Rodney strode steadily through the humid evening. The soft click of his hard-soled boots followed him down the gaslit streets as he passed from one pool of sallow light to the next. His path was indirect, approaching the city center obliquely. What would have been a brisk twenty-minute walk directly was stretched out to almost an hour by necessity, and his lawn shirt clung to him uncomfortably at the cuffs and across his shoulders. But no one strode straight into the city center, not when the blood of every human within the city walls hummed with nanites slaved to the Tower.
Turn away. Look away. Stay away.
It was programmed into each human brain, carried along by nanite-infected blood inherited at conception or, if you were particularly cursed, gifted with on capture from a free zone. The Tower and the nanites were how the Wraith had enslaved the European continent and now spread like cancer to the eastern coast of North American. Making landfall in Quebec City and traveling southwest on the rivers to Montreal and Toronto, the Wraith had brought their cursed armies and nanites with them, conquering and turning cities as they went until they had an unshakeable foothold in the New World.
Rodney had been born under the curse of the nanites in the westernmost city of Wraith occupation and knew well the wail of the Tower alarm. Until a little over a year ago he had been a slave to the same message but now, thanks to his clandestine modifications, he only felt the faintest of impulses from the Tower. He could ignore the imagined beat of the message pulsing through his bones, synced to the slap of his feet on cobblestone, but anyone else on the street would most certainly feel the command against approaching the Tower. For Rodney, blending in was literally a matter of life or death—especially tonight. So he walked confidently along, neither hurrying nor lagging, keeping the Tower just within sight off to his left but never directly ahead, circling closer with each step.
Rodney ruthlessly repressed the urge to flinch away in surprise as a night watchman stepped out from a pool of deep shadow created by two inconveniently placed street lamps. The man's bared arms caught the lamplight and metal enhancements reflected the light back. Rodney recognized his own work in the mechanical plates that had been grafted to the man's arms, leaving no skin to be seen. It was a typical enhancement for a watchman, augmented arms allowing the man to easily handle multiple grown men at once if need be. Beneath his wool trousers he probably also had augmented legs.
Smoothly, Rodney shifted to come to a considered stop without even an untoward scrape of boot, as if he'd planned to pause at that very spot beneath the street lamp all along. He met the watchman's eyes with the neutral expression that was the hallmark of the Wraith-cursed.
"Sir," Rodney replied. He took a measured breath and released it with a slow blink of his eyes. The humid summer air seemed to condense around him, leaving his shirt sticking to his skin beneath his jacket. With practiced ease he quashed the urge to pull at it.
Silently he stood waiting for the watchmen to speak, gaze unfocused but attentive.
"Going to the library again?" The enforcer swept his gaze from Rodney's face to his feet and back again, ending with a frank gaze directly into Rodney's eyes. Other than the one visual sweep his focus never faltered or strayed, as if nothing else in the night registered or mattered in the face of Rodney's presence.
And so it should because Rodney was an anomaly and anomalies in a Wraith city were rarely permitted. Tonight, it was the fact that Rodney was on the street at all that merited attention. It was late enough in the evening to call it very early in the day. The second shift workers were already home and in bed, while the day shift wouldn't be up for hours yet. The late shift had cleared out of the streets almost an hour ago, settled into their overnight labors. All of which left Rodney virtually alone on the streets.
"Yes," Rodney responded briefly in a tone of disinterest. He'd spent months priming the watchers for this very evening. Months of going out late, requesting obscure texts from across the Atlantic, noting in progress reports the challenges to modifications caused by a lack of information. Tonight was the payoff.
The enforcer stared for a moment more then nodded once, turned on his heel and moved off into the street. Faintly, Rodney could hear the quiet susurration of machinery working in time with his steps—definitely enhanced legs then. In short order the night watchman disappeared down another alley and Rodney was alone again in the center of the sidewalk. Rodney took up his stride again, heading once more down the silent street at the same deliberate pace.
The whole exchange took less than two minutes and was one that he'd repeated several times this evening and on previous nights. Tonight, however, Rodney silently fought to control the surge of adrenaline through his blood each time he was passed on. Giving in to the smallest of anxious tics, he bit sharply at the inside of his lip, catching a tiny bit of flesh between his teeth. The flash of pain was short lived as the nanites in his blood set to work immediately soothing and repairing the flesh, but it bled off some of the anxious emotional overflow.
Tucked under his arm, the weight of his satchel was also a comforting anchor chanting soon, soon, soon as it moved in counterpoint to his stride. A few more blocks and the library would be in sight. A quick trip through its rooms and out through the back entrance, a handful of turns through the adjacent alleys, and he would be at the Tower. Then all he needed to do was sneak in, set up his modified transmitter in position to interfere with the Tower's transmission, and then get out before anyone noticed.
After that it would all be up to the people of the city. He hoped people would wake up as angry as he had, wake up and use the opportunity to rise up. Otherwise this was all going to be for nothing.
Rodney stopped his wandering thoughts there. Focus on getting to the library, he reminded himself. Methodical and known and the rest would come after. But that didn't stop his brain from whispering, close, so close, where no Wraith could see or hear.
As Rodney turned the last corner for the library, bringing both it and the Tower directly ahead of him for the first time, a wailing alarm rushed out on a wave of hot night air. He froze mid-step, startled; for one heavy minute, Rodney was sure that somehow they knew. They knew and the drones would appear any minute to escort him back to his lab and rip his enhancements from him. No matter that it was insane and impossible—they had to know.
From overhead came the whine of Wraith airship engines spooling up in the dark. Rodney looked up, trying to catch sight of them. Above him was a cloudy, moonless night but the lights from the city reflected back down from the low cloud cover, revealing a startling sight.
Deep in his chest his heart stuttered, thumping painfully arrhythmically before picking up its natural pace again. It was an airship—an American sky runner. It must have been trying to slip through the cloud cover over the city but a stray gust of wind or an inopportune movement had given her away.
Its colors were muted, sky-dark and cloud-pale, but the lines of the ship gave away the sky runner's provenance. Only Wraith ships flew over Wraith cities, but this was clearly not a Wraith ship. In the reflected light of the city the large balloon that held the ship aloft was a sickly yellow-orange. At this distance the rigging lines from which the ship hung were invisible; only the synchronized movement of balloon and ship revealed her nature. The frame of the ship curved bow to stern in a compact, graceful arc of painted wood. Her great steam-powered engines barely broke the beautiful sweeping lines, set far to the rear and almost completely recessed in the stern.
She was a beautiful piece of engineering but she was lost the moment she broke through the cloud cover.
Frozen, Rodney watched as Wraith airships lifted from nearby rooftops and turned toward the spy ship. Like dark birds of prey they circled and converged on the American airship.
The air siren continued to wail as Rodney's feet began to move of their own accord toward the Tower. All around him doors were opening and men and women were stumbling out into the night, most still half asleep and some even entirely undressed. Here and there the dull gleam of metal enhancements showed in the lamplight but, this close to the city center, most of the people were administrative workers. They didn't have the full or even multi-limb enhancements of the workers Rodney generally saw, opting instead for minor enhancements more suited for office work. As soon as they cleared their doorsteps they surged in the direction of the Tower.
Even as his conscious mind registered the command to assemble at the Tower, the need to defend the city was fading from his mind as his implants pushed back and overrode the siren call of the Tower. He stumbled a half step as his feet slowed but the people around him did not. Rather than fight free of the ever growing mass of people, Rodney let himself be swept blindly along, his eyes, like everyone else's, fixed on the night sky.
High above them the American airship was doing its best to outmaneuver the smaller Wraith ships, but it was obviously at a disadvantage. Equations for air speed, power, and turning radius scrolled through Rodney's mind as he watched the airships cut in and out of the low clouds. The math only served to emphasize the hopeless reality. The sky runner was clearly superior in power and perhaps, in a straight out chase, given enough of a head start, she could outrace the Wraith airships, but she was at a distinct disadvantage in the close quarters over the city.
