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The King's Confessor

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Nov 19th, 2020
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  1. Chapter 1
  3. Another dawn with the light of the sun filtering down into the cave. No warmth comes with it. I hold in my hands a steaming cup of coffee, the warmth fighting for dominance of my fingers against the New Arctic cold. The scent of the roasted beans and hit water trails up to my nose, and with the first sip trailing warmth down to my core it dispels the weariness in my heart and the cold in my bones. Its blessings welcome, the taste does nothing for my senses, mouth curling in disgust. Black as battery acid. No sugar or cream up here.
  5. Before the invasion this was the ass end of Russia. The kind of place no sane soul wishes to go that was not already born of its bitter chill. Then again, I may be hard pressed to classify my boss among those sane souls. Common sensibilities are the price paid for genius, the price of that power to peer into Mother Nature’s hiding places.
  7. Another draft from the warm mug between my naked fingers grants the inertia to pull myself from the cold stone upon which I had sit to watch the sunrise. I turn from the morning light, and what greets me is cold metal stretched across more cold stone. The thump of my heavy boots accompanies me to the keypad. Four familiar electronic chirps sing from the machine, and the gate unlocks with a hydraulic hiss.
  9. “Guten Morgen, Mister Cole,” the clinical tones of Dr. Vahlen greet me as I enter. Clipboard in hand, pen moving like lightning, she scrawls looping ciphered text. “Are you ready for Subject Gamma’s lessons today?”
  11. Surrounding us, other lab assistants and technicians move to and fro. Our team is small. It needs to be. Supply is scarce out here when we need to hide not only from ADVENT, but from the resistance. If they knew what we were doing here they would raid us and burn our lab to the ground, one as surely as the other.
  13. “Caffeinated and ready, Doctor.”
  15. “Excellent,” she turns to me and looks me up and down. A dry, expectant smile of approval finds her eyes. “And already dressed for the job. You continue to impress.”
  17. Doctor Vahlen is not the same woman I worked with in the invasion. Her hair is marred with grey, and a streak of white that she tucks behind her ear. When her eyes began to go, she was not shy about using gene therapy rather than deign to wear glasses like a normal person. It’s a shame, she could have pulled off the sexy librarian look. For the people who are into that sort of thing. Instead she only fed into the rumors among the lab techs that she is secretly a reptilian.
  20. Into the enclosure I descend, colleagues watching from above behind a pane of mindshield glass. Behind my I drag the carcass of a wild boar, freshly caught by our hunters. Gamma is easier to work with when fed. Nutrient slop from the tanks does little for the appetite. From the opposite end of the enclosure emerges Vahlen’s pet project. Low to the ground, he slides over the rocks to meet me in the middle. A plastic table has been unfolded, a centerpiece to the observation enclosure, and beside it a plastic chair for me.
  22. Heaving, I hurl the gift of swine in his direction. A flash of white lightning shoots from the floor and snatches the boar from the air, driving it into the ground. Black eyes, amber reptilian slits at the center, look up at me. Slowly they widen from their narrow, almost imperceptible predatory line, into a smoother and rounder expression of recognition.
  24. I try not to pay attention when he eats. Instead, I take my seat at the table and wait, hands folded in front of me, fingers now protected by warm winter gear. “How are you feeling today, Gamma?”
  26. “I want to go outside.” The pronunciation of his English is smooth and natural. I try not to brag, but I like to think part of that is my skill as a teacher. A high school chemistry teacher before the invasion, a lab assistant for XCOM during the invasion, now a private tutor for an alien. My life has come full circle.
  28. Gamma’s full form slides into view. Snow white scales, glowing under the artificial light. Patterns of blue and black decorate his back. The black horns along the edges of his hood and waist are not present on the female viper cadavers that Vahlen ‘acquired’. There is no apparent practical use. Evidence of sexual dimorphism in the species before the Elders dug into them. That means they have a homeworld somewhere, just like us.
  30. No garb clothes his naked form, the sleek tone of the muscles in his chest bare for all to see. Modesty is not a concern with his equipment packed away, and the cold never bothered him anyway.
  32. “You know I’m not allowed to take you outside, Gamma. Have you finished reading the book I gave you?”
