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Shades of Grey
There had been a time when Hel would have been simply be able to close her eyes, reach down within herself and find peace in meditation. It was a peace that came in the knowledge of being sure of what she was doing, in the knowledge of what she was doing was right.
Not now. Not anymore.
She was a member of the underground resistance, fighting the Baileys to take back man's rightful place on the surface of the earth. It was a cause that she had inherited from her father, who had died for what he believed in and had since become a legend amongst freedom fighters. He had carried the Voice receptor before her, and like her, he acted on the instructions of the Voice, the mysterious leader of the largest resistance movement in the underground. The Voice was the key - so it was said - to reclaiming the earth's surface. Since childhood, she had known that she would inherit the receptor from her father, and had lived her life to be worthy of that honour.
But the questions that she was now asking about that honour, her life and everything that it was built on, made sure that she found meditation impossible.
Hel sighed and picked up some of the pebbles lying amongst the rubble of the ledge where she sat, tossing them over the edge and watching as they fell down the impossibly long shaft. When she was a child, playing on the ledges of the rooms where her father met with other freedom fighters of the underground, she used to toss pebbles down the shafts and imagine that she could hear the clink as they hit the bottom. She had dreamt about the people who lived on the floor levels, who didn't have to use the shafts to traverse the underground. Could they have been just like the people on the surface and not know what it was like to fly?
But she knew better now. She knew better about a lot of things.
Hel looked up at the sound of the familiar voice to see Sarge emerging from the holograph of the wall that hid the small portal leading to the upper level of their laboratory. She gave her friend and fighting partner a quick smile. "Hi."
"You wanna come in? Cleo found this game in the last shaft that we cleared, and she wants us to play it with her... she called it Twisty, or Twister, or something..."
"I think I'll pass. Not much in the mood for games right now."
"Well, there's no hope in hell that I'm going back in alone to play with her. Shove over."
Hel swung her legs up, and slid over to rest her back against the wall, as Sarge took her spot on the small ledge, dangling her legs down over the edge. The silence between them stretched comfortably for several minutes. They had been friends for a long time, friends and teammates that fought, lived and worked together, and words were no longer necessary between them. More than that, they were warriors, who expressed themselves far more eloquently in their actions than they ever could through their words.
But finally, this time, it was Sarge who sighed and broke the silence. "Hel? I know you've been distracted for some time now... what's up?"
Hel rested her gauntleted arm on her knees, and deliberately flicked the switch that activated the jamming device on the wavelength that the Voice was received through her receptor.
Sarge looked at her. "Thinking about the Voice again, huh?"
"What happened down there really shook you up." Sarge said it flatly; a statement, not a question.
"And it didn't affect you at all?" Hel sighed. "Sarge, do you realise what happened? A Bailey brought you back to life... a Bailey. The things that we fight against, the things that Voice told us drove humans to the underground. One of them restored you - a human - to life." When she saw her friend nod, Hel rested her head back against the wall, closing her eyes. "And it's not only that that's got me thinking. Creegan and Raina... they told us some things that we never knew about Voice. Raina was how she was, because of what the Voice did to her. And what we saw with that Betrayer and his family in the ASE level, and Cleo's double who destroyed herself to save her... there has to be more to the Baileys and Betrayers than what the Voice is telling us. There has to be more to the Voice that she's letting us see." She opened her eyes again. "Sarge... are we even fighting for the right side?"
The blonde warrior shrugged, and a brief, wry thought crossed Hel's mind, about the futility of trying to have a deep and meaningful conversation with her friend. "What are you going to do?"
Hel looked at her in amusement. "That's it? That's all you're gonna say?"
"If you want someone to moralise with, then I'll go get Cleo," Sarge retorted. But she sighed, as she turned her head again, her dark eyes going distant. "You seem to forget that a Bailey brought me back to life. When I had grown used to the thought that I would give up my life fighting them... one of them gave me my life back. And I've been thinking about the other things that's happened to us as well... you're right, it's confusing, Hel. It used to be so simple. The Voice was good, the Baileys were bad, and we were on the right side, no questions. What changed?"
"We did." Hel replied quietly.
"So what are you going to do?"
"Sarge, it's not so simple..." began Hel.
But Sarge cut her off again. "Hel, we can talk until the cows get here but it's not going to..."
"I think Cleo says that it's 'until the cows come home.'"
Sarge shrugged. "Whatever. Point is, it's not going to make a difference, is it? You're always gonna be wondering about whether or not the Voice is good or evil. Until you get some more answers."
