Maybe he could still salvage the situation. Maybe if he pretended he was coming to notify the Ancient One of the nature of the emergency, he could slip away undetected while they scrambled to secure the runaway prisoners. He opened his eyes, prepared to bluff.
The creature was wearing a scope over its eye and holding a scalpel and fork. It stood over a body that was strapped to a surgery table, and a light was beaming down on them. Hanu couldn’t pull it off. The sheer terror on his face gave him away.
“A scout never runs from an emergency, nor is it capable of such an emotional response,” the creature said. It gently put down the tools and removed its headgear. “So who are you?”
Hanu could do nothing but look at the table. Whoever it was being operated on, it wasn’t human. It didn’t look like anything upstairs, and it definitely didn’t look like anything Hanu had ever seen in the Tome. Its orange body had tufts of hair here and there and its feline face was looking up at the ceiling. Was it… awake?
“Oh, don’t mind my guest here,” the Ancient One said. “You see, I don’t prefer to watch the Bowl. There’s no real reward in watching others compete for a title. I prefer a more tangible reward, harvested by my own hands.”
Hanu heard another voice now- Come to me… quickly… wait at the door. Hanu was feeling the heaviness again. He searched for the door handle behind him now. He most definitely wouldn’t be waiting at the door.
“This is the type of game I like to play,” it continued. “This game also requires a great deal of strategy. I’ve promised this race a cure to the mysterious disease they’ve recently suffered from, which I will deliver. I created the disease, so naturally, I already have the antidote. But while I have such a fine specimen, I might as well reward myself with some genetic material, right? There’s a great deal of permission involved in accessing the higher records and codes.”
The creature made no advance toward Hanu. He leaned in on the patient while he spoke, stroking its face tenderly. Hanu turned the handle and made to run for it, but he was tackled back into the room by a scout. From the floor, he could see that people were running up the hallway now and someone had stopped the alarm. He realized now that the Ancient had been calling for help. He was instructing the scout to wait at the door for him. He struggled fruitlessly against the scout as he closed the door again.
“You are a very good imitation, but you’re no scout. Again I’ll ask, who are you?” came the wispy voice.
Hanu knew he was caught. There was no way out of this one. Maybe Andy had something in his bag of tricks for this type of situation, but he was long gone by now. He knew they would soon figure out the secret to his transformation. Maybe if he could take the necklace off and hide it somewhere they wouldn’t discover it. He reached for it and snatched it off, returning to himself again. But the scout was too fast- he grabbed the device from his hands. He tossed it over to the Ancient One, who held it up to the light.
“This is a clever device,” he said. “I shall have to kill the person who made it.”
Hanu knew he messed up now. It wasn’t safe to use the cloak anymore, and the others wouldn’t know that. He tried to overpower the scout, as Titanya had, but his body was exhausted. It was no use.
Just then, the same councilman from earlier came in and shut the door behind him. He pulled up a couple of chairs and sat in one.
“Release the boy,” he said with an air of urgency. He gestured toward the other seat expectantly. Hanu was at the mercy of this man now. He got up from the floor and sat, just barely, at the edge of the seat. The man looked at Hanu with sympathetic eyes as he leaned in, sitting on the edge of his own seat now.
“You poor boy,” he said. “Look at what the Dissenters have done to you.”
“I don’t know any Dissenters,” Hanu said stubbornly.
“So you’re telling me you’ve come here all alone today?” he said, mock impressed. Hanu didn’t want to answer that. He’d already given away Reggie and Andy’s cloak, the least he could do was keep his mouth shut about anything else. Or better yet, lie.
“I did. I wanted my friends out, so I came and got them by myself. Nobody else wanted to help me,” he said, looking at the man’s golden sandals.
“I don’t think you did,” he said. “I think the Dissenters took advantage of a poor, confused and unfortunately, unstable, boy. You were hurt and scared after that unfortunate accident and they came and found you. They fed you lies to confuse you, Hanu.”
“How do you know my name?”
“I was the one who requested you. We had been putting together some research to find solutions for your paranoia and delusions, and badly need your help. You see, sometimes the radiation in the atmosphere- a little gift from our warring forefathers- can affect the child in utero. That’s what causes these psychological phenomena, which must be making life a horror for you. Poor boy, I want to help you.”
Hanu sat back in his chair, shaking his leg now.
“So what kind of research were you going to do?”
“Just some harmless bloodwork is all,” he said. “We’ve figured out the formula to correct the anomaly.”
“So I just had to take some medicine and see if it worked?” Hanu asked.
