|CHAPTER 11: THE END OF PHOENIX BASE
With an act of pure will Silas prevented himself from staring numbly at the now-revealed shaft that clearly led to a hidden launching site on the surface, and turned his attention to the controls that Zethos had declined to explore and Henry had ignored completely. Silas had heard the sounds of the desperate stand of the guards, followed by their panicked retreat. His sensitive ears picked up a new volley of weapon’s fire, much shorter and less powerful than the initial thunder he'd heard earlier, and then the screams and other, less savory, sounds of the following massacre as the survivors found themselves trapped, out of ammunition and overwhelmed.
In the precious moments when the mutations were occupied, Silas surveyed the controls. Then, his fingers flying over the buttons, switches and knobs, he brought the system fully on-line for the first time in centuries. Monitors flared to life, machinery began to hum and the powerful reactor buried under the chamber reached full power.
The first order of business was to get the doors re-sealed. This was the work of only moments, though even as the doors swung ponderously shut Silas heard movement in the hall leading to the control room in which he stood. A few commands typed into the console before him and a glance at the picture supplied by cameras hidden throughout the facility proved what Silas had suspected: he was the last non-mutated human left alive. In the meantime, the mighty pistons that held the door so securely closed returned to the positions they had held for so long. However, Silas was aware that even these massive doors might not hold indefinitely, so he wasted no time reviewing the data-base for the pod’s flight plan. He then pulled up the schematic of the facility as well as how to trigger an overload in the generator.
Silas’ heart leapt with both hope and fear when he learned that this place, named Phoenix base by its creators, led to the final destination on his long quest. He was so close, but he was also painfully aware that Zethos and Henry would beat him to it, even assuming that he’d live long enough to see the sky again.
Silas breathed a sigh of relief borne out of the deepest human sense of self-preservation when he found that there was a way out for him. His fingers flew over the controls once more even as he heard the first faint sounds of the invaders trying to get at him. He took a moment to view the images provided by the security cameras outside the door and felt faint amazement that the creatures had begun to make headway against the massive doors, small as that headway was at this point.
Silas returned his full attention to escape and providing the only service he still could to those he had called friends so recently. Inputting the final command, a mechanical voice stated “lift activated, start-up sequence initiated. Warning: generator overload is underway. Ten minutes to detonation.”
With the warnings outside of those sounding in the control chamber silenced by Silas, the Mutates had no way of knowing that doom was only minutes away. With a pang of regret that he had had so little time with the devices he’d worked so hard to access, Silas raced to the hole that had recently held the lower portion of the pod. He jumped into it with no time to even visually check that the lift was really moving into place. If it wasn’t, a quick death from a fall would be his best way out.
He encountered the lift after falling no more than a dozen feet, absorbing the shock easily with his powerful legs. He grabbed for the lift’s controls, reversing its direction and accelerating it to its maximum speed of descent. Moments later it stopped, and then began moving horizontally. Silas was aware of the seconds ticking away until he reached the lift’s final destination: a small hangar within which his escape vehicle nestled, warmed up and ready to go. Its door was even open, with the seat inside looking not only inviting but positively heavenly.
Silas vaulted over the lift’s railing and virtually flew into the vehicle. He noted that it looked almost exactly like Rebecca’s vehicle, which the computer had identified as a BearCat 3000. The small part of him that remained calm and analytical remembered that Rebecca had called it a Cat, and he saw no reason to go against that abbreviation in how he would refer to it as well.
Silas hurled himself into the Cat, hitting the button for the Cat’s door to close even before he’d settled fully into the seat. This also activated the powerful hydraulics at the end of the hangar, which forced the hangar door open against the accumulated dirt and grass that had grown over it during the many years since it had last opened. The Cat tore out through a hole in what had been perfectly camouflaged as a hillside. Silas made sure that the way ahead was clear, checked the control panel to determine which direction he needed to go to follow Zethos and Henry, and then jammed the accelerator to full while twisting the Cat’s steering wheel to continue his pursuit.
The powerful, all-terrain vehicle tore off at tremendous speed. Silas just hoped that it would be enough.
He activated the Cat’s remote camera feed and saw that the monsters at the door had made more than token headway by now, but he didn’t think they’d break through nearly in time. Flipping between camera views he could see that every living thing in Phoenix base was clustered at that door. He divided his attention between the camera and the way ahead, avoiding obstacles while moving as fast as possible away from the base and towards the escape pod’s destination.
