DARK FUTURES

Emma sat on the sofa, one hand twitching and the other one gripping a kitchen knife in anticipation. She blinked manically in a vain attempt to sooth her stinging bloodshot eyes. A battered paperback book lay on the table in front of her, next to a crumpled note and the Chinese takeaway menu in which the note came enclosed. ‘Tuesday 13th March. 5am’ was scrawled in black ink on the note.

Emma reached deep into her jeans pocket before remembering that she had to ditch her phone back at what she used to call her home. She sighed and glanced up at the ridiculously antiquated wall clock. It took her a few seconds to work out what the long and short hands were telling her. Eventually, she worked out that it was 3:32am.

Sighing again, she looked around the tiny flat with its unfashionably retro style that had felt like her tomb over the last three days. The three crosses she marked on the wall calendar felt like they had been made in her blood.

The hideously clunky Panasonic television with its ripped out ports. The walls in the holes from where all the fibre optic cabling had been ripped out. The absence of any smart meter device. Even the ancient radio that looked like a black brick and had no DAB digital function. Everything about the flat gave the feel of a child that had been born severely deformed.

Emma cracked open the living room window so that she could smoke next to some ventilation. She placed the knife on the window sill as she lit the cigarette. As she did so, Emma caught a glimpse of her reflection in the glass. The woman staring back at her bore little resemblance to pretty and youthful girl who she saw in reflections just one week prior. The stranger glaring at her now looked like she carried the weight of several worlds on her back. The heavy bags under her eyes, her hunched posture and dry skin made Emma squirm.

Emma tried to distract herself with the calming combination of the cigarette and the breeze of the cool night air. It was a strange sensation smoking indoors, though she need not worry as the agents from the Nurture Project had seemingly ripped the smart smoke detector out of the ceiling.

After savouring the last morsels of nicotine and tobacco, Emma flicked the cigarette stub out into the night and shut the window. She then tip toed to the door of Damien’s room and pushed it ajar. Peeking through the gap, she could see the bump in the duvet rise and fall in a peaceful rhythm. A tiny hand poked out of the side of the sheet. It gripped an old Buzz Lightyear toy that had been left in the flat courtesy of the Nurture Project. Emma quietly shut the door and wiped at her newly moist eyes.

Once again, she reached into her jeans pocket for a phone that would not be there. She cursed herself as she tried to remember Damien’s first steps without the sue of visual aids.

“For fuck sake…” she muttered as she wiped tears away from her cheeks.

Emma tried to distract herself with the radio. She curled up on the sofa with the black brick in her lap. She switched on the device and was immediately jolted out of her seat by the burst of loud EDM music blaring from the speaker. She yelped as she dropped the clunky chunk of plastic on the floor. The force of the fall forced the batteries out of the device, killing the sound. After recovering from her initial shock, Emma realised that she had failed to plug headphones – with their ridiculously long wire – into the device.

She immediately turned her attention to the front door of the flat. She watched it with baited breath, once again gripping the knife. She held it so hard that it felt as if the plastic of the handle was being absorbed into her flesh. The clearance under the door remained dark with not a hint of light from the communal hallway outside.

After a few seconds when she was satisfied that the motion activated light outside would not switch on, Emma relaxed and threw the knife on the coffee table.

“Fuck me” she huffed, slouching back in the sofa and rubbing her temples.

“Mum?” a soft voice called. It made Emma bolt upright in her seat.

She saw Damien standing in the doorway of the bedroom. He was rubbing one eye with a closed hand and clutching the Buzz LightYear toy with the other hand. The boy looked even smaller than usual in the oversized pyjama’s that were left in the flat by the Nurture Project.

“Damien!” she said, rushing over to him.

“I heard a loud noise” Damien mumbled.

“Awww, I’m sorry babe” Emma said, hugging him to her. “Mum was just being an idiot with the radio”.

“Radio?”

“It’s the, uh… it’s nothing Damien. Don’t worry about it. It’s nothing” Emma said, now looking him in his brown eyes. “Why don’t you go back to sleep, eh?”.

“I can’t sleep any more” he said.

“Poor baby” Emma sighed. She hugged him tighter. Picking him so that he could hold onto her, Emma carried him over to the sofa. “Why do you lay your head down on mummy’s lap for a while?”.

