Scarlemagne’s palace in Las Vistas, two months before Kipo’s arrival on the surface…
Mmm…your brain waves taste nummy tonight…
Isla hung her mask in its usual spot above her pillow. If she had her way, she would have burned the thing, but that would let the timber-cat out of the bag faster than anything.
Gee, thanks, she mentally whispered to the voice in her head.
It giggled in response. He’s sleeping. You can relax.
Isla huffed. Just because Scarlemagne was asleep did not mean she could relax. It merely meant that if she slipped up, she’d be caught by one of his lackies and not him directly. Both scenarios would end the same–with her freedom, such as it was, being snatched from her, her mind forced under the same control as every other human.
Don’t eat too much, she warned the voice. She’d dubbed it Wren, after a picture she’d seen of such creatures before mutes existed. Who knew birds could once be so small? Seriously, he’s been obsessed with finding the city of underground humans lately. I’m going to need the energy.
Oh, okay, Wren replied. So…you should go to sleep and stop talking to me, right?
Isla stifled a chuckle. Right, she conceded before curling up on the cot she’d been assigned. It was always clean, the small pillow always perfectly in its place, and it was always much less comfortable than it looked. She was fairly sure that wherever Scarlemagne was getting their sleeping supplies from, he had them thoroughly tested for unpleasantness before his human pets were allowed to use them.
Isla lay awake, looking at the domed ceiling above her. Humans on cots to either side of her had already begun to snore. She wanted to believe she wasn’t the only one here who wasn’t under Scarlemagne’s full control. But it wasn’t as if she could ask others that question, nor could they ask her. Better to assume she was alone than take the risk. But the thought had occurred to her on more than one occasion; maybe the next time they recruited a human, she could try to save them. Or at least, if possible, give them a way to keep their own will. Like she did because of Wren.
Isla had met Wren a few months back. To call Wren a single entity wasn’t really accurate, but it was easier to think of the little mute that way. Wren was a collection of tardigrades. When the microorganisms that composed her gathered together, they only took up a space the size of Isla’s palm. Isla had actually felt bad for Wren when they first met; the mute had been unable to feed consistently for a long time. As soon as a host creature became aware of Wren’s presence, their body tended to reject her. Ilsa’s body no doubt would have done the same under normal circumstances. Except, when Scarlemagne found her camp, Isla had a very good reason to want certain brain waves blocked and consumed. And Wren had good reason to want… well, food. Now the tardigrades got a consistent source of energy while Isla maintained her free will. Well, mostly. A strong enough dose of perfume still fogged her mind. More than once, her own desires had been shoved aside, and the thought of dancing around like a fool because Scarlemagne demanded it made her giddy with delight. Every time Isla’s head cleared thanks to Wren’s intervention, it took everything in her not to vomit.
Her biggest problem now was this–without the scents cluing her mind in to Scarlemagne’s wishes, she needed another method to keep up her facade. Thankfully, Wren helped out there, too. The mute informed her when any non-verbal commands passed through it. Or at least, it was supposed to. The last time Scarlemagne clapped for everyone to get into line, Isla had almost missed his cue entirely. The inflated mandrill had ignored it. Someone else had collapsed from exhaustion, and they were much more interesting to berate than her.
She turned to the side, hoping the change of position would finally lull her to sleep. Were things really better for her now? Or was she just torturing herself more than the others? There was no escape from this place. And unlike the other humans, every time she got an order, she had to force herself to obey it or risk uncovering her secret. Some days, being in a mind-controlled fog the rest of her life sounded like a good alternative.
Snap! Snap! Snap! Of course, Scarlemagne could never just say, “Good morning!” or even “Wake up, you lazy bums!” Not when snapping his fingers to get his wishes was so much more effective and fun for him. Isla mourned the loss of a good stretch and a yawn in order to stand straight and give the impression she never got tired at all. The other humans all rose from their cots in the same manner.
“Get ready, my little performers!” Scarlemagne squealed with delight. “I’ve got word of a new human we can fetch. Isn’t that just delightful?” He threw his head back, practically convulsing in his maniacal laughter.
Laugh, whispered Wren, as the room filled with the sound of the humans’ pained, forced giggles. Isla did so, perfectly in time with them. Her stomach soured. This was going to be one of those days she hated the most. Then again, perhaps this was the opportunity she had been waiting for. Another unfortunate effect of being under Scarlemagne’s influence was that the humans’ reaction times were greatly slowed, their brains always forced to contemplate what he would want, rather than what they would want. Isla was at no such disadvantage. If she could find this new human before the rest of them did, she could help them safely escape the area. Scarlemagne would be angry of course, but he’d blame it on their general human incompetence as usual.
Isla hurried to get changed along with the others. Proving moderately competent among Scarlemagne’s pets had its advantages. For one, she got sent out on missions more often, which meant less time wearing the movement-restricting, breath-denying monstrosity that was standard dress for the human females under Scarlemagne’s watch. Isla had once and only once seen him try to send one of the women on some errand without having her change into a proper riding uniform (or really, anything else) first. The poor lady had fallen on her face and broken her mask in two. Scarlemagne never admitted to doing anything wrong, but his expression as he realized just how physically impossible his request had been was about the closest he’d ever come.
Isla’s scouting uniform consisted of a knee-length slit skirt over brick-red slacks. The edge of the bright red fabric had a lace trim to give the feel of her regular dress without being nearly as infuriating. Around her waist, she tied a small pack with a day’s worth of rations. The human they were seeking was supposedly a loner–he either never had a group to begin with or had been separated from them. He’d been spotted once not far from Fitness Raccoon territory and then twice more closer to Scarlemagne’s court. Tarsier had noticed him; of course, she noticed everything. She was probably the member of Scarlemagne’s nobles Isla feared the most. For every time Isla thought of just making a break for it, Tarsier’s bulbous green eyes blazed in her mind, and she thought the better of it. There was something on the masks as well that deterred her. A small black spot that wouldn’t come off. Isla didn’t understand it completely, but Scarlemagne did have some access to old human technology. She’d overheard him call the tiny device embedded in the mask a “tracker bug” once–though it didn’t really look like a bug to her. As best she’d been able to surmise, the device wouldn’t tell him exactly where she was, but it would alert him if she left his territory without permission or removed the mask during waking hours.
If it is a bug, it’s a brainless bug, Wren informed her. Nothing yummy coming out of it at all.
I see. How terrible for you. As much as Isla wanted to share in the tragedy that was Wren not getting an extra snack, she had other things to focus on. Scarlemagne had selected two other humans to go on the mission, with Isla as the leader, along with directions to scout out the various points the human had been spotted at. The trio, clad in their bright red uniforms, took off on three equally bright pink flamingos. Scarlemagne’s maniacal laughter took a long time to fade behind them.
Riding the birds had certainly taken some getting used to at first. Their soft, smooth feathers were both comfortable to sit on and very easy to slide off of when the bird was in flight. Until Scarlemagne invested in proper saddles, Isla just focused on sitting as straight and balanced as possible.
“Where to first?” the man flying to her left asked, shouting to be heard through his mask. The wind in their faces as they flew through the air didn’t really help his communication efforts. Isla released one hand from the veins and signaled where the man was to head first.
After carefully reviewing the human’s most obvious tracks, her plan was to send her two brainwashed comrades traveling the least-likely-to-be-successful directions. Meanwhile, she would follow the human’s strongest trail. She watched the other two flamingos flap out of sight and smiled beneath her mask. So far so good. For the first time in a long while, the smile beneath her mask wasn’t entirely fake.