Follow The Ashes – Into the Belly of the Beast

Cas sat on the slab of metal made up to look like a bed by way of paper-thin sheets and stared out into the space beyond the small room. A series of monitors jutted down from the ceiling, hanging just above their corresponding consoles.  The monitors were dark but didn’t appear to be off. Every few minutes, if Cas tilted her head just right, she could see bursts of text shift across the screen.

She stood up and approached the opening to the room, cautious to not step too close. She glanced out into the larger space, and still she saw no one.

“Hello?” Cas hazarded to say. She was met with no response, or at least not one she could understand. Seconds after she spoke, another rush of text crossed one of the monitors. Several words were red, but all of it had moved too quickly for her to see. Still, however, there was no one else to be seen. The ashes had not made an appearance since her capture, either. She wondered, as a dull remnant of the pain caused by being shocked passed through her, how long she’d been in this room. If she would ever have the chance to leave it.

Cas took a deep breath and stepped forward. Her foot crossed the threshold into the larger chamber, and as it made contact with the floor a translucent wave rippled towards her from where the other walls met the floor and ceiling. She had no time to react.

Cas slammed into the far wall of the room hard enough to knock the air out of her lungs. She fell to the floor, spitting blood and curses in equal measure. She heard something, finally, in response.

Footsteps. Someone was hurrying towards her, she could tell.

Someone in a black, armored uniform appeared. She wore no helmet nor visor, her face a collection of harsh angles framing a look of disgust. Her shocking neon pink hair was cut short, and it looked to be meticulously combed and gelled into place. She raised her left arm up until it obscured part of her face and tapped at a series of protrusions on its gauntlet.

Static crackled from an unseen speaker in the gauntlet. “I read you, Captain Ismeria,” boomed a deep, male voice. “Something the matter?”

“Raph, we have a situation with our guest,” the woman called Captain Ismeria said, her harsh gaze locked on Cas. “You and Maeve should be here in the event we need to alert the boss.”

“Copy,” responded the deep voice. There was another crackle of static, followed by the distant, distinct footfalls of heavy boots. Two others appeared in the black, armored uniforms.

The first to show up was tall and lanky. He was baby-faced, which made the number of jagged scars crisscrossing his cheeks, the bridge of his nose, and across his left eye all the more unsettling. Short black hair concealed additional scars, the edges of which were visible reaching out just beyond the young man’s hairline. He met Cas’s gaze, his brown eyes locked on hers, and he frowned.

Before he could speak, the third person in uniform appeared. She looked to be the oldest of the group. Her eyes and hair were silver, her hair in a braid that wound down over her left shoulder. She folded her arms over her chest and, like Ismeria, she glared at Cas.

“What, dare I ask, happened?” asked the older woman. “I merely stepped away for a bite to eat. I cannot be held accountable for this.” She waved dismissively at Cas.

“Perhaps, Maeve, you can explain that to Gavin,” Ismeria snapped back. “That you had merely stepped away. I’m sure he’ll understand. Maeve recoiled, her eyes narrowed at Ismeria.

“Maybe,” interjected the scarred man. “Should we just alert him now? Less severe a punishment that way.”

Cas slowly, still crouched, moved herself closer to the bed. She felt far too exposed, too out in the open.

“It’s not the worst idea you’ve had, Raph,” Ismeria conceded. She returned her attention to Cas. “You! Stay still! The last thing we need is for you to die from injuries because you were careless enough to wander into a forcefield.”

Cas froze, only inches from being able to conceal herself under the bed. After a moment, the three were no longer focused on her.

“This will likely require an incident report,” Maeve said, scowling. “That will, of course, be forwarded to management.”

“Or we resolve this,” Ismeria said.

Cas watched the three turn to face the same direction. Her room, which she realized was a prison cell of sorts, was on their right.

Raph and Maeve tensed considerably, at attention. Ismeria was, too, at attention, but it seemed less unnatural. Cas could see fear in Maeve’s eyes, in the way they intermittently darted around as though looking for an exit.

“Resolve what?” asked a familiar voice. Cas found herself clenching her jaw as the well-dressed, well-kept man with the strange eye appeared.

