His eyelids fluttered open. Seemingly disoriented, at first unsure where he was. Then he scowled the moment it all came back to him, as if all this was nothing but an annoyance. I wondered briefly whether generations of genetic engineering might have given them some degree of control over their own sensitivity to pain.
If so, this ordeal really was only for Tlalo’s sadistic enjoyment. Drena’s as well? Tlalo I could believe. I’d always faintly detected a ruthless streak beneath his carefully cultivated image of the wise, benevolent hero of the resistance.
But Drena? There was real softness in her. If not, she’d done an incredibly good job of fooling me during training. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that angle, though. Tlalo and Kembis, besides being a different species, were men. Men have always been somewhat inscrutable to me.
But I understood Drena on the level that I understand any other woman. She’d never given me any reason to believe that gy-ei are fundamentally different from human women in the most important respects. I couldn’t even seriously entertain the idea that she’d have shared such deeply personal details of her life with me for manipulative reasons.
Yet there she was, face contorted into a vicious grin as the Nordic squirmed and thrashed against his bonds. He let out another hoarse, gut wrenching scream I could not help but feel in my skeleton. There was only so much of it I could bear to watch.
I slipped off my sandals so as not to make any noise as I fled. Feet flattening against the alternating cool and warm metallic tiles as I scampered, stomach churning, up the stairs and back into the main corridor. Dare I believe what I’d just witnessed?
What sort of company was I really in? Every time I thought I’d figured them out, another crack appeared in their mask. Whether I’d like what’s underneath it was as much a mystery now as the day I arrived, despite my every effort to feel them out.
I’d seen enough down in that chamber to know I wanted out. However vital the cause, however terrible the enemy, I could no longer convince myself that the conflict was between clearly defined good and evil. It now seemed to instead be between bad and worse, with the winner probably destined to conquer the surface at some point regardless.
None of my concern anymore. I thought I was uniquely positioned to strike a blow for everything good and decent in my own estimation. But only because they cultivated that impression from the very moment they pulled me out of the saucer wreckage. I felt sure of that now.
I’d done the one thing professor Travigan told me never to do. I’d trusted the Vril-ya. I’d been suckered into believing only some of them were duplicitous, that these few were uniquely trustworthy by virtue of being an oppressed minority with physical features I must have subconsciously associated with innocence and virtue.
They must’ve known about my educational background. But how? Neil knew, but I could scarcely imagine he ever had any dealings with these rebels. No, terrorists. I resolved to call them what they were from that point forward, if ever I found reason to speak to anybody about all this after escaping.
But I was taking for granted that I would escape. It occurred to me as I ran that I could not recall the route Neil brought me here through. Nor did I know of any way back to the hangar full of obsolete saucers. The only saucer I knew of…
I slowed as the realization hit me. If I took their cobbled together Vril saucer, their plans would be irretrievably ruined. Whatever small chance they ever had of striking at the heart of the hollow Earth, forever halting production of the Vril on which the Nordics depended, would be reduced to zero should I steal it in order to escape to the surface.
It was one thing to remove myself from the equation. To bow out of this blood feud and allow it to continue on its original course without me. But could I justify all but delivering these few surviving natives into the hands of their brutal oppressors, simply in order to return to my old life?
The more I contemplated it, the more difficult it became to justify. To steal the fruits of their hard work, what Tlalo described as the culmination of their dreams…it went beyond simple self-preservation and verged on cruelty.
They seemed so elegant. So noble and peaceful. What a fool I was to take it all at face value. Yet I still hesitated to steal something so precious to them after all the hospitality they’d shown me. Even if it was all just stagecraft, to secure my cooperation.
In the end, I didn’t have to make that decision. When I arrived in the little workshop where Tlalo first showed me the dodgy little saucer, there he was, cast in silhouette by light pouring out of the vessel’s open hatch.
“Don’t run.” He had no klystron laser that I could see. He didn’t even have one of the neutered staffs in his hands. It wasn’t an implicit threat, then. But what else could it be? “H-how did you know I would be here?” I stammered, out of breath from the combination of prolonged running and the chilly air.
He withdrew a familiar pair of sandals from within his robe and dangled them by the straps from the end of his finger. “You forgot these. Do you want them? Your feet must be terribly cold.” I tensed up, still unsure whether to book it back the way I came.
But if he knew, then surely the rest did as well. Where could I go at this point? I didn’t bother lying to him. “Alright. You got me. Now what? You gonna tie me up and torture me too?” He looked wounded but I didn’t take it to mean anything other than that he wanted me to believe he felt that way.
“Of course not. Don’t you remember when I said you were free to go at any time? You still are.” He stepped out of the light and gestured to the opening, hatch folded down beneath it to form a short boarding ramp.
This couldn’t be what it looked like. There was no way, in my mind, that he would simply hand the vessel over to me given what it represented to him and his comrades. Given how vital it was to their plans. Indeed, he didn’t.
“Of course I can’t let you take our dream machine from us. You must know that. But I’m only too happy to accompany you to the surface, then return here in the saucer. It will sadden my heart if that’s what you desire, but I’m not going to confine you here. Your involvement was always voluntary.”
Like hell it was. I felt certain that if I called his bluff, the fangs would come out. He’d incapacitate me with some concealed gadget, then set about reconditioning my mind by less diplomatic means similar to what I glimpsed in that dimly lit chamber.
“Alright. Let’s go.” My voice faltered, despite my every effort to sound calm and confident. Every second that went by on my way to, then into the saucer, I expected him to make his move. He just never did. Once inside, a new problem presented itself.
“Where are the controls?” The question confused him until I explained that the saucers I came across in the immense hangar had all sorts of physical controls. Knobs, switches, dials, and nixie tube numerical readouts adorning a dozen or so control panels around the inner wall of the crew cabin.
“That’s because the saucers you saw were built for humans of a generation accustomed to those control mechanisms” he explained, before producing my golden Vril staff from a sheath strapped to his leg. I balked, but did not get a chance to ask.
“I retrieved it from your room after I found your sandals. Would you care to do the honors?” I wondered at his meaning until he pointed to a new opening in the central column which occupied the center of the crew cabin.
“It won’t fly without it. Flight control operates by the same telepathic link you used to materialize dinner.” Ever the affable, helpful guide. Even this late in the game, after his cover is blown. I kept expecting him to mount some defense of torture. To tell me I was just a sheltered little girl who didn’t understand the brutal reality of war.
Stay Tuned for Part 23!