  34. The first male specimen of his kind, that we know of, to set coil on the Earth. Gamma’s long body winds beneath him from his standing position on the opposite side of our table. Poised like a spring. In front of him, hands with four digits each are wrapped around the cover of the book. Of Mice and Men. Gamma’s head curls down to regard his possession, which he sets upon the table with reluctance. “I have.”
  36. “What did you think of the story?”
  38. His eyes watch me, watch my face. For any hint of a tell, of what I want to hear. Subject Gamma is clever. The cleverest of the three by far. “Am I meant to be Lennie?” I cannot help but laugh at the idea, an expression that Gamma recognizes from our past interactions. His hood flares out, and his tone of voice is insulted. “What is so funny?”
  40. “You’re not Lennie, Gamma. You’re too smart for that. Sometimes a book is just a book.”
  42. My compliment brings him back down, his posture relaxes but does not sink. He makes certain that he is always the tallest in the room. I know Gamma. His growth and development were accelerated when Vahlen thawed him out, but in all that time I have been his mentor. Gamma has an ego, and he loves to have it stroked.
  44. “I liked George, until the end,” at last he opens up honestly.
  46. “Then do you think George made the wrong decision? What would you have done instead?”
  48. “Lennie trusted him, and he killed Lennie. He should have taken the gun, and destroyed the enemies that were coming for Lennie.”
  50. I can see in Gamma’s body language that the betrayal is bothering him. The tensing muscles in his hands, the drooping edges of his mouth as his long pink tongue flicks in and out. Expressions he learned from watching me. Taking a chance, I reach out and set my right hand on his arm. Even through the glove I can feel how cold he is. It happens whenever he gets upset or feels threatened, as part of a defense mechanism. I know of nothing like it in nature. Could it be the Elder’s tampering, or are there even stranger natural abilities among aliens we humans have yet to meet?
  52. “They would be murderers, and both of them would be on the run.”
  54. “They would still be together,” Gamma insists, stubborn and uncompromising on that. I can see quickly that trying to reason with him now is going to go nowhere.
  56. “Why don’t we move on to mathematics?” I offer, to Gamma’s immediate agreement. A short, sharp dip of his head. I can feel the cold beneath my hand fade to warmth, from his calming emotions and the heat sapped from my touch. Our lesson resumes where I left off last time, teaching the process of division. When the emotional element is taken out, Gamma excels. He learns at a rate surpassing human students. Is it a natural Viper trait, or a result of Vahlen’s modifications, I wonder?
  58. But to my regret, our time together must come to an end. “I think that about wraps up today’s lesson. It’s time for your daily physical, Gamma. And time for my lunch.” The edges of his reptilian irises draw closer, narrower. Gamma looks away from me indignantly.
  60. “I know you don’t like it, Prince.” I stand and walk around the table to take him by the arm, whispering to him too quietly for the observers to hear. Vahlen disapproves of nicknaming the subjects, of getting too attached to them. “How about this, I promise to be there the entire time. No lunch until I know you’re alright.”
  62. A deep sigh from down in his body releases a cloud of misty breath, causing frost to spider across the surface of the table in front of him. “You will be there the entire time, Teacher?”
  64. “Nothing would stop me.” Gently, I pull on his arm.
  66. He indignantly pulls his arm away. “I am not a child. I can go on my own.” Down to the floor his upper body dips, hovering just above the stone as he glides away faster than I can keep up with.
  68. I follow him, hand in my pocket as he comes to a stop and waits for me near a tall rock pillar. When I stand next to him out of view of the observation deck, I slip a small chocolate covered cherry out of my pocket and hold it out for him. That long tongue whips out and wraps around it with pinpoint accuracy, tugging it into his mouth where he holds it and savors it just the way I taught him. “I’ll see you soon, Gamma. I’ll be right there with you.”
  72. I remember the early days well. Did vipers always grow up so quickly? Or is that just another of the Elders’ modifications? Back then Gamma was no larger than a dog, all coiled up on the floor of the observation room. He loved my lessons, loved learning. Then again it was the only time he was out of that tank. Suspended like a pickle in a jar, is that any way for a living, thinking creature to live?