After what seemed all too short a time, Silas heard the detonation behind him. The base was composed of steel, stone and powerful alloys. Furthermore, most of it was underground. Then, the generator itself was buried under the base. This all provided a tremendous amount of cushion before the blast could even reach the surface. Nonetheless, Silas felt the shockwaves of the explosion and saw fire erupt behind him. Tremendous boulders flew high into the air, and Silas activated the Cat’s radar and calculated the trajectory of the projectiles that were coming in his direction as best he could. With the final images of the security camera pointed at the door to the control room seared into his brain, images proving that whatever was left of his friends would be tortured no more, he pushed the Cat through evasive maneuvers that kept it, and himself, in one piece.
When the last of the debris had settled, Silas resumed course to where Zethos and Henry were headed. He had no hope of humanity’s salvation now, but his Final Duty remained: Zethos would not be allowed to pervert what he found and turn it against humanity, even if he would have only days to enjoy his discovery. Silas could hope to achieve no more than that.
But at least he had something left to strive for.
Meanwhile, unknown to Silas, a beacon pulsed continuously, feeding his position to devices far away. Those who monitored those devices saw where Silas was headed and gave out sighs of relief, their bodies losing a bit of their rigidity as they determined that he was going exactly where they had hoped. They began making plans to ensure that he wouldn’t reach his goal before falling into their trap and meeting their own needs, plans that Silas had no hope of countering or evading.
CHAPTER 12: IT’S THE DESTINATION, NOT THE JOURNEY
After the initial relief of escape, Zethos and Henry realized that they weren’t in the most comfortable of situations. The two couches in the escape pod were extremely close together, and the pod itself was so small they could barely move. It appeared to be made of stone with no windows, no controls and no sense of how long they would be trapped inside. Given the inertial dampeners, there wasn’t even a sense of movement. This created the extremely unsettling feeling that they were simply entombed, and might remain so forever.
Both men entertained thoughts of shooting the other, but then the idea of sharing the cramped quarters with a corpse hardly seemed like a better situation. Thus, they reclined in silence and waited to see what their destiny would bring. Zethos was able to relax, though he kept a sharp, but unobtrusive, eye on Henry, just in case. However, he was certain that wherever he was going would be a key step to his glorious destiny. It was inevitable. It was right.
He was Zethos.
Time took on a velvety quality. The stone fašade hid sophisticated systems, possibly the most sophisticated ever created by humanity. The temperature within the pod was well regulated and air circulated freely from internal systems, free of any external threats such as the super-virus now roaming with greater and greater freedom. Thus, the pod remained on course with its occupants well protected, if extremely discomfited.
Finally, far faster than any land vehicle could possibly travel, the pod reached its destination. Neither Zethos nor Henry were able to see or feel the pod slow, nor were they aware of a perfectly camouflaged door, perfectly shaped to accommodate their pod, sliding silently open. The pod entered a tube virtually identical to the one at Phoenix base. Zethos and Henry first realized that their journey was, mercifully, over only when the sections of the pod separated again, with the top portion half-recessed in the ceiling of the new chamber and bottom portion lowered until it was half-buried in the floor.
Zethos bound from his seat, eager to see his destiny unfold. He saw a room similar to the one he had recently departed, but larger and with more monitors, computers and stations from which to work. Those systems were even now coming on-line, and Zethos had no doubts regarding his right and ability to use them to his advantage.
Henry, for his part, proceeded in a far more diffident manner. He less secure invading such a place. But, then, Zethos knew that that was what separated the two of them. For all of Henry’s admirable practicality he had no sense of greatness. Of course, if he had such a belief in his own greatness then Zethos would have eliminated him long ago to avoid the competition.
Zethos strode forward and, with no immediate danger, began working the controls at the nearest station. He was able to get this base’s cameras operational, and discovered that it was far larger than Phoenix base had been. As he gazed upon the resources that were now his, his face broke into a radiant smile.
Vast food stores, along with a hydroponics area, could provide nourishment for large numbers of people stretching over decades. Large living areas, some of which looked positively sumptuous, beckoned to be filled. Laboratories containing highly advanced equipment came into view. Weapons of greater number and variety than he had imagined he could ever get his hands on were his for the taking. A spacious hanger held a variety of aircraft and ground vehicles.
