Episode 26.

CW: Long Episode.

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image shows the letters C, I, T, B, in bold red type.

“Which one of them got you in the end?”

“The small one.” The kid huffed, and Kayn’s trademark shackle clinked while he signed, his father interpreting for him. “She looked sick, but she's faster than I thought she'd be.”

Jed snorted. “That one's been running a long time. I'd hate to meet who from. Lucky your head’s still attached, really. You hurt?”

“No. But that's what you're here for, right?” His target glowed gently in the dank evening gloom as the medic tended to him at his bedside from a wheelchair he had commandeered. Orange eyes showed humour, but the laugh in agreement that came was a growl in the back of his throat, and the young prisoner realised the fullness of who it was he was looking at. No, what he was looking at. So much silver. He bit his lip to keep it from trembling, the hard 'f' in his mind caught firmly between his teeth. Sharp features indicated a smile at the discomfort that went with with his grim look, and the Outlier kid wondered briefly if he was about to be eaten alive or offered a bite to eat. His toes curled at not knowing the difference.

“Welp. Let's see who you are then...?” Leaning forward, the vampire reached and made to pull on his bottom lip.

He flinched, and swore at that. “Get your fucking hands off me.”

“Excuse me?” Reed conveyed Jed's voice with his hands. “If you're not dodgy, you should have no problem explaining who you are...”

David intervened at that, a step too far. “And how exactly do you think Albion knew which doors to knock on and which to leave? Where to look for us? We did explain who we were. Endless explanations, and look what has happened now.”

Jed sat back, hands up, indicating he would keep them to himself, not having the energy to do more than that anyway. The answer he wanted was in the glare in front of him, and David allowed the interrogation to continue. “Albion. Thought as much. How far away from home are you?” A heavily charged question, his expression alone was enough to warn him not to give the wrong answer.

Unsure of the right way to go, he doesn’t want to give up the information at first, and so Reed shifted his aim, addressing the kid directly. “Tris fed you, but it wasn't enough? I assume that's the ulterior motive for the attack?” Offering food from the sack he'd brought to the interrogation, he shared apples, bread and cheese, cutting a piece for himself to let him know it hadn’t been tampered with and was safe to eat, emptying the bag onto the bed to show wasn’t in fact full of torture instruments.

Tucking in, the Outliers are ginger at first, until hunger won the better of them. Glad of the gesture, they were more than aware that this was not a free meal by any means, once he began his line of enquiry again. “I'm sorry, I believe I missed your name?” The kid still wavered, and Jed caught himself rolling his eyes. “Look. I hate being out here as much as the next guy, so I can’t blame you for attacking. We are all doing the best with what we have, and if it was any other day, I'd be doing the exact same thing. I have done. So, the boot is on the other foot today. I knew this was coming...”

“Henrik.”

“Henrik. Alright, Henrik.” He paused, shifting, grinding the vertebrae so that they popped in his neck for effect, and grimacing pointedly at his injection site. The artery was still engorged, painfully inflamed and interesting shade of blurple. “What the fuck?”

“You know what they say. Take down the big one...”

“Yeah, no. No. You don’t wanna do that, do ya? Right? Quite apart from the fact we don’t love that kind of thing, like at all, it tends to hurt us. And it hurts our feelings too, y'know? So, Henrik then. Henrik from...”

Hesitating significantly less, but still not sure if he can trust, he seemed entirely too calm for the amount of pissed off it was clear he was. Still, and conflicted by it, he felt a sense of comfort in not answering, instead of tension.

“You don’t want to tell me where. Okay. I get it. And yet, you’re not completely useless...” His voice dropped, and the knife-edge was apparent. “What do you know about the Cardinals?”

This unexpected twist caused Henrik to falter again, looking to his father to explain, the gauge firmly back in the red, as his tone indicated everyone else should whisper too. “I know to keep the fuck out of their way. I know that they are huge fans of brimstone and hellfire and all of that shit. And I know they are pissed that Albion are still refusing to ally with them.”

The last of his sentence was a new development, while David made it sound like it was common knowledge. It was true they’d been out of the loop for a while now. Jed kept his cool as best he could. “I will ask you both again. Last time now. How far away are the closest Albion barracks?”

David saw that there was no way out of answering, glad that the knot of anxiety in him unravelled as Henrik spoke instead of tightening. “Mum, Dad and me deserted the city together, and that was over nine months ago. We’ve been on the move ever since, and Mum's about ready to drop...”

