Free Short Story – Hydros Rising Part 1
Parker attempted to dry their moist palm by wiping it down the leg of their standard issue blue overalls, which rubbed roughly against the well-used and rarely washed denim with the orange safety strip down the side, before they finally stepped up to the ID scanner.
They placed their hand on top of the scanner. The thick glass felt warm to the touch from the countless hands before theirs who had already checked into corridor seven of The Styx building.
Parker could feel their heart pounding throughout their body finding it difficult to believe the entire room couldn’t hear the rhythmic thrumming coming out from their chest. This is just another day; I have no reason to feel nervous.
This was, of course, a lie and was likely just the first of many lies they would need to tell themselves today.
“Morning Parker.” Said Hal. The green flashing light shone upwards, as the monitor began its scan of Parker’s palm. Hal was a tall bulky man with a pleasant smile who Parker had grown to like over the years. Parker hadn’t noticed before today, in this exact moment, just how much they sought out his entrance terminal.
“Morning Hal.” Parker said, hoping their voice seemed steadier than it felt, “Place seems extra busy this morning.” Parker hoped this conveyed just the right amount of annoyance one would expect from the inconvenience, as they wrapped their long dark hair into a tight bun on top of their head, securing it in place with a decorative yet functional shiny metal rod.
“Apparently, the company is transporting some important documents today, so everyone is on high alert.” Hal said nonchalantly. Obviously, Parker hadn’t been the first to ask him this same question.
Of course, Parker knew about the documents, it had been the reason for their rising blood pressure. Today would be the accumulation of months of meticulous planning which would finally give Hydros what they needed to fight back against The Styx and the unbridled power they held over the Aqua-lift.
What Hal didn’t truly understand was how much these documents would change the world if they fell into the right hands. Alternatively, in the wrong hands, it could be the end of all hope for, Hydros, and the resistance.
“Must be pretty important documents to warrant this kind of security.” Parker said trying to laugh casually as they gestured around the room at the numerous armed guards that stood at every entrance. None of this should have surprised Parker. But discussing a plan and seeing the reality of so many guns in one place did little to calm the nerves.
“Imagine all the security you can’t see.” Hal said, leaning in to whisper to Parker. “If you ask me, I’d say they’re going a little overboard.” He said with a wink. “Nothing we can’t handle on our own.”
“You’re good enough for me Hal.” Parker said with a big smile. The ease of talking with Hal did wonders to calm their nerves, and Parker was rewarded with a large smile from Hal.
“You’re all set, Parker. Have a great day!” He added before prepping the ID scanner for the next employee.
Parker gave him a warm smile and made their way into the main entrance. They’d managed step one of the plan which by all accounts should be their easiest. Got in, check.
The plan from this point onward would be strictly theoretical.
“Be cool and be calm.” They whispered to themselves, a mantra of sorts that Parker had been trying to repeat all morning. But looking around the room at all the heavily armed people did little to ease their stomach. Even though step two was simply to work as per usual until step three – get everyone else into the building.
“Would all Styx employees make their way to the auditorium immediately.” Said a soothing female voice over the loudspeakers.
Parker quickly looked around the room and wasn’t surprised to see the confused expressions of their fellow workers. This wasn’t ‘as per usual’ in any way and certainly didn’t help to keep Parker on their “plan”. Looking around they tried to find someone who might be able to give them answers.
Following the herd of people making their way towards the large amphitheatre, they were excited to see Tariq, their subsection leader, walking just ahead of them. Running over they placed a hand on Tariq’s shoulder, causing him to flintch at the touch.
“Waters be damned, Parker!” Tariq said, sucking in a deep breath as he turned to face them.
“Tariq, what in high tides is this about?” Skipping the pleasantries, “I need to get started on that L8 gear upgrade if they want it up and running by the end of the day.” Parker said, trying their best to sound frustrated. It wasn’t a lie, so the words came out easily enough. Parker had scheduled the upgrade for today, but they weren’t exactly planning on updating the gear. That gear would be fine for a couple more months. It was the basement engine room, and time alone down there that they really needed. The L8 gear just gave them the necessary cover.
“Not sure what to tell you, Parker.” Tariq said with a shrug of his shoulders. “They’ve asked everyone to come to the amphitheatre, no exceptions.” He said turning to give them a steady glare.
“But how the hell am I supposed to do my job if…” Parker began, but was quickly cut off.
“Which part of no exceptions do you not understand?” He said with a laugh. “I’m sure this won’t be more than an hour and then I promise you will have ample time to do your job, Parker.”
An hour? Parker thought as they looked down at their watch. Parker’s team was scheduled to come arrive in an hour and 20 mins using the subbasement gas tubes. It was the perfect cover as no one would suspect anyone to be dumb enough to travel through a pipeline carrying toxic gas.
It might end up killing them all anyway if Parker couldn’t lift the hatch and let them in.
“I need to go to the bathroom. Can you cover for me, Tariq?” Parker said giving their boss a sympathetic smile. “Please.”
“Parker this meeting is mandatory.” He said with a sigh.
“And I’ll be there. I promise. Honestly, I just need to run to the bathroom.” They said pleadingly.
“Fine go. But don’t make me regret this.” He said forcefully.
“Thanks, boss.” Parker said knowing the term would sit well with their friend. They felt a pang of guilt leaving him, but they needed to send out a message and there was only one way to do it.
Luckily for Parker, they’d planned a contingency for a scenario like this. Over the past few months, they’d been slowly smuggling in small parts and meticulously building a tiny device for just this purpose.
But none of that would matter if they couldn’t reach the device. Parker had been taking a risk bringing in the pieces and so they had stored them in the one place they thought they would have a modicum of privacy. Unfortunately, that location currently felt like it was miles away, in Subsection B bathrooms.
Parker moved efficiently through the halls knowing their route through the building like the back of their hand, figuring they could have got there blindfolded, though now wasn’t the opportunity to test the theory.
“Would all Styx employees make their way to the auditorium immediately.” repeated the feminine-sounding voice once again through the loudspeaker.
It was already weird enough when they’d been moving against the flow of bodies, but now that they were on their own and without any great reason to be there it would be hard to explain.
Which Parker became painfully aware of the fact, after hearing footsteps down the hall around the corner. It was a stroke of luck that Parker heard the step before they hit the intersection. Just to be sure, Parker stopped, confirming the sound was real and not just their heart beating in their head.
Not only were they real but they were getting louder. Without thinking Parker tucked themselves into a little nearby alcove, which would block them should someone look down the hall but not if whoever was walking decided to come down Parker’s hallway.
The footsteps were getting closer and there was no doubt in Parkers mind they were the heavy steps of a paroling guard with their thick rubber soles. Less than five minutes in and I’m already relying on luck!
Mercifully the patrol turned away from Parker, and their footsteps began receding down the opposite hall. Parker allowed themselves to let out a sigh of relief. That was until they remembered the security camera plastered throughout the halls. What must I look like sulking around the building?
Parker tried to remind themselves that this was not a crime. It was simply someone wishing to use a comfortable bathroom. Sure, I planned on committing a crime later but that was later.
Parker brushed themselves off and took a deep breath as they began to walk with purpose down the hallway. They would soon be at the bathroom, all they needed to do was make it down through the next door and up to the level two landing.
Parker’s heart was beating so heavily in their ears that they had to remind themselves more than once that it wasn’t an alarm going off. Their palms practically slid off the door as they pushed their way through and began dashing up the stairwell.
Reaching the top of the landing they nearly choked when they suddenly forgot which way to turn at the top. Left, or right? Dammit Parker you know this.
Parker sucked in a deep breath and took a beat to calm their nerves. But that was all they needed. So much for blindfolded! Dammit Parker, think! … Left!
They pushed their way through another set of swinging doorways and were rewarded when they spotted the bathroom they’d been looking for at the end of the hallway.
Walking into the bathroom, Parker took a second to breathe, sucking in long, deep breaths. Their eyes winced at the large white fluorescent lit room, as Parker walked up between the row of toilet stalls, they counted each stall on the left-hand side until they reached the sixth stall. Opening the door, they stepped in locking the door behind them.
The stench of the toilet exploded into Parker’s nostrils. The term toilet had been a lost term for the hole in the ground that sank forty feet below the building. Essentially whatever went down there was lost forever unless you wanted to travel to the sewage level and rummage through what could only be described as mountains of shit.
Eventually, people would access the lower portal and use the human excrements for soil and composting but by then whatever you’d dropped would be forgotten.
Pulling out a small knife Parker picked away at a small tile on the back wall. With a little skill they managed to pry the grimy white tile, revealing a small hole behind it. Reaching in, Parker’s hand wrapped around a small device which barely took up more room than their outstretched palm.
Checking over the tiny device, Parker couldn’t help but feel proud. In their hand, they held months of detailed work to make a one-way transmitter directly linked to the Hydros control board. The little beauty in their hand could let their team know they need to delay by one hour and hopefully by that time everything could still work out. So much time and planning had gone into this that it was shocking to believe that it could all be dismantled by something so unexpecting as a surprise meeting.
There was only one issue with the device. Parker had never reassembled it before so there was no way of knowing if it would actually work. It had in the past before they’d disassembled the device, but it had never had to travel as far as it did right now. It will work. It has to.
Reaching behind their head Parker pulled out the thin metal rod which they’d kept stylishly propped in their bun for months. It was the only piece they needed, and they began to attach the rod to the transmitter. With that in place, they crossed their fingers and switched on the device.
With a slight hum and a short beep, the device flashed on. Parker afforded themselves the smallest celebration, just as the door to the washroom swung open.
“Is anyone in here?” Called an authoritative voice from the entrance of the bathroom.
Parker sucked in a breath as if the intruder would be able to hear them breathing. The fright caused them to fumble with the device, but Parker managed to secure it before it slipped from their grasps and fell down the black hole, hurtling both it and them into a mountain of shit. They quickly began to run over their options, which seemed limited, calling out and acknowledging their presence or stay quiet and hope the guard leaves.
As if designed to torture them, the transmitter let off a second beep causing Parker to silently curse under their breath.
“I know someone is in here. All employees are to be escorted to the auditorium immediately.” Said the voice.
“Sorry. Yes. I just need a minute.” Parker said as they began thumbing around with the device.
“I’m going to have to ask you to step out and come with me.” Said the guard.
Parker checked the device which appeared to be working. They would need only a few seconds to send the message.
“Just a minute please.” Parker said, hoping their voice wasn’t as shaky as their hands. They pressed frantically at the buttons imputing what they hoped would be a bare minimum for a message they would comprehend. Each button felt painful as they heard the heavy footsteps of the guard walk towards the stall.
“Whoever you are, I’m going to have to ask you to step out of there immediately.” the voice seemed less patient with each step. Only a few seconds longer.
“I’ll be out in two seconds.” Parker said their breathing getting heavier. The footsteps stopped just outside of Parker’s stall. The looming presence threatened entry at any moment.
“I’ll give you to the count of ten, nine, eight.” The numbers came quicker than Parker would have expected.
Unlocking the transmitter box, Parker pressed down on the green send button until the three sensor lights switched from flashing yellow to one of them a solid green. Parker would need all three lights green for the message to send. “five, four,” the voice continued outside the door. Parker could feel the sweat beginning to bead on their face. The second light appears in front of Parker.
“two,” the third spot remained empty, and Parker assumed that whoever was standing outside the stall door could hear the beating of their heart.
“one” The guard called out just as the final light flashed green. Without thinking, Parker dropped the device down the toilet praying that the message had gotten through, just as the door smashed inward.
Parker fiddled around with the buckles on their overalls as the black clade guard with shining matte black helm stood in front of them.
“Come out.” The guard said, the shining reflection of the face shield depicted nothing but Parker’s spindly body and now loose flowing hair in front of them.
Parker stepped out and instinctually raised their arms.
“Why didn’t you come out when I called?” The guard asked harshly.
“You ever try going in one of these?” Parker said with as much cheek as they were willing to muster in that moment. “Besides I hadn’t expected to do this with company.” they added with an awkward laugh.
