Chapter Ten – Reemergence

2020, Post-Pulse Seattle, Washington – Present Day

Max slipped into the penthouse undetected. She’d spent the night up on the Space Needle and the entire day hanging out with Kendra. Facing Logan again after her outburst the day before was not something she looked forward to. And so she’d dragged the time out as long as she could, avoiding him.

If she admit it to herself, she had been hiding from herself more than from Logan. Max had long ago managed to bury most of the painful memories deep inside. They resurfaced at night, when she slept and was at her most vulnerable. It was at times like those that she had to face the skeletons in her closet. But during the day she had some control over her memories, keeping them behind the thick shield she had erected in her mind. But Logan had pierced her armor and left her open for attack.

Quickly shedding her clothes, she climbed beneath the cool sheets. She turned to lie on her side, one arm under her pillow, the other under her cheek. Settling in as comfortably as possible, Max offered a silent plea for restful sleep and closed her eyes. She drifted slowly from consciousness.

It was her ninth birthday. That’s what Zack had told her. She was nine years old today. Max never understood why people made such a fuss about birthdays. Nothing had changed or was any different.  And how was she to know that outside of Manticore’s walls a birthday commemorated a special date in history, the emergence of a new soul into the world, on the most part loved, cherished and adored by caring parents? She’d never known life like that.

They were out in the woods. A day just like any other, though Max received a few hugs more than usual from her siblings. She felt special. And the smile never left her face from the moment she woke until they found the balloon.

They’d been on a training mission near Manticore. Max had spotted something red high up in a tree and motioned to the others. Zack climbed the tree to retrieve the object. It had been a red balloon and the words ‘Happy Birthday’ were written on it. Zack held it out to Max and she took it, holding it almost reverently. Ben reached over to hug her.

“The Blue Lady heard me, Maxie. See? Now you do have something nice for your birthday.”

She smiled sweetly at Ben and was about to thank him when a guard stepped up and yelled at them to let it go.

Max didn’t want to let it go. She’d never seen anything like it, and Zack had given it to her. Her brothers and sisters had crowded around her ooh-ing and ah-ing. Zack resented the intrusion of the harsh words of the guard. He kicked the man to the ground. Max, still  holding the balloon, looked over and saw Lydecker watching them with a stern gaze. Her shoulders slumped and she sighed as she released the balloon slowly and watched as it floated up into the air.

Max rolled onto her back. The memory that was running like a film in her head shifted to reveal a new, frightening and traumatizing scene.

Max watched in horror as they dragged Niah away.

They were training in the courtyard. Zane and Krit were sparring, Jondy and Ben were practicing hand-to-hand and Syl, Max, Niah, Ash and Zack were in the tank. Everyone else was on the course doing laps or in the gym. 

Ash couldn’t hold his breath and was struggling with the restraints that held him to the bottom of the pool. Niah had known that Ash was scared of the tank, they all knew. Every time he was forced to hold his breath underwater, he hyperventilated. And Niah had come prepared to fight for him today. Her brother, her best friend, was suffering and she wouldn’t stand for it any longer. Niah reached into her pocket and pulled out a file. She sawed through Ash’s restraints and he rose to the surface, gasping for air. Lydecker glared down at her and nodded to the guards, who reached out and dragged her from the water. Lydecker handed over command to Trainers Hastings and Vargas.

The entire unit was ordered to follow the two trainers. The guards tied Niah to a tree and prodded the rest of the unit forward. Hastings barked, “Repeat after me: Soldiers do not question their superiors. Say it!” The frightened children repeated after him in unison. Hastings smiled evilly and motioned to the guards. They were given wooden clubs to beat their unit mate with. Hastings held Zack back forcefully, so close that Zack could almost touch Niah, but not close enough.

“Now show 714 what happens when soldiers disobey. Hit her.” The group stilled and stared in horror. Hastings motioned to the guards again who butted a few of the children in the stomach with their rifles. Resignedly, the children raised their clubs.

Scared and cowed by their trainers, they reluctantly began to beat their sister. With every blow they struck their hearts cracked and broke. Niah’s whimpers were interspersed with jolts of electricity from the guards’ tazers. 

Unable to watch any more of of the abuse, Zack wrenched free from Hastings‘ grip and whirled to face him.

Zack raised his club, his face suffused with pain, anger and hate. Supreme force rippled his muscles and he lowered the club in fury, the loud ‘crack’ reverberating in the quiet forest. Hastings went down. The guards seized Zack and kicked him relentlessly, blows raining on his face, head, shoulders and stomach.

Vargas shook with anger and fear. He bent over Hastings‘ still form, and with an unsteady hand he gingerly reached out to touch the gash on the other man’s head. He then felt for a pulse, finding none. Wiping the blood from his fingers on the front of his shirt, he leered at the rest of the unit. “You will NEVER question a superior. You will NEVER attack a superior. Or you will suffer 599’s fate.” 

Vargas roughly pulled a bleeding Zack to his feet. The guards took hold of him and made him face Niah. Vargas then ordered the children to pull back from 714. And then the real torture began. The whimpers became moans, the moans became sobs and finally Niah screamed in terror and pain…

Max shot up in bed, screaming hysterically at the top of her lungs, her small frame shaking with terror.

“Niaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

The door flew open to reveal a frightened Logan and wary Asha both in their robes holding guns. Logan took in Max’s state and saw she was still deeply caught up in a terrible nightmare. He lowered his weapon and went to kneel beside the bed. He tried to calm her but it had no effect. Asha leaned over and reached to push some hair behind Max’s ear when a hand shot out and encircled Asha’s throat, crushing her windpipe.

Asha struggled for breath, clawing at Max’s hands as Logan fought to pry her fingers open. Max easily shook him off and forcibly threw Asha across the room. Asha’s head connected with the wall and she slumped unconscious. Logan slapped Max hard on the face. She snapped out of her dream and looked around in alarm. She was perspiring profusely and her undergarments were soaked with sweat and tears.

Logan put his arm around Max gently and pulled her close. She stiffened momentarily but let him hold her. She was too tired to listen to her inner voice, cautioning her to keep a distance. They sat that way for a while, Logan whispering soothing words to calm her.

When Asha came to it was to see Logan’s arm around an almost naked Max, his lips pressed against her hair. And a flash of blinding jealousy and rage tore through her. She climbed to her feet and walked up to Max, shaking herself slightly. It wouldn’t do to think such thoughts. After all, Max was hurting and needed comfort. Raising her hands to her throat, Asha couldn’t help but feel a stab of fear. Max’s iron grip could have easily killed her. What did they do to these kids? she wondered as she tried to focus on the crying girl. What could be so terrifying to make Max to react like that?

Finally, Max leaned back against the headboard and took a deep breath, running her hands through her hair shakily.

“Asha,” she said, her voice full of regret, “I’m sorry.”

Asha shook her head and waved a hand at Max, as if dismissing the incident. She didn’t trust herself to speak without saying something she might regret later.

“Max,” Logan’s voice was soft. “Do you want to talk about it?”

She didn’t. But now was as good a time as any to tell him more of the horrors of her childhood home.

“I was dreaming about one of my siblings – Niah.” She squeezed her eyes tightly, trying to hold back the picture of her sweet, beautiful sister, bound, beaten and defiled.

“Back in Manticore they used to test us to see how long we could last in certain situations. One of these tests was ‘The Tank’. We were chained down in a pool and made to hold our breath for 4 minutes. Whoever couldn’t take it was sent to the pit for three days without food or water. If it happened too often, you were considered flawed and were left to die. It had happened twice before in other units.

“Ash was scared and he couldn’t hold out. He was fighting for breath long before they planned to release us.”

Logan and Asha shuddered. What a horrible way to treat children, he thought. When Logan had heard about the torture he’d never imagined things like this. What kind of sick bastards would hurt children?

Max continued. “Niah was the one who set him free. She cut through his chain and pushed him to the surface. And she was…” Max choked on her next words, “punished for it.”

She inhaled raggedly and let out a long breath before continuing. “Trainer Vargas ordered the soldiers to tie Niah to a tree and we were all forced to beat her. They held Zack just out of reach, mere inches from her, all the while heckling and taunting him. Zack and Niah did most everything together. They were the same age, and shared the same interests. He was scared and disgusted to see how they were hurting her. And her frightened eyes pleaded with him to do something.

“Finally, Zack couldn’t take it anymore and he broke free and killed Hastings.” 

But the guards were too much for him to handle on his own and they overpowered him. None of us was brave enough to step up and help him. By the time they were done, Zack was barely conscious. They restrained him and…” A fresh stream of tears escaped her and Max’s body shook with sobs.

“They forced us to watch. They took turns raping my sister. Vargas went first. I can still hear Niah’s screams. She was always the strong one, and to hear her pain was the hardest thing we’d ever endured. Niah never cried. She always got up and kept fighting. But not this time. She was twelve years old, Logan. Twelve! When we looked away they forced our heads forward so we wouldn’t miss the show. And when it was all done, they knocked Zack out and dragged him away.

“The next time we saw them, Niah had been transferred to another unit and Zack was…distant. He never mentioned Niah again, and neither did we. It was as if she no longer existed. And to Zack, she didn’t.”

“Were punishments like this common at Manticore?” Logan asked sadly. He was shocked to the core.

The fire and ice in Max’s eyes confirmed his worst suspicions even before the words came out of her mouth. “Common enough.”

Max suddenly realized she was pretty much in her underwear, pressed up against Logan on one side with Asha hovering over her like a frightened child.

“I’m sorry I woke you.” Max brought her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “But I’m fine now. You can go back to sleep.”

Logan nodded and rose from the bed. Asha too stood up and quickly left the room, relieved that she no longer had to be around Max. The girl scared her. She would have to have a talk with Logan. There was no way she would stay under the same roof with someone who could kill them with her bare hands should the whim come over her. Asha would give Logan an ultimatum. And she was positive of the outcome.

Logan followed Asha out the door closed it softly behind him.

Max flipped onto her stomach and closed her eyes. Her nerves were frayed and her mind was on overdrive. Hot tears began to fall softly onto the pillow. Max traced circles on the sheets as her thoughts ran wildly through her mind. Sleep would not come again tonight.

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