Alexander King stood tall while the citizens held whispered conversations along the muddy streets. He did not bother to eavesdrop; their words were nothing of importance. The snippets that he did catch portrayed nothing but complaint.
The common people’s clothes bore no resemblance to cohesive style. Their variants of shirts, pants, and elder shoes were torn and marked with grime. Alex thought it a pathetic display compared to his pristine military outfit, which projected his position within the Collective. His sleek gray torso and pants were matching, while his boots were a harsh black, muddied with small specks of dirt. His face was protected by a black mask that hid his identity, with the exception of his brown eyes.
The market was built on dirt, its upper layer slowly decaying into mud caused by the light rain that conquered the sky. Carts and stands were made mostly of wood and were used for buying, selling, and trading goods that were needed for the common people. Food, clothing, liquids, trinkets, and other miscellaneous items dangled in view of all those who passed by, tempting them with a taste of remnants from the old world. The sellers got their merchandise using the same methods: thievery. Prior to Collective occupation of the dead city, the abandoned buildings had been raided, with the citizens then claiming that everything they had was their own.
“Guard duty. We have to get out of this soon,” Alex said.
“Nothing wrong with it. It’s what we’ve been asked to do,” Takeo Oshiro countered. He stood a head taller and his muscular body mass nearly doubled Alex’s. His clothing was the mark of a Collective soldier: a gray jumpsuit. He had narrow hazel eyes and buzzed black hair. The two men not only differed in size, but also in weaponry. Takeo held a pump action R-90 shotgun, Alex an AK-47, both weapons of the old world.
“I’m tired of doing nothing,” Alex said.
“We have been given a great position.”
Alex rolled his eyes. Takeo was never one to indulge in his valid complaints, never willing to speak an ill word against the Collective’s inner workings.
Alex remained alert for illegal activity. As he scanned the busy market he caught a glimpse of the inner-city skylines; that was where he wanted to be, where gray clouds shrouded tall buildings.
His daydreaming was interrupted by the discovery of an act worthy of suspicion. A young boy in his mid-teens not far from Alex’s own age handed a steel case to the first man in a long line of buyers.
“We should call reinforcements,” Takeo said.
“Just follow my lead.”
“But … protocol.”
Takeo followed Alex as they marched towards the stand, leaving their designated spots and improvising a new position, forcing the common people to disperse.
Alex stepped into the line, cutting off the man whose hands were within inches of taking possession of the case. The young seller retracted the object with fearful eyes.
Two others stepped forward within the confines of the stand: a middle-aged man and woman, both just as frightened as the boy. The trio had the same loose brown hair and tan skin. A family.
“What are you selling?” Alex asked, deepening his voice in the hope that they would feel intimidated.
The citizens within the line scattered.
“Tell me,” Alex demanded, confronting the boy.
The boy swallowed. “We are selling nothing but our own goods. Things that we own. Not stolen.”
The father put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, ushering him back to his mother.
“What’s inside the briefcases?”
Within the family’s stock Alex spotted six cases of similar caliber.
“They’re guns!” Alex raised his weapon towards the boy’s head, wishing that instead it was a plasma weapon.
“I’ll call help!”
As Alex turned to tell Takeo that help would not be needed, he discovered a new threat: citizens with guns had their barrels pointed towards the Collective duo. Alex counted eight, all of them holding measly pistols with the exception of a BN-10, where a glowing blue plasma sphere within its barrel was ready to cause death.
“Drop your weapons!” a citizen demanded. His voice was shaky like his hands.
Alex spoke first. “If you do anything to harm us, I hope that you have a plan to leave the city because—”
“Drop!” Takeo warned him.
As Alex hit the dirt, an explosion drilled to core of the rebellion’s forces. When he looked up the outline of a Mecha suit was hovering in the air, propelled by blue flames rising from its back, bullets shooting from its arms
Takeo and Alex quickly recovered. Takeo whirled to face the family of rebels while Alex released the safety on his AK-47 and sent a barrage of shots towards the rebel holding the BN-10. The man fell instantly without the chance to retaliate.
The remainder of those in opposition to the Collective attempted to disperse, but many of them were killed by the reign of plasma bullets. Alex shifted his priority towards the initiator of the conflict. The father had withdrawn a revolver, but with a quick shot from Takeo he was slain.
“Throw a grenade!” Alex screamed.