The guard stuck their head into the stall looking down the cavernous hole and then to the missing tile from the back wall which was now laying the floor.
“What happened here?” Said the voice pointing to the tile on the ground.
“Not sure” Parker said with a shrug “it was like that when I got in.” they added hastily. The guard appeared to be examining Parker from head to foot though their face was masked. “Excuse me but since when was going to the washroom a crime in this building.” Parker said crossing their arms defensively. The Guard seemed to snap upright, taken aback.
“We’re under strict instruction that all employees must be in the auditorium. I’m simply following my orders.” The guard shot back.
“Well, I was simply following the orders of mother nature which insisted I relieve myself now and not in a room full of my peers.” Parker said, their confidence beginning to build with each interaction now that they’d accomplished what they needed.
Parker didn’t have to see the guard’s face to know that they were annoyed by Parker’s abrasiveness and seemed to stand there waiting, almost baiting Parker to continue so that they might find further reasons to question them. But Parker knew better than to press their luck and remained resolved to simply stare back defiantly.
“Follow me.” The guard finally said as they turned to walk ahead of Parker, who glanced one last time at the hole, sending out a silent prayer that their message would be received in time.
With any luck, the message will be delivered, and arrangements would be made to adjust the plan.
Parker felt a strange combination of nausea and pride as they were being escorted from the restroom to the auditorium and slowly began wrapping their hair back up in a bun. Their hair didn’t need the metal rod to hold it in place, it was simply a style Parker had wanted to try. Their hair was by no means thick, well not voluminous thick, more like thick and coarse from the continuous dry shampoo regiment anyone below a Class Two citizen was used to having.
When Parker was first approached for this assignment, they hadn’t loved the idea that the operation hinged on their ability to not mess it up. Had it not been for Nalla who’d had asked them personally to take on the mission, they likely wouldn’t have. Everyone understood you didn’t say no to Nalla.
“I want Parker on this assignment.” Nalla said to the small gathering of seven Hydros members Nalla had selected for this meeting.
Up until this point Parker had remained quietly observing in the back corner, trying to figure out why on earth they were even there in the first place.
“Me?” Parker whispered from their corner.
“Hell no.” Someone Parker knew only as Hector said from their position across the table from Nalla. “Absolutely not. Parker is just a kid.” This received a couple of nods from Dale and Gigi who were seated at the table as well. Vince who Parker had only talked to briefly, stood silently in the opposite corner. Which left Ant who also remained neutral, while they scribbled away in their notebook.
“This isn’t a damned negotiation Hector, Parker might be young now but we have no idea when we will need them. Having someone with their experience on the inside will be invaluable.”
“With all due respect Nalla, what experience in the dry sands of Erie does the kid have? They’ve only worked in The Styx for what, a year?” Dale said shaking his head.
“Fourteen months and seventeen days.” Parker said quietly.
“What?” Dale said shooting Parker a look.
“Their saying they’ve been there for longer than a fucken year Dale. Which I might add is fourteen months and…” Nalla looked over at Parker.
“Seventeen—” Parker started
“Seventeen days longer than everyone else in this room.” Nalla said slapping the table for effect.
“But not as long as some of the other engineers we have in our ranks Nalla.”
“No one with their access to the Subsection B Mechanical room! We all know that access point has the highest chance of success especially if anything goes wrong. Any other point and we risk dying before we even get there!” Nalla shouted.
“I admit proximity to the access point is valuable but it’s not everything.” Hector said as they raised their palms in a calming gesture, which appeared to have the opposite affect they’d wanted on Nalla. “Look all I’m saying is we can use Parker’s skills to get a sense of the design of the Aqua-lift. To get us one step closer to figuring out how the damned machine produces water. But this assignment is too important for someone so…”
“Young?” Dale interjected.
“I was going to say inexperienced.” Hector said “But yes young. I’m sorry Parker.”
“I’m not entirely sure why the hell you’re apologizing to Parker, Hector. In case you’ve forgotten I’ve brought you into this meeting as a curtesy, this is my operation I’ll be the one taking the risk going in and I believe Parker is just the person we need on the inside. They are committed, smart and knowledgeable. All of which they will only get better with over time.”
“Dammit Nalla we don’t know if we have time, and you’re not the only one taking a risk! Me and Vince are going in with you.” Dale said point towards Vince who still hadn’t said anything.
“You said it yourself, we don’t know when this operation is going to happen. Would you have the same faith in Parker if the information we need turns up say…next week?” Gigi said looking at everyone in the room but Parker.
“Dale, you signed up for this operation knowing I was going to pick the team, if you don’t like my decision you can leave.” Nalla said.
“You know I won’t.”
“Then I suggest you shut the hell up. Vince? What do you think?”
“I think the kids a lot smarter than me.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Can I say something?” Parker said stepping forward so they could see everyone in the room except Ant who was still scribbling in their notebook. Nalla gave Parker a comforting nod.
“It’s just with respect you’re all talking about me like I’m not here. And I am. Just like all of you. I have my reasons, just like all of you. Nalla is the one who pulled me out from the shadows and showed me the truth about our world, made me aware of how we can make it better. She trusted me enough to bring me into Hydros, with all of you. She trusted my knowledge about the Aqua-lift. The Styx took everything from me, from many of us. So, if Nalla thinks this is important then I am willing to do whatever it takes to make sure this operation is a success.” Parker didn’t know if they’d changed anyone’s mind as they tucked themselves back into the corner, but they did get a thankful nod from Nalla and to their surprise Vince.
“Gigi, you asked me if I trust Parker? You bet your dusty ass I do.”
“I’ll show you who’s too young.” Parker mumbled to themselves.
“What?” The guard asked.
Parker looked up confused, realizing the guard was asking them a question.
“What?” Parker replied, their brows furrowed.
“I said, what were you doing so far from the auditorium?” The masked guard asked, letting out an exaggerated sigh. The sudden reminder that they had just nearly been caught sent a wave of nausea through their system.
“Sorry. I needed to use the restroom.” Parker replied, the first part of the sentence getting caught in the back of their throat. The guard stopped and turned to face them.
“And you couldn’t find one closer?” The masked figure said, though Parker didn’t need to see the guards face to catch the hint of suspicion.
“That’s my section’s restroom.” Parker said slowly, “I’ve never used any other restroom.” This wasn’t a lie. Most employees didn’t explore past their section. It avoided all opportunities for questions. “I shouldn’t have to explain to you how much The Styx don’t like people moving between sections.” Parker said, strategically leaving out their hyper protectiveness of all Aqua-lift designs and the rumours that more than one employee had disappeared when they were “caught” trying to discover anything operational outside of their subsection. The only people allowed to move freely through the entirety of the building were high-level operations specialists, armed guards and rodents. All of whom Parker tried to avoid.
“No, you don’t” the guard offered tightly as they turned on their heels and began walking back down the hallway. Parker let out a sigh of relief and allowed a sneaky smile.
Both the guard and Parker remained silent for the remainder of the trip to the amphitheatre. When they finally reached the doors which would lead to the Subsection B’s seating, the guard stopped and placing one hand to their ear, as they stopped Parker with the other.
“Name and position?” Asked the guard in a tone that demanded an answer.
“Parker Drake, Subsection B, maintenance engineer.” Parker said cautiously as the guard repeated the information into the com.
“Stand there.” The voice said drily as they moved beside the door.
Parker stopped a few paces from the door, where the guard had pointed, waiting to be told what to do next. In their rather limited experience, it seemed better to let the guards control the situation rather than try and take the lead. They didn’t seem to enjoy it when they weren’t “in charge”.
Parker couldn’t hear anything but assumed the guard was waiting on an order, whatever the presentation was it must have started. Maybe they are waiting to lead me in without interruption?
After a moment the guard opened the auditorium doors and waved Parker through. Thankful for the fact they were no longer escorted by an armed guard Parker moved silently into the space, but if Parker thought they were moving towards their seat, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
A light shone so brightly on Parker, it momentarily blinded them.
“We have our first volunteer.” Said a cold voice from over the speakers. Parker recognized the voice but had trouble believing it could be him. They’d heard the voice every day since joining The Styx welcoming all employees into the building then saying the company motto “We rise up to help it fall.” Repeatedly.
Parker’s eyes began to adjust to the sudden rush of light, revealing their worst nightmare. They were standing in the aisle looking directly at the empty stage save for two chairs, one of which was occupied by the CEO and founder of The Styx, Edward Joist. The single most terrifying man Parker had never had the privilege of meeting and had wished they never would. This isn’t happening.
Parker looked around the auditorium praying this was all some sort of misunderstanding. Reality began to sink in as they walked deeper into the vast room. Even though the room was now filled with clapping people, every eye that Parker met with was filled with either sympathy, or joy that it was not them going up there.
Parker looked around frantically, until locking eyes with Tariq who simply mouthed the words “I’m sorry” as they continued the perilous walk to the front of the stage.
They were met at the foot of the stage by a young woman who quickly attached a small microphone to Parker’s jumpsuit and moved out of the way leaving only the stairs to climb up.
Parker paused. At the base of the steps, the realization dawned on them that they could be walking into a trap. Do they know I tried to send a message? Did they intercept it or something and now they are doing this elaborate show to make an example of me so future employees know not to ever cross The Styx?
Parker’s legs felt weak, no longer able to lift their foot, as if being held in place by some invisible magnet. They imagined running away and getting shot down by one of the many guards placed strategically at each entrance, in front of everyone. Parker looked up at Edward Joist who seemed almost disarming with his toothy grin and hand out to welcome them to the stage. When was the last time Edward Joist came to The Styx’s to speak? Why would he be coming today?
The fear of these unknown answers to these questions built the dread in Parker’s body which did little to help their immobility.
“Someone seems nervous.” Edward said into the microphone, “Let’s all give Parker a warm welcome.” He said as he began to clap along with the rest of the auditorium.
The rush of applause did little help but somehow Parker managed to take the first step up to the stage. There was little else they could do now being so close to the belly of the beast. It was time to dive in and see what this was all about.
With another deep breath, Parker carried themselves up to the top of the stage where they were met by Edward’s outstretched hand.
Parker imagined him pulling them in and whispering ‘I know what you’re up to’ as guards surrounded the stage ready to make an example of the traitor.
But as Parker took the outstretched hand it was met with another disarming smile and a firm handshake.
“Thank you for volunteering, Parker from Subsection B.” He said graciously.
“I did—” Parker stopped themselves realizing what had happened. There was no way, this man had any idea of who Parker was, of the thousands of workers in the auditorium they were likely in the bottom ten percent of people who he would know. There was no way he would have had all this information on them had it not been provided by someone else. The guard?
The truth slowly began to piece together like the cogs in one of their machines. This was a punishment, a way to control the narrative. Parker had shown up late to the meeting, and since no one in their right mind would willingly volunteer to get on stage with someone so notably ruthless. Someone had seized the opportunity with Parker, their late attendance making them the perfect victim.
The nauseating feeling washed over Parker again as they began to grapple with the idea of sitting on stage with a man they’d been fixated on destroying. Would he see right through me?
“Have a seat, Parker.” Edward said graciously. Parker sat uncomfortably on the plush seat provided. They began to sweat despite the cool breeze being swept in from the numerous fans. Pull it together Parker.
“I appreciate you… it… the seat. I mean.” Parker’s words came out in a flurry, their brain unable to process what was happening. Their face began turning beet red and they could feel the sweat beginning to race down their back. “I’m sorry.” Parker added wincing as if at any moment this man might strike them.
“It’s fine, I’m sure you must be nervous.” Edward said innocently, and instead of the blow Parker had been preparing for, felt a gentle hand begin to pat the top of theirs, which had been gripping the side of the seat. The gentleness of the act caught Parker off guard.
Despite their fear of being so close to the man they’d pegged as an enemy for so long, Parker couldn’t help but smile and for a brief instant felt a wave of calmness at his touch.
“I am.” Parker said, letting out a heavy breath.
“There’s no reason for that. As I was saying—” Edward began as he turned his chest out to the room and began addressing the entire amphitheatre. Parker couldn’t believe how anyone could be so confident with so many eyes on them. It was taking everything in their power not to shrivel up into a small ball right there on the stage.
