Harris is dead.
That was the first thing Hanu said out loud in somewhere around two days, and it wasn’t even said to another person. He had holed himself up in one of the rooms when they arrived at Deprogramming, and hadn’t said a word to anyone since.
The sooner he admitted the reality, the sooner he could get over it. So he told himself firmly, that Harris was dead and there was nothing more to it. It’s not like he even knew the man all that well, he reasoned. And maybe Harris was happier now that he was finally with his daughter again. But that didn’t make him feel better at all. They were just words.
Hanu sat up in bed. His muscles ached again. They were always aching nowadays. It seemed like once he had recovered, he turned around and had to wear himself out again, running. What a joke, he thought. The idea of running, sneaking, fighting to just live your own life your own planet… just didn’t make sense.
He wasn’t sure how long ago it happened, being as getting here was a lot trickier this time. Everything after he was dragged into the coffeehouse was a dull blur. He remembered being moved to the back office, where Adam did the surgery on Celia and the twins. Hanu couldn’t even muster the energy to try and console La as be bawled uncontrollably after drinking the yellow stuff from the vial. He just watched, dazed, as the little boy shook with fear. Celia stroked his dark hair and rocked him.
Adam had called for a ferry, but he said it would take some time before anyone would get there. After a while, Hanu asked that he just let them in the tunnel. ‘I’ve been there before. I’ll find my way back, just tell Paula I’m coming with three others,’ he said. He didn’t really feel like dealing with all of Ellie’s jabbering, anyway.
But then they got lost in the tunnel. Hanu thought it would be simple enough to find the main path and take it all the way to Deprogramming, but in this tunnel there were several dummy trails. Some paths just led to the sewer system, and others just led to dead ends. After a while, though, he found the main path that led to the staircase and the luminescent doorway. When Paula opened the door, he pushed past her and went straight to his room.
Hanu had been lying in bed since then, lost in his thoughts. But today he finally got up, tired of the silence. He couldn’t stand the loneliness anymore, but he didn’t want to have to talk to people either. He looked down the stairs. He could see that Paula had been packing up. Everything from the food pantry was on the table now, and she was putting it in boxes. Celia and the twins must have already gone on to the Underground. He wondered how Paula tested them before approving them to go. Well, at least they were off to their happy ending, he thought.
Paula saw Hanu and headed up the stairs.
“Can I come in?”
“Sure,” Hanu said, sitting back down on his bed. He figured he couldn’t keep giving her the cold shoulder after all she’d done for him. She came to his room on several occasions offering food and water, or a change of clothes, but he never once said a word of thanks. She would just set the tray down on his dresser and return to collect the empty dishes later. She’d been patient with him, for sure.
“Who would’ve thought the dandelion would have the guts to stick it to the Council,” she said, smirking.
Angry flames twisted in Hanu’s gut. He wouldn’t have let her come in if he knew she’d be making jokes. He knew that taking his anger out on Paula wasn’t wise, though, so he just sat in silence. Paula came and sat down next to him.
“Celia told me what happened, Hanu. I’m sorry about your friend. He must’ve been pretty brave to do that for you,” she said.
“Can we please talk about something else,” Hanu said, looking at her shoes. He was trying his best to be polite, because what happened wasn’t Paula’s fault. But he didn’t want her talking about Harris like she knew him or even cared. It was Hanu’s burden to deal with.
“Of course, Hanu,” she said quietly. He could tell that Paula was looking at him, but he didn’t meet her gaze. He kept looking at her shoes. They were the same ones she always wore- simple black sandals. He wondered if she was testing him, maybe seeing if he was still fit to go to the Underground. He didn’t bother to try and convince her, if she was, because he wasn’t sure if he even wanted to go anymore. The way he saw it, somebody had to pay for what the scouts did to Harris, and he couldn’t make anyone pay if he was hanging out in the Underground.
“You’ll be happy to hear that your friends made it,” she said, hoping to cheer him up. “Reggie and Andy helped to get them to the Underground. You made a big sacrifice, Hanu. You took a chance to help others, and it paid off. I’m proud of you.”
“So they all left without me, huh?” Hanu said sullenly. He was trying to keep his voice from shaking. “They just all took off to the Underground. Not one person tried to come back for me?”
“It wasn’t easy for them, Hanu. Reggie was badly injured, and we needed to get those children to the Underground fast. Nobody was in any condition to break back into the District, especially since Andy had just blasted a hole through the wall. The Ancients themselves were crawling through the city looking for us.”
“I risked it for them!” Hanu yelled, standing up now. He knew he was being unreasonable, but he couldn’t control himself anymore. He crossed the room and swept the dishes off his dresser. “They had me caged up for all that time, and not one person came to help me! Do you have any idea what they did to me in there?”
Paula sat quietly, watching Hanu as he tore the room up. He punched at the stone walls, ignoring the pain in his fists, and screamed through sobs.
“You can’t even imagine what it was like! Everyone must’ve had some real good laughs, huh? I bet they were just kicking back around the camp fire. Did anyone even try? No, they just left me! Forget them!”
