Illumination 7.5: Sludge

The next time Natalie saw Hatherly, he was smiling. “My apologies for not visiting you again. I had work to do.” He sat in a chair Tainter had left behind, the light shining up into his face from its place at his feet.

Natalie rose to her knees, resting her hands on her thighs. She’d torn her fingernails to the quick, but she didn’t want him to see that. She watched him warily. She’d seen plenty of Tainter and Malachi by now, and even of the Cambion Surge. They’d become, if not safe, at least predictable. And they had no expectations of her.

“I understand you’ve been busy, too,” Hatherly went on. “All that physical activity. It’s smart of you to keep in shape. So many people locked away from the world let themselves fall apart. Would you like to hear what I’ve been working on?” He waited for Natalie’s response.

She slowly nodded.

“You and your brother seriously damaged Gate, but a clever man can always see an opportunity in every setback. In this case, Gate’s template needed tweaking anyhow. I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it, until you damaged him.” Hatherly smiled again. “I’ve completed the basic updates, and he’s quite functional again.” He paused, apparently to see if Natalie had a reaction to this. But she felt dull and empty, as if his words were motes of dust in a vast chamber. “For the next stage, we need more korlathi material than this tower has on hand, but Surge has found another that should have a sufficient supply.”

Natalie stared at Hatherly for a long moment, until a question finally bubbled up from the sludge her brain felt trapped in. “Your cambions are part machine. How?”

Hatherly seemed pleased by the question. “Antecessor machines are strange things. Cambions aren’t too different from the creatures manufactured by the shattered towers. Once I understood that, everything else fell into place.”

Another thought crawled out of the darkness. “You think if you keep me here long enough, I’ll join you voluntarily, don’t you?”

“My girl, everybody voluntarily joins me. The problem is that most of them go too far. Their hearts are in the right place, but they don’t have what it takes. Maybe they weren’t strong enough.” He sighed. “But I’m always adjusting my training methods, just in case. Others will reach the point I’ve reached. It’s an evolutionary inevitability.”

A memory flashed and sparkled. Somebody had said something. “Whatever point you reached, I heard you aren’t there anymore.”

Hatherly’s face twitched. “That isn’t an appropriate topic of conversation!”

Natalie shrugged. “They’ve got to talk about something. None of us are watching the latest TV.”

Hatherly stared at her, his breathing heavy. Then it deepened, steadied. “The encounter in Detroit was challenging in more than one way. The Tanist’s betrayal, and the means we used to escape both hurt me. I don’t have the balance I had before. Sometimes punishing them seems very important, and my dream seems so hopeless…” He shook his head. “But I wrote everything down. I remember. Surge remembers, too. I have you now. I always knew I’d need more than myself.” He trailed off into silence, staring down at the light.

Natalie shifted uncomfortably, and brought her fingers to her mouth. When she tasted blood, she tucked her hand under her thigh.

Then he looked up, his eyes bright. “We’ll be moving you soon, to the new tower. I don’t think it would be nice to spring that on you, do you? But please don’t try to plan anything surprising, because we’re going to take all sorts of special precautions to ensure your safety.” He stood up.

Natalie remembered what Tainter said about anticipation and fear being important, and wondered if Hatherly believed what he was saying. She realized she’d much rather have Tainter in the room, not just because she was starting to predict him, but because of the way he treated her. It wasn’t pleasant, it was if she was a science experiment and he was a mad scientist. But when he watched her, he watched her. Hatherly seemed to be looking at a vision projected on an internal screen. No matter what she did, she couldn’t know how it would translate on the screen in his head. He would hurt her, and not even know that what he was doing caused pain.

She shuddered, and stretched out on the floor again, closing her eyes and waiting for him to go away.

One thought on “Illumination 7.5: Sludge

  1. I like the hints here; he sounds like he’s carrying forward a plan made when he was closer to … sanity? Being a hero? Being a villain, but a more justified one? something more sympathetic than he is now, anyway … and I think that that kind of thing is cool. People carrying forward plans they no longer have the capacity to fully understand are interesting, anyway! even if it winds up not being one of the specific things I just suggested.


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