The Jeep rumbled down the roadway, if you could even call it that. The rutted ground jostled the two men inside it, bouncing them back and forth, up and down. They held on, barely keeping the wheels pointed the direction they needed to go. Up ahead, Markus could see the towering canopy of trees denoting the rainforests of the Congo. Checking his phone, and then the mirrors, he seemed satisfied with not being followed. Yet, something felt off. He’d been checking their trail for a while now, and found no sign of being followed at all. Not from the first moment they left Xanathan City, so why couldn’t he shake this uneasy feeling? This sense of dread that rippled through his body, as if a child tossed a stone into the pond that was his emotional pool. An intense feeling of dread washed over him, seeping down into the very core of his being. He reached out with his mind, intending to check their surroundings again - just to be one hundred percent sure.
<Don, stop. Stop the Jeep, STOP RIGHT NOW!> The wheels locked up, skidding across stone and dirt the rear-end slid halfway around, almost overtaking the front - a rut caught them and the Jeep barely remained upright as it came to a stop.
“What the fuck, Markus? What’s going on? Why’d you make me stop?” Don’s hands gripped the wheel firmly, white-knuckled to control the violent shaking going through his body. No one ever controlled him like that, just eased into his mind and forced his body to do things. It left him feeling violated, empty. He couldn’t stop trembling, his whole body convulsing on the most minute scale. “Why the fuck did you do that, Markus? You couldn’t have given me the time to stop on my own, you couldn’t have trusted me to follow direction? Wha…” As he continued his rant, he watched Markus’ face - realizing he wasn’t even paying attention to him. No, Markus eyes were glazed and off into the distance behind him. The look of pure horror struck him as odd, and Don turned in his seat to follow Markus gaze.
What he saw there shook him to the very core of his being, and rewrote his entire concept of what they were doing. The smoke rising into the sky, blackened and charred was only paled by the orange glow of the burning village below it. Kasenyi, a usual stop for Xanathan soldiers moving in and out of the Congo to protect their interests, or further north to protect their mines, was burning. Not just a house, but all the adjoining houses. They burned to cinders, ashes floating into the sky on the rising currents created by the heat. He couldn’t find the words to explain what he saw, and all he felt was anger. “It was them, wasn’t it, Markus?” His voice seethed with rage, white-hot fury building in his gut and welling up like an explosion waiting to happen.
<I don’t know, Don. Let’s ease our way up there, but be careful. Whatever did cause this, might still be around.> Markus spoke softly, monotonously. His mind was already searching ahead of them, touching whatever living creatures it could find. Which were few and far between, mostly carrion-eaters already preparing for the feast they were about to receive. As used to death as he’d become, serving under Bharata all this time, this was senseless and served no purpose. It was just death for the sake of death. It was atrocious, horrifying. Sighing, he resigned to make whoever did it pay. As they drove further toward Kasenyi, and eventually breached the outskirts of the city, he felt something different. Not the rats and ravens congregating for their meals.
Opening his eyes, he pointed toward the city center. <We need to go there, on foot. We can’t risk the Jeep.> Don stopped short of the fire, giving enough clearance to keep it safe. They stepped out, and began walking toward the center of Kasenyi. All around them smoke rolled from half-burning bodies, some already reduced to more ash than flesh. Markus nearly vomited, but managed to hold it back. He couldn’t imagine what kind of monster could do this to innocent people, surely even NYUNDO weren’t this brazen, this full of hatred toward the things Xanathan touched. He couldn’t make himself buy it, terrorists often don’t have regard for humanity outside of their own groups.
They walked the dirt roadway, while Markus tracked the rapidly fading signal of a human mind. He couldn’t get into it, not at this distance with that much trauma. It was like it built walls around it, a delusion to justify what happened. An easement of the pain and strife that cycled through it from the attack. Yet, Markus knew he could find what he needed once he got close. They walked through the reeds surrounding the lake, finding their way through the denseness of it to the lake shore. Circling it for a moment, they stumbled upon a half-burned body, laying half in the water face down and trembling. Markus reached out, letting his hand rest upon the back of its head, before sliding over to the shoulder and turning the body over.