“Sir!” Raph and Maeve responded together.

“Sir,” Ismeria said.

The trio saluted the man called Gavin.

“If you insist,” Gavin said, returning the salute. “While I appreciate being given an excuse to depart from a meeting that could have very well been an e-mail, I will ask again. Resolve what?”

Raph and Maeve exchanged quick glances.

“A meeting, sir?” Ismeria asked.

Gavin waved his hand dismissively. “Investors.” He spat out the word like it were something offensive to him. Before anyone else could say anything, Cas watched as Gavin turned to face her. Thin pieces of metal danced around the false pupil of his artificial eye like flower petals caught in a whirlwind.

“What happened here?” Gavin demanded. “Is this the situation you were debating making me aware of?”

Cas pulled herself up onto the bed and laid back, wincing. The pain had subsided, but not entirely. This time, she wasn’t ordered to be still, and for that brief moment she was happy her captors were preoccupied. She inhaled, slowly and deeply, and exhaled even more slowly. She returned her attention to the conversation, noticing it had become more heated.

“She walked into the forcefield?” Gavin asked, his words heavy with skepticism. “You mean to tell me the three of you let her walk into the forcefield?” He massaged his temples, his calm, carefully crafted façade having temporarily fallen away.

“This is my fault,” Ismeria said. Gavin didn’t seem to be paying attention. He had turned toward a bank of consoles on the opposite wall. Cas could only see so much of Gavin. He had held his hands up, palms towards each other. The monitor directly in front of him flickered, its screen suddenly a light blue with white text scrolling every direction across its surface.

Gavin turned his palms outwards, and the screen went blank. The blue background remained.

“Sir, I must advise you that this is my fault,” Ismeria repeated. Gavin moved his fingers in the air slowly, as if each gesture involved a great deal of thought and care. An anatomically accurate heart appeared in the upper right corner of the screen, and after a moment several numbers appeared superimposed over it. A series of icons and words flashed along the center of the screen. Gavin interacted with each of them in turn, dismissing them from the monitor as he did.

Cas watched intently. Other than a lingering, pervasive ache, nothing seemed terribly out of place.

“Sir, I had stepped out to get dinner,” Raph said, stepping between Ismeria and Gavin. Cas watched as Maeve clenched her fists. Raph continued, but too quietly for Cas to overhear.

Gavin turned to face Raph, glimpsing briefly past him at Cas. “Is this true, Captain Ismeria?” he challenged.

Ismeria shook her head. “The truth is none of us were here,” she confessed. “I had stepped away briefly for a personal matter. If Raph had gone to get food, I was unaware of it.”

“I simply can’t stand the sight of her,” Maeve interrupted. Cas perked up at the words. There was a familiarity to Maeve, though Cas couldn’t quite place it. She noticed the same about the others as well. The longer she thought about it, the more urgently she felt her thoughts turning to how unlikely it was. These people, she reasoned, were her captors.

“Word of this does not leave this room,” Gavin said. “Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Raph said.

“Of course,” Ismeria said.

Maeve set her jaw. “I’d love to give her a piece of my mind,” she said, her eyes now locked on Cas.

Gavin glanced over his shoulder, his lips pursed and eyes narrowed. “Is that so?” he asked. He waved a hand dismissively at the monitor.

The air at the mouth of Cas’s room—her cell—wavered briefly, a translucent silver bubble visible for only seconds before it disappeared with a soft fizzling sound in its wake. Cas eyed the opening warily.

“Forgive my asking, sir, but is this wise?” Ismeria asked.

Gaving shrugged, almost imperceptibly. “We hardly have time for this,” he said. “It’s something we need resolved now. The last thing we need is for problems like this to arise when Vittorio can find out.”

Cas watched as Raph and Ismeria tensed at mention of the name. Vittorio, she thought. Like a soap bubble on a hot surface, the name conjured something only so briefly in her memory before it fizzled and vanished. She was snapped back to the present by the sound of something cracking.