The silver balloons of the Wraith blended seamlessly with the clouds, turning the dark shapes of the airships suspended below into deadly darts flung against the night sky. They buzzed around the larger form of the sky runner, circling around to cut off any hope of escape in any direction.
Outmaneuvered, the larger airship opened fire with her rail guns and cannons, trying to open a hole in the Wraith attack lines. Every impact with a dart was punctuated by a flare of light and sound as a Wraith airship was taken out of the fight. But the Wraith fought back and fires soon erupted on the embattled American ship.
Rodney fetched up against the wrought iron fence that surrounded the Tower. Unable to go further forward, he stepped up on the low brick fence footing. Spread before him was an open park of summer-scorched grass. Once the park had had trees and pathways for people who wanted to escape the urban press of the city but that was before Rodney had been born, before the Wraith had conquered Quebec City and started spreading southwest. Now the Tower rose alone in the center of the empty park. Its dark, jagged spires were silhouetted unmistakably against the sky.
Some of the crowd pressed against the fence with Rodney but most poured through the gates to spread out in the open space beyond. In an eerie wave of stillness everyone slowed to a halt and tipped their heads back to stare at the battle above, waiting.
The air battle raged on but it had taken on a desperate edge for the Americans. In a daring bid for freedom, the now-flaming ship plummeted a few hundred feet towards the buildings below. The scream of air being released from the balloons holding the ship aloft competed with the Wraith alarm for an almost endless moment.
Several Wraith airships tangled their own rigging as they maneuvered in the open space suddenly left by the sky runner. Faster than Rodney thought possible, the sky runner slewed south and made for the vast expanse of the nearby lake. The night mist would be rolling off of the water and would provide excellent cover, if they could reach it. The ship bucked sharply under what had to be the full thrust of its engines, but it wasn't to be.
A sharp gust of wind caught the partially deflated balloons of the airship and pushed her off course. The ship lurched and the rear rudder fetched up against a tall building spire. There was a bright tongue of flame as the wood gave way, exposing the steam engines and the shipworks to the night air. Mortally wounded, the ship keeled over almost ninety degrees on its side as it slid down the side of the building before pulling free and righting itself. The fire from the engine rooms spread swiftly; the whole keel caught fire and more flames raced up the sides.
Rodney was so far below he could barely see the men racing across the deck but their cries echoed on the thick night air. He expected to see people jumping to the false safety of the ground at any moment but, instead, the ship turned again. Against all odds it began to lumber forward on what little power remained, not towards the lake but back to the Tower. At that altitude it would ram the center mass of the Tower. A vicious sense of satisfaction bloomed in Rodney's heart at the thought.
The Wraith airships were re-forming and converging, though, and with a few orchestrated passes they cut the heavy cords connecting the balloons to the sky runner. The freed balloons rose quickly into the clouds while the burning wreck of the ship plummeted to the ground.
In the end, the Wraith ships had prevented the Americans from reaching the Tower by the slimmest of margins. The long bow-sprit of the ship caught on one of the jagged outcroppings of the Tower and splintered, gouging a gaping wound in the side of the structure. The remaining bulk of the ship fell into the open park below, decimating the gathered crowd.
The crash of the ship hitting the ground and subsequent explosion of the boilers drowned out everything else. Rodney closed his eyes in a weak moment, adding the loss of the people in the park to a never-ending list. Tonight's additions tasted all the more bitter on his tongue considering his wrecked plans. But the dead just might be the lucky ones. The alternative for those who survived the crash was going to be so much worse.
That final thought galvanized Rodney's own flagging purpose. His plans for the evening were done. Even with the distraction of the wreck the Wraith would be on high alert; there was no way he could get in and out unobserved tonight.
With a heavy heart camouflaged by his usual bland emotionless mask, he turned and made directly for his workshop. Now that he was facing away from the Tower he could go straight there, with none of the subterfuge needed in approaching. He even allowed himself the luxury of quickening his steps.
His satchel seemed ten times heavier on the trip back, weighted down not only by the equipment within but by the carefully hidden disappointment of the evening. At least he would get another chance, he silently consoled himself. Every day was another day and another chance.
He had been so close to ending it all, though. So very close, he thought as the night swallowed up the scene of destruction behind him.
The odds were stacked against them, sure, but on the positive side the Tower was strewn with architectural cracks and crevices into which the crew could disappear. A well-timed jump and it would be possible to escape the ship alive. Ground-based reconnaissance had been part of the mission parameters from the start; the issue now would be how to escape. Without an airship, what remained was the daunting task of making it out of the city and across either the (monster-infested) Great Lake or the (zombie-infested) wilderness between Toronto and Buffalo. Theoretically it was possible... just not probable, John knew.
Then the Wraith airships had screamed past with catch poles extended, close enough to buffet the crew still on deck, and there had come a terrible rending sound as the suspension rigging gave way. John spent his single breath before the fall on a bellow for the remaining crew to brace themselves and then there was the sickening drop of free fall, followed by the bright red of impact and, for John, unconsciousness.
Hell waited for him when he woke, and its shepherds were the Wraith.
The Wraith were nightmares given form. They were the bogeymen mothers in the free zones used to threaten overly energetic children. They were the monsters grinning back from informational posters glued up at every telegraph office and government building. They were the subject of every public awareness meeting and foremost in the thoughts of every neighborhood watch vigilant for the first signs of infiltration. But it wasn't until a week ago that he'd ever seen an actual Wraith. Even then it had only been a grainy daguerreotype shown to the command crew of the airship Reliant before she pushed off on her top-secret mission.
Nothing compared to the reality.
From where he was pinned beneath a burning piece of timber, John could see bone-faced drones pass like specters through the smoke of the burning wreckage. Periodically they would pause and poke at the wreckage on the ground. Sometimes the wreckage screamed in animal protest, and John was forced to close his eyes against the sting of the fire and his impotent anger.
Get up, he thought. Unless he wanted to be one of those men, pinned to the earth by wood and fire and sucked dry of life, he needed to move.
Pulling his scattered senses together, John braced his legs and pushed at the wood pinning him with his hands and hips. The wood seemed to shift for a moment but then gave way beneath his hands, exposing a fiery core. His right hand plunged into the mass of super-heated wood and he couldn't hold back his scream of pain as the newly released fire literally raced up his arm along his sleeve. John clamped his lips tight on his scream, trying to muffle the sounds or risk bringing the Wraith right to him.
Whimpering in pain, he yanked his hand back but something caught and tore his skin, trapping him further. Motherfucker, he swore to himself, as his vision began to shrink to a tunnel surrounded with black. He twisted and wrenched to free his arm and something gave way with another bolt of agony. Cradling his arm to his chest, he smothered the burning flesh between his other arm and his coat. The pressure on his injured limb pushed him unconscious for a second time.
When the world righted itself again there was a dark figure looming over him. John jerked against the ground, pinned with nowhere to go but desperately trying anyhow.
"Get the fuck away from me," he swore in a barely understandable voice. The end of the curse was swallowed up in choking coughs as a cloud of smoke briefly covered him.
The world reluctantly swam back into focus for John and, mercifully, the menacing form resolved itself into the familiar shape of his navigator.
"Hol?" The other man was singed and sooty but very much alive and moving under his own power, which was more than John could currently boast.
"Yeah," he answered with a wan smile that looked ghoulish against his smoke-darkened face. "We need to get you out of here. When I say, push with your legs, okay?" He spoke in a smoky rasp as he pushed a broken piece of wood beneath the larger length pinning John. John's scattered mind noted Hol was using a piece of the gunwale, for all the good that did. In the thickening smoke more shadows moved, but no more screams came.
John forced himself to focus again on Hol. He tried to brace himself and then nodded sharply at the other man. Hol threw his weight against his lever and with a heavy groan, the wood rose a few precious feet. John set his feet and pushed himself away from the burning wreckage. Pain screamed up his spine and through his injured arm. John let loose with a string of foul curses as he collapsed again on a safe patch of ground.
Hol tossed aside the piece of gunwale and crouched next to John. His hand was warm and steady on John's shoulder as John tried to breathe through the strident protests from his body.
