Zack was the leader. Any situation, he knew what to do. Now look at him. He's so lost
He woke up screaming.
The sound however, remained locked inside his head by a leather strap that gagged his mouth. And so rather than be allowed the release of that scream (the wordless lament for the absence of death ) the sound of his agony was left to reverberate silently within his own head, until at last the imaginary cry faded into the background of consciousness.
When the panic of his immobilisation subsided, he became aware of his surrounding - what little he could see of them without turning his head. He was alone in a small room with slate grey walls. Before him was a mechanical sliding door. Hopeless impenetrable. Especially given his current predicament. To his left he could hear the low hum and steady beep of what was presumably medical equipment, but in those first few days before memory began to return, he didn’t know it's purpose. (And later when he found out, he wished for ignorance.)
For the first week after waking up from that seemingly everlasting blackness, Zack's hold on consciousness was slippery, and he often faded back into darkness before he’d had much time to think about his situation. He had no idea who he was, or why he was strapped down, and could only surmise that he'd been in some kind of accident, and that this was the critical care ward of a hospital. It seemed the likely answer to his predicament.
Then, memory began to return.
At first it was nothing more than an intangible feeling of fear. An uneasy sense that this place was wrong, and that he had to get out. And then, as if that first instinctive feeling was a trigger, memory began to take substantial form. His past came to him in brief flashes of image and colour. A face would rise to the surface of his mind, and he’d struggle to find a name to put to that face until slowly, a bit at a time, he had pieced together enough of his past to realise that he wasn‘t in a hospital. He was in the very place he‘d escaped so long ago.
After living half their life on the run, he and three other X5’s had returned to their prison to take it down, so that they‘d never have to run again. But the plan had gone horribly askew. Max. What had become of her? He couldn’t remember. Something bad had happened, he knew that much. But he couldn’t remember what. And part of him wasn’t sure it wanted to remember. Squeezing his eyes tight, he tried to block the grief, tried to force out the guilt that gnawed at him over a fate he wasn‘t quite sure of. Tried to forget everything that had resurfaced in his mind.
As unlikely as escape appeared to be, considering he couldn’t move, he allowed himself that hope - that belief. He’d done it before. Three times in fact. And he was alive - against all expectations - he was alive. Surely it must count for something. He couldn’t just lie here and give up, let Manticore get to him, rob him of his soul - like they’d done to Brin.
No. He could get out again, find Max and get the hell out of here...
Days passed by. Presumably.
Not that he could discern night and day in the room where he was kept.
Doctors came and went, taking with them tissue and blood samples. During these times the X5 would remain unresponsive, not wanting to let them know their vegetable had climbed another level back up the food chain. Sometimes they would wheel him away to an operating theatre. Of course, he was never conscious for those particularly nasty operations. Which lead him to wonder if they were aware of his consciousness after all? Why else would they grant him the small mercy of anaesthetic if they believed him to nothing more than a witless shell of a man for them to slice and dice at whim?
It wasn’t hard to guess what he’d become. A living organ donor. Yes indeed. But why keep him alive, if only use him for spare parts? They could have harvested his vital organs and kept them in storage. What exactly were they doing to him? He wished to hell he knew the answers.
The frustration and humiliation of being kept as a Frankenstein drove him crazy at times, s and yet he could do nothing to stop them. Sometimes he would have nightmares of them running out of parts of him to steal, until they were at last forced to take his very flesh. Slicing away at him as if he were a piece of meat, smaller and smaller… until there was nothing left. And sometimes he wished for such a dream to be true, so that at last this suffering could be over, and he’d be left to die
That’s what he felt like sometimes. A piece of meat that was slowly being sliced away. And the fact that he would hope at times for death made him hate himself for being so weak. For letting Them get to him.
And then, because he had nothing to do except turn the limited options over and over in his head, he would find himself thinking that death was the only way that he could prove himself to be stronger than them. After all, death was the only way he could win.
But fear would always strike him before he could go so far as to delude himself that suicide was an option. Fear that if he did find a way to kill himself, they’d only bring him back - again. And then he truly would go mad. If this wasn‘t already some crazed hallucination.
He was glad for the darkness when it would at last decend upon him. But always he'd wake again. Always he'd be forced to lie awake and try his best to stop himself from thinking.
For a long time, he managed to stop himself from wondering about the others - whether they’d escaped. He couldn’t bear to think that they could be here somewhere, hanging between life and death just like him. It was hard not knowing. But the worst was in knowing that if they were here, he couldn’t help them. That cut him closest to the bone; the fact that he was responsible for keeping them safe, for keeping them out of this place, and he’d failed them. He’d failed her. Max.
