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I’m not surprised when they call me. Maybe that’s a bad thing; perhaps it's not. Either way, it’s almost expected when the telesphere pulsates with a blue light.
I tap the surface of the device, and instantly, a hologram of a sound wave appears just above it.
“Axton,” I mutter, thumbing through the paper book in front of me. It’s called 1984, one of the ancient texts that managed to be salvaged after the Total War. As far as anyone has yet to discover, it’s the oldest book known to man. In actuality, it’s dull and brutal. I can only thank the Hierarchy for making sure a world like the one in this book didn’t come to exist.
“Sir,” a monotone male voice echoes. The sound wave moves in coordination with the fluctuation of the response. “We need you to do an interrogation,” he declares.
I sigh. “Alright, I’ll be there.”
The sphere stops emitting the light, and the hologram shuts off when I tap it again, and I get up from the black leather sofa, dropping the book next to where I had been sitting.
I’m still in uniform, the all black clothing with protective plating that covers everything vital, yet it’s all thin and flexible, practically invisible to the unknowing eye. I glance across the room at the decorative mirror that hangs on the wall. I narrow my gaze at myself. I’m exhausted, and it shows in the dark circles under my eyes, my ashen skin pulled taut over my cheeks, lifeless blue in my irises. Even rarer, my posture is slumped. I haven’t slept for three days. But I’ve looked better when I’ve been awake for an entire week. I shouldn’t be as tired as I am.
But I know the reason why. There are rumors of a rebellion. Beginning a couple of months ago, soldiers started turning on the Hierarchy, breaking laws deliberately only to be executed. Their dying breath: whispering to the witnesses that we ‘must make it stop.’
It’s draining to see men you once trusted and respected suddenly reverse their morals in an instant and be punished to the full extent because of it.
There are rules for a reason.
It doesn’t take me long to leave my quarters and end up in the government-controlled portion of the building. There are guards posted at random intervals along my path; however, none of them stop me for being out during the Dead Hours, which I ignore. I know my place, it doesn’t involve being questioned by those who are lower than me.
The interrogation room is connected by a single sliding door to an observation space, which is the way in and out. Computers sit idle but on, a couple of men sitting before them. There are guards posted by the door to where the criminal must be waiting, but it’s surprising to see them holding guns.
Without a word, I’m handed a transparent tablet. I watch it come to life at my fingertips, a welcome screen with my name on it asks for my identification to verify. I want to groan at this because that means this criminal has really done something terrible. The information on them is top secret enough that only those with high clearance can see it.
The scanner glares over my right eye and blinks green afterward. The screen unlocks.
“What is this?” I demand, not to anyone in particular. I can practically hear the collective inhale from the people in the room, and my sharp glance up from the screen leads to a couple flinches.
The information on the suspect is nearly absent. There’s a picture of a woman, but her eyes are covered by a thick black blindfold, and I can tell she’s restrained in the photo. The bottom half of her face is pale, almost sickly so. She wears a simple gray sweatshirt, but what’s concerning is the blood splatters that stain it. Her jet black hair is tied back messily into a high ponytail, tangled so severely I wonder what she did to make it so knotted. The technical information is scarce, with only a first name.
I frustratedly walk towards the door that separates this room from the convict. The guards posted instantly move out of my way and fumble with the control nearby to make the entrance slide out of the way. When it does, I stalk into the cold space, and the door locks behind me. There’s a single light source in the room, but it’s obnoxiously bright, a stale glow that doesn’t relent on my pupils.
Sure enough, the girl in the picture—looking identical as she did in her mugshot—sits in the metal chair behind the matching metal table. Her arms and legs are clamped down to the frame by thick iron cuffs, but I can’t imagine why they’d needed so much restraint. She looks pretty harmless to me. Her eyes are still blindfolded, which is just as confusing to me.
I watch her face contort immediately, her head turning as if she could see me. Her pale lips curl into a terrifying smile, showing off a perfect set of teeth. From what I can see of her, she’s beautiful. There’s not a flaw on her.
But I instantly know something’s wrong when she speaks.
“Commander Axton Thane… I had a feeling they’d send you in. It’s nice to meet you finally. They call me Athena.”
Her voice is startling. It’s enchanting and melodic, like a siren’s. How did she know my name? My rank?
I take a deep breath, trying to compose myself. It’s fine. Someone probably messed up and accidentally mentioned me while bringing her in.
“Oh no, Axton,” she murmurs, still somehow staring at me despite the blindfold. Without thinking, I silently move a couple of steps to the left and stare in terror as her head swivels to follow the movement. “No one messed up. The men who brought me in and strapped me down were deadly silent. Poor manners, really.”
Panic begins to root itself into my stomach, making my chest tighten and my breath speed up.
Her head tilts as if in confusion. “Why are you frightened?” she asks. “Axton, there’s nothing to be scared of. I can’t do anything to you with this damn blindfold on, unfortunately.”
