The Maskless


New Paradise

Health Sector 482B

Access Level: RESTRICTED

She couldn’t see.  That was the first thing she realized upon waking.  She couldn’t see, and her head was throbbing.  Something was making her nose itch.  Blood?  Blinking back tears at the pain that washed over her face, she took a deep breath, doing her best to steady her pounding heart. 

  Her jaw felt odd.  Loose, almost.  The air around her was hot and stuffy, a far cry from the cool, metallic taste of the air she was used to.  Was her filter broken?  She stretched her jaw, moving her mouth around as she tried in vain to feel the familiar pressure of the mask against her chin.  It had to still be there…it was pressing sharply against her forehead.  Perhaps she needed to have it readjusted.  She turned her head, but the metal cut deeper into her brow and she cried out in pain.  Fresh blood trickled down her nose, and as it did, memories came flooding back to her. 

The collision.  The chase.  The man. 

The monster, she corrected herself.  Monster, monster, monster.  Where was she now?  Had he captured her?  She shuddered, recalling the stories of the people that suddenly went missing.  No one knew what the Maskless did with the people they kidnapped, and that very uncertainty had led to the rise of countless theories.  None of those theories were of any comfort to her now. 

“Hello?” she inquired feebly of the darkness that surrounded her.  “Hello?”

A sob caught at her throat, and she whimpered quietly.  The chair she was sitting in was hard and cold, her wrists and ankles bound to it by cuffs.  The metal bands were not unlike the ones used at her mask readjustment appointments, but this was different.  Doctor Ramsey was kind, and made a point of ensuring that the cuffs he used didn’t pinch her.  Whoever had captured her was not nearly as compassionate.  These bands cut into her skin with a cruel apathy.

The smart report of a bolt being undone sounded in front of her, and she winced.  A door opened, and footsteps clipped into the room.  “The Grand Doctor will see you now,” a brusque voice announced.  The Grand Doctor? she repeated to herself, head spinning.  What is he doing here?

She held her breath as the soft swish of trailing draperies declared the presence of the most powerful man in New Paradise.  Although he acted in the best interest of the country, his authority was absolute, and his commanding presence was intimidating.  She had only ever seen him from a distance.  The room was silent for a moment, then the Grand Doctor spoke.  “Morton, remove the hood,” he ordered.  A silky fabric brushed against her face for an instant, then she found herself staring up at the impassive mask of the Grand Doctor. 

The sculpted mouth was set in a hard line, the tinted glass of the eyeholes staring blankly down at her.  Gold filigree traced its way across the mask, denoting the position this man held and the power he wielded.  “That is all,” he announced.  “Thank you, Morton.”

An assistant backed out of the room with a shallow bow, leaving her alone with the Grand Doctor.  “Jennifer Imelda Reynolds,” he stated matter-of-factly.  “Nineteen years, four months, eleven days.  Five foot five-and-three-eighths inches.  Brown hair, blue eyes.  Assistant to the Secondary Supervisor at Lyndon Pharmaceuticals.  Currently residing on the fifth floor, room 1083 at the Fifth Standard Apartment Complex in Health Sector 462A.  Is this information correct?”

“Yes.”  Something was terribly wrong.  She could only see out of her right eye, her left one being obscured by the twisted remnants of her mask.  The air tasted thin and oily without her filtration system, and sound was behaving differently too.  The enhancer on her right ear dangled precariously, held on by only a scrap of metal.  The one on her left pinched painfully.   

The Grand Doctor folded his arms over his white robes, silently considering her from behind his mask.  Jen tried to imagine what might be going through his mind.  Finally, she gathered the courage to speak. 

“What happened, sir?” 

The man uncrossed his arms and sunk into a chair opposite her.  “I was hoping you could tell me the same thing,” he said, his voice gravelly, though not unkind.  “You were there when the Maskless attacked, were you not?”  Jen flinched, shouts and screams echoing through her memory.  There was a young man and an alarm…an explosion. 

“Yes,” she finally said. 

“You were aware that there was an intruder?” the Grand Doctor checked. 

“I heard the lockdown alarm and the announcement, yes.” 

“And you saw him?”

