WARNING: This series contains violence and graphic language. It may not be suitable for readers under the age of 16.
Noah sat on a medical bed next to the one Joseph Hersher was currently sitting on. The Underground member had bandaging around his right forearm, no doubt from the minor surgery it took to remove the fake credit chip and sanitize the flesh from the previous, shady surgery it took to implant it. Other than that, Joseph was fine, and standing in front of both beds with his arms crossed was Commander Valentine.
"We've upheld our end of the bargain, Mr. Hersher. The chip has been removed and our IT agents are currently working on creating an airtight ID for you," the commander said.
"It's time for you to answer our questions," Noah said, "Why were you in contact with Sandy these past few days?"
Joseph shifted uneasily on the bed.
"Sandy was a friend of mine," he said, "We grew up together. She went missing one day---in hindsight, I suppose she was joining you guys. I didn't think I'd ever see her again but then I did. You guys were helping Underground members go into hiding after our group was framed for the factory bombing. I only saw her briefly, but she gave me a number to call if I ever needed her."
Commander Valentine sighed, head bowed, disappointed. Joseph raised his hands and tried to explain.
"I didn't think I'd need it! I knew it was important that she remain untraceable and I really didn't plan on using the number…"
"But?" Noah asked.
Joseph picked at his bandages.
"It would be easier to show you. Do you guys have the ability to look at the news sites targeted for the states?"
Noah raised his brows and looked at his commander. Valentine looked surprised as well.
"MII, please set up a connection to Mr. Zdunowski," the commander said.
"So that's his full name, huh?" Noah said, amused, "I was wondering."
The wall behind the commander changed, the brick look disappearing to show video feed of the head IT agent. Z smiled, white teeth peeking through his huge, bushy beard.
"Commander Valentine!" he said, booming, "How can I be of assistance?"
"Mr. Hersher here was wondering if you were capable of showing us news sites from the states."
"It's definitely not impossible, although the tech officers over at the APD won't make it easy on us. What are you looking for?" Z asked.
"A day or so ago, a news video hit the states talking about a young girl who was pretending to be an escapee from ARC. Can you pull it up?" Joseph asked.
"Just give me a minute, I'll see what I can do," the IT agent said. He minimized the size of his feedbox and pulled up another window. It showed a normal looking news site, one in which any ARC citizen could see. He then pulled up another, smaller window which looked like a small, black box, and started typing. White letters flew by as the IT specialist started hacking. The new window flickered, after a moment, then started to reload. Though the changes were minimal, it was apparent that they were now looking at a different site even though the logo and address suggested it was the same.
"Some time after ARC was created," Z said as he hacked, "The APD and the states created a way to mirror the internet. ARC citizens see one half of it and the states see the other."
"But people still talk to one another, don't they? Whatever censorship efforts they've made can't be foolproof, right?" Noah asked.
"You'd be surprised how effective the coding is that maintains the censorship firewall. One person from the states could uphold a normal conversation with someone from ARC, but the system is always watching. It picks up on conversations that threaten to unveil the truth behind what's happening in ARC," Z said.
"Most people have just accepted this way of life and don't complain about it," Commander Valentine said, "It's mostly Underground members that are getting caught doing this. The people stateside aren't affected, but the people over here that get caught usually go to jail for aligning themselves with the rebel organization."
"Right. Now look at that video there," Joseph said and pointed to a video titled "Mentally Unstable Woman from DC Dies Horrible Death". Z clicked on it and the video started to play.
A reported appeared, her expression grim, but fake. She was standing in front of a townhouse, cop cars lit up and parked all around her. In the background was a group of paramedics and cops, wheeling out a black body bag.
"I'm standing in front of the house of Eva Eddleson, a young woman that police say may have lost her mind. Although it has been nearly twenty four years since the bioterrorist attack which downed half of DC, Ms. Eddleson has not been able to let go of the memory of her big sister, Sloan Eddleson," the woman said.
Behind her, they began to load the body bag into a black SUV.
"Like many people, Eva Eddleson's family was torn apart when it was confirmed that her sister was infected with Aquagenic-Mortis, a disease that causes it's victims to suffer from extremely fatal skin reactions once in contact with water. It usually leads to the rapid burning and degeneration of skin until the victim's organs are damaged beyond repair. Eva and Sloan Eddleson had been keeping in contact with one another through an online chat service, until just recently.