The face of a small child, a girl barely old enough to understand what womanhood meant, looked back at him. Wide-eyed and in more pain than any person should ever feel, the mental scream she released when he rolled her body sent shivers down his spine. The chances of survival were naught, even the best of Xanathan’s doctors couldn’t save her at this point, and she’d die long before he could get her to the Jeep. He sighed, and a single tear streamed down his face as she tried to move her lips, trying to make a sound from her burnt vocal chords.
<Shhh, don’t speak. Just think. What happened here?>
“Is that you God?” Her mental voice asked softly.
<God? No, child. I am no God, but I am a friend. What happened>
“It’s too much, the pain. I can’t…I ca…”
<Shhh, what happened child, who did this? Show me. Remember, and I will see.>
The view around them changed, like time rewinding everything around them seemed to stop and turn back. It was like a movie rewinding, as the fires burned out and the buildings became whole. The people of the village were happy, going about their lives - not hurting anyone, and not being hurt. Markus stood up from the reeds and watched intently. He walked out of the reeds into the village proper, where the girl’s unharmed body held the hand of a woman of similar looks, but advanced age.
<Ah, so you were out with your mother, yes?> Markus asked, and the girl he watched turned her head and nodded toward him.
“Just a normal day, work and family. The way we’ve lived for years, happy and unassuming. We didn’t know The Demon would come today.”
The girl and her mother returned to their daily routine, gathering supplies for the dinner the village women would cook for the working men when the evening came. They lingered at on stall, the vendor giving them a hard time about some vegetable or another, when the blood-curdling screams tore through the din of the village. The commotion began, and in that moment Markus focused firmly upon the memory passing through his mind. He ran through the streets, following after the mother and her daughter - trying to find out what caused this. The commotion brought the men from the fields, the hunters back from their journey into the trees.
However long the real attack took, it was only seconds in memory. All Markus could see, through the smoke and the fog of memories fading, was a blackened, humanoid mass. It looked like a monster, like some kind of demon from the pits of hell itself. Standing a dozen feet tall, weighing more than a ton. It was clearly an exaggeration of a broken mind, the child-like rendering of something beyond the imagination and understanding of someone so young. Yet, Markus felt a sense of darkness to it even through this. The anger, the hatred. The desire to cause pain and suffering. Those feelings persisted, and he could tell they belonged to the dead as much as the monster. He felt it in the soil, in the air. He felt it in the very essence of existence.
<What is this thing?>
“The Demon, he came and he burned us all. Village is gone, thanks to him. The Demon must be stopped, God. You must stop The Demon.”
<I told you, girl. I am not God, but I will stop this monster. I will stop all of the monsters, all of NYUNDO will feel my wrath for this.>
“It wa…” and then the voice faded, before it could finish the sentence the memory was gone - melting away into nothing. Markus sighed, and let his hand slip off the girl’s forehead. Standing up, he turned to Don. Shaking his head, he started back to the Jeep.
“What happened, Markus? Who did this? What did this?”
<They did this. They killed them all, for nothing. For helping us. For existing. I don’t know, I don’t care. I was beginning to think maybe they were good, that maybe they were an alternative to the madness we live under. I know you’re not a friend of our boss, I know you don’t care for him at all. That’s why I brought you into this, why I asked you to bring me to the DLO. I was going to set up a meeting from here with their operatives, to try and work out a deal. But now? After what they did here? They’ll be lucky if I don’t flay their minds and score their souls with my fury.>
“I’m with ya’, boss. You’re right that I don’t care for Bharata or his way of running things, but that’s preferable to this level of evil. I’d deal with his insanity long before I got in bed with people capable of…this.”
The Jeep doors slammed, and they both stayed silent. The trip to the DLO was another couple of hours, and they wouldn’t break their silence in that whole time. Their anger eventually faded from white-hot to a deep-seated hatred, and their moods didn’t improve. Yet, they knew they had business still - and Markus, at least, knew what he’d find once he reached the DLO. Boy, was Don in for a surprise.
