“Nobody escapes,” Alirio said, very sure of it.
“Shaysh who?” the soldier smiled. Or tried to. His attempt made his face even more terrifying.
“Nobody ever has,” Alirio shook his head as he said it.
“Eshcapesh happen all the time,” the soldier insisted, “Maybe not from thish island, not in a long time, but they happen.”
“Surely we would know…,” Alirio started to say.
“Why? ‘Caushe the Mashtersh would be real eager to sshare that with their shlaves?” the soldier made his horrific smile again.
The soldier picked up his helmet, examining the rim and the visor before speaking again.
“Look. I’m gonna make it shimple,” he put the helmet on, his voice replaced with the deep, clear tone that characterized the Taskmaster’s soldiers, “You do exactly as I say, and I’ll help you and your lover escape.”
Alirio narrowed his eyes, “This is a trick.”
“No tricks,” the soldier stood, “Either I blame you for breaking your friend out of here, or…” the soldier made a gesture with his hand, as if implying the rest of his sentence was obvious.
“Or what?” Alirio asked
“Or,” the soldier rested his hand on his pistol, “I could just kill the both of you.”
Alirio looked to the door.
The soldier shook his head, “I wouldn’t.”
Alirio slowly nodded, “If you think you can…I mean…I’m not even sure what we’d do with our freedom.”
“Anything you want,” the soldier said, “That’s the idea.”
The soldier slapped Alirio on the shoulder, “Now let’s go. Don’t speak unless spoken to, and if you are spoken to, I’m taking you for questioning because of the outburst over the other one.”
“Right. But you don’t know that,” the soldier said, pressing a firm hand between Alirio’s shoulder blades, ushering him towards the door.
“Don’t know Jean Claude?” Alirio asked.
“No, you don’t know where I’m taking you,” The soldier said. Every word filtered through that helmet seemed to take on a sinister quality. Something in that artificial voice promised pain, even when speaking as casually as Alirio would in the barracks.
“Then why did you tell me?” Alirio asked.
“‘Cause you should know why you’re here, even if you don’t know…why…you’re here…,” the soldier trailed off, “Whatever. You know what I mean.”
Alirio shook his head, “I don’t.”
“Just don’t speak,” said the man as he opened the door.
They walked down the hall together, Alirio in front, letting himself be directed by the soldier’s firm grasp on his upper arm. The soldier’s other hand rested not quite casually on this gun, and Alirio felt the man tense as they turned each corner of the labyrinthian complex.
They passed a group of soldiers in a room. Normal looking humans. Their skin was dark and smooth, not milky pale and marred like the soldier pulling Alirio along. They stood laughing among themselves, strapping into body armor and faceless helmets.
Another pair of soldiers they met along the way were already in the face concealing masks, and they greeted Alirio’s escort like a friend. They gestured to Alirio with a lowered weapon and mumbled a question in what sounded like Taskmaster language. His escort turned to one and said something in a language that didn’t sound like the Taskmasters’ at all, but didn’t sound like anything else Alirio had ever heard either. The one his escort spoke to let out an uncontrollable belt of laughter. He waved them through, into a featureless lift. Alirio heard his soldier audibly sigh when the door closed behind them.
“What’s your name?” Alirio found himself asking quietly.
“I told you not to talk,” the man whispered back.
Alirio couldn’t help it. He was fine thinking of the other soldiers as the mask and nothing else. They did the Taskmaster’s foul work and never apologized for it, and for that Alirio would never forgive them. This one though, who looked so hideous behind the mask, was helping him. Alirio wasn’t content to leave things at the mask, and he was even less content to leave it at the face under it. He needed a name to go with that face.
“My name is Alirio,” he said, ignoring the warning to be quiet.
“…Koya,” his escort finally said.
The lift shifted, and Alirio felt his guts rise. They were going down.
“You said something earlier. You said “collaborators” like you weren’t one.”
“So?” the soldier said, “I’m not. I’m with the 1076th Intra-Orbital, contracted under the Julian Trade Coalition.”
