When I was still young enough to believe in things I had the terrible misfortune of finding myself lost in the wooded park behind my parent's house. I had wandered off one late afternoon to avoid my visiting grandparents. Forests have a strangely innate capacity to instill a child's mind with wonder and dread. The trees loomed overhead in a terrifying cluster of silent, shadowy pillars of pitiless arbitration. I remember sobbing for hours, until I heard my father's voice calling out to me in the distance. When I found him all I could do was apologize between the heaving sobs. Dad wasn't angry and when we finally returned to the house I asked him why he never seemed afraid of those woods. He smiled in return before offering me one of the two of his canonical life lessons. He said:
“You never really stop being afraid of things. You just become more afraid of other things”
For a while I didn’t quite know what he meant, but I liked it. I’d tell other people the same thing in the hope that they thought me just as wise. It never really worked out though.
The second lesson didn’t come until I was eighteen. One day, in the back of his old bakery, he was scraping the charred flecks of dough off an old baking sheet. I had just gotten in from the first snowfall of the winter. When he saw me he said I looked like a funnel cake. I didn’t really know how to react to that so, with a twinge of angst in my voice I asked him:
“Dad why do you gotta say stuff like that?”
He took it more seriously than I’d expected.
“Just who I am son…” he began. There was no ludicrous laugh to accompany it. He just kept on cleaning.
“You mean a pastry chef?” I eventually replied.
“Yes a chef...and a father.”
I don’t mean to sound cliche but...I just sort of knew then. He was enough. He put the garbage out twice a week. He used to drive two hours every weekend to visit our ailing aunt a few counties over. It wasn't fair what happened to him. None of it was.
Years later, after the first arrived, I went back to my childhood home. I returned to the forest and gazed up in in startling awe at the narrow trees. They seemed even taller than they had been in my youth, as though they had been growing. Growing. I found myself thinking of Dad.
It was only a year after the invasion when they pulled him out from beneath that collapsed roof. Our shop left in a pile of rubble with most of our hometown. Talk to anyone else about those days and they’ll probably go on about the long stretch of cars packed with desperate people. The cold, powerless nights that followed. Maybe even how dirty it was, how everything was painted a dull grey by dust of our fallen towers.
I don’t remember if I cried then or if I waited till I was out by that creek near Garst’s Hollow. Since then things have been, as my father would’ve said, “just mean”.
“Its right this way, sir”
“My apologies lead on.”
The man wore a dark blue that sat heavily on him. Atop his head was the usual bulky commando-type helmet, and on his chest was a midnight vest. God why did they even where those things? Our enemies didn’t fight with bullets or blades. It didn’t matter. Sometimes none of it seemed like it did.
As I looked around the rest of the camp I saw only translucent outlines through the dust and haze. For a place with only twelve working vehicles it constantly seemed to have traffic. You couldn’t take ten steps without having to stop for a passing truck.
Aside from the few grey, box-shaped buildings near the camp’s center almost nothing appeared taller than a few meters. That is of course, except for the chamber.
During my time in Camp Charlie I had seen one being built. The foundations were set with heavy steel beams and a vast array pulleys were being used to hoist the vertical beams into place. However, it didn’t even come close to comparing with a completed one. Enormous, partially opaque panes of frosted plexiglass stretched up into the sky for what seemed like miles. It was quite impressive.
When they flew me into the camp I couldn’t take my eyes off the damn thing. It wasn’t until this morning that I really got to see it in all its glory. Sure enough, through the slightly tinted walls I could see the dark shape inside.
“Its almost six-hundred feet tall, I think a little more…” my guide said amid the grumble of engines. “Cost us quite a bit too, I don’t remember the exact figure to be honest.”
“If you don’t mind me asking…” I began in response. “How long has it been here?”
“Went up basically as soon as she got here. I bet that’s almost a month now.”
“And you haven’t had any issues with it?”
“Nah, the walls got a few cracks in them after her first night but the engineers say they shouldn’t be a problem.” He abruptly stopped in front of a filthy aluminum staircase that led up to one of the buildings adjacent to the looming facility. “Yeah, I think she’s finally come to terms with it all. In the next few days we’ll pump it full of chlorine gas and that’ll be the end of our problem.”
“Few days?” I replied. I could feel the tremble in my voice. I hadn’t anticipated only having a few days to do my job. I figured it take at least a week before I got anything useful out of her. My guide clearly heard it too.
