Bridged To Shadows

Chapter Two: Human Resources

The huge, perfectly spherical structure sat like a giant black pearl in the middle of the city. Five stories high and just as wide, normally it was lit up from within, shedding light on the area surrounding it, a great whirring and churning of gears bouncing off of the even taller confining wall. Paned in neither glass nor plastic but in an alloy made from quartz and melted diamond, and with delicate steel ribs forming the supporting skeleton, the sphere seemed more like a piece of art conceived by a madman millionaire and less like the unfathomable creation it was. It had ultimately cost unheard of amounts of government funding, several lives, and the single sacrifice every five years, but the end result was, to many, worth it.

He'd seen her every day for the past three years. It was his job to make sure the girls the machine chose were properly sustained, even if they weren't conscious. Human Resources, that was the proper government term for them. He hadn't thought about their lives, about who they could have become, about whether they had agreed to this or not, before she had come. Unlike the others, she'd sometimes opened her eyes, sometimes come to the wall of the tank and pressed her hands to it, as if longing to break free; sometimes she'd come to the surface and talk to him.

He'd been there the day she'd finally stopped functioning. Her eyes had been closed, the wires in her floating gently in the liquefied air that filled the tank, when her brain waves suddenly slowed. One by one, the monitors on her body slowed, and then began to show no more data. Hooked into the machine, she simply faded away.

He'd been stunned, in shock, and had only stared at her lifeless form floating in that blue tank, when the guards had filed in and routinely drained the tank, callously pulled the wires out of her skin, unwound the metal hoses twined around her arms and legs, unlocked the two steel cuffs on her wrists, the chains on them rattling harshly on the metal grate. They'd put her in a bag and carried her out, like a parcel to be delivered, leaving only emptiness and the gradually darkening room.

For the first time, it had occurred to him that maybe this wasn't entirely right. He'd seen four of the girls in his lifetime, but she'd been the first to make him realize they weren't mannequins bobbing like a cork in a fishbowl. She'd opened his eyes, and as they hauled her out like garbage, already going out to fetch the next one, he saw how it was that she, and so many others, had been stolen, used, and tossed aside.

He stayed in that room as it darkened, thinking. The machine was dead now, without its Human Resource. It couldn't tell them what he was going to do. If he acted now…

It would be impossible, his mind argued. Even if he stole away the next Human Resource, they'd find another one, wire her into it, and know everything he was going to do before it happened.

But what if they couldn't find another one?

What if they did?

What if he didn't do anything at all and mutely kept about his job, feeding nutrients into the girl that the machine had chosen, watching it drain her until she died? Could he do nothing but watch an unconscious girl spending the last five years or so of her life hovering on the brink of death but denied even that? Knowing what he did, feeling as he felt, could he make himself not care?

For the first time, he slipped into the Guard Orders Hall. At his entry, a flat screen zoomed over to him, chiming, "How may we help you?"

"Standard procedures for installation of new Human Resource," he barked brusquely.

"Human Resource is located and taken into custody," a calm voice recited, "then brought to Headquarters. Current Human Resource arrived late and is spending night in Guest Quarters. In the morning, when Human Resource is rested, she will be given a sedative and incorporated into the machine."

He had time to work with, more than he could have hoped. A whole night… The machine couldn't tell them what he was doing—maybe he could pull this off after all. The Guest Quarters would be easy enough to find and gain access to; rather than bother with programming a whole new Employee Class and level of Access into the security systems, they'd just called him another guard, pinned a badge and ID tag on him, and had done with him.

As he walked out of the Guard Orders Hall, thoughts started whirling in his head. He'd gotten this job because the government wanted him to earn what they spent on him, and because he'd been the only Supported Minor to have more than average knowledge of the human body and what it took to keep it running. If his parents hadn't died on government business he wouldn't even be here, but at least he wouldn't be worrying anyone. Would they have approved of what he was doing?

…Probably not. But they didn't like me always reading those books about muscles and bones. Mom called it 'disgusting'; Dad wanted me to go out for football. The only reason I'd go out for football would be on the off chance someone broke their arm and I'd be able to see real doctors at work.

A plan was beginning to form. He went back to the Monitoring Room and seized the bag full of equipment, wondering how to deal with the rest of the guards and get out of the city. He had his motorcycle, but if they figured out what he was up to, the first thing they'd do would be to lock up the Employee parking lot. But on the other hand, everyone was complacent, still confident that if something would go wrong, they would have been alerted by the machine long ago. That would work in his favor.