"For unknown reasons, Sloan Eddleson stopped contacting her sister. The sudden disconnect with her sister, coupled with the sleep medication found in Ms. Eddleson's home led to a mental break down. As many may know, Eva Eddleson is the very same woman who, just days ago attempted to contact a news station, claiming that she escaped from ARC after finding out she was immune from the disease."
Noah looked at his commander, confused. The odd way that the reporter spoke of ARC and Aquagenic-Mortis set him on edge. She spoke as if America needed reminding that a small portion of its population was infected and set apart from the states on a small island outside of DC. As if it was a far off memory that someone was just now blowing the dust off of.
"DC police found a note just beside the young woman, who was found dead in her bathtub after overdosing on her sleeping medication and drowning. The note was indeed a suicide note, stating that the young woman could no longer live in a world without her sister. This is Lisa Mc---"
Commander Valentine gestured towards the wall, stopping the video before the reporter could finish, then turned to Joseph.
"What does this have to do with Sandy Wiles?" The commander asked. Although his tone was gentle as it usually was, his eyes were sharp and Noah could practically see the wheels in the commander's mind turning through them.
"Eva and Sloan Eddleson were my friends," Joseph said, "And both of them are from ARC. That story on that site is a bunch of bullshit. Eva is only nineteen, she's not even old enough to be a survivor from 2012. Sloan's twenty four. She was infected in the womb when her mother was exposed to the virus all those years back. They joined the Underground when their parents were killed trying to get the word out about conditions here in ARC."
"So what happened that made you call Sandy?"
"Those bastards on that video clip, they were lying. Sloan came to me when they found out Eva was immune. It was a miracle that she was immune, actually. She got caught out in the rain. Should have died. Sloan said she nearly passed out when Eva walked in soaking wet. They were too afraid to go to the Underground," Joseph said, then paused. "No, wait. Sloan was too afraid. Eva wanted to, but Sloan didn't want her baby sister turned into a lab rat, so she called me and I called Sandy."
Noah looked at the commander. "Why wouldn’t she call that in?"
Valentine looked at him grimly.
"Immune citizens are extremely hard to find and extremely valuable. We would have wanted some level of cooperation before agreeing to help get her over the state line," Valentine said, "How did you manage to pull it off?"
"It was Sandy and her partner that proposed the idea, actually. There's a checkpoint just south of the harbor that loads imports and out ports from ships and planes. They stole a uniform, gave Eva a fake ID and sent her over to that checkpoint. When the security system scanned her and saw she wasn't infected, no one asked any questions. She just road the boat back to the port in DC. That was two nights ago. Since then, Sloan and Eva been keeping in contact through wireless chat rooms."
"But something went wrong," Noah said.
Joseph nodded and started to pick at his bandages again.
"Eva started talking about going public with what happened, saying that this was the break that the Underground needed to air out ARC's dirty laundry. Sloan tried to convince her not to, and that's when I left the safe house we had been using and got my implant. I tried to warn Sloan that the authorities had probably picked up on their chatter, but she didn't believe me. We all went separate ways. Then I found out yesterday that Sloan had been picked up on the street by the APD. No one asked questions because everyone just trusts those assholes, but she didn't do anything wrong. And then," he said, gesturing to Noah, "You guys found me."
"If they tracked Sloan down through her sister's computer and their chat room connection, it would only be a matter of finding Sloan's phone to get a hold of Sandy and Chase," Z said.
"So where is she now?" Commander Valentine asked.
The window on the wall changed. Z typed in Sloan's name, but the results yielded nothing.
"This is definitely a cover up, boss man. No articles about her arrest and nothing about Eva in our version of the news," the IT specialist said.
"Do you think this girl is dead?" Noah asked.
Valentine paused at the young agent's question, then looked over to Joseph. The man was pale and wide eyed.
"Mr. Hersher," the commander said, "If you go outside, MII will give you the directions to an empty bunk where you can clean up and rest."
Joseph just nodded and eased himself onto shaky legs. Once he was outside the room, Valentine shook his head.
"She wouldn't be useful if she was dead..." Valentine said. Before Noah could open his mouth to question him, the doors to the med bay opened again. A man walked in wearing an expensive looking suit, blond hair well-groomed and in general looking like he came from somewhere extravagant. His cuff links alone looked like they cost more than Noah had ever had in his pocket at any one time.
