Chapter 6 - Part 5
Seconds later the program ended. Their digital world disintegrated, leaving the pair in a large empty room with white reflective panels along all surfaces. Seth understood how projections worked and to some degree how virtual interface technology allowed for user input. However, he never understood how the previous regime managed to make a training program feel so real, complete with realistic consequences.
Astral stared off into the space beyond, the weight of the world weighing down on her. Seth reached out to her, the distance between them too wide. He wished he could help her to carry the burden, whatever it was. But if today's exercise had proven anything, it was that he was bigger hindrance than support.
He fetched the teddy bear from his pocket. It had remained safe and untarnished from the wrath of the digital swarm. "This system..." Astral wondered out loud. "Has it always been here?"
Seth nodded, volunteering: "Yes. I repaired it the year before last. I've been using it to train. I've reached class fifty," he added with a note of pride.
She glanced at him, measuring his worth, determining if his class level meant anything in the grand scheme of things. "No virtual interface behaves like this one," she sighed. "It's got to be a ghost in the machine. It's on a closed circuit?"
Again, he nodded. "Good," she replied. "Anyone else know about this?"
"No," his stomach twisted. Had he died today, would she have brought him to the surface? Of course not. He lured her into this death trap to satisfy his selfish curiosity. It would be too much of a risk for herself and her future to be seen with his body on the security feed. There would far too many questions. He got the impression that she might want to keep the facility's existents quiet. If he was right about his assumptions, he wondered why she would keep it from the administrators.
"You're not a survivor are you?" He braved. He didn't expect her to admit to anything. She wouldn't be able to risk it; an unlicensed Hunter was a punishable offense. She's be sentenced to exile if she were reported. A secret like that would be worth killing for. He regretted asking.
"Of course I am," she replied. Her voice was factual and cold. She cocked her head, suddenly concerned for Seth. "Are you sure you want this? Are you sure you want to be taught how to survive?"
Of course he did. "More than anything!"
She lowered her pale blue eyes as sadness touched her lips. She nodded and turned away to seek out the elevator. She pressed her palm against the reflective panel. Her palm scanned in, a set of doors slid open revealing their escape. Was it possible that she had a high-level security protocol embedded in her profile? That wasn't possible, everything, profiles included were kept separate from this facility.
He had to gain physical access through forgotten access tunnels, layered under newer infrastructure. It was like the training program had been forgotten entirely, and the newer generation chose to use the surface buildings to rebuild a new compound, oblivious of the treasure trove that lurked beneath it. He had spent months learning how to hack into the archaic system to create a profile just to be able to activate the program and track his progress. It took even longer to figure out how to call the elevator to and from the hidden facility. He couldn't understand why the military would have abandoned such a useful tool.
Seth followed her into the elevator. Would she really teach him everything she knew? She stared straight ahead, long after the doors had closed. He reached over to the panel that would take them to the ground floor, only to have his hand slapped away. "My bear," she told him.
He handed it and her tablet over. She poked at the bear's nose. "I don't think you're ready." Her penetrating gaze held Seth captive. "You don't understand what you're asking for." Her brows furrowed. "Are you expecting to come out of this as some...hero?"
"No," he gasped. "Did you know that there's only an eight-teen percent chance of survival from the killing fields? I come from a middle-class family, so my odds are even lower."
"I know what the odds are," her tone stopped him cold. "My father served two tours, the first one as part of his civil duties, the other as a convict. I know all too well what the killing fields do to survivors."
"So what!" Seth raged. "I should just go and expect to die? I should just give up now! Is that what you're telling me?"
"No. What I'm saying is once you step foot onto the killing fields, you don't ever step off."
He felt like he had been punched in the soul. He had always suspected that her words were true in one form or another. The men and women who came back from serving their tour were never the same. Friends and family who knew them best had always felt the day their sons and daughters left, was the day that they died. They would return to rebuild their broken lives. They would eventually adjust to civilian life. The reality was that the men and women who came back were not the ones who left four years prior.
He felt his frustration manifest. He blinked away tears and struck the elevator doors. "What else am I supposed to do?" He couldn't hold back his tears. He was embarrassed to reveal the depth of his desperation.
"Seth..." Astral whispered. No one had ever said his name with such compassion. He couldn't bring himself shrug off her hand as she stroke his back. "You're asking me to rob you of your last year of peace, of sound sleep, and innocence. You're asking me to bring you to the war zone now."
He tried to wipe away his tears. She gave him a minute to think about what she was telling him and severity of his request. "I don't understand," he admitted. Some part of him knew that he was lying to himself. It was the same part that knew that his problem was bigger than himself; it was bigger than some arbitrary line in the sand that separated the war from the remnants of humanity.
She sighed and stared up at the ceiling. She could barely look him in the eye. Spelling it out for him was weighing heavily on the teen. "You don't need me to tell you what you already know," she said at last. "By the way, this program will get you killed. Eventually, it will win. Don't use it without my supervision."
First, deny him what he so desperately crave: salvation. Next, deny him the only method available to achieve that end. "It knows that you can't handle swarms," she told him. "But it's still too weak to send out anything stronger."
"I'm not following," Seth admitted. He appreciated the distraction. She shook her head. "It's nothing to worry about as long as you promise me that you won't come here without me."
"I can't promise that," he scowled. "I won't promise that."
"You would sacrifice the lives of thousands to satisfy your ego?" Her words cut into him.
"This has nothing to do with my ego!" He roared, striking the elevator door for a second time. She glared at him. "Then quit pretending that it is," she countered. "Your life, your desperation may be just strong enough to jeopardize the students here. Do you wish them to die so that you can achieve your goals?"
"Don't insult me," he hissed. "I'm not like that!"
"We'll see, now won't we." Astral activated the console to return the elevator to ground level.
- Astral issues a warning to Seth: "People who step onto the killing fields, never step off." What do you think she means by this?
- The second warning Astral implies is: "Don't play the hero." Despite what Seth says, do you think he's also trying to be a hero?
- Given Seth's position in this mess, do you think manipulating Astral into helping him is going to be worth it? Is it right?
You can share your answers to these questions over on the Awakening Facebook Group.
If you have questions of your own that you would like other readers to answer feel free to post them to the group.
If you want me to answer your questions directly remember to tag me in the group, or you can email me directly.
Feel free to post your comments about the Awakening in the discussion section of the Awakening Facebook Group.