Takeo did as Alex suggested and tossed the black object within the tarp. A plume of white smoke came from the sphere, and Takeo heard the woman coughing. The boy made no sounds.
Alex pivoted and spotted that the adolescent had moved away from the stand. The opportunity to escape had presented itself in the chaos, but the boy did not take it. Instead, he stared at the body of his father.
“Stay there!” Alex yelled. He carried his voice for all the commoners to hear. To show who held true power: the Collective. Not small sprouts of rebels.
The boy started towards them but Alex lifted him by his shirt collar and slammed him against the silver metal of an alternative stand.
“I’m going to kill you!” the adolescent screamed, shoving his knee into Alex’s stomach. Alex threw him to ground, deciding that he would tolerate nothing less than complete submission. He slammed his foot against the child’s face, torso, and legs. The others would need to learn.
“Tell everybody you know what happened here.”
“We just wanted to protect ourselves!” he screamed as tears began to fall down his cheeks and onto the floor.
“From who? You’re safe here,” Alex reminded him with annoyance.
“You’re an idiot!”
Takeo added to his punishment and struck the boy with his foot, causing blood to stream from his nose. Takeo had the mother within his grasp, not bothering to struggle against his authority.
“Go or you will have the same fate your father,” he told the boy.
“Son!” his mother screamed. “Let’s go!”
The adolescent struggled to stand. It was clear that he wanted to speak. As soon as he was able to rise his mother took him and the duo fled, showcasing their lack of bravery.
Those who were watching had returned to their previous activities, but it was disingenuous. They nervously kept their eyes on Alex and Takeo.
“That was awesome!” Patton yelled. Alex turned and found his unofficial protégé leaping towards him with boundless energy, his mop of orange hair bouncing with each movement. The boy, who had just turned eleven, had a smaller frame than others his age. His freckles were splashed across his nose and cheeks, and his deep green eyes looked upon Alex in awe.
“Another day on the job,” Takeo said.
“That punk needed taken down.”
“Needed to be taken down. Remember your proper grammar or nobody will respect you,” Alex scolded, annoyed that a child of his age still struggled with forming proper sentences.
Patton nodded eagerly to indicate his understanding. “Why not kill him?”
Why does this kid ask so many questions? Takeo wondered.
“I don’t know why I asked that,” Patton said.
“What do you think we should do next?” Alex asked Patton. Patton pondered. His face morphed into that of a thinking man: his eyes crunched together, his teeth bit lightly into his lip, and his eyes narrowed.
“We should make sure we record what he looks like, and also write down everything he did.”
“Why?” Alex asked.
“I guess it’s because if anything bad was going to happen to us then he would get away with what he did.”
Before he could evaluate the answer he was interrupted by their savior in the Mecha suit.
“Alexander, you are needed. Commander Ives would like to speak with you.”
Alex became worried. He had either done something terribly wrong, or exceedingly right.
“Congratulations,” Takeo said.
“Can you take care of this sector?” Alex asked Takeo.
“You’re the one who needs help,” Takeo jested.
“Take care of this old man,” Alex demanded of Patton.
Alex then turned and headed towards Ives, rifling through his memories, searching for a moment when he had failed the Collective. All he was able to recall were the attacks he had made on citizens, increasing the city’s already shaky tension, but each time had been a necessary act.
Guardians Gate separated the lives of the citizens and the Collective, comprised entirely of wood. Just tall enough so that no one could vault themselves over it with the sheer will of their body. It stretched as far as Alex’s eyes could see, lacking proper defense, with signs which were hammered crudely onto the wall to say that it was off limits for those who had not been granted access. There were also two guardians who controlled the sliding gate.
Alex was granted entrance, and his senses were assaulted by the spectacle of the city. His feet left muddy ground and stepped onto hardened concrete road. The stands in the market were replaced with the skyscrapers of the old world where outbreaks of greenery interrupted the flow of gray ground. Vehicles with rusted bodies and broken windows had been pushed to the sides of the street, creating an open mid lane.
Along the barren street Alex could occasionally see a passing vehicle, or group of military occupants donning identical outfits to Alex, some having the privilege to leave the city’s mammoth walls. When Alex arrived at the barracks he projected an image of servitude. He smoothed his uniform. Narrowed his eyes to remain watchful for suspicion, human or otherwise.
It was an old building with many floors used to bed guests of the city. When he first visited, he was shocked at the quality of the bedding. He had grown used to nothing but hard floors, finding slumber under the protection of a tent, but it did not bother him. Men of the Collective lived important lives fueled by purpose, not comfortable ones.