  74. He was so disarming, with his perpetual puppy dog smile and none of the black spikes along his side. Those grew in later. I never understood their fears until that one day it went wrong. The day I was reminded that we were dealing with an alien war machine.
  77. Across from me at that same table, coiled on an elevated booster seat, Gamma had been learning his words using alphabet blocks. “Next, I want you to spell washing for me. Washing.”
  79. Gamma’s body stretches out, arching over the table. His muscular tail holds his torso there like as though it were defying gravity. Tiny hands grasp each block, reptilian eyes taking due measure of each letter in turn. Once he finds the letters he is looking for there is no hesitation. Arranged on the table between us is w-a-s-h-i-n-g.
  81. “Very good, Subject Gamma. Can you use washing in a sentence?”
  83. The long tongue in his mouth begins feeling around, testing sounds. He speaks slowly to approximate the sounds that a human mouth can make. “We wash the table after arts and crafts.” He looks up at me and I place a hand on his head, a proud smile on my face.
  85. “That’s right. You’re getting good at this.”
  87. Our lesson is brought to a halt by the intercom crackling to life above. Doctor Vahlen’s cold voice sounds even more distant in the wide, echoing observation chamber. “The allocated time for today’s lesson is over. It is time for Subject Gamma to return to its tank.”
  89. It’s earlier than normal. Vahlen must be eager to run more of her tests. I get up from my chair to lead Gamma back to the exit of the chamber, but he refuses to budge. Even against my pull, his body remains firm. “Too soon. I want to learn more!”
  91. I have to pick him up to move him. He fights against me, trying to wriggle free. I can feel his body getting colder, painfully cold against my bare hands. He’s never fought me like this before. Must be getting into a rebellious phase.
  93. “Mister Cole, be careful!” Vahlen’s voice urges me from above. She presses the alert button and guards begin to rappel down the walls.
  95. “Wait!” I put the struggling snake back down in his high chair and turn to face the two security officers. They are wearing old standard issue XCOM Carapace Armor from the invasion. I can’t see their faces behind tinted glass visors, but I know them. Everyone in a facility this small knows each other. “Grace, Harry. Hold on. I have this under control.”
  97. “It’s poising to strike!” Grace shouts at me, leveling her handgun at Gamma. In a fit of heroic stupidity, I jump in the way. It is not a bullet that rips through me. I feel a sudden numbing of pins and needles shoot through my left arm. The world seems to run in slow motion as I look to the side. It’s like my arm has been covered in liquid nitrogen, frozen solid in an instant. I scream and feel my legs give out as I faint.
  99. The last thing I see is Gamma slithering down to my side with a mortified look on his face, and Harry jabbing a stun prod into his stomach.
  102. That was a long time ago. Six years. I flex the fingers on my prosthetic arm. There is no feeling in them. The only thing that tells me they are moving at all is the sound of tapping on the arm of my plastic chair. My face wears that same mortified look that Gamma had that day. The feeling of betrayal as I watch him poked and prodded in a massive test tube, suspended in chemicals that simultaneously paralyze and sustain him. Little, tiny mechanical digits not unlike my own extract samples with needles. They dig into private places. I can see in his face that he is aware even as his body cannot move.
  104. This is a daily occurrence. Any time Gamma is not in his lessons with me, he is being researched or held in this tube suspended while one of the other subjects is researched. I can see the back of Vahlen’s head as she taps on the keyboard, playing with Gamma like a marionette on her strings. Even without seeing it, I can feel the smug, contented smile on her face.
  106. She is not the same person I knew during the invasion. Are any of us?
  109. Chapter 2
  111. I remember a time when I was an early riser. Every morning I would roll out of bed ready to take on the day. Maybe I’m getting old, or maybe it’s just the cold. Even here, underground and behind walls of alien alloy, the cold seeps down. The New Arctic. Siberia. I don’t know whether the aliens’ name for this place feels colder than our name for it, or not.
  113. The smell wafting under the door of the men’s quarters is what finally gets me up. Hot chocolate. A promise of warmth greater than that my scavenged blankets could offer. My muscles filled with new life, I throw the sheet off and swing out of bed to slip into my day clothes.
