her permanent I.V. port. She knew the stimulants were coming—
—and once Dave pushed that plunger, the Builder’s spine snapped straight. Fire in her mind. Leaning back mouth wide… as a scream resounded off every surface of the recruitment camp.
They’d cleared the area, but Yates and his honor guard remained. Dave could see the telltale signs of the Builder’s spreading mental state on them; panic, a need to flee and hide. They only stood their ground because the Commander stood his ground and he’d likely have executed them for cowardice if they gave in to the perfectly reasonable human reaction to the sudden blast of fear pulsing outward from the Builder.
Dave felt it, of course. He always felt it. A sense of the thoughts going through 78’s head. They were coming. The Enemy. Had to build had to stop them had to make it stop no no no—
Bricks were manifesting. One by one they simply existed where there were no bricks before. Better bricks. Rebar laced throughout, secured against explosive damage, superior to the wall which existed before. New gun turrets even appeared on top of the wall, ones which were never there in the first place, machine gun nests in miniature bunkers ready to repel any invaders…
Soon, the soldiers at the Commander’s side regained control of their wits. Their eyes opened wide, astonished by what they saw; awe replacing terror.
That rickety old wall, constructed decades ago when Camp Washington went live, had been replaced with something even better. It gave them a measure of confidence back. Helped them focus on the here and now.
Even Yates was smiling.
"Builders, right? Creepy as hell," he joked. "Like I told you on the way over, you get used to it eventually. I remember one time I was watching a build go up in the population center, replacing this old apartment building that was practically collapsing on itself, and—"
—no no no no NO NO NO NO NO NO PLEASE NO
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO PLEASE NO NO NO NO NO MAKE IT STOP NO NO NO
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO MORE NO MORE NO MORE STOP IT CAN’T BREATHE CAN’T CAN’T
NO NO NO—
When the Commander came to, one of his guards was lightly slapping his cheeks to wake him.
Lying in the dirt. Very unbecoming of someone in his position. They’d love to see him there, wallowing in the mud, just where they wanted him…
"…d’hell…?" the Commander mumbled, finally rousing out from his impromptu blackout. "The hell. What the hell was that…?"
The wall was overbuilt, now. Twenty feet too tall, branching out in every direction, laced with razor wire and electric fencing. This one slice of his wall looked completely out of place compared to the rest, defended against anything short of Ragnarok…
In front of it… Builder 78, unconscious on the ground. And Private Smith, holding an empty injector of emergency sedative. Breathing heavily, as even someone with his unbalanced mind had to push through a hell of a lot to remain conscious and able to stop the Builder before she blew their heads up or something.
Grumbling, the Commander dusted off his long coat. Nodding once in thanks to the Private. Regaining power and control over the situation.
"Is she dead?" he asked, up front.
"No. No, sir, she is not dead," the Private spoke… quite forcefully, in fact. More force than he’d applied to his words in some time. "But she could’ve been, if I was one second too slow. You can’t do this, Commander. She has to rest or she’s going to die, she’s going to—"
"I’m sorry, are you actually trying to give me orders, soldier?"
"No sir, I’m just saying that in the name of human decency—!"
The Commander raised one hand, to stop him there.
Then paused a bit. Because he could pause, because he could demand everyone around him pause alongside him. Dramatic? Perhaps, but it emphasized the right behavior in his underlings.
"Let me be… perfectly and completely clear about something, Private Smith," Yates spoke. Quietly, evenly. "Human decency has no place here. There is nothing humane or decent about the Builder program. It’s an evil, an abhorrent evil. Yes, we are torturing and working these poor people to death. Yes, I fully intend to torture and work your precious Builder 78 to death. Do you know why? I think you know why. Go ahead. Say the words we’ve trained you to say."
They floated to Dave’s lips in Pavlovian fashion.
"For the good of humanity," he recited.
"Exactly, for the good of humanity. We are doing an evil thing in the name of good. No doubt future generations will consider me to be a war criminal, but that’s the point; there will be future generations. Humanity will be alive thanks to the Builders. Once this war is over, once the City is put to task and we can finally throw proper numbers at the Enemy… that’s when this can end. But that’s not today. The build will continue. I want Builder 78 back on her feet and ready to work. …I’ll give her until the day after tomorrow to rest, in interests of her health. You’re both dismissed."
Dave Smith hadn’t killed anyone. Not even the Enemy, mostly due to his terrible aim. He’d never actually wanted to kill anyone; firemen didn’t kill people, after all.
In that moment, he wanted to kill Gregory Yates.
He couldn’t, of course. The instant he drew his sidearm—the one he was only given in event of a Builder going irrevocably insane—the honor guard would cut him down. They were good shots, he was not. And regardless, killing Yates wouldn’t change anything. Builder 78 would die, today or eventually. The Citadel would carry on exactly as it had for a century. Nobody would be saved. No good would come of it.
He was useless. Useless, powerless, stupid, pointless. And Yates knew it, which is why he had no problem turning his back on Private Smith, so he could walk away from this mess without a care.
He did pause to offer one last bit of advice.
"I wouldn’t get too attached to her," the Commander suggested. "She’s replaceable. In fact, there’s a replacement copy of her in the City of Angles which I can have my men snatch up whenever I like. The work’s going to continue, one way or another. Make your peace with that. Or don’t. As long as the work gets done, I suppose."
Builder 78 slept the entire way back to the facility. When the armored van arrived, Dave had to physically carry her back to her cell. He took off her straitjacket and left her on the cot, to sleep off the oversized burst of drugs he’d used to calm her.
With that done… he stayed by her bedside, for a time. Half to make sure she didn’t choke on her own vomit, half lost in his own thoughts.
I wouldn’t get too attached to her. Except, of course, Dave had done exactly that. Oddly enough, he was quite certain she’d gotten attached to him as well. Despite the one-way street of their communication, there was… something going on here. Something beyond basic familiarity. This was a woman who flooded her room with concrete and razor wire rather than accept that Dave was gone, after all…
But she’d be gone, soon. Just like the Commander said; she’d die, eventually. Nothing could change that.
When that day arrived, Dave felt he would finally go completely mad. Mad both under the skin and on top of it. Because the only good thing left in this ridiculous world he’d been trapped in would be gone.
Before he could ruminate any further on that subject, there was a knocking at the cell door.
Doctor Bates, with a bottle of champagne. Wondering why Dave hadn’t reported to him after checking back in to the facility with Builder 78.
So, Dave explained what happened. As calmly and clearly as he could manage, which of course was quite calmly and clearly. Even when driven back into his skull with fear, Dave was quite skilled at that sort of thing.
Bates considered the story for half a moment.
"We’re going to need a corkscrew and glasses," he suggested. "Glasses which will be filled and drained many, many times. Come on, we’ll retire to my office. Let her sleep in peace."
Dave didn’t feel like drinking, but he obliged the good doctor all the same. One glass for him; the doctor, meanwhile, had four.
"It’s funny that they still call this stuff ‘champagne,’" Bates pondered. "That refers to a specific region of France. I’ve been there, you know. It’s beautiful beyond reckoning. And yet, despite coming from a vineyard crafted by a Builder for some high-ranking officer’s personal pleasure, this particular sparkling wine is still called champagne. Makes as much sense as anything else does in this place…"
"Sir?" Dave felt he had to interject. "Why are we drinking, exactly? I can’t say I feel like celebrating…"
"Your three-year mandatory enlistment is up today," Doctor Bates explained. "I nicked this bottle from that vineyard so we could celebrate. You’re a free man, Dave Smith. You can re-enlist and start working your way up the command ladder if you like, or you can become a graphic designer again."
Three years. The exact day and date had completely slipped Dave’s mind…
"That was before I found out about this morning’s events, of course," the Doctor clarified. While pouring himself another glass. "At this point I’d say we’re drinking to drown our sorrows, rather than cheer on our accomplishments. The same intoxicating fluid works just as well to both purposes, I find. …so. What will you do, Dave Smith? You could pack up, leave this mess behind you. Make it someone else’s problem."
"I’ll stay, sir."
"Really. Not even a moment’s thought?"
"I did plenty of thinking back in her cell just now," Dave stated. "I have to see this through to the end. It’s the right thing to do. …after that, I… I don’t really… I don’t know what will happen."
"…the right thing to do, hmm…"
The elderly gentleman leaned back in his creaky office chair, chewing on those words for some time. His scarf dangled behind him as he rocked gently on the metal seat.
"You remind me a bit of a fellow I once knew," Bates spoke. "A doctor, like me. A healer. He swore to the Hippocratic Oath with all his heart, intending to leave this world a better place than he left it. To that end he set his sights on a rather virulent plague, one which tormented all the world at the time… an influenza pandemic."