Perhaps best of all, the place was eminently defensible. There were only a few entrances, all virtually impregnable if locked down, which they currently were. Zethos took the time to override the systems that allowed pods such as the one he’d arrived in to enter the base and ensured that no one would follow him in until such time as he deemed it advantageous to his own goals for them to do so.
He then came across a part of the base that didn’t respond to his controls. He quickly determined that this unknown area was the base’s true nerve center. He was certain that the answers as to what this base was for, and why it even existed, could be found there.
Zethos was tempted to head straight to the nerve center, but he was tired, hungry and only lightly armed. He set the computer to alert him if anyone approached the base and headed to the armory. From there he would arm himself, then eat and rest. After that he’d search out the equipment he might need to hack into the computers at the nerve center and fully take control of this base. There was no immediate threat, so he had time to prepare himself.
Henry followed like a shadow.
CHAPTER 13: THE MAN WITH THE HARD EYES
Silas’ journey was more pleasant than what Zethos and Henry had endured, though longer. There were supplies in the Cat, and it could be trusted to proceed on auto-pilot, with the computer set to alert him if it ran into a situation that its artificial intelligence felt it couldn’t handle. Thus he ate and rested, unknowingly mirroring Zethos’ course of action.
After the better part of a day, with the Cat chewing up the terrain tirelessly, its scanners detected a metallic object ahead. Before Silas could determine what it was, there was some sort of flash of light, the Cat’s systems went dead and the Cat bounced to a stop. He was unable to get the vehicle up and running, so after failing several times he pushed the door open manually and stepped out into the evening sun.
Before he could do more than get his bearings, Silas found himself surrounded by several heavily-armed men and women. They were dressed uniformly in tan pants tucked into knee-high black boots with matching shirts, finished off with dark green vests. He thought briefly about trying to fight his way free. However, not only did that seem fool-hardy, he could not be sure that they deserved to be killed, and many of them would have to die if he were to extricate himself from their trap with violence.
Thus Silas allowed himself to be dis-armed and bound. His captors used no more force than absolutely necessary, which Silas took as a good sign. When they got to the Key around his neck the man searching him hesitated, then allowed it to remain where it was. Silas then saw one of them enter the Cat while carrying a hand-held device. Moments later the Cat started up. Clearly they’d been waiting for him and were well prepared.
He was escorted to a waiting vehicle, a personnel carrier with a closed cab up front and an open area in the back, a railing around it and benches on either side. His captors remained vigilant and gave him no chance to try and break free. Silas noted that he was still treated with a minimum of force. He saw the Cat he’d driven from Phoenix Base pull up behind the carrier and then both vehicles headed down a road that looked well-maintained.
“So,” Silas asked, directing the comment to the man sitting across from him, “do you want to tell me what this is all about? Is this how you treat everyone driving around, minding his own business?”
No response. Silas made other attempts with the remaining people in the carrier, with the same results. Silas’ desire to reach his destination was balanced by curiosity about these people. They seemed well-organized and well-equipped, not to mention that somehow they knew he was coming and were prepared to stop him. Since he couldn’t escape at this time, all he could do was make the most of his opportunity.
Besides, in a matter of days at the most, they’d all be dead or transformed. He’d either get free before then or not.
After less than half an hour they arrived at a large village. The houses were well-maintained and solid. There were sentries protecting the village and a handful of vehicles scattered about. The people looked well-fed and purposeful. Their clothes were also well-maintained. A few of them stole furtive glances at Silas, and he could have sworn that he saw cautious hope in their eyes.
Silas was taken into one of the larger buildings, where he was escorted into an impressively appointed lab. He had a sample of his blood taken with professional skill. People seemed diffident around him, and continued to communicate with only the minimal words needed to tell him where to go and what to do.
Silas was unbound and escorted into another room where he was given a sumptuous meal, with a stew ladled over rice inside of a bowl constructed of bread. He ate ravenously. Oddly, he felt no desire to try to escape, but rather that this was where he belonged.
Shortly after he finished his meal another man walked in. He had no weapons or badge of office, and his clothes were identical to what had been worn by those who had captured him. However, there was something in his bearing that told Silas that this was the leader. Then Silas looked up into his eyes and saw that they were cold, hard and merciless.
“Well,” Silas said, “will you talk to me? I’m beginning to feel unloved.”