Maeve was cracking her knuckles, then her neck. “Stand and face me,” she snarled. Cas stood, still shaky from her earlier injuries. The air left her as Maeve, far faster than expected, punched Cas in her stomach. Cas managed, barely, to duck beneath the blow intended for her face, but the world tilted around her and Cas fell backwards.

“Stand and fight me,” Maeve spat. She glowered over her shoulder at the others. “All of this is her fault!”

“Bite your tongue,” Gavin snapped. “I’m allowing you more than you deserve right now. You have two more minutes. I suggest you make them count.”

Cas stared at the others. Ismeria watched through a mask of indifference. If she felt anything about Maeve attacking Cas, it certainly didn’t show. A curious blend of amusement and anger danced across his face.

Raph, however, looked distressed. He seemed to have to restrain himself with each blow that Maeve landed. Cas wanted to know why, and she knew in that moment she would have to earn her answers.

Cas stood, slowly and carefully, her fists raised in front of her. It felt natural, she noticed, as she placed her feet. She wondered for but a brief moment if she had enjoyed boxing or martial arts, or if she was only acting out a pantomime of something she’d watched before.

Maeve lunged, but Cas was prepared. She deflected a jab intended for her jaw before returning a punch of her own. She was careful in her aim, striking the older woman’s collarbone near her right arm. Maeve lurched back.

Specks of blood blossomed on Cas’s knuckles where they had made contact with Maeve’s armor. She fought against the pain, raising her fists in front of herself again. Maeve sneered, reaching for something at her waist.

The older woman was fast, and Cas found herself grateful that in that moment her reflexes were faster. She only narrowly dodged the knife that Maeve produced, its blade only grazing her chin. Cas caught a glimpse of the others as they watched. Perhaps it was the heat of the moment, but she thought she saw a hint of a smile on Gavin’s face. Before she could think on it too long, Maeve had swung the blade again.

“Sir, should we intervene?” Raph asked, his voice hushed. Gavin held up a hand as if to dismiss the idea.

It was as if someone else had stepped into Cas’s body and was guiding her movements. She sidestepped the upward swing with ease, while reaching out. She caught Maeve’s arm with her left hand, continuing to guide it up while applying pressure to the woman’s elbow with her right hand. It all felt like slow-motion and yet only happened in an instant.

Cas was jarred back to reality by the sudden, sickly pop Maeve’s elbow made. She had no time, she thought. The knife slipped from Maeve’s fingers, and before it had finished one rotation in the air, she had grabbed it.

“I want answers,” Cas demanded. She glared at Gavin as she spoke, the knife held firmly against Maeve’s throat. She tensed her arm, and single rivulet of blood appeared where the knife bit in.

Gavin smiled in response. Cas glanced behind her for a split second.

“There’s no one else to worry about,” Gavin said. “My entire taskforce is right here.”

“Sir,” Maeve said, her words labored as each syllable she dared speak threatened to allow the knife greater purchase. “Please.”

Gavin shrugged. “You wanted to give her a piece of your mind,” he said. “It looks like she gave you a little more than a piece of hers.”

Gavin stepped forward, stopping at the edge of Cas’s cell. “Kill her and you’ll get no answers,” he said. “Let her go and drop the knife, and perhaps I can indulge you.”

Cas scowled. “I let her go and I have no guarantee,” she said.

“A valid point,” Gavin said. “One question guaranteed. Is that sufficient?” He raised his hands in mock surrender again, the same pose he held when she had first met him. She relaxed her arm, dropping the knife.

Maeve staggered forward, out of the small room and out of Cas’s reach. “I won’t forget this!” she spat.

“I suspect you won’t,” Gavin said. He flicked his wrist. There was a shift in the air, and Cas found herself pinned to the floor. She struggled, and was able to pull herself up for a moment before she was forced down again.

“You said I get a question,” Cas sneered.

Gavin shook his head. “I said one question, then I asked one,” he snarked back. He waved his hands and the forcefield shifted back to the mouth of the room, a hint of silver present in the air that Cas failed to see before.

Cas pulled herself to her feet and took stock of herself.

“Get her to the infirmary,” Gavin said. “Keep the story short and sweet. Maybe something about outdated, malfunctioning equipment. No specifics. Do you understand? There is too much at stake to let anything else out.” He turned back to Cas, shaking his head. He wavered, his form distorted, and disappeared.

