Noelle Sélevy woke to total darkness, for she was blind.
It was impossible for her to place herself in the void; physically, she was horizontal and there was a shoulder in her belly. If there’d been anything in her stomach, she’d have chucked it up. Noelle had been huffed over one side of somebody strong, and every other step felt like a full-force suckerpunch to the gut. Whoever it was had a tight grasp on the back of her boiler-suit which kept her secure; made her feel as though she was fleeing the danger, rather than being dragged into it. Fleeing who, though? With who?
Jesus; the back of her head felt all hollow. Part of her sought information in the deepest recesses of her mind, but all she found were moth-chewn thoughts, and flashing images of her own shaggy, green hair… so, she’d not been born this way. It had happened to her, at some point. And, in response to this trauma, she had been outfitted with this heavy, ring-shaped half-mask which lay clamped over the bridge of her nose, and the lobes of her ears. It was pressurised, perhaps computerised. Had she not been helpless in the arms of her captors, she might’ve been able to remove it. Not that it would’ve made a difference; she could very well feel that she had no eyes, they were missing.
She could hear something strange, like the stretched ringing of synthetic bells; three interwoven tones, three straight lines that seemed to go on forever. It wasn’t an alarm, it was inside her head and… the more that she focussed on it, the less sick she felt overall. That is, at least, until she was slung to solid concrete like a sack of shit. No matter how loud they seemed to be, the chimes within her mind could not drown out the sound of steel slicing through the skeletal system; without making so much as a grunt, Noelle’s captor took out four of their pursuers at once. Adrenaline and exhaustion rolled off them in the form of smog, and the fumes choked a hock of spit from Noelle’s throat.
This ‘plausible-saviour, possible-damner’ apologised to Noelle for dropping her, and revealed herself to be a woman named Saigō Satogaeri, though this was no time for introductions. “Are you awake?” she’d said, “don’t rush yourself.”
It was hard to say, from the sound of her voice, but Saigō was probably middle-aged. Experience clung to her words, as did a quaffable kindness offered in a situation undeserving of such pleasantries. It asked for fear; it called for stress. And yet, considering there was a force of thirty, maybe forty, footmen encroaching on their position, Noelle felt nothing of the sort. ‘Fight or Flight’ should’ve shuttled through her veins, and yet some part of her continued to tick back over to the idea that it would simply work out well for this band of total strangers, despite the fact that she knew they’d come to face a dead-end.
Noelle’s recovery began with a pins and needles sensation in her fingertips and toes, and with what little energy she’d accumulated from the floor, she attempted to stand but she couldn’t do a damn thing. “Careful,” said Saigō, “believe it or not, but you’ve been asleep for months. It’ll come back, but you have to be patient,” she paused, “it’s all part of the process.”
...what process? Her blood, like lead, sat dense and motionless in her veins. Her limbs were waterlogged timber, her head was awash with rushing noise. A thought amongst the tones asked if she’d like to play dead, and another further back told her off for even considering such a charade.
“Aw’ight, folks! Seems thin enough t’me,” called another, cocky voice; it must’ve belonged to a young man who’d almost certainly just knocked the hard part of his head against an impenetrable steel wall. It did not fill Noelle with confidence, and it did not give her hope; “don’t look at me like that!” said the voice, “it’s gotta be a way out, don’tcha think? I think! Okay! Whatever! I’ll give it a go, eh? Can you hold the baby?”
...did she hear that correctly?
...she did; baby made four of them, altogether. So, why could Noelle feel more than six pairs of eyes on her?
Pain, which shot from the back of her thighs right-up the back of her spine, signalled the return of her ability to stand. It wasn’t easy, in fact, it hurt more than she had the vocabulary to describe; seemingly, her senses had come back first and her mental faculties would follow; “where… we?” she asked shakily, and to nobody in-particular. Either one of them could’ve said something, or even given the wrong answer, and she’d’ve been okay with that, but all three of them left the dead-air to hang there as though Noelle had made the noise by accident. Doubling-down, she attempted to wrap her lips around another sentence: “wha- what’s happening?” she asked, “what’s g- going on?” she went on, her mind constructing a fourth and final question, though her lips felt far too foolish to speak it aloud: “why aren’t I scared?”.
