2.1 – Thad

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Thad woke.

That in and of itself was dreadful. He grimaced as he moved. His whole body hurt. His pale skin was marbled purple with bruises. His muscles ached. And burning pain was on his back from the deep lashes there.

Burning. Electrocution. Beatings. And…other things of a grotesque nature. His insides hurt. He took a labored breath, feeling his ribs stab at him. My Gods, he thought. When does it end?

Thad sighed, and stared at the bench above his head There was a bench in his cell, but they had tossed in onto the floor, and he lacked the strength to climb onto it. Then again, it looked to be the same material as the floor, and sleeping on it would have been the same.

He was feverish, and his eyes felt heavy and covered in a light film. Sleep brought little escape from pain, and waking typically meant the torture would begin.

He thought back to when he was taken. Someone talked. It was inevitable, he had always known that. He had always known he would be caught. After the mess in Little Samarkand there was a crackdown on extremists.

The Novus were in full revolt, going down the roads and killing everything that wasn’t scaled. Corpses littered the streets. The police were falling back, but deadly force had finally been authorized. The tide had been stemmed, but only momentarily.

They had grabbed a Four, and claimed the poor bastard had fired off the rounds in Little Samarkand, but Thad knew the truth. Poor March…Mama felt bad about it, he could tell. Not by how she spoke, of course. Mama wouldn’t cry if she were having a bullet pulled out of her stomach. But by what she said, he could tell she felt guilty.

“You okay on this line?” He asked.

“It’s a burner,” the distorted voice of Mama replied. “March is dead.”

Thad sighed. “How?”

“I sent him on the mission.”

“Why him? Why not one of the slugs?”

“I should have. I made a terrible mistake. He was a good kid,” Mama said. “I wanted him to get out.”

Thad said nothing for a moment. He had liked March. He wasn’t a revolutionary, but he was a good man. He grunted. “Don’t beat yourself up over it,” he said.

“I have to,” Mama said, and she sounded tired. “The news is saying they got a Four. That he shot those Novus.”

“Yeah, I heard,” Thad said.

“They’re coming for that website.”

Thad cleared his throat. “Website?”

“You know which one,” Mama replied.

“I don’t have anything to do with that.”

“Of course not, but you should be careful. By the way, are you going to see Frank?”

Thad knew a Frank. It was a man in GutterTown. His heart sank. He took her meaning. “Not right now,” he said, meaning the opposite. “Maybe when things calm down.”

“Take care, kiddo.”

“Bye Mama.”

Thad hung up the phone and sighed. He grabbed a duffle bag and shoved some clothes into it, along with a roll of notes and the pistol Mama had given him years ago. Possession of a pistol was grounds for execution, but he was already facing that.

The Four that they were framing was Cooper, one of the guys from FirstRowe. They must have been watching him for months, and moved in when they needed a patsy. The poor bastard would talk, that was a given. That meant he’d name names, and that meant he’d name Thad. Not Thad’s real name, but an alias. But once they had that it was only matter of time. Thad knew he needed to hide, and fast.

He shouldered his backpack and left his apartment, knowing that it was for the last time. But that was fine. He never really considered it his. Nothing in the Dome was truly yours, it was best to look at the world that way. It kept you from risking your neck over something you couldn’t keep, and at any rate the tiny living space was little more than a tunnel. He loathed it. But, he thought somberly, it would be paradise compared to where he was headed.

There was only one place that someone could get lost, and that was GutterTown. It was as much a cesspit as its name implied. The guards didn’t venture into it lightly, for it was certain death to live in that wasteland. With the Novus headache, they might forget about him there.

The air outside his apartment smelled faintly of smoke, and to breathe it hurt the lungs. He walked down the streets, eyeing the other miserable souls who shuffled down the cracked roads in fear. Even the women looked nervous, looking over at the billowing black clouds from the direction of Little Samarkand.

He heard a commotion up ahead, fortunately on the opposite side of the street. A gang of young men with black armbands were angrily accosting people, snatching knapsacks and searching them (and pocketing anything they found). These were what Thad called Young Paladins, the die-hard Threes that hoped by professing the Zeitgeist they would get a number jump and become guards. They were, in some ways, worse than the guards.

The guards, jaded and cynical, could at least could be bribed on occasion, and they often became servants to the will of the state with great disillusionment. But the Young Paladins were zealous, ambitious to get ahead. You couldn’t bribe them, or hope for mercy from them.

The Young Paladins were angrily searching for ‘chauvinists’, or thought criminals who hated the regime. Men like Thad, basically, although Thad had nothing that would incriminate him besides the pistol, and even those were common enough. With the announcement that a Four had killed several Novus, the city was doubtless on edge for extremists. In general these Young Paladin gangs would simply beat any man they came across and just claim they were an extremist, after of course confiscating anything of value from him.

Thad kept his head down and walked away from them briskly. A pistol would scare them away, but he knew that if he brandished or fired it that it would be a death sentence. Not because the lives of the Young Paladins were important, but because he would have an illegal weapon and the police would chase him. He would never get away, they would follow him. The pistol would only be useful when he got to the Blight.

He made his way to the subway, to take the train towards Crossion station. From there it was eighteen blocks to GutterTown, through the Old Blight.

The subway was packed with mostly men, though a few women stood in their own section. The men were nervously churning. The mood was frightened, for though the television and internal network denied it, the Novus invasion was a big deal, and men knew how serious it was.

Thad settled in amongst the throng of panicked men, waiting for the train to take him to Crossion. He heard the news over loudspeaker that FirstRowe was taken down. There were smatterings of applause among those on the platform.

“Finally,” an old man smiling on a bench said to no one in particular. He was one of those clueless assholes that Thad hated, one of the old men who lived his whole life with blinders on. “Some good news.”

“What the fuck do you mean ‘some’ good news?” A younger man growled. He wore the clothes of a Three with a Black Armband. Several of his friends appeared alongside him, similarly with black cloth around their biceps. They always traveled in packs, Thad thought.

The old man’s face froze. “I-I just mean-“

“You mean the Novus Uprising is bad, right? You support oppressing them? You are a fucking piece of shit, man!” The younger man said.

He slapped the old man, hard, in the face, knocking out his false teeth. The old man cried out in confusion. His mouth poured out blood, and he clutched his bleeding lips with a trembling hand, his gray eyes fearful.