Alirio glared at the man. He said that like it meant something, and Alirio was certain he’d done that on purpose, knowing Alirio had no idea what it meant. “I have no idea what that means.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Koya said, “It would take too long to explain, and we’re on a time-table.”
“Fine,” Alirio said, “At least explain why you’re bothering to help me.”
“Do you care?” Koya looked up at him, clearly annoyed, “I’m getting you and your boyfriend out.”
“I do care. Why?”
Koya sighed, “Because I’m the kind of guy who would get you out, and your friend Jean Claude knows who I am.”
Alirio went silent for a minute.
Of course. Jean Claude had always been so interested in those stories about the resistance. Always asking for news from newcomers, always encouraging people to tell stories of the outside. And he’d wanted to share something with Alirio, right before they took him away. Had he finally found his proof?
“Are you a resistance fighter?” Alirio asked.
“No,” Koya shook his head, “At least, nothing so formal. I’m just your bog-standard traitor.”
Alirio would have asked more questions, but the lift door opened, and John Doe (or another one of the man’s doppelgangers) stepped into the lift.
“Sir,” the man said, nodding to Koya, a stupid grin plastered on his face. When he nodded, Alirio decided it wasn’t the John Doe who’d worked on his probe. The bits of metal sticking out of this fellow’s head were different he thought.
Koya guided Alirio out of the lift, past the fourth or fifth twin of John Doe, who entered the lift as they left, and disappeared behind the metal doors.
“How…” Alirio was about to ask.
“Trust me, the answer to that question is even weirder than you think,” Koya started walking faster, “Johns and Janes all look alike, or nearly. It’s usually not worth trying to tell them apart. You might as well consider them equipment.”
“That sounds horrible. They’re slaves like me and Jean?” Alirio asked looking back.
“God no. Worse. They think they’re here by choice. But one battle at a time kid. Let’s get your friend,” Koya pulled Alirio forward.
The hall Koya was leading him through was very different from the one Alirio had seen upstairs. The one upstairs had been covered in beige from ceiling to floor. This hall was almost its complete opposite. Stark, grey concrete for walls and floor, exposed pipes and wiring running along the ceiling, with angry red sigils painted next to riveted metal doors.
Finally, Koya stopped in front of one, apparently he could read the sigils.
“So,” Koya muttered, “if nobody’s in there with him, this should be easy.”
“And if not?” Alirio asked.
“Then I’m gonna need you to keep your head down and do exactly as I say. Got it?” Koya turned his faceless mask to Alirio.
Koya opened the door.
The room was dimly lit, save a bright spotlight in the center of the room, pointed at a table. Around the table stood two nearly identical women, who bore a striking resemblance to John Doe. Only one of them bothered to look up when Koya entered the room. Sitting in a chair that looked terribly out of place, with its lacquered wood and embroidered cushions amid the cold concrete, was a strange looking man with eyes like bursts of rainbow color. Flanked by two other soldiers, the man turned to face Koya and Alirio. His eyes, Alirio realized, weren’t just filled with every color Alirio could conceive, but they seemed to give off light, such that the colors could be distinguished, even when the man’s face was turned away from the light.
“What is this?” the man asked in a voice like velvet.
Koya closed the door behind them, and led Alirio further into the room.
“What is this?” the man asked again.
From here, Alirio could see that there was a person on the table between the two women. He couldn’t see the face, but he didn’t have to. He felt his breath catch in his throat, and his gut tie up in knots. A small sound escaped his lips and he wanted to rush to the side of the table, but Koya’s grip tightened on his arm, as if he knew exactly what Alirio planned to do.
The man with the impossible eyes stood with a sigh of exasperation. Walking to meet Koya halfway.
“I asked you what this is about, soldier. Answer me!” the man finally shouted.