“OK” Damien whispered, burying his face in Emma’s shoulder.

Despite Damien’s insistence that he could no longer go back to sleep, he was soon out cold and resting peacefully on Emma’s lap. She ran her fingers through Damien’s mop of fluffy brown hair whilst listening to the radio through the headphones.

“….the Home Secretary launched a scathing attack on the Nurture Project today. Priya Desai accused the advocacy group of promoting crime and antisocial behaviour due to its staunch opposition of the Holodrone Anti Social Pre-selection Service. The Home Secretary pointed out that Holodrone has contributed to a 12% reduction in violent crime….” the radio news presenter said.

Emma looked down at her sleeping son for a moment as she continued stroking his hair. She then heard the feminine voice of the Home Secretary speaking to her through the airwaves.

“….Holodrone’s cutting edge ASPS algorithm, which has been supplied to the public at an extremely reasonable cost, keeps us all safe. By identifying the violent thugs of tomorrow when they are young and before they get a chance to commit their heinous acts…”

Damien was in a deep and peaceful slumber. She continued running her fingers through his hair, enjoying how the soft fibres felt against her skin and the warmth radiating from his small head. Emma could feel the stinging trails of salt run down her cheeks once more. Once again, she rubbed them away from her face.

A minimalist electronic tune hummed through the headphones into her ears.

“Finding future evil, today! Leaving you free to find friends tomorrow…” a new female voice gushed from the radio.

Emma ripped the headphones from her ears and scoffed. The tears kept flowing from her eyes and she fought a losing battle to keep her face dry.

The wall clock now showed the time as 4:02am. As soon as Emma saw the time, she gently shook Damien awake. The boy moaned his displeasure at the intrusion into his dream world and squirmed in her arms.

“Wake up, hun. Wake up” Emma whispered, prodding him gently. “We have to go soon. We need to get ready”.

“Where are we going?” Damien yawned.

“On holiday, remember?” Emma said.

“Are there gonna be car rides?” he asked.

“Yes babe”

“Can I have my phone?” he asked, looking up at her.

“No Damien, We’ll get you a new one when we get to where we’re going, remember?”

Damien grumbled “I’m hungry”.

“I’ll get you some chocolate. Why don’t you go get changed?”

Damien was changing in his room as Emma dug around in the kitchen draws. She rifled through all the dried fruits, pasta, nutrition bars and tinned meats left there by the Nurture Project. Unfortunately, it seems they had neglected to stock up with anything that could satisfy the sugar cravings of a ten year old boy. Emma reached up and groped around in the overhead cupboards containing plates and porridge boxes in her quest for a chocolate bar.

As Emma felt around in the cupboard, she noticed a large brown splodge directly below her on the white kitchen counter top. At first, she assumed it was a food stain leftover by the previous fugitives hiding at the flat. Upon closer scrutiny, however, it was not a regular stain. It was not a discoloured dried up crust attached to the surface. Rather, it was a bulky, hairy brown orb sat atop the kitchen counter as a wholly separate entity. Surrounding the orb were several thin strands of what initially looked like golden brown string. Eight strands to be exact.

It did not take long for Emma to work out what that pile of matter was. The brown central orb as, in fact, the body of a spider. More specifically, a Daddy Long Legs. The strands of string were the spiders legs, now detached form the body as if cut off by a precision scalpel. The body of the invalid insect squirmed and convulsed in a useless attempt to escape from its crippled prison.

Emma was so transfixed by the sight of this broken animal she did not realise that her hand was still groping around inside the cupboard and that it was inching closer to the pile of ceramic plates. In fact she only remembered the pile of plates when they made a cacophony of loud thunderous sounds when they smashed all over the floor.

Emma gave out a little scream and jumped back at the sound. She was caught in a paralysed daze as she scanned the numerous white shards on the floor. It was only after a few seconds that she fully understood the consequences of the deafening sound. She immediately rushed to switch off all the lights in the flat so that she was enveloped in darkness and the faintest limitation from the street lights outside.

“Mum?” Damien called out from the bedroom. Emma shushed him immediately.

“Stay in your room” Emma hissed through the bedroom door. “Stay in your room and don’t make a sound until I get you”.