Commander Carter smiled at Commander Valentine as he entered, arms held out. The two hugged the sort of hug that soldiers have. A hug filled with back slapping and the joy of knowing that the other is still alive. It was then that Noah saw the scar on Valentine's right hand, identical to his own, and was reminded that the Commanders were not just leaders of the Agency---they were partners, Valentine being the Runner of the two.
Noah stood a little straighter once he realized that the more mysterious of the two commanders was standing in front of him. Seeing as the man would sometimes go undercover as Lt. George Ross, Security Specialist for weeks at a time, it was hard to get to know him and very few people did.
"Good to see that you haven't forgotten us with all those parties you've been attending," Valentine said as he clapped the other man on the back once more before taking a few steps back.
Carter let out a long laugh before settling one of his hands on his stomach.
"I figured I should get back here before all those stuffy jackasses succeeded in making me fat. But, all this undercover shit has yielded some good information," Commander Carter said, his expression becoming serious. "The security head of the HsO Company indulged in too much liquor and divulged too much information. Told me that he and his boys have been having a real blast with this woman they have under watch right now."
"But why take her? She wasn't the one who was immune," Noah asked.
"If you had two people who had very similar genetic structures, grew up under the same circumstances but only one of them was immune, what would you do?" Commander Carter asked.
"Compare and contrast," Valentine said, "But where's Eva?"
"Some of my contacts from within the company say that HsO had a special package brought in by helicopter the other day, but I had my eyes on the building. Nothing came in. Z, can you pull up surveillance footage from some traffic lights of Ms. Eddleson's abduction?"
"Coming right up," Z said and moments later, a window appeared. It showed a handful of people walking the down street per usual. Traffic passing by lightly, until a van skid to a sudden halt beside the sidewalk. APD officers climbed out of the van, and while many of the people looked alarmed, only one tried to bolt.
Although the picture was grainy, it was still apparent that the woman was young, although the only definite feature that could be made out was her light hair.
She turned away from the van and tried to run, but stopped dead when she nearly ran into a man that had been standing behind her. Face hidden by a sleek looking fedora, the man was pointing a gun at the woman, which made her stop in her tracks. She said something vicious, if her expression was anything to go by, before the APD officers came up behind her. They cuffed her and pulled her to the van, but it wasn't the woman---Sloan---that Noah was watching. It was the man who had stopped her that had his attention.
The voices of his commanding officers were a dull drone in his ears as he watched that man on the screen put away his gun. Then, with a small glance up, he exposed a wide smirk to the camera. Noah could just barely make out the long, thin scar that split the man's lips. It spanned from the upper left of his lips and then curved down and across the man's chin.
The sight made Noah's skin suddenly feel clammy. Although he was still staring at the screen, all he could see was a man crumbled and dead looking on the ground; his mouth split open and bloody. A hand at his shoulder pulled him back and he looked at the owner of that hand---Commander Valentine---with wide eyes.
"Did you hear me, Noah?"
"We're narrowed down that the most likely place they'd keep Sandy and Eva's bodies, as well as Sloan, if she's still alive, would be the ARC Penitentiary," Valentine said.
That was when the screen changed again, now showing a map of ARC. It scrolled past the Port District, past the Second District and over the giant bubble that cased in the First District to show a huge building at the very northern tip of ARC. The screen zoomed in on this building, showing a higher definition picture of the large, washed out looking penitentiary.
From the outside, the only thing that made this building look strange were the windows and the fence. The windows, unlike most jails that featured barred windows, had a small pipe above each window which released a sheet of water across the whole span of the window. That water then filtered into the window sill and back into the building. The fence was much the same. Unlike most prisons which were surrounded by high fences lined with barbed wire, this fence was composed of one, highly positioned piped that then released a whole wall of water all the way around the prison. It meant a sure death for any prisoner that tried to escape.
"I've had my suspicions for a while now that HsO has been using the penitentiary to do it's shadier dealings. If you two can find Sloan in there and get her out, we can stop whatever progress they've made with their research and obtain a witness to prove that HsO has a lot of skeletons in its closet," Commander Carter said, "And if you can managed to take some photos or grab any of their research, that would give us a real leg up on them."
Commander Valentine nodded in agreement, but Noah was just lost. He held up both hands to slow them down.