"The flu?" Dave asked, confused. "Isn’t that like the common cold? It’s not all that tormenting…"
"An influenza pandemic, my boy—and in an era where it was quite common to die from such a thing," Bates corrected firmly. "Now, this doctor, this healer, he gets an idea. He’s not sure exactly where he got the idea from, but it made so much sense to him at the time. A way to… how do I explain this… utilize a medically induced coma, adjusting the patient’s heartbeat and the blood vessels of their brain to resonate in such a way that… hmm. No. Too technical. The bottom line is that the vaccine made you sleep, and allow your natural healing processes take over. You ride out the flu in your slumber."
"Let’s say it was God’s own NyQuil," Doctor Bates suggested. "An idea from nowhere, like a crystal bullet. A cure to the pandemic in a single syringe. The stuff dreams are made of…"
"And did it work?"
"Ohh, it worked. It worked spectacularly well. So well that the patients never woke up. Oh, don’t be alarmed. They didn’t die. They just… never woke up. This doctor, this healer, he’d effectively destroyed the lives of all thirty test patients. Sworn to do no harm, and… and there was nothing he could do, and they were already discussing ways to add more test patients to the pool, to study the side effects, and…"
Shaking his head gently, no. And setting his half-drained glass of bubbly down on the desk.
"The point is. The point is," he spoke, increasingly unsteady. "The point is that a man can set out to do the right thing, and end up doing the wrong thing. Even when he… attempts to punish himself, to destroy his work and do the right thing, it can end up being the wrong thing. An endless series of wrongs while chasing a right that may never come to pass. …Dave Smith. You want to do right by her, by Builder 78. How far will you go? Would you be willing to do wrong to make this right?"
Unable to follow the Doctor’s rambling story, Dave latched on to those final words.
"Sir… I’ve already done terrible things while trying to save people," he said. "I gave up on being a good man long ago. I’d be happy with being a bad man if it meant she could live."
"Even if you’d be condemning another to her fate in her stead? Ah, but you don’t know what fate that is, not exactly. …maybe it’s time you did…"
A final clank, as the metal office chair planted all four legs back on the floor.
"It’s high time you met the Madman," the Doctor spoke, fetching his hat from the coat rack. "Coming?"
Dave knew about the Madman.
Everybody who worked in the facility knew about the Madman. It was part of the process when indoctrinating a new Builder; the "initial exposure treatments" that Bates had alluded to on day one. But the process was handled entirely by the researchers and a special operations team that brought in new Builders-to-be… orderlies like Dave were only in charge of the finished product. Everything else was at a higher security clearance.
Just being in this wing of the facility was likely tantamount to treason. But with the hour growing late and the project’s director leading him on, nobody paid much attention. Down past unoccupied cells, long disused, down a long and winding hallway…
…down stairs, down spiral stairs, deeper and deeper. They passed by sealed doors with all sorts of red warning signs plastered over them. Down and down, to the heart of the Citadel…
…to a single cell. Not unlike Builder 78’s cell, despite its very inconvenient location.
Dave shouldn’t have been afraid of the dark. He shouldn’t have been afraid of anything, really. Not of the depths he’d marched to, in lockstep silence behind Doctor Bates, not of the intimidating iron door, not of whatever could be on the other side…
And yet, he was afraid. Genuine fear, not just proxy fear which told him he would normally be afraid if he wasn’t so fractured. Actual, factual fear. Groundless fear.
"Easy, easy," the Doctor spoke, noticing Dave’s reaction. "Even at this distance from the Madman, the effect is quite strong. Even on a boy like you…"
"It’s… it’s the first Builder, isn’t it?" Dave asked. "I mean, I heard, I heard rumors. The Madman. They keep him down here. He teaches the other Builders… but he’d have to be a century old, right…?"
"That’s actually almost entirely accurate, if also completely wrong. He was indeed the first Builder, although he doesn’t share an origin with them. Or a species, if there is such a concept. He’s… how can I explain this… well. Would you like to peek in his window and see him in the flesh? Assuming he has flesh…"
"No," Dave said, quickly. He was never more sure of any other anti-confirmation in his life than that one.
"Not surprised. The Madman is an… aspect, let’s say. An aspect of the Citadel itself. Always three, always three aspects, that’s my theory… the opportunity to study him is why I came to this facility in the first place, actually. Hah. Foolish old man. I thought if I could somehow… heal the Madman, ease his pain, things may change… but there’s no reaching him directly. Likely he’d consume me if I tried, as he consumes those who become the Builders. He devours their senses, replaces them with his own fears…"
Dave wanted to turn away, to not look at that door. But that’d mean turning his back to it, which was somehow far worse. In the end he chose to stand askew, an uncomfortable sideways stance.
"Why are we here, sir?" he had to ask. "What does this have to do with Builder 78?"
"Builder 78 became Builder 78 when she was loaded on a gurney and wheeled into that room," Doctor Bates explained. "I wasn’t here personally for it, but I’ve seen the procedure performed on others. Before that day she was a bright young girl with a promising future. One full hour in the grip of the Madman’s personal demons destroyed her. That’s why we’re here."
"I don’t follow…"
"I asked you a question, back up in that comparatively safe little office. I asked… how far will you go? Would you be willing to do wrong to make this right? Would you condemn another to this fate in her stead, knowing now what you know?"
Puzzle pieces clicking into place. A rather simple puzzle, two gigantic cardboard bits of jigsaw which locked in a single tooth-and-socket, but at least he could see the big picture now.
"Commander Yates told me she has a counterpart in the City of Angles," he recalled.
"Ohhh, yes. And if our Builder 78 dies… or disappears… the bright young girl from that doomed City will be wheeled in to meet the Madman. Likely she’ll be given the same number and the same cell. That is the price of doing the wrong thing to make things right; a price our Commander is more than willing to pay. I wonder if you’d do the same…?"
He’d considered it, honestly. Dave had, in his wildest dreams, considered simply running from this place with Builder 78 in tow.
They wouldn’t get far. They’d be hunted down and shot. But there were ways… people who could be bribed, paperwork that could be forged. It’d deprive the Citadel of a Builder, a life-saving Builder who kept the walls strong, but at least 78 would be free.
But… if there was another of her out there, a replacement who would suffer if 78 was liberated…
Here in this palace of horrors, at the nadir of all the terrible things he’d seen and done, Dave seriously considered if he would be okay living with that.
It was impossible, wasn’t it? There was no escape. The security down here was crazy. A pipe dream, even thinking of freedom for either of them.
And if he was busy pondering pipe dreams, well… why not dream bigger? Why choose between wrong and wrong?
"I’d save both of them," he decided. "I’d get 78 out of here quietly, and before anyone noticed she was gone, I’d warn her City counterpart. That bastard wouldn’t get either of them, that way. …that’s what I’d do, sir. Even if I have no idea how I could possibly do that or survive doing that or even get started doing that, that’s what I’d do."
Not an answer the good doctor was expecting. He adjusted his glasses, to focus in tightly on the boy. To see his resolve harden, despite the nightmare that lurked with only a foot of solid steel between them.
"I agree. He’s quite an intriguing one," Doctor Bates spoke to thin air.
"Nevermind that, now. I’m simply drunk, is all. Talking to myself, how silly," the man with the number 31 branded on the back of his hand lied. "I think we both could use some downtime to work off the bubbly. You’d best get some sleep, Dave Smith. You’ve a very big day ahead of you, and will be grateful for the rest."
Dave couldn’t even remember what his U-shaped mattress felt like anymore. The hardness of the bunk bed he shared with other facility orderlies was all that mattered now. Despite that discomfort he fell into it easily, and slept immediately.
In his nightmares he saw nothing but spirals, and lurking at the bottom of each of them was a man made entirely of straitjackets. A screaming man who wanted to peel Dave Smith, peeling away the scar tissue that had hardened him over the years, leaving only the nervous wreck of a child. And then hollow that child out and pour more fear into him…
Even if today was the day Builder 78 could die in the line of duty, Dave felt relieved to wake up from that dream and face the morning.
Death was just around the corner, but first: ham sandwich. An odd choice for breakfast, but the canteen ran out of English muffins yesterday, and leftovers would have to do until the requisitions officer felt like leaving the facility for a supply run.
Add some old mayo, scarf it down with 1% milk.
Turn on the Radio, to fill the silence of the canteen.
"—against our forces, but the frontlines remained strong. The Enemy has been pushed back for another day," the soothing-yet-stern announcer’s voice continued. "In other news, sources in the Bulwark say that new recruits from our neighbors in the City of Angles will be ready to fight any day now. Still, I caution you against simple optimism; we must maintain our vigilance, citizens, through both dark days and bright days. Put faith not in men, but in your Citadel. Meanwhile, a cadre of Resistance terrorists was arrested last night during an attempt to liberate their captured champion. All of them will properly serve their Citadel through hard labor…"
"Dave? My boy, what are you sitting around here for? You’re both on call!"
The half-eaten sandwich hovered in front of his mouth, Doctor Bates captured his attention.