“But why-”

“Shush!” Emma cut him off.

She scuttled around in the darkness, using the faint light from outside to guide her back to the knife on the coffee table. She felt around on the wooden table surface until she felt the cold smooth steel of the blade. Emma wrapped her fingers around the plastic handle of the knife and held it out in front of her. She was grateful that she could not see how much her hand was shaking.

Emma looked in what she believed to be the direction of the front door. She could just about make out the wooden panel in the darkness. Standing there with baited breath and holding the knife out in front of her, Emma could feel the jackhammering of her heartbeat. It felt so strong that she was certain that anyone outside in the hallway would be able to hear it too.

Eventually, she debated easing up her defensive stance. This, however, was silenced when a blade of bright yellow light cut into the darkness of the room through the clearance under the front door. The light was followed by the sound of a door creaking open from somewhere beyond the front door. Emma braced herself for the door to be smashed down at any second.

After what felt like an eternity of this tense silence, the light from outside switched off into darkness once again. Emma had no idea how long she had stood at that spot holding he breath. She thought that she must have looked like one of those gargoyles in front of old buildings.

Damien finally broke Emma out of her watchful state. He called out to her from somewhere in the darkness. His soft voice carried within it a clear vein of fear.

Emma worked up the nerve to switch on one of the table lamps to give them some light. The ray of illumination lit up Damien, who was standing in the bedroom doorway again. He was dressed in a blue puffer jacket, jeans and an adventure time backpack slung over his shoulder. His large pom pom beanie hat threatened to consume his entire head.

The light also illuminated the wall clock, which showed that the time was almost 4:30am.

“Oh shit!” Emma cursed. Damien giggled.

For the next ten minutes, Emma rushed to throw the small number of possessions she still had with her into her duffel bag. She gave up on the prospect of having a warm shower before leaving. Although they had a long journey ahead of them and Emma already felt grimy, she knew that both herself and Damien had to be ready to go at 5am sharp. A shower and applying make up could wait until they were both safely out of the country.

“Did you get a chocolate?” Damien asked.

“What? No sorry, hun, there aren’t any sweets here” she replied, adding “We’ll get all the chocolate you want after our trip, ok?” to pre-empt any tantrum.

Instead of protesting, Damien looked at her quietly with a blank expression before turning his back and walking back into the bedroom.

The time on the clock now showed as 4:50am.

Emma recalled the dying spider on the kitchen counter top. The writhing torso and severed legs seared themselves in her mind once more. She had completely forgotten about the poor spider in the panic over the smashed plates. She returned to the scene of the crime to look upon what was now a very dead spider corpse. All that remained of the once living creature was a heap of dismembered limbs.

“Damien? Could you come here please?” she called out.

Damien emerged from his room a few seconds later. He had a sour look on his face.

“What?” he huffed.

“Excuse me?” Emma replied, giving him a stony gaze.

Damien trudged closer towards his mum, all the while keeping his eyes glued to the floor. He stood right in front of her so that Emma almost had to crane her neck ninety degrees to look at him.

“Damien?” Emma said, placing her hands on her waist.

“Yeah?”

“Have you seen any spiders?” Emma asked.

“Spiders?

“Yes, spiders. Have you seen any spiders in this flat?”

Damien said nothing. He simply sulked and studied the floor.

“Look at me Damien” Emma ordered him.

He craned his neck to look up and meet her eyes. Emma was taken aback to see neither apprehension or guilt in his face. Instead, she found stone cold defiance. Mother and son engaged in an unofficial and silent staring contest, which went on for nearly one minute. Eventually, Emma resigned herself to breaking the deadlock for the sake of addressing the dead spider.

“Damien, tell me now. Did you find any spiders in this flat?” Emma said.

“Yeah”

“A Daddy Long Legs?”

“A what?”

“The spider with really long thin legs”

“Oh”

“Well?”

“Yeah”

“’Yeah’ as in you did find a spider?”

“Yes”

“And….what did you do with it?”

“What did I do with it?”

“Yes”

Damien stared into her eyes without uttering a word. Emma could not take another staring contest. She dug her finger nails into her palms.

“Damien. I asked you a simple question. Answer me” She said.

“I was just playing around” Damien replied.

“You were playing?”