Jed looked at the half-finished bread still in his captive’s hands. “No, no. Eat. Go on. You don’t need to keep any of that by for her, you’ll have plenty more to take back with you. How long? Any day now or...?”

“Put it this way. If I'm back any later than sunset tonight, she’ll have my balls for earrings.”

Wincing as the gesture cut through the heavy dose of his pain relief and gave him a sting that made his ears ring and taste metal, he wagged a finger at him in pure triumph. “Not if you bring the ingredients for cheese on toast with you. And a medic.” David laughed, and he pressed again, knowing how close he is to getting the information he wanted. “Direction?”

His jaw clenched before giving it to him. “South-south-east, easily a year's trek. They're across the water now. They won’t come this far north – or at least, they haven’t been able to withstand Norizima's ranges in any meaningful way so far that we've seen. The mountains are holding them off, it seems. Dad says there’s pockets of us Outliers all over the place up here, and we seem to do alright, as long as we stay on the move. You understand what I'm saying?”

Jed pulled a face. “How do people ever think that cities are safer than camps. It's the people who are cruel and dangerous, wherever the fuck they live. How did you end up with them?”

“Oh you've heard it all before. The usual way. Starvation, disease, threats of violence. Acts on those threats... There's no end to the depths they'll go to to get their own way.”

“Yeah. I do know that one.”

“Really?”

“How do you think I knew where to look for your number?”

“So you've got one then?”

“No. I was... too young.” A pause. “Why'd you leave?” Jed, patient while the kid organised his thoughts, was reaching for more water and having difficulty in getting comfortable.

David sighed when his son struggled to put it into words. There were so many reasons. “Want me to?” Henrik nodded, and his father proceeded sign while he explained, keeping him in the loop. “Let's start with The Protectors. Constantly asking for proof of who you are? Proof of what you are. Proof of what you said and proof of what they said. We can start with these New Guards, yeah? Always on about ‘Where your loyalties lie’. What side you're on. You can spend your life explaining who you are to them and it’s still not enough. No matter what it has cost to qualify you to say what you're saying, it's never enough.” Jed nodded, encouraging him to go on. “In providing proof of this 'legitimacy' of who you are, they demand continual evidence of your affiliation. It never ends. It's never enough, and I’m like, ‘I don't know, mate. I don't know who I am. I'm just living.’ But it’s the constant interrogation. The constant reassurance of your alignment while they never disclose their own. 'Who are you? Where do you belong? Why are you here? What do you want?' So then it becomes, ‘I don't know. You're talking like I should know, but I don't. Does anyone, really? Why is this a big deal?’ And we get to the real answer when they come back to us like, ‘Because I own this. It's mine. And you are in my camp now. A foot in more than one camp means you can't be trusted in either.’ They're stuck to the idea that the universe is binary. They only deal in absolutes. Single narratives only, because the split in themselves between benevolent dictator and malignant narcissist cannot handle more than that. You cannot be more than one thing at any one time, only they can pull off such an amazing feat undetected.”

Young Henrik found what he wanted to say. “It's like, 'I know you could switch sides just like I can.' Or, 'You must be some kind of spy, like I am.' As if you must be lying to get ahead of them in some way or other, because you could cause them harm. Then you’re untrustworthy, unqualified, unreliable, unknown. Disruptive, disrespectful, disloyal, disobedient, dangerous. and finally, their worst nightmare, Dark. ‘You didn't meet our expectations. Or explain yourself clearly enough to us. So now we don't know what you are.’ Not who. What. And then the kicker, ‘So we don't want you here.’”

“Mmh.” Jed nodded. “They want to be so strong, throwing themselves about until the first sign of actual trouble then suddenly they're too fragile to function under pressure and fold like a deckchair. Better watch you're not in the line of fire with the upper hand when they go off – that cruelty knows no bounds. They want you to be just like them, in every way, so they can continue to get away with their false love to get information on how to stab you in the back later, but aren't they so quick to point out your differences and faults whenever it suits them? Whenever you don’t depend on them? If you're too comfortable and they are not? Whenever you're deemed by them to be 'ungrateful' and seem entirely guilt-free about it? You ain’t shit, until you have something that they want from you. And if you tell them no, they'll just terrorise someone else and say it was your fault they did that. I know.”