“Don’t you worry!” said the man, slapping his hand against the wall: “we’re gettin’ out of this goddam place, love! C’mon, Charun! Let’s show’er what we’ve got, ‘eh?”
It did not need to be said that Noelle could not see this man; sure, she could presume that he was muscular because the barricade before them recoiled at his touch. And she could presume he was short based on his desire to yell everything that he said, but she could not put a face to his voice; not even in her mind’s eye. She could not even pull a face from the doubtless, countless years that she’d experienced before this very moment. Instead, the void void in which she found herself became occupied by the wild sparks of her imagination, crackling under pressure. As this man focussed himself and his worldly energies, she could feel the presence of another being in the room.
Air parted at the strange beat of leather wings, and the rattle of snake-talk played percussion beneath his actions. It was him, yes, but there was something else within the confines of his corporeal form. A second soul, intertwined and in perfect sync. And, it wasn’t just him; she could detect the same twinned radiance emanating from Saigō, and the child, too. A benevolent and enormous force surrounded them all; influencing them, enhancing them… and she had one too, she could feel it.
It had something to do with those noises in her head; those three straight lines… she could feel one of them bending, just slightly as the man changed something tangible about the world. With his hands still flat against the immalleable steel, the man let loose a primal scream. The metal cracked, the foundations shook, and by his will, the barrier began to break apart from the middle. Doing so expended a sheer amount of physical energy, so much so he’d turned the air hot. In that moment; this other presence she’d felt, the one he’d named Charun, ate-up his entire being and allowed him to reorganise the very atoms in his reach. And, when he was finished, the bending line unkinked and flattened back out.
Escape, from wherever she may have been held, did not seem like much of an option for Noelle, not in this state. She was standing, sure, but she was also swaying. She couldn’t run, needless to say, so the man with the god hands demonstrated further depth in his unusual abilities. From his uniform, he tore a strip of fabric and, with little-to-no effort at all, changed it into a length of rope. He tied it around her waist, through the belt loops of the boilersuit, and introduced himself as Mick Strings: King of Things before doing the same around his own waist.
Like this, Mick would drag Noelle onto hard stone, across tarmac, up through dirt, and into the woodland before the friction burn finally set-in and the discomfort forced her to stand. As it happened, she was rather durable. Very sturdy, indeed. And, when her skin did break, any wounds would close themselves if left alone, or forgotten about. Hell, before she could stand-up, even, the abrasions pulled together and slapped closed. No scars; no injuries discernible by touch, at least.
Mick was apologetic; not because she’d gotten scratched, but because he thought she thought he had to stop. “I could keep goin’,” he kept telling her. He hadn’t even gotten started, apparently. Only problem was that they’d have to stop once an hour, for Mick to replace the rope: sixty minutes was the upper-limit for the King of Things, after which his creations became dust.
Saigō confirmed that they would no longer need to run; for now, at least, they had put a fair jaunt between themselves and what they affectionately referred to as the ‘Cambion Factory’. Here, the air tasted cleaner but it still felt room-temperature. It was like she was piloting her own form, only half-experiencing the natural. She found that she wasn’t listening for birds, and she wasn’t listening for bugs. She was listening for helicopters, and she was pleased to hear none. “That’s it, then?” she said, in her first full sentence. This time, she aimed for Saigō specifically, who seemed less inclined to crack a joke. “We’re not being chased, are we? No more soldiers?”
“Believe it or not,” said Saigō, in a soft voice and a straight-to-the-point manner, “we are the soldiers.”
Actually, ‘Deserters’ was probably more apt by this point; drafted members of a personal legion hand-fit with a secondary sentience; a paranormal presence not unlike poltergeist, able to imbue soldiers with unfathomable abilities. This sentience was known to all as a ‘Remnant’; a piece of humankind lost ages prior to the acceptance of free will.
