[44] Sage

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"I'm not going to fight you," I reassure Jake quietly before turning to face the panel of Albinos and repeating, much louder, "I'm not going to fight him!"

Maggie turns to the group and says something to them. I can't hear a word of it, but it just infuriates me more, imagining what she might be saying about us.

I strip off my weapons and toss them as far away from us as I can. Jake follows suit, meeting my gaze determinedly.

"I'm not going to fight you," I repeat. "You're my friend. You're my family. I will not fight you."

Jake sucks in a breath at my words. "I feel the same about you," he tells me gently. "And I won't you. I promise I will never hurt you."

I glance back at the panel, hoping they can hear every word that we are saying. Hoping they realize that even the deranged humans can love each other, can refuse to play these sick games. Honestly, what were they expecting to happen? The Albinos aren't stupid - they must have seen how our friendship has only been growing. What would make them think we would be willing to fight each other?

I look back at Jake and feel my heart pounding with some emotion I cannot name. "I love you," I blurt out.

The world goes black.

*

When I wake up, it takes me a long time to understand what has happened.

A long time, during which I lie still on the floor, confused as to why my hands slip when I place them on the ground beneath me to prop myself up.

When I realize what has happened, however, I start screaming.

I scream and scream as I kneel over Jake's lifeless body. I scream as I try to pound his heart awake, as I try to breathe life back into his corpse. I scream as I hug him close, sobs wracking my body.

And then the entire picture snaps into place.

My hands are wet with blood, his blood, my skinsuit splattered with it. My katana blades are once again strapped to my back. I rip them off and throw them several feet away, seeing the crimson liquid glint on their dulled blades.

Tears are coursing down my face, washing away the blood and sweat gathered there. How long were we fighting? He didn't land any blows on me, that much is obvious by the fact that I am in no physical pain. Does that mean I struck too quickly to prompt a reaction or that he refused to raise a fist against me, to defend himself?

I have a feeling it was the latter. After all, it would have taken me a second to reach my katana blades. And Jake isn't - wasn't - stupid. He knew about the Voice.

"Stupid!" I shriek, pounding his chest, this time not in an attempt at revival but out of pure fury. "Idiot!" I am not sure if I am berating him or myself.

And suddenly, I snap into a chilling numbness.

I stand slowly, leftover tears still spilling from my eyes. I face the panel of Albinos. And I begin to speak.

The Voice is quiet.

"We didn't deserve this. None of us did. No matter what we did, no matter who we once were or still are - nobody deserves this. Deirdre and Jake are - were - my only friends, my only family. And you murdered them. You shot her in front of me. You forced me to kill him.

"I loved Jake. I'm so screwed up that I don't even know if it was romantic or as a friend or what the hell it was - but I loved him and now he's dead.

"And it's all your fault. You are to blame. The Voice made me do this, the same Voice that made me murder all those other people...but this is different. I just killed the one person still alive that I really, truly love. I might have been the one to drive the sword into his chest, but you were the ones to put the thing that actually did it into my head. Weren't you?"

Because now, for the first time in years, I can see clearly.

Maggie speaks, still safe behind the glass, and this time, I can hear her. "Yes, Sage. We were. We knew that to fit into your world would take more than a few tests performed on a few types of humans. We knew that we could never coexist, not after preliminary studies of your species showed that you were a bloodthirsty, seldom understanding people. You would attack us, and while you couldn't kill us with your current technology, some of you are quite intelligent - such as yourself, Sage. Chances are that once the war between our species began, someone would figure out how to kill us, and then you would slaughter all of us without mercy.

"So we came up with a plan. We experimented on humans with the Trials and found that they were incredibly easy to kill. We also found that, when put in a stressful enough situation, they would kill anyone around them and even sometimes themselves, depending on the severity of the damage on their emotional state.

"Based upon the first few rounds of Trials, we developed the Voice, as it says you call it. The disembodied consciousness of one of our own, highly trained in every combat scenario and weapons usage known to the universe, placed in the form of a human. You were our test subject, Sage, for no other reason than our scanners randomly landed on you. What odds." Maggie smiles at this irony, and her grin sends a thrill of rage through me.

"The Voice performed wonderfully at killing humans using your body. But we had to get it back, improve upon it, maybe even handpick the next humans to carry it. Decide whether or not to create a few super-soldiers or thousands.

"Then I had the idea - why not run tests on the Voice? Tests of our own design, that you would never be able to face locked in an insane asylum?

"We watched you, and we waited. And as we did so, we redesigned the Trials. Finally, they were perfected - a wonderful mix of mental, physical, and moral tests. We were prepared for the Voice to return. We had to pull a few strings and arrange for that expedition to Mars, but after all we had accomplished, that wasn't difficult.

"You performed wonderfully in the Trials, Sage. But we want the Voice back, if at all possible. There's just one problem..." Maggie taps her finger against her cheek thoughtfully. "Without the Voice, you would be utterly broken. You wouldn't die - at least, probably not - but even now, even while you feel the pain of losing Jake, the Voice is holding back emotions so horrible that they would shatter your mind. We've grown quite fond of you, Sage - with or without the Voice." Maggie waits for a second, as if she is expecting gratitude. When she sees that she is getting none, she forges onward.

"We've collected enough data about the Voice to make a new, improved version, although it would be more convenient to be able to have it itself. Nevertheless, we're going to give you a choice. Will it be life with the Voice? Or without?"

Before I could speak, my body slammed to the floor as something gathered in my throat and barreled out of my mouth. It shot out, forcing my jaws so wide open that they popped, and landed in a gooey glob on the floor a few feet away.

The dam against emotion that the Voice had spent so many years building burst, and the true pain began flooding in.

I screamed with the raw horror of it all. I was feeling three years' worth of guilt, hopelessness, loneliness, embarrassment, anger, regret - all at once.

I couldn't stop myself from crawling to Jake, body spasming uncontrollably as wave after wave of pure, raw, undulated pain washed over me. I cradled his head in my lap and sobbed over his corpse. I love you, I thought over and over. I love you, I love you, but I can't do this.

"Put the Voice back in!" I screamed at the Albinos.

"Are you sure?" Maggie asked, as calm as ever. "I would advise you to choose carefully."

"I want the Voice, I want the Voice, I want the Voice, put it back!" I shrieked at the top of my lungs, feeling as if the skin on the inside of my throat was shredding itself into pieces at my volume and the force of my words. I caressed Jake's face slowly, sobbing, shaking/

The gooey mess that was the Voice squirmed its way slowly to me, obviously hindered without a host. I opened my mouth obediently and it made the same physically painful journey - this time, back to my brain.

"It's been a pleasure working with you, Sage," Maggie told me sincerely.

The world went dark once more.

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