Chapter 3 of Neohumans
The charges were small and localized. They blew all at once, disabling the Harvesters. The harvesters, part something organic, part the strange Taker metal, collapsed to the ground. One of them crushed one of the "tenderlings", as Skae had referred to them, beneath them.
Bex felt a wrench, but hardened herself and gave the signal, and they all went up and through the grate into the slaughterhouse beyond, walking through the flayed remains of human children, spread out to the walls and across the floor. The bluish lights burned in the floor and walls beneath, transporting power to the room along these main arteries. She switched out of infrared and back to human native spectrum in her HUD, the world bathed in blue and the dark black of freshly-spilled arterial blood.
"Skae!" she called out, and he took the lead, darting past Nod and reaching the first crate, the ones closest to the slaughter, the ones who would have been the next to go. Inside there were about five male children in a three foot square box, cramped and shoved against each other. They showed the signs of how they'd been raised, with sores and bruises all over their skin. They were dirty, and their eyes stared forward into a waking nightmare. They had been well-nourished, too nourished in fact, their flaccid and flabby skin hanging off of them, their cheeks rounded and engorged so as to smash their lips into tiny little dots of terror, and resignation.
Bex looked past it. She had seen it before, although they did not often rescue children. Most of their rescues were a bit more mature.
Nod grumbled, "Taker scum." When it came to the mistreatment of children, Nod did not have a sense of humor.
Whims moved to the crate to make ready as Skae sliced open the lock with the multitool. While Skae moved on to the next crate, Bex unsnapped her face mask and leaned over to the children inside, raising her goggles so they could see her cold star eyes.
"We're here to rescue you," she said, although she knew they did not understand her. They would have to learn language later, back on Zora, like the rest of them had. Not that they could open their mouths to speak to her even if they wanted: All humans had their tongues removed at birth.
The Takers did not want them communicating or organizing, and human tongue was one of their delicacies. That would be restored back in the medical bay on the ship.
She kept her tone soothing, and gave them what she hoped was a reassuring smile. She could imagine how they felt. For one, The Defiant and her crew were the first clothed and armed humans these children had ever seen. For another, they had already given up hope. Hope had died long ago. To suddenly be presented with hope was overwhelming. Most of them continued to stare blankly forward in shock. One nodded. But there was one, near the back, who could barely move, so pressed was he against the others, who gave her a tongueless smile.
They spilled out of the crate after that, although they needed Whims' help for that. None of them could walk very well, especially not after being held in holding crates for several hours, smashed in amongst their brothers, watching as the ones before them were plucked from their cages by the Harvester's long-reaching tendrils, lobotomized, and decapitated with surgical precision. The razor edges on the Harvester's tendrils would then carve the body down quickly into a series of parts, and then shovel them into tubes in the slaughterhouse that sent them off to be processed further, or packed, eventually distributed into the household of some Taker, and then seasoned and consumed as part of some Taker cooking ritual which Bex had only heard about, but never observed.
She considered herself lucky for that.
Whims snatched up two of them under each arm. Bex took the last one in the crate, the one that had smiled at her, showing him how to hang from her back around her neck, and she could smell his fear and sweat, and yet also when he laid his head against her neck, she felt a warmth fill inside, as he let out a shuddering breath, and sigh of relief.
He trusted her. Trusted her to get him out of this hellhole. He had no way of knowing it was even possible, but it was something different, at least.
No matter how this turns out, she thought, at least he now has the experience of seeing his kind as something other than slaves. For however long that lasted.
She felt her resolve harden. They were getting out. They were definitely getting out.
Two more cages were opened, and the boys inside were gently but quickly tugged out by Whims as best as he could manage. She ran the numbers. Whims had four. She had the one on her back, but she could manage another with her off-hand. And even one more, if she was willing to give up her weapon hand. Zee wasn't going to be carrying anyone, unfortunately. Nod could manage two of them, but he needed to be ready to put that heavy plasma laser to good use.
Ten. Maybe twelve, at best.
She looked at the other crates still remaining, hundreds of them. Saw their faces staring back at her.
This was always the hardest part. The part they all dreaded the most.
They could not escape with all of them. But leaving them here...children...to this?
"Skae," she said. "If we get creative, how many can we carry?"
"Now is not the time to discuss strategy, Captain. The low-level alarm has already been sounded. They are enroute. You know this. We must follow the plan, until the plan has failed."