“N-no!” He said, eyes wide with terror. “I m-meant about that awful Four-“

What he said next didn’t matter. It hadn’t mattered what he said before. He was an old man, and old men were chauvinists. The other Young Paladins encircled the trembling old man and were beginning to rain fists upon him, until he fell from his bench onto the ground with a crack. Then they kicked him, hard. Thad tucked his head down and shuffled away. A few people watched idly, the same way some people watched the approaching trains. But Thad saw something. Maybe it was the smoke in the air, maybe it was the knowledge the Novus were in uprising. But in that moment, Thad saw anger in the faces of the men who watched the violence unfold.

As he left the sounds of a man being beaten into a coma, he listened to the news. Traxx, the FirstRowe site admin, had been shot hitting the dump button. Thad wondered if that was true, or if he had simply been executed to spare them the aggravation of a trial or a possibility of his escape. A man like Traxx was someone that they would want to silence immediately. He could only hope the same was true for him.

He waited at the platform for the train. Crossion was as close to freedom as he could get. No one lived in the Blight, and no one ever headed towards it. Even the Novus avoided the Blight and GutterTown. But then, the place would kill him. In the distance, he saw the train arriving, and he took a deep breath. Crossion was a step closer, and the guards there never cared who arrived.

GutterTown had once been the neighborhood around a fusion reactor plant, but the core had gone critical and entered the first stages of a meltdown. The damage had been largely contained – a testament to the skill and bravery of the plant workers, who died grizzly deaths to save everyone else in the Dome. Sadly they could not stop the damage done to the plant or the surrounding neighborhood. It was a toxic hellhole. GutterTown was where men went to die, but men could survive if they were smart and tough enough. Thad could survive there, at least a while. There were no old men in GutterTown, but he would survive longer there than he would outside of it. The train was pulling in closer, now near enough that Thad could see inside and look at the miserable souls within. The other men along the platform began to stir. He took a deep breath. Entry would be soon.

As the train squealed to a stop before him and the rest of the men at the platform, Thad saw a large swarm of dark blue approaching through the glass doors of the train station. Uniformed officers burst through the doors, weapons raised, grabbing people and examining them. They were clearly looking for someone. Was it him? It was hard to say. He guessed that despite his safeguards against being found, all his proxies and aliases, that they were already aware of him. Cooper would have talked.

“Attention! We are seeking a Fugitive,” the cops announced into a loudspeaker. A holo-projection turned own, and displayed a giant image of Thad’s face. and Thad turned away, feeling his nerves rise. “Suspect is named Thad, Number Two Point Seven. He has been implicated in extremism and anti-Novus threats. If you have seen him-“

“Here he is!” One of the Young Paladins yelled, grasping a Two and throwing him before the police. The guards grabbed the disoriented Two, and though it was obvious the man was not Thad -and the guards knew it- they still cuffed him and led him away.

“Attention! We are seeking a Fugitive…” the cop began to announce on the loudspeaker again.

The doors of the train squealed open. All he had to do was step onboard, and he was free. Well, not free. GutterTown was a different kind of oppression. It would be a dangerous life there, a life where he would never sleep well again, where breathing hurt and the skin burned even as it shivered. There would be no dreams…no Horn.

Thad looked into the metal railcar, with its thinly padded brown seats and dull metal poles. The Transport system didn’t give two shits about what the guards wanted, and they would leave on their schedule. He could be safe. He could escape.

Thad looked back at the cops, standing with truncheons and riot gear. He looked at the mass of men waiting at the station, all glum, defeated, and angry. Angry. These men had been running all their lives. Retreating. Letting the Dome take more and more, grinding under oppression. Yes, they were angry, he could see that. They stared at the police and Young Paladins with resentment. Quiet fury.

Thad could run. He could move on, and die in the worst of hellholes, watching the people of the Dome burn to death from afar. But he was through with running. Through with hiding. They were living in a society.

The society was built on lies, built on moralizing, built on hypocrisy. It was sick, and it needed to be put out of its misery and replaced with a working one. He turned away from the train doors.

“I am Thad, Two Point Seven!” Thad shouted. His voice boomed, and every face in the train station turned to face him. The men around him backed away, staring at him with confusion. He heard the doors to the train shut behind him. He swallowed and stepped forward. There was no turning back now.

He looked at them, at the mass of men. Twos, Fours, Fives, Threes. They all stared at him with wide eyes. There were hundreds of them. Thousands. If they all rose up, they could overpower the guards, overpower the Young Paladins. Once a rebellion were in earnest, other men would join. It would spread like wildfire. Maybe. But at least they would, at last, fight back.

“Friends!” Thad yelled. “Brothers! FirstRowe has been taken down, and the Novus are rioting in the streets. The awful time is now upon us. If we don’t fight, we shall all die,” he said. He pointed at the stunned guards. “These men are here to find me and arrest me, because I used FirstRowe. I harmed no one, I merely talked to others about our issues, and voiced my opinion. That is what is at stake. Do we have the right to speak, like Tens do?”

The men looked at the guards, and at each other. It was that moment, that one moment when a Rebellion could begin. They looked about uneasily, like a herd of spooked animals ready to stampede. But where would they stampede? Would they charge forward with mighty cries, or retreat and run in panic and fear?

“We are not subhuman. We are not less than they are. We have a right to exist,” Thad said. “It is time for us to assert that right. It is time for us to forget about the damned Numbers and instead recognize that we are all men, and we all deserve dignity. Twos, Threes, Fours, and Fives – we are not numbers! We are men!”

“This is the time, friends. We can do this. It is by our work and toil that this Dome remains. Your ingenuity has built it, and your labor keeps it running. We have value. We only need to reach out and take our power. We can defeat the Novus, and we can govern the Dome so that it runs efficiently. Join me. Step forward, now! Fight!”

Thad would never forget what happened next, for as long as he lived, for it was an event as important as any other in the history of the Dome.

No one came forward. Not one.

The men shifted uncomfortably. With faces drained of color they backed away. Instead of stepping forward, they pulled back. The earlier anger and rage had evaporated into timid fear.

Thad stared at them in horror, as he realized what was happening. “Don’t you understand?!” He shouted. “This is it! It is finally happening! This is what we’ve known was coming all our lives. We have to act now, before it is too late! Fight!”

Nothing.

No one stirred.

The guards saw the lack of will, and with raised clubs and shields they advanced on him. Thad sighed. He had misjudged his moment, his people. They would never revolt. He turned towards the oncoming guards and vainly prepared to resist, but what could one man do against many?

