Damaged: Enemy Me
It sounded like there was a hushed argument. Like they were trying to decide what to do with him.
Kendall woke more fully but kept his eyes shut while he assessed his surroundings. He was laying on the bed in his dormitory. The smells were distinct. Meticulously cleaned quarters, the hint of bleach mixed with a smattering of sweat. The sounds were also familiar. He could hear the almost imperceptible whoosh of air coming in through the vents.
For a moment, he could sense several people in the room. And others who were not people. Not to him. But the moment he became more awake, he only sensed one. Shawn Needle, head of the organization that he served. Slowly peeking, he looked around with his eyes and saw Shawn standing near the door, his arms crossed.
“It is time.”
Time. The culling. Reality slammed home with a jolt. His imminent demise awaited impatiently, like a ruthless taskmaster.
Kendall sat up, then rubbed his forehead, waiting out a sudden case of vertigo. “What happened?”
“The Librarian has archived you,” Shawn said. “There is one more task we expect of you.”
Kendall tried not to react. “Already?”
Shawn nodded. “We cannot wait. I’ll escort you.”
“I’m hardly worth the commander…”
“We’re all brethren, Kendall.” Shawn interrupted him.
“I was out cold. You could have done it then.” Kendall stood up and straightened his clothing.
“There are certain things we must accomplish that require your attentiveness.”
Kendall looked around the dormitory for a moment then sighed, returning his attention to Shawn. “None of my team are here to see me off.”
“They are not required for this,” Shawn said patiently. “They have expressed their solidarity and have been sent on to training and missions.”
“No, I guess they’re not required, are they?” Kendall suddenly felt reticent to proceed. He shook his head. They were not bred to cling to sentimentalism. Or fear death, much less fear anything at all. He pushed the uncertainty aside and nodded resolutely. “Let’s get this over with, then.”
Shawn looked at him for a moment, then placed a hand on his arm. The room seemed to melt away, replaced by a dark, alien-looking chamber. Kendall teetered a little and Shawn’s grip on his arm tightened.
Kendall nodded. “My training on accompanying Gatekeepers has been fairly limited.” He looked around, taking note of the room Shawn had taken them to. He had never seen anything like it. “This is not the culling chamber.”
“No. This is one of Aliya’s brood chambers.” Shawn looked up. “Those pods used to contain hundreds of little monsters that flooded the Fracture and kept out the Gatekeepers.”
“Just another word for the subspace we teleport through.” Shawn waved a hand dismissively. “We are still using Cooperative terminology while we come to grips with our new skills.” He glanced at Kendall. “The actual culling chamber is through that entrance over there.”
Kendall looked. A door hung loosely on a hinge, apparently partially ripped off by force. Blast marks were apparent on it, evidence of a fervent battle not long ago. “I don’t… what’s going on?”
Shawn ignored his question as he turned in a circle, taking in the strange architecture of the room. He returned his attention to the adjoining room. “The… candidates… for culling, they were brought in there. Strapped to a chair, connected to sensors. The usual. But then, they were injected with chemicals to magnify their latency and begin their Awakening.”
“Awakening?” Kendall walked to a wall and touched it. It felt metallic but looked black and organic. As if it was grown rather than constructed. He could have sworn the wall moved under his touch as if recoiling. “That’s when latents are turned into Gatekeepers, right?”
“Yes.” Shawn sighed. “Those who survived were brought in here and placed in that reactor.” He pointed at a small chamber at the base of what resembled a massive tree of pods. Each pod looked like it was at one time full of liquid. Some still dripped the fluids. “From there, hundreds of little monsters in those pods absorbed his life.”
“We had no idea of those details. Of this chamber. That was done in secret right under our noses.” Shawn scowled. “There is evidence that some of the culling was not necessary in the first place.” He knelt down and lifted a limp metallic tentacle. “But, it… blocking the Fracture kept the aliens away. I am not sure we would have objected.” He glanced at Kendall. “That was back when we all had golem implants. We would not have objected anyway. This chamber was not hidden from us, but from someone else.”
“Where are you going with this, Commander?” Kendall looked around. There were no monsters in the pods anymore.