He stared at the bag of supplies, then pulled out something he'd never used: a vial of bright green liquid. It was in case the Human Resource went into a seizure—one injection slowed the nerve impulses from the brain and relaxed the muscles entirely. In open air, it evaporated quickly but nonetheless traveled fast, still causing total muscle relaxation but trading the slowed nerve impulses for rendering someone unconscious entirely. What he had would be enough to knock out the entire Wall if he leaked it behind him, but he preferred to lay low as long as possible. Everyone would know he was the one responsible for this, so there was no point in leaving no evidence—only no clues to lead the hunt.

He dumped the equipment out of the bag except for three vials of the stuff, an injection gun, a scalpel, bandages in case they got fired on, antiseptic, water sanitizers, a flashlight, an extra lab coat, a hat, a bottle of hair dye—he'd been thinking about dying his dark red hair black—a pair of glasses, and his favorite book, A Separate Peace. The bag snapped shut, his regular lab coat already over his black shirt and jeans.

Leaving the giant, cold sphere, he strode across the open space, his heart beginning to pound. He was crazy. He would land himself in jail and their new Human Resource would die.

But he would've tried, at least.

Glancing up, he saw only dim blue-purple-black and remembered hearing someone tell him about stars, thousands of points of light that came out at night. He'd never seen them through the city's blanket of smog, but maybe someday he'd find them.

The situation drew his attention back to the earth. He waved cheerfully to the guards posted by the door, and they waved back, one saying in greeting, "Doc."

"Nice evening, isn't it?" he replied, letting himself in.

The hall was cool and illuminated just the right brightness to not hurt the eyes but allow you to see where you were going. He turned left and strode briskly down, nodding familiarly to anyone he passed, until he eventually came to an archway bearing the words 'Guest Quarters' spelled out in light. The red light came out and scanned the barcode on his ID tag, then his retina, and let him in.

Not many people were there, but only one door was being guarded. He took a deep breath, then walked over. "Hey, Fletcher."

The man turned and raised a hand. "What's up, Doc?"

He rolled his eyes and tried to sound tired and exasperated. "Got orders from the Bigheads." That was their nickname for the high-ranking officers who treated the guards as if they were pawns. "They want me to check out the new HR, make sure she's up to snuff."

Fletcher nodded. "Go right on in. Oh—and Doc—watch out." With that cryptic comment, the door slid aside, and he stepped in.

Immediately something struck him in the forehead, and he swore, bending over and feeling his brow for a cut. To his horror, there was something sticky—but it was cold

"You low-down, sneaking bastards!" shrieked a voice, and this time something hit his shoulder. "And quit acting like I gave you your death wound, you wuss! It was only pudding!"

He looked up in time to see a small potted plant hurtling toward him with deadly aim. He threw up his arms, and it bounced off as he realized this must have been what Fletcher was warning him about.

"Ow—stop throwing things—!"

"Then get me the hell out of here!" screeched a livid girl. She'd temporarily halted her barrage, instead stalking over and dealing him a flurry of blows.

"That's—" he started to shout, then dropped his voice to a whisper, still covering his head and half-crouching. "That's what I'm trying to do!" When nothing struck him for several seconds, he ventured a look, then straightened with a sigh.

"What do you mean?" she demanded, then said bluntly, "You're too young to be working here. What are you doing here? Who are you?"

"My name is Drew Evans," he told her dryly. "I'm older than you, and technically you're about to be employed by the government as well. And, as to what I'm doing—" He swept a quick glance around the room before remembering they didn't allow surveillance in the Guest Quarters, but nonetheless lowered his voice again. "—I'm getting you out of here."

"Why?" Her blue eyes flashed brightly, and she crossed her arms, tossing her thick black braid over her shoulder. About average height, she wore a black tank top and cheap knit gloves with the fingers cut off; her jeans were torn at the knees, a hole on the side of her leg held together by safety pins and what appeared to be thin wire. Her black boots were scuffed and dull, the laces frayed with, oddly, My-Little-Ponies on one set and Spongebob Squarepants on the other.

He wanted to tell her to just wait and go with him, but she didn't seem to be the type to wait. She was only about a year younger than him from the looks, maybe fifteen or sixteen, which was older than the machine usually took the girls. "I'm the one who makes sure the Human Resources—"

"What are those?"

"The computer in the sphere gives us the name of a girl, and guards go out and get her like they got you. They're hooked into the computer and kept unconscious for five years while the computer uses them as an energy source. Then they die. The last one wasn't unconscious all the time and I got to know her, but she just died. I don't think she'd want anyone else to go through that, which is why I'm here."

She stared at him for a long moment, fear starting to show in her electric blue eyes, then said very softly, "Oh."

