Tommy was totally unaware of any passage of time between being knocked out and regaining consciousness. No dreams, no thoughts; it was like he was hit from behind and then the next second he was struggling to sit up. There seemed to be hands all over him, pulling him down to the surface he’d been lying upon. He opened his eyes, saw brightness, an unfamiliar room, half a dozen very agitated people, agitated because they were struggling against him, heard snippets of words and shouts, mostly in a language or in languages that he didn’t understand, with the occasional phrase in English:
“. . . hold his arm . . .”
“. . . strong bugger!”
“. . . get the needle . . .”
“No, no needle. I want him awake.” This from someone who was standing apart from the others.
Tommy was now fully roused, although thoroughly confused, and he began to fight his unknown assailants with a fury that was fueled by his fear. In his disoriented bewilderment, all he could think about was escape. With a free leg he kicked somebody in the chest; he got an arm loose and grabbed the cloth of someone’s shirt, and then there were five people on top of him. Someone was trying to strap a leg to the table or whatever it was he was on; they were trying to strap his other limbs . . .The table tipped over, and the chaotic struggle continued on the floor. A wave of pain in his head almost overwhelmed him, and for an instant his world was black again. Nevertheless, he kicked his legs free, flailed his arms, punched, elbowed, kneed – he was too powerful; they couldn’t control him. He got to his feet, smashed a forearm into somebody’s jaw, grabbed another by the cloth of the shirt and tossed him aside, felt the sickening wave of pain in his head again and almost fell over, took a step toward what he thought must be the door . . .
“Where are you going to go, Tommy?”
Once again the wave of pain, the colour of the room limited to shades of blue and grey . .
Instantly hands were on him, pulling his arms…
“Let him go,” the voice said, loudly but not crossly. Then, conversationally: “Where are you going to go, Tommy?”
Tommy stopped struggling; the hands reluctantly released him.
The man who had spoken, the one who’d been standing apart, now spoke calmly in a language Tommy thought was German. A couple of the people he’d been fighting answered back, one quite forcefully; the calm man answered, the other responded in apparent anger, the calm man answered again. He was clearly in charge. The angry man left with three of the others.
Tommy turned slowly. A wave of dizziness overwhelmed him and he almost fell. The room seemed to be tilted. His head felt like it was about to explode.
“You’d better sit down, Tommy.”
A chair materialized behind his knees; a hand was pushing him into it. He sat down and tried to relax his breathing. His dizziness waned, and the room returned to a semblance of focus.
“You’ve opened up where we’d stitched you.” The man speaking looked to be about seventy years old, what was left of his hair was white and close-cropped, and he had arresting pale blue eyes magnified behind an enormous pair of glasses with heavy black frames. He was wiry and short, a full foot less than Tommy, and he wore a black beret. “Go get Ameline,” he said to the person standing behind Tommy. “She’s good at these things. Don’t worry. I’m fine here with Mr. Antikagamac.”
The old man stepped forward and righted the table that had fallen over, and then sat on its edge. “I’m sorry. My name is Lennox Voigt.” He extended his hand.
Tommy ignored it. “Are you in charge here? What’s going on? Why am I here?” The pain in his head when he spoke was so intense he was compelled to close his eyes. He put his hands to his head, and felt wetness with his right. When he looked at it, it was covered with blood. That tempered his anger; in his gut he felt the same fear he’d felt in the forest.
“Try to relax, Tommy.” He took Tommy’s clean hand and expertly felt for his pulse while he continued to speak. “Am I in charge? No. And yes. There’s nobody who’s really in charge, so to speak, but people tend to listen to me because I’m bald.” He released Tommy’s hand.
“You weren’t connected when you stumbled upon Harrison, were you.”
Tommy didn’t respond.
“A very fortuitous circumstance, for both of us. We would have had to uproot ourselves and move elsewhere. Ah: Ameline? I’d like you to meet Mr. Tommy Pierre Antikagamac. TeePee, as he’s better known to his fans. Did you know Tommy is a quarterback for the London Knights, and that last year he was named the Most Valuable Player in the World League of American Football?”
“Like I give a fuck about American Football?” came a female voice with a French accent behind Tommy.
“I wish you would watch your language. You hang around Harrison too much. At any rate, it behooves us to be familiar with the enemy and its icons. Although I have to admit that it wasn’t me who identified our guest: It was Myles.”
“Self-adulating puppets. Sorry, Monsieur TeePee, but I’d rather puke than watch your sport.” He winced as she applied pressure with something soft to the side of his head.
“What’s going on?” Tommy asked again, quietly, almost mumbling. “What do you want with me?”
“Why were you disconnected?” Lennox asked.
“I don’t know,” Tommy muttered feebly. “It was a glitch.” He felt a sharp sting on the side of his head; the woman was suturing his wound. He made an effort to remain stoic.
“The fact that the Mother still suffers glitches gives us all hope,” Lennox said cryptically. “As I said: Lucky for you, lucky for us. And lucky also that Harrison is such a lousy shot.”
“Why am I here?”
Lennox removed his glasses and began cleaning them with a white cloth. “That is an excellent question. For those with a religious bent, your arrival may be seen as some sort of intervention by a Divine Providence. For those with a more mundane outlook, it’s simply one random outcome of an infinite number of possibilities, a solution to a cosmic quantum equation, if you would. Otherwise known as a fortunate coincidence. ‘Why?’, you see, is a very deep question.”
“Will you quit your bullshit and give me some sort of answer?” The woman was now repeating her procedure on the back of his skull. He realized to his surprise that his head hurt there as much as on the side. Which was odd, because he hadn’t been struck on the back of his head . . .
“I’m sorry; I’m in that kind of mood today. You deserve an explanation, but, to be frank, your mental state is rather fragile, as you are certainly aware. I suspect being part of the Hive leaves one woefully unprepared to think and to act on one’s own.” He replaced his glasses. “Let me ask you: Do you know who we are?”
“Ketchen,” Tommy answered. He wanted to add ‘despicable, murdering terrorists’, but, given the fact that he suspected his captors were all madmen and just as likely to kill him as talk to him, he figured it was prudent not to say more than necessary.
“Not a name we give ourselves, but it will do. And what do you know of us?”
“I’m sure you know much more than ‘almost nothing’. You have a very strong mind, Mr. Antikagamac. You have been attached to the Mother for twenty years, and suddenly you are cut off. It is like someone who has had their legs braced all their lives, and suddenly the braces are removed. Does that person have the strength to walk? Does that person even know how to walk? Of course not.
“You are terrified right now. Terrified of the unknown, because there has never been an unknown for you before, and you are terrified of us, because we’re what you call Ketchen. Despite this terror, which you feel right through your bones, you sit there, trying to look defiant, trying to look stable, when in your heart what you really want to do is curl up into a ball and cry. I’m impressed.
“Do you think we are terrorists?”
“What do you know of our cause?”
“Cause? You have no cause. You are anarchists; you want to destroy things.”
“You probably get all your information on Luker. Tell me, Tommy, do you like thinking on your own?”
Tommy didn’t understand the question.
“We’ve removed the braces on your mind.”
Tommy felt a sting on the back of his head as the woman replaced another suture. “Look,” he said, trying to keep his voice low enough to keep his head from splitting, “I’ve had enough bullshit. I want you to tell me, right now, what the hell is going on and what do you want with me?”
“Tommy, there’s no longer ‘us’ and ‘you’. You are now one of us.”
Tommy stared at the man with the glasses, uncomprehending. Then he slowly moved his hand to feel the back of his head where the woman had finished replacing the sutures. And a small sound, a kind of croak, escaped unbidden from his lips as he recognized the true horror of the situation.