The man’s expression didn’t waver, but he did respond. “Yes, but first you need to do one thing for me.” He then held out a device with a square base, about three inches thick, a foot wide and two feet long. He pressed a button on the side and two things happened: a small portion of the end pointed at Silas slid open and a monitor slid soundlessly up, facing the man.
Silas’ eyebrows rose. “Well, could you at least tell me your name?”
The man seemed to consider for a moment. He said “Stephen” and looked at Silas expectantly, holding the device out in silent demand.
Silas looked into those cold, hard, merciless eyes and told him the only thing that really mattered. “It’s coming. Like a wildfire, destroying every living thing in its path, the end of everything. And unless we do something fast it will be the end of the last remnant of humanity.” The man with the cold eyes didn’t seem to react to the news.
If that didn’t matter to him, what did? Silas wondered.
And then he wondered if the meal he’d just had was intended as his last, no matter what he said.
Finally, Stephen responded. “If you would kindly slide your device in here, with your thumb pressed on one end, we’ll see if there’s anything to be done about all of that.”
Silas blinked, then shrugged, as he realized what “device” Stephen meant. Silas pulled out the Key and did as instructed. He could hear the computer processing information, and a green light emanated from the screen, reflected off of Stephen’s face. Then the light began blinking and the machine ejected the Key.
The monitor folded back down.
Stephen looked up. “Alright,” he said.
Silas suddenly lost patience. “What the hell does that mean?” he raged. " We have no time for riddles or delay. Are you the leader here or not? Can you help me get where I need to go if we’re going to have any chance of helping the people here?”
Throughout Silas’ tirade Stephen remained calm. “I was the leader.”
Silas was taken aback. “You were? What do you mean?”
At that moment the door opened and a familiar figure passed into the room.
“It means,” Rebecca said, “that now you’re here everything has changed.”
CHAPTER 14: THE CHOICE
Zethos finished his tour of the facility. He’d already enjoyed a filling meal, slept in a room locked with a password only he knew and re-armed himself thoroughly from the armory. He’d marveled at the hydroponics garden, which included a grove of trees and sustainable crops. With so many plants, oxygen to the facility was assured without any outside air coming in.
Zethos had used the internal sensors to verify that the only living things were himself, Henry and the plants. He therefore felt quite secure and ready to check out the nerve center.
In his greed and his zeal to explore the final secrets of the facility, Zethos failed to wonder how the plants had been maintained in such an orderly fashion. This was an oversight he’d come to regret.
For now, he entered the final chamber. Inside he found a large piece of machinery. It was cubical, about five feet tall, twice as long, and three feet thick. The side facing the door had a recess with a keyboard in it and above that a large monitor. The remainder of the cube was a uniform black. It hummed steadily. There was also a camera mounted in the room that could swivel to cover everything.
Zethos approached the keyboard with near-reverence: not for the machine, but based on his sense that he had, at last, found the crucial element to his own destiny.
As ever, Zethos’ sense of worship was reserved for himself.
Zethos began typing commands into the computer. Whatever security it might have, Zethos felt that computers were designed to be controlled, and he would find a way to dominate this one.
Suddenly he saw a small circle iris open at the top of the cube, and light pour out. A holographic display was initiated. Zethos and Henry saw a nearly-perfect representation of a man appear, only slightly translucent.
“So,” the hologram said, “someone has finally come to Haven. And who might you be?”
Zethos drew himself up to his full height, seeming to expand with his own certainty. “I am Zethos, he whose destiny is to rule, both here and in the wider world. Who are you and, more to the point, will you obey me or must I destroy you and seize power without your aid?”
The program raised its eyebrows, and otherwise replicated the facial expression of being taken a bit aback, mixed with mild surprise and contempt. “My program is based on the brain patterns of John Anderson, he who was in charge of establishing Haven. And whether I assist you rather depends on what you intend to do.”
Zethos smiled as he contemplated his intentions. “I will use this base as the focal point for my destiny. According to the sensors I reviewed in the control room there is a small band of people camped a few hours travel from here. Henry and I will bring them here and then, with control of this base’s systems, establish myself as absolute ruler, with Henry as my second-in-command. They will obey or die. I will then reach out, bringing order to a scattered humanity, and finally bring the species the glory it deserves.”
The hologram of Mr. Anderson nodded. “You should also have seen a larger grouping of people not far from here. Will they be welcome in your kingdom?”