"How, Sarge? Tell me how. The Voice's identity is the best kept secret in the underground. How long have I been carrying the Voice receptor... how many years have we fought together... and it's just now that we've discovered that we are not the Voice's only field team. We don't even know how many others like us there are out there."
The blonde warrior was silent for long moments. "There is someone who knows more about the Voice than we do," she said finally.
Hel nodded. "Raina did. But even if she isn't dead already, there's no way that I'm going to hunt down that psychobitch and try to get her to work with us again..."
"I didn't mean Raina. How did Creegan learn that the Voice had other teams in the field before we did?"
"Through Mauser." Hel replied, wondering where her friend was going. "But... you do know that if we question him directly, there's nothing that he can tell us. He's been programmed not to release the data stored on his hard drive until Voice commands him to."
"I know," the warrior replied, her tone quiet.
"So... that means that the only way to get any info from him is to do what Creegan did..." It finally occurred to her, Hel suddenly knew what Sarge was suggesting. She stared at her in horror. "Sarge, are you saying that you want to rape him?" And it was rape; there was no other word for it. To violated a robot's programming under duress and without their consent, to forcibly take what was theirs, the knowledge that made them what they were, the knowledge that was by rights theirs alone... In world populated by robots and androids, it was one of the most heinous crimes that someone could commit. Her soul recoiled at the thought of doing it to one of their own.
But Sarge stared back at her, dark eyes cool and hooded. "We do what we have to do. The Voice has taught us that, on many an occasion."
Hel was shaking her head, as she got to her feet. "I don't want to listen to this. Mauser's a friend."
"Is he any more the Voice's creature than we are?"
"Of course he is, he's a robot..." Hel trailed off as the implications of what Sarge was saying finally sunk in.
But her friend continued on relentlessly, seemingly determined to strike the point home. "A Betrayer robot, reprogrammed by the Voice herself. If she commanded him to betray us, he would do so in an instant. Think of that."
"So we do to him first, what he would do to us, if commanded by the Voice? That doesn't make it right. He's saved our lives many times, Sarge - he saved your life- and I can't betray him like this." She suddenly laughed, harsh and mocking. "But I should have expected that you would say something like that. You want to have sex with him, of course he means nothing to you..."
Sarge caught hold of her arm. "I have prostituted my body before because the Voice has told me to," she said in a low voice. "I choose to keep my sexual relationships impersonal because if I don't, I don't see any difference in giving myself to someone because I love them or because I was commanded to by the Voice. But this has always been my choice. My reasons. Don't you dare make judgements on me for that."
Their eyes met for long moments. "Let go of me." Hel finally growled.
The grip on her arm tightened painfully for a second longer, then Sarge released her. Hel didn't allow herself to feel the dull, throbbing ache just above her elbow, keeping her eyes focused on the fighter before her. "We won't speak of this again..." When she saw Sarge about to interrupt, she cut her off before she could do so. "Not until I bring it up. We know what we have to do, if we have to do it. There's no use talking about it again."
Sarge looked as if was considering saying something more, but she finally just gave a curt nod of agreement. As she was about to step through the holograph, Hel stopped her. "And Sarge... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said what I did."
Her friend shrugged. "Heat of the moment. I understand."
Hel watched as she disappeared from sight, the holograph swallowing her, before she let out a long sigh. Sarge was wrong. She wasn't judging her... she envied her. Though Sarge followed her, and followed the Voice's directive, she had always lived her life how she wanted. She didn't compromise that for anyone. And Hel could see how different that was to herself. More than ever, she was feeling like nothing more than a minion of the Voice, blindly following her orders, only being fed half-truths and discarded scraps of information that the Voice deigned to throw her to keep her happy. Hel knew that she had to take back control of her life somehow... she just hoped that it didn't have to come to betraying one of her team.
She looked down at her gauntlets, knowing that she had to switch the receptor back on again, but loathing the thought of doing so. The Voice tolerated short bursts of jamming frequency, but she became suspicious with any long periods of time being blocked. Only now was she aware of how much the Voice's presence was like a collar, tightening across her throat.
Hel sighed again, and switched off her jamming device. The Voice sounded immediately in her ear. "Hel, is everything all right?"
'No,' she wanted to say. 'Nothing is all right anymore.' But she knew she couldn't. She cast a last look at the welcoming emptiness around her, before she finally replied to the presence that made sure she was never alone. "Yes, Voice. I had to make some adjustments to my gauntlet, and I didn't notice that I had activated the jamming device. I'm sorry."
