Three Cleansers waved the transporter in, guiding the driver through the path in the woods. The trees seemed to blend together, and the thick carpet of leaves on the ground covered all traces of the ground below, making it easy for the large, bulky vehicle to lose the trail and crash. They had decided it was worth it though: their enemies would have just as much work getting there, and even more in actually finding the place. Besides that, supply deliveries were a rare occurrence, and would gradually diminish in regularity as soon as they were done moving into the building.
Eric Hader stepped out of the front door just as the vehicle pulled up in front of the building. He walked over to its trailer, nodding in acknowledgment to one of the Cleansers who had helped guide it in as he passed. The driver arrived there the same time as he did, and he unlocked the door before pulling it upwards. The two then lifted themselves into the trailer. Once inside the driver removed a checklist from atop one of the boxes, and began flipping through it. Eric took the opportunity to study him. Greying stubble shadowed his face, accentuated by deep wrinkles and a toughened leathery appearance, and upon closer inspection he noted grime beneath his fingernails. The overall combined effect gave him a rugged, somewhat unkempt look akin to most Transport drivers. Eric sniffed in faint distaste; they were nothing more than tools, their job simple and requiring more memorization and routine than skill, yet they were still considered Cleansers, and colleagues as such. They were not held to the same standards, and long hours on the roads had a strange, undesirable effect on both their appearances and the way they acted in social situations.
The driver continued flicking through papers, absentmindedly tugging at his uniform, which seemed a size too big and had a dark, rusty red stain on the upper left corner. Eric turned away, grimacing in disgust. By then the other two Cleansers had arrived with several others trailing behind to help, and the driver set the clipboard aside. Together they set about unpacking the trailer by passing supplies down to the Cleansers below, who then took them inside.
“So,” Eric huffed, passing a large box down to the Cleanser below, “how are things in the rest of the city?” The driver studied him out of the corner of his eye, much like Eric had for him, before nodding.
“I just now came from Block 3, so I don’t know much else ‘bout the other three- or two, I suppose.”
“Well, whatever you know is certainly more than what we know. We’ve been holed up here working on finishing this infernal building for the past two months or so, no contact with the outside world aside from drivers like you delivering supplies. Coms still aren’t set up properly, so until then we’ve been trying to find out as much as possible from them whenever we get the chance.”
“Well, I can’t honestly say I have much t’ give you. Nothing big, which I suppose depending on how you look at it can either be a good thing or a bad thing.” Eric nodded in agreement. “Hmm.” The driver thought for a moment. “Nope, nothing to really mention. I mean, there was that whole skirmish in the Village, but I suppose you’ve already heard about all that.”
“Sorry? Something happened in the Government Village?” The driver looked startled.
“You haven’t heard about that?” Eric tried to hide his irritation.
“If I had, would I be asking about it now?”
“Well, what was it now, two weeks ago? One of them Inner Circle guys was found dead in his house, lying in bed with a bullet in his head.” He tapped his temple twice, indicating where he had been shot. “No evidence or anything. All the surveillance stuff, all them cameras and security traps, turned up nothing. Whoever it was got past the Hell Robots patrolling the house outside, too. So nothing turns up. Then, a few days later, another Inner Circle member’s Hell Robots started going all crazy and shooting after something, but no bodies or anything were ever found.” The driver paused, and Eric took a moment to absorb the information. “So now there’s a bunch of the more paranoid Government members who’re bringing their robots into the house with them. You know, in case anyone gets in. Personally I wouldn’t have one of those things anywhere near me, much less five or six watching me while I sleep. Those blank, faceless heads, all cold and expressionless. Clear bodies, like a ghost.” He shuddered. “Unnatural, if you ask me.”
“There are no leads whatsoever?”
“Well… you know how they are. No one ever really knows everything that goes on in the shadow of those walls. They’re not revealing much information.” Eric nodded.
“The victims, they were…”
“No biggies. I couldn’t even tell you their names. Minors compared to the others, easily replaceable. Still, to assassinate any member of the Inner Circle?” He whistled appreciatively.
“And inside the Village walls, no less,” Eric mused.
“Yeah. Makes you wonder.” He glanced around conspiratorially, as though afraid someone might be eavesdropping, and then leaned in, his voice low. “In fact, there’s a rumor going around that no one ever actually got past the wall.” He left the sentence hanging in the air between them, and it didn’t take long for Eric to puzzle out what he meant.
“An inside job. You think someone inside the Village is committing these murders.” The driver shook his head, and gave his nose two quick taps with his finger.