“Yeah”

“Were you playing around with the spiders legs?” Emma asked.

Damien reverted back to looking at this trainers. Emma opened her mouth to speak but was cut off a soft knocking at the front door. Mother and Son turned their heads in unison to look at the door. Emma held her breath, waiting for further knocking. After the initial three knocks, a further sequences of knocks emanated from the door. They came in a precise and purposeful rhythm.

Ta tata ta ta tata ta ta

Emma’s taut and strained muscles eased up just slightly upon hearing the tune.

“Go to your room, now” Emma whispered.

“But-”

“Now!” Emma hissed.

Damien sulked but did as he was told. As soon as he shut the bedroom door behind him, Emma tip toed towards the front door. As she did so, whoever was on the other side knocked against it a few more times.

As expected, she found a strip of paper slipped through under the door. There were two patches of shadow in the line of light coming in under the door from the hallway outside. The strip of paper was barely larger than a fortune cookie message. One word was scrawled on the strip of paper: Clarium.

Emma breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed her shoulders, which were practically hunched to eye level. She imagined a cosy cottage set against a picturesque and – more importantly – remote Norwegian landscape.

Emma opened the door and found herself face to face with a thin, petite woman with silver grey hair. Emma was ready to speak as soon as she opened the door but lost her words when she laid eyes on the woman in front of her. For some reason, this was not how she pictured the Shepherd who would get herself and Damien out of the country. The older woman raised her eyebrows at Emma.

“Erm…th-the drive here must have been a pain?” Emma finally blurted out. IT sounded like an uncertain statement coming out of her mouth rather than an actual question.

“Yes, but it was much nicer than the journey to Billericay last week” the woman replied, without missing a heartbeat.

Emma smiled. “Come in”. She stepped aside to allow the old woman into the flat and closed the door once she was inside.

The two women stood in the middle of the flat, facing each other. Neither said a word at first. It was only then that Emma realised she had no idea what the procedure would be once she let the shepherd into the safe house. Emma was so caught up in her socially awkward paralysis that she failed to notice the crack in the door to Damien’s bedroom.

“So…how does this actually work?” Emma finally said, feeling like a fool and a burden.

The old woman gave her a smile. “Don’t worry love. There’s a car waiting outside for you and the little one. I’ll take you to a private boat at dock in Southend. The Captain will then take you to your destination from there” She said.

“Ok…ok, that’s good. That’s great, actually” Emma laughed weakly. She was exhausted.

“And where is he?” the woman asked?

“What?”

“Your son” the woman clarified, still smiling.

“Oh. Yeah, yes he’s in the bedroom. He’s ready to go”

“Lovely” the woman said. “Why don’t you get him out here. Grab your stuff and we can take you two away”

Emma had not paid attention to the old woman’s last sentence. She was distracted by the twitching at the corner of the old woman’s mouth. The twitching flared up every few seconds. It was one of those tics not immediately noticeable but, once spotted, was all one could see or think of.

“Emma?” The woman said.

“Sorry” Emma replied, snapping out of it. “I was miles away”.

“Not a problem, love. As I was saying, let’s get Damien and your bags out here so we can get going, shall we?”

“Sure, Ok”

Emma went to fetch Damien. However, she stopped dead before she could take two steps. It felt like time had stood still. Emma’s heart pumped like it had been given a shot of adrenaline and she felt dizzy. She turned around to face the old woman, who it turned out and also turned around to watch Emma as she went past. Whilst the old woman was staring at Emma, Emma was looking at the fresh red stain spattered on the old woman’s white cardigan. Like dominoes, the observation of the red ignited another question in Emma’s now frantic thought processes.

“Yes, Emma?” the old woman said

“I’m sorry, I never actually got your name?” Emma said.

“My name?”

“Yeah”

“Why, my name is Ava, my dear. Now why don’t we get Damien out here?”

“Ava?”

“Yes?”

“Who told you my son’s name?” Emma asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“How do you know my son’s name? I didn’t give the contact his name. He said it would be safer that way”

Silence. The two women stare at each other for what feels like an eternity. Ava’s smile quickly evaporated and was replaced with a cold and sterile expression. Emma tried to stare her down but it felt like Ava’s eyes were black holes sucking in all the visual information they could devour.