I rip my entranced stare off of her, staring at the wall. I shake my head; surely this is some sick nightmare. There’s no possible way… How can she do that?
“I’m not sure,” she says. I realize it’s in response to my thoughts again. She shrugs. “Born with it, I guess. The emotion sensing came later on though, as did the mind reading. The hearing though? That’s been there since before I can remember.”
What is she talking about? I’ve never been so disoriented in my life.
“Your heart’s racing,” she remarks, as if mentioning the time. “As is your breathing—”
“What are you?” I interrupt.
She frowns. “What?” she asks. “The better question is who.”
Well, that too.
“Take off the blindfold, Axton Thane,” she sings. “And you’ll find out.”
I stay frozen on the spot, but I feel this intense… longing to do as she says. Out of nowhere, a speaker comes on overhead, echoing through the room.
“Commander, we’re under strict orders from the Hierarchy to keep her blindfold on, no matter what. We’ve been told, if you try to remove it, we have orders to use any force necessary to keep you from doing so.”
I want to scowl. Any force necessary?
Athena’s head drops back in exasperation. She groans aloud, grabbing my attention once more. “Axton, don’t you want to know why all those men are turning on your beloved government? Don’t you want to know the reason they’ve been executed for having their beliefs?”
I can’t deny the curiosity that sparks, twisting my stomach violently in… excitement? I trusted those men with every fiber of my being, with my life. Of course, I want to know. They betrayed the Hierarchy, the Nation, and the people we worked so hard to protect.
“Protect?” Athena asks. “You think the Hierarchy protects you? You think the Hierarchy protects the people?” Her tone is gradually becoming vehement, her body tensing up in fury with each word. “You fool! They’ve blinded you! I, and only I, can give you sight to the truth.”
I shake my head, trying to erase her hauntingly beautiful voice from my mind. But I don’t know how to respond to her. I have no clue how to tell her she’s wrong, because there’s an undeniable piece of me that wants to listen to her.
Take off the blindfold. Take off the blindfold, take off the blindfold, takeofftheblindfoldtakeofftheblindfoldtakeofftheblindfold!
Like a mantra in my head, it ricochets off the inside of my skull over and over again, intensifying the desire to obey her.
Is this what it’s like to feel the God that some of the old books mention? I’ve heard of the Bible, but only pieces of it have been recovered since the war, mostly from people memorizing parts of it. No tangible evidence of it exists. Is there a God? Is the woman before me God?
I want to cover my ears with my hands and escape her nonexistent but somehow burning glare. There’s a physical barrier between her and me, but it’s not enough.
Without realizing I’ve done it, I’ve leaped across the room, and my fingers are tearing at the blindfold.
And as soon as her eyes open, everything stops.
It’s like someone hit the pause button on a telescreen. The only thing that exists is her gaze.
They’re the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen in my life. They're not human, though that could be expected from her. Eye colors range from the natural browns and blues to the genetically modified whites and ambers, but hers… it’s as if the heavens opened up in her irises. Swirling shades of vibrant purples, icy blues, shining silvers, glowing oranges, darkest blacks, and sparks of white. Her eyes are a gate to the furthest, most beautiful galaxies.
And in that moment, everything makes sense. I'm drowning in clarity, the truth. I'm sinking into her stare like a never-ending, relentless ocean.
And then someone hits play again, but it’s still slowed dramatically. Guards are grabbing my shoulders, my arms, tearing me away from her. I don’t fight them; I’m tethered to her. She’s all that matters.
Then her blindfold is back on, and I snap back to reality. But only for a split second, because then there’s something sharp against my throat, and everything goes black.
Waking is more straightforward than I would’ve predicted. It’s rude, however, that I’m tied down with the same metal cuffs they used on Athena.
Athena. She showed me everything.
I’m lying on a medical chair. On cue, someone enters the room, stares at me. Cautious. I know who it is.
“General Kade,” I greet.
A sigh of relief. “Thank God.”
I wouldn’t have ever assumed Orion Kade was religious.
“How did you do it?” he asks me.
I shrug because I know what he’s talking about. “I couldn’t tell you. I have no clue.”
But I do. I have all the clues.
“What happened to her?” I ask. But I already know.
He exhales audibly again. “She met her fate. I wasn’t going to lose any more men to whatever sick power she contained.”
I suck in a breath, and it’s almost of pain. “You killed her.” It’s not a question.
“You cut out her eyes,” I say.
He nods again. “And her brain.”
“You burned them.”
I feel his apprehension. “Yes… Did somebody already tell you?”
I glance at him. No. “Yes, I overheard it some time ago when I was half awake. I guess they added another dose of drugs before I could become fully conscious.”
He nods slower this time, doubting me, but wanting to believe what I’m saying. He wants to believe me because he has no logical explanation otherwise.
He’s terrified. He’s terrified that my alibi is so obviously false—painfully so—yet he can’t bring himself to argue against it.