A pole stood in front of the building. On it was a white sheet with a blue circle: the mark of Collective territory, waving within the light wind.
Alex stepped into the building. It was illuminated by a flickering light which ran on the unreliable source of solar power. He reached room 108 and knocked.
“Come in!” Ives boomed. Alex entered.
Ives’s gray hair had grown longer since Alex had last seen him. It was once buzzed like most men of the Collective, but it had now been styled so that his sides remained short, but along the middle it was spiked slightly. His once clean-shaven chin had sprung a coarse beard, and he had dark circles underneath his green eyes.
The room was bare except for a sleeping roll in the center, and two desks standing beside one another. The left one had stacks of paper jumbled messily in piles: maps, diagrams, and paper clippings. Relics of the ancients. The right showed the heights of the old world. A silver disk projected a blue hologram of a Hub, flickering and turning, its surface cracked with vile liquid dripping down its surface. The origin of the Hive’s power.
“You’re being promoted to commander,” Ives declared.
Alex felt an instant surge of relief. He had finally been granted the position that he deserved.
“Here.” Ives tossed a small flat hexagon towards him.
Alex caught the object and realized that it was a helmet. A gift all commanders received to cement their status.
“Try it,” Ives urged.
Alex placed the hexagon on his neck, feeling a slight sting as its claws dug into his neck, bonding with him. He willed the helmet to take its true form. Black metal fiber sprung from the origin point and came to protect his entire head. The only part of his identity now visible was his brown eyes.
Ives pressed his finger on his gray earpiece as he joined another conversation. “The amount of radiation rises and falls all the time. I’m not a scientist. You figure it out.” Ives then paused, his attention turning to Alex. “Who would you like for your squad?”
“Takeo. I would also like—”
Ives placed his hand in the air to silence Alex.
“You only get one choice. We have a new transfer for you from Zone 5.”
Alex kept his facial expression tight so that his disappointment didn’t show. Patton would have been the perfect subordinate. He had great potential, and with another commander the boy would be raised as nothing but fodder.
“Your new private’s name is David Merlin. He’s in the armory. Meet him. Tell him from now on you’ll be hunting Hubs.”
Alex was given a ride from the personal escort of Ives. She took unconventional roads to arrive at the armory with speed, probing Alex with questions about how he felt being promoted to Commander. He was both afraid and excited but chose to only share his excitement.
The armory was within the heart of the city where layers of the many occupancies within the environment were on display. The Collective took the forefront. Flags with their symbols were placed in strategic locations. They waved among buildings and checkpoints, acting as a reminder as to who held control. Some were transferred from the old world; many had been created anew. The new flags were made of looted ivory sheets where the blue circle of the Collective had been painted over. The flags of the old were created using the power of machines, pristine and accurate in their designs.
Heaps of hardened gray substance lurked in various areas, reminding all those who set their eyes on it of what had befallen the world. A failed invasion by an alien force.
The citizens had left nothing but chaos when they controlled the city. Corpses were left on the ground following petty squabbles. The citizens’ only legacy.
The armory had three wings, two of which extended to the left and right, and the third stretched backwards. It was a single floor with a flat roof. A simple external design which did not match the greatness within.
The inside of the building had been cleared for Collective activities. Directly in front was research and development: Alex’s destination.
Within the building were various compartments. Some had been boarded with wood. These were not watched by Collective military. The expansive weaponry of Zone 6 was guarded with lazy contempt.
Alex was annoyed. Then remembered he was a Commander.
He approached a man who slumbered in a chair. His torso was unbuttoned.
“Wake up!” Alex demanded.
“Who-who are you?”
“A Commander. You would be dead if I were an enemy. Stay alert!” he warned.
From the corner of his eye Alex could see the others who had been sent to watch the weaponry perk up, shifting from laziness to awareness, making him wonder what else he could accomplish with his efforts.
Research and Development was the largest compartment in the armory. The theory of its existence was that the structure had not been completed when the world fell, leaving it empty prior to Collective reoccupation, a perfect state to create new weapons using remnants of old ones. Some who worked within it created inventions together; others acted independently. Sparks. Fires. Paper charts. Holographic images. Hustling bodies all played a role within the palace, centering around large tables which acted as bases where technology could be taken apart and reassembled, forging new creations. Most of them led to nothing important.
