The pain made everything a blur. Alirio could tell he was being dragged somewhere, then hefted onto something, but it was all a vague, broad strokes sort of awareness. All the details eluded him, as even with the implant off, his entire body was still howling with the lingering pain. He could hear somebody whispering over him.
“…knows what it’s about?…the other one…no chance….I’ll sign the order. The Johns won’t question it…”
Alirio couldn’t be sure, but he thought it might be two voices. He blacked out, somewhat aware that he was in a bed, but not in the slave quarters.
When he came to, he was in a room filled with tones of beige. Everything from the walls, the floor, even the sheets of his bed were some variation of a sandy color. A small drone, smaller than Alirio’s head, hovered near the door.
“Good Morning,” it chirped, “Please do not move, as you may injure yourself further.”
Alirio didn’t move. He dared not defy the drone now.
Moments later a human entered the through the door behind the drone. Not a slave, this one dressed in one of the collaborator uniforms.
“Hello, Alirio,” the man said, more chipper than the drone, “My name if John Doe, but you may call me John if you’d like.”
Alirio still didn’t move, just watched the man as he pulled a chair from the far wall over to Alirio’s bed. He was short, with milky pale skin and brown hair, and the back of his neck was covered in small bits of metal poking through his skin. Some flat, some indented into his neck, and a few that stuck out like needles themselves. Alirio had seen this on some of the other collaborators. Most of whom looked just like John Doe. The pale man set a small case down on the bedside table, opening it to reveal several needle tipped devices.
The terror must have reached Alirio’s face, because John Doe smiled at him. “Don’t worry, I’ll just be probing your implant a bit. You will feel a negligible amount of pain.”
John removed one needled device, pulling at the end to reveal a meter’s length of slim cable that somehow had been concealed within the pencil sized implement. He then rolled up his sleeve, revealing more of the metal sticking up through his arm. He held the end of the cable up to one of the little bits of metal on his skin, and there was a click as they came together. He took the other end, holding it exactly like a pencil, and with his free hand pulled the collar of Alirio’s shirt down just a bit.
Alirio cringed as he saw the needle coming closer to his flesh.
“Excessive movement could damage the probe, or yourself,” John Doe said, still smiling, “Please try to be still.”
The needle punctured Alirio just below the collarbone on his left side. The needle didn’t hurt so much, but he could feel the pain of the implant testing itself. The memory of the active implant still burned in his muscles, and he had to grit his teeth and force himself not to flinch away.
But the pain stopped, and the collaborator withdrew the needle within a few seconds.
“All done. Your implant has been deactivated,” John Doe said smiling.
Alirio blinked, “What?”
“We’re all done, Alirio. You’ll find Out-processing down the hall,” the man said as he pressed a bit on his instrument and the cable began rapidly withdrawing.
He left the room, flanked by the drone, and held the door open while looking at Alirio, who could only stare back at him.
“Young man,” John said, “We will be needing this room empty. Please proceed to outprocessing.”
Alirio stood, muscles still sore, and walked to the door, stumbling a bit. He grasped the doorframe for support.
John Doe closed the door behind him, and nodded, “Good day. Please take the time to rate your service.”
Alirio watched as John turned on his heels, and walked down the hall away from him, the drone not even giving Alirio a second look as it followed the strange man. He watched the man walk all the way to the far end of the hallway, then turn down another and vanish from sight.
Alirio was alone in the hallway now. He took a moment to examine it. The walls were painted in that same sandy color as the room, while the floor was a slightly whiter stone-like material. The wall had writing on it, in both french, alien writing of the Taskmasters, and a third script Alirio wasn’t familiar with. The French instructions were clear enough, pointing him down a hallway to the place John had spoken of; ‘Out-processing.’ He started walking down the hall, still feeling weak and leaning on the wall most of the way. He tried to put the sequence of events in order. Jean Claude had been picked up by the Taskmaster.
Oh Jean! What had he been doing? What had gotten him in trouble? Did it have something to do with the new slaves?
Jean Claude had always been one of the slaves most interested in stories from outside the barracks. New slaves captured from the wildlands would bring in stories about rebel fighters out there in the world, killing the drones and freeing slaves so that they could fight.
None of slaves who came in with stories were fighters themselves of course. It was all just that: stories. Too good to be true. Jean had always believed though. Maybe some of the new slaves had said something to him. Gotten inside his head, and made him do something stupid.
But for whatever reason, they had taken Jean Claude away. Slaves sometimes came back after they’d been taken away.
Not all the time.
But maybe he was here? In one of these rooms. It was possible, wasn’t it?
After all, Alirio had been taken too. But instead of being killed or tortured, they’d deactivated his implant. Why? What possible reason could they have to do that?