And then it came to him. The memory of what had happened - of why he was here. How he had been taken down by a replica of himself. He remembered being wheeled on a stretcher into that surgical room to find a doctor declaring Max dead. And once the memory returned, his mind seized it, replaying over and over again those final agonizing moments when he realised just how severely their mission to take down Manticore had failed.
< --- flahsback --- >
She lay on the stretcher, the story of her life bleeding out thick and red in rivulets from her chest wound. All she had accomplished in life; good friends, a man she loved, a job, a place to call home - the things he had criticised her for - they’d all come to nothing in that moment the doctor announced in a cold, flat voice,
“The bullet went clean through. Her right ventricle is collapsed. She's gone.”
It wasn’t meant to end that way. Not for any of them. Especially not for her.
But there was a way to make things right again. One shot.
"It won't do her any good. She's an x5. She needs an x5 heart"
Spoken by the bitch who had killed his sister. The bitch with the eyes as cold as sin. And so he did the only thing he could do. Put a gun to his head, wished silently for them to bring her back to life, and pulled the trigger.
< --- end flashback --- >
But here he was alive. How could that be? What had they done to her? Had she survived? Was she now a living scrap yard like himself? Or was she in a tank the way Tinga had been?
Zack clenched his jaw then, biting hard into the leather strap between his teeth, holding in the anger, holding in the scream he knew would never pass his lips.
Surely he couldn’t be alive. It was impossible! He’d put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. How could he survive that?
The answer was simple really. As soon as he figured out why he was still alive and breathing - so to speak. He could survive a bullet to the head because They refused to let one of their soldiers go to waste. They wanted him alive, and alive he would remain, until the time came when They decided otherwise. Manticore had always hated letting their soldiers go to waste. Even if they had to bring them back to life just so that they could prove a point. You can’t escape us.
Strapped down so that he couldn’t move - not even an inch - drip fed through tubes, and unable to so much as breath without the aid of the machinery that whirled and clicked beside him, Zack realised there would be no escape - that all he could do was lie in a state of humiliation as They came and went, unaware that their guinea pig had woken from his deathless sleep, and learnt to feign otherwise.
If only he could close his mind to the image of Max lying on that stretcher, her life ripped away because he wasn’t there to save her. If only he could forget the memory of Tinga in that tank, her beautiful long hair billowing around her face like tendrils of seaweed because he had insisted on ripping her from her family so many months ago. If only he’d stopped trying to convince them all that living life on the lam was the best kind of existence they could hope for.
If only he could have a chance to tell them he’d been wrong.
Their big brother CO had been wrong.
Anger now won over his attempts to stave it back at that quiet admittance, surging through limbs that were almost too numb to feel. He berated himself for leaving it too late to tell them he was sorry - to tell them he loved them. He berated himself for trying too many times to rescue them when they didn’t need rescuing, and for not being there enough when it really did count - the times when they needed all that he denied them. All that Manticore had denied them. A family. Someone to love. A place to call home.
Beside him, the peep of the heart monitor began to accelerate, and Zack wondered how such a thing could be possible, when he didn’t have a heart to monitor. And then he wondered if he’d ever had a heart to begin with.
And finally, as his mind surrendered to the kind of desperate despair that caused all hope and willpower to flee, the door opposite him slide open, and the blonde haired woman he remembered from that night - the woman with eyes as cold and deadly as the tone of her voice - stepped over the threshold.
For several moments she stood before him, regarding him silently with those shark-like orbs as her lips slowly curled into a cruel smile that failed to meet her eyes.
“So, it lives.”
Her voice held a kind of amusement that sent shivers down his spine, and he realised then that they’d known all along of his consciousness. They’d known, but they’d allowed him to think otherwise. They’d allowed him to believe that he had won over them. And they’d been waiting for this very moment to step in - when he was so close to breaking that he could feel his mind scream with the effort to stop itself from shattering into pieces.
They’d been playing him all along.
Stepping over to his side, Renfro leant in close, her breath brushing over his face like a glacial breeze, as she ran a perfectly manicured talon lightly along his jaw line. Her smile warmed at the way in which his cheek muscles twitched in anger - and humiliation no doubt. It gave her pleasure to see him brought to his knees. Figuratively speaking, of course.
“I must say I’m surprised 599.” Lowering her voice to a husk, she brushed her fingertips over the stubble of his jaw, enjoying his discomfort - feeding off it like a vampire as her eyes ran over his body, taking in the various sutures and bandages that held the X5 together like Sellotape on a broken toy.
“I know your unit have an almost… admirable will to live, but I never expected to find you conscience after all that we’ve managed to take from you.”