“Was she really that dangerous?” I ask.
I realize how easy it is to navigate faking this. I don’t have to ask that question; I know the answer just by staring at him. But I ask anyway, because it hides the truth. She gave me everything I needed. She knew she’d die. She knew I had to carry on what she could not.
His face morphs into disbelief. “Are you serious? She was brainwashing my soldiers! Your soldiers! We lost great men because of her!”
But that’s where he’s at fault. We lost those men due to the Hierarchy’s power hunger. Snuff out the spark of rebellion before it catches fire, keep the laws in place. Keep the laws in place, control the people.
Athena wasn’t lying when she said I was blinded. She opened my eyes, proved to me that it’s the Hierarchy that’s the ones guilty of mind control.
So despite the fury that rages inside me, I hide it with a fake sympathetic expression. “That’s true… She seemed so harmless. I can’t believe she was behind all of that… How long did you know? That she was behind the rebellion?”
He sighs again. “A couple of hours before you interrogated her.”
That makes my anger flare more. He knew the ‘danger’ Athena possessed and sent me in blind? Every second that passes leads to my eyes being opened a fraction more than before. This world is so corrupted. How did it get so bad?
“At least it’s taken care of,” I mutter.
He nods again, sighs yet again.
Is that all this ignorant idiot knows how to do?
“Mind taking me out of these cuffs now?” I glance down at my wrists, then my ankles.
“Right,” he says, more to himself than me. He walks over and punches in some code nearby the table. Nine digits. That much security? I guess it’s justified, all for the wrong reasons though.
The cuffs unlock with a hiss and a heavy click. I shake out my hands and swing my legs off the chair, looking upward.
“Now what?” I ask.
“Now, you keep your mouth shut about all of this,” he scowls, returning to General mode in a snap.
I nod. “Has the rumor gotten out yet?”
“As far as we know, it’s been contained. But we’ll have to find out. We’re going to run patrols across the city.”
“She was smart,” I say. “How do you plan to catch the ones she’s gotten to?”
“That’s the only issue. We have no clue.”
Perfect. “We’ll figure it out,” I falsely assure him.
“Oh, I know that,” he says determinedly.
I fake a smile, yet I know it looks genuine.
The following months are quiet. The rebellion spark has been extinguished as far as the Hierarchy knows.
What they don’t know won’t hurt them. They believe their control, their death-grip on the people is only growing; the flame of revolt must be gone.
They don’t know it burns. It catches on like an inferno, slowly raging on. It just happens to be a quiet blaze.
“You’ve done good,” Kade murmurs.
We stand outside the city, wind whipping around us unrelentingly. There’s a specific location that’s high enough and far enough that you can overlook the metropolis. It’s night time; the megacity is alive. It’s a couple of hours until the sun comes up. The Dead Hours will commence at sunrise. Anyone caught outside while there’s still daylight will be executed.
“Thank you,” I answer.
“You’ve changed though,” he mentions.
I shrug. “I was on edge during the rebellion rumors. I was changed then. I’ve simply come back to normal.”
Lies. I’ve gotten unfairly good at lying since meeting Athena.
“Fair enough,” he agrees. I can tell he doesn’t necessarily believe me. He doesn’t believe a lot of the things I say deep down, but he still doesn’t fight me. Partly because I’m his superior now.
The Hierarchy promoted me to General and demoted Kade to Commander.
“You make a good General. Better than I ever was,” he sighs.
I nod. It’s the truth. They were overjoyed by my now emotionless state. To show emotion to anyone connected to the Hierarchy is a death sentence for me and the rebellion.
Everyone believes I make a good soldier because I appear selfish and willing to follow orders blindly if they benefit me. The funny part is, orders that benefit me, also benefit Athena.
“Well, we best be getting back,” he exhales.
“I’m going to stick around for a bit,” I murmur. “It’s beautiful up here.”
He stares at my profile, but I don’t return the look. In my peripheral, I see him roll his eyes just the slightest bit.
I ignore it.
“Take the trucks back,” I say.
He obviously dislikes me, though he respects me and my position. My decisions that seemingly help the Hierarchy. Still, he nods and quickly turns away because he can’t stand me for much longer than necessary.
The trucks start up behind me. I don’t watch them leave. I merely listen until the roar of the engines and the crunch of the tires on gravel is gone.
Still, I wait longer. I’m about to take a monumental risk. One that may end up destroying everything I’ve worked for since Athena’s death. I stand there, dead silent, watching the city pulsating with life from a distance.
I decide it’s now or never.
I close my eyes, then clench my jaw as an intense vibration racks my body.
But it works. People file out from the shadows, cautiously. They eventually surround me, like a squadron awaiting a battle plan. Which I guess, would be an adequate comparison. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her. Athena. I know she isn’t really here, though. Yet, she nods at me.
“Let’s get started,” I smile.