"Wait…You two? Which two are you talking about?" Noah asked before pointing at Carter and Valentine. "You mean you two, right? You're partners."
Commander Valentine shook his head.
"It's hard enough maintaining Carter's cover as the head of a non-existent security firm. While we have a few people in our pocket who have said he's the best, it doesn't change the fact that Carter doesn't actually have any such firm. His cover is extremely fragile, and if he was caught inside the prison with me or if they catch any glimpse of his face, his cover will be blown."
"My position amongst the high class businessmen as Lt. George Ross is an extremely valuable advantage that we have. I wouldn't be able to follow Valentine in anyways. I'm not immune," Carter said, "And while we've allowed you to run around without a partner given what happened a year ago, there isn't a soul in this Agency we'd allow to go in alone on this mission. Not myself. Not Valentine. Not you."
"I know my way around that penitentiary, Noah. All I need is someone who can cover my back. I know you don't like partnering up, but you wouldn't be working with another body guard. You'd be working with another Runner. I can keep up with you and vice versa. No one's getting left behind," Valentine said.
Noah stared at the two expectant looking commanders for a long time, until finally, he nearly flailed with his confused outburst.
"How the hell do you know your way around?"
Despite himself, Valentine let out a small grin, but it was Carter's shit eating grin that really confused the poor agent.
"Valentine used to be a prisoner there," Carter said amicably, "Didn't you know that?"
At the sight of the lost expression Noah knew he must have been making, Valentine just clapped him on the back comfortingly and took pity on him.
"I'll explain everything when we start planning tomorrow. Until then, ice up your ankle. Rest. Tomorrow, we get arrested," the commander said.
And then the two commanders left, leaving Noah alone to bask in all the odd and heavy revelations that had been uncovered for him that day. He looked between the door and the frozen screenshot of the man that had led Sloan's abduction.
"What the hell is going on?"
"Beats me," Z said, nearly making Noah leap out of his skin. The guffawing that followed from the IT specialist didn't help Noah's ego any.
"You shithead, I didn't know you were still here!"
"Evidentially the commanders didn't either," Z said.
Noah started to stare at the picture on the screen again.
"Z, can you save that shot and send it to me?" Noah asked.
"Sure," he said, surprised. "Can I ask why?"
Noah shook his head, but still couldn't manage to look away.
"It's just a feeling… Probably nothing. Thanks, Z," he said, "I'll catch you later."
"Be safe out there, Noah," the IT said.
Noah sat down on the couch in the agent's lounge, a pack of ice on his extended ankle, and watched TV. When the couch suddenly dipped slightly to the side, he didn't need to look over. Only Vienna was so light as to barely make a dent in the cushions.
"Glad to see you're finally taking the doctor's advice to heart," she said.
"Hello to you to, Vi."
They sat there for a moment in comfortable silence, both watching as the news cut from its mundane programming to the weather.
"I hope you guys are stocking up on HsO and canned foods, because that tropical storm we predicted for early next week has just been bumped up to a class one hurricane," the reporter said.
"Son of a bitch," Vienna said, "Things aren't hard enough already."
Noah bumped his shoulder against hers amicably.
"Don't worry so much. We'll make it through like we always do."
"Says the man who doesn't immediately melt when he touches water. Of course you're not worried."
"Repent from your evil ways and maybe Hurricane Dorothy won't throw a pale of water on your green witch ass," Noah said, grinning even as she delivered a bruising punch to his shoulder.
They both watched at the weather reporter talked about how to safely manage the storm and waved his hands across the map, tracing out the most likely path the hurricane would take.
"I heard that you're going with Commander Valentine on the next mission," she said. By her tone, Noah knew she wasn't trying to make anything of it, so he tried to reciprocate and shrugged.
"I'll have the commander with me. Couldn’t ask for a more experienced partner," Noah said.
"Then why don't you look more reassured about this whole thing?"
Noah looked at her, then pulled out a small tablet he had sitting next to him. Before Vienna had walked in, he had been staring at the screenshot Z had sent to him. Now he showed it to her and asked, "Do you recognize this guy?"
The way Vienna stiffened beside him gave away what her face did not. The man in the picture was the same man that had been at Chase's apartment. The same guy who had shot at her through two windows, and nearly killed her.
"Who the hell is this guy?" She asked.
Noah didn't answer, and probably wouldn't have even if he could. They sat that way together for a long time.