Rushing into the room, the Doctor produced a clipboard with a sheaf of paperwork attached. Standard Builder dispatch forms, signed in triplicate, all details accounted for. Dave accepted the clipboard with his spare hand, eyes skipping past all the fiddly bits and checkboxes to find the dispatch time…
"Seven in the morning?" he asked. "Earliest we ever ship out is nine. She’s still sleeping… is this for the Commander? He said that 78 would get to rest today!"
"No rest for the wicked, it seems. Wake her and get moving!" Doctor Bates insisted. "Hup hup. You’ve got a busy day…"
"It’s too soon! And… wait, truck bay two? That’s for unsecured shipments, not for Builder transport…"
"Then explain the big red truck up there right now, waiting for you and Builder 78. Or do you mean to tell me that those papers are in error? That’s my signature at the bottom, I’d think I’d know if something was amiss. I’d stake my reputation on it, even. And besides… the Commander won’t call on her until tomorrow. I figure that gives you twenty-four hours to make a right without making any wrongs."
Dave was never slow on the uptake. He wasn’t exactly quick on the uptake, more of an average uptake speed, somewhere in comfortable limit of the uptake speed limit. Not fast enough to annoy the uptake police, not slow enough to annoy his fellow uptake motorists. So while it took a few moments, eventually he clued in.
"I can’t," he tried. "Doctor, no. I was just… I can’t do what I said I’d do. I was just thinking out loud down there! It’s not possible…"
"Life is but a dream, Dave Smith. And that dream can be whatever we want it to be," Patient 31 declared. "Now get moving before you lose your chance to do exactly that."
It was treason, of course. Treason of the highest order short of directly aiding the Enemy.
And in a way… wasn’t it directly aiding the enemy? The Builders were part of the Citadel’s defenses, just as critical as the men and women putting their lives on the frontlines. Private Dave Smith had a sworn duty to defend his Citadel, and was violating that oath by sneaking away with Builder 78 in broad daylight. Granted, he only swore the oath at gunpoint, but some part of him clinging to the idea of helping others knew this was only helping himself…
Well. Himself, and Builder 78. That was the difference; if this treason only saved his own neck he wouldn’t have taken the chance. But for her? Treason was the order of the day. Even if it deprived others in the Citadel of the safety she could provide. Even if it put her counterpart in that other City at risk. At best, Dave had to hope he could make those wrongs into a right in the long run.
He moved smoothly through the facility, practiced motions from other truck runs. Wake up the Builder, get her in the straitjacket-and-leash combo, pass (forged) paperwork to the guards, head on up the elevator to the transport bays. True, he was headed to bay two instead of bay one, but otherwise he knew every step of this journey.
For her part, Builder 78 followed along passively. Clearly too tired to do anything else, unable to fight whatever fate lay in store. But to carry off the con, Dave couldn’t tell her of the fate she was dodging. It had to feel like just another build to her… and to the world around her.
Their means of escape was indeed one of the standard-issue armored trucks. A bored-looking woman in a Private’s uniform sat at the wheel, reading a book while waiting for Dave’s arrival. She offered a curt nod towards the back… and Dave took his seat alongside Builder 78, face cloaked in ennui, despite his eagerness at escape. No guards had stopped them, nobody had paid attention. Only moments until they were on the road and gone…
If someone were going to step in and halt this escape, it’d be now. Before the engine turned over and the truck rolled out. Dave braced himself for that eventuality, for the back doors of the transport to fly open and someone with bars and stars to haul him out into the light. Maybe even put the deserved bullet in his head, right then and there.
He waited. Listened to the engine turn over, felt the truck move.
And… nothing. After holding his breath for what felt like minutes, they were clear.
Of course, there was the small matter of how they’d react at the end of the line. Doctor Bates forged the paperwork to send them somewhere out of the way; Dave didn’t get a good look at the address, just enough of one not to recognize it. On arrival he’d probably have to knock out the driver and flee with Builder 78 in tow. And then… somehow he’d have to warn the other Builder 78, the one who lived in the City of Angles. Not that he had clue one as to how to accomplish that, but it had to be done. Had to, to make this insane treason work, to save as many lives as possible…
Truck rolling to a stop. His hand, instinctively making a fist, ready to come out swinging when the driver opened the rear doors.
The pause prolonged, well past the point where the woman could’ve come around from the driver’s seat to the back of the vehicle. His fist tight the entire way. Waiting—
—for someone else to open the doors.
No. Same woman, but out of uniform. Wearing civilian clothes… and tossing in two folded stacks of similarly mundane garb.
"End of the line, gang. Change into those duds," she ordered. "Both of you. We’re hoofing it the rest of the way. And get a hustle on; someone’s gonna notice this truck sooner or later."
"I… wait, what?" Dave coherently stated. His fist stayed at his side, unsure if it should fly or not.
"Didn’t Bates tell you?" his driver/savior asked. "I’m Cass, your handler for the Resistance. You two just got recruited."
"I was actually recruited two weeks ago myself," Cass explained as the three of them made their way through a tangle of back alleys. "Liberated from a bus headed to Camp Redemption. Originally from the City of Angles, actually… and since I’m stuck here, figured I’d hang around a familiar face or two and maybe they could find a way to get me home. Since I’m a driver by trade if not by passion, figured I’d make myself useful… lucky for you."
"Lucky for me," Dave said, even if he didn’t quite agree.
This twist was… unexpected. And a bit unwelcome. Sneaking out through shoddy security, okay, but joining the actual Resistance movement? That was sticking the knife in the Citadel’s side. Dave wasn’t entirely comfortable with that.
These were the terrorists responsible for slowing down the war effort. They claimed a righteous cause, trying to liberate the Citadel from the tyrants who ran it, but the Radio often spoke of how their bombings and chaos disrupted the war against the Enemy. Working with the Resistance was as good as working with the Enemy; either way, you were increasing the chances of humanity perishing from this world…
And now, it seemed Doctor Bates apparently was a Resistance agent in disguise. Or a double agent, or something. It explained why he took so much personal time away from the office, off on little errands and vacations and such. Hopefully he wasn’t busy putting bombs in baby carriages or anything like that…
Still, getting in bed with anarchists was honestly the least of his concerns. Top of that list was Builder 78.
She had to adjust to the idea of freedom very rapidly. He’d helped her get dressed; this morning’s sedative doses wouldn’t run out for a few hours yet, and she was moving too sluggishly to do it herself. She scratched at the ordinary clothes, first time she’d likely worn anything other than jumpsuits and straitjackets in over a decade. Scratched, and twitched. Without a word she made it abundantly clear how uncomfortable she was with all of this.
Out in public, without a leash. Without any masters, without any tasks. Punishment was also a part of a Builder’s routine, whenever they acted out; after her tantrum which brought Dave back into the fold she’d been given extra penalty programming. No blueprints… just pictures of the Enemy, terrifying images, to scare her back in line. No doubt fear of what fun they’d have in store if she got caught this time drove her worries.
That fear didn’t go unnoticed by their new terrorist buddy. Who was remarkably sympathetic for a grim rebel determined to smash the state.
"Hey… s’gonna be okay, okay?" Cass insisted, turning back to catch Builder 78’s attention. "Hey. Hey. Look at me, it’s gonna be okay. They can’t hurt you anymore. …Kelsey. We’ll keep you safe, you got my word on that. Sure as the printed word."
Which drew Builder 78’s straying attention immediately.
"That’s your name, yeah? Kelsey Jones. I know your counterpart from the City of Angles," Cass explained. "We’re actually good friends over there. You, me, and Dave Smith here. Heh. That’s destiny for you… when the doctor buzzed in to request extraction for one Private Dave Smith, I jumped at it. Didn’t realize Kelsey would be along for the ride, too."
"Her name is Kelsey," Dave spoke, trying it on for size. "Kelsey Jones…"
"Yeah. You didn’t know…?"
"All they ever told me was ‘Builder 78.’ …I’d completely forgotten that she had a real name."
"A real name, and a pretty good life on the other side of the wall. Hell, you two are married and have a kid already."
Which stopped Private Dave Smith dead in his tracks. Even stopped the former Builder 78, for that matter.
"Excuse me now what?" he mumbled.
"Uh. This is getting weird for you, isn’t it," Cass realized. "Sorry. One of those would’ve, could’ve, might’ve beens. But… yeah. Dave Danger Smith and Kelsey Trouble Jones. Trouble and Danger, cutest newlyweds I ever did see. …I mean, not that things panned out that way here, but… just…"
This morning, Private Dave Smith was an enlisted / conscripted man certain of his place in the world. Now he was sneaking around behind buildings with a stolen Builder and a crazy poet / revolutionary was telling him he had a wife and a kid except he didn’t actually and very little made sense.
It wasn’t like Dave hadn’t given it thought. Not thought of wedding dresses and white picket fences in the suburbs, but basic thoughts about his "relationship" with Builder 78.