“The Styx corporation has been a leader in water preservation, sustainability and distribution for over twenty years now.” Edward continued, the words not ringing as true to Parker as it seemed to be for Edward. His idea of preservation, sustainability and distribution was vastly different from theirs. This man had founded The Styx and almost overnight had created a demand so high that countries seemed to bend to his will if only to get a smattering of water. Those that complied with his demands flourished – to an extent – while those that didn’t suffered.
No matter how disarming he made Parker feel they needed to remind themselves of what they were doing at The Styx and what the larger picture was. This man was not the answer but the root of all the problems in the world and there was only one way to save humanity and that was to destroy what he had built.
“We’ve built Aqua-lifts in eight strategic locations around the world, and we continue to provide the world with nearly eighty-seven percent of its drinkable water.” That got a round of applause from the employees despite many of them having to live off the measly rations in place to “sustain” water development. As it was, no one in their right mind wouldn’t clap at anything this man said, even Parker found their hands clapping as loud as everyone else.
“Thank you. And as you are all aware we have something in the works today which will secure our rightful place at the top of water distribution throughout the world.” Edward continued as another round of applause came from the audience.
Parker couldn’t help but smile knowing that this was exactly what they had been sent to help Hydros steal. Anything this man wanted to keep hidden would no doubt be the key to freedom. Listening to Edward speak now simply gave Parker the courage, and the reassurance that they were doing the right thing. The rush of excitement of being right under his nose suddenly gave them the courage to sit a little straighter. They would play their part well and when everything was said and done they would still be the one smiling.
Edward turned to face Parker whose smile began to faulter as they now came face to face with the man they were determined to destroy.
“Parker.” He said slowly, “How long have you been a contributor at The Styx Corporation?” His voice was even but showed just enough intrigue to make someone feel special. One thing was for sure, this man had a gift.
“I’ve contributed for four years.” three of which have been in service to your enemies, Parker thought smugly.
“How have you enjoyed your contribution?” He asked his voice gracious as ever.
“It’s been the best job I’ve ever had.” Parker said. This also wasn’t a lie. The Styx was the only industry that provided additional water rations to their employees, which is to say they had it marginally better than people not working for The Styx. This had also been Parker’s first real job having finished their engineering training at The Institute.
“Well, I’m happy to hear that. We are lucky to have some of the greatest minds working for us here at The Styx Corporation.” Edward said, giving the last bit out to the whole room who rewarded him with another round of applause.
“Your family must be very proud of you.” Edward said with a smile. The words hit Parker like a sack of bricks. Parker’s family had died when they had been a child.
“My parents were Class four sir. They died of dehydration when I was a baby.” Parker said, unable to look up from the fixed spot on the floor. It wasn’t uncommon for Class four families to lose one of their parents to dehydration. Their lives had become so worthless in the eyes of the Class one citizens that no one seemed to notice hundreds of them dying every year.
Parker would have likely died had it not been for the woman they now called Mom. Daphanie had lost her husband and daughter in the water riots that had ravaged the country just twelve years before. Through some stroke of luck, she found Parker on the street shortly after. Parker had been ten at the time, the same age as Daphanie’s daughter when she’d died. Thinking it was some sort of sign she took Parker in. Parker wasn’t about to share their whole sob story to a room full of people.
“But my adopted mother is very proud.” Parker said with a sad smile.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Parker.” Edward said, and when Parker looked into his eyes, they almost believed him. “Tell me, when you think about the future of The Styx Corporation Parker, what is it you would like you to see?” Edward asked leaning in closer. Your death.
Parker suddenly felt the weight of the room on them. This was not a question they wanted to answer. The truth would only get them killed and a lie would be too painful. The fact of the matter was that The Styx had single-handedly destroyed the life Parker might have had with their family. It ruined Daphanie’s too, taking her daughter and husband from her. The Styx was the architect of so much suffering in the world that it would be difficult to believe any one thing could fix it.
Parker thought it over for a long moment, eventually looking out over the crowd wishing maybe one of them had an answer they could share with Parker. After a few long moments, Parker took a deep breath and said the only thing they could think of.
“I want to see more water.” Parker said almost willing it to be true. It was the hope and dream of everyone in the building and they knew that.
The answer must have pleased Edward who once again shared a toothy grin as he clasped Parker’s hand in his and he almost whispered.
“If everything goes to plan today, you may very well get what you want,” he said gently.
If everything goes to plan today, I think I will too. Parker thought giving the man they despised most in the world a genuine smile.
The presentation lasted another forty-five minutes and was chock full of Styx propaganda about the betterment of all communities and the longevity of humanity on earth. The entire thing made Parker sick to their stomach and did little to dissuade them from their mission.
They’d played the obedient worker well, clapping when they needed to clap, another sheep in the field of sheep. All the while Parker kept a wary eye on their watch as each minute that ticked by was another alteration to their plan.
After they’d all been dismissed Parker wasted no time, skipping any attempts at small chat. They had nearly made it out of the auditorium when they were stopped by Tariq who’d placed a hand on their shoulder stopping Parker in their tracks.
“I’m sorry, that must have been hard.” He said, giving Parker a sympathetic smile.
“Not as hard as the wasted time that presentation took up.” Parker said, scanning their watch again. If the transmission was sent it meant they still had one hour and fifteen minutes to open the security tunnel and let their team in. That was assuming the new timing would match with the guard rotation in the area. The unexpected shift in plans made Parker’s stomach turn. The one clear thing from the presentation was that if they didn’t succeed today Hydros was unlikely to ever get another chance to undermine The Styx, not without more… extreme tactics.
“Well, I wish everyone on my team had the same desire to get back to work as you do Parker.” Tariq said gesturing to the herds of people gathered around prattling. “I swear it will be another forty-five minutes before people manage to get back to work.” His voice was tense even as he let out a laugh.
Parker had always felt badly for Tariq. The man’s job relied heavily on everyone around him doing theirs. Being on top meant knowing more about Subsection B, which was more information on the Aqua-lift, which was more pressure to not speak to anyone or else risk being fired… or worse.
“I, for one, am just ready for this day to be over.” Tariq said, letting out a heavy sigh. Looking at Tariq now Parker seemed to see him. There were dark bags under his eyes and a tightness in his shoulders as he glanced around the room. The mass occupation of guards didn’t seem to help matters either.
“Do you know what they are moving today?” Parker tried to ask innocently. Tariq seemed to flinch at the question as if being struck by an invisible switch.
“No, I don’t. I don’t want to, and neither should you.” His words were tight as he eyed the room making sure no one was listening.
The truth was no one seemed to have an answer for what The Styx was moving. There had been many guesses but the two that seemed to be most common were either blueprints to the original Aqua-lift or details to the location of Dr. Liu’s Lost laboratory which he’d infamously named Shangri-la.
“It’s hard not to be at least a bit interested.” Parker said quietly.
“I would highly recommend you find yourself less interested, Parker.” Tariq’s gaze seemed to burrow in, willing Parker to stop talking. Parker nodded, their eyes fixed on his.
Parker could hardly call Tariq a friend. It was difficult to have friends in The Styx. Everyone was too tight-lipped for fear of being labelled a betrayer. But Tariq had always been kind to Parker ever since they had arrived. Tariq had always done his best to help Parker and had more than once offered them a promotion which Parker had always rejected. There was a general fear within The Styx, that knowing to much might have its advantages, but it was also not without danger. Knowledge here was not in fact power. Besides, Parker was right where they needed to be to be the most useful to Hydros.
As Parker watched the fear in Tariq’s eyes fade away, they couldn’t help but wonder what their betrayal would mean for this man. Tariq is oblivious to my plans and yet when everything was said and done would he be blamed for letting me hide right under his nose?
Parker shook the thought from their mind. It was too late to be thinking about these things. Looking at their watch, they clocked one hour and ten minutes until the hatch needed to be opened. This was what they needed to focus on.
“I should get to Sub B and begin the upgrade on the L8 gear.” Parker said as they turned to exit the auditorium, but they didn’t make it very far before a guard stepped in front of them cutting off their exit.
“You need to come with me.” Said the voice hidden behind the dark mask. Parker began to shake involuntarily.
“I need to get down to Sub B to —” They began.
“You need to come with me. Now.” Said the authoritative voice, and without waiting for a response turned on their heels and began exiting the amphitheatre. Parker followed, one agonizing step after another but risked turning to take a final look back at Tariq as if he might be able to help them. His solemn eyes simply watched as they exited.
Parker followed the guard moving at a brisk pace through the maze of corridors. How could anyone know where they were going in this place?
They’d long since left the common hallway and they were certainly not heading towards Subsection B. Parker couldn’t help but look around the hallways in fascination. Four years they had worked here and never once had they been anywhere outside of the commons or Subsection B.
The walk was giving Parker too much time to think about where they might be going and why. The most obvious scenario was that they had been discovered and they were now being led to be beaten and tortured until they gave up their accomplices. Parker wondered if they could manage to get the gun off the guard and make a run for it. How far could I get?
But seeing as they had no idea where they were or how to get out, not to mention the fact the building was littered with armed guards it was unlikely they would survive two hall lengths.
This meant their only logical course of action was to risk following the guard until they knew exactly what was going on. Yet, they couldn’t help but wonder just how much time was being wasted on this little detour. Today of all days!
Walking down another seemingly arbitrary hallway they reached a steel wall where the guard stopped and waited.
“Where exactly am I going?” Parker asked tentatively, tired of the stifling silence. When the guard didn’t answer they continued, “You see. I should really get to work on this L8 upgrade. If it’s not done soon the risk of failure would be high and the delays could be days.” Not that any of this mattered. The machine was working perfectly. They just really wanted to not be here.
“You’ll have plenty of time to fix it.” The voice said, not bothering to turn around. Parker was about to protest when the wall of metal suddenly parted as two steel doors slid open revealing a circular room with and addition five identical steel doors all of which were closed. The only evidence that the doors were even there was the faint darkened lines Parker was able to pick out surrounding the doors.
“Step inside.” Said the guard opening their body and guiding Parker in with their arms.
“Are you not coming?” was all Parker could think of asking. The guard shook their head.
“He’s waiting. The elevator with take you up.” The guard said, using his hand to push Parker into the round room. Before Parker had the chance to argue or ask any more questions the steel doors shut behind them. The room was shiny, and Parker was able to see their reflection in the steel as they placed a hand on the cold metal door. The room felt too small to be in and with no open exit, Parker began to wonder if they would ever get out.
That’s when the sinking feeling kicked into their gut along with a wave of nausea that rushed up to the bottom of their throat threatening to expel what little food they’d eaten that morning all over the cramped space. They barely managed to keep it inside as Parker braced themselves against the nearest steel wall, and the sensation of them being pressed into the ground by some invisible force gripped their body.
Parker had once been in something described as an elevator though its slow and bumpy nature offered a different kind of fear from the current terror that hung like a dark cloud over them now, as the contraption soared through space effortlessly as if it might never end.
Parker hadn’t been counting but the trip must have taken at least a couple minutes. Each agonizing moment was complete with nausea and an endless battle to keep their knees from giving out. Finally, Parker arrived at what they prayed was the top.
A light pleasant chime rang from some discrete speakers in the ceiling as all five sets of steel doors opened revealing five independent doorways, at once. Each one displaying a different section of one giant and magnificent circular room. This must be the final stop which means it can only be one place.
Through one of the portals, Edward Joist stood confidently off to one side of the room holding a crystal glass filled with clear fresh water. He turned slowly to face Parker who sheepishly peered in through the entryway into the room.
“Parker, so great to see you again.” Edward’s soothing tone filled the room as he gestured for Parker to enter. “Give yourself a moment my friend. The first ride in the lift is always the hardest.” He chuckled.
Parker, wished that Edward Joist could have been anyone else so that they might be able to respond with any number of profanities, but he wasn’t. Instead, they forced themselves to take a moment to steady their legs, tentatively taking one wobbly step after another towards a waiting Edward Joist. Parker wondered if this man knew that in both of their encounters thus far Parker was effectively forced to be in his presence. Does he truly know the power he has over the people of this world, and just enjoys playing willfully blind?