Deep Congo, 2 Hours West of Kasenyi.
<Alright, Don. This is it. Stop.>
“This is what, Markus? There’s nothing but trees and jungle.”
<Just wait.> Markus exited the vehicle, letting his door slam and stretched. <They’ll come in a minute, don’t worry. Just keep your damned head, and don’t speak until we get inside. Understood?>
Don just nodded, and got out. He was still more concerned with revenge than whatever was going on here anyway. As far as he could tell, Markus lost his damned mind since Kasenyi - he hadn’t spoken a word in the hours since, and he barely seemed to even be there. In fact, Markus wasn’t there anymore. His mind, a portion of it, was still reliving the horrifying memories of Kasenyi - the rest of it was searching the area around them. Constantly scanning, like radar, his mental signals bounced off living organisms building a map around them.
It was odd, though. They should be revealing living humans beneath the surface, and patrols moving through the jungle - but he couldn’t sense anything. Were they in the wrong place? Did the people who worked in the facility up and move without reporting in? They wouldn’t have done that without good cause, but it’d been several years since Markus visited them - and even longer since any reports of their activities made it to him. They’d been ordered into radio silence, and they held that order near and dear.
That didn’t explain why they wouldn’t tell them they moved, though, or why Markus couldn’t sense them now. The creak of leather snapped him out of his search, and he turned toward it. Nothing, not even Don. <Something isn’t right, Don. We need to g…> Before he could finish, a shimmering of light revealed a half dozen soldiers with their weapons shoulders and eyes trained down the rails directly on the both of them.
<Camoflauge, that’s fancy. And handy. How’d you manage to avoid my thought-search, though?>
<I asked you a question, Corporal.>
“And I said identify yourself, or you’ll never have to identify to anyone ever again, mutant.”
<M…mutant? I’m no fucking mutant, you fool. And what do you mean identify myself? You should know who I am, or has it been so long you’ve forgotten who you fucking work for?>
“Last chance. Identify yourself.”
<Fine, Authorization Code Nine-Eight-Lima-Sierra-Seven.>
“Authorization received. One moment.” The soldier keyed up his microphone, repeating the authorization code into it and then waited for a response through the receiver in his ear. After a couple of seconds, he motioned and the group lowered their weapons, putting on their safeties in the process. “Welcome to the DLO, Markus. I was pretty sure that was you, but you know how protocol is.”
<Yeah, sure. Is General Bogdan still in charge here, or did you guys forget who he was as well?> It was clear from the tone of his thoughts that Markus wasn’t very happy with the young Corporal.
“He’ll meet you inside.”
Markus waved his hand dismissively, and they all faded back into the forest - their camouflage reactivating and hiding them from view - and from Markus’ mind. He’d have to make a record of that, it could become trouble later on. Don, meanwhile, didn’t speak - but he observed every bit of it. These people had technology he wasn’t even aware of existing, what was going on? He wanted to ask Markus, but his orders were clear. Do not speak. Only observe. Markus repeated it into his mind one more time. And he nodded in assent.
As for Markus, he walked three paces forward and looked down. <Well, they gonna let us in or n…> he was interrupted by the hissing sound of pressure releasing, as a hatch in the ground slid opened - vibrating within the immediate vicinity. A large disk-shaped platform rose up from it, big enough for several dozen vehicles and people. The grating sound of it showed it was rather unused, probably easier access for small groups somewhere else, Markus thought.
<Bring the Jeep, Don. We can’t leave it out here, it’d look suspicious.> Markus said as he stepped onto the platform. < I’ll meet you inside.>
Inside the DLO, five minutes later
“Markus, my old friend!”
<Don’t give me that shit, Bogdan. Friend my ass, you don’t call, you don’t write. You have me accosted by soldiers who work for me, but don’t even know my name. Some friendship>
“Markus, please. You insult me. In my home. You know my loyalty to you runs deeper than the bonds of blood I have to my own family.” Bogdan looked genuinely hurt, his scar-ridden face dropping. “We have been friends many years now, we fought in the wars together. Long before we came to this backwater planet. How could you say these things to me?”