He turned around, mid punch, and saw Paula sitting there coolly. She looked just like Mr. Carlisle, back at The Flush. He wanted to punch her right in the old face, to make her feel as much pain he’d felt these last few weeks. Hanu stopped. He knew he was taking it too far. How could he think about hurting Paula? Hanu slumped to the floor, crying.
“Forget them,” he sniffled. “Akesh, Reggie, Andy…Harris…my stupid mom… They all left me behind.” Paula sat down next to him and stroked his curls. When the sobbing subsided she helped him to his feet.
“Come on, Hanu. Let’s get some fresh air.”
Downstairs, Hanu sat at the table and watched Paula pack up. She asked him to help, but he just kept dumping the food in boxes haphazardly and staring off into space, so she finally told him to have a seat and relax. She talked to him about different random things, to keep his mind occupied, and Hanu appreciated it even though it didn’t work very well. He ended up falling back into his own thoughts for the most part, so she would have to yell at him to pay attention.
“From what I hear, the Council is going nuts,” Paula said. “And rightfully so, you guys did quite a number on them. They lost well over twenty test subjects. Remember what I told you? They need that DNA.”
“Yeah one of the ladies there said that humans were mutating faster now- that the Ancients were going to get ahead this time,” Hanu said.
“Mutating” Paula scoffed. “They sure do have those District personnel under their thumb… Well, you made sure to ruin that for them!”
Paula smiled at Hanu, and he couldn’t help but feel a little proud of himself. “What else did they say? Anything of importance?”
“Well, nothing else, really…” Hanu said, thinking. He thought about telling her that his mom was working for them, but he was too ashamed of that. Then he thought about what he had told them. “I do have to admit something though, Paula.”
“Hanu I’m sure they did horrible things to you to get you to talk, so don’t feel ashamed if you slipped up,” she said knowingly. “Besides, you don’t really know too much to tell in the first place. And you couldn’t have said too much because if they knew our location they would’ve already come. It must’ve taken a lot of will power to hold your tongue, Hanu, but it would be helpful to know exactly what was said.”
“Well I think it’s my fault that they went and tore down the Bathtub Resort and all those other places. That councilman- Aric- was controlling me somehow. It was like… I felt really lazy and tired all of a sudden. Then he asked where my friends were, and I said that they were from regular places in the city.” Hanu hung his head. “And they have one of the holographic cloaks, too. They’re not safe to use anymore.”
“Is that it?”
“Well, yeah… I think so,” he said quietly.
“Well that’s hardly anything to bat an eye at,” she cried, relieved. Paula slapped him on the back and went to grab another box.
“Yeah, kiddo?” She put the collapsed box on the table and began folding it.
“Are you guys the Dissenters?” he asked. Paula stopped what she was doing and looked at Hanu.
“There’s no such thing as the Dissenters, Hanu. They label people Dissenters as a means to an end. It makes it easier to kill whoever threatens their plans.”
Hanu had heard that before, but it couldn’t explain away what he saw.
“But some people are doing bad things out there. I heard them talking about it at The Flush and then again in the District. They showed me how the Dissenters killed people in an apartment building and destroyed crops and starved people. They’re on a religious quest-”
“There’s no religious quest, Hanu. I know who did all of those horrible things you saw, and I agree with the actions of those “Dissenters” one hundred percent.”
Hanu was taken aback. “They killed people, Paula!”
“Stuff it,” she said gruffly. “Someone who lived in that apartment complex was ferrying people to Deprogramming, just like Ellie. When the Ancients came for information the man refused to talk, so they blew him up as well as his family and neighbors. Then they blamed it on Dissenters.”
Paula was throwing bags of grain into the box now.
“As for the crops- they regularly produce genetically modified crops that are designed to alter humanity’s DNA. Every once in a while someone plucks up the courage to burn them down for us. But don’t worry, those people didn’t starve because of it. You better believe the Ancients have the power to replicate food with their technology. That’s why starvation is literally unheard of nowadays, unless the Ancient Ones decide it’s necessary.”
“So you mean to tell me…”
Paula walked around the table and leaned in on Hanu. “I mean to tell you that the Ancient Ones will always lie in order to tighten their control. If you want to use that name to group people together, then go ahead. If that’s the case, the answer to your question would be yes. We are the Dissenters, and our mission is to fight the Ancients when and how we can! And guess what, Hanu, you’re a full-fledged member. You happy now?”
Hanu sank back in his seat. It couldn’t just be so simple. But Paula was one of the few people in the world that he would believe because she never minded being frank, no matter how ugly the truth was. He sat and watched as she continued packing the grains into the box.
The Ancient Ones call them Dissenters. He thought about Aric, so desperate to find them. The Ancient Ones must fear them pretty badly to be this cautious. Hanu did prefer to use that name. Paula, Ellie, Toni, Reggie- even Moira and John- they’re all Dissenters. They fight the Ancient Ones when and how they can. And he was a Dissenter, too. He let his thoughts roll around in his mind.
“Have you ever killed anyone?” he asked, just to make sure.
“No, but I have blown up a building or two to save a friend,” she smiled.
Hanu picked up the box she finished packing and put it by the door. He never asked why she was packing all the food away. Maybe she would ship it off to where it was needed more, or maybe since Toni was out of commission she wouldn’t have very many people coming through anymore.
