The walls of the cave were smooth as glass, slick with a slightest signs of water. In the middle, a pool, and the sunlight, painfully bright, dove through the aperture behind him, split by the rippling liquid, clothed the roof in a shimmering veil of bright lacing. Lacing which moved as Frank did, lacing which tangled his masking body, flowing over them like soft caresses. The floor was dusty, but the dust did not stick to him, and the myriad of small, emerald-green plants which he could not help but tread on merely bounced back into full life as his feet lifted. The whistle of wind past the cave entrance, the bubbling of hidden water, the gentle harshness of their breaths. It was music.
“Come closer,” the man said.
The room was packed. Benches, roughly made, barely varnished lay in haphazard fashion. Crates, bags, men and women were jammed together, barely all squeezing into their niches. A plethora of masked and hooded faces, focused on him, a spread of eyes all widened at his presence. It stunk of sweat and blood, or struggle and despair. A Valhalla for the living, a warrior’s room. He felt small, and pounded by the restless reality of it, lowered his head, cheeks hot with shame.
They had fallen quiet too. A radio, by the corner of the room had been quickly switched off, and there was only the chorus of murmurs as fanfare to his coming. Unbidden, and yet feeling duty bound, he walked in amidst them, to surround himself by them, an act of surrender. The black clothes of the masked ones weaved around him, a dancing melee of flitting shadows. The candles by which the room was lit flickered too, so that he saw only flashes, the disjointed image of chaos.
There was a pressure behind him. Hands, pushing. Glancing to his rear, he noted with amazement the crowd that had formed, a fat wedge with him at the tip. Ahead of him, the way opened, people got up, and he could see across the room to where the machine lay.
He walked forwards a step. The pressure lessened as those behind fell back, and then resumed as they caught up. Another step, and again he heard the agitation as they took their own collective steps, as the shaft chased the spearhead. There can be no return, now, no steps back. Without mercy, he had to cut into the flesh of his own terror. The hand, the hands behind him which wielded him allowed nothing else.
He saw now that the man was old. His skin was rough as old tree bark, his mouth, dry, thin, his eyes a pale murkiness, clouded. Yet his gaze was clear as scientific glass, penetrated him fully. On that chair, even blind, the old man could see him.
“Do you want freedom, Collins? I can remove your Inhibitor with a wave of my hand, and your thoughts would be free. Do you want it?”
He felt Kyra’s warm hand in his, looked up to see her smile. He felt a sudden heat fill him, moved him close to tears.
There could be no doubt, what the machine is for. The rogues around him spun off, wove vortices around it, shielded it and flaunted it. But nothing could defuse the repulsion he felt, the struggle he made with each step.
A simple thing, a box from which sprouted a jungle of cables, studded with LEDs and dials that shifted. A box pulled out of another age. Placed on top, like a crown, a silvered hemisphere. He expected it to crackle with electricity, to burn with powers unholy, forces man should not dare touch. The LEDs blinked at him, winked with arrogant promises. It was the machine they thought could make him free. Damnation, ecstasy, madness, all at the drop of a hat. And in front, a basic, tall pine-wood chair.
What now? He commanded himself to take another step forwards, despaired even has the limbs moved in fervent obedience. The screaming of his Inhibitor rose, as though it was alive and he was slowly, surely, cutting its throat. Yet another step, and he could almost hear the gurgling.
And yet, the mission. He told himself it was the mission which drove him on to the spikes of doom. He told himself it was all right to feel disgust, to hate himself for what he did, to curse the action but still reach for the results. But he was afraid too, for he felt no disgust, and despite his best effort, he was still. His heart beat slowly, rapidly. He wanted to look stupid, to throw laughter into it all. But there was nothing to laugh at, and the dignity came to him, stuck to him like gum in the crevices of his shoes.
And the room widened around him. He could no longer pant deeply for breath, could no longer detect the panic in his raspy respiration. The air was cool, not hot, and the golden speckles in dying sunlight did not choke him as he expected it to, as he wanted it to.
He reached out, and touched it. The metal cap felt icily cold, and the he could hear the transformers, the cooling fans throbbing within its casing, a low, angry growl.