He’d long ago decided he couldn’t call it love. A man who literally leads his woman around on a leash while she’s drugged to the point of incomprehension can’t exactly claim there’s consent in that particular relationship, even if he does it at gunpoint as well. Dave was acutely aware of his assigned role in the proceedings, how much this young woman had lost, and how there was little to no chance of an honest and mutual relationship as a result. Therefore he’d given up on the idea, and simply considered this thing of theirs to be… this thing of theirs. Uniquely weird.
But she was free now, wasn’t she? And the drugs would be out of her system in time. He’d have to consider the question again…
Or not. No. Better not to consider it at all. She owed him nothing in return for this newfound freedom; no romantic reward for his supposedly manly and heroic rescue of the damsel. No obligations. Trouble had her own life to lead now.
Trouble. Her middle name was trouble. Very appropriate.
Despite the impossibility of love in their Citadel lives, Danger stepped up to squeeze Trouble’s hand. To reassure her that this was somehow going to work out. Maybe to reassure himself, for that matter. That’s how this thing of theirs worked.
That tiny bit of mutual confidence helped him step up and directly address the other pickle he found himself in.
"Look, I didn’t come to you to join your war against the Citadel," Dave stated. "Neither of us did. I thought we were just sneaking away, not joining the terr… the Resistance. I just got out of one army, I don’t plan to enlist in another…"
Cass motioned for them to continue the march, now that the awkwardness had passed. Or rather, passed into a different form of awkwardness, one she could address while in motion.
"Not going to claim the Resistance are a choir of sainted saviors," she said, up front. "And can’t say I agree with them on a lot of points. But they’re the only voice of freedom this world’s got, for better or worse. Besides… they’re not all bad. One familiar face, she’s the reason I’m sticking around. She doesn’t shoot people; hell, she speaks out against that grim business when she can…"
"Grim business like setting off bombs and killing soldiers? The Radio talks about you guys all the time," Dave stated, factually. Because that was what was in fact reported. "That you want to overthrow the Commander and let the Enemy in the doors. …which is completely stupid considering the Enemy wants us all dead, so that means the Radio’s lying, right?"
"You can be against the Commander without being for the Enemy. We’re for the Citadel, period," Cass explained. "Kinda rough around the edges, the lot of us, but… the ideal of it, the ideal of it is to make this world a better one. You want in on that, okay. You don’t, okay. You won’t have to shoot anyone… and Kelsey won’t have to build a thing."
"Then… what do you want us to do for you in return for this rescue?"
"I dunno, man. Exist? Be as happy as you can be given the circumstances? No obligations. …’k. We’re here."
With ‘here’ being a featureless brick wall.
In that secret back alley, the secret terrorist agent with the thick glasses gave a secret knock on a secret door, which opened in a secret manner.
Kelsey gripped his sleeve tight enough to tear the fabric, as the two of them stood before that door. Lucifer himself could be on the other side, for all they knew. She was actually whimpering audibly by this point.
Dave dropped down to a whisper, while Cass negotiated their entry into the underworld.
"We’ll hear what she has to say, I’ll warn her about the thing I need to warn her about, then we’ll leave," Dave promised. "We don’t have to stay here. I’m sure they’ll let us walk away, just like Cass suggested. Okay…?"
Another sign the drugs were wearing off: Kelsey managed a mute nod, clearly understanding Dave’s words. No haze over her mind. Good for her… and dangerous for everybody around her. Another good reason to get this meeting over with and then run for the horizon…
And with that, Trouble and Danger entered the nerve center of the criminal empire they had been indirectly pitted against for years.
Too many people, clearly. With the sedatives wearing off, Builder 78—no, Kelsey—had begun getting very twitchy with each new person she met. And now, she was meeting about a dozen grim-looking figures toting submachine guns. Despite being off her leash, she clung to Dave’s sleeve as if tethered there.
In contrast to the bright overhead lights of the facility, the Resistance seemed to favor the dank and dark. They sat among wooden crates of pilfered supplies, weapon racks, and tables with papers and forgery gear spread out all over them. A large radio nearby, its illuminated dial active, despite the soothing tones of the Radio not coming from its speaker… which was also illegal, as all authorized radios were locked to one frequency, and could not be turned down past a certain level.
Every inch of this place was incredibly illegal, and if all the offenses were tallied up, odds are every man and woman in the room would have to be summarily executed four times.
But Dave wasn’t enforcing those laws anymore. Not that he ever believed in them, beyond a vague sense that law and order beat being destroyed by the mocking horror of the Enemy. They had nothing to fear from Private Dave Smith, not anymore. Although clearly he was met with suspicion, all the same.
Cass tried to make introductions, while Dave attempted to memorize the monikers of the various grim individuals. Too many faces, too many names. While not as jittery as Kelsey, he was likely showing physical signs of befuddlement at all this.
"…so I used to know these two back in the City," Cass was explaining, trying to make nice with the newcomers and the old guard. "Good people. We can trust them."
"Really," a gruff elderly man spoke, flat as a pancake.
"I’ll vouch for them," she promised. "It’s cool, Gustav. Trust me."
Well aware of all the automatic weapons in the room, Dave felt it would be best to earn trust by offering a friendly smile. Therefore, he did. And Kelsey mimicked it, offering… her version of a friendly smile.
A smile which immediately set the room on edge, as the persistent aura of creepiness that followed a Builder around wasn’t exactly offset by her attempt to mimic her handler’s grin. Hands tightened on the shoulder straps that held those guns in place; even Cass flinched from the tiny pulse of weirdness radiating outward from her…
The grim individual in charge didn’t flinch an inch. But he wasn’t exactly in favor of the pair to begin with.
"Cass… it doesn’t matter if I trust you. I don’t trust them," the grey-haired man spoke, gesturing to the two newcomers. "Kid, you’re new here. I’ve been here since Eighty-Five. A high-clearance Private and a freakin’ Builder drop in our laps, easy as that? No way, no how. Hasn’t happened once in thirty years. You know the Commander’s been itching to get his hands on the Voice; you know he’s even snatched up that doppelgänger to lure her out. What makes you think this isn’t a trap, too?"
"Not a trap," Cass insisted. "Sure, I’m the newbie, but I know these two by heart—"
"No, you don’t! You know copies of them," Gustav spoke. "Copies aren’t the originals; I’ve learned that the hard way. I swear, you young people. You’ve no idea what it’s like to truly fight for something that’s precious to you. No caution, no forethought! And when you slip up—when you let one of our dear Commander’s obvious loyalty tests in through the front door out of a misguided sense of mercy—you risk us all."
Now, Dave felt obliged to defend himself. If only to avoid getting shot.
"Sir, the Commander barely even remembers my name," he said. "I’m nobody. And the Builders, they aren’t even given names. …he said he had a replacement on tap, anyway. If we’re gone, it won’t affect him one way or another, so us being here won’t risk anything."
"Unless your scary little girl there has a panic attack and drives us all completely insane," Gustav suggested. "That’s the other big risk. Even if you’re legit, you’re still dangerous as hell. Just look at her. Twitching and spazzing. Yeah, I see you there, girl. I’m not about to risk my entire operation to offer safe haven to a monster like that—"
"You offered safe haven to a monster like me, didn’t you?"
That voice cut through the air like an old knife, ragged and made of tin. It rattled out of the speaker on the metal radio, its illuminated dial flickering slightly from the sudden burst of volume.
…which made no sense to Dave. Not the strange new voice coming from that speaker; the Radio had guests from time to time, or interviews. It wasn’t all the smooth-talking announcer he’d become very familiar with. But… the directness of that response, right to someone in the room? Was it a trap? Did the Citadel know he’d escaped?
Gustav’s grumpiness doubled… but passed, his aging spine assuming a natural slouch shortly after.
"That was different," he mumbled to the open air. "You’re no threat to anyone."
"I’m a threat to the Commander. My words, my ideals, they’re a threat which puts your operation at risk every day. Yet you keep me around, don’t you? If you turn away this soul in trouble, you’re doubting the ideals that you claim to value. Are you doubting me, after all the faith you’ve put in me over the years to steer you true?"
"Not what I’m saying. I’m just… look. We have to be careful. First Yates snatches up your copy, then these weirdoes show up on our doorstep… the timing’s strange. I don’t like it."
"We live in strange times, Father. Please send our new friends to my office. I’d like to welcome them in person."
With a heavy sigh… Gustav Jørgensen nodded towards a darkened section of the warehouse.
"Get moving," he ordered, trying to regain some semblance of authority despite being beaten down by the mysterious voice on the radio. "Both of you. And no funny business. I feel the creeping willies again, I’m coming in shooting."
The mysterious voice on the radio turned out to be a woman in her mid-twenties, with pretty blonde hair. Not exactly what he was expecting out of a rough-and-tumble Resistance fighter, but nothing today had been quite what he was expecting, was it?