“Not me. No, I’m just a deliverer.” Eric scrutinized the Cleanser who accepted the box from him, and she seemed to intentionally avoid meeting his gaze. He waited until she was out of earshot, taking the box inside, before talking again.
“But why? What purpose would it serve? Is it a coup? Or is it just an individual murderer, killing for the fun of it?” The driver grinned, flashing a mouth of yellow teeth.
“How should I know? Like I said, I’m just a deliverer.” He turned away, walking to the very back of the bus. Eric looked about and saw with some surprise that they had finished unpacking the trailer, save one item which the driver was now heading towards. Eric followed, trying to see past him at what it was.
“I was told to give this to your first-in-command, but seeing as she didn’t feel the need to grace a humble driver with her presence, I suppose you’ll do just fine as her second-in-command. Besides, I like you.”
“What is it?” The driver grunted in response, his back still facing Eric as he fumbled with whatever it was he was facing.
“Said I liked you; didn’t say I trusted you. Still, I suppose telling you will feed your curiosity for some time, if not entirely satisfy it.” Eric had stopped listening, and now stood just behind the driver. He peered over the shorter man’s shoulder, but couldn’t make out what he was doing. “This is a very important item.” He turned. “It may very well hold the key to ending the war.”
Eric’s eyes trailed downwards, to the object in his hands. It was a cardboard box, aside from its smaller size very much the same as all the other boxes that had been in the trailer.
“What is it?” Eric asked again, finding his fingers twitching with the urge to take the box from his hands. The driver shrugged.
“You really think they’d tell the delivery guy? Hell, it could be anything, granted it fits in the box. All I know is what I was told and what I was told is that inside this box is a very important item that could very well hold the key to ending the war, and that I was to give it to your first-in-command as soon as I got here, and t’ tell you- or her, I suppose, that you would need to take it on the second half of the delivery to the Block 4 Cleanser Leader.”
“Mr. Basket?” Eric frowned, before looking up at the driver with suspicion. “Why don’t you just take it yourself? And if it’s as important as you say, why the hell would they transport it here, to the middle of nowhere? And with no guards and minimum protection to boot? And why is it even going to Mr. Basket?”
“All very good questions. Let me tell you something; never stop asking questions, especially the right ones. Especially the right ones. But, suffice to say, I can’t answer any of them. Just the deliverer, remember?” He grinned again, a smile that, despite his claims to the contrary, suggested he knew more than he was letting on. “Now,” he shoved the box into Eric’s hands, “I’ve gotta go. Plenty of deliveries, and not enough time. Never enough time.” He walked out of the trailer, Eric following behind still studying the box. He turned it in his hands studying all angles, and lifted it to his ear. “Don’t you dare shake that box, Hader,” the driver warned without turning, voicing Eric’s exact thoughts. He stepped down off the platform with a grunt, and began making his way back along the trailer to the driver’s seat. Eric hopped down with ease, looking up and noticing they were now the only ones outside.
“It’s delivery man, you know. Or woman.”
“You called yourself a deliverer, but you’re a delivery man. Deliverer has an entirely different meaning.” The driver turned aside slightly, so that Eric caught the profile of his face just as the grin spread over it.
“Who says I can’t be both?” It was only as the large transporter pulled away, now making easy work of the path, that Eric realized there was no way the driver could have known his last name or his position as second-in-command.
Back inside the rest of his squad were making quick work of distributing and sorting through the pile of supplies. He supervised for a moment, barking a few commands and directing his subordinates on where to take the various provisions, before heading for the stairs. Ascending two steps at a time, he considered the box in his hands. The manner in which it had been delivered was suspicious, to say the least. Eric knew how things worked back in Block 3. Those pompous blowhards didn’t know the meaning of incognito, and wouldn’t be clever (or modest) enough to think of protecting something by making it seem undesirable. The importance of their own invention would be too much for them to undermine in any way, including in the amount of security it was given. Even if they had managed to go with the inconspicuous route, it was still often a better idea to risk stressing its value and importance with more protection. The chances of enemies organized or powerful enough to overwhelm the guard happening across a transport were small enough to be considered insignificant, and the likelihood of anyone outside knowing of a transport before the date, allowing them to prepare in advance, was even more unlikely. Of course transport robberies were always a possibility, undertaken by Rebels or the occasional desperate band of Scavengers, but unsuccessful attempts outnumbered these considerably, even more so by uneventful deliveries.