A few days had passed. Voice had been unusually quiet in that time, and they had remained at home in their hideout, catching up on some much-welcome rest. But at the sudden sound of the Voice, there was no mistaking the urgency that indicated they were needed on a new mission.
Hel sat up straighter, her body automatically tensing in anticipation. "Voice?" she questioned. Sarge and Cleo were with her in the main laboratory; they looked up as she spoke, and she met their eyes as she waited for the reply to come.
"You must leave for Sector G, Landing 37. One of my teams have been ambushed by a party of Betrayers."
"We're on it."
Sarge tossed her a recharged pair of gauntlets, and she strapped them on as she gave the commands to the others. "Sector G, Landing 37. One of the Voice's teams is in trouble. Let's go."
Sarge fell in beside her, as they dashed out the entrance, and to the edge of the shaft. "Betrayers?" she asked.
"What type of mission were they on?"
Hel looked at the warrior, realising that she hadn't asked, that it didn't even occur to her to question the Voice any further. But she forced herself to push those thoughts from her mind, they had a mission to focus on now. "Voice!" she called out, as they dove off the edge of the ledge. "How did the Betrayers ambush your team?"
"One of the mutant drug lords was trading the one vial of pure Juice available in the underground and I sent them in to retrieve it. The mutants didn't know they were trading with Betrayers, and there was a running battle when they found out. My team got caught in the middle." There was silence for long moments. "I've just lost contact with them."
Hel nodded grimly, as they powered down their jet thrusters and landed. "We're here."
"I've loaded a map of the level and their last known co-ordinates into the tracking device on your gauntlets. I need that vial, Hel."
"My immediate concern is for the other team," Hel said tersely, as she fiddled with the buttons on her gauntlet to activate the map and determine their location. She nodded her head at one of the corridors, and Sarge took the lead, her lasers drawn and at the ready. "We'll get the vial if we can."
There was no reply, and she jogged up beside the others again. "So what's the deal?" Cleo asked.
"The team were trying to retrieve a vial of pure Juice from some mutant drug lords. But they didn't know they were trading with Betrayers. Voice wants us to make sure that we get that vial."
"And I want to make sure that we junk some Betrayers." Sarge growled.
"Only when we can get the other team to safety," she said firmly. "The vial and the Betrayers are of secondary importance."
Sarge glanced at her. "Voice is ok with that?"
"She damn well better be."
Ahead of them, they suddenly heard the faint sounds of a laserfight and the three of them immediately broke into a sprint, racing along the empty corridor. As they rounded the corner, they saw two Betrayers and a group of mutants doing battle. The floor was already littered with bodies; a Betrayer, several mutants, and three humans.
"Damn!" Hel swore. "Cleo, activate your shield, and go check on them."
Though she was pale from fright, the kid still nodded, and pressed a button on her gauntlet. The telltale flicker around her that occurred immediately indicated that the shield was in place. Hel glanced at Sarge, who nodded and gave a sudden battle-cry. The two of them twisted and leapt into the fray, shooting indiscriminately at mutants and Betrayers alike.
Their enemies gaped at the sudden intrusion, giving the two freedom fighters the momentary advantage of a surprise attack. But it was lost all too soon, as the robots and mutants shot back, though they still fired at each other. The fight soon settled into an even three-way battle, between the sheer number of mutants, the firepower of the Baileys and the skill of the two warriors.
The first furious burst of laserfire had left several mutants dead and severed the arm of one of the Betrayers. The pause in action gave Hel and Sarge the chance to duck behind the crates where Cleo was hiding. "Cleo!" Hel said harshly. "What's your report?"
Cleo shook her head. "They're all dead, Hel. There's nothing we can do for them."
Almost immediately, the Voice sounded in her ear. "The Betrayers possess the vial, Hel."
Hel considered the situation for one brief moment, then glanced at Sarge. "Looks like you get your wish. We're wasting Betrayers. Cleo..."
"I know, I know. Stay down."
Suddenly from ahead of them, they heard a shout from one of the mutants. They looked up immediately, to see the remaining underground dwellers rush out through the nearest side door. The Baileys looked as if they were considering giving chase, but then stopped and visibly reorientated, walking over to the area where they sheltered behind the crates. Sarge smiled grimly, and changed the adjustments on her gauntlets.