Once the Harvesters went down, their connection to their central command would die. A low-level alarm just dispatched more Harvesters to the area to investigate. If the crew was discovered here, it would no longer be a low-level alarm. It would be a full-scale alert, and then they would all likely die.
Save a few, or save no one. She had said those words to enough rescue recruits. She warned them about it every time. You can save a few, or you can die, and save no one ever again.
And here she was, trying to ignore her own advice.
"But they are children," Whims protested. Nod murmured a growl of agreement. Zee chittered and signed back, "Must go."
So she knew where the crew stood on this issue. The humans wanted to stay, the murial and rashrati wanted to go. They were making the wise choice here, the one she would have made if this had been a rescue of murial or rashrati children. It was much easier to stay detached, to keep to the job at hand, when it wasn't your own species' children in the cage.
Two for staying, two against. With her as the deciding vote, leaning towards staying. Not that it was really a democracy.
She looked into the eyes of the children nearby, hope dancing there, smiles and tiny, fat fingers clutching the cages, crammed into cage upon cage upon cage, as far as she could see, the stench and smell of them, covered in their own shit and piss...and felt tears sting her eyes.
There was only one decision, and she knew it. And she was responsible. She knew it, but she still hated it.
Save a few, or save no one.
She snapped her mask closed, pulling down the goggles, and snatched one of the children under her left arm, offering a hand, palm outward, to them, before casting her head down in shame, no longer capable of looking at them, seeing the hope die. "I'm sorry," she said under her breath, but the coms caught it.
She heard Nod sigh, and she knew why. It was the right choice. But he was hoping she would make a different one anyway.
Whims whined, "Captain, no..."
"We've wasted too much time already. We have to go. Skae, what's our best exit?"
"The way we came in," he replied, leading the way back to the slaughter floor.
She heard a high-pitched whine off in the distance. The sensor arrays of the Harvesters had already detected them, through the sea of tiny bodies, they had indeed lingered too long.
"Zee!" she shouted, and the murial skittered to the archway between the holding cages and the slaughter floor, planting her payload.
Whims dropped first, and then they all passed the children down to him, before dropping down themselves. Zee squealed and then slipped through the grate just before Bex replaced it, the murial's tiny clawed fingers digging into her shoulder as she landed.
They all quickly picked up the dazed kids, and cleared the way as Skae triggered Zee's charges, and a thunderous boom hit, causing the ground to shake, sealing off access to the slaughter floor.
Nod would bring up the rear, his heavy plasma laser melting the grate into place behind them with a red hot pulse in the dark, sodden feeder tunnel.
"Skae!" she shouted, hustling as fast as she could down the tunnel while carrying two terrified children.
Skae tapped the screen at his wrist around the child clasped in his scaly arms. "The Defiant is ready, Captain."
The collapsing tunnel had only bought them moments, she could hear the clang behind them, and via the observation drones Skae had dispatched to her HUD, she could see the Harvesters snaking down into the feeder tunnel, coming after them in hot pursuit.
She stopped talking, because she would need her breath, and all of them pushed themselves to the limit, trying to get out of the feeder tunnel, and into the main tunnel leading back to the waste port.
As soon as they did, Skae issued the command to the ship.
Back on the Defiant, she knew it would be drilling through the waste port, the sphinctered opening of the Taker ship being the most vulnerable to that approach. This would sound the alarm, of course, but since they were already on high alert, there was no harm left to be done.
Once the waste port was open, the Defiant threw open the airlock, and suddenly the tunnel began to lose pressure and they were all sucked out towards the Defiant.
She shielded the kids against her body, banging off of the wall a couple times as she was sucked towards the ship.
This was the other part she hated most.
They had been close together, and managed to remain mostly together in a cluster as they were sucked through the air towards the Defiant. The ship was programmed for this eventuality, and as soon as it detected all members of the crew inside of the cargo hold, it slammed shut both airlocks, the exit as well as the one connected to the Taker ship, and they all suddenly were dropped heavily to the ground along with a shower of gore from the tunnel as the antigrav kicked in.
Then the ship gave a quick burst to get free of the Taker farm ship, and immediately dropped out of the Jump.
She felt her stomach lurch and the world resume the familiar sensation she had come to associate with life outside of the jump. But it would not last long.
The ship spoke up, "Plotting new exit trajectory through the Jump. In five. Four. Three."
"Shit," she said again under her breath, before time and space folded, and then they were gone.