  115. When I emerge from the chrysalis of sleep, dreary eyed and dragging my fee through the common area’s door, I find none other than Doctor Vahlen herself stirring the nectar of the gods. Like a female Prometheus who had stolen away the secrets of Olympus to bring them down to us mortals. It’s almost enough to make the prospect of hot chocolate in the morning feel tainted. Almost.
  117. “Doctor? Didn’t you say we didn’t have a lot of this left, only for special occasions?” rubbing my tired eyes, I slide down next to the table in a slump that mostly lands on the chair I was aiming for.
  119. “This is a special occasion.” Her head does not turn when talking to me. Even when all she’s doing is making hot chocolate, her eyes are glued to the task. As if it were the formula for an elixir of youth. I’m too tired to ask again, so she resumes talking where she left off. “The preparations are at last completed for Subject Gamma to go on a field trip. He can finally see the sun.”
  121. A complicated mixture of emotions bubbles up inside of me. Joy, to finally give Gamma the thing he’s been asking for since he was small. Dread, because I know that it’s going to be me escorting him out into the frozen wasteland above us. And last but not least, worry. “What if we run into ADVENT?”
  123. The Ethereals use the New Arctic as a training ground for their alien soldiers, especially for their vipers. Our perimeter cameras have spotted patrols before, shooting at birds for target practice. Even for Doctor Vahlen this seems like a massive risk. And for what, sentiment?
  125. A mug clacking against the table in front of me, steaming a heavenly smell up into my nostrils, stirs me from my thoughts. I look up and see Vahlen’s inhuman, slitted pupils looking down at me. The edges of her eyes are stiff even as she smiles, like a model’s face frozen in time by Botox injections. “There will be no patrols today, I assure you. I have studied their routines.”
  127. I wrap the fingers of my prosthetic hand around the mug, its scalding heat no threat to cold metal. My other hand I hover in the steam rising from it, absorbing every bit of warmth it has to offer. I dare not blow on it and speed up entropy taking this precious moment away. “I know how methodical you are, Doctor. But can you really predict with perfect certainty what the aliens will do? They’re aliens, not human.”
  129. “I am confident.”
  131. Other scientists and lab technicians filing out of their quarters to the siren scent of hot chocolate keeps me from voicing any more concerns. Vahlen turns her back to me, announcing that the conversation is finished, as she rations out the nectar of the gods to each supplicant in turn. I lift the mug to my lips and embrace the scalding touch.
  134. From the tongue down to the stomach, a warmth fills my body. Trickling through me like sunlight through the cracks in an overcast day. Memories flood to mind. Pulled to the surface by the smell and the taste and the heat, memories encoded in every inch of my body.
  136. The first time I had hot chocolate was out at my uncle’s hunting cabin. I remember auntie Sharon telling me as I shivered under my blankets, “Get yourself up, lazybones. I’ve got something to help you warm up for the day.”
  138. It was not her words that roused me from my bed, but the smell. At the time I thought that she was making a chocolate cake. Soon, I was seated in front of the crackling fireplace with a porcelain mug in front of me. Little pink marshmallows floating in a steaming cup of chocolatey brown liquid.
  140. That was the day my uncle taught me to shoot. We went out into the snow and he set empty bottles filled with rocks up on a post. It was so different from in the video games. Memories stirred by the first sip of hot chocolate scalding my tongue, I can recall the advice he gave me. How to steady the gun with my shoulder, the way to set my feet to better handle the recoil. Lessons meant to teach me how to hunt had become life saving during the invasion and occupation.
  142. I steel myself, knowing that one miscalculation by Doctor Vahlen could mean using those skills again today.
  145. Wrapped up in my parka, I step into the observation chamber. There are no scientists watching with pen and ink and paper in hand, not this time. Only former XCOM security guards posted in their usual vantage points. The different situation at an unusual time is all too obvious. Subject Gamma slithers into the room apprehensively. All his life has been routine and measured. Any change is new and frightening.
  147. “It’s alright, Gamma. I’m only here to give you good news today.”
  149. I pull back my chair and take a seat at our table. Subject Gamma inches out from behind his hiding place. The twin tips of his tongue taste the air, coils winding up beneath him across from my chair. “There is no one watching us.” He leaves out the guards, but I know his meaning.