“He…ran into me,” Jen admitted.  “I barely knew what was happening.”  She was beginning to get frustrated.  What was going on?  She cleared her throat.  “But, your eminence, where am I now?  What are you doing here?” 

“I’m here to help you, Jennifer Reynolds.  But I’m afraid that I can’t tell you where you are.  That is restricted information.” 

“But I’m not… I wasn’t captured by the Maskless was I?” she asked hesitantly. 

The Grand Doctor gave a quick bark of laughter.  “What?  No, certainly not.  Those cowards fled, leaving you injured.”

“The Social Watch was shooting at us,” Jen remembered aloud.   

“They were doing their job,” the Grand Doctor assured her.  “Why were you running from them?”

“I…I don’t know,” Jen admitted, wishing she could scratch the drying blood that was itching her nose.  “It all happened so fast.”

“You know the protocol for an encounter with one of the Maskless, do you not, Miss Reynolds?”

“Activate intercom and report immediately,” she replied. 

“But you didn’t do that, did you?” the Grand Doctor pressed.

“No.”

“Why not?” he asked sharply. 

“I don’t know,” Jen replied, a trace of fear worming its way into her voice.  “He…he said the Watch was trying to kill him.”

“And you believed him?” the Grand Doctor shot back angrily. 

“I don’t know!  I was confused!  I don’t want to see anyone killed.”

“And do you believe that your government would kill anyone?”

“Of course not!” she insisted quickly.  “You’re here to keep us safe.”

“That’s right, Miss Reynolds,” the Grand Doctor stated, his voice calm and soothing.  “That’s right.  What else did the monster say?” 

“He told me that a new day was dawning.  That we’d be free soon, and have no need of masks.”

The Grand Doctor swore under his breath.  “You know that you are already free, correct?  And that your mask is there to keep you, and everyone around you safe?”

“Yes,” she answered. 

The man was quiet for several moments.  “Is that all?” he finally asked.

“Yes,” she said again.  “The next thing I knew, I was running from the Watch, and they were shooting at us.  There was an explosion, and I was knocked off my feet.”

“And the monster left you behind?”

“He…yes.”  She remembered writhing on the ground, her mask searing her face, shrapnel digging into her cheek and forehead.  He had hesitated for a moment, and she had stared up at him in pain, watching his eyes.  They were filled with conflict.  Conflict between wanting to help her and wanting to leave her?  Conflict between sympathy and apathy?  She had never before seen someone’s eyes so clearly.  They were like a window into his soul, but only if one could read them, and she didn’t think she could.  She hadn’t had much experience.  Was it sympathy and apathy?  Or was it something else?  Conflict between courage and fear?  That felt more accurate.  But everyone knew that courage was nothing but recklessness with a noble facade.  The Maskless had eventually turned and run.  Fear won out in the end.  It always did.  

“He said nothing else to you?” the Grand Doctor checked, interrupting her thoughts.

“Nothing,” Jen said uncertainly, her mind whirling.  “Wait, yes he did!”  She closed her eyes, trying to remember.  “Right before he left, he said, ‘Change is coming soon.  For your own sake, avoid the assembly and stay far away from the Oracle.’  At least, it was something like that.  I was in too much pain to really listen.” 

“Yes, you’ve been through a lot, haven’t you,” the Grand Doctor said absentmindedly.  He stood up with an abrupt, businesslike air.  “Thank you for your cooperation.  You have done a great service to your government.  The Finisher will be in shortly.”

“The Finisher?” Jen repeated, panic infusing her tone.  “I’m being terminated?”

“I’m afraid so.  It would take an inordinate amount of work to remove and replace your mask, and we simply cannot spare the doctors.  For your own safety, and the safety of New Paradise, you will be…”  He paused suddenly, listening to something coming through his enhancer.  “It appears we have a problem,” he muttered grimly.  “A Maskless has entered the complex.” 

Jen began to cry.  The past hours had been more chaotic than anything she’d ever experienced.  The information that she was to be terminated, following on the heels of an interview with the Grand Doctor himself, was already overwhelming.  Adding on top of that the information that the Maskless had infiltrated the very building she was in was more than she could handle.  Without her mask, her tears trickled down her face, tickling her cheeks in an annoying manner.