Zethos’ smile took on a wicked cast. “You mean a well-organized, well-fed, well-armed group of people who clearly have their own leadership structure? Hardly. Allowing such a group to come here would surely create uncertainty as to who is in charge, which would benefit no one.”
The hologram responded with a sharp edge to its otherwise mild voice. “You mean it would not benefit you.”
“If my benefit is not your primary goal then I will have to override and erase your program. This is your last chance to obey or be eliminated,” Zethos responded, making the final choice of his long life.
As Zethos spoke, his and Henry’s full attention on the hologram and how to deal with it, neither man sensed the door silently open behind them.
The hologram shifted its attention to Henry. “Are you in agreement with this proposed course of action?”
Henry’s eyes turned furtively to Zethos, who was next to him, and then to the hologram. “I support the strong rule of my Lord Zethos,” he said, making his own final choice.
The hologram nodded its head, sending a command out at the speed of light. Less than a second later both men felt a sharp sting on the back of their necks. Zethos whirled about while Henry clasped his hand over the injury, feeling only the smallest hole leaking a single drop of blood.
Zethos saw a mechanism in the hallway leading from the nerve center the like of which he’d never imagined. It had four articulated legs, small in diameter but apparently quite sturdy. They attached to a rectangular body about 4 feet long, 3 feet thick and 3 feet broad. Projecting from that body was alos a stiff neck, and attached to that was a metal square, about a foot wide, a foot long and several inches thick. In the middle of that head were a couple of small holes.
Zethos correctly deduced that the holes had been used to fire some sort of projectile at him and Henry. However, the damage was minor and he had weaponry sufficient to annihilate this nuisance. He was already planning on how to override the program he’d been talking to as he reached for the pulse rifle he’d slung over his shoulder. Only now, belatedly, was Henry beginning to turn and reach for his own weapon.
Neither man would ever reach his gun.
CHAPTER 15: THEY WHO WAIT
Silas marveled at the events of the last hour as he rode at the head of the largest convoy he’d ever seen, even greater than the one Lord Harland had led. That they were not only depending upon him but also to a large extent following him made it even harder for him to grasp what was happening. The fact that he was finally reaching the end of the long road that had consumed nearly his entire life had such an overwhelming emotional impact on him that he felt like he was moving through a dream.
After Rebecca had walked in, she moved toward Silas and reached around him in an odd mirror to the hug she’d given him just before they’d parted. She solved the mystery of how her people had known exactly where Silas was by detaching a small, wafer-thin device from the back of his shirt. He immediately deduced that it was some sort of tracking device.
Stephen had then nodded to one of his followers, who darted from the room. Silas later learned that he had begun the process of organizing everyone so that they were ready to move out, leaving their Village behind them with only the barest necessities and most immediate personal items.
“Let me explain,” Rebecca said, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “We’ve been waiting here for generations, ever since Haven emptied.”
“Haven?” Silas inquired, furrowing his brow quizzically.
“Our ancestors came from there,” she explained. “Most of them settled here while one of them went forth into the world to find the Seekers. The stories we’ve heard, passed down from generation to generation, is that Haven is a massive fortress carved in the heart of a mountain. It has long been unoccupied, but for the program that runs it, waiting for the time when it’s needed. We were told that the Seekers had the Key to opening it, and we’d be able to tell who held it by loading that Key into the device you just saw. Stephen has reviewed the records that the Key maintained, documenting how it was passed down from Seeker to Seeker, reaching back to the man who left here all those centuries ago.”
Stephen then broke in. “For reasons we’ve never fully understood, we were to wait until we received the signal from the caretaker program at Haven before seeking you out. When that word arrived we were told to send someone to Phoenix base to make contact and assess the situation. That was Rebecca.”
“Sorry for the subterfuge,” Rebecca said, “but I wasn’t sure how you or anyone else would take it if I tried to explain everything. And we were told not to lead you here or even tell you about Haven until you found your way to us. There was no prohibition against saving your life, though,” she added pointedly.
Silas acknowledged the debt he owed her with a small nod, and continued to listen.
Stephen again responded, with a slight tightening of his face. “We’ve allowed people to join us, but only after extensive testing. Much of it was biological, and much more sophisticated than what even you provided for your people. If they failed they would be turned away. Anyone whose bodies might spontaneously generate a virus that could mutate others was rejected, for the safety of everyone.”