She sat behind a desk covered in maps of the Citadel, annotated with colorful sticky notes. A wide array of them, primarily pink and yellow, bringing a certain cheer to the tiny handwritten words like "Crackdown" and "Supply Revoked" and "Body Found." A rainbow of the regime’s various offenses… partially obstructed by a large metal box radio, much like the one in the main room.
"Have a seat, if you like," the mysterious woman on the radio spoke. "My name is Vivi Jørgensen, and I’m pleased to meet you both. Do you need some water after your long journey? I can ask them to bring you refreshments…"
"I… I’m good?" Dave tried, instinctively staring into the flickering dial on the metal box.
"Eyes up here, please," the radio requested…
…as the woman pointed to her own eyes.
"Tell me, Dave. Have you ever heard my broadcasts?" she asked. "The so-called Voice of the Resistance…?"
As he had in fact been on his feet for some time, Dave chose to take a seat opposite the young woman. And tugged Kelsey gently down, to ease her into a seat. She spent her time staring at her shoes and rocking back and forth slightly rather than contributing to the discussion.
"I can’t say I’ve personally heard you before, no," he admitted. "I think I heard somewhere the Resistance had found a way to override the Radio, but… uh. How and why are you DOING that? Talking through the Radio? Why not just talk directly?"
"Because I’m a deaf-mute, Dave Danger Smith," the Voice explained… rubbing one hand across her slender throat, for emphasis. Her lips didn’t budge as the words made their way across the tinny old speaker. "The Radio acts as my conduit. I’m afraid the explanation is a bit long-winded and nonsensical… but we’re here to discuss you and Kelsey Trouble Jones, not me. Cass told me much of her friends in the City…"
A kid and a family and a house and a life…
"I don’t think our lives ended up the same way as they did in the City," Dave spoke. "Gustav may be right. How can you trust us? We’re not the same people she knows…"
"I trust in the essential decency of humankind. It’s the reason why I’ve become the Voice of the Resistance. My adoptive father may lead the Resistance into war with the Commander’s regime, but I keep our hearts from sinking into the pessimism that threatens to claim us all in face of that threat. I speak of our ideals, and in doing so, I bring hope to the lost. …whether he’ll admit it or not, my father wants to believe as well. Now, then…"
The woman stepped out from behind her desk… walking around to the Builder, busy staring at her shoes, arms tightly folded around herself. Despite the pulsing waves of anxiousness Kelsey was emitting, Vivi Jørgensen showed no signs of discomfort on approach. She knelt low, to meet those downturned green eyes.
"I know you’ve suffered. We all have; my family in particular, at the hands of Citadel scientists," Vivi spoke through her metal box. "But that’s over now. Your life is your own, and you need never build again. In time, the damage done will heal. I offer you shelter and comfort, during this transition time… if you wish it. What is it you wish for, Kelsey…?"
Dave spoke for her, since that’s what he was used to doing.
"I don’t think she can reply. They messed her up pretty bad," he informed. "She hasn’t said a word since—"
The tiniest, smallest voice he’d ever heard. Also the first time he’d ever heard her speak.
To which Vivi offered a smile in return.
"If that’s what you want, then so be it. It seems she’s grown rather fond of you, Dave, despite this world being so different from the one Cass described to me…"
"I… uh. Yeah. I guess," he responded, for lack of anything more clever to say.
"And you, Dave? What is it you wish for?"
"I didn’t think the Resistance had a genie in a bottle. Aren’t you too busy scheming to deal with newly minted refugees like us?"
"The Resistance is ultimately here for the good of the Citadel; taking down the Commander’s regime is simply part of that," Vivi explained. "My father deals with the unpleasant side of our struggle. I maintain our spirits in return. What would raise your spirits, Dave Smith?"
…which brought him back to the original reason he bailed on the army in the first place. The pipe dream he’d spoken aloud to a slightly drunk Doctor Bates, one night previous.
"I want to secure a future for Kelsey. Uh, both of her," he clarified. "The Commander’s threatened to turn the Kelsey who lives in the City of Angles into a Builder. Once he realizes we’re gone tomorrow morning, he’ll kidnap that other Kelsey and toss her in a cell with the Madman. I need your help saving her. I think that’s why Bates sent me to you, ma’am."
(Which drew a sharp inhale from the current Kelsey. It was the first she’d heard this news about her other self. Dave felt briefly guilty about that; everything happened so fast that he didn’t have time to explain.)
His benefactor’s perpetual little smile faded, somewhat.
"And now, I wish I was a genie in a bottle," she spoke through her transistor’s voice. "Because that’s beyond my capabilities."
"You don’t have allies on the other side?" Dave asked. "You’ve got a City dweller here in your ranks, right?"
"Yes, but she came to us through chance. We discovered her entirely by accident, while trying to rescue… another individual taken from that City," Vivi explained. "If there is a resistance movement on the other side, I’m afraid we have no contact with it, nor the means to make contact. We believe there is a secret facility somewhere which houses the passage between worlds, but no doubt it’s too heavily defended for us to engage."
"But… but you’re the Resistance. You tangle with the army all the time!"
"A bloody and unfortunate reality, yes. But I know my father won’t commit bloody resources to such an assault, all for the sake of a single distant soul. The cause may be just but he deals in realities, not ideals. Even aside from that, the facility location is a state secret; we don’t know where to look. Odds are, it’s deep within the Bulwark, at the heart of the regime’s operations… impossible to reach."
Which fired off memory after memory for Private Dave Smith. The one-eyed doctor, the sickening transition between worlds… fleeing from dangers uncountable. And one time, just one time, finding a pleasant and social bar on the other side. A city, where a young girl with a bright smile knew his name…
"I know where you can find the bleed facilities," he realized. "I’ve been to several of them. In fact, there’s one in a warehouse well outside the secured perimeter of the Bulwark. The doctor who made the machine said it had to be built there because it was tapping into an existing bleed, whatever that means. —map. Map. I need to use your map…"
The blonde paused, in surprise. She pushed her Citadel map across the desk, tapping it to draw attention… as Dave sprung to his feet, grabbing a felt tip marker to cross a small X over a series of locations. Each one represented a time when Dave dipped his toes in another world, through the bleed. One in particular he X’d twice as hard as the others.
"This one," he said. "This is the one. I know exactly when the doctor who built the machine will be at that specific facility. He checks in to Facility Bravo every Thursday night at eight, to calibrate the equipment. So, if you attack the facility tonight, not only can we get a message through… you could also kidnap Doctor Hayes. Would the inventor of a machine that could let the Resistance hop between worlds be incentive enough for your father?"
Her eyes widened in realization. At that point Dave knew it would be incentive enough, certainly… even if she didn’t want to raise his hopes prematurely.
…which led him to wonder, did Doctor Bates know this might happen? He clearly knew the chain of events that would follow after sending Dave and Kelsey straight to the Resistance, with a mission to contact the City of Angles. Not even any old cell of the Resistance, but one which knew about their other selves and had a vested interest in their well-being. Was this a coincidence, or part of a larger scheme?
A question which hung on the woman’s mind, as well. Although she had a different theory.
"Do you believe in synchronicity, Dave?" Vivi asked, after a prolonged pause of gentle white noise through her radio speaker.
"Err. You mean the Eighties pop song?"
"In that other world, Cass was part of an organization that included you and your wife; the other version of myself was a part, as well. It was a group dedicated to overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges. And here you are today, taking up the same cause… all of us together, a confluence of knowledge and ability and hope and determination. Today, it seems their spirit has echoed in our Citadel, even if we have led very different lives…"
She rose from behind the desk, nodding firmly. Ready to make this work.
"I’ll present this to my father," she said. "Remain strong, Dave Smith. We may well yet solve this particular trouble."
Gustav was not immediately enamored with the idea.
The pair communicated with their hands, in a rapid series of signs Dave couldn’t understand in the slightest. He recognized it as sign language, a common tool for the deaf to communicate with the world around them. Conveniently enough it made a great way for father and adoptive daughter to argue with each other without having a screaming match over a radio loudspeaker; the rest of the Resistance cell politely ignored as the two gesticulated wildly at each other.
That left Dave to tend to Kelsey. Who was rapidly becoming clear-headed… much to her own horror. Which meant this entire endeavor could be torpedoed instantly, if she lost control and unleashed her fear on everyone in the room.
The sedative drip wasn’t simply a means of controlling the Builders, it was a defensive wall to protect the facility from their madness and wrath. Without heavy chemical control, the terror poured into their heads by the Madman could run wild. Dave had heard horror stories from the other handlers of Builders who accidentally missed their dosages… one of which was responsible for the disused cells beneath the primary facility, rendered useless by the unleashing of a Builder’s pure and unfiltered insanity.
If Kelsey snapped, it wouldn’t matter if Gustav was happy or unhappy with his new refugees. Everybody would be too mutilated to care about trust issues.