<Oh, calm down Bogdan. I was only joking with you, and you know it, old friend. But, I’m not here for a personal visit. We have catching up to do, but there’s more pressing matters we have to attend to, General.>
“Yes, more than you’re even aware of at this point, I’m sure. How long have you been on the road?”
<A few days, give or take. Time is weird, but we were held up in Kasenyi.>
“Oh, so you saw it then?”
<I did, and I know what happened there. The same people who have been attacking us, killed innocents to get at us. Like the monsters they are.>
“Aye, we saw the aftermath on our scans. But that doesn’t explain why you’re here.”
<Well, Bogdan…things have taken a turn. Bharata’s treatments are accelerating, and so his the decay of his mind. I can’t keep the crazy in check anymore. It’s time to replicate the process.>
“Ah, so that’s why you’re here.”
“And the other part?”
<I want to go home…or I did. Before Kasenyi, now I want to make them pay.>
All the while, they were walking through room after room - soldiers saw the outsiders, some had looks of disdain, others looks of excitement. It’d been a long time since new recruits joined the DLO. Markus stopped for a moment, and turned to Don.
<Go mingle with the others, if they ask you why you’re here tell them the truth. You’re my personal aide, and trusted friend.>
Don nodded and meandered off, disappearing into the common lounge, he wondered what exactly this place was - and he intended to find out before they left.
<Now, Bogdan. Let me know what you think I don’t know already.>
“Certainly, come with me.”
<Holy. Shit. What in the hell was that thing?> Markus looked at the still-shot on the screen, his eyes taking in every detail. It looked like a monster from the stories he’d once heard from what remained of the decidedly downtrodden Psions. Yet, it couldn’t have been that.
“We’re not entirely sure, but it came not long after that Beam hit, and the tidal wave began. It seems that most people have forgotten about it already, the only information we have is that it happened. We think the forgetting is a by-product of another, but we can’t even be sure of that. If not for our cameras and sensors picking it up and storing the data, we wouldn’t even remember it happened.”
<Jesus H. Christ. Is that it?>
It wasn’t it. Almost immediately Bogdan keyed up another video, this one some miles north of them in and around the Glasslands. It showed creatures, mutated monsters assaulting cities. Devouring people. Markus could barely stomach it, and this too he blamed on NYUNDO. None of these monsters showed their faces until they began their attacks. It was clear that, if they didn’t work for NYUNDO outright, they only bothered to attack when given the distraction of NYUNDO’s own assaults.
<What in the hell are those things?>
“We don’t know. We don’t know what they are, or what they want - aside from to fucking eat us apparently. But we’re already preparing counter assaults. So far, we’re the only ones who know about their attacks. At least as far as we’re concerned. We have a platoon ready to mobilize in a few days time, we’re waiting to see what else they do for now. It seems they’re moving in on our border, though, and once they cross into our territory - we’ll for sure intervene and wipe them the fuck off the map. Along with whatever attacked Kasenyi, and these NYUNDO fucks giving you a hard time.”
Markus only nodded, before he turned away from the screens showing still-shots of everything going wrong. <You know, I blame NYUNDO for opening the doors for these fuckers. But, it’s as much our own fault as theirs. Bharata going insane turned a lot of them against us, and I should have done more to stop it when I had the chance.>
Markus sighed, before running his finger across his face - the smooth portion where humans would have mouths. A small slit formed there, opening as sections of his body that weren’t used since his people first evolved their telepathy regenerated and separated. He took a cigarette from Bogdan’s desktop, and lit it. It wasn’t a thing he did often, most people weren’t even aware he had a mouth - much less lungs and piping to make it all work.
Yet, he needed the stress relief right now.
<Alright, prepare the assault unit. I’m going North with you guys, we can’t let these things leave the Glasslands, and we sure in the fuck can’t let them find what we have hidden up there. Not if I’m ever going to get my wish of going home, anyway.>
—— Xanathan City, Bharata’s Boardroom —
“Sir, the people outside the walls are getting more agitated. They’re chanting about injustice and inequality. What do you want us to do?”