“Emma…” Ava said, a new monotone tenor to her voice. “Get Damien. Now”. The last word was laced with a tinge of menace that made Emma’s heart pump like a jack hammer. Her lip quivered and she had to subtly take weight off her shaking legs by resting a hand on the kitchen counter top. She narrowed her eyes at Ava.

“Who are you?” Emma finally said. Her voice was a croaky whisper.

Ava tilted her head to the side as she considered the other woman. A smile crept back onto her face.

“Do the right thing Emma. It is not too late to have a life. Not too late live a normal life and produce nice normal children. Cooperate now and you will likely be given a suspended or non-custodial sentence. If you do not cooperate, however, then…well, this is an extremely serious matter” Ava said in her monotone voice.

Emma’s eyes widened in shock. She wanted to back away but her legs were paralysed.

“Y-you’re one of them aren’t you?” she quivered. “You’re a Holodroid”

Ava stood up with such speed and swiftness that Emma was no fully aware of it until Ava was face to face with her.

“Get Damien, Emma. Bring me Damien” Ava said. The corner of her mouth was twitching wildly.

Emma was trembling. She wanted to scream but was terrified of what Ava would do if she drew attention. Her eyes were also drawn back to the red stain on Ava’s cardigan, which was almost certainly blood. Blood so fresh that Emma could still smell the mineral emanating from Ava.

Ava followed the Emma’s line of sight and looked down at the red patch. She looked at it for a few seconds and then slowly lifted her head to show her face to Emma. She now wore an even wider smile that stretched the skin on her face so wide that it seemed it may split in two. The twitching of her lips mad it look all the more grotesque.

Ava giggled and headed straight for the bedroom.

“Noooooo!” Emma screamed, lunging at the old woman.

Despite Ava’s small frame, she was deceptively strong. It was the strength of metal and hydraulics lurking just beneath the surface of her deceptively frail human skin. Ava grabbed Emma by the neck, which felt to Emma like having an industrial vice grip constricting her throat.

“Arghhhhh…” Emma choked. She flailed her arm wildly at Ava but it was as much use as punching a marble statue. All the while, Ava looked at Emma the way a biologist may observe a dead insect they have acquired for their collection.

The blood left Emma’s head and her face started turning a sickly shade of purple. Her vision grew blurry. She tried to suck in oxygen but it felt like someone had poured cement down her throat. Her body had fits and spasms of involuntary movement before slowly starting to weaken. Her consciousness was draining out of her life water down in a sink. She meekly tried to pull Ava’s hand from around her neck but it felt like her own hands were made of air.

The blurry vision gradually turned to an all consuming blackness. The last thing she saw before slipping from the world was Ava’s sterile, piercing eyes, devoid of any care. Eventually, the darkness took over and Emma began to slowly free fall through an empty black hell scape.

For a brief and horrifying moment, a tiny ember of Emma’s consciousness remained and thought that it had discovered the true nature of death: endless nothingness with no escape or salvation.

Her descent, however, was cut short with a violent shock that first smashed into her back and then raged through the rest of her body. All of a sudden, Emma stopped falling and was suspended in mid air. The black world that encompassed her quickly decayed into a gelatinous fudge of colours.

Though her throat now burned, Emma could at least breathe somewhat freely again. She gasped and gulped in the glorious air. Her vision cleared up and the unruly hodge podge of colours all around her came into focus.

Emma was back in the dingy flat and sprawled out on the floor. She felt a pain in the small of her back that would surely be searing tomorrow. If she made it that far. However, any focus on her own pain was dashed by the sound of screaming and struggle close by.

“Mum!” Damien shrieked.

“Damien!” Emma croaked, as she scrambled to her knees.

She crawled out from the kitchen area where she woke up and into the main room of the flat. She immediately saw a pool of thick white liquid on the floor. From the pool of liquid, a trail of large droplets and streaks led directly to Ava.

The Holodroid was on its hands and knees. She resembled a crouching tiger. Emma saw that the reason for this posture was the deep gash in its Achilles area. It was from this cut that the thick white liquid was oozing. Ava pulled her self forward with her arms and used the one good leg for extra push.

Emma saw what Ava was going for. Damien was on his back and frantically trying to pull himself away from Ava’s grasp. Terror afflicted his face as Ava reached out to grab his ankle. He saw Emma.