Nevertheless it was hardly justifiable to protect an item that “could very well hold the key to ending the war” with the old misleading trick. Especially from people who were desperate enough to take anything and risk everything. The only real benefit to travelling with a lighter guard was speed, but getting the item to them had hardly been urgent enough to risk losing it to the Rebels. Which brought him to the item itself. He could not fathom why they would bother sending it to them to then take to Mr. Basket rather than taking it directly there. Not only were they out of the way by several miles, but they were also still undergoing preparations and were hardly capable of defending themselves against a large threat, much less the kind of response an item of such importance might stir up. It simply didn’t add up. Again, he found himself longing to open the box to see what it contained, but he knew the possible (and likely) consequences would not be worth satisfying his curiosity.
He took the box all the way up to the ninth floor, where their squadron leader was rooming. Outside her door he hesitated one last time, looking at the box’s peeling tape with temptation painted across his face. All it would take was a quick reapplication of tape, and no one would be the wiser. Even if the tape wrinkled or something no one else had seen the box yet and he could bluff his way through any curiosity easily, claiming it had come like that. His fingers itched. A sound from the other side of the door stirred him from contemplation, and shaking his head to clear it, he knocked twice.
“Enter,” came the curt reply, to which Eric rolled his eyes before turning the knob. She was convinced it made her sound professional, powerful, and above all else, intimidating. Inside Deborah Carsen stood at the window, looking out into the dense foliage of the forest below. From above, the canopy was so thickly clustered, the leaves overlapping one another until the ground below was completely obscured from view, that each individual tree was indistinguishable from the mass. “What do you need?”
“That promotion,” he said, dropping the box onto the desk loudly enough to catch her attention without potentially causing damage to whatever might be inside. She turned, and frowned at the invasion of her work space.
“What is that?”
“Hell if I know. Some screwball delivery man gave it to me, said it was imperative to ending the war.”
“He said that?”
“That’s what I just said, isn’t it? Yes, he said that, after about fifteen minutes of senseless rambling.” Normally she would be on his case for the backtalk, but now she was approaching the box, watching it intently as though expecting it to solve the war right then and there in front their eyes. He noticed, and watched her suspiciously. “Crazy, right?” He paused, but received no acknowledgment, and after a moment’s hesitation he pressed on. “I think we should open it.” This finally earned him a reaction as her eyes flicked over to meet his with a cold intensity.
“Are you mad?”
“To the contrary, I think that driver was mad, almost as mad as you if you’re even considering believing what he said-”
“If what you said is true-”
“No, no, no. If what he said is true, not me. I’m just the messenger here.”
“Fine then. If what he’s said is true-”
“You weren’t even there! I saw him; I know what he said and how he said it, and I can almost guarantee you he was either crazy, or he was making some kind of screwed-up joke.”
“What did he say, exactly? Word for word.” He took a deep breath.
“He said the item could potentially end the war, that we had to take it to the Block Leader as soon as possible, and that he didn’t know anything more than what they had told him.” She raised an eyebrow.
“That doesn’t sound word for word.” Eric ran his fingers through his hair with a deep exhale.
“For life’s sake- look, okay? That’s the gist of it, and everything else was rambling. I already told you he was nuts.” She looked back towards the box contemplatively.
“I think we should deliver it to Basket now,” she said quietly after a moment.
“What?” he exploded. “Are you actually crazy? Because that was a joke, what I said before.” He received a pointed look, and forced himself to remember that he was talking to his boss. For now, he thought with gritted teeth. “Look, at least tell me we’re going to open it first.”
“And you’re accusing me of being crazy? If this thing is as big of a deal as has been suggested by your crazy delivery man, and Basket finds out we tampered with it…” she shuddered, so perfectly synched Eric wondered if perhaps she had forced it. “You don’t know that… monster in man’s clothing. He’s done things that make your twisted lack of humanity look positively compassionate. And you dare suggest I play against that?”
“But it doesn’t make sense!” He was practically begging now. “Why wouldn’t they just take it straight to Basket, rather than risk losing it on the way here?”
“Maybe… maybe it’s a test.”
“A test. Really.”
“No- listen. Things have been shifty lately. Placing us in the forest so far out of the way, practically cutting us off, maybe it’s all some sort of test. Yeah, maybe, maybe it’s some kind of test. And this is just another part of it!” Her excitement was revelatory, as though she had suddenly connected all the dots. “They want to see if we’ll let our curiosity get the better of us and betray the cause.”