She watched him close his eyes, knowing that he was repulsed by himself - by his helplessness. Knowing that her hands on his body were burning him with an eternal brand of shame. And she loved every minute of it.
“We own you 599.”
This was hardly news to the transgenic, and Renfro wasn’t all surprised by his lack of response. He was a martyr. Willing to sacrifice his very life for the ones he loved. Thus imprisoning them in the very cage they would have rather died to remain free from. She wondered if he’d considered that one yet.
“And we own 452.”
Ah. There it was. That furrow of brow. That tremble of lip. That exquisite moment when the human soul was torn asunder. And it had only taken four simple words.
Of course, Renfro couldn’t allow her pleasure to be over so soon. Oh no. She planned to milk this man for all he was worth. As much as this transgenic had grown to loathe himself over the past month of consciousness, his torment had only just begun.
She had survived. The thought should have brought him comfort. But it was news he had dreaded to learn. When he’d put that gun to his head, the action was driven by pure emotion - the need to have her back. To have her whole. Even if he would never live to see her carry on without him. In those few seconds he made a decision based on the very sentimentality he claimed to scorn. Love.
Had he the time to think clearly, to realise the consequences of such a decision, he would had aimed that bullet at his own heart. Instead he had saved her. Max. And by doing so, he’d delivered her into the very arms of evil that they’d fought tooth and nail for half their lives to evade. He'd sentenced Max to Hell.
“And you know what 599?”
That voice was at his ear once more. Like a little red devil sitting on his shoulder, laughing with glee at his suffering. He tried to force himself back into that black abyss of ignorance, but it was impossible. Her voice continued to drone in his ear, telling him of how he had failed. How he had failed Max. Again.
“She hates you for it. She hates you forcing this life upon her. You see, after you blew up the genetics lab, we were forced to turn to other means of procreation - the old fashioned method. I’m sure you’re aware of what that is. Aren’t you?”
Those fingernails were now raking slowly down Zack's torso, and as his skin break into goose bumps he imagined those nails to be the claws of a creature more feral than his own feline ancestors. He wanted so much to rip her hand away, to bend her fingers backwards until the bones crunched in his fists, but he couldn’t. As strong as he’d always prided himself to be, she had taken away his strength, and his pride. She was doing the one thing he’d never allowed anyone to do since that night his feet had hit the bare snow running; dominating him.
“Of course, you probably know that 452 would never be a willing participant. And so we had no choice but to restrain her. Much in the way we‘ve restrained you...”
To punctuate her words, Renfro allowed her fingers to wander below his navel, and enjoyed the satisfaction in displaying to him just how helpless he truly was.
Her smile was as cold as ice as she watched 599’s struggle to win himself free of his restraints. His efforts would do him no good. Even if he could free himself, he’d die in moments without the machines attached to him. Aside from the cybernetic implant they’d placed in his brain, the next step in their trials of new technology had not yet begun. They‘d been waiting. For this moment. To break him.
452 didn’t hate her 'brother'. And she hadn’t been forced into non-consensual sex. Well, not yet anyway. But they had been great lies to feed to 599 at the point where his burden of guilt was so heavy, he believed them. These X5s had formed the kind of bonds that nothing could ever sever. A fact that had already been proven in clinical tests of those they'd been able to recapture.
When Renfro had ordered that X5-599 be brought back to life - knowing Manticore was capable of doing it - she had also known he would be tough to break. After reading over the files of his last capture, she knew Donald Lydecker had been a fool. Though, that was something she’d always known. The way to get to 599 wasn’t by truth serums and torture. At least - not the kind of torture Donald had been familiar with. 599 was too strong of mind to allow himself to succumb to such obvious manipulation.
No. Renfro knew that the way to break him was to let his own conscious do the work. As much as he seemed very much the efficient soldier, he’d made it perfectly obvious from that stunt with the gun, that sentimentality was his biggest if not his only weakness. He would only succumb to reindoctrine if he truly believed there was no hope left. Absolutely no hope. And so she waited for his own conscious to attack him, and then played on his guilt, his vulnerability, his despair.
She had him now. She could see it in his eyes. The way that flicker of determination he’d held onto even in his darkest moments, winked out like a dead star. He’d surrendered himself. He’d lost hope. And now she finally owned him.
It was time to authorise the next step: Send him to a new facility where they would replace what had been removed with biosynthetic organs. The technology was experimental, and this would be the first time they'd trialed it on an X5. But with any luck, the results would be groundbreaking.
First however, she had one more thing to do. It was 452's turn to be broken. That one continued to hold hope of escape, Renfro could see it in her eyes; the way they defied her even as she followed out orders. It would be interesting to see how 452 would respond when she learnt what had become of 599. Of what he had put himself through. For her.