" 'Oh' is right," he said grimly. "Do you mind telling me your name? As much as I would love it, I do not have weapons of mass destruction and therefore cannot blast my way out of here, meaning we're getting out of here with considerably more difficulty. I'm going to have to ad-lib quite a bit."

She shook her head. "You're crazy. How do you think you're going to get past an entire base with a prisoner they just got in?"

"First off, I just said I'll be ad-libbing quite a bit. Second, they won't know I'm getting you out until we're gone if things go well. And third, you still haven't told me your name."

"Tara," she said finally. "Tara Price."

"Nice to meet you, Tara. Now follow me, look cranky, and don't talk."

She made a rude noise but didn't comment further, and Drew opened the door, nodding to Fletcher. "Fletch, I'm going to take her to the Monitoring Room to run a few tests," he said casually. "If I don't know her digestive patterns, I might end up inputting the wrong data and feeding her the wrong supplementary nutrients."

Fletcher shook his head. "I don't understand that last part, but okay, you're the Doc, Drew. How'd you get her to come quietly?"

"Sedative," he said ruefully. "Come on, Ms. Price."

They walked down the hallways, giving the same excuse to anyone who asked, until the corridor split off into two ways: one that led to the sphere and the Maintenance Room, and one that led to the Employee parking lot. No one was in sight, and because the machine wasn't working, the security cameras weren't powered as well.

He pulled open his bag and handed Tara the lab coat and the hat. "Put those on, and make sure your braid goes up in the hat." The glasses he saved until she was done. "They're only reading glasses, they won't mess you up too much."

She silently put them on, tugging the hat low over her eyes. They turned the way that led to the parking lot and made their way out into the dimly lit expanse. He scanned the cars, looking for either fellow guards or his motorcycle, then found the latter. "This way."

They got to his motorcycle, and he missed the look of awe on Tara's face. Drew had always carried a second helmet just incase, and it looked like it was about to come in handy. He handed Tara the one with a shaded, reflective visor that completely hid the top half of her face, then put the normal one on, got on the motorcycle, waited for her to climb on behind him and get a good grip on his lab coat, then started it up.

They slowly made their way to the checkout booth, where Carson the guard waited. "Who's the girl, Doc Evans?" Carson asked, taking the ID tag.

"Associate," he said lightly.

"Oh, your girlfriend, I see," the older man said innocently. Someone else did the morning shift, so he wouldn't know if she'd actually come in with Drew or not. "Well, you two be responsible, now." He winked. "See you around, Doc Drew."

"Later, Carson." They pulled forward, and the great ring of the Wall fell behind them. They were out—now it was a matter of going fast enough.

"Hold on," he warned, then put pressure on the gas. As he did, an ear-splitting siren shattered the night quiet, coming from the Wall. They'd been found out.

He could hear Tara swearing vividly behind him. "Hold on more," he said simply, then gunned it.

They were flying down the road, weaving haphazardly through the slower cars, though few were in the street this time of night. The wind drew tears from his eyes, but he ignored them. He had to do this. He owed it to Tara—to her predecessor, Leah; to all the other girls who had been sacrificed to that horrible machine.

Dark government cars roared into the street two hundred yards ahead of them, skidding to a halt. It was Drew's turn to swear; he looked to the side streets but found them blocked by more cars. They were trapped, and running out of space.

Suddenly Tara's arm shot past his head, palm out. To his amazement, something black unfurled from her hand, splashing directly onto the road ahead of them, then curving up slightly. Just beyond the end of it, the air blurred.

"Keep going straight," she said behind him, voice unearthly calm. It sent shivers up his back, but things were getting so strange he wouldn't be surprised if his motorcycle sprouted wings.

It was a ramp, he realized as they raced down the shadowy path, one that would launch them straight into that blurry patch. He hoped that was a good thing, but it was their only chance now.

The front wheel lifted, and there was a moment of being tilted back. Then the ramp ended and they were in open air.

They flew right into that blurry patch, and then they were falling, falling, into black…

Then they were out, and in an open space of some sort. He hurriedly pulled into a stop, breathing hard, not sure what was going on.

The ground under them was paved in stones the size of two fists, extending into a fifty-foot wide circle. Beyond that, he could make out buildings of some sort, but mostly everything was obscured by thick fog rolling through.

"Oh, excellent," said a voice behind them. Drew turned around to find a tall, gangly, oddly-dressed man standing there and peering at a watch on a chain. "I expect the third one will be arriving shortly."

Sorry that took so long… This chapter was originally the start of another story, but then I got an idea of how this could work into this story and thought it was kinda nifty…I seriously have no outline for this story or any idea of a plot, but I'll try to pick up a few ideas here and there. See, Blaze? You can live again!