“Yeah…” he started with a little more severity in his voice. “Its not much but its a start after all they’ve done. We’ll get ‘em, one way or another.”
With that sitting in my head I gave him a quick nod and began to ascend the stairs. All the way up I could feel his eyes boring into the back of my skull. God, if she doesn’t kill me they no doubt will.
Opening the door to the facility was like stepping into a refrigerator. The heat of the outside world fled before rush of air escaping from the interior. As the cascade sworded through the remaining heat I nearly fell forward.
The building was dark. Ominous? No, strict was more like it. Oddly enough it was packed. I hadn’t seen so many people in...well years. Everyone seemed busy too. As though they thought idleness was some kind of deadly plague. Constructive chaos! Yes that’s what it was. Nothing seemed to follow a pattern. There were definitely rules, but none that were so easily figured. So I walked forward.
After simply casting myself into the foray of folders and footfalls I grew especially quiet. No one even seemed to notice I was there. What’s worse was I stook out. I gripped the sleeves of my plain white shirt and strode forward through the sea of navy blue.
“Ellis?” another voice to my right said. A firm hand seized my shoulder and I shuddered. “Right this way sir, Grim and Treble are in here.”
My head swiveled to face another militiamen, almost identical to the first. He gestured in through a side door and I followed. Each step, each swing of my arms felt robotic. I was always self-conscious about how I moved about in the different camps. They were always so...well different. Everything about the way people talk, the way they conduct themselves, it was maddening. Always took me a bit longer to adjust than most but oh well. Today I had bigger problems.
“Ahh there he is. Good now we can begin!”
“I apologize for my tardiness sirs, I promise it won’t happen again.”
“Ahh I don’t give a damn about your punctuality I just want this job over and done with.”
“Done with sir?” I sheepishly replied. My eyes dare not meet his. The Constable’s name was well deserved. The only thing that could make his eyes any more eerie would be a pair of scars jutting down both halves of his face.
“Yes done with. Just give the stamps of approval, sign whatever you have to sign, push whatever papers need pushing just clear us for the execution and we can get on with our lives.”
“You do realize I’m not hear just to condemn this woman sir I…”
“Woman?!” he grumbled. “They told me you were a soft one. Should’ve assumed as much. You psycho- types always are. Well lets get one thing straight SIR.”
“Constable Grim perhaps its best we hear him out. He is the professional after all.” A spritely bald man with a pair of orange tinted glassed intervened.
“Hear him out? If it weren’t for-”
“That’ll be enough, Constable Grim…” another eerie voice said out of the shadows. I recall his silhouette was towering. His shoulders sharp, making his whole body appear like an arrow.
“Yes,” the tall uniformed man replied.
“I’m sorry sir, i didn’t see you there I was just explaining.”
“That’s quite alright Grim, you may go see to the hydraulics.”
Grim’s eyes blinked rapidly. A slight angry twitch appeared above his left eyebrow.
“yes...sir” he groaned before finally departing.
Treble turned to face me. Though his expression and features were far softer he still emitted an aura of intimidation.
“And you are….” Treble snapped his fingers at the bald man.
“Ellis” the bald man remarked.
“Yes Ellis. So glad you could come out here. I hear you’re quite good at this sort of thing, no?”
“With people sure, I’ve never tried this with one of ...well them”
“Not to worry, I assure you it is quite safe. We have an understanding her and I…”
“Before I begin I’d like to ask you a few questions if that’s alright.”
Treble thought for a moment. He folded his arms tightly behind his back and strode over to the line of monitors hanging from the wall.
“Go on…” he finally said.
“First, if I could just get an age…”
“Yeah, you know, how old is she…”
“Somewhere between 20 and 35 I’d guess…”
“You…” I paused “you don’t have a positive age?”
“I’m afraid she has not shared that with us.”
“Well you see we haven’t really been able to get a lot of her...information. She hasn’t been all that cooperative as you can imagine.”
“Do you at least have a name?”
Treble looked back at me with a smirk. Something about it made me sick to my stomach. There seemed far less of a man in that face.
“No, of course not. Is it important?”
“I’d like to think so….” I stopped again. I suppose I can’t say I was surprised by their apathy toward my mission, but I would have thought they’d at least...talked to her? I don’t know what they’ve been doing but it made my skin crawl. My folder clapped loudly as I tossed it on the metal table next to me.