Reed cut in, then bored of interpreting and having little himself to add. “The system isn't failing us, it's rigged against us and in their favour. It's built for them to succeed. You ever seen a Paladin fail against a Succubus? But it's that righteous indignation whenever you say no to participating in their game, isn't it? It's their anger and retaliation over being told they're hitting your boundaries that you must address and apologise for. It's their morbid thirst for suffering that needs sating, so they ensure you suffer to please themselves. They love it. They love the misery. The dire consequences for other people, that they have caused. But there's more to it. It’s how they manufacture the sin they place on having those most basic needs, right? The denial that those needs should even exist? And then the people want to completely accept this authority for as long as it protects their interests and values, their fragility and innocence. They'll say, ‘No respect, no protection’ – protection from the very monsters they have created – and it's the children who are learning this from such an early age.”

“Yeah. yep.” David nodded. “I did. You're not born into Albion, you're groomed into it. I don't want that for my kids.”

“Me neither, if I have them.” Jed told Henrik. “You were lucky to get out. And, you know, life was better when I wasn't thinking about any of this at all. But now here we are, and I only have you to thank for reminding me.” He raised a toast with his water, and the room span a little.

“But,” Reed started, patting his arm back down to rest again, “it's that you need humility, and compromise, boundaries and consent, to go along with all of this respect, if they deserve it at all. Nothing works unless you have all of those things from everyone around you, and yet they are the ones who are wholly rejecting this idea. Totally. 'Respect me, or I'll violate you, and if not you, then the people you love will pay.' It's so twisted. Broken. They don't get that the universe isn’t a binary between two options only that you have to fight to the death to defend. It’s not Obbé versus Sina, it’s Obbé and Sina, and all the stars and suns and planets besides, and everything else in between. You can be more than one thing at once. You can change your mind. You can find new information, and let that guide you as you move on. But when you become unwilling to or unable to prove the reasons for your existence, things... that’s when things become a problem.”

David continued. “See, now. I'm out here now not demanding anything from them. I don't exercise my moons-given right to go where ever I want to and merely exist in their world, because that 'right' doesn't apply to me there. So I left it behind, because I don't want to be seen any longer by them. I don't want to be accused before I've opened my mouth. My whole life judged before I've even spoken. I've been through all that. I've had enough of it. Do you know, I can't even walk a dog in the street without getting questioned? It's all about their perception of me. Dark enough to be untrustworthy, or unsafe, but not dark enough to be too dangerous to confront, though. I've seen how only those who consider themselves as the very bravest go after them. Their world isn't for me. I'm not to access it, by design, but I am sick and tired of the ugly, brutal, cruel thing they have put in it's place. The fighting. The screaming and crying and suffering. Borders I cannot cross. Walls I cannot climb. Ropes snatched out of my hands to stop me climbing and passed to another for them to succeed instead. I am tired of striving for their version of excellence yet my talents going unnoticed and being told at every turn, 'No, not you.'”

“Loaded dice. Every time, mate.” Jed agreed. “Where is the magic that binds people together? Where is the hope that we can speak aloud and find the relief of being understood by all who listen? I mean... Without the demand for proof of your own humanity first... Proof of your right to speak at all...?”

Their host nodded, warming to the subject. “It's like, it's like... there are so, so many things that can connect us to these people, but they do not want it. Ropes I could tether for myself if I were allowed to hold them long enough. I'm super visible enough to them for their derision, and yet my voice cannot be heard? Or my personality seen? I'm only worth slightly less than the value of my production? To who? We as the players in their little game are invisible, in fact. Insignificant. Irrelevant to their grand scheme of things. So be it, then. We'll leave. But how are we to be cast out as Outliers, and known only as such, and yet still the net closes ever tighter around us? They don't want us in their midst, still they will not let us stray too far enough away.”

“Tell me something I don't know.”

“I will, then. They've stopped coming for the obvious differences. Well no, not stopped...” Anger flared. “But since the Cardinals involvement, they want to know everything. About everyone. No exclusions. The most minute of details. Your shoe size. Your eye colour. The circumference of your head. Well and good if you can provide proof enough of your right to exist. No exam they can not pass. For those that can't prove...”

Reed edged in, interrupting. “Hang on. Go back. What kind of differences?”