“Nice to see you too.” Parker lied, stopping halfway between Edward and the elevator, unsure of what they should be doing.
Parker looked around the room, at least the parts they could see, for the first time taking in the truly spectacular sight. Every detail of the space had been meticulously curated to highlight the panoramic view of the entire Aqua-lift facility and the surrounding city. Both the good parts and the bad.
Even from Parkers vantage point, they knew how astonishing it was. Like most people, Parker had only seen the Aqua-lift from ground level. The facility was over five kilometers in diameter consisting of five divisions and twenty subsections. At the heart was the ‘Eye’, a saucer shaped room nearly eight kilometres in the air, which is where Parker assumed they must be now.
The Eye was the highest point in the city. It was the primary connection point for the hundreds of kilometres of thick cords which travelled from the ground to the Eye before continuing up into the lower thermosphere where it connected with an orbital ring. The Eye itself was key in the primary control system which allowed the Aqua-lift to function and therefore manufacture water.
Like everything else, it was a closely guarded network of secrets that only one person, the man standing in front of Parker, knew about. As far as Parker understood, they’d never heard of anyone going into the Eye before, least of all a simple engineer.
“Water?” said the cool voice of a person, who Parker hadn’t noticed, now stepping out of the shadows and promptly pouring a large glass of water into another crystal glass before handing it out for Parker to take before they could even answer.
“Thank you Cliff.” Edward said nodding to Cliff, who gave a curt nod himself before disappearing back into the shadows. “If you require anything else Cliff here is the man to ask, he is truly one of a kind.”
“Thank you sir.” Cliff said taking a place again off to the side.
Hesitantly Parker reached for the glass, the five hundred milliliter glass equal to a quarter of a day’s ration for any Class three citizen like Parker. Looking from the glass to the pitcher, Parker couldn’t help but stare wide-eyed at the exorbitant amount of water in the room.
“Cheers.” Edward said, holding up his own glass and taking a generous gulp of water before setting the glass down on the table in front of him.
Parker raised their glass but only managed a reserved sip of the cool liquid, unable to shake their trained habit of water preservation. Something they presumed the man before them had never had to do.
“Please, have a seat.” Edward said gesturing to the set of leather couches between them. He took a seat in one, his comfort in the space carried into the casual way he rested on the expensive furniture. Parker on the other hand began to feel very self-conscious of the well-used overalls they were wearing. The patchy fabric was in bleak contrast to the couch’s elegant leather.
Noticing the pained expression of Cliff now standing at attention behind his employer, Parker opted to sit as close to the edge of the couch as humanly possible so as not to ‘ruin it’.
“Excuse me sir. With all due respect, why am I here?” Parker asked hesitantly as they risked taking a more generous sip of water. The cool liquid hitting their dry lips felt unbelievably wonderful.
Edward laughed as he refilled his own glass even before he had finished the previous one. The cavalier way he drank water simultaneously made Parker both angry and envious.
“You’re here Parker because you’ve caught my attention.” He said slowly, as he took a long drink from his glass. The words almost caused Parker to spit out their own precious drink. What could I have possibly done to warrant any type of attention from this man?
“You see Parker, after our little conversation this morning I had my recruitment team do some research on you. And what they found after pulling up your file was… surprising.” His brows lifted slightly as he leaned in towards Parker.
Parker tried to hide their concern. They had never seen their own file but couldn’t imagine what exactly he could have found. They doubted very much it said, ‘ties to Hydros’, in the middle of it.
“I see.” Parker said hoping it came across as confidence, “and what exactly did you find?” They said taking another sip of water. If this was to be their only glass, they would be damned sure to drink it all before he asked them to leave.
Edward began to laugh.
“I like you, Parker. Do you like me?” He said, somehow seeming to become even more relaxed on the couch.
Parker wasn’t quite sure how to answer this question. No, you are the greatest contributor to death and sadness in the world and you alone have the power to change it.
Something like that would likely get them escorted out of the building quicker than they could say ‘Thanks for the water’. Parker understood that underneath all his smiles was a cold-hearted bastard who would happily sit back and watch their family die a second time should Parker do anything to anger him.
“Hard to like a man you know so little about.” Parker offered cautiously. When he smiled at the response they risked adding. “Why? Should I like you?” This brought forth another laugh.
“Honesty is rarely something I see Parker. Up here in my little tower watching over…” He paused briefly before adding “well, humanity.” He smiled charismatically. “My own Mount Olympus.”
Did this man just compare himself to ancient gods?
Parker suddenly wished they could drown him in a bathtub of water, damn the cost. They wanted to make Joist suffer with the very thing he held so tightly over everyone. Parker quickly caught themselves, their white knuckled hand was wrapped so tightly around the crystal water glass, that Parker had to force themselves to loosen their grip for fear it might shatter.
“People think I’m a monster, that I don’t give the people enough. But this simply isn’t true, you see I give the people what they need.” His voice was firm and confident, “And I think you are one of those people who believe the former. Am I right… Parker?”
Parker froze unable to speak. Does he know? Is this my final drink before I disappeared forever?
Parker’s hand began to shake uncontrollably. They tried to hide it by taking another sip of water.
“Honesty now, Parker.” He said slowly. Parker began to nod slowly despite everything in them telling them not to respond. Edward smiled in return.
Parker looked at their watch. Forty-five minutes before they needed to open the latch, although at this rate it might be optimistic to believe they would survive to the end of this conversation.
“Have somewhere to be?” Edward asked noticing Parkers’ unsubtle glance.
“I need to replace a gear in Sub B… Subsection B, sir.” Parker said slowly.
“See Cliff,” Turning to the man posted behind him. “Putting the needs of the Aqua-lift first. I can respect that.” turning back to face Parker. “Have you heard of Hydros?” Edward asked his tone neutral but the air in the room seemed to drop.
Parker felt the sudden urge to puke but managed to stop it in their throat. They were afraid to speak for fear of all the glorious water they’d just had expelling back out over the rich wooden table in front of them. All Parker could manage was a nod.
“Some renegade organization that seems relentless in their efforts to bring down the Aqua-lift and stop the manufacturing of water across the globe.” Edward said, almost shrugging off the notion.
Parker had heard the mainstream propaganda the same as everyone else portraying Hydros as a terrorist cell obsessed with destroying everything. But this was all fear-based nonsense, Parker knew the group didn’t want to bring down the Aqua-lift. They simply wanted to hijack it and use its power to provide enough water for everyone equally. Not that I’d ever say any of this to Edward Joist.
“I’ve seen them on the news.” Parker replied cautiously. Edward clapped his hands together excitedly and leaned in forward.
“Well, none of that matters any more. Tomorrow will dawn a new day for The Styx Corporation and move humanity into the next chapter. There will be nothing those terrorists can do to stop us.” His voice was mesmerizing as if selling the idea to a room filled with new recruits, but Parker was alone in the room, other than Cliff, and Parker was beginning to squirm at the words.
“I’m sorry sir, but what does this have to do with me?” Parker asked cautiously. If they were going to die, they would prefer not to listen to this man preach about how he thinks he’s doing something good.
“Today you said that you wanted more water, Parker.” Edward said with a massive grin on his face. Parker simply nodded. “Well, what if I told you that after today, we could do that. We could give people more water.” Parker’s eyes must have burst open giving away their shock.
“I thought that might interest you. You see, I read your file. Top of your class at the institution and yet in four years you’ve never taken a promotion, despite being offered a few. Why is that?” He asked, sounding almost sincere.
“Honestly?” Parker asked, still a little confused by what was going on. Edward nodded. “I was afraid to move up in the company, of learning too much. I enjoy learning. But I have heard stories about people who learn too much too fast.” For a long moment Edward simply eyed Parker unblinking before breaking out in a fit of laughter.
“I was afraid you might say that. Another brilliant mind stunted by the fear and lore of this building. Sure, we keep our secrets close to our chest,” Edward said passively, “but that is because we have too. Too many people want what we have. We don’t kill to keep our secrets.” He said making light of such a dark topic.
Parker took another nervous sip of water; the glass was nearly empty now.
“Cliff.” Edward said motioning to Parker. Cliff moved swiftly in and refilled Parker’s glass before they even had a chance to protest. Not that they wanted to, but it felt somehow wrong to be so glutenous with such a precious commodity. If Cliff had any apprehension of pouring Parker more water, it didn’t show in the man’s face. In fact, other than his mild annoyance at them sitting on the leather sofa, Cliff seemed to be void of any real emotions.
“I can’t…” Parker said softly.
“You can and you will. You’re my guest.”
“This is all really kind sir but—”
“Please call me Edward.” He said accompanied with a sweeping hand gesture as if to indicate they were equals. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
“Okay, Edward.” Parker said apprehensively. “You still haven’t told me why I’m here.”
“I’m offering you a job.” He said matter of fact. Parker couldn’t hide the disbelief on their face. Out of all the reasons they thought they might be in this room a job offer had not been one of them.
“I don’t understand.” Parker said happy for the cool water as their mouth suddenly felt like a desert.
“I don’t believe in coincidences, Parker. I think you ended up on that stage for a reason. Your skills are vastly underutilized where you are and I want to change that.” He said as he folded his fingers together and gingerly placed them over his crossed legs. “When this… business today is all over,” he said, his eyes glancing over almost imperceptibly towards a mahogany desk opposite where they sat. Parker noticed the desk for the first time as they turned their head round to look. They noticed a small leather-bound journal on top of it.
“I want you to lead the new division we’re forming.” Edward said, causing Parker to snap their focus back on him, “You’ll be head engineer of your own subsection working only under the lead engineer on the project.”
Parker sat unmoving, their jaw gaped, when they didn’t say anything, Edward continued.
“Obviously, you will be given a pay rise and your water rations will be increased to three liters a day, as will everyone in your immediate family.” Edward smiled and sat in silence for a long moment before relaxing back in the couch. “How does that sound Parker?”
Parker was stunned. Obviously, this was the best thing that had ever happened to them. This type of position would take care of all their problems, and their mom’s. By the sounds of it they would jump up to a Class 2 citizenship and with that everything would change.
“I’m speechless.” Was all Parker could think to say.
“I bet you are.” Edward said.
Parker sat staring at the water in their hand for the moment unable to move or speak. Has the man I’ve been steadfast on destroying now for two years just offered to change my life?
Parker slowly looked up at the man they’d only ever seen as evil now smiling broadly back at them. This can’t be happening right now. Can it?
Parker took an unsteady sip of water, the cool liquid another necessary respite from the continued dryness in their mouth. They realized they still hadn’t said anything to Edward, which didn’t seem to bother him, or Cliff, who stood attentively behind his boss.
Parker wanted to laugh in his face, tell him he was a cruel bastard who would destroy his own family before helping anyone other than himself. That they would rather die than sell their soul to the devil. Yet, every time the words began to boil up in their mind so did the image of the mother who’d raise them, and Tariq who would be blamed for their betrayal. Was it so bad to want a better life?
“Today is a long day.” Edward said as he stood from the couch, snapping Parker back into the panoramic room. “Tomorrow we can sign the paperwork and then sort out the smaller details as we go, what do you think?” He said putting his hand out for Parker to shake.
Parker looked at the hand absently before standing up and taking it.
“Tomorrow?” Parker said softly. Edward smiled broadly.
With that Parker finished their glass of water and set the empty glass on the table. No longer caring if the gesture felt gluttonous. Time seemed to slow as they began to follow Cliff who led them to the nearest of the five elevator doors, all of which had continued to stay open.
Parker made their way over to the doors and was struck by a sudden pang of guilt. The image of their friends tunnelling into the building, flashed through Parkers’ mind, all the while they sat in comfy chairs, drinking water with this man. Yet somehow everything seemed different. Now Parker had a way out. An option that would guarantee that their mother would survive.
Parker stopped before getting on the elevator and turned to face Edward Joist.
“Yes, Parker? What is it?” Edward asked.