Stephen’s face reflected the hard choices he had had to make. “For those who passed the physical tests, they could enter our village. Even then, we did not reveal that we were more than a relatively successful settlement. We observed them, and put them through subtle psychological and moral tests. For those who proved themselves ethical we’d explain who we were and ask them to join us. If they refused we took action to prevent them from spreading our secrets. For most, we had a procedure that erased their memories. For those few who were resistant to that process, we killed them.”
Silas had a sudden intake of breath. “But why?” he asked. “What caused you to take such actions? What were you protecting?”
Rebecca took up the thread of conversation again. “It was extremely hard on my brother. We did everything we could to make sure that those who we offered the opportunity to join us would accept before-hand, but we had to do everything necessary to protect our secrets. We were told that the continued existence of humanity would one day depend upon it. This was a sacred trust that we could not forsake.”
Silas worked hard to put aside his concerns about how this group had maintained itself so long and so well. With these many stunning revelations, he’d momentarily forgotten the doom that was surely descending upon them, but Rebecca’s words reminded him what was coming. “But what makes Haven so important?” he asked.
“What is it?”
“Salvation for humanity,” Stephen said. “We knew that there would be a terrible event known as The End, and that if anyone is to survive it then the Seeker must come and open Haven for us. Beyond that, it’s up to you to lead us inside, where we will discover exactly what this is all for.”
“And my ‘Cat,” Silas asked, “how did you stop it?”
“The caretaking program gave us your Cat’s access codes, and we were able to shut it down remotely,” Stephen explained.
“So, now that you’re here, and we’ve confirmed who you are, you have become our leader,” Rebecca informed him. “While we’ve been speaking, our people have been preparing to follow you to Haven. In a few minutes we need to get out there so you can lead them. Our sensors tell us that we have only scant hours before the leading edge of the super-virus reaches us.”
“One question I have, if I may,” Stephen interjected. “How did you survive the virus? You were surrounded by the infected, with no protection. By now anyone else would have been changed by it, but you’re fine. However, our scans show that you are clean. How can that be?”
Silas considered, and decided to reciprocate with the one secret he seemed to still have from They Who Wait. “One of the reasons I was chosen to hold the Key is that I was determined to have a genetic code without any of the loose ends that allow for mutation. This is extremely rare, and was deemed to be a critical survival trait.”
The room went silent as everyone considered what had been said. Then the man Stephen had sent out opened the door and nodded at Stephen.
“It is time,” Stephen said. “Everyone is prepared. We should go now.”
Then, breaking the habits of a life-time, Stephen hesitated. “That is, if you agree Silas. We’re in your hands now.”
Silas’ head jerked up. “You may consider me your leader, and I’ll do my best, but given how new this all is to me I’ll defer to your judgment until I’ve had a chance to fully absorb the situation and get to know everyone. I don’t care about being in charge, so long as the right thing gets done.”
Rebecca’s posture softened a little, and her smile finally appeared. She now saw that she wouldn’t have to choose between her brother and the leader whose coming had been foretold, which had been her greatest personal worry.
And so it was that Silas arrived at the head of the convoy to Haven, with everyone looking to him for salvation.
CHAPTER 16: TO ENTER HAVEN
What Silas saw was a pair of massive doors built right into the side of a mountain. He was aware that these doors had to open if everyone was to enter, and so he got out of his Cat and walked up to them.
Silas had to find a way to open the doors. Even if they could be battered down with the available firepower, he was sure that doing so was the wrong move. Any damage to their integrity would fatally compromise the promise of safety, both from marauding Mutates and the virus itself.
As he approached the mountain he saw a small panel to the right of the doors. With a mixture of excitement and relief he saw that the panel had a slot similar to the one on Stephen’s device, and in fact similar to ones he had used previously as he followed the clues left behind by those who had built this place. He pulled out the Key and walked confidently to the panel.
At that moment Zethos stood a few dozen feet away from those doors, looking at a screen showing the waiting convoy. Next to that screen were a set of controls, including a button that would activate the security system, overriding the caretaking program’s wishes and unleashing powerful weapons, first on Silas and then on the convoy. Even if that weren’t enough, there were vehicles in the hangar in which he stood that he and Henry could have operated, heavily armored killing machines that could rip through a Cat like it were made of canvas and wood, and shrug off the most powerful weaponry available to those waiting outside.
Zethos burned to press the button that would activate the base’s defenses, smashing the convoy, and then annihilate the survivors before returning to Haven and securing it once more.