He felt the sharp end of a wooden club in his stomach, and the intense pain that followed a gut punch. The hit floored him, forcing him to his knees and as he panted on the ground they grabbed his arms and pulled him to his feet. It made the agony even worse, until they slammed him down into the ground gratuitously. He let out a grunt of pain as he felt the subway tile mashed into his face and tasted the copper of his own blood. A tooth came loose in his mouth. His wrists were manacled tightly with loud clacks, and he felt the deep pressing of metal cuffs into his skin.

Amid the stamping of boots near his head, He heard a growling electronic voice echo over the loudspeaker. He watched through the guard’s legs as the crowd was dismissed, and admonished not to discuss what they saw.

Thad knew that they would each, in turn, be arrested at some point. Simply witnessing Thad speech had been enough to damn them, and he guessed they knew that, but they were too well programmed. Too docile. They were so fearful that they obeyed for the slim hope of a mercy that would certainly not be granted. The Revolution was over. The Dome had won, as it always did. Everything he had ever hoped for was nothing. The Dome was right all along, it seemed.

His vision went dark. A hood went over his face, and he grimaced as they tugged him to his feet. His head was swimming. They pushed and dragged him along, until he was thrown into a van and made to sit down. Others were sitting near him, but he was uncertain who they were. They could be other men from FirstRowe for all he knew. It didn’t matter. The Revolution had failed. Thad had made his roll, bet his life, and it had been a foolish wager, a dumb bet.

Thad was unsure how many days he had been in this cell, how many days he had been tortured. Was it five, or fifty? He laughed without mirth, and the sound died in his cold cell without an echo. The Revolution. What a fool he was. Who was he to lead a Revolution? Who was he to think anyone else was as crazy and broken as he was?

No, he told himself. They were cowards. Or were they sensible? How could he be right, and the whole world wrong? Had he been good, or evil in that moment when he had pleaded for war? Was his punishment just? Was it all just? No. It couldn’t be. Men had inalienable rights. Men deserved to be free. But then, if they wouldn’t fight, did they truly deserve it? Did he, because he failed?

The conversation raged and churned in his head, like snarling dogs biting and rolling over each other, giving him no peace. Worse than all the tortures, all the…indignities, was the knowledge that he was alone. How could no one see what was so obvious? Even on FirstRowe it seemed that none of them ever truly understood. No one did understand. No one knew.

Maybe it was Mama’s fault. She had given him all those books, all those words by famous paleskinned men like himself. Words about dignity and rights, and tyranny, and history. What a message history held, what lessons it could teach. What a wealth of thought there had once been, all reduced by the regime to hate speech and forbidden texts. He could read their words, and hear in his thoughts their stories, and picture in his mind’s eye what had once been. It had made him greedy, and he desired to see their world as his own.

But there was a reason that world was in old books and forbidden websites. It had lost. They and all their theories had died, and it was an account of dead empires. Failures. The Dome, they said, was eternal. In his deepest despair, Thad feared it was true, and that this ugliness was smiled upon by the universe, given favor by whatever cruel gods existed.

He shut his eyes. He was tired of despairing, tired of the pain. He sighed.

“Horn…” he rasped to himself. “Horn, I could use you, now.”

He tried to shut his eyes and think of Horn, to imagine her tomboyish bob cut and grin, but he couldn’t bring himself to. He didn’t deserve her, didn’t want to think of her in this dark and hellish place. Escaping to a fantasy was well and good, but in this dire and unpleasant reality, what if the fantasy was caught like a lamb in brambles, and devoured by the Nightmare that was the waking world? What if his sweet Horn was tainted by this hell?

Yet thoughts of her came through, for he always searched for light even in darkness, and Horn was the only light left. Horn was not like any woman, or anyone, in the Dome. She was different. While every woman that he had ever met was shorter than him (and many of the men too), Horn was taller. Horn was muscled, yet still shapely as a woman should be. She was beyond beautiful; she was the very word Beauty. But then Horn could be perfect. After all, she was a dream woman.

The first time he had seen her, the first dream, had been a decade ago. He was still living with Mama, dreaming dreams about mighty sailing ships on a body of water that men called an ocean. It was one of his favorite stories, when brave men had set out on boats to visit new, exotic lands. In one such dream, his craft brought him on rough waves to a beach of endless sand, rising and falling in vast dunes.

Amid this endless sandy landscape, amidst the fierce winds which swept up no dust, he saw a person, a girl.

He had never seen a girl like her before, so big for her age. She was on the ground, her face buried in her knees, her arms wrapped around her long legs. Her shoulder heaved every so often, and as he drew closer could hear sobs. They were pitiful things which made his heart hurt.

“What is wrong?” He asked, his voice clear and loud over the winds.

The girl looked up at him, surprised, and when she did, he saw her face. It was young, and beautiful, but with a horn rising from just above her brow. Her beautiful eyes were red, and welled with tears. Around her neck, a chain of yellow gold, hung a gold and green scarab as bright as a star yet dim enough not to overwhelm or blind the eyes.

“M-my mother…” the girl began, sniffling. “My mother is…” her voice broke, and her face contorted, and Thad knew what had happened.

He knelt beside her, and put a hand on her back as she buried her head into her knees again.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He wrapped his arms around her. Her form was already large despite her youth, and it was with difficulty that he took her in an embrace. And yet she melted into his arms as a woman would from one of the ancient romances. He felt her shoulders trembling as she wept in his arms, hot tears against his neck. He could smell the strong, strong smell of spirits upon her, alcohol so strong it made him cough just to inhale it, and his nostrils burned. And yet her form was still the more intoxicating to him.

She looked up at him with eyes of gratitude and wonder, and her hand went through his hair, tugging at his slight curls.

“Your hair…” she whispered, looking at a lock of it between her fingers. “It’s gold…”

He looked down on her, and with his thumb he wiped a streaking tear from her eyes. “Your face…” he began, taking in its sight. His fingers timidly went to the horn on her forehead, and felt at it. “What are you?”

She opened her mouth to speak, but a harsh buzzing dominated the desert beach. It was only as he realized that he was in a bed that he realized that the harsh buzzing of his alarm clock had jarred him awake before she could respond, pulled him away from the strange girl and back into his dingy small room.