“Turn left.” The guard said dismissively from behind Parker who’d spent the long trip back to Subsection B completely lost in their own thoughts. If it hadn’t been for the guard leading them, they weren’t entirely sure they would have made it down the first hall. More than once, they had to catch themselves before their knees gave out.
Their thoughts piled up one atop another, knotted together in some tangled web that threatened to trap them inside. They’d spent the duration of the walk trying to pick it all apart. Had I really been willing to just give up my friends? Give up on the cause?
It was the most difficult part of the whole ordeal, that even for an instance the thought had crossed their mind. In the end Parker had ignored the impulse to tell Edward about the plot to steal whatever it was he’d been trying to keep hidden. They left instead on a simple “Thank you”.
Having cleared their head from all his decorative words, finally they were able to think clearly. This mission had never been about any one person getting a better life. If it had been, it would have failed long ago. It was about a better life for everyone. And to think I was nearly swayed by a glass of water and a few more credits.
Parker shook their head in disapproval as they strode down the final hallway leading them to their usual home in Subsection B. This is where I should have been the entire time getting ready for my mission- not being fooled into some false livelihood.
Looking down at their watch, Parker clocked only twenty minutes before they needed to unlock the hatch which didn’t leave much time at all to get sorted. What they really needed was no more silly distractions.
“I can make it from here.” Parker said, showing the guard a thin smile and a curt nod before leaving without another word, at the entrance to Subsection B. Parker walked briskly down the hall, very comfortable in their surroundings and happy to know where and what they were doing.
Although the hallway was like the ones they had just been down, these hallways were their own. Parker knew the ins and out and rarely had any trouble spotting the nuances which made up the Sub B corridors. Parker took a moment to appreciate each scuff mark and dinted wall. Each nuance was a reminder of how much time they’d spent here. Especially now, knowing this could be their last time wondering through. First, I’ve got to get to Gus’s tool shop, and hopefully he has what I need!
Parker rounded the corner and was met by two large swinging steel doors. Barging through them, Parker entered a meticulous tool shop. Every time Parker had gone in there they were impressed with Gus’ level of organization.
“Gus?” Parker called out in the large steel room, not seeing the older man perched at his usual spot at the front desk.
“Just a moment.” Called a deep voice from behind the various tools laid out behind the desk.
A second later a proud looking gentleman, with a long wiry gray beard, walked out from the shelves holding a twenty-inch channel lock wrench. His hunter green overalls were not nearly as clean as his shop as he wiped one oily hand down the side of his leg. Seeing Parker in his shop now his eyes narrowed in on them.
“Parker!? Water be damned! Where the hell have you been?” He said taking great care as he laid out a stained towel on the countertop and set the wrench on top of it. “I’d been expecting you over an hour ago. After giving me all this hoop-la about needing it first thing and this and that, then you have the nerve to show up what? Nearly two hours late for the damned thing. I have half a mind to lose the damned paperwork.” His tone was angry, but his eyes were gentle.
Gus had been a senior mechanic now for as long as anyone in Sub B could remember. He knew the ins and outs of what everyone needed to fix their section and had likely fixed it himself at one time or another. He was like a father figure to most everyone, hard on the outside but soft as a teddy on the inside. For Parker it was no different.
“Look, Gus. It’s not like I wanted to be late. First, they had everyone in the auditor—” Parker began but was cut short.
“Right, I saw that kid. How are you holding up.” He asked sincerely. Everyone in the building had the same warranted fear of the man Parker was forced to speak with on stage. Only maybe a handful of people would have actually wanted to get up on stage and of them not a single one volunteered, which said something about Edward Joist.
“I’m fine. Thanks Gus. It’s what happened next that really threw me for a loop.” Parker said, their voice dropping to a hushed tone. “He called me up into the Eye.” Despite being late Parker couldn’t resist telling someone.
Gus’s eyes widened. Of course, he knew what the Eye was and like everyone else he’d likely speculated what it would be like although the reality was, neither he nor anyone else would have wanted to find themselves in there.
“You went to the Eye?” He asked almost conspiratorially. “Why?”
Parker opened their mouth to speak but Gus waved them away.
“Never mind, the less I know the better. Rivers know what this place does to those who ask too many questions.” He said shaking his head. “The important thing is you’re here. And that you can finally take this damned L8 gear from me.” He said reaching under the counter and pulling up a well-polished eight-inch diameter gear.
Parker looked at the watch nine minutes before they needed to lift the latch. Assuming everything went to plan it should be ample time to get to the latch, let them in, then set up for Part B of their role.
“You’re a lifesaver Gus.” Parker grabbed the gear and turned to leave but stopped and turned back to the old man.
“Hey Gus, thank you.” Parker said taking in the old man. After today it was unlikely, they would ever see him again. This plan had been formulating now for the past four months ever since word had it The Styx would be resolving one final issue they’d been having. Whatever it was, it would mean that after today Parker would never be allowed back in The Styx.
“You alright kid?” Gus asked staring at Parker like his eyes were trying to peel away at their many layers.
“Of course, can’t a person just say thanks to a crotchety old man?”
Gus gave a wave of his hand and the hint of a smile before he continued with his work. Glancing down at their watch Parker hastily exited the room, the well-manicured tool shop soon to be a distant memory.
Parker was now finally on track and moving efficiently through the maze of corridors making their way towards the Sub B basement where the hatch was located. Their friends would be there any moment and since there had been no alarms sounding Parker assumed the months of planning had paid off, despite the change in plans. That was unless my friends have already died in the pipes?
Over the past month Parker had been making routine checks on the Subsection B basement; it was the primary engine room for their area and it was hot, making it almost unbearable for anyone to work there for long periods at a time.
So, when Parker had volunteered to perform the maintenance test on it no one seemed to object. The delay of an hour shouldn’t throw off the plan too much as it hinged primarily on the small group of rebels getting into the building and waiting for the transfer of the package. Information was apparently provided by another insider who had access to Edward Joist himself.
No one other than Nalla knew their identity and there were some who questioned whether or not she knew herself. Either way they had been incredibly useful up till now and hopefully they would continue to be.
Entering the final door to the basement Parker felt the heat from the room rush into them as they stepped inside, and they began to perspire almost immediately. Parker was suddenly thankful for the additional water ration from Edward. Little would he know how much that would help in his own demise.
Moving quickly, Parker sprinted down the narrow path, with large pipes running along either side of them. The steady vibrations from the pipes gave the illusion that the room around them was raising and falling.
Parker found the hatch they were looking for they gave a short rap on the top with their knuckles and waited a moment for a response. This was the moment of truth, if they had received the message, they should be under Parker’s feet right now. If not, they may have been forced to turn back as they wouldn’t have had enough oxygen to survive the extra hour in the waste pipe.
For a long moment nothing happened, and Parker began to worry. This time Parker knocked again a little harder. Seconds seemed like an eternity as they waited, but they were rewarded with a set of short raps from the other side. Time to get them out of there.
This next bit needed to happen as quickly as possible, Parker would only keep the hatch open a short while or the room would fill with toxic gases. Taking a deep breath in Parker twisted the hatch lock and heaved the heavy door open.
There was a slight pop as a wave of gas rushed into the room knocking Parker back, their ankle smacked something solid causing a shooting pain up their leg as they fell backwards, their butt slammed hard against the hard steel floor as a loud clatter sounded from somewhere behind them. It took everything in their power not to suck in the toxic gas in pain.
From the now opened hatch, three people climbed out their face covered with clear oxygen masks which immediately clouded over from the rapid change in temperature.
The last body through the hatch promptly shut the hatch and resealed it. Parker, still on the ground, began to feel woozy from the toxic gas in the air. Despite their efforts, the fall caused them to take a sharp inhale of the impure air. In a moment the air would be filtered out but Parker likely wouldn’t last that long. Their breath was beginning to shorten and became restless, coming in short spurts. Their chest felt as though it was on fire as they desperately tried to gasp at fresh air.
Their vision blurred and they felt as though they would pass out when one of the figures who’d just entered the room pulled off their mask and placed it over Parker’s face. The cooling rush of oxygen filled their lungs.
After a few more soothing breaths their vision returned, and they could clearly see Vince’s steady eyes as he supported Parker in his arms.
“Better?” he said softly. Parker nodded.
“Yeah.” Parker said, leaning forward and removing the mask now that the toxic air had been filtered out. “So, you got my message?” Parker asked with a weak grin.
“Just in the nick of time.” Said Nalla standing above the hatch removing her mask. “Nice work.”
“You have no idea.” Parker laughed weakly.
“I’m sure it’s a great story but we don’t have time for it now.” Dale said, setting a large black duffle bag on the floor. Parker creased their brow. Parker had known Dale now for years though they never seemed to get along. Dale was by no means the largest man in any room, but according to Nalla he was good under pressure and had particularly robust set of skills that were handy to Hydros. The rumour was he’d have no time for the cause if it wasn’t for Nalla. Parker was inclined to believe the rumours guessing that was why he hadn’t left when he was given the chance.
“What do you mean, as far as I’ve seen nothing is happening yet.” Parker said slowly. Vince stood and put a handout to help Parker to their feet. Wincing slightly as they felt the sting their ankle.
“You, okay?” Vince asked, concerned. Parker couldn’t help but blush at his interest. Like the rest of them Vince wore black tactical suit his gun strapped across his back and Parker could make out a large blade holstered against his calf, though Parker suspected he had more hidden.
His eyes met Parkers and they thought they saw a hint of fear, though it was difficult to get a good read beneath his scruffy beard and the scar that ran across his left eye, which he refused to talk about. Unlike Dale however, Vince had welcomed Parker in from day one, and though he never spoke much, to Parker he was kind and gentle, and like them, had lost his Family.
“I’ll be fine. What’s going on?” Parker asked.
“We got word the package is on the move. We have to act quickly if we are going to get it before it leaves the building. “Nalla said, ditching her own oxygen mask off to the side. “How much time do you need to set up the distraction.” She asked, looking straight at Parker.
“Umm ten minutes… give or take?” Parker said, trying to clear the fog from their brain.
“Right well we need you to—” Nalla stopped short as a voice called down from the top of the stairs.
“Parker you down there?” Parker recognized the voice as Tariq.
Parker put their finger to their lips signalling the other to be quiet.
“Yeah. Why?” They called back.
“Come up here a second would ya?” His voice seemed tense, and Parker didn’t know what to do, they couldn’t simply ignore him. Looking at Nalla for advice she shrugged as Dale began tapping his wrist emphatically then twirling his fingers as if to say, “we need to hurry this up.” Nalla slapped his hands away and gestured for Parker to go up.
“Just a second.” Parker said cautiously as they began moving to the stairwell taking one hesitant step after another.
Reaching the top, they found Tariq standing outside the doorway in the hall. Parker moved through the doors and walked to face him. They had a slight limp as the shock of the past few minutes had begun to wear off if only slightly, and now they could feel the sharp pain in their ankle with each step. Parker tried to hide it, but Tariq noticed immediately, pointing directly at their ankle.
“What the hell happened?” He asked, it had sounded like genuine concern which made Parker more relaxed.
“I wasn’t paying attention and tripped.” Parker said only half lying. “What’s up? I haven’t been able to replace the gear yet.
“Are you okay? You look like you’re in pain.” He said taking a step towards them. “And your eyes are really red.” He said putting a hand out cautiously. Parker brushed past him trying to give his their best, “I’m fine” walk before turning back to face him.
“Fine, just the shock of the blow.” They said, trying their best to shrug it off. They weren’t about to tell him they’d nearly suffocated with toxic gas letting in a group of so-called terrorists.
“Right, well it’s just the sensor for the hatch had gone off, I wanted to make sure you were all good. I mean you know what’s down there.” He said his face filled with worry.
“Yeah, that was what I tripped on. I didn’t know there were sensors on those things.” Parker said trying to hide their shock, sensors had been news to them, and therefore everyone in Hydros. There had been nothing in any of the specifications that had suggested there were sensors in the hatch. However, retrospectively it now seemed silly to believe there wouldn’t be. Despite the worrisome information, Parker couldn’t help but smile at his concern. “I feel so embarrassed.” They added sheepishly.