“We were recycled.” Shawn looked up at the tree. “Nothing wasted.” He glanced at Kendall. “Laurence was the first to escape. They only had one monster left by then. They tried to feed him to it.” Shawn rubbed his temples. “He was our first Gatekeeper.”
Kendall looked at him, silent. He was getting the impression his culling was taking on a new dimension.
“Steven… Laurence…” Shawn stopped and looked down. “Laurence was obsessed with Steven. Hunted him ruthlessly. It was sanctioned, of course. But Laurence took it to the next level. And even then, Steven saved him. Made him the first of us. Gave him the prize we had been striving for while hunting him.” He paused. “Steven saved me. When I got infected. Most of us, actually. Those that were latents at the time.”
“I’m familiar with the story,” Kendall said. “Just not this part. How does this apply to me?”
“We were harvested, Kendall. Like a crop. Bred, used, then the defects were harvested. When most of these chambers were destroyed, we were fed to a single monster. Steven calls them deviants.” Shawn looked at Kendall. “When we cull today, it is only for the most extreme…” He stopped, pursing his lips. “Before, it was to keep our genetics pure. Flaws. Any flaw. More were culled than not. We could not suffer the flaws to survive.”
Kendall nodded. “It was necessary. For the mission. We were facing a superior enemy.”
Shawn nodded. “Only, our boss was also our enemy.”
“Katy.” Kendall looked down.
“She trained me personally. Prepared me and my team for the conflict.” Shawn scowled. “Pitting potential friends against each other. It was a dishonor beyond dishonor.”
“The training was effective, however. She trained me too.” Kendall looked down. “Right up until the Conflict a few months ago.”
Shawn nodded. “I am still perplexed as to her motivation.”
“We still need to ensure purity in our breeding.” Kendall shook his head. “The Venda remain a threat. And we clearly still have golems that need removing.”
“That means flaws need to be eliminated before they can become a threat to our mission,” Kendall said. “I am not going to shirk my duty if that is what all this is about.”
“We’re trying to evolve away from that. But still maintain our quality and capabilities.”
“Which is why I’m here,” Kendall said. “We failed to fix my flaw.”
“We cannot do this alone,” Shawn said, ignoring Kendall’s response.
A shadow in the chamber seemed to animate, separating from the darkness. It easily stood taller than Shawn as it passed his commander. Tendrils seemed to spread out from what appeared to be a black cloak, moving as if they were alive. Kendall took a step back as it approached. “What, I’m being recycled?”
“In a manner of speaking.” the shadow said. There was a sudden puff of black vapor around it and the blackness seemed to pull into the figure, exposing a brilliantly white man.
“You’re a Keratian,” Kendall said, taking a slightly defensive posture. Another alien they had been trained to fight. “Commander, what is going on?”
“Your condition is terminal. For our physicians,” Shawn said. “That condition is the last legitimate reason we have for culling. You will soon become a danger to us and anyone around you.”
“I’m aware of that,” Kendall said, keeping his eyes on the Keratian. “I refuse to let that happen.”
“Admirable sentiment,” the Keratian said.
Kendall squinted at him. He appeared to match all the fantastical descriptions of vampires, even down to the canines. He knew better, however. “You’re not here to kill me, are you?”
“They believe they can fix you,” Shawn said. “If they succeed, others can be fixed as well.”
“Our capabilities are substantially more advanced.”
“Then, why this? Why bring me here?” Kendall maintained his posture. “Why not just tell me back at the compound?”
“What they need to do cannot be accomplished here,” Shawn said carefully. “This chamber has been converted to a secret gate-room.”
Kendall squinted at Shawn. “You’re sending me there?”
“If they can fix you, their solution can eliminate culling altogether,” Shawn said. “I would expect that to…”
“So you are trading one alien overlord for another?” Kendall looked at Shawn, exasperated. “Just cull me and get it over with. I’m not going to be their experiment.”
“I know you have surrendered to the inevitability of your fate.” Shawn looked at the Keratian. “Lohet here thinks that fate can be changed.”
“At what cost?”
“We hold no debts over others,” Lohet said. “Our economy is not unlike that of your Order. A family.”
“I know that.” Kendal glowered. “What are the consequences? What power will you have over us?”