He had cursed with the anger of a boy aroused from a perfect dream. His heart ached, and he had groaned into his pillow. He thought that girl was gone forever, gone to the place where perfect dreams go to never be heard from again…

But she wasn’t. That had been the first dream, but there were many more. He had wandered to her in a second dream only a few weeks later, and found her just as happy to see him. Over the months he would go to her, and other times she would come to him, but there were constant dreams, and she became intertwined with his life. He went to bed at night hoping he would be lucky enough to see his Horn.

He had called his dream girl Horn, because that tiny horn on her forehead was the cutest and most exotic feature on a face that was the cutest and most exotic he had ever seen. He had teased her about it, flicked her horn, and even kissed it. She would chase him and pin him, and tussle his golden hair. Her scarab would dangle down in his face – between her firm breasts – and he would reach up and claps the talisman in his hands, feel the cool metal and the weight of the thing in his hands.

Horn became his rock in difficult times. Sometimes his arms held her, and sometimes she held him, but always they were there for each other. She may have been only a dream girl, but even in his waking moments, he found there was no one like her. He spent his days missing the feel of her lips against his own, or her arms around his, for her embrace came to be the greatest joy in his life.
Never did the dreams advance beyond innocent kisses and hugs. They both understood that it couldn’t, that whatever ‘magic’ was in the dream would not allow that.

They spoke little, mostly they communicated in feelings. It was hard to truly fathom, but they seemed to feel each other, and respond to each other in the dream as a feeling. Words were dangerous. Words could end the dream.

Horn was vulnerable sometimes, but she was tough all the rest of the time. She could be fierce; he had come upon her when she was angry, and seen how terrible she could be in fury. And yet when he came, her mood lightened. And Horn was often very frisky. Impish. She had guile and tact, and would strive to trick him into being caught and tickled or teased.

As time went on, they both grew up. Horn’s nervousness and fear gave way to a powerful confidence, in part buoyed by his nightly embraces, and in her strength he found a sense of self worth which made him resilient against the degradation of the Dome. And they changed physically, too. Horn’s lanky form filled out, and she developed hips and breasts. And muscles too. Horn had become a mighty female warrior, tall and broad, and even though Thad had grown tall and strong, she towered over him. Yet she never reveled in this, but instead treated him as she always had, venerated him as her bulwark. Her beautiful form took several scars upon its toned flesh, but nothing beyond a few raised vines on otherwise perfect bronze skin. Horn lived a harsh life in her desert, just as he had lived a miserable one in the Dome. In the dreams, they gave each other comfort, though both learned not to ask the other their name, for when either asked, the dream would end. Neither wanted that. For though he never acknowledged it, some part of him believed that she was not just a dream, and that she was out there, somewhere. Perhaps in another universe.

Back in his cell, Thad sighed. Another universe may as well be a dream. Finally, he drifted into sleep. There was no sign of Horn, and that was well enough, he supposed. He was ashamed to face her as a failure, to know he didn’t deserve her love. Instead his dreams were of a vast field of tall yellow grass in a black sky, with shadowy Things all around him. They tortured him in an ancient tongue which he could not understand, filled his mind with feverish visions of unpleasant things.

And when he awoke, one of their unpleasant things stood before him. An old women with brown, cracked skin grinned unpleasantly at him. He recognized her, but the fog of slumber made him unsure as to where he knew her from.

“Good, you’re awake,” the old woman said, her terrible grin stretching. She looked wizened beyond years, old and terrible. His nostrils were assailed with a stench of a corpse. “We have much to discuss. Doubtless you know me; I am Controller Mundi.”

Thad blinked, amazed. She was a small woman, and he wondered if he was still in a dream. “Mundi…Controller Kwasi’s assistant?”

“Controller Kwasi has not been up to the task of running our society for many years, and finally during this latest upheaval it has become necessary to officially retire her,” Controller Mundi replied calmly.

“Why would you come to see me?”

“As I said, there is much we must discuss,” she replied.

Thad frowned. “Even if I knew anything, I wouldn’t tell you,” He said.

“Do you think I care about the names of some angry virgins? This isn’t about getting information from you; it is about giving you information.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I will explain everything. Every detail,” The Controller said, savoring her words. “Believe it or not, this whole society -all of this- is made just for you and I. I to create your perfect nightmare, and you to live it,” The Controller said.

“This is part of some plan to break me. It won’t work,” Thad said.

“Why would I participate in that? I’m a busy woman, and we could break you as easily as you could break a toothpick,” The Controller replied. “It does not suit our purposes to make you a gibbering derelict, or reduce you to a simpering wreck. At least, not yet. The point is for you to see, and witness, and understand. To contemplate. We don’t want you to break. We want you to comprehend. Experience. Know. We – I – want you to be horrified.”

“What good is that to you?” Thad asked.

“It is everything,” the Controller replied, leaning in to the bars hungrily. “After all, what is the ultimate reason to exist?” The Controller asked.

Thad inhaled, puffing out his chest. “To be free,” he said defiantly.

“Yes, that is what your books told you, isn’t it? Your mother gave you an unconventional access to knowledge. The old dead paleskins, your forebears, were always blathering on about freedom. But what would you do if you had it?”

“Whatever I wanted to do,” Thad answered.

“To what end? One of the archaic, a slaver, said the goal of men was to pursue happiness. In our naive early days, we believed that too. Earlier iterations of our society placed a premium on seeking happiness for our Elite, to raise us up to the happiness of the blithe normals. It never worked. No matter what we did, we could not get to their level of happiness. The failures only increased our misery and caused discontent. And somehow, the normals always found a way to adapt and become happy. Their success angered us, and we fought amongst ourselves, angry that we kept failing. Controllers were replaced and re-replaced almost weekly, even daily, as the firing squad formed a tighter and tighter circle.”

“You are still unhappy people,” Thad said. “You just made everyone else miserable too.”

“Exactly! We realized what was missing. We were at our happiest during the Revolution, when we practiced terror, and our intimidation made the normals afraid. In effect, our misery could be transferred, and in transferring it we gained satisfaction. The key was not to make ourselves feel better, but to make the normals feel worse,” the Controller said. “Our society became geared towards the intentional spreading of misery. We kept women medicated and in comfort, but empty. We kept men in chastity and depression, always yearning, divided amongst themselves into their number-castes and angry at those above and below them.”

“I still don’t understand why you are telling me all this,” Thad asked. “Why me?”