“No need for that, I’m glad you’re okay and things are fine.” Tariq said, his shoulders seeming to drop a little.
“I appreciate you coming up, it’s so hot down there I don’t know how you do it. But if I had known…” Tariq’s voice seemed to trail off as he spotted the odd expression on Parker’s face. Parker, now facing the basement door, could see Dale through the window, his eyes meeting theirs as he slowly opened the door.
Tariq must have seen the shock on Parker’s face as he turned around but before he could make a sound Dale was on him, a white cloth in his hand which covered both Tariq’s mouth and nose.
Tariq’s eyes began to slowly shut as Dale guided his unconscious body to the ground.
“What the hell!” Parker said, arms waving in protest. “That wasn’t part of the plan!”
“I told you we were in a hurry, Parker! We only have one shot here and we’re kind of running out of time.” Dale’s face was set, unphased as he stood over the now unconscious Tariq. Both Nalla and Vince were coming out the basement doors behind them.
“He’s right Parker.” Nalla said confidently. “We need you in there setting up the diversion.” She said, sounding almost apologetic. “If anything, this will be good for him. It means he won’t be associated with us.” She said reading the concern on Parker’s face.
Parker knew she was right but still hated that Tariq had to be involved in any way. Vince came over and placed a steady hand on their shoulder.
“He’ll be fine.” He said calmly, before handing them a small earpiece. “Take this, you’ll be able to stay in contact with us and when the diversion is set you can let us know.”
Parker took the earpiece and smiled.
“Right. Be careful, okay?” Parker said, looking at Vince as Parkers fingers grazed his hand. He gave Parker a firm nod before he made his way down the hallway.
Parker turned their attention to Nalla and Dale, who both nodded as well as they passed Parker on their way into the building. Nalla had come up the rear and stopped briefly placing her hand on Parker’s shoulder.
“Great work Parker.” She said quietly, “With some luck we will all be out of here shortly.” Her smile gave Parker the comfort they needed to keep going. Then almost as quickly as they had arrived, Parker’s friends were gone leaving them once again, alone. Time to get started on this distraction!
Parker couldn’t leave Tariq’s body resting in the middle of the floor. One of the guards would definitely discover a body lying prone and unconscious in the hall, which would certainly sound some alarms.
However, moving his limp body proved more difficult than Parker had imagined as they dragged the body across the tiled floor. Parker’s first hope was to get him into the supply closet down the hall but after the first agonizing few feet they’d redirected their mission to get him to the slightly closer, main landing of the basement stairwell. It was a third of the distance and although they didn’t know just how long Tariq would be out, they were confident they would be gone before that happened.
Parker could hear the progress of their friends, in their coms, as their companions moved stealthily through the main level. Parker hadn’t been sure where their friends were heading, only where they would all need to meet to get out. In order to minimize the potential of information getting out, Nalla had preferred to keep each person’s role as, need to know. That way no one person knew everything. Parker wasn’t sure what reasons Nalla had for this, but Parker was not in the habit of questioning her, it had been her cautiousness that had kept Hydros safe for this long; who am I to argue?
For Parker, everything had been planned out as best as anyone could have managed with the information they had. And now, luckily for Parker, this was the only section of the assignment they’d felt confident about since day one.
Parker had broken down the plans for a select group of members who Nalla had chosen within Hydros. To this day Parker still had no idea how many members Hydros had. Again, they suspected was on purpose. Parker was simply one river on its way towards the ocean.
Parker could still remember when they’d laid out the plan in when they thought had been relatively simple terms.
“Tell me again how any of this is simple?” Dale asked rubbing his hand over his face while he shook his head.
“It is simple. It’s not my fault you don’t understand it Dale.” Parker replied, sounding tired.
“If it were so bloody simple Parker, you wouldn’t be explaining it again.” Dale said standing up as the chair as it scrapped across the floor.
“Dale for high waters, Parker’s an engineer. They can’t just explain their whole damn job to us.” Nalla said.
“I’m not asking them to explain their whole job just how the hell this is going to create the desired effect!” Dale slapped the table, Nalla shot him a look which Dale seemed to take as a sit down and shut up and Parker was happy when he did.
“One more time, please Parker.” Nalla said once Dale had taken his seat.
“Right, well I’ll try to dumb it down for you.” Parker said which got a chuckle from Nalla, Vince and the other three members of Hydros who Parker hadn’t known and wasn’t introduced to. They simple sat quietly at the table taking notes. “The L12 gear is what is normally in the system, I want to replace it with an L8. This particular gear as a thirty-minute rotation with a small gap of missing teeth. By swapping these two gears I can set it up as a timer that will cause the sub-thermal energy bay to overheat. This will cause a tiny fire resulting in a full evacuation of Subsection B which should give us the cover we need for an escape.”
“So, all this is for a small fire?” Dale asked.
“All this is for confusion and mass evacuation.” Nalla countered.
“I have about five things on me right now that cause a bloody fire.”
“Right but would any of those things cause the emergency evacuation alarms in the building to go off Dale? So, you know anything about The Styx internal evacuation procedures? Or would you say that maybe in this instance Parker is the most qualified out of all of us to come up with a plan that makes sure we all have the best chance of getting out of there alive?” Nalla said as she slowly rose to her feet. “Because I for one have complete faith in Parker to get us in and out of The Styx. Does anyone have an issue with that?” Nalla said eyeing everyone in the room and making sure to get a confirmed head shake from each.
“I think it sounds like a great plan.” Vince said, causally spinning a ring around his thumb before looking up and giving Parker a wink.
“Ma’am?” said one of the faces Parker had only met once before, only now they had short cropped black hair with died pink tips.
“Why are we not, causing more of a statement?”
“What do you mean?” Nalla said her brows furrowed. Gigi looked a little nervous, after a long moment Dale kicked in.
“She wants to know why we are not blowing it up.” Dale said with a sigh.
“Is this your question or Hectors?” Nalla said glaring at them, before little out a little sigh.
“For the last time, it’s because we’re not terrorists. What do you think the people will do if they think we have destroyed the one functioning source of water development in the region. Any major delays would only come back to hurt us.”
“It would send them a message.” Dale crept in.
“What message is that? That we are terrorists? That we don’t care about the people? Or any number of ways that The Styx could turn that around on us. No, I’ve asked Parker for a solution that does minimal damage, and won’t hurt anyone while we do it. We’re trying to save people, not kill them.”
“Yes ma’am.” Gigi said writing something down in her book.
“Back to the task at hand.”
“How do we know this will work?” Dale asked though he couldn’t seem to meet Nalla’s eyes he simply kept them squarely on Parker.
“You might have remembered a couple years back, I was new in the position and someone in Subsection D made this mistake causing delays for a couple days and a decrease in total water production, but it was big enough for company wide addendum for all engineers. It will work. All I need is to know is how much time you need.”
“Ten minutes.” Nalla said quietly.
“What? Nalla we will need more time.” Dale protested.
“If we take any more time we may not get out of there alive. We will not go unnoticed for long once the three of us get in. We will take ten minutes and we will get in and out.” Nalla said with a finality that said the conversation was over. Dale didn’t look pleased and Vince simply nodded while he continued to fiddle with his ring.
“Parker?” Nalla said releasing a long sigh.
“What can go wrong here?”
“I’ll have sixty seconds to replace the gears once I put the bracer in place. If I don’t then the system jams and the system pressure could explode.”
“Okay it will definitely explode, but I’ve switched out these gears hundreds of times I’m not worried about it at all.” Parker said trying to give their most confident smile.
“Where the hell is the L8 gear?” Parker said patting themselves down and realizing it wasn’t in the pouch where they’d left it. They started to scramble around the room, which was difficult as their leg was still throbbing in pain. “Think Parker, think! When did you last have it?” The realization struck them as painfully as their ankle.
“I must have dropped it when I fell!” Parker hurried over to the hatch where they’d let their friends in. Getting on their knee’s Parker began searching the floors where they’d fallen. Sweat was falling down their face and into their eyes making it difficult to see. Every couple of seconds Parker would have to pause to wipe the sweat with the sleeve of their shirt.
Finally, Parker found it hidden under one of the exhaust pipes on the floor. Luckily it didn’t look damaged.
With the L8 gear in hand, it wasn’t long before Parker located the L12 gear. The replacement of the gear was easy enough, at least it usually was. However, under normal conditions replacing the L12 gear would require a temporary shutdown. But since that wasn’t an option now, as it would give away what Parker was really doing down here, it was time to get fancy. Parker needed to manually lock the support gears in place, swap out the L12 gear with the L8, then manually unlock the gears all before the gears next rotation, which gave Parker roughly sixty seconds to do it all. If they took any longer, the system would seize up and Parker would be caught in a not so minor pressure explosion.
Normally Parker would have been confident with the procedure having done it hundreds of times before. However, Parker wished their brain would inform their hands of this confidence because both hands seemed to be more than a little shaky at the moment.
“Par…er.” Nalla’s voice sounded form over the coms, but it was sounding a little choppy “wh…r you …with the diversion.”
“Just about to switch out the gears.” Parker said, giving their earpiece a light tap.
“Get a move on kid we don’t have much—.” but Dale must have been cut off by what Parker guessed was a firm whack to the back of the head by Nalla, the thought made Parker smile.
“Just let… know when you’re set.. ker.” Nalla called back. Parker couldn’t understand why the coms were acting up though they imagined the moisture in the air along with being underground must not be helping.
“Will do.” Parker said, gripping the L8 gear in their hand. They waited for the gear to shift positions. Taking a deep breath, they waited as calmy as they could manage and as soon as the L12 gear rotated Parker was off. They activated the safety lock on both adjacent gears before setting to working on disconnecting the L12 gear. Using their multitool, Parker removed the set screw in the gear, loosening it from the axil. Everything was going smoothly, the gear came off easily enough and now all they had to do was line up the L8 gear so that the notch section of the gear was set and it wouldn’t hit until the end of a full rotation.
Slipping the L8 gear on, Parker thought everything looked great until they realized the L8 gear they’d been given didn’t have a set screw attached to it. Without it was unlikely the gear would hold even if was only for ten minutes.
“Shit!” They said taking an unsteady breath, Gus must have assumed I was going to use the old set screw!
It made sense that he might, he wasn’t in the habit of giving out parts unless they were absolutely necessary and since Parker, like an idiot, didn’t ask for one.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Parker repeated, as they scrambled for a solution. They could hear the clicking from the gears around them, like some sort of unwanted timer. Parker thought their head was going to explode until they saw the set screw for the L12 gear on the ground. Before they could second guess themselves, Parker knelt and began twisting away at the old set screw on the L12 gear. They had completely lost track of the time now but they had to assume it was going to turn at any moment. Hurry!
A couple more turns, and Parker managed to get the set screw out and to their surprise it fit. Although it was a little looser than they would have liked, But dammit it only needs to hold for ten minutes.
Parker quickly tightened the set screw and then released the manual locks on the two adjacent gears and pulled away quickly ducking in behind metal exhaust pipes in case the entire thing decided to blow.
They didn’t have long to wait as the new L8 gear clicked just a second later, before Parker had managed to fully take cover behind one of the exhaust pipes. To their delight the gear held. They turned back around to examine the gear one last time and threw one more security turn on the set screw, but all seemed in place.
Parker let out a deep breath they didn’t even realize they were holding in and wiped away a pool of sweat from their forehead. They tried to tell themselves it was from the heat in the room and not the fear of nearly blowing themselves up. They allowed themselves a couple deeper breaths before signalling their crew.
“Timer has been set.” Parker said into the coms, “We have ten minutes, copy that?” They waited a moment for a response and when it came back it was difficult to hear through the static. When was the last time I heard anything?
Parker, now panicking, began moving as briskly as they could, with their injured ankle, towards the stairs leading up to the main floor. Maybe the moisture in the room is causing problems or maybe it’s just the basement?
Parker had no idea, but they assumed it must have been the basement as the closer they moved to the main level more sounds were coming through the coms. With each step it got more and more clear, but each sound they heard coming in through the static of the earpiece was increasingly worrisome.