Silas, having no idea that death was mere inches away from Zethos’ fingertips, entered the Key into the panel. The caretaker program accessed the information to confirm that this was, indeed, the man who could lead these people to safety, and the doors began to slide open.
The interior was already lit and ready for the convoy. Though Haven’s hangar area had numerous vehicles, they had been bunched up to one side to allow the vehicles in the convoy to enter.
Silas began to smile, but he froze with the expression only half-formed as he saw Zethos and Henry. He hadn’t been sure where they would be, but figured that between himself and those who now followed him the two men could be handled.
However, they both stood still, no weapons visible, hands dangling by their sides.
Silas made his decision. “Grab them, search them and then bind them so they can do no harm.”
The same people who had captured Silas with such efficiency had no problem doing so with Zethos and Henry, who offered even less resistance than Silas. Silas frowned. This didn’t seem like Zethos, to surrender so easily. Something was wrong.
The hologram of John Anderson appeared from the control panel next to Zethos. “So, you have come,” it said. “Please bring your vehicles inside. Then these two men will escort Silas, Stephen and Rebecca to Haven’s nerve center, and all of your questions will be answered.”
Silas glanced at Stephen, who correctly interpreted the question in his eyes. “Yes, that’s the program we’ve been in contact with. I’d say we have little choice but to do as it instructs.”
Silas nodded, and Stephen directed the convoy inside the hangar, which was then secured against a world going mad.
Zethos and Henry, still saying nothing, escorted the trio that had been summoned to the nerve center through a room that acted like an airlock, and then down hallways until they reached the room with the cube that contained the caretaker program’s core.
Silas was still concerned about why Zethos was taking this so calmly, and serving them without a hint of protest.
What Silas did not know was that a moment after Zethos and Henry felt the sting of the drone’s attack, a terrible agony had seized them both, as if every nerve had been dipped in acid. Unknown to them, this was the result of an incredible number of nanites that had just been injected into them, which were invading their nervous systems.
The pain abated quickly, but it was followed by an even worse sensation: a numbness that left both men feeling as if they’d become detached from their bodies. Their arms refused to obey them and, instead of reaching for their weapons, they dropped lifelessly by their sides. From that moment on they were little more than puppets under the control of Haven’s caretaker program.
This was a threat that the Caretaker program’s drones were fully able to deliver to Silas, Stephen and Rebecca, and about which only Zethos and Henry were aware. Even if they’d wanted to say something, they could not speak without the program’s instruction, so they remained mute.
CHAPTER 17: THE FUTURE
“So Caretaker,” Stephen said, “we’ve done everything you have commanded. Now we’ve brought the Seeker here. So, what have my people come to?”
The hologram nodded, expressing somber approval. “You have done what needed to be done, as I told you. You have led when you had to make the most horrible decisions. How do you feel now that you must give up your authority in favor of someone you had never met, someone who has not had to make such sacrifices?”
Stephen hesitated, then shrugged and answered truthfully. “I have led because I must. Part of me is relieved to not have the responsibility to make these decisions anymore. It is unfamiliar, but as always I do what I must to protect my people. If that means following Silas then that is what I will do.”
This earned him a grim smile and a nod, as the hologram appeared to shift its attention to Silas. “And you,” it asked, “you’ve always avoided a leadership role. You knew that you might have to abandon whoever you were with at a moment’s notice to follow up on the next clue, to continue your sacred quest. Now you will lead. How will you adjust to that?”
The Caretaker observed Silas’ stunned expression, and ordered its hologram to smile and respond before Silas spoke. “Yes, I’ve kept you under observation. I’ve seen what you’ve done. Now please answer the question.”
Silas paused longer than Stephen had, but he too responded honestly. “I will do what I must. I didn’t ask for leadership, but now that I’ve found what I’ve been looking for my quest is over. If humanity’s salvation lies here then these people will share it with me. If not, then I will do what I can for them before we die.”
Having been pushed to face what he must do, Silas squared his shoulders and addressed the projection of John Anderson once again. “Now that we’ve answered your questions, tell us what this place is, and whether it is worth a lifetime’s worth of my effort and the obedience of Stephen and his people.”
The Caretaker ran these responses, along with all of the data it had collected for generations, through its carefully selected programming. It checked everything against the parameters established by some of the most intelligent people to ever live and determined that one final test was needed.