There was a flash of movement beside Alirio, and he felt an arm shove him to the ground. There was high-pitched bark of thunder as Koya fired, and the man with rainbows in his eyes was knocked back. The two soldiers by the chair went for their guns, but there was another bang and one suddenly seemed to go limp. Koya hadn’t fired, and when Alirio turned he saw that one of the women around the table was suddenly holding a gun. The other recoiled back in terror.
The other soldier got off one shot, but Koya was a blur, and the soldier missed. Koya and the woman at that table both fired, and the soldier couldn’t dodge them both. He went down next to his companion.
There was another bang from the table, and Alirio followed the woman’s gun to see her twin, lying dead by the door.
Movement by the bodies caught Alirio’s eye, and he realized that the man with rainbow eyes wasn’t dead. In fact, he didn’t seem wounded at all. He was scrambling away, shouting at no one.
“We good, Jane?” Koya asked without looking at the table.
“Blackout for another 15 minutes. Best I could do,” the woman answered.
Koya holstered his own weapon, and took both the guns from the fallen soldiers, bringing them up towards the rainbow-eyed man.
“Go to your boyfriend, kid,” Koya told Alirio, “Unless you’d particularly like to watch one of your Taskmaster’s die.”
Koya started shooting. At first, the shots seemed to glance off some invisible barrier surrounding the man. The man would stumble back with the force of the shot, but would not appear physically harmed. As Koya kept shooting, the barrier began to radiate a dim light, and the man with rainbow eyes began stammering out pleas and bargains for his life.
Alirio almost stayed to watch, but Jean Claude would need him. He turned away, settled for the the satisfying sound of the rainbow-eyed Taskmaster begging, as its shield began to fail.
Alirio got to the table, and found the woman Koya had called Jane pulling probes out of Jean Claude.
“You’re his friend?” she asked.
“We’re together,” Alirio answered.
She nodded, and finished pulling her probes. He face twitched just below a few bits of metal at her temple, and Jean Claude suddenly gasped awake.
“Sorry,” she said quickly, helping him up, “pinging the implant was the fastest way to wake you up.”
Jean Claude mumbled and looked around without seeing much of anything.
“What have you done to him?” Alirio asked.
“We sedated him when he came in. It’s easier to wire prisoners up for interrogation when they’re not struggling. I’ve set his implant to give him just enough stimulation to keep him awake for about four hours before it burns itself out,” the woman explained, hardly pausing for breath as she started to help Jean Claude to his feet. Jean Claude didn’t seem to be able to stand. “I don’t know how helpful he’ll be, but this is the best I can do for you.”
With one finally cry and a bang, Koya arrived to help support Jean Claude. Alirio ran a finger along Jean’s cheek, “Jean, can you hear me?”
Jean Claude looked up at Alirio through half lidded eyes and smiled, “You’re here.”
Alirio kissed Jean Claude’s forehead, tears running down his face, “Of course.”
“You can have your tearful reunion later. We’re not in the clear just yet,” Koya insisted. He turned to Jane, and held out a hand, “You ready?”
She grimaced, handing Koya her gun and reaching up behind her neck to adjust some bit of metal.
“Give me one more minute,” She pulled a length of cable with a needle on the end from behind her neck, and went to each of the fallen soldiers, plunging the needle into little metal discs in their uniforms. She did the same to her twin, though the needle when into the dead woman’s arm rather than her clothing. When she was finished, she returned to the area around the table and stored the needle wherever it went behind her neck.
“I gonna hate myself for this later,” she grumbled.
“Leg or arm?” Koya asked.
“Arm please. Don’t bother making it pretty. It needs to be convincing.”
Koya looked skeptical, “You’re sure?”
She smiled, “You’re too attached to your flesh, Koya.”
She finished fiddling with her metal bits, let her arm down and then seemed to brace her whole body.
“Ok,” she said, letting a long slow breath out through her teeth, “Do it.”
Koya shot her.
It wasn’t pretty at all.
She started screaming, clutching at the bloody mess of her arm. She cursed and cried but Koya just hoisted Jean Claude up and carried him to the door, leaving the woman alone with her pain.