My boots were worn by now. They had been new when the Magistrate gave them to me. The hard, thick soles clunked against the metal flooring with each heavy step. I had been searching for what must have been weeks. I shifted the weight of my repeater rifle to be more comfortable as I walked the halls of the agricultural building. It was another home-made weapon, but this one had a significant level of sophistication. It was nearly semi-automatic, but for all the frequent jamming. Most of the ammunition used down here were recycled bolts and screws, and other miscellaneous hardware that had been modified – either melted down and recast as crude bullets, or simply loaded by the hand-full into large pipes used as shotguns. Being a large science installation, the rig was littered with chemicals – and in the right hands, it was not too difficult to craft some gunpowder. Fortunately my weapon had been designed to spring-load the projectile, and cleverly refill the combustion chamber with a perfectly measured charge of gunpowder after each shot. But the whole mechanism was bulky, and heavy – and I couldn’t fire it upside down, as the powder was gravity fed from a small hopper above the stock of the weapon.
The boots, the gun, even my odd-looking sleeveless leather jacket and pants – all gifts from the Magistrate. Perhaps they were more like investments as far as she was concerned. The clothing was meant to be some attempt at crude armor, which considering the home-made nature of most of the weapons down here, it was often enough to stop a projectile, or deflect a screw-driver, etc. In addition to the pants and jacket, I was given a gas mask, modified with a small oxygen tank. There were places in the rig where oxygen was thin – or there even were toxic gases in places. The ventilation and oxygen systems were not all in perfect condition, so you had to be careful when wandering. If I ever started to feel light-headed, I would turn the valve on my oxygen tank slightly to give myself a little boost.
I thought back to when the Magistrate had given them to me.
“I need you to fetch something for me.” She removed her hat with her left hand letting waist-long, black hair fall over her shoulders. For the first time I was able to see her facial features. Her complexion was fair and smooth. There was a youthful innocence about her, until I locked eyes with her again. Suddenly I felt I was in the same room as a very powerful predator – a leopard or falcon came to mind. “I’ve told you I don’t like giving away my things. Well, I also don’t like losing my things.”
“You’ve lost something?” I inquired.
“Not exactly.” she replied. “More like taken.”
“What was it?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is who took it.” there was a quiet rage that could be seen behind her eyes.
“So, you want me to find this person?”
“And you can get me to the surface if I do?”
“You won’t want to by then, but sure. I can.” she leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms.
“Why should I believe you?”
“I’m the queen of Laurentia, Baby. Who else would know if there’s a way up top?”
“I’m not one of your sheep. Don’t play me.” I was quiet but firm.
“I don’t play games.” she started. “It did not take me long after the decent to figure out that people need things – want things. And if I need something, I must give people what they want. Or in your case, what you think you want. I didn’t get to where I am by offering things I couldn’t deliver.”
“Quid pro quo.” I responded in understanding.
“Tit for tat.”she said, smiling wide.
“So who is this person, and where is he?” I asked.
“HER name is Elena, and she is very dangerous.” she got up and started walking across the room towards a cabinet.
“Who is she to you? Why is she dangerous?” I asked.
“She’s a thief. Nothing more. But she willfully disrupted the order I have established by taking what was mine.” she explained. “We’re all in close quarters down here, Harbinger. It’s a tight ecosystem, and I don’t have any room for dissidents. Crazy as these sheep are, they listen to me.”
“Except this one.” I responded.
“Except for Elena.” she confirmed.
“Max and Larry – ” I began.
“What about them?” she opened the right cabinet door and began to reach inside.
“I wasn’t their only captive they were bringing to you, you know.” I continued. “A young man. Cody. He was terrified to meet you. He thought surely it would mean death for him.” Without facing me, she turned her head over her right shoulder to listen. “Cody shot himself in the head. He would rather die than meet you. Why is that?”
She bowed her head toward the cabinet slightly before responding quietly. “You. You chuck a Molotov cocktail of poisons at the cerebral cortex of a brain, and you expect their fears to be rational?” She turned toward me with a large duffle bag in her hand. “This was your doing, Harbinger. Not mine.” She tossed the bag across the table toward me. It hit the center of the table and slid to me, barely missing my tumbler. “I am sorry I never met Cody. He needed a shepherd too – just like the rest of them.”
“So where is she?” I asked. “What do you want me to do?”
“If I knew where she was, I wouldn’t need you to find her.” she retorted. “You must find her, and bring her to me.”
“You don’t have any leads at all?” I asked.
“Elena, like the rest of them, was fixated on a singular thing. Since so much of their minds are corrupted, they often find comfort in latching on to a singular thing or idea. For some it’s a color, or a song. For others it’s a person, or inanimate object. Her’s were nursery rhymes.”
“You must know her pretty well then?” she looked back at me with amusement.
“It was hard not to know at least that much. Always wandering the corridors and halls spouting her quaint little verses. It’s as though a children’s book store was thrown in a blender, and she drank it – every last jumbled limerick and couplet of the thing. The locals had started to refer to her as Mother Goose.”
“How does this help me?”
“In recent days leading up to her theft and disappearance, she had crafted a new corruption of hers. I hadn’t thought much of it. The spoutings of insanity are seldom intelligible. But I’m starting to think there may have been more method than madness in her – as if she was trying to mentally map out a plan for herself. It’s just a theory, but it may help you.”
“What was her rhyme?” she handed me a piece of paper.
“I wrote it down. I still don’t know what it means. It may mean nothing. But it’s all I’ve got to go on.”
I read the poem aloud slowly.
“As I was walking to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
He fed them to the Big Bad Wolf,
Who cut them down with forks and knives.
Forks and knives and Seven wives
Seven lives for old St. Ives.” – I looked at the paper, confused.
“She had been repeating that stupid thing for days before she disappeared.” She said. “Over and over.”
“And you have no idea what it may mean? This is just a hunch you have?” I was beginning to feel doubtful about the arrangement.
“Listen, you’ve only been awake a short while.” She walked to the table and started pulling equipment out of the duffle and setting it before me. “But you are a Harbinger. You are capable of more than you could possibly know, Sweetheart. You can do this. You must.”
“According to you, this is my only option.” she stopped and looked directly in my eyes, before smiling broadly.
“Yeah. It is. It really is. Isn’t that great, Sweetheart?” she chuckled to herself. “Find Elena, and I’ll get you to the surface.”