“Sir, with all do respect...you do know WHY I am here, right?”
Treble motioned to the bald man who, in response, rushed over to the computers against the wall. With his stubby hands he began to peck away at the many keyboards. Several video feeds appeared on the screens. Little could be seen in them though. In one the right side was completely blocked. In another a dark shape could been seen in the lower left corner.
“She’s been finding more and more of the cameras. Now we only have a few left, and she always sits in the their blind spots.”
“You never answered my question, sir”
Treble sighed and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Of course I do. However, if I may make a suggestion.” he paused and leaned in a bit closer. “The men here. They just want all this to go away. I don’t blame them. She took out quite a few when we first got a hold of her. You do what you have to do, but I don’t know what you expect to find. The people here won’t stand for her release. You have three days to see if she is worth keeping around, I want as much intel as you can mine out of her. Understood?”
The tone of his voice told me that there was not much more I could say on the matter. I nodded. I felt his hand slide off my back. Then, I was alone. A few seconds later a voice down the hallway called out to me.
“Whenever you’re ready…”
I had thought about this for a long time, and given the situation I thought it only appropriate to follow through with my plan. I edged to the doorway and leaned up against its frame. Treble waited for me in the hallway with a troop of guards behind him.
“Well?” he asked.
“I’m going in there with her…”
The assembly laughed. Again, I had expected as much. However, when Treble caught my unfaltering eyes he knew I was being serious. His own stoicism returned. A slight twitch creeped up along the muscles of his neck, just perceptible enough for me to catch.
“That is, I hate to say, impossible…”
“Look this is how I operate I need her to know I’m not just...well you know one of you guys.”
“That may be but it is completely out of the question. Need I remind you what happened to the last person caught in her reach. Or would you like to see the videos yourself.”
I held up my hand. Through a stutter I managed to continue. “L-l-ook, has she hurt anyone since she’s been contained?”
The troop of officers muttered softly to themselves but gave me no clear response. Treble stared forward with a straight face, though I swore I picked up a few traces of contempt.
“This all part of my plan, just let me do things the way I do. I promise, I’ll have results for you by the end of the day.”
One portly captain snorted loudly and began chattering something to a woman in a dark jacket. Treble waved them away and motioned down the hall.
“Very well...if you must…”
Minutes later I stood at an enormous steel threshold. Huge metal rods, thick than my arms, held the door in place. A complex web of interlocking gears and tumblers covered the radial dial of the gateway. Two sentries, each dressed in the usual blue uniforms, began to pull a series of levers along the wall next to it.
Whilst they went about unlocking the door I scratched my shoulder nervously. I could hardly feel my fingers through the course fabric of my grey jumper. They had insisted I wear a duller color whilst with the prisoner. They claimed that bright colors might “overstimulate” her. Amateurs. God it was uncomfortable. It was a small price to pay though for this kind of access.
My eyes zipped about my dark surroundings. Sweat beaded up along my neck. Try as I might I could not calm my nerves. Was it excitement? No. Fear was more likely. I kept checking the laminated papers in my hand, as if they had my future written between the lines somewhere. I kept looking down. Stared at my feet for a while. Listened to the clicking of locks and gears slowly grinding open. Then, there was huge puff of air that nearly knocked me to the floor. I looked up and saw the door was open. A pale, bluish light flooded in. Suddenly, a felt hand slap me on my back. I jumped.
“Hah, she gettin’ to ya already?” the guard behind me said. He quickly removed his palm from my shoulder and pointed toward the doorway. “Best be getting along then, good luck you’ll need it.”
“I-I’ll be fine, I’ve done this before.” I sheepishly muttered.
The other one then spoke from the far corner of the room. “Hey its your funeral man…”
That was just what I needed. I felt like I was going to vomit. But, there was no going back now. After a few uneasy steps I was through the door. No sooner had I cleared it that I felt it slam shut behind me. I was in a hallway, marked on either side by two incredibly tall walls of what looked like frosted glass. Looking up I saw each wall extended up above me almost infinitely.
I stepped down the hallway, out into the main chamber. My god it was amazing. The interior stretched out in either direction at least three hundred feet. The roof hung overhead, but it was impossible to tell just how high. Directly above me was a crescent shaped walkway a hundred feet off the ground, built from thin strips of black metal.