“Of course. And you know what, Hanu? I believe it does work,” he said, shaking his leg now too. “Oh, Hanu, but they fed you all of those lies about us. I think you would have been healed by now and already back home with your mom and little sister. I’m so sorry they took advantage of you.”
Hanu’s mind was reeling. He could have been home by now with his mom. Is it possible he was believing and acting on delusions? Had he been mistaken this whole time?
Explosions. Had they come back for him? Hanu looked around. No windows. He couldn’t tell what was going on out there. They wouldn’t know where he was now, if they had come back.
The councilman didn’t pay much attention. He didn’t move to secure Hanu or send any orders. He would have at least sent the scout to deal with it.
Because they were fireworks, Hanu realized. And his heart sank. Nobody was coming for him.
“I’m. so. sorry. they. took. advantage. of. you,” the man repeated in a rhythmic, monotonous voice.
Hanu thought back to when he met Harris. “I know a place you can go,” he had said. And maybe Sadie caught on to what he was doing- you followed him here to get to us, didn’t you?”
It was ultimately Hanu’s decision to run away, though- to come back and try to save the others. But he was acting on the information they had given him. Did they count on him doing that? His palms began to sweat as his mind debated itself. He wiped them on his pants. Then man was running his own hands on his white pants as well. Was he mocking Hanu?
“Listen,” the man said slowly in his dowdy tone again. Hanu leaned in, hanging on to his every word. “I’m. so. sorry. they. took. advantage. of. you.”
Hanu started crying. Maybe he had been taken advantage of. After all, Reggie and Andy just left him here. He suddenly felt isolated, helpless. Nobody was coming to save him. His gut wrenched. The councilman leaned in, too, and grabbed Hanu’s shoulder reassuringly.
“Don’t worry, Hanu. That’s what we’re here for. I forgive you.” And he started again, “We. can. help. you. Okay? Trust me. We. can. help. you.”
Then the man straightened back up in his chair.
“Now, feel free to tell us where your friends are hiding, Hanu. You can feel safe to tell us anything that you know about them,” he said.
Hanu, who had stopped crying, licked his lips. “Well... they’re from regular places in the city,” he started, dazedly. And then he became uncomfortably aware of eyes on him. Hanu cut his eyes from the Ancient One to the scout, who were standing behind the councilman. They waited, quietly, listening as the two talked. Hanu noticed that the man also cut his eyes, looking behind Hanu. The man was copying him. Hanu coughed, and so did he. Then he scratched his face, and the man did, too. Something strange was happening here.
“Go on, who are they? The Dissenters? Where are they- in the city?” he asked. The man’s demeanor had changed now. His eyes were cold again. Hanu thought about Akesh and the others- how the man used such a sweet and innocent voice to get them to cooperate earlier. Then he wanted to send Titanya downstairs to suffer the same fate as the twins. This man didn’t care about any of them. And the Ancient clearly had no problem coercing anybody to get what he wanted.
Hanu stood up. He didn’t know how, but he had to get away from here. The councilman stood up, too, and squeezed his shoulder as he did earlier. That feeling in his gut came back immediately. Hanu was helpless again. The man pulled him into a hug.
“There, there. Don’t worry, as soon as you tell us everything we can go ahead and give you the medicine. Then you’ll be on your way home,” he said in his sweet voice again.
“Shove it,” Hanu said, pushing away from him.
The man had been manipulating him the whole time. Hanu made a last attempt for the door, even though he knew he was too weak and slow to pull the heavy thing open in enough time to get away. And the man was already on him, bringing his fist down on the side of Hanu’s face.
Hanu awoke in a metal room. Ironically, it was one of the cells he had helped so many others escape from some time earlier. He sat up, rubbing the side of his head, and noticed that his arm was wrapped. He tore through the bandage. Two scabbed holes, but no red blemish. They may have drawn blood or perhaps given a few injections of medicine, but they didn’t bother putting another trade in him. He looked through the mesh door, careful not to touch it.
No answer. He looked across the hall and saw that the cells were empty. It looked like they hadn’t recovered many of the escaped prisoners, he thought. He laid back down, too tired to think hard. He would rest for a while longer then come up with a plan.
Hanu closed his eyes and listened. There were occasional footsteps and people talking in the distance. He wondered what they planned on doing with him. He busted out most of their test subjects, put a hole in their wall and who knows what Reggie blew up for the diversion. He was surprised they didn’t override him on the spot.