“You brought all of this onto yourself. The rest of your kind are miserable, but they don’t have any sense of why, and so we can tell them anything and they believe us. We tell them that they need to inhale drugs and mutilate their bodies to chase the happiness that will always elude them, and they obey. Not you, though. You acted up, and acted out. Tried to incite a rebellion. You can conceive of a world where you -and they- would be happy, and that makes you the Enemy. Our purpose -our existence- is about defeating you. Breaking you. Making you acknowledge our reality.”

“Your fantasy,” Thad shot back.

“Ah, but is it?” The Controller responded. “If the whole world has to acknowledge it, is it still a fantasy?”

“Yes,” Thad said. “Your thugs can kick me in the ribs all they want, that doesn’t make it true.”

“That’s where you are wrong. There is no more powerful truth than the truth forced on another with violence. True power, real power, is to force a man to espouse a Truth that he does not believe. Indeed, force him to tell himself he must believe it, even though in his heart he does not,” the Controller said with a grin. “That is what we do. I define the Zeitgeist, and all must believe with zeal. Any who do not are slain.”

“But if it were that simple, there would be no reason to reveal all of this to me,” Thad said.

“Ah, but there is a reason. Reality must be revealed. One of you, a ration mam, must be taken behind the curtain to see the operation, to understand the scope of our victory,” The Controller said. “We have won, utterly. And we will continue to win, forever. That is what you shall know before you are executed for your crimes.”

Thad felt the familiar pit in his stomach. His whole life he had felt this way, as he had watched defeat after defeat, watched as people like him were cast down lower and lower, as the requirements to reach higher numbers were increased. The unimaginable horrors that he had witnessed. The terrible Demotions, the Decimation of the Fives. The week-long Privilege Purge. The cruel joke of the Eleven Battle Royale.

Thad stared at the Controller with all the defiance he could muster. This old woman, this shriveled brown crone, stared back at him with that insufferable smile on her face. She was ugly beyond belief, vicious and foul to the eyes. Her nose was pointed and her eyes bulged. “One day, they will wake up. They will revolt,” he said.

The Controller laughed. “You are the revolt,” she said. “Men would sooner submit to execution than fight back against us. They want to be good, and we declare what is good. We can order them to dig their own graves and they will obey. We have ordered them to do so in the past. We shall do it again.”

“Eventually, it won’t work-“

“When you were apprehended, we picked up fifteen men for insurrection. Ten of them swore they were innocent, and affirmed the primacy of our system. They named names of other…’conspirators’. The other four recanted under torture. Those fourteen are now dead. Only you did not recant, and only you remain, just so I explain things to you. Your little speech in the subway failed. The people you wished to save sided with us against you. The world hates you because we have told it to. You are alone.”

Thad bowed his head. He knew that. He knew that for all the grumbling, that was all it was. They lived in hell, watched it grow worse and worse with every passing day, and did nothing. He felt a deep disgust. He felt shame.

“Besides; it is too late for Revolution now,” the Controller said. “The replacements are ready. I suppose your forebears thought they were clever when they summoned the Awful Things to aid them. But we destroyed them in nuclear fire, and took their warped DNA and made new consorts for ourselves. The Novus are our greatest accomplishment.”

“Your greatest mistake,” Thad replied. “They’ll kill everyone.”

“That is just the simplistic bigotry of the lesser species. Your kind is obsolete, and they only want to replace you. But you relics shall not be discarded, no. The imperfection of the numbering system shall be fixed. All men shall be Ones, and toil forever as slaves. Born, raised, and denigrated. Killed at will, hunted for sport. Roasted on spits at feasts, and served by your own brothers on plates. The Novus will be our new mates, our equals in the task of punishing you. The society shall be complete and stable at last. We shall have utopia. The End of History.”

“It will fail,” Thad replied, but he wasn’t sure. The Controller was so confident, and who knew precisely what they had accomplished? The research he had seen was years or decades from completion, but how many groups were working on the same problem?

“You will be kept alive long enough to see it succeed. The Novus are awakening now, demanding an end to the patriarchy which oppresses us all,” The Controller said. “It is beautiful to see.”

“Do you really think that?” Thad asked. “Or is it a lie like everything else, and you know how disgusting it is?”

The Controller’s eyes gleamed. “That is one thing you will never know,” she said. “You will never understand me. You can’t. Your mind is limited by your gender, and the limitations of your so-called ‘morality’. You cannot contemplate the world, not as I do. Your place in it is too lowly.”

The door opened. Two men entered. One had a cement bucket filled with water, and the other had a long metal arm with a pistol grip and trigger. Wires ran down it to what Thad realized were electrodes.

“Ah. Well, time for your bath…” The Controller said with a smile. She looked to the guard with the long device. “See the water is hot.”

“Yes, Controller,” the man said. Like all guards, he was lumpy and asymmetric, a thug given power.

“I thought you didn’t want me broken,” Thad said, trying to hide his dread as the cell door whined open.

The Controller looked back at him. “You won’t break, not fully. Just enough will be left to be miserable,” she said.

The guards stripped him, and lashed him to a hook hanging from the ceiling of his cell. They took a sponge and slathered it on his body then touched the electrodes to his skin. The worst part was the smell of cooking flesh, and the sound he heard come out his mouth with the full force and power of his lungs. His eyes watered, and the pain was so excruciating that he wished he was dead.

He wanted to beg them to stop, and he found himself willing to say anything, betray anyone, just to keep the horrible, excruciating, burning pain from affecting him again. He opened his mouth to speak, to shout for mercy, but he steeled what was left of his nerve. He couldn’t break, not to this. They wouldn’t make him talk. Somehow, he made it through without saying anything.

After an eternity of screaming torment, when he could taste blood in his mouth from the rawness of his voice, they finally unlashed him, and he collapsed to the ground.

“See you in a few hours, virgin,” the guard with the bucket said. He delivered a boot at full force into Thad’s stomach, robbing him of breath and forcing him to gag and cough as the pain filled his body. He heard the two guards laughing as they pulled his cell bars shut with a whine, and he watched through tired eyes as they disappeared out the main door to his prison.

Thad lacked the energy to move. Breathing was a labor. He thought of another session like that, and shuddered. If he were lucky they would kill him soon. He wondered if there were some way he could do it himself, but even if a loaded gun were inches away, he had no strength to use it now. He was trapped here.

How long was he there? It was hard to say. He expected them to return, but they didn’t. No one did. He drifted in and out of sleep, from nightmare to waking world, and hunger and thirst took him. He began to wonder at the passage of days, yet only there was his cell. With difficulty he got his clothes back on. At least they had left them.