Another hologram, Cas realized.

“I can take her to the infirmary, Captain,” Raph offered.

Ismeria shook her head. “It is my duty to tend to my subordinates,” she said. “When I return, you may take your leave. Despite what you said, I know you haven’t left your watch.”

Raph said nothing. He only nodded in response as Ismeria walked away with Maeve. Cas observed as he watched them leave. He turned to face Cas, and raised a finger to his lips. He turned to the monitors and flexed his fingers. A series of numbers and characters ran across one of the screens, and Raph reacted accordingly—or, at least, so it seemed to Cas.

The forcefield fizzled for an instant and was gone.

“Quickly,” Raph said. “There’s not much time at all.” He approached one of the physical consoles and began tapping away at its keys. Cas cautiously approached the opening to her cell, hesitant to try crossing its threshold again.

“How do I know I can trust you?” Cas demanded.

Raph turned to face her. “You can’t, really,” he said. “That’s the worst part of it. I don’t know Gavin’s plans for you presently, and I’d rather we not find out.” He returned his attention to the console, typing feverishly. There was a series of heavy clicks from within the wall. Two monitors shifted upwards, and their corresponding consoles shifted away to reveal a doorway.

At the edge of the doorway, previously concealed by the consoles, sat a small heap of ashes. Dim, outdated lighting systems illuminated the space beyond the newly-revealed opening. Cas could see little, but just enough to see that the ashes spilled beyond the doorway.

Cas picked up the knife, left behind from her encounter with Maeve. “Say I choose to trust you,” she mused. “At least for the time being. Know that I will not hesitate to do what it takes to escape.”

Raph looked back at Cas and smiled. “I don’t doubt that,” he said. “Follow me. We have so little time.” He entered the doorway and Cas followed.

The space beyond the holding area was vast and towering, like the stairwell she had been in previously. Catwalks and staircases spanned the chamber like the root systems of an ancient redwood deep within the earth. Cas glanced down and felt a wave of dizziness hit her. The consoles moved back into place, covering their escape, as Cas regained her senses.

“Best not to look,” Raph said. “Sorry,” he added, and Cas felt as though he genuinely meant it.

“Where are we?” Cas asked.

“This is part of The Facility that has been decommissioned,” Raph said. “Replaced by newer technology and safer habitation areas. More investor-friendly, I’ve heard. Whatever that means anymore.”

He started walking ahead, and at an intersection he followed a small flight of stairs downwards. He paused at a landing to motion for Cas to follow.

“Decommissioned?” Cas asked, taking each step with caution. The catwalks looked sturdy enough, but each footfall echoed loudly enough to give her pause.

“Rendered obsolete,” Raph said.

Cas considered this, mentally backpedaling. “The Facility?” she questioned. She paused. “And what should I call you, anyway? I heard the others call you Raph?”

“Raph is fine,” Raph said. “And you’re Cas. The rest, at least for now, is history.” He stopped at another landing and glanced back up at Cas.

“I don’t enjoy being deliberately vague,” Raph added.

Cas raised an eyebrow. “Then why do it?” she asked.

Raph chuckled. “Orders,” he replied. “Honestly, it’s complicated. I don’t fully understand it. Not my lot in life.” He continued along, waving for Cas to follow as he did. His pace was brisk, but not with great urgency.

“If we’re escaping,” Cas hazarded to ask, “shouldn’t we be moving a little more quickly?”

Raph shook his head as he walked. “This part of The Facility isn’t heavily monitored,” he said. “Very smart planning, now that I think about it, because by the time someone realizes where we have gone it’ll take some time to pinpoint our exact location.”

Cas walked faster, biding her time. She caught up with Raph on the next landing, then moved past him to block his way. The knife remained in her hand from earlier, but she kept it at her side.

“If nothing else, please tell me this much,” Cas said. “Under whose orders?”

Raph laughed. It started from deep in his belly, and was the most genuine, relaxed reaction Cas had gotten out of him. “I’ll no doubt regret this,” he said. “Your orders, Miss Cass.”

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