Hanu thought about Akesh and the others. He wondered if they had made it back to Deprogramming by now. Ester was probably ecstatic to see Jeremiah. He wondered if she’d go back to being a hermit now that he was there to hermit with. Had they moved on to the Underground without him? Well, probably not with Paula testing them first. He smirked to himself. Hopefully they would be able to just move on to the Underground and be happy. Hanu wasn’t able to do that, and this is where it landed him. But still, if he were going to die, at least he saved a few others.
Hours later, the man came, holding a tray. He squeezed into the room and sat down in front of Hanu.
“I’m afraid we started off on the wrong foot,” he said, pushing the tray towards Hanu. “My name is Aric.”
He had brought food- rice and a bowl of soup, a bunch of grapes and a cup of water. Hanu drank down the soup and started on the rice before Aric could invite him to eat. It had been so long since Hanu had a meal.
“Hanu, no matter what it seems to you, the Ancients are here to restore the order that they originally intended for us to enjoy. The methods may seem cruel to you, but they are necessary,” he said. Hanu listened with a mouthful of rice. His belly was full and warm.
“You don’t understand because you’re just a child. War, disease, senseless killing, and hate- you’ve never had to experience such things, thanks to the Ancients.”
Hanu was feeling giddy now, intoxicated. He grabbed a couple of grapes and popped them in his mouth. Then he shoved a few in Aric’s face.
“Oh, no thank you. But if you’re ready to tell me how I can find your friends, I’d like to help them. They’re sick and they can really use your help right now.”
Hanu thought about the Bathtub Resort. He could see it clearly in his mind now- the secret door, the tunnel, the luminescent doorway. They were all so wonderful. He wanted to tell Aric all about them. He just knew he was going to spill the beans. But he tried not to. Hanu tried to think of something else, anything else. Then he blurted out.
“I used to be afraid of the dark. I was twelve before I could sleep without a night light.”
It was working. He just had to force himself to think about anything besides Deprogramming.
“When I was little I used to pretend I was an Ancient. I would fly around on a spaceship- which was really just my mom’s couch-”
“The Dissenters, who are they? What are their names?” Aric asked impatiently.
Hanu tried harder now to keep his mind busy. He kept going. “I ate six jalapenos one time at the Flush and later on that night I had diarrhea. I ended up accidentally pooping myself because Mr. Beady took too long unlocking the door,” he admitted, laughing aloud.
Aric stood up and kicked the tray out of the cell. It splattered against the opposite cell, sending rice and grapes all over the place. Then he slammed the door and stormed off. After his footsteps faded Hanu laid back down and continued listening the low hum of the door.
For the next three days Aric came with a bowl of soup and rice. Hanu ate the rice and politely turned down the soup each day. Then on the fourth day, Aric brought a bowl of rice with the soup mixed in and reassured Hanu that he would need to keep his strength up for the trip home. After Hanu refused it Aric left the cell, tight lipped, and didn’t come back. Later, a scout came with a loaf of stale bread and a cup of water, which Hanu ate cautiously.
That night the citizen’s anthem played over the loud speaker. First it was low, so Hanu wasn’t sure what it was. He could tell it was a woman’s voice- different from everyone else he’d been hearing. He thought maybe the secretary had come up to deliver some news. He lifted his head off the cold floor just enough to get a good listen.
I promise integrity and support to my brethren
Of the world and of my homeland.
I will follow the words of the council,
Who are guided by the Ancient Ones.
Every day, I look to my leaders
To bestow wisdom and knowledge
It is in their care that I place my life
And the future of all the world.
Hanu must’ve said this anthem thousands of times in his life. Everyone was required to learn it in their first year of school, and recite it every morning before instruction started. He remembered how they made a big deal about it when he still hadn’t gotten it right by the end of his first year. They wanted to retain him, just for that. And for that reason, he despised it. He hated it even more now that they were playing it nonstop. Every time it started over, the voice got louder.
He put his head back down and curled into a fetal position, covering his ears. The sound of the woman’s voice seeped through his palms, but it was bearable. He fell asleep somewhere around the twenty fifth rendition of it.
Hanu started counting his days, more or less, by stale loaves of bread. He was currently working on his fourth loaf, so they had been playing the anthem for about that long now, he figured. Sometimes it was played very low, so it was just another background noise, and other times it blared so loudly Hanu couldn’t hear himself scream. Then the voice would gradually slow so that the anthem would be drawn out. Just when Hanu was starting to think that time was slowing down it would jump back to regular speed, making him nauseous.
In order to keep himself from going insane he would hum loudly or sing different songs at the top of his lungs. He tried to think about anything besides the stupid anthem. He found himself wishing that the other beings that he saw in the Tome of the Earth would come and save him. If he could just fall asleep maybe he could ask them for help.