“You do realise it’ll take forever to arrange getting a psychologist out here, right?”
“Just shut up for a minute. I’m thinking.” He consented, watching her through narrowed eyes as she bit her lip in thought. Suddenly she looked back at him, a strange expression on her face.
“Hell, I think it has to do with you.”
“I’ve heard they have some really good rehabilitation programs with the asylums down in Block 3,” he said gently.
“Shut up, or I’ll see to it that promotion never leaves my desk. You know you need my approval as your squad supervisor to get the ball rolling for the Block leader.” He mimed zipping his mouth shut and throwing away the key. “Now listen. You’ve been on the list for a promotion for a while now, right? But you’ve been kept back for… assorted reasons.”
“‘Excessive use of force and unwarranted cruelty’, and ‘several accounts of unprecedented actions pertaining to the unauthorised executions of prisoners of war’,” he quoted, word for word.
“Yes. Now return to shutting up.”
“The only reasons you haven’t been executed, severely reprimanded or at the very least demoted by now is partially because they’ve mostly been minor cases, but chiefly because otherwise you’re a damn good Cleanser. I’d warn you not to let that go to your head, but I know that’d be a waste of breath. Anyways, to make sure they can trust you when it comes to the big things, they set this test up.”
“So you say.”
“What did I say about shutting up? I mean, think about it. You said it yourself: why else would they send it here rather than straight to Basket? And why give it to the second-in-command? If it was that important why not deliver it straight to me?”
“He did say he was supposed to give it to you,” Eric mused.
“Well he didn’t, did he? Why risk losing your job over laziness?”
“You’re forgetting he was a transporter driver.”
“Stop stereotyping. And shut up. Now, they want to check if you’ll let your curiosity and power lust get the better of you, and disobey a direct order.”
“Technically I outrank a driver, so he can’t give me an order.”
“He can deliver an order.”
“Look, I’m not going to get sidetracked. The point is, they’re doing this to test you. Listening to me is in your best interest.”
“All implications pertaining to my mental health aside, assuming your theory is correct why wouldn’t they tell you anything about this?” Carsen shrugged.
“Maybe they’re testing me too. Hell, for all you know they did tell me, and I’m just giving you a little advice disguised as self-interest. Look, I agree with you as far as the item is concerned; it makes no sense for them to give us the most important weapon in the history of the war. So the way I see it, the only explanation is that they’re testing you. It fits, doesn’t it?”
“The last time I checked, they didn’t go to such… creative lengths to make sure their candidates for squadron leaders were suited for the job. Doesn’t this seem a bit too far-fetched to you? At all? I mean, admittedly my case deserves an extra once-over, but that seems like something my interviewer might take care of, not some elaborate and overcomplicated plan to determine if I’ll let my curiosity get the better of me that has nothing to do with the real reason I’ve disobeyed commands on occasion.”
“Okay then, so what’s your explanation?”
“I don’t have one. But I know where to find the real one.” He pointed one accusatory finger towards the box.
“But- but whatever’s in there will explain everything!”
“Or it could screw up both of our futures forever.”
“Since when have you ever even been interested in my well-being?”
“Are you kidding? If you get this promotion you’ll be out of my life once and for all! Your ‘well-being’ at this point is my number one concern! So no, we will not be opening that box. In fact, I’m going to put the box in your care, so that any repercussions fall directly onto you if it is opened.”
“You realize they’ll still blame you, as my direct supervisor, for entrusting it with me?”
“Nope. Not after I deny ever receiving word of this. And considering that driver delivered this to you, not me, I think I’ll be in the clear. Maybe something small for not having better knowledge of what goes on around here, but I can always pass that off as a consequence of all the moving-in chaos. And, as an added bonus, given your history of truancies…” she left the implication hanging in the air between them.
“Shit, I came here looking for your advice-”
“And I gave it.”
“-how the hell did we get to another conflict in which one of us gets screwed over, threatened, or blackmailed by the other?”
“Like I said, the box is yours now, as is whatever it contains. Do with it what you will, just know that if things go south I will not let you drag me down with you. When the time comes tomorrow for you to meet with Basket to discuss this,” here she took up his promotion candidate file from the desk and shook it in the air, “you can either bring it with you unopened and untouched as that driver said, which is my suggestion, or you can screw around and likely get yourself killed.” Eric opened his mouth for a retort, then thought better of it and turned to go. “You’re forgetting something.” With one final glare he grabbed the box, tucking it under his arm as he turned to go. Her smug grin was the last thing he saw before the door closed.