The air felt damp and warm, like after a summer rain. I saw along the pure white floor were puddles of water. The edge of the container’s floor was raised four feet off the central platform, creating a simple, slippery border around the facility’s basin. I remember looking to every edge and nook of that place. I told myself it was to look for any possible breaches, weaknesses, or escape routes, but now looking back on in it I know I was just putting off our first face to face. However, with someone that large, you can only avoid looking at them for so long.
In the far right corner, propped up against two of the walls was, who higher powers called, Subject Aleph. Why? I don’t know. It seemed stupid to me. Why not just use her real name? I guess its natural for them. As natural as it is for her.
She didn’t look at me at first. I thought I had managed to slip in undetected.
Her face was mostly covered by her dark umber hair. Her shoulders slumped against the facility’s walls. Her legs, smooth, stretched out across the length of the basin such that her feet rested flat against the far wall. Both hands lay, folded over one another, on top of her stomach. She didn’t move at all, aside from her steady breathing.
I took a few cautious steps forward. The puddles of water seeped up into the toes of my shoes. Then she spoke.
“What have you brought this time.” Each word fell hard onto the sheer wall faces. It echoed like thunder. The grinding of the earth against the frame of hangar. Her speech was deep but distinctly feminine, as if she had just woken up from a long rest. My heart nearly shattered my ribcage when I saw her head start to move. It was a simple tilt but it let her eyes rest squarely on me.
“Its a little early for-” She stopped. I could now see the rest of her face between the two spates of hair. In all, her features were soft, symmetric, but weary. A pinkish-grey mouth. Dark eyebrows over a pair of cerulean eyes. And I stood there, a grey man before a god. At least that’s how they would’ve put it. Nothing in her expression changed at first but after a few awkward moments it began to shrink into a look of suspicion.
“What are you supposed to be?” she finally said. The lilt in her voice was subtle. Had I not had it pointed out to me before, I would never have been able to pick up on their accents.
Searching for some break in the stiff proceedings I instinctively looked down at my papers again. I dared not to look in her the eyes once more. I saw the the puddle I was standing in wrinkle and I felt the ground beneath me shift ever so slightly. Looking back up Aleph had leaned in closer, her eyes narrowed.
“What was that little one?”
“I said…” My voice grew into a defensive scream. I quickly caught myself when I noticed her left eyebrow raise slightly. “I said no…” Her smirk faded a bit and I, foolishly, thought I had somehow won some ground. I straightened my collar and stood up a bit straighter.
“Sure you are…”
I squealed. So much for that confidence. Although I continued to hold my spine straight and my shoulder’s aligned I could feel a hideous shake start up in my knees.
“Why else would they send you in here alone like this.” she went on.
“Its ok, what’d they tell you to get you in here? Inspection? That I was asleep? Lies, all of them. Sorry, they do that. I mean how else are they going to feed me?” Her voice trailed off in a malicious whisper. For a second I really believed her. I was about ready to turn and run, but then a voice crackled over the intercom. Although the message was warped by the cavernous interior of the containment chamber I could tell it was Treble. Aleph’s head arched up. As the intercom droned on she stared up at the ceiling like an attentive puppy. I was only able to make out the last bit of the message.
“...and we will not hesitate to use it.”
Well, at least the others had my back.
Aleph rolled her eyes and folded her arms across her chest. The smile on her face had long since faded away. Now, she let her body fall back onto the far wall, causing the whole facility to shake.
“They’re no fun.” she groaned.
“Yeah, I know…”
She looked back at me curiously. Another mischievous grin then appeared beneath a few loose strands of hair.
“You believed me?” She was clearly satisfied with herself. I said nothing, instead turning back to look at my papers. “Oooooh you did. Haha oh that’s good.” Still I said nothing. Her lips pursed. “Can’t touch you I’m afraid...no sir. Or else the all powerful voice in the ceiling will let me choke on whatever toxic stuff they have hidden up there. Nope, hands to myself or die. I mean come on...what am I four?”
I said nothing at first. Creeping chills ran along my nerve endings. The atmosphere was warm, but I could still feel the goosebumps upon my skin.
“No I uh...I requested to come in here and see you.”
Again I looked away. Again the ground quaked. And again I looked up into the titaness’ face. It would seem I had seized her attention.
“Now, why would you want to do that?”