  151. “Today, Doctor Vahlen has given permission for me to take you outside. You’re finally going to get some fresh air, Gamma.” My smile is genuine, but so is the worry in my eyes. I know he can see it. The news excites him at first, the thorns on either side of his wood perking up and wiggling in a way I know means he’s eager. But the excitement dies in his throat before he can celebrate, when he sees my reluctance.
  153. Before my pupil can jump to the wrong conclusions, I open up more. “It might not be safe for us outside. I don’t agree with the Doctor that this is a good idea, but I know you’ve wanted this for a long time.”
  155. “Not safe for me, or not safe for you?”
  157. Gamma’s question steals the smile from my face, in its place clear uncertainty. How would ADVENT react to an alien outside of their control, would they kill or capture? “I don’t know if the danger would kill you Gamma, but I know it wouldn’t be good for you.”
  159. Both of his eyes are fixed on me. The same shape as Doctor Vahlen’s cold reptilian eyes, pupils slitted and watching me with an intelligence beyond the average human. And yet when he smiles, I can see it in the way his eyes soften. To my surprise, he is the one to reassure me. “I will protect us both if need be.”
  161. The edges of my mouth curl up and I pat him on the arm with my right hand, the one made of flesh and blood. “I promise to do the same.” And he knows it. I’ve proven it once before. “I brought some armor for you, just in case. Do you want me to help you put it on?”
  163. Gamma has never been given clothing before, so he is quickly at my side when I pull a set of old prewar body armor from my bag. I can hear the guards shift at his sudden movement, but I hold up a hand to let them know I’m alright. Holding up the vest, I press it against Gamma’s slim torso, lean yet rippling with muscle. I wish I had genetically guaranteed abs like that.
  165. The armor would get caught on the thorns of his hood if he put it on normally. Vahlen had it modified with Velcro straps on the shoulders, so that it could be peeled open and slid on up his tail instead. “The ballistic fabric won’t do anything against plasma fire, but there are some plates in the chest area. Here, we need to work this up your tail to get it on. I know it’s not perfect.”
  167. We begin at the end, Gamma flowing through the vest like a river of white water. I keep it held open for him with both hands and everything goes smoothly until we reach the spikes around his waist. Smaller than the ones on his hood, they still catch on the fabric and I need to take off my glove to manually work it around them one by one. Gamma watches the whole process with an embarrassed look, always peeking at the guards watching in turn.
  169. “This is undignified. I do not like needing help like this. Do you need help to dress yourself?” Gamma asks, indignant.
  171. “Only when I was a child. Don’t worry, I’m sure we can perfect better clothing for you.” With one final tug, I get the vest up past his hips and strap it on around his shoulders. “That feel comfortable?”
  173. “They will not allow me to wear it. The Doctor says that it humanizes me too much.”
  175. I turn so that the guards cannot see my face when I sigh. He overhears a lot of things in the suspension tube that make my job harder. And besides that, things that must hurt him to hear. Treating the Subjects like weapons is exactly what the Elders are doing, can we say we’re any better when we’re holed up in a secret laboratory in the arctic doing the exact same thing?
  177. “I know how much you hate it here, and I understand,” I move my lips silently and Gamma’s eyes follow them. A secret form of communication I helped him learn, letting me talk to him without being overheard. To my disappointment it only works one way. Gamma’s mouth movement is stiffer, more limited than a human’s. All his vocalizations are in the tongue and the throat. “Don’t try to run away, please. Let’s just enjoy some time outside.” Yes, us. I think he will be enjoying it more than me. I always hated the cold.
  179. Gamma’s hood narrows as he pulls it in. Part of our silent communication, once for yes and twice for no. Satisfied that he won’t try anything, I set my bare hand against his arm. The smooth sensation of his scales against my skin as I run it down his arm is as soothing for me as it is for him, and I can feel him relax. “We should get going. This time, you come back up with me.”
  181. I put my glove back on and wrap my scarf tighter around my face. It’s going to be cold out there.
  184. Made tough and brittle by the pervading cold, the outer layer of the snow crunches and creaks beneath my feet like the boards of an old, abandoned mansion. The blanket of white stretches in all directions and extends even into the sky, broken only by the sun and the trees. Behind us the mountain stands as a monument.