“Why don’t you help me!” he would scream at the top of his lungs.
Sometimes he would get up and dance wildly. Eventually he got the idea to rip off bits of his shirt and stuff them in his ears. It improved Hanu’s existence considerably, though he still wasn’t able to concentrate enough to formulate an escape plan.
On the fifth day the anthem stopped and Aric came back.
“Are you ready to cooperate? I spoke with your mother and she said she was ready for you to come home, Hanu. Aren’t you ready to go home now?”
Hanu stared at him blankly. He thought about darting through the open cell door, but he knew there was probably a scout somewhere in the hall.
“Poor boy, you must be tired of these conditions. The sooner you give us the information we need, the sooner you can get out of here. What do you say?”
Hanu licked his dry lips and cleared his throat. Then he finally spoke. “I promise integrity and support to my brethren, of the world and of my homeland. I will follow the words-”
Aric kicked him in the stomach, sending stale bread into his throat. Hanu doubled over and allowed his face to rest on the cold floor. He stayed there, trying not to show how much pain he felt. He continued.
“…of the council, who are guided by the Ancient Ones. Every day, I look to my leaders, to bestow wisdom and knowledge.”
When he looked up again Aric had gone. Hanu wondered just how long he could resist. He crawled into a corner and hugged his knees. That night bread didn’t come.
The next morning, two scouts escorted him upstairs. They offered no explanation when they came into his cell and picked him up off the floor. Once on his feet, he allowed them to guide him to the elevators. He thought maybe they were taking him for override, which he wouldn’t have minded too much. At least this way what little information he had would go with him to his grave, if they gave him one, and the Underground would be safe. They passed through the third floor lobby, which was eerily similar to the one on the first floor, and through a set of doors on the other side.
They left him in a large windowless room. It was empty, except for a single chair placed at the center. He decided to sit and wait for whatever it was that would happen next. After a while, a voice came over the speaker system. The same woman who had recited the citizen’s anthem before.
“Humanity, left to its own devices, can only create inequity.”
And then Hanu was submerged in a silent movie. The sun beat down on him from somewhere up above. It was so bright he could almost feel the warmth. He stood up, adjusting his eyes. There was a shack made of mud and straw, surrounded by cracked earth. In the doorway of the shack, a child was playing with a doll made from the same straw as the roof. Her arms and legs were nothing more than sticks, and her belly was distended. He watched her play contentedly with the doll for a while.
Then Hanu was in a more familiar place- a restaurant. Three men were laughing with each other, rubbing paunchy stomachs. A woman came by and collected their plates of food and threw them in the trash.
“These aren’t the only atrocities that we have made for ourselves,” the woman said. And now Hanu was looking over a large body of water. The surface of the water was streaked with black gunk in places, and dead animals floated in clusters along the shore. After that, Hanu was in a dark and littered alley. A man was walking quickly down the alley with his faced tucked in his coat. Two men approached him from the rear. Hanu screamed as he was kicked to the ground and robbed- he forgot it was just a movie.
Next, Hanu was sitting in the cockpit of an airplane. Two men smiled at each other as they dropped a missile over a beautiful city. The missile glided toward the city as people below scrambled to escape the blast. It didn’t detonate, though, because a silvery globular craft came from thin air and beamed it away.
“That is why the Ancients were forced to step in. They came to save us from our own self destruction,” she said.
Then Hanu was surrounded by faces- happy faces of people who had been saved from the blast, and starving children holding food, and a sickly woman taking medicine. Some of the people cried tears of joy or jumped in the air. They were chanting and dancing because of the Ancient Ones.
“People like you and I will never understand the horrors of the past- war, starvation, poverty. It’s thanks to the Ancient Ones, who are our creators and saviors. We have only to correct our path and heal the scars of our history.”
Hanu found himself back at the Flush. It looked just as it had the last time he was there. It may have even been his own unit. It was hard to tell, as they all looked alike. A patient, who Hanu had never seen before, was attacking a staff member.
“Delusions, schizophrenia, hallucinations, and paranoia are our last conquest.”
He could see another patient, in her room, sitting in a corner and pulling her own hair out. She was screaming in distress.
“We work diligently to help those children who have fallen victim to the ghosts of the past,” she said. Then the scene changed. He saw his mother in the lab downstairs, extracting blood from a little boy. Hanu was unnerved. His own mother had been here.
“Your mother completed her practicum here, at this very facility. She understands the importance of your mental health and the health of all the children of the world.”