Dave could see it in her eyes, as she struggled with the fading chemistry in her brain. Clenching her hands, trying to maintain control. When that wasn’t enough, she squeezed his hand tight enough to leave marks. Breathing in forced even strokes, in and out, in and out…
"We’re going to be fine," Dave promised, knowing damn well he couldn’t uphold those kinds of promises. "You’ll see. After this is done we’ll go somewhere quiet, somewhere safe. No more leashes, no more straitjackets. Everything’s going to be okay—"
Safe. Safe safe safe SAFE. The word resounded in his mind, pushed there by her fear. Safety was the primary impulse the Builders felt, the desperate need for safety, to build strong walls around themselves. So, yeah, probably not the best word to use at the moment…
But safety was what Kelsey needed. A feeling that no matter how bizarre the day had been and how unknown her future remained, she would be safe. While Dave knew he couldn’t really promise that safety… he had to do something.
So, he hugged her.
An empty gesture. Pointless, changing nothing.
She hugged him in return, all the same. Refused to let go, well past the point where her quiet tears dried up.
Fortunately for the both of them, the debate of hand gestures had finally ended. The Jørgensens approached the couple, with a plan.
"There’s only one way this works," Gustav warned. "We can’t go in through the front door… it’s guarded around the clock. This place is the lynchpin of the Commander’s war plans, and he’s not screwing around when it comes to security. So… we need to find another way in. We need a tunnel. Specifically… we need a Builder to make us a tunnel where one doesn’t exist."
Kelsey’s arms tightened.
"No," Dave spoke, immediately. "She can’t. If she builds again, she could die. You can’t make her—"
A tiny little letter, less than a word, bit off prematurely. But… it was followed by a nod, a nod which couldn’t just be the shakes. She withdrew from Dave’s arms, turning away from him… to directly confront the man asking this of her.
"Okay," she spoke. "Okay. Okay."
"What? No. No, no," Dave said. "Kelsey, you can’t. I mean, you can’t…"
"Can," she replied, without looking at him. "Gotta. For her."
For the other Kelsey, Dave realized.
It was her decision, and honestly, the first real decision she’d been able to make for herself since her life was stolen away. Despite the risk, despite Dave’s fear of losing her… he had no right to refuse it, not if she was truly going to be an individual rather than his housepet.
Even if it meant potentially losing her, so soon after really finding her.
One hour to go, before the assault on the bleed facility. Before Kelsey’s next and hopefully not final build.
They couldn’t prepare for it in the usual way. Vivi found them city maps and municipal blueprints, anything the Resistance could scrabble together about that section of the Citadel… even a few photographs of some tunnels they’d built in the past, some of which came from news clippings about those tunnels being captured by the Commander’s forces. But it wasn’t the same as a proper programming. No chair, no eyedrops, no mixed imagery of horror to pump fear and desperate insecurity into her brain…
Perhaps the fear and desperate insecurity Kelsey was already feeling would be enough. Her eyes flicked from picture to picture, trying to mimic the feel of a programming theater slide show. Without the forced focus of the apparatus placed around her head she had trouble keeping on the task, constantly distracted or twitching, but she did her best.
Dave was tempted to hold her head in place, to mimic the procedure. But the procedure was, to put it mildly, utterly inhumane. He didn’t want to. Even if it would’ve helped, he refused to lift a hand to harm Kelsey. Never again.
At least the Resistance agreed to clear out and leave the pair to this task alone. Likely it was for their own safety, as Kelsey’s exclusionary zone of terror had been ramping up as the drugs wore off. Dave weathered it as he always did, but without the sedatives, his newly-named Builder wasn’t having a great time.
Eventually she swept the blueprints off the desk, and took to pounding a fist against it, over and over. Dave swept in to stop her, to pull her arm back… the struggle was brief, before she tightened on herself, trying to keep from rocking back and forth.
"Can’t. Can’t. Have to. Have to," she repeated. She’d been needing to repeat herself, to be sure of her own words, since finding them again. "Have to. For her. For her. For her. C-Can’t—"
"You don’t have to," Dave suggested. Speaking from a place of his own internal fears.
"No. Have to. Have to."
It was the truth. He knew it, just as well.
He’d wronged the people he swore to protect by pulling Kelsey out of the Builder facility. He’d wronged her other self, putting the Commander’s crosshairs on her back. This had to become a right, if there were to be any true justice here. They had to risk this, no matter how much Dave wished otherwise…
"Tunnels. Bunkers. Bunkers. Hunker down. Hide. Duck and cover," Kelsey muttered to herself. "Must be safe, must be secure. Conduit. Transit. Into the facility. No time left. No time. Have to… have to…"
The idea came to him clearly, despite the noise in his head from her terrors.
"I can help you," he decided. "I can help design the tunnel. I took some architecture classes once, and I still know how to hold a pen. So you don’t need to totally wing it, right? Look, here…"
He pulled a map from the spilled table contents on the floor, as well as a random bit of paper. Flipped the paper over, placed it on top of the map.
"We need to connect this Resistance safehouse to this secret facility with a tunnel," he summarized, indicating in the map. "Have to dodge our way around… no. Underneath this sewer line. So… fifty meters southwest, then… stairs down, then fifty meters, then stairs up, then fifty meters…"
Line by line, he sketched it out. Probably not the most structurally sound approach, but in his defense he was designing cheesy corporate logos in his last few years on Earth rather than civic engineering projects.
…a hand on his hand. Kelsey, guiding the pen.
"Stairs. Stairs. Fifty meters," she repeated. "Reinforced concrete, rebar. An arcing ceiling. Blast resistant. Yes. …yes. Under and through and up again. Into the room. Into the room. With the doctor, the machine, the doctor, the machine…"
Three minutes of mumbling later, and she’d finished the design. Moving with Dave, like a combination of urban planning and slumber party Ouija board antics.
But the tunnel wasn’t the end of it.
The last line, the one which completed her work, skittered away. It trailed off onto another piece of paper. And curved. And curved. Inward, winding inward. Inward and down…
Both hands rested when the tip reached the center.
"Spiral," Kelsey spoke. "Down to the heart."
…he’d seen this shape before. In his dreams, the night he arrived in the Citadel. Forgotten again, until he met Kelsey, until she brought the memory back. And now? Now it was like he never forgot it in the first place. Around and down, turning and turning, knotted and spiraling…
He knew this shape. He’d walked this shape, just last night.
The stairs down to the Madman’s chamber.
"I couldn’t have known about that before yesterday," he realized. "You would’ve known it, but not me. It’s not possible. I’m just… I’m me. I’m Dave Smith. I’m nothing special…"
"Your design. Your map," Kelsey spoke. "Your key. Your duty. To… to… the girl who needs it…"
—such a bright smile, offered to what she thought was a familiar friend.
I’m glad you could make it to the party, Dave.
Unconnected memories which made absolute sense when jammed next to each other. Not that he had time to think about it, as the door to the safehouse room swung open.
"If we’re doing this, we’re doing it now," Gustav declared. "Get moving."
Eight o’clock wasn’t exactly the dead of night. Curfew didn’t come down until eleven (ten in outlying districts) which meant plenty of peeping eyes to report their travels. A fully armed Resistance cell looking ready for a scrap would be difficult to conceal from the public… a Builder on board creeping out everybody they passed wasn’t going to help matters.
Fortunately, they were prepared for this. Cass had procured yet another transport; this time an ordinary cargo hauler instead of an armored van. Windowless and perfect for concealing the entire group. The suspension was shot to hell, which meant all the potholes and blast damage from distant Enemy mortar fire caused Dave’s spine to compress harshly, but he welcomed the concealing walls of the old box truck all the same.
Gustav ran down the last details of their operation.
"When we come up inside the facility, we come up shooting," he explained. "You two stay down in the tunnel; if we need an emergency exit built we’ll need Kelsey’s brain intact and not splattered. We’ll secure Hayes and get him into the tunnel after taking out his guards. As for the message, Michael’s wearing a stolen uniform so he can pass through the bleed with Cass’s cellphone and not be immediately being shot. Once there, it’ll automatically connect to their grid and send a warning to the other Kelsey. I want the whole exchange to take less than a minute."
"Shouldn’t Cass go through the bleed instead?" Dave suggested. "It’s her home, and she’s been looking for a way back—"
"Absolutely not," Gustav emphasized. "Anybody going through that portal will have to deal with Citadel forces on the other side, even if the disguise holds up. I’m not risking the only person we have with City of Angles knowledge on that kind of a mission. That cellphone we swiped from evidence lockup will do its job with or without Cass. Besides, once we contact City Resistance and have Hayes on our side, safe travel won’t be an issue."
It wasn’t exactly an ideal plan. Michaels might very well not pass scrutiny and get shot before he could return. Citadel forces could come back through the bleed from the City and shoot them all. And one way or another, people would die tonight in that initial assault.