“Any. All. Everything. Which diseases run in your family. Who you love. How quickly you can finish a test. How you make your coin. But there's tests for days and days – new ones all the time, and they want you to take them all... Jen almost killed the last person who wanted to compare their arms to point out how much darker her skin was. The loudness in the square, that othering for all to see was too close to home on a bad day, and that was it for us, then. We knew it wasn't safe. The battle lines have been drawn by them and by our answers we are all divided. Pay for proof of who you are, and then pay again for protection from those who are not like you are, because they're not going anywhere anytime soon. It is fear that drives it. Scared people will pay, and no amount is ever enough, so then everyone must pay. The rest of us are locked out of the city gates. Not 'good' enough to be considered worth protecting. It's The Protectors who need locking out...” David's sentence went unfinished, and his eyes glowed. Not with magic, but with disgust. Meeting Jed's gaze, finally he felt there was some way a human could match a Frenetic, and their allegiance was assured.

He wasn't finished, however, and now that the floodgates were opened, bitterness and truth poured out. “'Do good', you know. 'Just not any better than me. Just enough for us to skim what you don't need.' You mess up, and it's not a cry for help any more. It's a death sentence. That's no environment to raise children in – for them to be used as pawns to perpetuate this constant threat of fear? This constant danger? For them to have to constantly prove that they are worthy of this so called 'protection'? So here we are instead.” His leg bounced as he spoke and signed. “There is so much... intelligence in the world, from the smallest child's 'Aha!' to its... it's... grandest exhibitions of evidence based engineering and scientific prowess. So much beauty. So much invention, and achievement, with all of the wavelengths and spectrums of it on show within. It is everywhere you look, and we have come so far together as an entire population, on this scarp of rock sticking put of the water in a universal wasteland. It is only this fear which stops us, stops this... life from flourishing, and it is only those who wish to stay in control of everyone else who use that fear against us. That commodified danger. They are using it as a specific function of their own propaganda – for no other reason than they want to divide and control that innate creativity we all have. Tell me, how do you think they became radicalized into this action? This demanding, grasping dueness? This entitlement to everything that you are and have, that actually – in some way or another if you really think about it – should belong to them? What is it that makes them crave that power over us? Why are they allowed access to it? What makes them want to lay claim to and take credit for all of these beautiful things that they had no part in bringing to life?”

“Go on.” The pair were enthralled to hear Axel's rhetoric from someone else.

“Okay. Start by telling me all the things you love about your home. Your lands. Your people. Your community. Your family. Tell me why those people, those places deserve more from you than all of the rest of Hessonia put together – even the whole world beneath all of our feet itself? Why are they the good people? Why do they deserve more than anyone else? Sit with why you think that. Ask yourself why you believe those things about them to be true? Because you don't know if they are true or not – no one can possibly know all there is to know. You'd never be able to experience all of their lives, all of their history, all of the things about them which are not safe things to share with you. Yet you'll believe you know these truths about the places and the people you love, in your mind and in the core of your soul. But why? Why are your people valued more and others less so? Why are you yourself valued more, while others not at all to you? Why do you believe all the lies told about people you don't even know, but defend someone you love to the death? Why are they a knee-jerk piece of shit before they've even opened their mouth to speak, while you and yours are not – you know, even if you know for a fact and freely admit sometimes that you are actually capable of being a gigantic piece of shit? We know that propaganda is opportunistic by nature. Manipulative by design. You've seen people you know tell bald faced lies and still get their own way. You've watched people get kicked out of their homes for telling the truth. You know people who talk without listening because they only believe their own bullshit and don't care for anyone else's. And you know that it works both ways. A positive image for them versus negative ones for us keeps the whole thing spinning and spinning and spinning.”

Reed chimed in as David paused, reaching for another apple. “This... it's a false illusion of creativity, isn't it? This energy of pedalling truth over lies is a power in itself, no? It's worse over there than it is over here – But it's not! It's the same everywhere! But the fear? The dread, that doom and outrage? That is a poison that works faster than any salve that joy or hope can bring. That fear will have you stripping people of their whole lives before you know it. You carry a weapon? You're already seeing targets and not people. You're already half gone. And what can stop this fear? The only thing... the only thing is honesty. Truth. The one thing we have left that they cannot corrupt because it does not exist for them. They don't know how it works. Liars think that other people lie. They can't understand it when someone is genuinely genuine. Kicker is, the person who benefits most from these lies steps on your neck so hard you will never see who they really are, and that is a point of pride for them. How can we win against that? Never knowing who's really pulling the strings. We're still too busy arguing over the divisions they've made for us.”

“Even if you could put their nuts in a vice, they'd still never tell you the truth – because they don't know what it is themselves.” Jed snorted. “That information is missing from them, and they have filled in the blanks with the things they believe are true. Willing to stay ignorant and hang on and on and on to the promised future that never comes.”