"Can you stand?" he asked. It was mostly a rhetorical question, though, because he was already rising to pull John to his feet.
"Who the hell cares," John muttered. "The other crew?" John ground out as he tried to stand, then settled for not hindering the other man.
"They know where to meet if they get away," Hol grunted as he stood, taking the majority of John's weight. They both knew what the chances were of meeting anyone else, but for now they could pretend to believe the fiction.
"Where are we?" John asked instead.
"No idea. Somewhere below the Tower but wherever it is, we don't want to be here. Come on," Hol growled, pulling John away from the pile of debris that had pinned him.
John did his best to help but his legs didn't want to cooperate. With some effort he could get his left leg to swing out and take his weight, although his hip strongly protested the movement, but there was something seriously wrong with his right leg. Each time he tried to put weight on it, the pain caused his vision to go dark around the edges.
"Which way is the Tower?" he choked out, timing his words to the swing of his left leg and saving his breath on the counter-swing.
He lost the beginning of Hol's answer to a fit of coughing. His mouth felt wet and the further Hol dragged him, the harder it was becoming to breathe. By the time he refocused, Hol was saying something about the lake.
John gave up all pretense of helping Hol and they both stumbled. John windmilled his arms in an effort to balance himself. His burned arm sharply protested the movement and he nearly bit through his lip in pain. "No," he panted as he got himself back under control. "That's not why we're here. I'll be damned if all this is for nothing!"
Hol muttered a string of blistering curses as he yanked John to his side again. His arm went around John in a tight hold. Stars flashed in John's vision as Hol's grip pressed against some wound that John didn't even want to imagine. "Fuck the mission, John!" he snarled, dragging them both forward again. "It was always for nothing. There's no such thing as a Wraith Queen and even if there is, she's holed up in some fortress in the middle of the Black Forest where no one will ever reach her."
John couldn't blame him. When he'd read the mission brief he'd been skeptical too, but if there was even the slimmest chance that a Queen had landed on the North American continent, they had to know.
"Hol. Let me go." He could order Hol to take them to the Tower but the mission was already fucked beyond belief. He wouldn't begrudge Hol his escape.
"Fuck you, sir," Hol responded as they finally broke free of the smoke cover. John got one clean breath of air and then he buckled as Hol abruptly let go.
Hol gave a startled cry and John rolled toward him in time to see a hazy figure near the wreckage resolve into a Wraith. This was a real Wraith, one of the commanders, face clear of the bone mask that marked the drones. It pulled Hol to itself effortlessly.
Hol twisted and jerked, trying to get free of the hands holding him. Yelling, John fumbled at his side for his revolver or his saber, anything to assist. The Wraith ignored John's fumbling and Hol's struggles equally. With a feral grin, he buried his hand in Hol's chest as John watched in horror.
Hol loosed a high-pitched, tortured scream. The sound went on and on, beyond all reasonable expectation, as if every last breath of air was being expelled from his lungs past his vocal cords. If John lived past the dawn he knew he would be haunted forever by the sound of his best friend dying, his body collapsing in on itself as the last of his air rushed out. As he watched, Hol began to wither impossibly like a plant left too long in the sun, drying out to a husk of a man in a handful of thundering heart beats. And then the impossible finally caught up with Hol and the screaming thankfully stopped as he fell away from the Wraith. His body hit the ground and seemed to shatter, losing the last bit of cohesion to fall into nothing more than a collection of skin and brittle bone.
The Wraith laughed and turned on John. "Human," it hissed.
John had lost his pistol somewhere in the wreckage and his saber was hopelessly tangled in his torn regimentals, even if he could have drawn it with his mangled hand. With no other defense to offer, he gave the monster his best sneer.
"Go to Hell," he swore darkly.
The Wraith sneered in return. John's skin went ice cold as the thing reached out and yanked him sharply to his feet.
"Hold," a voice hissed from the dark. The Wraith commander immediately went still but didn't release John. John swiveled his head around to get a look at this new danger.
From the right, a tall slim-hipped figure appeared. It was a Wraith but unlike any he'd ever seen. The Queen seemed to coalesce from the smoke and fog, wisps of air and scraps of torn night knitting themselves together into a young female form with skin as grey-white as the pale moon and hair dark and full.
"This one is a commander." The Wraith Queen's words were sibilant and seductive. "Tell us why you are here, human." The words wormed their way into John's brain and they hurt. They clawed and caught and tugged and John had to speak. He couldn't help himself.
"You," he wheezed. "A fucking Queen." He began laughing. It was a desperate, unattractive, nasal sound congested with smoke and fire and the sheer fucked-up-ness of the night.
The Wraith holding John snarled and cuffed him sharply on the head. John fell back from the blow and sank for a third and final time into darkness, the sound of his laughter following him.
There was still a need for people in positions of authority to direct the citizenry though, and the watchmen functioned as the mouthpieces of the Wraith. They served to herd the human cattle and, at the times of the culling, to bring in the harvest.
Tonight, the watchmen protected their Wraith masters by fortifying the town center and hunting any pure humans who might have escaped the crash. They also directed the clean up, pulling workers from their beds to put out fires and clear the wreckage. It was all very efficiently done and Rodney knew that, were he to travel that way tomorrow, nothing would be left to mark the night's activities except burned grass.
Once the alarm had been silenced the watchmen had shifted to crowd control, either sending wayward humans to address the emergency or turning them back to their home or work. Rodney hadn't needed the direction but had nodded all the same, confirming that he was returning to his workshop every time he was questioned.
Rodney himself wouldn't be called upon unless there were survivors. Even then, his involvement was far from guaranteed. If the Wraith were hungry...
Rodney ruthlessly cut off that train of thought. If he was going to have visitors he needed to be prepared. Entering the workshop, he flipped the switches that turned on the electric lights that hung high in the rafters. Although most of the houses and administrative spaces in the city still ran on gas, the Wraith had quickly realized that electric power would allow humans to work efficiently and effectively at all hours of the night. All the workshops and warehouses on the waterfront had long since been wired for electricity. The great turbines set deep in the lake provided all the power needed to keep the work spaces lit twenty-four hours a day, if need be.
He carefully stashed his carryall with its precious cargo in the back of a nondescript cabinet and went to roust the stokers. The young boys and girls had probably just stumbled back to bed after being roused by the alarm but if the Wraith arrived everyone's day would be starting early. Throwing open the doors to the larger workshop, Rodney stabbed at one of the many buttons set in the control panel by the door.
A harsh buzzer echoed through attic above, muffled by the heavy beams and rafters that separated the two spaces. The sound of feet thumping to the floor and racing across the wood sounded faintly as Rodney turned back to another cabinet and pulled out his heavy leather work apron.
In a rush of young bodies the stokers all came tumbling down the stairs, racing for their stations. Pellam, the youngest of his boys, only fifteen and barely a full month out of the crèche, stumbled and fell as the boys pushed by. An older girl grabbed his arm and pulled him back upright again before pushing him off to his station. Tending the fires of the forges that were used to craft the specialized metal pieces for the mechanical enhancements was the first job of every apprentice; it was the first job Rodney himself had held after leaving the sanctuary of the crèche, all awkward limbs and vaguely thankful that he wouldn't be going to the docks.
Rodney watched them split off to their assigned hearths and begin to throw open doors and stoke the fires. Satisfied that everyone was accounted for, he walked over to his workbench. His space took up the entire far wall and had once been divided from the larger work floor by high walls. When Rodney had taken over as the Blacksmith, one of the first things he'd done was have the walls torn down. There was something important about watching the ongoing work on the floor, from the crudest fabrication of metal pieces to the finest detailed work done by his senior craftsmen. Rodney ruled over it all with a keen eye and uncompromising standards from his workspace beyond.
Rodney pulled out a key from his master chain and opened his work vault. Inside were half finished pieces of complex machinery: commissions for skilled workers who needed something unique or special, things he didn't trust to even his most talented craftsmen. But the true treasures were his gauntlets.