Then Hanu could see hundreds of children, holding hands and singing. They were at some sort of celebration. Hanu could see the Ancients in the background looking on as they sang. Then the scene changed again, startling Hanu. This scene showed an Ancient One pulling a child out of some rubble. The small boy was bleeding from somewhere behind his hairline. Hanu could see that an apartment building had been blown apart.
“The Dissenters do what they can to disturb the peace that this new era has brought. At any cost, they tear down the order that the Ancient Ones brought to Earth in order to establish a new era of fear. They use deception- taking advantage of our delicate and impressionable youth.”
Now three teenagers burned down a field of corn. One of them sprayed a liquid onto the crops while another ignited a torch and threw it in. They ran off, laughing, as it exploded.
“They spread false information in order to coerce our young to carry out their missions, but they don’t tell them the real objectives that they are working toward.”
Then Hanu was at a Food Distribution Center. He could see that the line had backed up, and panicked citizens were banging on the doors. These people were the ones who suffered from the crops being burned down.
“The time to choose is upon you, Hanu. Will you live with us, or die with the Dissenters?”
Finally he was back in the empty room. He wasn’t sure how to feel after seeing what he saw. The scouts silently escorted him back to his cell and left him to think.
Hanu went back and forth in his mind. He felt sound. He felt like he was making the best decisions he could, given everything that he’d witnessed since he left the Flush, but he was faltering. He thought about Reggie and Andy. Are they the Dissenters? And had they lied to him? Was Paula a Dissenter, too? He didn’t want to do terrible things to innocent people. He just wanted to live in peace, and help others do the same. Maybe he would live in peace if he cooperated, he thought. They would let him go home to his mom and sister.
But what about mom, he argued with himself. He saw her sticking needles into an unconscious boy. How could she be so cruel? He could ask the same of her. Were the Ancient Ones lying to her to get her to do all those awful things? Aric, the Ancient Ones- they were deceitful. Paula was crude at times, but she never used sweet words or shady tactics to get what she wanted.
Hanu wondered how bad it would be to just give up. The Ancient Ones have all the power. And maybe they were right. Maybe after he took the medicine, he would suddenly realize how foolish he’d been. Hanu screamed in frustration. He would never know the truth, so he couldn’t trust himself to make the right decision.
That night, the door opened again. He looked up, expecting stale bread, but instead it was one of the twins. He didn’t want to believe what he was seeing. The boy looked to be in considerably better condition than the last time Hanu saw them. He wore crisp, clean clothes and his hair was combed. He smelled a whole lot better, too, and what’s more, he brought a feast. Hanu eyed the tray suspiciously. It held a steak dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy, peas, a salad, a cup of juice and a large slice of pie.
“It’s for you,” he said. “Hanu, right? I’m La. I heard you tried to rescue me. Thanks for that.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job of it. I should’ve come sooner,” Hanu said. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
“I’m bringing you dinner. Go ahead, it’s yours,” La said, pushing the tray closer to Hanu. “I came to give you a message, too.”
“Oh yeah, what’s the message?” Hanu asked, eating a handful of peas.
“Things are a lot better for us here now since the day you tried to rescue us. We were really angry, but the Ancients helped us to see how good life can be, Hanu. We’re happy here now, and all we had to do was cooperate,” La said.
Hanu stopped eating the food. “This is a trick.”
“No, no trick,” he said. Picking up the steak and taking a few bites. He offered Hanu the rest. “We eat like this every day now- as much as we want! And we have real bedrooms, too. They let us stay in the palace now and everything.”
“La, they’re experimenting on people here. They’re trying to take over our planet. We have to fight them. Remember what your brother said? They’re liars,” Hanu urged.
He was appalled. The twins have given up. They’ve been broken by the Council’s tactics. If those two hard knocks could be swayed then what chance did Hanu have?
“If they are, then it’s probably for the best,” La said, playing with the mashed potatoes now. “Hanu, please do yourself a favor and just give up. They’re offering to send you home and pardon everything you’ve done. Me and Tui- we don’t have parents, but they’ve given us a home. They treat us like royalty now. They’ll help you if you help them.”
Hanu looked at La in disbelief. He had no more words. He was tired of trying to find words- words to think with and words to defend himself with.
“They’ll be coming for you in the morning. That’s your offer, so just think about it,” he said, standing up now. He handed the plate to Hanu. “Oh, yeah. Try the gravy. It’s delicious.”
Hanu looked at the plate. In the gravy there were three words: Tonight we escape.