Bharata sat back in his chair, looking at the CFO and the others on the board who called this impromptu meeting without Markus. “I mean, what can we do? Kill them.”
“Sir, isn’t that a bit…brash. That doesn’t sound like it’d further our goal at all.”
“Sir, we can’t. Killing them would only make martyrs of them. It’d prove they’re right about you, about us.”
“No. We won’t. You’re not thinking right, and you’re not yourself. Effective immediately, you’ll be put on forced suspension and leave. You will no longer be running the day to day business of Xanathan, or making decisions. All in favor?” The vote was called, and one-by-one, everyone around the table lifted their hands into the air. Bharata even lifted a hand, without knowing what was happening. That small part of his mind that was still sane, still capable of rational thought, had that tiny victory.
Bharata slammed the same hand back onto the table, breaking off a piece of it. “And what do you think you’re going to do to enforce this? You think you guys aren’t replaceable? I’ll kill you all. I’ll kill you and I’ll kill them. You don’t even have a solid replacement for me. There’s nobody that can run this company but me! I’ll kill you, fuckers!” He screamed as the power-band kicked in, an implant he agreed to when he took over. A containment field for his powers, so that if he were to ever grow out of control they could stop him.
His body shuddered with rage, but he couldn’t lash out at them. Even in his inordinate strength was held at bay by the restraints, and security guards already held him. They pulled him from the room, kicking and screaming with the tantrums of a child. “And what about my treatments? Are you going to let me die, because of your own ignorant grab for power?”
“Your treatments will be decided on by your successor, whenever Markus decides to return from vacation he will take your place as Chairman, and he’ll make a decision on what to do with you then.”
“He’d never betray me! He’d never let this happen, you’ll pay for this!”
“No? It was his idea, you fool. Now get out of here, we have to begin fixing the mess you’ve made of things.”
The board shut the doors as Bharata found himself drug through the hallways of the company he once ran, he kicked and he fought - but he was powerless against the augmentations of the guards. As long as the power-band remained active, he’d not have much of anything he could do to try and escape. Resigning himself to his fate, he went limp and tears streamed down his face. What went wrong? He could feel his mind deteriorating, all these years he could feel it happening. While his body regenerated, his mind was on a downhill slide that got steeper with each passing year. He couldn’t understand it, couldn’t find the reason for it. The best tried, but they didn’t seem to know what was happening to him anymore than he did.
And now, it’d cost him everything. The company he’d built from the ground up, the friends he’d molded and crafted through the years. The territory he fought tooth and nail to protect after the attack from space. He’d done everything he could to help the people, but perhaps his help went too far…no. Not that. Never too far, he had to kill them. They didn’t appreciate everything Xanathan did for them, that he did for them. He was Xanathan. And Rendenvauld Bharata would not be held captive within his own company, he would take back what was his.
Then he’d kill them all.
As the doors slammed shut on his cell, deep in the pits of Xanathan tower, his crazed laughter rang across the plaza. It echoed loudly enough to be heard throughout the building.
“It is with great pleasure, my friends, that I tell you we have overturned the decision to allow Bharata to run this city…” they spoke to the people outside the walls, whose signs and screams made it barely audible. At the sound of the news, though, they stopped - and then they cheered. “His replacement is currently on vacation, but you all know Markus. You’ve spoken to him, he’s aided you. He’s helped you.” They screamed at the top of their lungs, screaming in happiness at knowing the replacement was Markus. The man’s words were true, while Bharata worked to hold them down, Markus sought only to lift them up.
“Markus! Markus! Markus!” Their chants rang out through the city, their unified voices carrying. For miles the screams could be heard, like thunder on the horizon. It was a new day in Xanathan City, and it was a new day, a new dawn for the people of Africa. Hopefully, Markus would return soon. They’d need to show him to solidify their newfound peace within the city’s walls.