“I’m really sorry I haven’t had time to talk,” Tatiana said to Randidly as she moved a pot off the fire to a stone slab to cool. “I’ve been rather preoccupied with nursing the injured we received back to health.”
Randidly scratched his chin. “… no worries. That’s actually why I’m here. Recently… we discovered a group of similarly abused individuals. We brought them here, because… well, I wouldn’t know where else to turn. I have a lot of Skills… but this is an area where I don’t think I’d be very helpful.”
Tatiana looked up at Randidly sharply, his eyes searching his face for something. Inwardly, Randidly wondered if something had gone wrong with his Baloo Erickson illusion. But after several seconds, she gave him a tired smile.
“More huh? Well, this is definitely the place for them. We won’t let those fucking Unity Church goons touch a single hair on their heads. Where are they?”
“That woman Monica,” Randidly said, gesturing over towards the central hut. “Last time I was here, she seemed like she knew what was going on. We gave them to her. Eight more, this time. Are you… do you have proof the Unity Church is responsible for them?”
Honestly, Randidly had the same impression. But he would appreciate some proof.
Tatiana hissed, sitting down on a wooden chair. “Well… no. But those that were willing to talk did all confirm they were staying in one of the Unity Church Refugee camps. The last thing they remember was heading to bed, like any other day. If someone really was going into Unity Church camps and body snatching, I have a hard time believing the church wouldn’t know about it.”
Inwardly, Randidly wondered if that was true. It seemed like more and more people were being vindicated from the borderlands every day. The methods of rescuing had become much more refined, and now there was a constant stream of new blood to the System. Of course, there was apparently a super camp in the East, that was a city entirely composed of refugees, but that was still unable to handle the sheer volume of people.
“Fuck!” Tatiana swore abruptly. She glared at the ground, shaking her head back and forth. Her hair was up in a ponytail, and Randidly found himself oddly comforted by the way it swung back and forth. “It’s true, it’s just a gut instinct. But even worse than their wounds is what some of the girls said about life in the refugee camps. How they need to repeat the chants of the priests. How they are told they need to indicate specific flaws they see in other people in their daily prayers, so they can stomp such behavior out of themselves. How the primary virtue in the Unity Church is faith in God and trust in your fellow man. Asking questions is frowned upon, especially in regards to the System. They say that everything will be revealed in time…”
Tatiana trailed off, seeming to run out of gas. Suddenly, she just seemed tired. She was definitely a woman who had fought her way through some tough times to get where she was. The time spent struggling became the bags under her eyes.
Then she sighed. “Well, if Monica has them, they should be fine for a while. I just made bean casserole, would you like any?”
So for the next 10 minutes, the two of them sat outside and slowly ate in silence. Tatiana seemed lost in her thoughts and Randidly was already thinking about the drones he had recovered from the spat earlier as he was leaving the bunker. There were a half-dozen different varieties he had recovered, and Randidly was pleased to find that they were some of the most expensive.
Besides, it was nice to just sit and think. Slowly, Randidly was learning the role of rest in his life.
“…I have a strange question,” Randidly said finally.
Tatiana looked up at him, her eyes curious. Randidly scratched the back of his head.
“I’m not sure if I should even say it. It just sounds… well, anyway, why are all the girls who live here with you so attractive? That can’t be normal, right?”
Tatiana burst out laughing. “Ha! And here I thought you were near celibate.”
Randidly gave her a sour look, but she ignored him.
“No, it’s not a coincidence. A lot of these gals were people that I knew… before the System. They were recently freed from the borderlands. Worked as escorts, or were reporters, or the “pretty lawyer” at the firm. Back in old Washington, when the same older men with wives were hitting on you, you swiftly learned to rely on social cues from other women to understand what sort of situation you were in for if you decided to humor the man. Did he have weird kinks? Would he try and blackmail you? If it was a transaction for money, would he stiff or shortchange you?
“Saying it now, it sounds seedy. But that’s just what life was like. Now, I dare not let these girls go. I mean look at them, they are gorgeous. It was one thing to have threats hanging over them was just how much more upper body strength men have than women. And when men got old enough in the old world, that went away. Now? They would be devoured.”
As they were speaking, two women walked from one hut towards the central hut. It was clear from the breathy laughter of the one, and the constant spinning and posing of the other, that the latter woman was wearing a new dress and showing off. Her friend was more than happy to laugh and compliment.
It was a simple thing, a sapphire blue number that stopped a bit above the woman’s knees. She paired it with a leather belt that was probably from some of the oversized wolverine monsters that Tykes had helped kill last week. When they noticed Randidly and Tatiana, they both waved and continued on their way.
Both were tall and slender, with high cheekbones and thick hair that cascaded down their backs. They seemed more at home in a catalog than a series of brick huts.
“See one you like?” Tatiana said, elbowing Randidly.
He chortled lightly. “None more than you.”
“Well then,” She said, smiling back at him.
They fell silent, just looking at each other. In fact, the silence lasted so long that Randidly began to get uncomfortable. And she was just looking at him, sizing him up again.
It was a relief when she spoke. “So, you just… found these people?”
“So I’m to believe that it is a coincidence that you and… your group is the only few that have found these tortured people?”
“… you realize that makes me wonder whether YOU are the group that is hurting these people? No one else has even noticed they were missing.”
Shocked, Randidly blinked at her. Did she really think…? But Tatiana laughed and slapped his shoulder lightly. Before she got over her giggles, both her and Randidly’s watches beeped and flashed red.
Frowning down at it, Randidly almost didn’t notice that Tatiana took it in stride and pressed a button on the side. A voice began speaking out of her watch.
“Warning! This is not a drill. We have breaking news. Approximately two hours and seven minutes ago, a military bunker was attacked by an unknown terrorist assailant. The assailant himself did not appear to use exosuits, but his accomplice had an extraordinarily powerful energysuit that made him glow and emit vast amounts of heat.
“In the course of his actions, the terrorist killed a dozen employees at the facility, even taking the time to execute sick civilians that were being treated at the facility. Attached is a depiction of the terrorists. If you see this man, please contact the authorities immediately. I repeat, this man is highly dangerous, and-”
Before the message could continue, Tatiana touched the button again. A face appeared above the watch, a cruel and haughty face with a strong nose and bright orange hair. Randidly frowned. Not that it was a problem that he possessed an illusion that was labeled as a fugitive, but there was something profoundly disturbing about the whole thing.
Why had the location he had attacked been called a ‘military bunker’? Was it just a coincidence, or-
“This was you guys, wasn’t it?”
Randidly jerked upwards, staring at Tatiana. Her face was very close to his. Her eyes were bright. She looked down and tapped the button again. The holographic display changed to a fuzzy approximation of his Lava Golem. It was crouching on the ground, above ripped metal that had previously been a drone. She hummed softly and pressed the watch again. The display went dark.
“…What?” Randidly asked, trying to scramble to figure out what to say.
“Your hands smell like blood, Viking. How many did you kill?” Tatiana said, not looking up at him.
Randidly took a step back and looked down at his hands. How could she-?
Then she reached out and took his hands in hers. She was looking at Randidly with a face filled with worry. “Jesus, are you a war veteran or not? Look, I didn’t mean to sound so accusatory. I’ve seen these people. If this was you, it was the right thing. I just want you to know… I trust you.”
Randidly looked at her. That feeling was back. This was… becoming intimate, the way they treated each other. Wasn’t this fast? They had only known each other for a little over two months…
Randidly cleared his throat. “… you sound like a Unity Church member, talking about trust all the time.”
She punched him in the gut.