When the Wraith had taken their first human city, somewhere along the western edges of the Russian Taiga, they had quickly learned that humans were more than just herd animals fit for slaughter. They could be trained and made to perform the functions of any working society and, as such, humans became the means by which the Wraith Empire ran. But while humans had often enslaved other humans, the Wraith nanites brought a new twist to the age-old formula. Beyond control, the nanites offered accelerated healing and a unique interface that allowed men like Rodney to create mechanical works of art that could be physically grafted to a person's body to augment their performance.
The enhancements had started off with simple upgrades like the enhanced arms and legs of the watchmen. In the decades following the Wraith invasion they had become more and more complex, progressing from enhancements for human limbs to full replacements with mechanical parts geared specifically for the recipient's role. These days there was an enhancement for any job, from pummeling, pneumatic hammers replacing legs and feet on miners to sturdy needles and cutting tools replacing hands on leather craftsmen. Rodney had even seen full replacements of chest walls that left men more machine than anything else and allowed them to survive in environments with poisoned air.
Only those humans raised specifically as food remained purely human and enhancement free. Everyone else was upgraded and Rodney presided over it all as the Blacksmith of his city. He and his team crafted the pieces, built the delicate machinery, and then Rodney himself oversaw the grafting of the pieces onto the human body.
No one ever complained, of course, but Rodney sometimes wondered: when the Tower finally fell, would he be seen as the monster he often felt himself to be since he'd freed himself from his nanites? Some nights he powered his own implants down to their lowest setting, allowing the nanites to smooth out the rough edges of emotions so he could sleep without nightmares giving him away.
For his part, Rodney's position allowed him the luxury of an almost pure human body. His only enhancements were the implants sunk into each of his forearms that interfaced with his specialized gauntlets and, although no one else knew, transmitted his modified programming to the nanites in his blood.
Pulling out the steel gauntlets now, Rodney carefully wrapped the cuffs around his forearms, making the connections to his implants. The gloves formed a lattice of machinery over each of his hands that ended in fingertips that could be modified to facilitate anything from the most demanding to the most delicate of work. For now, Rodney switched in the calipers and welding tips so that he could work on shoulder enhancements needed for a woman who had been caught in a loom on one of the factory floors. The machinery had pulled her arm from its socket and cracked her shoulder blade, but with Rodney's enhancement she was at least fixable. A woman who couldn't work was only good for breeding or food.
When the Wraith came through the door of his workshop, followed by watchmen dragging an unconscious man, Rodney had been waiting for them for almost two hours. They marched through the workshop, ignoring the children at work and the craftsmen who had slowly trickled in with the morning sun.
They dropped the man on a clear workbench near Rodney, eliciting a low groan from the tattered figure. He roused and made an uncoordinated attempt to roll off the table, but one of the watchmen cuffed him sharply and he stilled. Rodney's mind supplied an image of the clockwork movement and mechanical actuators that lent the blow more power than a normal man's. If the poor captive hadn't already been half concussed, he certainly was now.
Rodney rose and turned to face the Wraith who had accompanied the procession: a Commander and the Queen herself. Rodney had to suppress the urge to cringe away from her sharp gaze. He had seen first-hand her ability to invade men's minds and he could give her no reason to question him.
"He's to be healed," the male Wraith commanded.
Rodney turned his attention gratefully to the man laid out on his workbench. He was dressed strangely and gravely injured. He had to be one of the men on the sky runner he'd seen last night. Although his regimentals were torn and, in some areas, entirely burned away, the ornate braiding at his shoulders was still intact in places. Rodney had never seen such a uniform before but from the details it was clear that he must be an officer of some kind.
His right leg was twisted and limp in a manner that spoke of torn muscles and most likely cracked bones, although there were no immediately discernible dislocated fractures. His right hip was a mass of burned uniform and charred skin, as if branded by an enormous red-hot poker. His right forearm and hand were in a similar state, torn and cracked, blackened skin weeping red.
He seemed to have escaped without obvious injuries to his left side, chest and head. His face was streaked in smoke and ash and his hair was in wild disarray. Bright red blood leaked from the corner of his mouth and Rodney could hear he was having trouble breathing.
Rodney nodded. Left untreated, his injuries had a very good chance of killing him. The only way to treat these sorts of injuries was with nanites. Rodney smothered a sharp stab of guilt at the thought of robbing one more person of his humanity.
"He is maimed. He will be joining us in the Tower and must be whole again in order to serve," the male spoke again.
"Yes, of course," Rodney agreed. He mentally went through his current stock. He didn't have any partial pieces that would work but if he amputated the hand and lower arm, a complete arm enhancement would serve as well. He would have to measure the limb but he might already have something on hand that would work. "How will he be serving?"
"He will be mine," the Queen hissed. Her tone spoke volumes on the painful future his service would entail.
Rodney swallowed hard, covering it with another nod. He mentally switched gears. Nothing on hand would serve if the captive was to belong to the Queen. He would need something beautiful and unique to satisfy her tastes. Even if all she did was ruin it, she would stand for nothing less than perfection.
"I understand, Great Lady."
She stared hard at Rodney for a moment before reaching out to run her hand gently along the side of his face. Rodney held himself perfectly still. Seeming satisfied, she turned and swept from the shop with the other Wraith in tow.
Rodney let out a measured breath before speaking to the watchmen. "He needs to be moved. Follow me."
Rodney turned from them and made his way toward the rear corner of the workshop where he had set up a small medical suite. Most people obtained their nanites from their mothers, transferred in the womb, so there was little call for transfusions unless someone was critically injured and in danger of bleeding out. Even then, any nanite injections were more to boost the productivity of their own nanites and to assist in healing than anything else.
Sometimes, though, this part of his workshop was used for new recruits. A few humans were stupid enough to seek sanctuary in the Wraith city from the bio-engineered monsters in the lake or human zombies which infested the forests of the North. Intellectually, Rodney understood the desperation that drove people to such acts, but being desperate didn't make them suited to the reality of hiding in a Wraith city. They always thought they could hide unnoticed, but living with a nanite infection wasn't something that many could fake. Uninfected humans just didn't understand the impact of the nanite imperatives on city denizens. It was more than repressing smiles or not speaking sharply. It was an emotional black out hat had to be experienced to be understood.
Rodney understood it well—had lived with it for all except the last two years of his life. Still, he worried every day that he would let something slip that would expose his fraud and lead to his death; or worse, that he would stripped of all enhancements and dumped in a deep pit somewhere, forgotten.
The watchmen threw the injured man onto the cot Rodney pointed to, and his shoulders, upper arms, torso and legs were strapped down tightly. Rodney kept careful watch from the corner of his eye as he pulled out a needle and one of the nanite serum bottles. There was always the chance that the man might be driven mad by the injection; the restraints being pulled tight against the man's body would be Rodney's first and perhaps only line of defense against him.
Satisfied that their job was finished, the two watchmen made for the door, leaving Rodney alone with the injured man. Rodney had hoped the man would pass out from the rough handling but it appeared he was stubbornly holding on to consciousness.
Unwilling to delay any longer, Rodney swiftly drew a measured amount of serum and turned back to the airman. With hands that he didn't allow to shake, he took hold of the man's left arm. The man twisted and turned beneath the tie downs, looking for leverage or purchase, but Rodney was too experienced at this to allow mistakes.
As he carefully inserted the needle, though, Rodney's eyes slid up to meet the gaze of the restrained man. The man's eyes were clouded with pain but there was hate there too, and a measure of fear. Rodney had to force himself not to flinch away, to bear witness to his act. If all went according to plan the man's slavery would be short-lived, but after this he would always be other than human and it would be Rodney's fault.
The man's voice was shredded and barely audible, but Rodney heard him clearly nonetheless. It was both a demand, an order from a man used to giving them, and a plea from a human faced with something he thought was worse than death. Rodney knew which of the two he would choose given the choice of returning to the nanite haze permanently or dying.
"It would have been better if you'd died in the crash," Rodney dared to whisper. He depressed the plunger slowly and steadily pushed the dormant nanites into the man's bloodstream.