  186. There are three armed guards with us. Not Grace or Harry. Gamma is always more on edge around them, they bring up bad memories. I know them all well, the facility is a small community. Not much for entertainment but to talk to each other or play cards. All three are dressed in winterized carapace armor.
  188. Jonesy is in the lead with a shotgun. He was in the United States army before the invasion and volunteered for XCOM during the invasion. One of our most experienced career soldiers. He doesn’t talk much about what he saw in the invasion, and I get it. Plenty of us are ex-XCOM too. We’ve seen some of it.
  190. Subject Gamma is between me and Chao. Another ex-XCOM, but like me he wasn’t originally a soldier. Used to be one of Shen’s engineers. When they started to design the GREMLINs towards the end of the war, he volunteered for training to test them in the field. He’s got one with him now, performing passive field scans. The thing’s flight repulsors are nonfunctional so he carries it as a backpack.
  192. At our rear is Modesty. At least that’s what she goes by, I don’t know for sure if it’s her given name or a nickname. Russian woman, her English is not very good. She and her parents lived out here, paranoid anti-government types. They were the leaders of a resistance cell up here until ADVENT ‘peacekeepers’ arrived to ‘peacefully disperse’ the resistance camp. We found her half dead in the snow and brought her in. Hell of a shot with a rifle
  194. Modesty has a leafy branch in her hand, sweeping it from side to side behind us to cover the trail. We leave footprints in the snow and ADVENT patrols can follow us back to the facility. Not to mention the rut that Gamma leaves behind him.
  196. “What do you think, Subject Gamma?” the answer to my question is written across his body language, clear as the white snow. He stares up at the sky with a hand covering his eyes from the intense brightness. Then he flicks his eyes to the pine trees covered in small green needles. Then the snow, which he scoops up in his hand to marvels at.
  198. “This is better than all the books in the world. It is so beautiful,” Gamma looks at me with his hood thorns twitching upwards, wiggling in joy. His excitement is contagious and cracks me up into a smile. Even Chao is smiling, I can see it under Gamma’s arm. Try as the engineer may to hide it.
  200. “Does the cold bother you at all?” I ask, genuinely curious. The cave where we meet was never warm. The wind out here though, it makes a huge difference.
  202. Gamma’s hood tightens in brief introspection. “A little. The wind makes my eyes feel dry.” Lids slide in from either side to narrow his eyes, not from above like a human’s. They are able to leave the slits of his pupils exposed even while the rest of the eye is covered up. “You cannot handle the cold very well,” he observes, running a claw along the crisp outer fabric of my parka.
  204. “No, if I went dragging through the snow naked like you I would lose a lot of important parts.” Curiously, his arm does not feel cold as it does when he is upset. Instead it feels warm against the fabric. I take off my glove and reach out to touch his hand. Confirming that yes, he feels warm to the touch. “You warm up when it’s cold. Does that ever happen after one of your episodes?” Gamma looks away shyly when I bring it up.
  206. “Yes. Sometimes it feels warm after.” His answer makes sense. It’s not as though his body can somehow run on the cold instead of on heat, Carnot would be rolling over in his grave. It compensates with heat.
  208. “I don’t know why I let myself think you were some sort of ice elemental,” I say to myself, a chuckle breathed out as a plume of warm steam in the freezing air. Gamma looks at me curiously with his horns perked up. “It’s nothing, nevermind. Maybe I’ll explain to you someday.” As if Vahlen would ever let me show Gamma video games.
  210. “Hold on,” a third voice cuts in. Chao, eyes scanning across readings from his cobbled together GREMLIN. “I’m picking up movement to our right.”
  212. I turn my head and look, but tree and foliage cover blocks line of sight. Modesty holds up a hand towards us, open palm facing back at us. The hand sign to remain still and be quiet. She lowers her profile while she slides ahead as silent as a serpent, herself. A thin opening between the bush and the tree, her eye peers through. My heart skips a beat when she holds up a hand with four fingers, and then twists her digits around to form a crude image of a capital A. Four contacts. ADVENT.
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