Death in the air. No way they’d be getting out of this one without some loss of human life. And yet the Resistance didn’t seem the least bit concerned by that. They sat in the back of that truck, staring ahead in determination…
Dave was never much of a soldier, but he knew determination. Even if it was just determination not to collapse in on himself, to carry on despite the craziness around him… although tonight he found a new sort of determination.
He spared a sideways glance to Kelsey, who was mumbling words to herself. Structural details for the Build, names of concrete mixtures and architectural methodologies she’d be deploying. With the drugs out of her system, she’d found her own inner fire. Even if it was a jittery, flickering flame that could go out at any moment.
Today was the first time Dave ever felt like an actual soldier, someone fighting to protect the lives of others. If these men could face that uncertain doom ahead, so could he. Danger was his middle name, after all.
The lack of hernia-inducing jolts to his system signaled a final destination for the truck. Cass powered down the engine, rolled up the back door, and the group disembarked in rapid form.
Dave and Kelsey formed the core of the team; others took up positions to the left and right, looking for any possible Citadel response to their arrival. They’d pulled into a back alley behind a minor Resistance safehouse, one not very far from the secret bleed facility… traffic and explosions could be heard in the distance, but thankfully no witnesses were loitering around. Good.
Into the building, next. A disused shoe store, from the looks of it; too much damage from an Enemy IED to be of any use now. The smell of musty old leather was quite intense, and likely one of the reasons why most people steered clear of it. Perfect for serving as an ammo cache and message drop for Resistance fighters.
"This is the place. Make with the building," Gustav prompted… keeping his eye on the doors, for anyone who might wander in. Not that anyone would, but he was taking zero chances.
…which left Kelsey in a bit of a pickle. She knelt there on the floor, brushing her hand over the wood… not sure how to begin. Or rather, knowing exactly how to begin, but not having it done for her.
"Drug," she prompted. "Drug. Drug…"
"What? Oh. Oh, crap, the stimulants," Dave realized. "Uh. Gustav? We have a problem."
"I dislike problems, boy."
"Builders need to be stimulated into a state of terror before they can build," Dave explained. "It’s a insecurity response, a need to build fortifications around you. I… didn’t bring any stimulants for her. …anybody got a thermos of coffee, by any chance?"
"So do it the old fashioned way," Gustav suggested. "Threaten her. Slap her around some. Whatever it takes to get the build going."
"What? No! I’m not gonna ‘slap her around,’" Dave insisted. "Are you serious? I—wait, wait, no, don’t do that, seriously, don’t…!"
This, in response to Gustav raising his gun. Dave knew immediately what he was going to try; threats of summary execution. Either pointing it at Kelsey, or possibly worse, at Dave. But that’d direct the Builder’s terror response at the immediate threat, not at the tunnel they had to build. The last thing they needed was for old Gustav the Resistance fighter to suddenly get snarled in razor wire and buried in bricks.
Instead… Dave stood between the grumpy leader and the Builder. And tried a different tactic.
"Maybe it doesn’t have to be fear," he suggested. "A build is a creative act, in the end. The programming was a way of triggering a build on instinct, but that’s because you had to be pushed into doing it. This is a build you want to do, isn’t it, Kelsey? You chose to do it. Your first choice in a long time. …that’s what you have to focus on. Your will. Your creativity. Your desire to make this happen the way you planned it…"
For emphasis, he took her hand… and guided it along the floor. Traced the shape of the escape hatch they’d designed, back on those blueprints. Two hands with one pen, just as before. Her instinctive knowledge of the build, plus his design skills. Both collaborating towards a single goal…
If it didn’t have to be fear, if it could be something else, Dave had to bet everything they had on it. So, he whispered in her ear. He could’ve threatened her, talked about how they’d torture that other Kelsey, how she had to remain strong and build the tunnel. He could’ve.
"I believe in you," he whispered, instead. "I believe you can do it."
Floorboards groaning as Kelsey gritted her teeth hard enough to grind. Wood twisting and contorting, becoming something similar but structurally different…
Within five seconds, they had their trap door.
And blood gushed from the Builder’s nose, as she fell limply into Dave’s arms.
The world stopped for a moment, so that Dave’s fragile mind could start to snap good and proper.
It had been a long time coming, honestly. He wasn’t this superhuman entity that could withstand trauma forever, nor was he cured of his lifelong anxiety. He’d been bound up so tightly inside for years that the numbness was a survival response. Thick skin did not imply invulnerability. When the last good thing in your life goes away, when the only thing that made any sense in a senseless world passes on…
Her sickly sputter pulled him back from the brink. Her weak smile pulled him even further.
"I did it," Kelsey spoke, happily. The first time she’d ever smiled after a build. "I did it. You believed. I did it."
Despite their gruff exterior, the Resistance fighters were kind enough to allow the two a moment before prodding them onward. They politely looked away, as the two embraced and came to terms with the fact that they were going to survive together.
Tweak this, turn that. Keep the whole thing from falling apart. All work and no play made Jack a dull one-eyed boy…
At least he could whistle while he worked. Nobody told him he wasn’t allowed to, so whistle he did. It annoyed his "bodyguards," aka his captors, and that’s all that mattered. Forced to cobble together this ridiculous machine, forced to maintain it. None of these so-called scientists could grasp the principles behind the device, which meant without him, these buckets of bolts would collapse within a month without proper calibration.
Of course, that was by design. Another quiet sign of Jack’s resistance.
The machines were nonsense. That was the key. They combined real neuroscience with the shapeless potential of the metadream, connecting dream logic to machine logic. He’d make up any amount of crap when asked how it all worked; in fact he actually stated that he was reversing the polarity of the deflector dish at one point. When the Citadel researcher’s eyes glazed over, Jack Hayes knew the man was clearly not a Star Trek fan.
Still, it beat being on the frontlines, didn’t it? That’s where he’d be today, if he hadn’t promised the secrets of the universe in exchange for freedom from duty. Commander Yates gave him everything he wanted… resources, researchers, lab assistants. Oh, and very personal punishments whenever things didn’t go according to plan. Jack didn’t need depth perception to turn a knob, did he…?
To think of all the other Jacks out there; many of them dead, most of them dying. All pulled in as copies into thirty different dreams, thanks to the combined psychic pulse coming off the CDC facility back home. Hopefully they were all dead and dying, anyway. Hopefully this Jack Hayes had it best. If another had it better, Jack would be intolerably jealous. He might very well go mad. He might very well have gone mad, for that matter. Difficult to say with scientific certainty.
So here he was, still breathing, still alive, and turning knobs. 7:59pm, with the next Dreamcatcher MRI sweep over Patient 23 scheduled to begin soon. Minute adjustments to make, to keep the bleed bridge 100% stable. Whistling while he worked…
The guards were annoyed by the whistling. But they were more annoyed by the flickering light.
"I thought we replaced that bulb…?" one asked.
FRIENDLY VISITORS SHORTLY stop
DUCK AND COVER RECOMMENDED stop
BE SEEING YOU SOON stop
Morse code, flickering across the light. A distant wire in a distant facility, where other horrible experiments were taking place… with other mysterious doctors at the helm.
"If you need me, I’ll be under the desk," Jack announced, before diving for cover.
Bullets rang out through the air over his head. Men screaming, machine guns rattling, blood misting. He didn’t look at any of it. No need, when he knew exactly who was doing the shooting.
Only when the dust settled did Jack dare to poke his head out.
Corpses aplenty, each in military uniform. A number of scruffy-looking civilians had done the deed… and were now setting explosive charges on his clanky, wheezy bleed machine.
Jack straightened his lab coat, and addressed the man he assumed to be in charge.
"Do you have any idea, any idea, how long I’ve been under the Commander’s thumb? And only tonight do you guys decide to stage a daring rescue?" he accused. "That bastard, Thirty-One, the Sleepwalker, he could’ve sprung me anytime he wanted and chose to wait this long. Typical… "
The grey-haired man studied the one-eyed doctor.
"Jack Hayes, correct?" he asked.
"Jack Hayes, correct," Jack confirmed. "So what’s the deal? You’re blowing up the machine? Won’t do much good, there’s another machine on the other side. There’s machines all over the Citadel linked to the City."
"A brave man is dealing with the machine on the other side as we speak, with a suicide bomb. As for the others… we know where they are, now. They won’t be a problem for long," Gustav Jørgensen spoke, before putting a bullet into Jack Hayes.
Since the initial shock and surprise didn’t kill him, Jack took two more bullets before going down.
His final thought was of all those other Jacks, dead and dying. Hopefully they caused problems on the way down, just like he did. One last glorious mess in defiance of the crappy hand they’d been dealt.
The last remaining light in his last remaining eye went out, as Gustav rallied his men back into their shiny new escape tunnel.
When Gustav returned without Jack Hayes or Michaels in tow, Dave asked what was going on.
When the explosions rocked the tunnel, far more than were needed to simply collapse the entrance, Dave asked what was going on.
Answers weren’t provided because Dave didn’t deserve them. Gustav answered only to one person, on arriving back at the primary safehouse.