The man's gaze sharpened for a brief moment before the burn of the injection registered. He squeezed his eyes shut and breathed out sharply as if he could freeze his blood in his veins through will alone. After a moment his eyes snapped open. He seemed to take some internal roll call before he looked again at Rodney with open confusion on his face.
Rodney slipped the needle out and turned away. This part was almost as bad as the moment when they realized they were to be injected. They always expected an immediate change, as if a switch would be thrown and they would suddenly be different. The truth was much crueler. There was no bright line between one state and the other, but rather a slow slide as the nanites multiplied and gradually overrode the body's biochemistry.
Some people's bodies gave in quickly; others fought the invasion to the death, literally, leaving behind mindless zombies. The Wraith released those unfortunates into the wilderness outside the city walls. There they were free to wander for as long as they continued to live, serving as the harbingers of the Wraith invasion and a gruesome means of passing on the infection to anyone unfortunate enough to be caught by the brain-dead creatures.
Either way, conversion was a protracted process marked by fever and convulsions. It was a process that Rodney had seen more than enough times. Leaving the man to face his fate, Rodney moved off to accomplish whatever work he could in what remained of the day.
He knew what fear was, knew anger and passion, but it was all academic. It had no link to him here and now. He knew that he should fear this blankness, that this state of being had been the thing of nightmares for him in his previous life, but he can't recall what frightened him so.
He was still injured. He knew this like he knew that it was cold at the bottom of the world or that deserts burned with heat he had never experienced. His nanites had repaired the superficial damage to his hip, skin knitting across ruined tissue until there is nothing left of the burn. His leg had also healed although that took twice as long, the nanites forced to repair not only burns but also torn muscles and cracks in his bones. His arm and hand, though, were still withered and non-responsive. The super-heated flame that had licked along them had burned away his skin and snapped the tendons of his wrists and fingers like burned threads. His new nanites smoothed over the broken ends but they couldn't create from whole cloth, couldn't bridge from one severed end to the other.
John looked down at his maimed right hand, flexing it as far as he could. The fingers barely responded but there was a definite rise in the pressure that was labeled pain in John's head. Even if it didn't bother him any longer, it's still there. Something seemed right about that.
"Keep it still."
John looked up at the curt order. The Blacksmith was looking at him again. There was something sharp in his manner but it was late and there was no one else around to see or ask. John stilled as ordered and sat quietly as the man made adjustments to the mechanical piece on the bench before him.
After that, John spent all his time waiting on the Blacksmith. Days in the workshop were full of commissions and emergency repairs to injured men and women. During the daylight hours John sat with the other adults assigned to the Blacksmith, sorting inventory, assembling minor machinery, or cleaning and oiling parts. But once the workshop was shuttered for the evening the Blacksmith always called John over, pulled out the partially assembled pieces, and renewed his work on John's hand.
It was fine, detailed work. It was nothing like the rough parts that John handled that went to dock workers or seamstresses or office workers. No, John's hand is more like the delicate work of the Blacksmith's own enhancement.
The Blacksmith's gauntlets were a silvery armature that cradled his human hands, rather than a true mechanical augmentation. The Blacksmith could switch different finger units in and out to complete whatever task he was engaged in. John had seen him lock in finger units that let him weld metal together between two pinched fingers. He'd seen him manipulate the smallest of clockwork pieces with fingers that ended in impossibly thin filaments of metal. He could separate metal pieces with magnets, measure with calipers, and fashion pieces with tweezers and snips. Tonight his hands were fitted with sharp tips that he used to carefully trim excess metal from the place where the prosthetic would wrap around John's forearm and wrist.
Every now and then he'd motion to John and John would obediently extend his arm for another fitting. The piece wound around his forearm in a half arc, covering the ruined skin and withered bone in buffed metal. It came together to surround his wrist in a gleaming band of bronze before splitting again to cover his thumb and first finger on one side and sweep along the outer edge of his hand to his pinkie on the other. When finished the prosthetic would replace his useless forefinger, while still allowing John the use of his palm and functioning digits. It was eminently practical but not ruthlessly so. In another lifetime John might have appreciated it, if he could have moved past loathing what it represented.
As John sat quietly, watching the other man work in the evening, he became aware of a distant spark of sensation in his legs. He shifted slightly in his chair looking for a more comfortable position but the sensation had moved from a low ache in his back and legs to pins and needles running the full length of his skin.
He rose and paced away from the workbench a few steps, trying to stretch his muscles and ease them back into submission. The pressure kept increasing though, rolling from pins and needles into a burning itch. This wasn't overtired muscles or healing aches. This was something unknown.
John let his pacing taking him on a quick circuit around nearby work desks as he tried to work out what was happening. The Blacksmith looked up, hands suddenly stilling as he watched John. He must have understood whatever was happening to John, because his hand twitched open and he dropped the pieces he was working on back on the workbench.
"No." The Blacksmith shook his head. "No, no, no." He continued to mutter to himself but John barely heard him over the roaring in his head. The calm acceptance that had washed him from day to day since he woke up in the workshop was suddenly being swept away by something burning hot.
Desire. He suddenly needed as he'd never needed before. Even with the dim memories of before, this was something more. This was madness. He wanted beyond all measure of the word.
Touch. He needed to touch. John drove the fingers of his left hand through his hair, making it stand on end as he scrubbed back and forth. It wasn't enough.
Driven by the bugs in his blood, John whirled and stalked back toward the Blacksmith. He reached out with his good hand, grabbing the man by the forearm and his senses exploded.
"No," he muttered, dropping his work to the table. "No, no, no. This is not happening now, dammit." But the evidence was very clear that, no matter what Rodney's preferred, it most certainly was.
Rodney wrapped his right hand around his opposite forearm, holding tight enough to feel the blood rushing back and forth below the thin skin of his wrist. He imagined he could feel the enhancements below his skin run hot as they fought to strip the new code from the nanites racing through him.
It was a breeding cycle.
The nanites provided the perfect slaves for the Wraith. Compliant humans spent every day of their life toiling away to keep the Wraith Empire running, until the day they either died or the Wraith fed on them. But the very same complacency that made them the perfect slaves worked against the Wraith, as there was no desire to procreate and therefore no new humans to replenish the herd. So the Wraith had instituted breeding cycles.
On some schedule known only to the Wraith, the message of the Tower would change from its normal emotionless blanket to a raging imperative to breed. The command hit the entire city at once, sparking the blood of anyone not within the protective walls of a crèche. The Tower set the city's blood on fire and what resulted was an epidemic of violent frenzied couplings between any and every citizen, regardless of age or sex or desire. There was no ignoring it, no escaping it, as the Tower drove everything but the need to touch from everyone's mind.
Rodney had been through enough breeding cycles that he'd lost count. He'd been both the fucker and the fuckee with whatever men or women happened to be nearby when the cycle struck. The breeding imperative didn't differentiate between the sex of the partner. It was only after he'd accidentally stumbled on the modifications to his enhancements and freed his mind from the Tower that he'd had a choice in the matter. It was one of many reasons he slept alone in his workshop while all the other adults went back to their homes or dormitories. The only other people within the several block radius that was his domain were the stokers who lived in the attic space and they were much too occupied with each other to seek out Rodney.
However, that was before the American had been left in his workshop. At first ill, and then essential as Rodney worked on his enhancement, they had been together constantly for weeks. Unfortunately, it had never occurred to Rodney that the longer the man stayed, the more likely it was that this very situation would occur.
Rodney rose abruptly from his bench and stumbled back, away from the man currently pacing the floor like a caged animal. Periodically he would catch his hip or foot on one of the many obstacles on the workshop floor and stumble drunkenly. He won't understand, Rodney thought suddenly. He had no frame of reference, no lifetime of living under the Wraith to teach him how to deal with this.
As if confirming the line of Rodney's thoughts, John suddenly planted his feet, clutched his head with his good hand and shook it violently as if to dispel the burning lust. For a fatal moment Rodney stood, frozen by indecision. If he stayed they would have sex, and it would be nothing short of rape as the other man certainly couldn't consent in this state. But if he left John would most probably be driven out into the street, or worse, by the Tower's command to breed. Neither choice was acceptable... and then he ran out of time to prepare.