He was in the bathroom again. Her bathroom---Sandy's. But Noah would not look at her. The tub's curtain was drawn, and he knew instinctively that she was behind it, her water bloated body lying listlessly within. So he left the curtain drawn and resumed his morning routine.
He brushed his teeth, bristles scraping loudly against his molars as he did so. When he heard the sound of water sloshing in the tub, he simply brushed harder. Brushed until the scratch of bristles screamed a numbing crescendo into his eardrums and his gums bled. He spat into the sink, watching the pink, frothy paste ooze towards the drain.
His chest felt too tight, as if inhaling too deeply would crack the usually strong boning of his ribcage. So he breathed shallow breaths, too thin and too quick to be of any real substance; of any real use.
"I'm sorry," he wheezed, head bowed to the delicate curve of the porcelain sink, "I'm sorry."
The curtain began to move behind him---the rungs that held the fine purple fabric up clicked loudly as they slowly moved along the bar which supported it. With each clank, a little more of the tub beyond was exposed. Noah kept his gaze low and his head bowed. He dared not chance a glance into the mirror, or check around his shoulder. He dared not look.
The water sloshed.
"You left me," Sandy said, "You left me behind like you left him."
Noah whirled, knocking his hip against the sink painfully as he did so. He staggered back, tried to recollect his balance and ended up having to lean against the counter. Horror drained the color of life from his skin. His extremities felt numb and weak, trembling foolish against the counter as he stared with owlish eyes at the man in the tub.
Although the voice that had spoken had been Sandy's, it was a man that lay in the tub now.
Not Sandy. Not Noah. A man. Him.
A grotesque hand curled around the rim of the tub, fingernails scratching against it and making Noah's skin crawl. The narrow brown eyes he remembered were large and glassy now, watching him with an insane light behind them, searing him with their intensity.
"You left me," the man said, voice deep and spit flying from his snarling lips. The dusty colored hair was matted and dull in death. His skin gray, gaunt and terrible. His mouth cut up and messy, staining his teeth a water pinkish red.
"You. Left. Me."
The words fell from the man's bloodied lips like gunshots, echoing loudly in the bathroom. Noah stumbled backwards, away from the body trying to pull its way out of the tub and towards him. He felt around for the door knob, but found nothing.
"I'm sorry," Noah said.
The omission sounded pathetic and did nothing to halt the man's advances.
Wet hands scrabbled against the tiles as the dead man fell from the tub with a plop. Water pooled onto the floor, dampening the bath rug and seeping out towards Noah's white socked feet. He pressed back into the wall as far as he could, but he could not avoid the water. It seeped into the cotton of his socks and chilled him to the bone.
"We were partners," the dead man said, gurgling. "We were partners and you left me for them to take, Noah. You left Sandy's body for them to steal, too."
"I thought you were dead!" Noah said, voice weak, "There wasn't anything I could do! I had orders---"
"---Run, they told you," the man said, cutting him off. "Save yourself, they ordered. You're special. You're immune. Why stay back for the man who protected you? Why try to save your partner?"
Those hellish eyes scalded him as the once broad body he remembered pulled itself towards him.
"You were dead!"
Dead, peeling hands latched onto the bottom of his pant legs, saturating them. Noah let out a low pitched, animalistic whimper of horror as those fingers scrabbled at him.
"There's no running from what you've done, Noah," his old partner said, hands gripping Noah's ankles tightly. "There's no running from me."
Noah sat up with a lunge, blood pounding in his ears and overpowering the sound of his screaming. If not for the horrible, scratching pain in his throat, he wouldn't even know he was yelling---howling explosively. When he ran out of breath to scream, he inhaled as much air as he could back into his aching rib cage and let out a softer, more pained whine of horror and shame.
He could barely find the breath after that to talk, so shallow was his breathing, but still he managed to murmur one, pained word.
He knew he'd had to meet up with Valentine to talk about the mission soon. He knew he should get as much rest as he could before then. Despite all that he knew, he just sat there, trembling in the cool, dark confines of his room and tried to forget about the empty one just across the hall. The one that had once belong to Saul, his old partner and trusted friend.
The man he had been ordered to leave behind.
That man he had thought was dead.
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"ARC" © Kaitlyn Whitehead, 2011
"ARC" © Kaitlyn Whitehead, 2011