“Mum! Helppppp!!

Emma hollered with rage and pounced on top of Ava. She grabbed and clawed at Ava’s hair, neck and sides of her face with a rabid frenzy. However, it seemingly made no material impact. Whilst she could make superficial scratches on Ava’s skin and even draw some artificial blood, her fingers could not breach the metal below.

Ava bucked like a rodeo bull in an attempt to throw Emma off her. The force was so violent that Emma got tossed off like a rag doll. As she landed, Emma felt a lightning jolt of pain in her right hand. She screamed as she witnessed Ava finally grab Damien’s ankle and pull him closer into her grasp like a cat toying with a mouse. Damien held his tiny hands up over his face in a protective gesture.

“No, stop. Please…stop” Damien whimpered.

Ava grabbed one of Damien’s hands and, from the centre of his palm, snapped it back a clean ninety degrees. The sound of the bones in his hands snapping apart was reminiscent of a kit kat breaking in two.

Damien let out a guttural wail of anguish. He unhinged his jaw so wide that it may rip clean from the rest of his head. His eyes rolled back and his tiny body arched, writhed and convulsed. His wailing continued unabated and tears streamed out of his eyes like rivers. Ava then smothered his mouth and nose with one of her hands.

Emma’s stomach dropped when she saw the jagged points of Damien’s snapped bones protruding out of his destroyed hand like crooked teeth. She felt as if she were tied to a chair and forced to watch a gory horror film in slow motion. She wanted to scream but for some reason all she could muster was a croak.

At the same time, the pain in her hand continued unabated. It was soon joined by a warm and sticky sensation in her palm. Emma saw that there was a large bloody wound in her hand. She realised that she must have landed hand first onto the kitchen knife, which had been discarded on the floor. The metal was stained with fresh red blood and slightly drier white crusts. She assumed it must have been the tool sued to cut open Ava’s Achilles.

Acting now on pure adrenaline and instinct, Emma grabbed the knife pounced on Ava once again. She plunged the knife into Ava’s back, shoulders and neck in frenzied bursts. She felt momentary jolts of pleasure in feeling the blade slice up Ava’s artificial skin and muscle. She could even feel the point get through some gaps in the metal skeleton below. However, she was also aware that none of these stabs and cuts were stopping Ava in completing her mission.

Ava’s hand was pressed firmly over Damien’s mouth and nose. The boy was still fighting and twitching but his body was visibly weakening as a result of the oxygen withdrawal.

Desperation and fury consumed Emma’s mind. “Get off him you fucking bitch!” she finally screamed, not caring that she could feel bruising in her throat now drawing some blood.

With renewed ferociousness, she plunged the knife into Ava again. This time however, one of her stabs pierced into the back of Ava’s head. Surprisingly, this part of her body was not as well armoured as the rest. There, the back of her skull buckled under the weight of Emma’s ballistic fury. The entire length of stainless steel was now buried inside the head.

Ava immediately jerked and bucked uncontrollably. She screeched in a way that sounded glitchy and metallic rather than natural. She flailed her arms, thus removing her hand from Damien’s face. The boy himself was now limp and motionless.

Ava rolled to her side and curled up into the fetal position. Her back kept curving and straightening in a horribly quick and never-ending loop. It looked like she was trying to draw a snow angle in the pool of pinkish white liquid that spurted out of the back of her head. One of Ava’s arms tried to reach back to pull the knife out of her but was flailing too wildly to get any kind of grip on the handle.

Emma, however, was not done. She grabbed the old chunky radio that was on the floor. She held it aloft with both hands and brought it crashing down onto the back of Ava’s head wound again and again with all the force she could muster. Emma let out a guttural primal scream with each blow.

After a few dozen connections, the radio eventually smashed into pieces that were too small to wield as weapons. By that time, however, the back of Ava’s head looked like crater. The rest of the droids body lay on the floor in a broken heap. Some limbs twitched involuntarily before finally going still.

Emma dropped the smashed up pieces of plastic casing and circuitry to scuttle over to Damien’s immobile body.

“No, no, no, no nooooo!” she cried as she scooped her son up into her arms and cradled his as if they were back at the hospital the day he was born.