With a wordless snarl the other man lunged for Rodney, grabbing him by the arm with his one good hand. Rodney fell back from him, catching himself on his work bench and scattering tools and stray pieces everywhere. The other man followed him down onto the table, chest to hip.
"Stop!" Rodney commanded and tried to wrench free even as he saw the ecstasy of touch overtake the other man, his nanites rewarding his actions by flooding his system with endorphins.
"Fuck," the man moaned, allowing Rodney to push them both back upright and pulling Rodney in closer once they regained their feet, bringing Rodney's arm to his mouth so he could mouth at the skin. Rodney knew from experience that his small window of opportunity where he could exert some control over the situation was rapidly closing. All too soon, the need to touch would overwhelm the new sensations of taste and things would escalate beyond anyone's control.
Inwardly cringing at what he was about to do, Rodney nonetheless made a desperate lunge across his worktable. The other man was yanked off balance by the sudden move, their arms pivoting as so that their forearms lined one on top of the other, which provided Rodney with the leverage he needed. He dragged their joined forearms across the tabletop and with his free hand swiped up an awl he'd been using to work on the mechanical hand that had miraculously survived their previous impact with the workbench. Without pausing to think about what he was going to do, he drove the sharp tool down through the top of the other man's forearm, down through his own forearm, scraping by bone, and into the wood of the table, impaling them both to the workbench.
Rodney's scream of pain was lost beneath the roar of pain from the other man. Blood bloomed immediately on the airman's arm and ran red to the table where more blood leaked from beneath their joined arms. Rodney's knees gave out. The table took his full weight as he slumped down. The other man scrabbled ineffectually at the tool, unable to get a grip with his maimed hand and unable to pull away. Rodney just breathed through the pain and hoped like hell that his plan worked.
"What the hell?" the other man cried in pain and anger. He was breathing hard and pulling at their joined arms, sending spikes of pain through Rodney's system but between the awl and Rodney's own refusal to cooperate, he was well and truly pinned.
"Stop!" Rodney pleaded with the man. "Think past the bloody Tower transmission." Rodney hoped desperately that the mingled blood and the proximity to his own modified transmitter buried in the forearm currently pinned to the tabletop were going to be enough."Stop and think, dammit!" He tried for again for a commanding tone, something to remind the man of his military background, but it came out weak and breathless.
The other man pulled again at their arms. Rodney could feel his flesh tearing further under the onslaught but perversely welcomed the increased blood flow. The nanites could fix him tomorrow and it would be a small price to pay if this worked. He started counting slowly by primes in his head; anything to not think about the pain.
Ever so slowly, by the smallest of margins, the other man seemed to calm. The tugs at Rodney's arm came less and less frequently until finally they were both left standing, panting in pain and exertion, staring at each other across the workbench.
The other man started and stalled, unable to find the words. But his eyes were clear and open as they hadn't been since the night that Rodney had first met him.
"Thank God," Rodney breathed in relief. He thumped his forehead on the wooden surface and curling his arm around to hide his face. Now that the adrenaline was bleeding away, his arm was really starting to hurt. He didn't bother to suppress a low whimper of pain.
The hand that was clenched around his forearm suddenly tightened painfully.
"What the hell did you do to me?"
Rodney looked up to see the face of the other man transformed in an instant from lust to rage. It was the type of rage Rodney was infinitely familiar with having emerged from his own nanite induced haze not too long ago. It was the rage of a man enslaved, forced to become a passenger in his own body, forced to watch as everything that made him a unique individual was deliberately stripped away from him. In Rodney's case, it had been enough to result in a rage blackout that had lasted hours. This wasn't quite at that level but the airman had only been enslaved a few weeks rather than his whole life.
Exhausted and feeling no small measure of guilt, Rodney responded with anger of his own. Facing off like two wolves caught in the same trap, there was nowhere for either to go and only each other to rage against.
"What did I do when, exactly?" he snarled back. "Are we talking about saving your life? Healing your wounds? Fixing your hand, perhaps?" Rodney used his free hand to gesture down at the discarded piece of machinery they'd been working on, which lay toppled on the floor by an overturned chair. "Or is this just about the last ten minutes when I gave you back your autonomy?"
The other man bared his teeth in a feral snarl. "You took it in the first place! You could have let me die!"
Rodney sneered. "Oh, right, of course, while the Wraith stood there and watched, I should have grabbed one of the tools and driven it through your chest."
"And what about after that then? When I was sick and couldn't even remember how to get up to piss? It wouldn't have been that hard to tell them I'd died!"
"I'm not a killer!"
"Don't lie to yourself. I might as well be dead, considering what you've left me as!" the airman threw back sharply.
Rodney flinched away from the man as if the words were a physical blow. His words cut sharply to the core. Rodney carried a scar for every man and woman he converted and another for every piece of human flesh and bone he replaced with his mechanics prolonging someone's service to the Wraith. Rationally he knew that he was as much a victim of the Wraith as the people he changed, but no amount of rationalization could soothe his guilty conscience.
"Yes, well, I'm sorry, but there's a bigger picture here than one stupid American who got himself caught by the Wraith!" The words came hot and fast and Rodney couldn't have stopped them if he tried. "You and your ship ruined everything! I was ready! I was nearly there and then you idiots blundered in!"
The man went pale in the face and yelled right back, matching Rodney's vitriol with his own. "And what about the people I serve and protect? This mission was our best chance at gaining the information we needed to ensure their freedom!"
"Well, we all saw how well that worked out for you, didn't we?" Rodney spat.
The airman growled in frustration and yanked on their joined arms again, causing them both to gasp in pain.
"Just, fuck, stay still!" Rodney yelled at him. He closed his pinned hand hard on the other man's arm, trying to hold him still. The tendons in his arm loudly protested the movement.
The airman froze, panting. For a long moment they both stood still, regaining their breath and breathing through the pain. The anger between them rushed away as quickly as it had appeared.
"Why..." the man's voice broke and he had to pause to swallow. In lieu of continuing, he gestured vaguely at their joined hands.
"Why what?" Rodney asked with a sigh. Blindly he reached behind himself to grope for his chair. His hand hit the back and he dragged the chair forward to collapse into. "Why are you clear headed again? Why the stabbing? It's the same answer really."
Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. He could feel a headache coming on. Generally the nanites took care of things like that but his were probably a bit overwhelmed right now, between the blood loss and trying to close the wound that the awl was keeping open.
"Yes, all of that," the other man prompted.
Rodney almost laughed at his dry tone. "The short version? I reprogramed my nanites and that," he said nodding his head blindly at their pinned arms, "is the most fucked up blood transfusion in the history of the world. So now, you get reprogrammed nanites, too."
"I'm cured?" Rodney couldn't help but hear the desperate note of hope in the man's voice. He squeezed his eyes closed harder.
"No," his guilt drove him to answer sharply. "You're not cured. Nanites are self-replicating but the new ones get the default programming. I haven't figured out how to get them to replicate with the new programming. As soon as my reprogrammed nanites are replaced you'll go back to being the way you were."
Rodney didn't need to look up to see the crushing weight of his pronouncement. He knew very well how bitter slavery was.
"I have a transmitter here," he let go of the bridge of his nose and swiveled his arm around to bare his forearm. Finally, looking back at the airman, he watched him process the revelation.
"What the hell is your name?" Rodney blurted out, interrupting the man's next question. "It's awkward not to have a name."
The man frowned at him. "I've been here for days and you're just asking now?"
He wasn't sure how he could explain that, when the man had been in a nanite haze, it was better not to know his name. A nameless American going to the Wraith had been somehow easier to contemplate than a man with a name and a history that Rodney had robbed him of. Instead he simply responded with the truth. "Yes, I'm asking now."
The man stared at him for a long moment before he answered. "It's John. And you? Everyone just calls you the Blacksmith." He screwed up his face in disgust. "That's not your name, is it?"