"Yah!" she shouted, as she leapt up onto the crates then propelled herself into a flip above their heads. The Betrayers automatically looked up and Hel rose from the crouch where she had hidden herself. With one clean laser shot, she again severed the arm that the Betrayer had hastily repaired, and with another, she scrambled the circuitry that was now exposed. Blue bolts of electrical current coursed through the robot's body and it fell, writhing, to the ground. The other Betrayer stared at its fallen brother, then turned again. It raised its forearm cannons, a peculiar look of hatred on its human face... when it was suddenly, obviously, overridden by some other command. It turned and swept Sarge aside, flinging her against the corridor wall as it ran into the darkness ahead. Cleo ran out from where she was hiding and they rushed over to the warrior.
"You ok?" Hel asked, giving her a hand up.
Sarge nodded impatiently, though Hel saw the quick wince as she brushed her hand over her ribcage. But she also knew that her friend would be on the edge of death before she admitted that she was hurt.
"Voice?" she called out, casting a concerned sidelong glance at Sarge. "What's your orders?"
"Go after it, Hel. They killed one of my team leaders. This must not go unpunished."
"We're going!" she called out, as much to her teammates as to the Voice, as she took off after the Betrayer.
The trail was easy to follow, the robot made no attempt to hide its passage, even bulling through walls at some points. There was something there, someone on that level, that kept drawing the Betrayer to it.
"I believe that there may be a Betrayer's hideout on this level, Hel." The Voice said, as they continued to search through the endless corridors. "Do you have enough firepower to handle it?"
"Yeah. We brought some energy packs with us, so we can recharge the shields and lasers if we need it." She glanced at the warrior beside her. "Only problem is that Sarge may be hurt..."
"I'm fine." Her friend snapped.
Hel shrugged. "...but she says she's fine."
But they soon came to a stop, as large concrete slabs and rubble obstructed the entrance of the corridor that they were following. As they looked up, it was apparent that the obstacle was caused by a roof cave-in, leaving several slabs still perching precariously across each other, high above their heads. There was still a way through though; the cave-in left a tunnel that was barely big enough to fit one person.
"Voice, the roof has fallen down in the corridor that we're following. We're gonna go through the tunnel that's been left." Hel reported, speaking quickly. She trained her laser gauntlets, about to enter, when the Voice sounded in her ear.
"Helen, stop! Sarge must go through the tunnel first."
There was no time to question her any further, not if they wanted to keep on the Betrayer's tail. They could already hear the footfalls receding into the distance. She looked at Sarge and nodded at the tunnel. "Go!"
Luckily, Sarge was accustomed to taking point and obeyed without questioning. Hel turned to Cleo, about to tell her to go through safe in the middle, when they heard a roar of falling rocks and stones, and a short, muffled scream.
They spun around.
The rest of the roof had toppled, caving in on their friend. "Sarge!" Cleo screamed. "No!"
Hel couldn't move, couldn't react, couldn't breathe. 'This can't be happening,' her mind kept telling her, over and over again. 'No... not Sarge...' She suddenly ran over to the rubble, and began to paw at the loose rocks and concrete, blasting apart slabs when they were too big to move, and throwing the shattered pieces behind her. "Sarge? Sarge! Can you hear me?" she called out, continually repeating herself, hoping to her something, anything from the warrior.
Nothing. She became acutely aware of the silence around her, broken only by the quiet sounds of Cleo crying, as she helped her pull at the rubble. "Hel," the kid sobbed. "What if... what... no one could have survived..."
"Sarge could have. She could. Come on Cleo, help me."
Then they saw it. Her hand, protruding from beneath two heavy concrete slabs that had fallen across each other. Hel set a shield under the hollow where Sarge was, then she and Cleo stepped back as she blasted the blocks apart. They hurridely rushed over again and brushed away the rubble from the shield before she deactivated it.
Sarge was curled up in a tight ball, eyes closed, cuts and bruises massed on her face and body. But her face didn't have the ashen-grey colour of death, she had the sense to get beneath a support beam and Hel could see that it had taken the brunt of the weight of the rocks. Hel put her fingers to her pulse-point, and felt the steady beat of her heart. She looked up at Cleo, unable to help her relieved smile. "She's alive. Got the heart of a jackhammer. Cleo, get my..." But the girl already had the sense to find her medicinal kit, handing it to her. Hel ran the tool over Sarge's injuries, watching as the tissue knit together almost magically. She looked up again when she was finished, tucking away her kit. "This is all we can do here. We need to get her to a healing tube, now."
"Hel..." Cleo held out a small metal flask, her hands shaking as she wiped away her tears. "Give this to her."
"What is it?"
"Something that Mauser and I have been working on... it's sort of a regenerative fluid. It'll wake Sarge up for sure... maybe start working on her internal injuries."