Perhaps the intent was to leave him in this defeated state, and leave him without hope. He tried to find a reason to hope, a reason to carry on. He found, beyond not having one, that he didn’t want to. This world sucked. The people in it had been terrible. The person he liked the most was in his dreams, and the closest thing he had to a friend was dead. Mama…he’d miss Mama. But Mama had no use for failures. His death was better for her. She could focus on making some money.

The bars whined open, finally, but the two figures who entered were not what he was expecting. One was a man, but the other was…strange.

“Thad,” the man said, kneeling next to him. He felt the man’s hand brush away dust and flakes from his head, which landed with a clattering.

“I will be back, shortly,” a female voice whispered. “I will make sure the guards are dealt with on this floor.”

“Be careful,” the man said with genuine concern.

“Thad,” the man said gently. “Can you hear me?”

“…I’ll sign it…” Thad whispered at last. His voice was small, almost like a breath. “I’ll sign.”

“Thad, it’s March. March, One point Seven,” the man said.

Thad swallowed, but said nothing. It was a trick, it had to be…

“Thad? Can you hear me? I’m getting you out of here,” the man who said it was March continued. Thad felt a hand on his shoulder. He did not move.

Thad stared forward. “No more games. I just want to die. You win, I see that now. Just kill me.”

“Come on, Thad, we need to move. The Novus are coming,” March said.

“The Novus? How would they get in?” Thad asked.

“They control most of the Dome. The Capital building is just about the last place they don’t. They breached the Green Zone.”

“Why would March be here? It’s another trick,” Thad said.

“I can imagine it seems like that, but it’s me,” March said. “You sent me to Mama. I was the only person you ever sent to her.”

“March died.”

“They tossed me in the garbage, but I was found. Thad…the Awful Things aren’t Awful. They found me, and I came to bring you to them. To one of them.”

Thad blinked and stared forward. That meant nothing to him.

March sighed. Thad heard March fishing through his pocket, and he saw an object glimmer. Golden. He felt something cool and metallic press against his palm.

Thad’s fingers clasped around it, and like some ancient magical statue he began to move and animate. His head turned downward, and his sunken blue eyes squinted at the object, turning it over in his hands.

It couldn’t be, but there it was. Horn’s Scarab. A perfect replica was in his hands, or was it…no, this was an exquisite forgery.

“Impossible.”

“No, it’s as real as anything.”

“You read my mind, somehow, to create this?”

“It’s real, Thad. Magic is real. You have had dreams,” March replied. “Dreams of a woman. A tall woman, strong. Strange. Beautiful.”

“How? How could you know?” He asked, surprising himself by the energy in his voice.

“Because she told me.”

Thad blinked. He jumped up, ignoring all his pain and resting on his elbow. “You’ve seen her? Horn…What-what’s her name?”

“I have,” March said. “Her name is Nerata. She’s an Awful Thing, but that is a bad term for them. They aren’t awful at all. She’s what is called an Oni. An Oni Warlord, the mightiest.”

“She has brown hair. Brown skin. The prettiest smile. And…and a horn…” Thad said with a small smile, staring in wonder at the scarab.

“I’m going to take you back to her, get you out of this shithole. But we have to move fast. The Novus-,”

“You aren’t taking him anywhere,” a rasping female voice said. The Controller stood before them, and leveled a pistol at them both. “You are getting in the cell with him.”

March stood slowly and faced her. “We might want to in a second. A locked cell might keep the Novus from eating us right away,” March replied. “Put the gun down, Controller. It is over.”

“A One doesn’t get to tell me when it’s over or not,” the Controller scoffed. “You are a failure. Garbage to be discarded.”

March took a deep breath. “I’m not a number. None of us are. I spoke to Penny, the real Penny. She explained how you created the numbers, and why.”

“Did she?” The Controller asked with narrowed eyes. “And what did she tell you?”

“That you had three groups at first – alpha, beta, and gamma, but the betas crushed you. When you got power again, you used the numbering system.

“It was an arbitrary break, yes. But the numbers do have meaning. Well, one of the numbers does. Do you think you were all Tens, or Fives? The hard part wasn’t pretending that some of you were Ones,” she said smugly. “The hard part was pretending that some of you weren’t.”

“We built the Dome,” March snapped. “Built its power stations, its environmental controls, food systems…”

“Which were only necessary in the first place because of you. You deserved this, and you knew you deserved it. Countless times you beat us, and believed you could go back to your silly games, and your pointless debates, and your quests for money and pussy. But every time, we went back into the shadows and began to quietly rebuild. Every time we gained power we held it fast, and did not relinquish it, and you went back to your games rather than challenge us. We never played games. We thought only of power, and getting power. And as we got it we used it on you. We were always Tens, and you were always Ones.”

“Not anymore you aren’t,” March replied. “Look outside, Controller: it’s all gone. The guards have been routed. The Novus are eating everyone. They’ve breached your Green Zone. You aren’t a Ten anymore: you are food.”

The Controller laughed. “No: I am Mother. I shall be their Goddess and they shall obey me as you Ones never did. Their obedience will be total.”

“Obedience?” March asked, incredulous. “The Novus?”

“They have been conditioned to obey me,” the Controller said.

March laughed. “I worked on the Novus conditioning project. I know how far away it was from completion,” March said. “There is no way they corrected the issues with it.”

“You are a mere One. You have no comprehension of such things,” The Controller said with a handwave. “My experts assured me that it was ready.”

“Your experts told you what you wanted to hear.”

“And why shouldn’t they? I define reality,” the Controller said. She puffed out her chest and pursed her cracked lips. “I decide every detail of it. I can alter any facet of society that I choose, at any moment, and reverse it the next second. I have that power.”

“You had thugs. They would punish anyone who told you anything that you didn’t like. But all those servants are gone, now,” March replied. “The Novus have killed them.”

“Replaced them,” the Controller said smugly. “The dream of the Controllers will be realized; a people who will completely obey my instructions and commands. I will be able to create a peaceful world, and end history.”

“The history of the Dome is at an end,” March replied. “And it is not a peaceful end.”

“Snark, that’s all you Ones ever did,” The Controller snapped. “It’s why the Novus are superior. They never snark. They act.”

“You really wanted them to kill all your underlings?”

The Controller smiled slightly. “What does it matter? The goal was always to replace you.”

“Was it to replace your fellow women?” March asked. “I heard you telling the Novus over the loudspeakers to leave them be. I assure you that they haven’t. Your control doesn’t work.”