To find David, Alex had nothing but a physical description. He was told to find a middle-aged man with dark skin.
“I can help you with anything you need,” said a high-pitched voice from behind. The man matched the description, but his skinny frame and old age left him worried. His brown eyes communicated kindness, a useless asset in their upcoming missions.
“In complete honesty I’m trying to get a minute off work and you looked lost,” the man quietly claimed.
“I’m looking for David Merlin.”
“That would be me.” David extended a gloved right hand and shook Alex’s with a limp grip.
“I’m Alexander King. A Commander. You’re joining my squad.”
“I didn’t think that I would have to join one,” David muttered.
“You’re not military?” Alex asked with disappointment. He wanted the strength of Takeo on his side, not the uncertainty of a private.
“I … well, yes. I technically work within it, but … I came here to do this,” David stated, pointing to the innovative events within the room. “I am best suited here.”
“The Collective sees things differently.”
“And I’m not questioning their judgment. I’m just conveying information,” David stated.
“The amount of resources put into all this is a waste,” Alex claimed with a scoff.
“I don’t mean to offend, but you’re incorrect,” David said.
He led Alex down to a table with nothing on it but a blue circle, wrapped within the confines of metal claws. A useless artifact.
David’s eyes darted around the room prior to pressing a button in the middle, supposedly activating the object. Nothing came from it but a spark.
“That’s supposed to impress me?” Alex said.
“If I can develop it further I—”
“Forget about it,” Alex interrupted.
“If you saw the next step—” David stuttered. His hands landed on a glowing blue crystal sticking out of an organized toolbox at the far end of the table. “An impulse crystal.”
Alex looked at him, unimpressed.
“It’s the source of power for EMPs.”
“Focus on learning combat. That’s all that matters now.”
“What makes you so sure?” a man asked. “The Collective thinks human development is of importance.”
Alex turned to see that the eavesdropper was an elderly man. His deep green eyes seemed to be projecting dangerous curiosity. Alex held his tongue. Speaking ill of the Collective may have him removed from his newfound position.
“My loyalty belongs to the Collective. I want what’s best for us all.”
“Should belong to yourself,” the man replied.
“Who are you?” Alex pushed, needing to know the identity of one who would outwardly defy the Collective.
“An engineer. Innovator. Many things,” he replied.
“I’m asking for your name.”
The man paused. His face squinted and he coughed as a reaction to the simple question. “Connor East. Officer.”
“Oh—I’m sorry I shouldn’t have been—”
“See you soon,” he promised. Connor turned away, coughing again, and returned to the sea of diverse workers in a rushed exit.
“How many times a week are you training?” Alex asked.
“I’ve spent the majority of my time here.”
“Spend it there,” Alex instructed.
“Noted,” David said as his hand returned to his pathetic invention.
“What are you making?” Alex asked, irritated by David’s lack of focus towards his message.
“Shields,” David proudly proclaimed.
“I believe mine will exceed anything that came before.”
“You believe? So, it doesn’t work then.”
“Your lack of progress will be reported.”
“It would be best to wait.”
“These impulse crystals. They’re rare and it’s not well known that I have one within my inventory. Once my invention’s complete, nobody will be bothered by the fact that they were used.”
“You not allowed to use these?”
Alex shot David a look of disgust, angered by the dishonest rat given to him as an underling. Noticing Alex’s glare, David followed without further complaint.
Officer East had not gotten far as he walked between the lines of innovation on the tables, giving small compliments to the creators.
“Officer East!” Alex called.
“Tell him of your crimes,” Alex demanded, forcing David to confess.
David staggered with a reluctant stride. “I’ve been working on a secret project—but it’s for the overall benefit of the Collective.”
“Of course. How should he be punished?” Commander East asked. “Your subordinate. Your choice.”
“I want you on the training ground seven days a week,” Alex decided. “That’s what will save us. Not your inventions.”
This is the end of the excerpt from this novel. You can read more at Hive.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Jeremiah Ukponrefe is a Toronto based author and stand up comedian. He has been published in The Runner, The Reel Anna, and Envie Magazine. His debut novel Hive released March 2021, the first of The Arcane Volumes Series. As a comedian his style is a mixture of clever observations with a subversive darkness, all performed under a veil of innocence. He's performed at the Island, Guelf, Halifax, Kelowna, & Ottawa Fringe Festival. He is a founder of the comedy production company Punching Sideways Productions. He is really hoping this artist thing works out.