“Long story short,” said Mick, “they’ve put a fuckin’ ghost in your brain that’ll let you do some real cool shit in exchange for you doing some real dark shit for them. Like, well, I can make anything out of anything as long as I start out with something. Oh, an’ I’m dead strong. Bugsy Malone, here,” by which he was presumably referring to Saigō, “if she makes direct eye contact, she can read your goddam mind… I guess you’re immune, though.”
Noelle tutted, and they all fell silent for a bit. It sort-of felt like Saigō was shooting him a look, maybe to say “I don’t like that nickname” or “stop swearing in front of the baby”. When she turned the question to herself, the silence did not waiver. She might’ve heard a shrug, or her mind may have been playing tricks. Either way, they did not know, and that meant Noelle had not been rescued to serve a purpose. “So, nobody’s coming after us, then?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Saigō.
“Thing is,” said Mick, “they make things like us at that Cambion Factory, but it’s staffed with fellas that are just fellas. Salarymen, white-collar guys, hired goons. I mean, they’re not coming all the way out here, they’d get slaughtered, and that’s not just me bein’ boastful.”
“So,” she said, “we’re safe?”
Mick almost stifled his laugh; more like, he just caught it on the way out with both his hands, and still it slipped through the cracks between his fingers. Eventually, it beat him, and he had to catch his breath; “oh, absolutely not! It’s just… well, there’re soldiers out here that we can’t outrun, and they all know exactly where we’re going.”
“Can’t?” repeated Noelle, to a resounding: “oh, no! It’s not that we can’t, there’s nothing I can’t do, but what I mean to say is…” he explained, “we’re gonna have to kill them, or they’ll keep on comin’. Got a name, and everythin’ too. Call themselves ‘Gatherers’, and they’re just like us so be prepared to get your ass handed to you.”
Saigō continued after him, “believe it or not, but there’ll be a no-kill order on us. They’ll want to collect us, preferably without harming us at all. Still, if we’re what they’re keeping locked-up, then the ‘Gatherers’ are the contingency in-case…”
“...in case this happens,” finished Mick, referring to their party of near-strangers. “By now, word’s gotten round to all fifty-six Gatherers, so the closest one’ll do the deed.”
“You’re going to want to be armed, Noelle. I think it would be better than nothing, if I’m honest with you.”
“I concur!” declared the King of Things, as he tore off another strip of cloth. Against all sense, cloth became steel; “it’s a sword, swing wildly and away from yourself,” he told her, placing it in her left hand. It didn’t do much for her confidence, to be honest. He made one for himself, and another for Saigō, who swatted at the air only once before telling him that the weight was off; “It’s a sword,” he repeated, “obviously, the heavier the better. Whaddya think, Noelle?”
At the risk of pissing him off, Noelle asked for a gun… or something from this century… but the two of them both shrugged her off, and broke into a chuckle: “a gun!?” said Mick, whose laugh was distinctively heartier and more believable, “you’re havin’ me on! You can’t have a gun, you melon, they’ve all got impact shields.”
“Oh, excuse me!” said Noelle, in something of a reactive tone. “Exactly how long have I been asleep? What is this, the future?”
It was general knowledge, she was told; designed some time in the late 21st century, even, which was ages ago. There was this lunatic private military, way back when, and they went on to demand an international ceasefire, in favour of unifying against greater, more powerful threats. A difficult proposition, of course, but the company had an impressive bargaining chip; a portable forcefield system, known as ‘FOXYGEN’. It was intended to be worn on the wrists and ankles, and would project at a constant rate. It was able to successfully repel projectiles with little-to-no immediate or lasting damage to the user, unlike bulletproof vests.
It was undeniably impressive, and in return for the consideration of their demands, it became a standard issue item. It has remained as such long, long after the attributed creator passed onto the next world, believing their awarded ceasefire would last indefinitely. As Mick explained it, “it ain’t gonna stop a car crashin’ into ya but the smaller and faster the impact is, the better the shield reacts to it. You get a sword, love,” he said. “And, like the rest of us, you become the car crash.”