Their ankle be damned. Parker began running, taking steps two at a time before finally hopping over Tariq’s still unconscious body and barging through the swinging doors not caring who might see them.
As the door swung open the static in the coms cleared away and what remained was the complete and utter chaos of shouting and gunfire.
“Hello? Vince? Nalla? Dale!” Parker began shouting into the coms looking around frantically as if there was anything they could do.
“Parker … out…Now!” Nalla’s voice broke through the chaos before going completely silent.
“Nalla? Nalla!” Parker shouted, still looking around, before seeing Cliff walk around the corner with two guards flanking Parker, all of them holding a gun.
“Parker!” Cliff shouted down the hall. Parker froze in place, their arms instinctively lifting in fear. “We know why you’re here.” Cliff said slowly, “Your accomplices have been apprehended so please make this easy on yourself and come with us.” His tone was even.
Parker could barely make out Cliff’s words, their heart was beating so loudly in their ears it was difficult to hear anything else. Parker stood shaking, their body still not fully recovering from the shock. They watched the two black clad guards move in slowly, guns raised. Parker couldn’t understand how all of this could have gone so wrong. The plan had been simple or at least Nalla had implied that it would be. Then again what did Parker know. After all they weren’t even sure about what it was they were there to get in the first place.
“Are you alone?” Cliff asked, the guards continuing to steadily approach Parker.
“Yes.” Parker said, their voice more confident than they would have expected given the situation. Parker had always known this was a risk, it was one they were willing to take. Hydros has always been about more than any one person, and it would live on even after they were gone.
“But you should know we will never stop fighting!” Parker shouted the words coming out forcefully even as tears began rolling down their face.
“I don’t think you will.” Cliff said with a smile which caught Parker by surprise.
In a heartbeat, Cliff’s gun was up and with two quick shots he dropped the two guards in front of Parker. The blood from Parker’s would be captors splattering them with hot red liquid as the two guards’ lifeless bodies collapsed to the ground with a thud.
Parker, who had never seen someone shot before felt their body begin to convulse and-as it had so many times that day – was hit by an overwhelming urge to vomit, which they did vehemently on the ground in front of them.
“What …” Parker began, their face pale, as they wiped their mouth of the remnants of stomach bile mixing with the warm blood which had just peppered their face. Seeing the gruesome combination caused a second expulsion of vomit.
“Parker!” Cliff said laying his gun down on the floor gently before moving toward Parker. He seemed to have a different energy in his voice now, it was excited but kind. “I need you to calm down and listen to me okay.”
Parker looked at the man unable to shake the shock of what had just happened. What just happened?
“Look I need you to listen to me carefully, okay,” His voice was calming, but the urgency was still there as he looked around the room as if expecting company. “You have to take this and get out of here,” he said, holding out a familiar looking leather book. The one on Edwards’s desk!
“Who are you?” Parker asked, taking a small step back from the man.
“A friend.” He said calmly.
“Prove it.” Parker said firmly. Cliff looked impatiently at them.
“May waters fill every hand.” He said softly. The words were a code for members of Hydros, a way of secretly communicating your allegiance.
“No, no, no, I saw you with him. Edward, you work with him.” Parker said, pointing a threatening finger at Cliff.
“Who do you think has been supplying information on The Styx?” Cliff said hurriedly. “Look, I don’t have time to explain everything.”
“You mean the information for this operation which has gone so well?” Parker said, their courage slowly returning along with some colour to their face. “How did you find me?”
“Look I only knew a little bit about the plan and when I found out what was going on I knew I needed to do something.” Cliff said, exacerbated, “and I saw on the monitors that one of the sub-basement hatches had been triggered, so I knew that was where you were.”
“So, this morning?” Parker asked, confused.
“Honestly, that was a coincidence, until I saw you round the corner right now, I had no idea who you were.” Cliff said, letting out a little laugh.
“Listen.” He added his voice once again worried, “You were betrayed. Someone told Mr. Joist about your plans and he used that to set up an ambush. By the time I learned about any of this it was too late. But I managed to get this, Parker. This is what you came for.” He said waving the book in front of them.
“What is it?” Parker asked skeptically.
“It contains directions to Shangri La.” Cliff added with a smile. His eyes suddenly hopeful.
“Shangri La?” Parker said, moving forward slowly before taking the book from Cliff cautiously. If this was what Cliff claimed, then it could mean an honest chance for the Hydros to actually change the world. This could mean the end of The Styx.
“Is it real?” Parker asked nervously.
“Mr. Joist says it is. He’s been trying to crack the code for years and he’s narrowed it down to a few areas. He wants to destroy it before anyone else can find it.” He said “which is why you have to get it out of here.”
“Parker, get away from him now.” Said a familiar voice from behind Cliff. Vince stood at the end of the hallway gun raised pointed at Cliff.
“Vince?” Parker said, half smiling surprised to see him, “How did you get away?”
“Dale and Nalla shielded me from the combat so I could get back to you. I needed to make sure you were safe.” Vince said, smiling, his gun still pointed at Cliff.
“Get out Parker.” Cliff said quietly before he pulled a second concealed gun from his jacket and pointed it at Vince.
“Wait. We’re all on the same team here.” Parker said, putting their hands up in a gesture to try and calm everyone down.
“Drop that gun.” Vince added forcefully.
“Vince it’s okay, Cliff is one of us.” Parker said, stepping forward to put themselves between Cliff and Vince.
“I don’t know what he’s been telling you Parker but he’s lying.” Vince continued forward slowly.
“Vince, stop! Put the gun down.” Parker shouted.
“You have to get out of here.” Cliff said softly into Parker’s ear, his voice barely audible.
“Don’t talk to them dirt bag.” Vince said angrily. “Parker, give me the book and let’s go.”
Parker winced at the words, the sudden shock of what was happening hitting her painfully like a punch in the gut.
“How did you know about the book?” Parker asked anxiously.
“What?” Vince said. “I see it in your hand Parker.”
“How did you know we were looking for a book?”
“Nalla told me.” Vince said but his words were losing their conviction as understanding began to hit Parker like a ton of bricks.
“Oh god, how could you?” the words coming out hollow from Parker’s mouth.
“Enough of this game.” Said Edward Joist as he stepped out from around the corner where he must have been hiding with a group of five guards surrounding a gagged Dale and Nalla. Dale appeared to be supporting an injured Nalla as best he could despite his hands tied behind his back. The two looked as though they’d seen better days but at least they were alive.
“I could have got it.” Vince said angrily as he turned to face Edward.
“Please they spotted the betrayal a mile away.” Edward said haphazardly.
“Why Vince?” Parker asked, feeling the sting of his betrayal.
“You’re looking at our new head of security for the new Aqua-lift development.” Edward said, gesturing toward Vince. “A hefty pay and increased water rations. Something you recently rejected Parker.” He added with a grin.
“It was you, you set that up?” Parker said turned on Vince.
“We could have had a better life. Together.” Vince pleaded.
“You betrayed our friends and traded in the future of our world for what? A few extra cups of water!” Parker said bitterly.
“I did it for us!” Vince shouted. Parker scoffed at him as they felt Cliff’s hand tuck something into Parker’s back pocket of their overalls. The Journal.
“As fun as this has been, I think it’s time we moved this thing forward.” Edward said, his finger twirling around the air as if to say, ‘let’s wrap this up’.
“Get out.” Cliff whispered in Parker’s ear just before shoving them hard to the side, the unexpected nudge caused them to topple to the ground as they watched Cliff lift his gun and aim it straight at Edward Joist’s head. A sharp bang was heard as Cliffs head snapped back, blood and bodily fluids sprayed out the back of his head as he collapsed to the ground dead before he could fire a shot.
Parker looked over to see Vince standing stiffly, the smoke rolling out the end of the barrel of his gun as he stared staunchly at the now dead body of Cliff.
Despite themselves Parker let out a scream as they stared in horror at the dead bodies now literally piling up in front of them.
“Looks like you’ve already proved your value.” Edward Joist said, wiping a small bead of sweat from his brow and laughing.
“You’re a monster.” Parker said quietly, unsure if it was meant for Vince or Edward Joist. Apparently neither did the two of them as both prepared to speak. However, only one of them was Edward Joist, who’d never waited on anyone to speak.
“Monster, seems a little harsh, no?” His tone was even as he began pacing the hall, his air of self-importance seeming to fill the space around them all. If he’d been fearful, even for a moment it was gone now.
“I provide life to the world. Without me people would have nothing.” He said confidently.
“Because of you…” Nalla called out, somehow she’d managed to wriggle out of her gag, but she was quickly silenced by a guard who struck her across the face with the butt of their gun. Her body sank to the floor. Dale headbutted the guard and threw his body into the other before kneeling beside Nalla and whispering in her ear, his own gag now free.
Parker didn’t need to know what Nalla was going to say, they had heard her say it plenty of times. However, Parker had never been one who needed convincing. Their life had been controlled and ruined by the man before them and the so-called “life” he provided.
“I’m speaking with Parker now, please be quiet.” Joist said passively back to Nalla and Dale before tossing a nonchalant hand towards Parker and continuing. “Where was I… Right Life.”
“You don’t provide life. You control it.” Parker blurted out.
“What’s the difference?” Edward laughed and shrugged.
“You have the means to truly help the world. But instead, you manifest disorder, create illusions for the people, that what you do is for their own good. That you alone can save us.” The words spewed out of Parker like so much bile had earlier, as they began to lift themselves up to their feet, “But you have it all wrong, it isn’t you. It was never really you who did anything other than steal and betray everyone around you to get what you wanted. But your time is coming to an end.” Parker said, looking deep into Edward’s eyes.
“How do you suppose that?” Edward asked, giving Parker a toothy grin. “I have you all here. I have the Journal. What do you have?” Edwards asked dispassionately. Parker stood for a long moment before responding.
“Time.” Parker said confidently, sneaking a glance at their watch.
Edward began to laugh loudly, seeming to ignore Parker’s nonsense. It was Vince who was first to act, spotting Parker glance at their watch.
“Their stalling—” but before he could get the words out the floor began to tremble and everyone seemed to rock from side to side. Then an ear shattering bang came up from the basement along with a plume of smoke which in turn set off the fire dampeners, that began shooting streams of thick white dust around the room.
Despite knowing it was coming, the shock and plumes of dust threw Parker to the ground once again and when they looked up, what little they could see was chaos.
The air was thick, and Parker found it difficult to take in a breath. I guess the timing gear worked.
The piercing evacuation alarms were blaring as Parker tried to push themselves to their knees, but their hands were unable to find even ground. Despite knowing the explosion was coming, the shock had disoriented them. As their senses began to return, Parker was suddenly aware of why the ground was so uneven. It hadn’t been the floor they were pushing off of, but the lifeless body of the guards sprawled out beneath them, as Parker’s hands continued to slip off a combination of dust and blood slick armour of the dead guard’s uniform.
Managing to rotate themselves to a seated position, Parker proceeded to kick themselves off the guard’s body until they reached solid ground where they slowly made it to their feet just in time to see a figure hurdling through the smoke air towards them.
Parker was relieved to find the refreshing, albeit terrified face of Nalla scrambling out through the white clouds, her knee colliding with a fallen guard’s face as she pressed forward. Behind her Dale was struggling to pry a gun from another guard’s hand.
Parker watched in horror and awe as the guard smacked Dale in the face with their gun as the guard tried to get back to their feet. Dale however seemed unfazed by the attack, his face flushed red with anger and most likely adrenaline as he ducked low grabbing the guards rifle which was still wrapped around their body. Pulling the rifle towards him, Dale flung the guard over his back, tossing the guard into a near by wall with a heavy thud. Amazingly, Dale managed to secure the guard’s rifle from off his body and in another smooth motion, began firing a quick burst into the remaining would be captors.
Both him and Nalla, their hands freed somehow, were racing towards Parker.
“Parker, we have to run!” Nalla shouted wincing as one of her arms seemed to hang limp at her side, the other one holding it tight to her chest. “Now!”