Rodney snorted. "I wasn't born the Blacksmith, if that's what you're asking. My mother named me Rodney." Or so he'd been told. Women could only stay in the crèche until their child was weaned; then the babies were left in the care of the oldest of the children still in the crèche. The few teachers assigned to the crèche and the doctor who came weekly for medical checks were the only adults Rodney had had any contact with until the day the he was given his last aptitude test and placed with the Blacksmith.
John gave him a tight nod. "Rodney. Okay then, so how do I get a transceiver thing?"
"Transmitter," Rodney corrected absently, "and I don't have another one."
Rather than get angry, as Rodney would have predicted, John just nodded again. "Okay, I kind of figured as much since everyone else around here seems to be a Wraith drone. How long until you can build me one, then?"
Rodney looked hard at John. "I can't. Not in the time that we have before the Wraith Queen sends someone for you."
John scowled, squeezing Rodney's forearm with his trapped hand. "You have a plan to overthrow the Wraith. I can help but only if I'm not hazed out."
"Help?" Rodney scoffed. "You crashed your ship. I don't even know you. How do I know you're going to help me rather than do something stupid like run off for the lake or the forest and get yourself eaten or worse, captured again and tortured into giving me away?"
John looked him in the eye, steady and sincere. "You know everything about me that you need to know. I flew an airship over a no-man's land of zombies and sea monsters on the thinnest of rumors about a Wraith Queen and the slimmest chance of success. And here you are offering me a chance to save my country, and free yours." The man offered a cocky grin before playing his trump card. "I piloted an airship into a Wraith Tower, Rodney. Trust me."
"Failed," Rodney sniped but there wasn't any real feeling behind it. "Failed to pilot an airship into a Wraith Tower."
John just waved him off with an awkward gesture from his injured arm. "At least I tried." He opened his mouth, thought better of it, took a deep breath and then continued on with a nod at the enhanced hand Rodney had been working on. "Later. Once we win. You can put the transmitter in that, right?"
Rodney shook his head. "If my plan works, after I'm done there won't be a Tower anymore. You won't need it. If it doesn't, well, it won't matter then either."
John leaned forward as far as he could, pushing himself into Rodney's space. "It'll work," he said with quiet conviction, eyes never leaving Rodney's face. "It'll work and then we'll move on to the next Tower and the next until there are no more left."
Rodney's heart broke a little. He started at John and his mouth worked but no words came out. It seemed like such a small thing, this vote of confidence from a man he hardly knew. But after two years of planning and hiding and preparing all on his own, alone in a world that he'd grown up in but didn't fit into anymore, the faith that this man was willing to put in him was humbling and entirely frightening.
It was Rodney who finally looked away. "Yes, well," he prevaricated. "You realize that at the end of the night, I'm going to have to pull this awl out and you're going to go back to not caring, right?"
John gave him a steady look and a measured nod.
"And if the Wraith get bored of waiting and show up to take you back to the Queen before I finish your hand, you'll probably betray me as soon as she starts asking questions and then we'll both end up dead."
It was a terrifying thought but John just nodded again.
Rodney cocked his head and stared at the other man as if by looking hard enough he could read the future and gauge his resolve.
In the end it all came down to a leap of faith and a surprisingly easy one at that.
"Come here." He called John across the room from the bench Rodney had banished him to that morning. It had been too hard working with him sitting across from Rodney, blankly watching him.
John silently made his way over and halted just behind Rodney's shoulder. Without prompting, he braced his good arm on the back of Rodney's chair and laid his maimed arm out on the workbench, elbow to fingertip, palm down.
Rodney took up the armature. "Hold still," he commanded. With a turn of a large screwdriver, Rodney retracted the small, sharply barbed pins strategically placed along the connection points for the machinery. Ideally it was better to bond a new limb to an unhealed body, but this way also worked.
Carefully, Rodney lined up the prosthetic with John's arm and hand, turning and adjusting how it wrapped around his wrist. He slid the base of John's thumb into the cup of metal that cradled it, and carefully straightened his useless thumb and first two fingers so that they fit inside the hollow fingers of the armature. The fingers of the mechanical hand had been fashioned with interlocking rings that rotated open and closed. With a few practiced flicks of his fingers Rodney twisted them closed on John's digits, trapping them. The last fitting was the pinky finger. Rather than covering the entire finger again, Rodney had made an ornate bronze ring that fit tightly around the base of John's smallest finger. The ring connected to the wrist architecture, securely bracing the outer edge of John's hand.
He took his time, ensuring everything was exactly right, and only when he was one hundred percent satisfied did he lay John's hand back on the table. Trapping the hand against the workbench with his right arm, Rodney picked up his tool again. Without warning John, he positioned the screwdriver against the wrist and gave the locking mechanism a quick hard twist.
The connection points sprang out and, aided by the pneumatics of the new limb, buried themselves deep into John's flesh and at some points into bone. Rodney's chair rocked back as the man behind him jerked in shock, the pain briefly pushing his body into an animal reaction despite the nanites in his blood. Red blood beaded around the edges of machinery.
Beneath his hands the new limb jerked and spasmed to life as the nanites in the metal bonded to newly exposed nerves and bones, while the nanites in John's blood got to work to healing and completing the connections. Rodney monitored it all closely, ensuring that the new limb bonded properly and ignoring the what felt like a glaring hole left in the wrist where he had left space for John's transmitter.
"Open it," he demanded. And the hand spread out in a glorious splay of skin and bronzed metal.
"Good. Now touch your thumb to your forefinger then the others in sequence." The oiled bronze thumb and forefinger came together easily in a circle, followed quickly by each remaining finger.
"Twist as if turning a doorknob." Beneath the almost impossibly thin skin of metal, Rodney could just make out the dark shape of gears and levers moving as the hand closed and the wrist twisted.
It was beautiful, and it worked flawlessly. He wanted to ask John how he liked it, wanted to see the curiosity in his eyes as he tested out the function, wanted to see perhaps a small measure of joy in the restoration of his hand. But this John did none of those things.
Swallowing hard, and covering it with a cough, Rodney pushed away from the workbench. The movement of his chair forced John back a few steps as well.
"Come on then," he said. Without a backward glance, Rodney stepped around the desk and made for the front of the workshop. He paused to put away his apron and grab his satchel and a small tool kit. John sedately followed the watchmen out into the morning sun. Rodney slipped out the door of his workshop last.
The watchmen had brought one of their steam-powered carriages with them and Rodney sat on the rear bench with John. The carriages were reserved for the use of the Wraith and those who served in the Tower, but Rodney had been making plans to build one almost from the moment he'd freed himself. He would have to find someway to address the noise though because the almighty racket of the steam engine tucked beneath the rear bench made it entirely impossible for anyone to speak while in transit.
In short order, the carriage turned into an alcove set into the base of the Tower and they all filed out, the watchmen followed by Rodney and then John bringing up the rear. Rodney had been inside the Tower on several occasions but the path the watchmen were taking was unfamiliar to him. Generally when he was called to the Tower, he met the Wraith in the large receiving hall just inside the main entrance. Wherever they were going today, it was much deeper and higher within the Tower than Rodney had ever been.
The further they traveled into the structure, the less human the architecture became. Wraith propaganda claimed that they descended from the sky. Walking past walls that glistened and seemed to breathe, Rodney could well believe it—it was like walking through the belly of a sea monster. The floor gave a little under each step and there was no echo of sound from anywhere. Rodney had to concentrate hard to catch even the smallest of sound of John behind him. Rationally, Rodney knew that John was following him, that John had no other thought in his head right now except obeying, but the temptation to look was nearly overwhelming.
Keep it together, he silently admonished himself. Just a bit further.
The hallway they were traveling down abruptly ended in a large black doorway, easily twice as tall as Rodney. The skin over the door dilated, creating an opening through which they could step two abreast. Rodney struggled to maintain his calm façade in the face of such foul technology; it was nothing like the clean orderly lines of his machines.