That part made the least sense of anything that had happened so far. The only people without active implants were collaborators.
He came to the end of the hallway, which opened into a large room before a wide set of double doors. There were chairs, lined up in rows, with a few men and women wearing collaborator’s uniforms, three of which looked almost identical to John Doe. There was a desk, against the wall to Alirio’s left, behind which sat a creature with skin like bronze. Her face was that of a woman, her eyes were like a snake’s and her head was crowned in small ivory horns instead of hair.
Alirio gasped aloud.
The strange woman turned to him, snake eyes narrowing. She said something in the Taskmaster’s language. Slaves were never formally instructed in the tongue, but Alirio knew enough to recognize it was a question.
He had no idea how to respond though.
She asked again, this time she sounded angry. He recognized the word for ‘slave’ in there.
Alirio heard a door open, and turned to see another creature enter from double doors, this one pink, covered in fine fur, neither man nor woman as far as he could tell, with four arms that ended in six long nailed fingers.
And the other people in the chairs, who seemed as human as him, looked at Alirio like he was the unusual one.
The pink creature raised an eyebrow, saying something to the bronze skinned creature, who barked something furiously in Alirio’s direction.
Alirio tried to remember the one phrase he knew of the Taskmaster language, “I don’t know what you are saying.”
He was halfway through stammering it out, when a heavy hand fell on his shoulder.
“Do exactly as I say,” came the whisper from behind the mask of the soldier who held him.
The soldier said something to the rest of the room that sounded like an apology and pulled Alirio back towards the hallway, bowing to the four armed creature, and the snake eyed woman in turn. They were halfway back to the room Alirio had awoken in before the soldier spoke again.
“If we are stopped, say nothing. Nod if you understand.”
The soldier pushed Alirio back through the door he’d came from, looked down the hall both ways furtively, and then entered.
“The John was done sooner than I’d thought. Efficiency is their game I suppose,” the Soldier mumbled to himself as he reached up to release the clasps keeping his mask and helmet in place. Alirio thought he knew what was happening now. He and Jean Claude had heard stories of Taskmasters who would take slaves away for sport. One man had come back sans an arm, and told everyone a soldier had eaten it right in front of him.
Alirio backed up into the corner, sizing the soldier up. Alirio was taller than soldier, but the squat man had at least fifty pounds of muscle on Alirio, and probably was well trained in how to subdue slaves. At least the man couldn’t use the compliance implant now that it was deactivated.
The helmet came off, and Alirio nearly screamed. The two creatures in the far room had been strange, but each had been beautiful in their own way. What lay beneath the soldier’s helmet was not as strange, but it was as repulsive as the others had been attractive. The skin, what little was unmarred by the mess of pustules and lesions covering the man’s face, was pale beyond even John Doe’s. It looked more like a grotesque rubber mask beneath the helmet than an actual face. One eye looked human enough, the other was a tiny spot of metal in the center of ugly, inflamed scar tissue. The nose was missing, and where it should have been were merely two triangular holes in the face. And the teeth; there were no real teeth, just cruel looking metal teeth amid bloody gums.
The monster took a step closer to Alirio as he recoiled in the corner.
“Is thish the firsht time you’ve sheen one of ush without a helmet?” Even the voice was different without the helmet. The soldier’s voice had been clean and clear, but the monster’s was affected by its misshapen mouth.
Alirio shook his head, “I’ve seen Taskmaster soldiers, but never….I mean….,”
“Your own probably,” the monster nodded, “Collaboratorsh. Or Johnsh. Or Taveraneshe maybe. Perhapsh shome of my people more forshunate than me.”
The monster set the helmet down on the bed Alirio had woken up on, then took a seat where John Doe had sat. “Your friend, the one you were shcreaming after, hash left me a bit of a messh.”
Alirio just gaped at the monster, not knowing what to do.
“Shtop shtaring, will you,” it said, “I’m not that ugly.”
Alirio hastily looked away.
“Thank you. Now tell me, what’sh your deal with the one we caught. Besht friend? Brother? Lover? What?”
“We…” Alirio hesitated, “…we are together.”
“Gotscha,” the monster pulled his gun from his holster and Alirio flinched, “What? Sherioushly? Why would I kill you after ashking that? That doeshn’t even makes shenshe.”
“Then…why am I hear?” Alirio asked.
“You’re here becaushe you ran at two sholdiersh and a drone sshouting like a maniac,” the creature said sarcastically. It fiddled absently with the weapon as it spoke.
“But what about-”
“Your implant?” it asked.
“Well, ash I shaid, your friend hash left me a bit of a messh,” the soldier’s weapon made a clicking noise, then a low hum as he holstered it, “How would you like to eshcape thish island? You and your friend?”