So fast was the computer that none of those present detected more than the normal pause in demand and response, despite the incredible number of calculations that had just taken place. “This may be the Haven that will preserve you from the biological threat that has been unleashed on the world. There are sufficient resources here for all of you to survive. However, there is still the question of whether all of those here are worthy of such a boon.”
Zethos and Henry stepped forward, and then turned around to flank the hologram and face the trio. “Silas, you are familiar with these two men. Stephen, Rebecca told you enough about them to draw your own conclusions. So, I put before you a question: should they be allowed to live?”
Silas was torn, but both to cover his indecision and to answer a question that had been burning at him, he asked “what have you done with them? I could not imagine Zethos being cowed enough to obey you like this, even if Henry might be, so you must have done something extreme.”
The program had no problem giving Silas a few moments to reach his decision, or providing him with the information he requested, so the hologram answered as honestly as Silas and Stephen had moments ago, explaining about the nanites, and its ability to control the two men. It then waited for Silas to respond.
Silas sighed, his decision made. He knew that either choice, allowing Zethos and Henry to live, and thus threaten this community, or condemn them to death, was both right and wrong at the same time, so he had to go with his deepest instincts.
Which was exactly what the Caretaker had counted on.
“Let them live and release them,” Silas said.
The hologram smiled. Then there was a flash at the base of each man’s neck, and Zethos and Henry fell like puppets with their strings cut.
Silas was on them immediately. He felt for a pulse on each of the two men, then looked up at the hologram with a stunned expression. “They’re dead,” he said.
Silas leapt to his feet and yelled, venting all of his pent-up anxiety and frustration. “You bastard! You said it was up to me to decide and I did!! Why did you do this?”
“I put the question before you, but did not say that your response would dictate my actions,” the hologram explained, maddeningly calm.
“Was this all a sick game to you?” Silas asked. He then voiced his fear, the fear that what he had sought for so long had turned out to be a nightmare. “Are we now to follow in their footsteps, becoming your slaves?”
“No,” the Caretaker responded. “This was no game, and you are not my playthings. This was the final test. I needed to know that you are moral and merciful. I needed to know that you would make the right choice, rather than act out of anger or vengeance. Only if you were such a man could you be trusted to lead this remnant of humanity to fashion the new world that my creators hoped would rise.”
“Then why kill them?” Silas asked.
“It is up to me to ensure that the world to come has its best chance of not going down the same path as the world that was. As such, people like Zethos and Henry have no place in Haven.” Having made these pronouncements the hologram was still, waiting for the inevitable next question.
Silas was barely able to absorb what he’d been through over the last several hours. Nonetheless, he was driven to get to the heart of the matter. “So if we are not your slaves, but you make all of the decisions, what are we?”
The hologram nodded. “That is a reasonable question. My creators wanted to provide you with the resources to survive and create a new world. You will have free rein over the resources of Haven, and will be able to live here protected from the biological holocaust sweeping over the world, for so long as is necessary. However, this must be balanced against the danger of creating a permanent retreat from the world. To save a remnant of humanity only to allow it to become permanently comfortable in its redoubt would mean nothing.”
“Therefore,” the Caretaker explained, “I will monitor what is happening in the outside world, and share that information with you. While you will have input into the decision of when the doors to Haven will re-open, it will be up to me to make the final determination about when that will happen.”
Silas nodded thoughtfully. “Then our job is to make sure that we are ready for that day.”
The hologram beamed. “Precisely. For now, settle in, learn about your new people, and explore the resources here.”
Silas, Stephen and Rebecca turned and left, all three of them absorbed in thought. Finally, Silas spoke again.
“I must admit that I’m not sure who I am anymore. I’ve been a Seeker so long it will be hard to think of myself as anything else. To have a goal for so long and then to meet it . . . .”
Rebecca broke her own silence. “You have much to replace what you have been. Leader, friend, perhaps even husband some day soon. You may find that these are more rewarding than being a Seeker could ever have been.”
Silas gave her a wry smile, reflecting on the fact that whatever lay ahead, he was no longer destined to be alone, to regard everyone around him as someone he may have to abandon, or to follow a path laid out by others. At last he was free to choose what he felt was best.
With these thoughts to embolden him Silas squared his shoulders and marched forward to his new life.
SEE SILAS' FURTHER ADVENTURES IN "TO BUILD A LEADER" NOW AVAILABLE UNDER THIS AUTHOR'S PORTFOLIO