“Damien! Damien, please, wake up! It’s mum…” Emma sobbed. The tears rolled down her cheeks.

In a moment of clarity, Emma lifted Damien up and rushed him to the bathroom. There was still a shallow rising and falling his his chest. She placed him in the bathtub, taking care not to let his broken hand touch anything with any force. Emma then quickly turned on the cold water so that the shower head sprayed ice cold water right on Damien.

As the water hit Damien face and body like thousands of tiny needles, his flashed open and he gasped loudly.

“Arghhhh!” he rasped, dazed and confused.

“Oh Damien!” Emma cried.

She hugged him, not caring in the slightest that the cold water was getting her too.

“I’m so sorry…” she whispered.

“Mum…don’t…” Damien cried, unable to string together a sentence. “I thought you were gone…I thought that old lady …” he sobbed. “I begged her to stop. I tried but I couldn’t! I got the knife….” he trailed off.

“It’s ok, hun, it’s ok. I’m so proud of you. Mum’s here now” she assured him.

Emma pulled Damien out of the tuba and held her to him. Though they were drenched in cold water, they could still feel each others warmth like a comforting balm. It was only at this close proximity that Emma really grasped how utterly Ava destroyed Damien’s hand. The upper section of his hand from the centre of the palm was only hanging on by a few strips of flesh and skin. IN that moment, she fully expected that her son would only grow up with one hand.

Damien grimaced and cried as the pain from his hand hit him once more like the second wave of a tsunami.

“My h-hand….” he stuttered. “Mum, my hand….it hurts so much…”. Damien threw up. Emma held his head as he did so.

“Shhhh, it’s gonna be ok, hun. I know it hurts now but we’re gonna get it fixed, ok?” she whispered to him in her most calming voice. Internally, however, she had no idea how they would get themselves out of this situation. Her son needed urgent medical help but there was no way she could take him to a government registered hospital. For obvious reason, they could also no longer stay at the so called safe house. For an agonising few seconds, a dark corner of her mind entertained the idea of putting both of them out of their misery and getting all over with.

Before the seed of that idea could fully bloom, however, Emma heard loud footsteps from outside the bathroom. The footsteps were accompanied by voices. The voices of a man and woman.

“Oh god…” the woman’s voice said.

“Secure the site” the man’s voice said, “Quick”.

The sound of footsteps branched off into different directions. One of them got further away but the other got louder and sounded like they were heading for the bathroom. Sure enough, the figure of a woman emerged in the bathroom doorway, looming over the crumpled heap that was the mother and son. Emma looked up at the woman. A youngish redhead with green eyes and a thin face.

“Just get this over and done with quickly then” Emma said, devoid of any emotion or energy. She covered Damien’s eyes. However, Emma’s resignation dissipated when she saw the redhead’s reaction to seeing them. Her wide eyes conveyed genuine shock rather than a pre-programmed response.

“OH shit” the redhead finally blurted out. Although she tried to keep a steady voice, Emma picked up on the other woman’s nerves immediately.

“Jeff!” the woman shouted out.

She crouched down to get eye level with Emma and approached them with caution. She held her hands out at her sides in a gesture of no harm intended.

“It’s ok, it’s ok. We’re from the project” the redhead said.

A dishevelled man in a long overcoat appeared in the doorway.

“Jesus” he sighed. He looked over in the general direction of the front door. “We all have to go. Now!”.

“Emma?” the redhead said. “It’s going to be ok. I’m sorry, the safe house was compromised. One of our agents, the one you were in contact with. They…well, we only found out about it now. The police will be on their way any minute. We’ll explain later but right now we all have to leave” she said, rattling off everything she wanted to communicate as if she had a time limit.

Emma struggled for words at first. She tried to take everything in whilst still expecting that these two strangers could also be droids. Damien squirmed to get a better look but grimaced as it made his broken hand jiggle.

“M-m-my son” Emma said. “He needs a doctor…his hand!”.

“We’ve got a doctor who can help” the redhead re-assured her. She held a hand out to Emma, “My name is Stacey, by the way. My partner’s name is Rob”.

Tentative;y, Emma reached out and took Stacey’s hand.

“Let’s get out of here” Stacey said, smiling.

Emma smiled a broken smile.

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