"We... we haven't had a chance to test it yet."
Hel shrugged, and took the flask. She propped Sarge up, opening her mouth and pouring in a liberal amount of the clear liquid. She stroked her throat, making her swallow. "C'mon sister... don't give up. I can't lose you, not now..." she murmured, not even aware that she was speaking.
Scant seconds past. Sarge's eyes suddenly flew open, and she started coughing, spitting out the fluid in her mouth. "What is that?" she exclaimed.
Cleo was laughing and crying, as she flung herself at the warrior. "Sarge! You're all right!"
But Hel had seen her grimace in pain as the kid landed on her, and she pulled Cleo away again. "Not quite ready for that though, Cleo." She looked at Sarge in concern. "How do you feel?"
"Like a bunch of Baileys were using my head as a dancefloor," Sarge replied, wincing as she pushed herself up then hauled herself to her feet. "That tunnel..."
"There was a fall-in. You got trapped, and we had to dig you out..."
"There was a fall-in," Sarge repeated. "After you told me to go through..."
Hel's eyes widened, she hadn't made the connection, up till now.
But the warrior had. Sarge stalked up to her, and she didn't resist, when her friend pinned her by the throat against the wall. "Did the Voice order you to tell me to go through that corridor first?" she snarled.
Hel looked at her, then turned her head slightly, speaking to the Voice in a clear, deliberate tone. "Voice? Why did you tell Sarge to lead us through that tunnel?"
There was no reply for so long that she thought the Voice wasn't going to answer her; it wasn't the first time that she chose to keep silent. Then finally "If the corridor had collasped, I believed that she would have been the one strong enough to get through. Tell her I am sorry, Hel."
"The Voice thought that you were the one who would have most likely survived the fall-in. She says she's sorry."
Sarge let her go, and she dropped to her feet, rubbing at her throat. They exchanged a long look, and something seemed to pass between them. Hel finally made a quick gesture with her hand, indicating that she had to reply. "Tell her I accept her apology," Sarge said gruffly.
But that wasn't good enough, not anymore. Hel stepped apart from them, to consult with the Voice herself. "You knew that the corridor would have fallen in, didn't you? Didn't you?"
"You knew Sarge was hurt, and you thought she was a liability. I have made it clear before that I would not put your missions above Sarge or Cleo's life. Did you really think that if the rockfall had killed Sarge then I would have been happy to go along and get your precious vial for you?"
She could hear the growing anger, as the Voice replied to her. "Don't presume to know how I think, Helen. Listen to me..."
"No, you listen," she growled. "If you knew that the corridor could have collasped, you should have told me first. I have made it clear before that I won't sacrifice any member of my team for your mission. Don't you ever undermine my integrity as a team leader in such a way again."
There was a shocked silence at the other end of the receptor. When the Voice spoke again, Hel could sense her trembling in rage. The extent of emotions was something that she had never observed before, not through the technologically modified voice. "Helen, I have made you what you are! You don't have the right to question what I do!"
"I have every right! When I have given up who I am, my life... everything for you and your purpose, I have every right to question what you choose to do with us."
"Hel," Impatience, now. "We will discuss this later. Right now, you need to retrieve that vial..."
"No. Sarge's hurt. I'm terminating this mission."
"I said, mission terminated." She flicked the switch on the jammer. Both Cleo and Sarge were looking at her in concern.
"Hel..?" Cleo began, but Hel shook her head.
"Not now, Cleo. We're going back to the lab." The kid did have some sense; seeing that Hel was in no mood to talk, she only nodded and turned, leading the way back to their hideout. Hel dropped back beside Sarge, who was gingerly clutching at her midsection. "You okay?" she asked.
Sarge nodded, probing gently at her ribcage with her fingers then wincing from the pain. "Nothing's broken. Just bruised."
"Do you need a healing tube?"
"No. I'll be fine in a few minutes." She looked at her friend. "It's come, hasn't it?"
Hel kept her eyes ahead, not looking at her. "Yeah."
"Do you want me to do it? It was my suggestion..."
"No. It's my responsibilty."
"Hel..." Sarge stopped her, gripping her shoulder roughly, then grimacing in pain from the sudden action. "This is my choice. You can't take responsibility for that."
"No Sarge," Hel drew herself up, her tone hardening. "I made you aware of Voice's mission and convinced you to join the team. I decided to take Cleo with us when we were in that cryogenics lab. This has always has been my responsibility."
To Be Continued
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