“So has business slowed down for you or something?”
“You and I will be the last ones to make the pilgrimage to the Underground from here, Hanu. At least for a little while.”
“Well what about the other people on the surface? The ones who are waking up- how will they find the Underground?”
“There are other Deprogramming stations around. I don’t think all of them will close down, at least I hope not. But anyways, the people who are meant to find the Underground will get there, one way or another.”
Paula closed off the box of dry foods. “Besides, I’ll be back one day, when it’s safer.”
“But Paula, they’re going to just keep taking people prisoner if you guys shut down. Everybody up there will be stuck!” Hanu said.
“You did what you could, Hanu, just like I did what I could. Our jobs are done. All we can do is live the best life we can and wait it out,” Paula said.
Hanu crossed his arms now, pacing the room. People were going to keep dying. He thought about the Ancient One he saw the day he was caught- the one doing a surgery on that other being. These things came into a world thinking they can do whatever they want, he thought to himself, silently fuming. And now what little they were doing about it was about to come to a halt.
Hanu closed his eyes and breathed, trying to control the surging in his gut as he clenched his swollen fists. He was so tired of feeling like this. How could they be born into such a messed up world? How could they be so helpless? It was so unfair. He felt trapped, and he wanted out. He wanted to just rip himself out of his own body so he wouldn’t have to continue to feel like this.
“If everyone just realized what was going on, they would fight, too,” he said to Paula. “People are evolving faster now. If we just told them the truth, then they would fight back, right?”
“In a perfect world, yes. But the people up there have no desire to hear the truth. Sure, many of them sense that things aren’t right on our planet, Hanu, but they’re easily consoled by the Ancient Ones and the Council. They’re fed with so many lies that the truth makes them uncomfortable, so they brush it off as urban legends and myths- hardly worth considering, let alone acting on.”
“But this is different. We’re evolving faster now, Paula. Maybe we can get through to enough people!” Hanu argued.
“What, me and you?” Paula laughed as she dropped another box at the tunnel door. “Two people can’t make such a difference, Hanu. Besides, we’ve done enough for now, so please get it out of your head.”
Hanu threw a pebble into the water. “Well if you’re not going to help, I’ll just do it myself.”
“What, run Deprogramming?”
Hanu thought about it. Could he take over as the next operator and let Paula move on? She was right, she had done her job. Maybe she could just retire. But he was much too young, too inexperienced. He wouldn’t last a day. He had to do something, though.
“If I talk to my mom, she might listen. She’s a geneticist. She can tell her co-workers the truth! People need to know, and we need to tell them now before they find other people to experiment on.”
“You can’t do it all on your own, Hanu. Your mom’s the one who sent you to the Flush in the first place! Please just come with me to the Underground.” Paula walked over to Hanu and grabbed his shoulders. “Haven’t you been through enough?”
Hanu’s palms started sweating, and his chest was tight. Suddenly he was back in the metal cell, helpless again. He pushed Paula off of him. “You can’t control me!”
He backed away from her. “You’re right. I’ve been through enough, but I’m going back. I’m going to tell whoever will listen, Paula. I can’t just leave this alone.” Hanu continued backing away from her. The corners of his mouth ached from scowling so deeply, but he couldn’t control his emotions anymore. “Not after what they did to me... and what they did to Harris,” his voice cracked. “My little sister’s still up there and if she’s like me, my mom will send her off, too. She shouldn’t have to live in a world like this.”
Hanu looked for the tunnel that they came from- the one that leads to the coffeehouse.
“You moron, you’re going to throw away everyone’s sacrifices! Your mom doesn’t know any better. She’ll turn you in.”
“Then she’ll learn better!” Hanu screamed stubbornly, trying to pull the door open. But it was locked. Paula walked over to the keypad.
“So you’ll convince your mom to see reason, then what?”
“Let me out!”
“What will you do?”
Hanu rested his forehead against the door. “I don’t know, Paula. These things have to be stopped, though. I’ll come up with something… I always do.”
“You can’t come back, Hanu. I won’t be here.”
Hanu thought about Akesh and the others in the Underground. He hoped they had found their place in the city and were keeping each other happy. He thought about Reggie and Andy. They must be back in the City of Fire by now. He thought about what Reggie said: “They do something about it. They can’t help but fight the system.”
Maybe he should go to the City of Fire and get advice from them. But then again, he knew his plan was a farfetched one; they might try to stop him, too. This was a one man mission, and if he didn’t come back, it was because he wasn’t alive. Hanu was perfectly fine with that at the moment.
“I didn’t plan on it,” he said.
Paula shifted her weight, preparing to continue the argument, but thought better of it. She slowly put in the code.
“I know you have to do this, Hanu. Just remember that you’ll always have help if you know how to call on it,” she said. “Do me a favor and don’t get yourself caught. Take care, kiddo.”
Hanu looked at Paula. He could see that the old lady had tears in her eyes, but he didn’t have time to console her. He had to leave before he lost his nerve. Hanu pulled the door open, and slipped through. He was leaving Deprogramming again.