Parker turned to lead the way but not before pausing, their mind had shifted to Vince and the notion they had to wait for him, before the harsh reality of his betrayal took its place.
“Parker, go!” Dale shouted as he fired off some loose rounds behind him for cover.
Parker ignored the pained feeling in their chest and ran making their way through the halls. For security, every hallway within one hundred meters of the incident would be sprayed thick with the same white particles they were now covered in, providing great cover for the three of them as they moved swiftly through the labyrinth of Subsection B.
Parker was wide eyed, and their heart somehow seemed to pound faster in their chest. They’d seen so much in the past few hours that they desperately wanted to forget, but for now they needed to get themselves and their friends out.
Making a quick left, Parker checked to make sure Dale and Nalla were still with them. Nalla was only a couple paces behind and Dale followed up the rear gun partially hidden beneath his jacket. A futile attempt to avoid suspicion as all three were ghostly white, except for both Dale and Nalla who had blood smeared all over them from their fight. I wonder what I look like?
As they turned to head down one of the corridors, they realized it was filled with crowds of evacuating people moving frantically around them away from the direction of the explosion. Parker thought they might have recognized some of the faces, though they couldn’t be sure. Their eyes burned and felt puffy, no doubt a side effect of the white extinguishing dust sprayed in the air. Even Parkers throat burned as they coughed their way through the growing crowd of Styx’s employees. Parker ignored the abrasive pain they felt not just in their eyes, but the rest of their body.
“How far Parker?” Nalla shouted, trying to be heard over the screams and coughs of the people around them.
“Next right!” Parker called back “Stay close, the door will come up fast then we head down.” They continued.
Parker could hear Nalla shouting back, relaying the information to Dale, who closed the gap bringing the three friends tightly together.
Parker made a hard turn smashing faces with someone else trying to round the corner going the other way. The impact sent a rush of pain up through Parker’s face and drove them backwards as they all but fell into Nalla who was close enough to catch them before they could fall to the ground. Parker could feel the blood beginning to pour like a runny nose as their eyes welled up from the pain.
“Fuck!” Parker shouted as they regained their footing.
Just then a series of shots rang out over the confused and now scared Styx employees causing everyone to scream in terror. Everyone’s once frantic movements now turned to panic sprints, no longer caring who or what was around them.
Parker didn’t need to turn around to know who had fired the shots even before he cried out.
“Parker!” Vince shouted from behind them causing Parker to stumble again. Luckily, Nalla was there to steady them.
“This way.” Parker said signalling to Nalla and Dale, trying desperately to ignore the welling tears in their eyes from the fact that Vince, a man they’d once trusted was now firing a gun at them. Parker was suddenly grateful for the collision which did wonders to help mask their real pain.
With a new determination, Parker pushed frantically through the seemingly endless stream of people bombarding them before reaching the doorway they’d been searching for, marked Lower Mines.
Parker opened the swinging door and pushed in with Nalla and Dale on their tail. Dale shut the door quickly scanning the area.
“What are you doing?” Nalla shouted back to Dale as he reached for what appeared to be a partially rusted handrail.
“Just a second.” He said sucking in a deep breath before using his foot to kick the bar, dislodging the handrail on one side.
“In case you haven’t noticed we don’t really have a second Dale!” Nalla shouted.
Parker stood anxiously beside Nalla. Taking the opportunity to slip the journal into Nalla’s back pocket. Nalla flinched at the feeling of the book sliding into her pocket.
“You should have this.” Parker whispered in her ear.
“What is it?” Nalla whispered back, as Dale began prying the handrail from the wall. With a loud squeak then a thud as it hit the grated metal floor. He picked it up and went back to the door.
“It’s the location of Shangri La.” Parker whispered, unable to hide the smile in their voice despite the danger of the situation. Dale slipped the metal rod between the door handles.
“That should give us a couple minutes.” He said confidently.
Nalla turned to face Parker but before she could say anything Parker was off down the stairs.
“We need to move.” Parker said, trying to sound calm.
The stairwell was dark and each of them only carried a small light which did little to create the visibility they needed to move swiftly down the rusted stairwell, each step causing the whole structure to shake more and more violently.
“I thought you said this route was safe?” Nalla said sarcastically behind Parker.
“I thought you said this would be easy.” Parker retorted, as a loud banging sound rapped on the door behind them.
“I knew that would work.” Dale laughed, stopping to look up at the door, allowing himself a little laugh.
“How did you manage to get free of your ropes?” Parker asked as they rounded a corner.
“Dale managed to get one of the guard’s boot knives when he ran into him. Used it to cut us out.” Nalla smiled. “Not just a pretty face.” She laughed.
Parker and Nalla slowed letting out a little laugh as they moved down the stairs.
A second later the banging stopped and so did Nalla and Parker.
“You think he gave up?” Parker asked, sounding a little too optimistic.
“Vince?” Nalla said skeptically.
“We need to go!” Dale said, doubling his speed, “Now!”
Within a few steps Dale had halved the distance Nalla and Parker had gained on him, as they all rushed down the stairs with elevated determination.
“What’s going on Dale?” Nalla asked, her voice coming out sharply.
“Vince doesn’t just give up!” Dale said. As if on cue an ear shattering bang echoed through the tunnel as Vince began shooting his way through the doorway.
The sudden sharp ringing all around them nearly caused Parker to miss a step and fall down the remaining stairs, but at the last second, they managed to catch themselves on the handrail. After what felt like an eternity of high-pitched ringing and rattling around their head, Parker could hear the faint whaps of a foot on the door as it smashed open.
Bullets began to hail down over them, but it was two late. The three of them just managed to get to the bottom of the last set of stairs and dive safely beneath the tunnel’s edge. But their shelter did little to protect the inexecrable ringing that came along with each shot as Vince unleashed his gun from the top level.
“That was close.” Parker said, between rounds of Vince’s bullets when the noise slowly diminished. Whether it was the exhaustion or fear kicking in Parker couldn’t seem to keep themselves from laughing. Nalla and Dale began to laugh as well as the three struggled to their feet and bolted down the tunnel.
They’d gone about two hundred metres when they hit the secure door that was their exit strategy. The solid steel half-moon door stood ominously at the end of the tunnel. Its thick walls were built to keep intruders out and block the thousands of kilometers of underground tunnels the Aqua-lift had been built on.
Parker had discovered the exit a few years back during a safety meeting where they learned that there was a code which could be used to open the gate from the inside. The tunnels would be a last-ditch effort should the Aqua-lift ever experience a major infrastructure breach.
The idea of that happening was so unlikely that most people hadn’t bothered to pay attention. But Parker had managed to write down the code and memorize it for this exact purpose.
“What are we looking for?” Nalla said. Parker was suddenly aware of how white their friend’s face was and how much blood had soaked into her clothes. “Parker!” Nalla shouted again, “Focus.”
“It’s a metal circuit board about the size of an open book.” Parker said, regaining their focus. There will be time to worry about them later.
“Something like this?” Dale said, wiping his hand over a dusty metal board which seemed to light up at his touch.
“Exactly!” Parker said excitedly. “Help Nalla to the door and I’ll open the hatch.” Parker said. Dale didn’t need to be told twice.
“Okay putting in the code now” Parker said watching their friends get to the door. Parker had run the number over every day in their head for the past two years and although they had never actually done it, they knew exactly what they had to do. They kept the fact that they were surprised the system still had any power in it to themself. Maybe one day that would be something we all laugh about, but not yet.
With a loud crack and a sudden rush of air, a small section in the middle of the steel barricade began to open. Its mouth was large enough for four people, side by side, to walk through.
“Come on Parker!” Nalla shouted as Dale propped Nalla up on one of his shoulders. Parker smiled and started for their friends As gun shots fired around the door, purposefully missing them all.
“Stop! All of you! It’s over.” Vince yelled from somewhere back in the tunnel.
Parker fell to the ground their hands smacking the dusty floor as they looked up and screamed towards their friends.
“Go!” Parker shouted and watched as Nalla tried and failed to run back towards them, only to be stopped by another barrage of bullets fired by Vince. Dale, ignoring Nalla’s desire to go back and help, picked her up and carried her behind the saftey of the steel wall.
“No!” Vince cried out as he released another round of bullets at the doorway. Parker figured he couldn’t be more than fifty meters behind them.
Parker got up and turned to face Vince and with the help of their light was able to make out the vague figure of a man walking towards them.
“I can’t let you leave Parker.” Vince said, though his voice lacked any real conviction as it the words seemed to catch in his throat.
“How could you do it Vince? How could you betray us?” Parker’s eyes pleaded with him. “How could you do it to me?”
“You were supposed to take the deal. You still could! We could have been happy.” But Vince’s words seemed hollow to Parker.
“Knowing that our friends would die.” Parker said bitterly.
For a long moment Vince simply stood there looking at Parker unable to move.
“Parker, we have to leave—-” Nalla began but Vince fired off another round of bullets.
“Shut up!” Vince cried out. “I can’t let you leave Parker. I’m sorry.”
“If you want me to stay here, you’re going to have to shoot me Vince.” Parker’s eyes were set on Vince’s and even in the shadow cast over his face, Parker could see the tears on his face.
“I can’t.” He said painfully, as he pointed a shaky gun towards Parker. “I can’t let you leave here.” Each one of his words were strained.
“You wouldn’t shoot me Vince?” Parker hadn’t meant it to be a question and yet they suddenly began wondering just what he was be capable of. There had been a time when Parker would have trusted him unquestioningly. But that was before today, before he betrayed Hydros, his friends and me. I’m not sure what he’s capable of now.
Parker sucked in a deep breath and stood painfully still as they began weighing their options. They could hear the heavy breathing of Nalla and Dale safe behind the door. They’re only safe if I can shut the door and stop Vince from chasing them.
Slowly, Parker turned away from the monitor.
“Stop!” Vince yelled, waving his gun threateningly toward Parker. “What are you doing? Stop moving. I’ll shoot you Parker!” Vince yelled, “All hell… I will!”
Parker stopped and turned to face Vince.
“You will have to shoot me Vince, that is the only way this ends.” Parker said hitting a button on the monitor as a blinking yellow light began flickering off the monitor.
“Oh, water be damned Parker what have you done?” Vince said.
“It’s a timer Vince. In 20 seconds, one of two things will happen. You will either let me go with Nalla and Dale or you will shoot me.” Parker said and they began slowly stepping backwards towards the open doorway.
“Parker please don’t make me do this.” Vince pleaded as he matched Parkers steps towards the door.
“You did this to yourself Vince. The moment you betrayed us. Sooner or later, this is what you would have to do.” Parker’s voice was flat and level as they stared at Vince, tears streaming heavily down his face now. Parker felt a few on their own cheeks. Each step Parker took closer to the exit, Vince seemed to match.
“Time for you to decide, Vince.” Parker said as they lifted their arms over their head and slowly turned towards the door. Letting out a deep breath, Parker took the final steps towards their friends, towards freedom.
It was the pained look on Nalla’s face that Parker noticed first before the searing heat blasted its way out through their shoulder, warm blood leaked out the back of their shoulder. My warm blood?
Parker fell weakly to their knees, as a sudden cry of pain filled the little cavern. It didn’t come from Nalla or Parker but from Vince. Another shot punctured their lower back; the force of the bullet caused Parker to lurch forward.
Looking out towards the doorway Parker saw Nalla being held tightly by Dale as she struggled, kicking the dirt around her.
“Waters be damned Dale! Let me go!” Nalla screamed and flailed her arms but Dale kept his arms wrapped tightly around her.
Parker watched as the image of their friends was replaced by metal doors slowly sliding shut and locking in place. Parker was no longer able to see what was on the other side but managed to find calm contentment in knowing their friends were safe. Parker looked up meeting Nalla’s eyes for a brief moment managing to give her a faint smile. The mission had been a success, Hydros would live to fight another day.
Parker’s eyes felt heavy, as they began to droop, their body finally collapsed to the ground sending a cloud of dust up around them. The last thing they felt was a heavy shudder in the ground beneath them as their world faded into darkness.