"Attend me." The sibilant command pulled Rodney forward into a large chamber. Behind him the watchmen took up posts outside the doorway, which tightened and closed again. John stepped forward to pace Rodney as they moved deeper into the room.
At the far end of a large hall a dark table was laid with ornate silverware, crystal, and a large selection of food. The tableau was illuminated by an array of ornate candelabras, many more than were strictly necessary for lighting and all topped by thick tallow candles. As he approached, Rodney could smell the faint odor of something going rotten.
"I would see your work." The Queen was seated at the head of the table in the only chair. She tilted her head to the side and held out a hand.
John stepped forward and presented his arm to the Wraith Queen. She took hold of the arm at John's elbow and flexed it in several directions. The oiled bronze framework cradling John's arm and hand caught the candlelight with flashes of muted gold. Her pallid skin looked obscene in contrast to the warm colors.
She didn't smile but she had an air of satisfaction about her as her eyes flicked to Rodney and then just as quickly dismissed him. "I am pleased." She released John's arm and rose from her chair. "Eat, Blacksmith," she commanded as she stepped away from the table and turned her full attention on John.
Rodney bowed low at the waist. He could feel the weight of her attention shift away from him and he was grateful for the reprieve. He stepped forward and placed his satchel on the table. Rodney's fingers flexed open and closed, clutching for a moment as he searched the table for the least objectionable of choices. He chose a dark apple from one of the silver platters. It was fetid and mealy in his mouth but he kept his face carefully blank as he chewed. Selecting another, he slipped it into his bag. As his hand was hidden inside the the satchel he surreptitiously flipped a small switch on the device secreted within. A barely perceptible hum rose from the bag. Rodney looked up sharply than normal, but the Queen didn't seem to notice either the noise or his slip.
The Queen slowly circled John, her head swiveling left and right like a snake tasting the air. "You have trespassed in our city. Why?"
"We were looking for you." John's voice was wooden and devoid of emotion. He stood ramrod straight without moving as she circled, neither tracking left nor right but staring straight ahead.
The next bite of apple was ash in Rodney's mouth as he forced himself to wait. This would work. This had to work.
A quiet hum came from the Wraith. "The city across the lake to the South. How is it defended?"
The lines at the corners of John's eyes and mouth became a bit more pronounced. His answer came just the slightest bit slower this time but he betrayed his city nonetheless.
"The Army and Air Corps both have garrisons. The walls are protected by cannons, rail guns, and a pair of colossi."
Rodney held himself still but his mind was racing. The Americans had two of those large mechanical sentinels protecting their city? The feat of engineering to build one alone was staggering, and they had a pair. They had obviously spent the years since the Wraith invasion of the north, preparing themselves.
The Wraith seemed less than pleased by the news. She stopped her circling, coming to a standstill in front of John. "A pair of colossi?" she snarled. "And how high do they reach?"
It might have been Rodney's imagination but again John seemed to hesitate. "They can pull an airship from the sky." His voice was gruff with sudden effort.
The Queen's face twisted with anger and her eyes narrowed on John. "You are—" she paused as if searching for the word. Her eyes lit with rage as the connection was made. "Defiant!" she spat.
Rodney's heart rate skyrocketed as a result of a sudden rush of adrenaline. Trying to blend into the background and avoid notice, he picked up another apple. Beside it on the table lay a sharp carving knife. He desperately tried to slow his breathing as he casually rested his hand beside the knife. He hoped like hell that he would be able to hold the knife without shaking when the time came.
"Kneel." The command from the Wraith Queen had Rodney's knees hitting the ground before he'd even processed the order. He was just a casualty of the situation, though. The command had been for John, who was now also kneeling at the Queen's feet. She towered above them both, her features tight with barely suppressed rage.
"Such strength. Tell me how you have done this, how you resist us." She trailed her fingers down John's cheek then pushed them back through his hair so that she ended up with her hand wrapped around John's head. He flinched away from her touch and his features went tight with pain.
"No," he choked out. But regardless of what his mouth was saying, his mind was betraying them all.
The Queen abruptly flung John from her. He flew several feet before landing hard on his side, head slamming into the ground, and sliding out of Rodney's view behind the table. The Queen whirled to face Rodney. "Blacksmith!" she growled arms held to her sides and wicked nails extended. "What have you done?"
Rodney abandoned all pretense of subterfuge and bolted for the safety of the other side of the table. The Queen was on him before he'd gone two full steps. With a scream of rage she wrenched him around and threw him onto the table, pinning him with one hand around his neck. Rodney's hands were flung out to the sides by the power of the impact and platters of food went tumbling around him. Several candelabras were overturned leaving their candles burning and sputtering amid the wreckage of the meal.
"Betrayal!" she snarled. "How have you done this?"
The hand on Rodney's throat tightened, choking off his air. Rodney wrapped his hands around her wrist, trying to gain purchase and pry her off, but she was much too strong.
"How have you done this?" The question was repeated, but this time it clawed its way into Rodney's brain. His eyesight faded out and Rodney screamed in pain. He could no longer coordinate his hands to fight back but he refused to give up the small detail of his discovery. He buried it deep beneath his own rage at the Wraith. Images of men that he'd converted, women he'd modified, and all the countless others he'd ensured remained in the service of the Wraith flooded his mind.
"You will tell me!" The command shredded his memories and mauled grey matter. Rodney could feel blood begin to drip down the back of his throat and from his nose as she tore him apart from the inside.
Then, as suddenly as she had attacked him, she let go. Self preservation got Rodney moving where he hadn't been able to before. Clutching at his throat, Rodney rolled off the table and fell to the floor. He pulled his uncooperative legs under himself, getting to his knees to try to defend himself.
The Wraith Queen stood stock-still between him and the door, staring down at herself. From between her ribs, mid-chest, a long spike protruded, black with blood. She took a half step forward before crumpling to the chamber floor in a heap. John stood behind her, chest heaving and eyes dark with rage.
"John?" Rodney asked roughly. He coughed and hacked a few times to clear his throat of blood.
John gave him a dark look then stepped over to the Queen and rolled her onto her back with a well-placed boot. As her head turned Rodney noted that her eyes were open and she still seemed to be tracking, if only barely. He struggled to his feet and staggered over to join John.
"You don't know what you have done," the Wraith Queen laughed weakly. "When I die, she will know. All the Queens will know and the city will burn."
Looking down at her still body, Rodney couldn't help but note how small and fragile she suddenly seemed. She was telling the truth, he knew. Once the Wraith discovered what had happened here, it would be all out war. Yet, looking at her small crumpled body, he couldn't help but note how easily she died.
"Then, I guess they will die too," he offered in return. He watched with satisfaction as the last shreds of life she clung to fled and her eyes closed. He stared at her chest for long minutes, watching it lay still, ensuring that she drew no further breaths.
When he could delay the moment no longer, Rodney looked over at John and found that he was staring back. A small smile quirked Rodney's lips.
"Thank you for that."
John hitched a shoulder in a half shrug but nodded all the same.
Somewhere deep within the Tower, Rodney imagined he could hear the rumbling of the Wraith mobilizing but his worry seemed distant whereas John was standing right there staring at him, waiting.
"All there?" he asked.
John nodded. "All here." John looked around at the destruction they had wrought. A dull roar seemed to be building in the very walls of the chamber but Rodney imagined, it might not be the Wraith after all. There were a lot of humans in the Tower and Rodney's device continued to hum away.
"Ready to start a rebellion?"
The question startled a surprised laugh from Rodney. "You're not suicidal, right?" he asked, half seriously.
John offered him a dark grin. "No more than you. But there are some things that might be worth dying for, right?"
Rodney couldn't help agreeing. John was right, of course, but with a little luck it wouldn't come to that.
John held out his new hand and Rodney clasped it in his own in a strong handshake.
"Come on." John turned the handshake into a sharp tug, dragging Rodney a few steps. "We need to get the transmitter hooked into the main system and then we need to get out of here before the mob arrives."
"It's going to be a brave new world, Rodney." John clapped Rodney on the shoulder and started off for the door. "No one will see us coming."
Rodney would enjoy proving John right.