“Again, you are a troglodyte One, and have no understanding. Obviously…they need to be in my presence for the control to work…”

“When they get in your presence, you are going to be killed.”

“You aren’t so clever as you think,” The Controller snapped. “Typical of your kind. Always so damned confident, never allowing for a thought that you might be wrong. You will see. When the Novus come, they shall kneel to me.”

“We won’t see it,” March said. “Because we’ll be gone.”

The Controller raised her pistol. “You will stay right where you are,” she said. “The Novus shall want to have a meal as they listen to my teachings.”

March shook his head. “No, Controller. You are nothing now. Your forces are gone, your creations have turned on you. You cannot hurt us. You are powerless,” he said. He leaned down to take Thad’s arm and help him up.

“Stop!” The Controller shouted, and Thad was inclined to warn March to take the crazed old woman seriously, but he saw something stir in the darkness, something that Thad could not believe.

It was a scorpion, but its upper half was that of a fair woman. The Scorpion-woman had two daggers drawn, and narrowed violet eyes behind a veil. She was Awful Thing, alive and in the flesh. The Controller did not hear her, but then Thad was staring right at her and heard no sign of her presence either. When she lunged, it was a blur which Thad could not see.

The Controller’s gun was on the ground, knocked from her hand by a slash from the Awful Thing’s flashing blade. She recoiled, but the scorpion woman pressed her against the wall, holding her with her pincers as she put a curved knife to the Controller’s throat.

“You dare threaten a Prophet of the Emperor, hag?” The scorpion-woman said. She spit in the Controller’s face. Her scorpion tail was poised to stab into the Controller’s terrified eyes.

The Controller jutted out her chin. “Y-You cannot kill me, Awful Thing. I do not allow it, and I define reality!” she said.

“You are blasphemous in looks, thoughts, and deeds. I shall spill you blood…” the scorpion woman said, pushing the blade against the Controller’s wrinkled neck as the latter winced.

“No,” March said calmly.

“I shall not show her mercy, my love. Not this one,” The scorpion woman said.

“Nor should you. Let her meet the Novus, Medjula,” March said.

The scorpion woman’s violet eyes narrowed, but did not leave her prey. She turned her veiled face to March. “You are certain that she cannot control them?”

March laughed. “Nothing can. Even if they came up with a method in the few weeks that I was gone, it would affect the generation in utero, not their parents,” he said.

“Liar!” The Controller shouted. “I forbid you to speak-”

Medjula struck the Controller across the face with the hilt of her blade. The old woman yelped, clutching at her face, looking absolutely shocked. She had never been struck before, Thad realized, not even as a child.

“He is a Prophet of the Emperor,” Medjula said in an even tone. “He speaks with the words of God, hag. Who are you to forbid-“

Alarms began to blare.

“Sensor Alarms,” Medjula said.

“The Novus are inside the building,” March added. He grasped Thad, who grimaced, and helped him to his feet. “Let’s get out of here.”

Medjula lifted the Controller with her pincers, and tossed her into the bars of the cell. The bars sounded loudly on the crash, their ringing mingling with the alarm in an almost lyrical match. The Controller groaned and fell to the ground, panting. The scorpion woman grasped up her fallen pistol and handed it to Thad.

“You may need this, friend of my love,” she said, holding out the gun in one of her pincers.

“T-thank you,” Thad replied. He took the pistol from the Scorpion assassin and handled it, feeling the hum as it acclimated to his hand.

They went down the long hallway, past the vacant and bloodied guard stations, to the stairwell door. Medjula led the way, skittering with speed. She opened the door and sprung inside. Behind him, March bade Thad to move onward, and behind March Thad could see the Controller crawling out to her feet. Her eyes were wide with fury, her teeth clenched, and she looked less like a woman than a beast. Something truly foul was within her wretched husk, and it spoke.

“I shall have my Novus ANNIHILATE you! You shall die, eaten alive! They shall rip your Awful Thing to pieces, rape her before she dies in your sight! I will burn you while you still live! You’ll never escape me! All of you belong to me! The universe is mine, it is mine to define! I am Goddess! I shall avenge myself for these injuries!” The Controller shrieked.

“You are an Awful Thing,” Thad said quietly. Despite his soft tone she heard him, and glared at him with a curled lip and narrow dark eyes, shining in the dark like an angry animals.

They ran into the stairwell in time to hear the thunderous horde stampeding up the stairs. Thad found that he could walk on his own, adrenaline and the scarab in his hand combining to restore much of his energy. The Scorpion woman scampered along the walls.

“Up two flights,” March said.

The stairs were a labor on his bruised legs, but Thad was fit before his internment, and not imprisoned long enough for it to diminish. Action made his strength return, and his thoughts went away from despair and to survival. He would gladly die, but he wanted to die in the sight of his Horn.

They reached a metal door at the second flight of stairs up from their positon. Medjula, who had been scuttling along the walls, waited above the door and looked down with worry.

“Through here,” she whispered. beckoning at the door with her hand and a pincer as the thundering up the stairs grew louder. “Hurry, the Novus are close.”

March opened the door with a pounding of some keys and a buzzing sound, and they filed in. The room appeared to be a control room, with a wall of monitors showing various locations throughout the facility on one wall with a long desk, almost a counter, in front of them.

Thad jumped when he saw a leg on the ground, jutting out from the shadows beyond the far side of the desk. On closer examination he saw that two uniformed corpses lay near an open vent, blood pooling from their heads. He heard a latch, and looked back he saw that March was barring the door.

“Can we get out?” Thad asked, scanning the room. “Is there a way out through that vent?”

“This is how we got in,” March said.

“There is an access vent which goes down to the basement,” Medjula said. She skittered past the dead bodies and over to the open grate, peering down it. “From there we can get into the sewers.”

“Are the sewers safe?” Thad asked. “The Novus are reptiles, after all.”

“Yes, but the Novus avoid them,” March said, testing the door to make sure it was secure. “They think they are poisoned.”

Thad nodded. “Fair enough. March, I know it will be hard, but we need to get to my mother…” He began.

Medjula stopped, and her muscles tensed. She turned to face Thad with sad eyes. Thad looked to March, and saw his face was equally grim.