Lohet raised a brow and glanced at Shawn.
“We’re trying to preserve your life and further your contribution to our mission.” Shawn crossed his arms. “I find that an equitable goal.”
Kendall fumed. “You saw something in my memory, didn’t you?”
Shawn didn’t answer.
“You’re ordering me to go with them. The enemy.”
“They’re not the enemy,” Shawn said. “They liberated us from the enemy.” He held his arms out. “Look around you, Kendall. This was the enemy.”
Kendall scowled as he glanced at the dripping alien tree of pods. “What did she do with the monsters?”
“They were fed, and their energy was used to suppress the Fracture here. When they reached a certain age they were discarded and replaced.” Lohet looked up at the pods.
“They were that powerful?”
“Their power was without parallel. None of our Gatekeepers could gate here. Not even the strongest. Save for one.” Lohet said solemnly.
Kendall regarded Lohet for a moment. “Steven Crow.” He glanced at Shawn. “That’s why Laurence wanted him.”
“He was a deviant too. A monster.” Kendall started putting the pieces together.
“Also a tool of the enemy.” Lohet nodded. “Albeit one Aliya could not control.”
“Aliya.” Kendall left the question hanging.
“An ancient goddess who continues to wage war against us.” Lohet looked solemn.
“All of these could have grown to be like him.” Kendall waved his arms. “They could have become an army.”
“No.” Lohet glanced at Shawn. “They… he was unique.”
“This is going to happen, isn’t it?” Kendall addressed the topic at hand. He realized he was delaying the discussion of his own future.
“It would be advantageous to all of us,” Lohet said.
“You are taking resources away from the mission.” Kendall looked at Shawn. “Spending all this time trying to fix me.”
“We are preserving a resource for the mission,” Shawn countered easily.
“We have been trying to fix this for several hundred years.” Kendall crossed his arms. “We even had a berserker army at one time.”
“True. Our attempts to capitalize on the condition, and our solutions to correct the condition have been abysmal failures. But Kendall, their capabilities make us look like children playing with blocks.”
“Our children can do a lot more than play with blocks,” Kendall grumbled. He walked to Lohet and touched him. It felt like touching marble. “You seem invulnerable, but I could find a way to kill you. Every instinct I have… that is what I was trained to do my whole life.” He looked at Shawn. “What we were trained to do.”
Lohet raised a brow. “Indeed. But it is not what you can do that defines you.”
Kendall squinted at the Keratian as if taking measure of his foe. “Commander…” he looked at Shawn. “Give the order.”
“Proceed with Lohet. He is now your commanding officer and will delegate my authority to those who are tasked to treat and train you.”
“What… train?” Kendall blinked. “I thought they were going to fix me.”
“You are a latent Gatekeeper,” Lohet said. He looked at Shawn curiously. “You were not forced Awakened like the rest of the Order.”
Kendall looked at Shawn.
“We think it was because of your age at the time the Venda infested us.” Shawn pursed his lips. “You will be our first natural Awakening, provided you survive the treatment.”
“Provided I survive. Just what is involved that may prove fatal?”
“Aliya’s manipulations are complicated. I studied them for a few years and we are still unraveling the alterations she has introduced into Terran society, much less the more direct manipulation you endured.”
“We did that. We actively bred and performed genetic alterations. With excellent success.” Kendall said, obstinate.
“Who did you work for?” Lohet held his arms out. A black mist formed around him that seemed to drape over his shoulders, solidifying into a black cloak. “Nothing you have performed has been without Sadari influence.”
“So, you think you can do better?”
“We wish to extricate you from her contamination.”
“Recycled.” Kendall squinted at Lohet.
“But made even better,” Shawn interjected.
Kendall looked at Lohet for a long contemplative moment. “Your order has been received.”
“Complete your mission and return to us safe,” Shawn patted Kendall’s shoulder. He looked at the entrance. Kendall heard a metallic squeak and followed his gaze.
“Shawn!” Lohet yelled, stepping in front of the two of them. “Endard, now!”
The chamber suddenly flashed white and Kendall felt a massive concussive wave wash over him, followed by extreme heat. Part of him wondered if that was what death felt like, and he waited for blackness to envelop him.
Then everything became even brighter.