"You KILLED Doctor Hayes?!" his daughter blasted across the radio, causing the metal box on her desk to rattle from the effort.
"Watch your broadcast range, Vivi," Gustav warned. "You know you overextend when you get emotional; we don’t want to give away our position—"
"How are we going to contact the City of Angles now, without his expertise?! How are we going to get Cassandra home?"
(Cassandra herself seething quietly off to Vivi’s side. She’d been quietly glowering ever since making the drive back to headquarters, but holding her words back for now.)
"That cellphone contacted them for us, before Michaels blew up the other side of the bleed. As I promised, we saved the other Kelsey."
"But the others…! The City’s Resistance. We could have worked together!"
"We don’t need the City of Angles. This has always been our fight, not theirs. Besides… the Commander’s building up his war machine using conscripts from the other side. Whether or not they win the war against the Enemy, that’s more people he can use to destroy us. By taking out the specialist and his machines, we shut that down and make overthrow of the regime far easier."
"We can’t leave the people already kidnapped from the City of Angles stranded here!"
"And we can’t let the Commander escalate his forces. Any City folks caught in that mess, well, that’s just the price paid. Besides, the faster we shut down the bleed machines, the fewer people to suffer that fate. We’ll use the map Dave supplied us and hit the other facilities, one by one. We’ve got a Builder now; it’ll be a simple enough matter to bypass all defenses."
Which meant the various Resistance fighters looking at their new resource, in human form. Who was staying behind Dave Smith, doing her best to hide.
"No. No no nonono…" Kelsey mumbled, too quiet to hear.
"No," Dave repeated, for her benefit. Loudly and firmly. "We agreed to this build because we wanted to save her counterpart. Now, it’s done. We’re not signing up for your war, Gustav. You promised we could walk away when this was done…"
"My daughter promised you that, not me. I’m not going to turn down the best weapon we’ve ever had, now that it’s proven effective in battle," he spoke. "We’ve got sedatives we can use to keep her under control, if need be. We can make this work—"
"Over my dead body," Dave declared.
The grip adjustment on Gustav’s SMG suggested the offer was being considered.
Fortunately, others pledging dead bodies on the pile stood in his way.
"Not what I signed up for, either," Cass declared… moving to Dave’s side. "Won’t sit idly by while you shut down the only way back home for me and my kin. And I won’t let you enslave Kelsey, either. Don’t think I don’t know you, Gustav. I read into you like a book; your words are just as foul as the Commander’s."
"So I lose a driver and a useless army conscript, and gain a Builder. Still a net profit for me," Gustav suggested.
Which is when his daughter switched sides, to stand alongside Cass.
"And you lose the Voice of the Resistance," she promised. "You lose a daughter. How do those resource drains stack up for you, Father?"
"Vivi, this is not the time or place for a disagreement," her father spoke… his gun staying lowered, for now. "We have to be unified. We have to remain strong in the face of the Commander’s evils, for the sake of the Citadel—"
"We don’t do that by inheriting his evils," she countered. "Would it be easier to shut down his escalation? Yes. But since when has this been about doing what’s easy? It’s about doing what’s RIGHT. Dave and Kelsey are leaving and you will not contact them again. So is Cass. …and so am I."
"Child, you listen to me—"
"I am no child. And I’m tired of constantly trying to bring you around to what the Resistance should be, rather than what it is. …I won’t fight you, Father. But I’m done supporting you. I’ll fight this war my way. Without you."
Potentially a mistake, Dave realized. Watching as Gustav’s hand shifted on the handle of his gun.
This was a man who divided the world firmly into two camps, For and Against. If his daughter was going to be Against him, if she was going to take away his spiffy new toy Builder, would his family compassion win out… or would his desire to protect what was his win out instead? Dave barely knew the man, but knew enough to realize the gamble at hand.
He also knew that if a single shot were fired, that’d be the end for all of them. Because the woman behind him, clinging tight, was about ready to explode. When that happened, there’d be no escape for any of them…
…which is why he didn’t exhale until the gun was fully lowered.
"I’ll still be around when you come to your senses," Gustav promised. "And I’ll still protect you when you need protecting. Watch your broadcast range, watch for Citadel trackers. Use any safe house you like. …remain strong, Vivi. I think you’ll find this world isn’t ready for the way you see things."
One stolen car, speeding off into the night. Four occupants on the run from the Citadel, and putting distance between themselves and the Resistance.
Vivi’s voice spoke over the car radio, softly. Trying to keep from being audible on any speakers they happened to pass by.
"I’ve never pushed away from him like this before," she realized, some of the horror of it setting in afterwards. "I’ve considered it, but… I thought I could bring him around. I couldn’t. Now, I’m alone…"
"Screw that. You’re not alone," Cass grumbled, hands tight on the wheel. "We’re here. Four against the world isn’t much, but I’ve faced down my world’s monsters with about the same head count before. We did it then, we can do it now."
"S-Save them," Kelsey spoke; not quite relaxed, but far calmer among friends. "Have to. Have to. From the world, the Enemy, everything…"
"How, exactly? I mean, we’re not much of an army," Dave pondered aloud. "We’re not superheroes. It’s crazy…"
"Crazy is our modus operandi. We’re TroubleSolvers," Cass declared. "Doesn’t matter what world we came from, we’re always gonna be TroubleSolvers. Now, let’s go solve some goddamn trouble."
Drinking was one of Patient 31’s many vices, back home. Hubris being the primary, of course. Hard to shake a vice when it’s got a vise-like grip on your soul, he’d found.
There was still bubbly left over in that bottle they’d cracked one night previous, so he helped himself. May as well take advantage of the comforts of his office, while he still had it. Down a glass or two, and wait for the signal from his friends in the Resistance that everything was clear… then he could get himself clear of this place before Yates had a clue. A perfect plan.
Except the Resistance never called. And the hours dragged on, quicker than they should have, owing to the drink.
Eventually, hard boots on the hard floor came calling.
"I suppose you’re feeling quite smug," Commander Yates suggested.
Curious. Doctor Bates sat up in his creaky old office chair, scarf no longer dangling behind him. (Just couldn’t get used to how cold these dreams were, not after the inferno of his own dream…)
"A little. A little," he said. "I take it the good Doctor Hayes is now in Resistance hands, along with your favored Builder?"
Which interrupted any back-and-forth patter Yates had planned. Because the statement took him by mild surprise… and in turn, brought a mild smile to his face.
"I see. Okay, I get it now. You wanted them to liberate Jack Hayes, did you? Well. I’m sorry to report your buddies in the Resistance didn’t behave as expected. Doctor Hayes is dead. We found… most of him in the smoking remains of my bleed machine."
The champagne in Thirty-One’s stomach turned.
"Oh, don’t get me wrong. You dealt me… something of a blow," the Commander admitted. "I was fully expecting to lose Builder 78 when I pushed her to the edge, expecting you to blow your cover as a double agent in the effort to save her. Predictably humane, doctor. I even figured fifty-fifty odds you’d somehow put her counterpart out of my reach. But honestly… I have other Builders. She wasn’t that special. Acceptable loss, to smoke out the traitor in my Builder research facility. …it’s the damage you indirectly dealt to my City of Angles project in the process that really smarts."
"Hayes is dead," Bates felt the need to repeat.
"Ohh, yes. And without him, it seems my lovely bleed machines will rumble themselves into disrepair within a month. You’ve damaged my timetable, Bates. I’m going to have to drain that City dry faster than I wanted to. Drag them out in the streets and beat them if that’s what it takes to bring them through before the bleeds close. I was okay with a slow buildup, a gradual assimilation… but you’ve brought the City of Angles considerable heartache, thanks to screwing everything up. Good job."
Now, it was the Commander’s turn to be confused. He wasn’t expecting Bates to chuckle.
"…sorry, sorry," the doctor spoke, once the giggles passed. "Just… it’s funny. Seems a habit of mine, rights making wrongs…"
"Needless to say, you’re under arrest, whoever you are," the Commander spoke… as two guards entered the room behind him, with truncheons and cuffs. "You seem adept at forgery. I couldn’t find a trace of fault in the paperwork that put you in this office, even if there was no paperwork leading up to it. Nobody assigned you here except yourself, and now, I’ve got you red-handed. I’m going to enjoy picking your brain for any other secrets you’re hiding…"
It’d be appropriate, Patient 31 realized as the chains came down around his wrists. From one prison into another, for his sins of pride.
In the end, if he chose to make his exit, no cell could hold him. He was the Sleepwalker, after all. He’d walked right out of his own hellish nightmare and into other worlds, hadn’t he?
But he’d done more than enough damage here, in his efforts to heal Patient 12’s madness. Time to bow out of the fight… and leave it to the next generation.
She was here, now. Patient 23. They’d swirl around her like a spiral, allies and friends and more, drawn in ways they didn’t fully understand. Where Bates failed, they’d succeed.