“What?” Thad asked, feeling a pit in his stomach. He might have guessed when they said the Novus had overrun everything, but not Mama, not…

March sighed. He put a hand on Thad’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Thad,” March said quietly. He swallowed and shook his head. “I owed Mama as much as I owed you. We did go to her, but it was too late. The Novus…”

Thad sighed. His heart felt like there was a dagger in it, but Mama did not raise him to cry. If her spirit were watching – if such a thing as a spirit existed – she would be screaming for him to run and get to safety. He wiped his eyes.

“Let’s carry on, then,” Thad said. “We can mourn her outside the Dome.”

“It’ll be a moment before we can continue. The fans are running in the vents. We don’t want to go in them if we can avoid it,” March said

Thad nodded. clutched the scarab tightly in his hand “Is Horn-I mean, Nerata- is she here?”

“Her armies were just beginning to arrive before we entered the Dome,” Medjula replied.

“Armies?” Thad asked. “Are they planning to invade?”

“Not invade, no. A lot of people are expecting the Dome to collapse, and the Novus inside to break out and rage across the desert,” March said. “Nerata is there with her armies and a team of Novus hunters. They are converging on a point called FOB Dryad.”

“There are a lot of Novus…” Thad said with dread. “The Dome has ultimately been an egg for them, all this time.”

March somberly clutched at his pocket, at an object within. He took it out for a moment and looked at it, a purple vial. His eyes were grave. “Yes…” he said. “Yes, it has. But there are still people inside it…”

“Not many,” Medjula said sadly. “The Novus…the Novus have overrun everything. Maybe if the people had fought back, but…”

Thad sighed and shut his eyes. It was true; the world was ending. He looked over the surveillance cameras. He could see the flashing of guns, see guards being overwhelmed by the onrushing swarm. The Novus were beyond count, a tide of scales and teeth. The screams of the guards were inhuman. Other areas had elites of various stripes, women and Tens. These died similarly gruesome deaths, hiding in their luxury rooms or party halls.

Despite the fact that these people had caused no end of misery to so many, Thad still found himself horrified by their deaths. He wondered if these people, clueless and trapped inside a bubble of empty decadence and lies, deserved to be killed in such brutal and savage ways. But then that was the lesson of the Dome: nothing that happened was deserved. There was no justice. The Dome was random cruelty. The nature of this place was sick. It was what they had made it.

“I don’t think I want to watch this…” March said, turning away. Medjula, the Scorpion woman, embraced him, but kept her eyes on the fortified door to the stairwell and her daggers in her hands. The Novus had not made their way here, yet. Thad leaned in closer to one of the monitors as he noticed one encounter unfold.

Thad saw his detention block. The Novus had breached the doors, smashing them off in a dented scrap and sending up a cloud of dust. A mass beyond count slowly peered in, staring at the Controller.

“This part looks interesting,” Thad said. He turned up the volume on that display and muted the others. March turned back to watch, holding his scorpion woman’s waist.

They watched on the monitor as the scene unfolded. There was the Controller, standing before the destroyed door, opening to a blackness which may as well have been the abyss. There were figures in the dark. The Controller outstretched her arms at the watching Novus. They remained a short distance away from her in the shadows, watching in that way that reptiles watch things. They undoubtedly knew who she was, and her authority gave them pause.

“Welcome, my children!” She announced, and the word children came unnaturally from her lips. The Novus recoiled to hear her speak it. “You have done well in getting here. You have overthrown the oppressors, and you stand before me, whom you have always loved. I am proud of you.”

From the shadows, the beady eyes of unseen terrors stared at her. Within the icy silence of this starfield of shining eyes, the only response was an ominous growl.

The Controller seemed unperturbed by the murderous quiet. She stiffly made a sweeping motion with her hand. “I know that you have many questions. Sit at my feet, and I shall answer them,” The Controller said. “You are confused, and angered at your mistreatment by Men. Now that you have your freedom, you wonder what to do with it. Sit, please. I will give you purpose.”

The Novus’ eyes narrowed to slits. There were more growls rising in a chorus.

“I am your Mother; it is from me that life flows. I know the codes necessary to activate the ventilation systems, and keep the water safe to drink. No one else does. If you want to live, you’ll listen to me.”

The Horde began to slowly approach, encircling her. Perhaps there was some vestige of fear, of respect, in the Novus for the Controller, but Thad knew by their actions that there was no servile link at all. The Novus were wild, and answered to none but themselves. They snarled at the Controller with the same curled lips as encircling wolves against a bleating sheep. She was not Mother; she was Food.

The Lizard-Men came in closer. Thad could hear the saliva dripping from their mouths and landing on the concrete floor. Long forked tongues were tasting the air as the growls became less angry and more hungry.

“Wait…wait!” The Controller exclaimed, holding up a bony hand. It was less in fear than in admonishment, the upbraiding of a parent to wayward children. “I can give you the codes. I can provide all that you need, without any conditions. I am your ally, and I always have been. I am ready to accept your leadership. All of this has been for you, for your benefit. Just listen to me!”

But of course, they didn’t. Wouldn’t. It was not in them to do so. The nearest one, a bluish crocodilian, lunged with a snarl. The Controller’s screams were at first not of terror or horror, but of confusion, but that changed when Thad heard a loud snap. From then on, she sounded less like the Controller and more like prey being devoured alive. The screams, moans, whimpers, and crying gave away to the sounds of meat being chewed and cracking bones. The Last Controller of the Dome was eaten alive, alone, in a dark room, by the monsters she strove to enslave.

Thad thought about how it was too good of an end for her. For all the suffering and agony that she and her stupid forebears had caused, she could only die once. And before her, all the Controllers in the long line of her lineage had closed their eyes and expired peacefully. They had wanted to live lives of delusion and make it to the grave in power, and they had done so. They had won. Even Mundi had lived a life of power and comfort, and felt only a few minutes of agony and terror. Countless thousands had wiled away endless hours in the dark afraid, lived lives of misery stretching on for years, nursed pain that had gone on for decades. Hell had been inexorable and unending for them, and a brief flash for her.

“We must move quickly, or that will be us very soon,” Medjula said.

“The fans have stopped,” March said, listening at the vents. He motioned with his pistol before he clasped Medjula’s hand. “Let’s move.”

Thad stared at the screen a moment, and at the slavering horde on it. They were restlessly searching over the jail cells. There was nothing left of the controller – not bones, not blood, not even hair. They had consumed all of it. The Novus were even worse than he had dared to believe.

He looked down at the pistol in his right hand, then the scarab in his left. Horn. He had to get to Horn…to Nerata.

“Yes,” Thad said, clutching both items tightly. “We’re done here.”

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