“But even then, they are still people, you know?” Reed continued. “No matter what they believe and know, they still laugh at farts at the dinner table and they still cried when they scraped their knee as a kid. They love their pets and paint masterpieces and water their plants. They avoid harsh truths and abject shame like the plague, but... We. All. Do. And don't forget. They've been lied to. Cheated. Hurt. Terrorised. Frightened into believing that their core values are the truth, with tales of big bad brown wolves and hard-working, taxpaying, law abiding little pink piggies. Remember that. The first rule of propaganda is to depersonalize your opponents. Their versions of the fairy tales are anthropomorphic for a reason. Sports teams wear uniforms so you can yell whatever you want at them from the sidelines. Fear, horror, terror, dread, doom and outrage work best to beguile children.”

David, refreshed, took up where his pause left off. “We warn them all of these imaginary-but-really-real-but-are-they-really dangers, so they behave. We keep them hooked on near misses and almost wins and the idea that only their own group identifies them as the best, and in doing so we rob them of all of their honesty, their intelligence, creativity and joy. The fabric of life itself is withheld. Drip fed back to them only as a reward for falling in line, when it has always been freely available for all of us to choose for ourselves. These head-measuring neck-steppers will keep it all behind bars. They tell us abundance isn't the way the world works, warning us all of it's dangers, of its sin, only allowing it out now and then to generate a profit.” He grinned. “But they are not joy's master and it cannot be contained. And it is the same for all of us. Every being all over the world,” He gestured the two hanging on his every word, “100% human or not, we all operate the same way. Never forget that.”

“Everything we see is real. All of it. Both the truths and the lies you believe about how other people live their lives are real, but now it is time to determine if all that you know about them has been told to you in good faith or bad.” Jed sighed, tiring, grateful for the cold cloth against his forehead, the medic tending him looking worriedly at his thermometer. “It's hard, but we must decide who we believe – the people who look like you who told you about them over there, or the people over there themselves, that you don't know, who have been talked about. Or over. Or ignored, or silenced. Whose opinion do we trust? We must all trust in our own discernment and settle this once and for all. Do we want to discover and know those truths for ourselves, to realize the civilisation in all others, without exception, whatever it looks like. To let go of fear, and finally fully go back to trusting in our own judgement – or do we want to stop all of this, cut the chord and mind our own business, stick to what we know and decide to leave each other the fuck alone forever and ever? Because anything else outside of that choice, anything else we do now, right now, will only drive us all into the ground.”

“For real.” David sighed looking to Henrik who was looking very relieved that his interrogation had turned out this way himself. “Someone gets it.”

Reed wrung out his rag. “Oh, more than just one. You can remember this, or you can forget it. It’s up to you, but I'm only going to say it once. Axel de Klaark's Sanguine have found their way home. We are here. Tell your friends.”

The door banged open hard, making Jed slop his water with a start, and a red-faced boy waited to speak. “Jennifer said she'll cut your dick off and feed it to the pigs if you don't move your arse right this minute.” He beamed, pleased with passing the message on, verbatim. A yell from down the corridor compounded the urgency of his message.

“Well that's my cue.” He sat, staring into space for a few seconds, processing. “Your Axel's that Axel? The Boy Prince? That old tale? The last singer I heard said he’d been eaten by a bear.”

Jed barely managed to keep a retort to himself. “Close. He's made it back from that though, and you can sing your wee’n a new version. And do me this favour now that you owe me. If you see Sal, tell her to come home. Green eyes, red hair. You'll know her when you see her. You'll know her when you sing her a song about who it was you tried to kill but couldn't with that pipe of yours. Reed'll see you all on your way safely, but do yourself a favour and stay on his good side. He’ll help you with pain relief for your good lady, and if you ask nicely, he’ll stitch up your ball-bag for you too. He's good, you can trust him. He's half the reason I can sit here with you now.”

Reed shot David a withering look. “Listen to him. Only half? The cheek of it.” He stood, rested from the chair and preparing his patient for sleep. “Are you going to rest like I told you to or am I knocking you out again?”

“Ah, not so fast.” It was Henrik who froze when David turned back to look. “What was the reward for your little task?” Dire at his father's interpretation a reflex forced a hand to the brand new ax at his belt. “Looks like you'll be going back to that shitty blunt kid's one for the time being.” The kid did indeed sneer sarcastically, leaving it on the vampire's sick bed, a little surprised to find him signing a sign, one of the only ones he'd picked up from Issané. “Better luck next time, eh?”


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