He sat, placing the cap atop his head, straightened himself out. The chair was high, too high, and his feet could not quite reach the ground. Instead, he look over down his nose at heads of the crowd who assembled in front of him, saw that none dared stare him in the eyes. A wave of restlessness swept through them, and he clamped his teeth together, to fend off the quivering weakness that was so treacherously absent.
A voice, whispered in his ear. He could not turn to see who it was.
“Do you want this?”
He felt a warm thing, a thing with fingers, a warm hand prise open his clenched fist, press its palm against his palm.
“Yes,” he said. The girl smiled, and the man nodded, rose ponderously, coughing, choking, from his chair.
“Yes,” he said. The heat of a breath brushed against his chin.
“Yes?” they asked, leaning forwards.
A dull clunk as a switch was pulled. The crushing feeling of tension mounting. The crowd lifted their eyes. The throbbing of the machine became a drone, than an ear-splitting screech. His head burned, and he grabbed onto the frame of his until his knuckles bulged and were white. Spots danced in his eyes.
He wondered why there was no warning, no countdown to the end. Wondered the world would change in a whimper not a…
With the clash of a thousand gods, the rage of a million years, the world shattered. Frozen, wrenched out of the river of time, he watched the pieces settle to the ground.
The woman in the prison. A forlorn, unjust existence. She should not been there, an innocent kept without her will. His arm drew back, gathered strength, power. And forward! A smashing strike, the wood splinters and she was free. Tugging on her arm, they moved through the base. The soldiers moved to stop their exit, but they were too fast. Their minds were already free, and no one could stop them. Into the car he put her, and they were off. She was happy, and her eyes were full of tears.
The bullet passed over the soldier’s head, thudded with into rock in the far distance. Sean blinked, dropped the gun, holding aloft outstretched arms. The boy, afraid, ran, pulling the girl behind him. They receded, diminished, and were lost in the shadows. Frank turned to Sean, and told him about compassion, about the value of life. Sean agreed, and leaning against each other, laughing at each other’s jokes, they turned back towards base.
The house was full, filled with welcome. The lights were on, and before he entered he could hear a song that was joyful, that broke all the rules, played with the idea of music itself. And she was there, there to answer his greeting. She leapt forward to hug him, and he collapsed into her arms. As she tried to be close, so close, the wetness of her lips on his own, he encircled his arms around the small of her back, gripping her firmly, promising never to let her go. A smile on her face, she dragged him up the staircase to the bedroom, wrestled him onto the bed. Kneeling, legs clamped around his, she began to unbutton his shirt…
Kyra… Oh Kyra…
But he had lost her. Her hand had slipped from his, and before his eyes she faded, colours draining out, seeping into the barren earth where it was lost. The room faded, too, the light turned sickly, then dark and grey. He glanced at his hands, watched the pinkness of it disappear, until it became white, and then darker. In the blackness, as the blackness, he died.
The Inhibitor had run out of lies. Its fantasy had been exhausted. Now, it was time to wake, to open his eyes, to smell the free air.
He forced his eyes open. Aaron was beside him, one hand clasped to his shoulder, a look of pride upon his face. And in Frank’s sweat-filled hand was another, and following the thin arm which grew from him, tracing with his gaze the tanned figure, he found her.
“Welcome,” Kyra said.
“Welcome,” they said. Bowed now, in respect, their masks removed.
“You are one of us, now,” Aaron said. “Your mission, which I gave you, is now over. It simply does not matter anymore. From now on, there are no more orders to be followed, only your own ideas, your only principles. Your only restraints are your own determination. Infinity is in your hands.”
“You were a rogue all along…”
“Yes. We needed you, you see. And we needed what you did for us. You have done us great services, and this is your reward. Rest now, for it cannot be taken from you.”
Still clasping Kyra’s hand, he dropped down from the high chair, feet failing to support him as he landed. So, he fell further, until he sat, sprawled against the ground, pulling his beloved down with him. There, in full view of the others, he began to cry.
Nothing told him to stop. Not even her kiss.