“Quiet, girl!” the Grand Doctor snapped.  He turned toward the closed door as Jen struggled to regain control of her sobbing.  “Morton!” he demanded.  “Morton, answer!”  Jen watched in awful fascination as the Grand Doctor tapped on his enhancers.  Apparently Morton was not responding.  The man swore, reaching into his robes for the debilitator that was fastened to his belt. 

Without warning, the metal door shot open, and a Maskless rushed into the room.  He struck the Grand Doctor in the head, electricity arcing from his fist to connect with the doctor’s mask.  Sparks flew from the polished metal as the Grand Doctor toppled to the floor.  He lay there, twitching, as Jen looked up at the attacker. 

It was the same man who had collided with her earlier.  He was tall, with sandy hair and dark eyes that seemed to take in the room at a glance.  His clothes were strange to her eyes, entirely different than the grey tunics and trousers that were provided to the citizens of New Paradise.  He wore a long coat, a satchel hanging at his side.  His shirt had been crafted from some sort of green-dyed cloth, his pants made of a rough canvas-like material.  Fiddling with a metallic device he was holding in his right hand, he turned toward Jen.  “Hello again,” he said awkwardly.  She winced.  It felt wrong to look at another’s face.  Avoiding his eyes, she glanced down at the prone figure of the Grand Doctor. 

“Don’t you know who that is?” she asked sharply. 

“Grand Doctor Anthony Stephen Hampson, Order of Faust, Keeper of the 375th Golden Lock, Recipient of the Medal of Health.  I know who he is,” the man stated, stooping to pick up the debilitator from where the Grand Doctor had dropped it.  He stashed it in his satchel before turning toward Jen.  She flinched as he reached for her mask. 

“Don’t!” she snapped.  “It can’t come off.” 

“It needs to,” he shot back, and gently pulled at the twisted metal.  The jagged shards tore into Jen’s face, and she screamed.  The man recoiled, frowning.  “Sorry, sorry!  I see what you mean.” 

Jen gritted her teeth, hot tears spilling from her eyes once more as blood seeped down her face.  Her left enhancer began ringing furiously.  “They know you’re here,” she whispered without thinking.

“I know,” the man stated.  He flipped a few switches on the wall, and the cuffs binding her wrists and ankles retracted.  “Come on, we need to go!” he encouraged, gesturing for her to follow him. 

“I’m not…going anywhere with you,” Jen snapped in confusion as she rubbed her wrists.  The Grand Doctor groaned weakly from where he lay on the floor.

“They’ll kill you if you stay here,” the man stated.  “Besides, I know someone who can get that wreckage off your face.” 

“Terminate, not kill,” Jen said automatically, then checked herself.  “You…what?”  Somewhere in the complex doors slammed, boots drumming urgently against the cement floor.

“We need to go,” he said again.  The man turned away from her, glancing down the hallway before meeting her eyes.  “Are you coming?  Peter isn’t going to be happy I’m even doing this, you know.  And it wasn’t exactly easy to get in here.”

“I…” Jen hesitated, glancing down at the prone figure of the Grand Doctor, then up at the mysterious stranger.  The man stood by the door, staring at her with a puzzled intensity.  He had broken into the building for…what?  To capture her?  But he was giving her a choice whether to stay or go with him.  Had he come to rescue her?  To set her free?  But she was already free, so long as she stayed obedient to the Council of Physicians and the Oracle.  The Grand Doctor had said that she needed to be terminated, so she should accept that with courage and obedience.  It was her duty.  And yet…she didn’t want to be terminated.

Haltingly, Jen stood up and walked toward the stranger. 

“You’re coming then?” he checked.  She nodded silently, and he nodded back in satisfaction.  “Good.  Follow me.” 

“What about the Grand Doctor?” Jen asked. 

The man paused.  “I know.  Taking him out is very tempting, but my top priority is getting you out,” he explained, entirely misunderstanding what she meant.  “Don’t worry.  His day of reckoning is coming.” 

They made their way out of the room and down a corridor, then abruptly ducked through a doorway.  Jen held her breath as a heavily-armed squad of the Social Watch dashed by, headed for the room she had recently left.  “I’m Will, by the way,” her rescuer whispered when the Watch had passed. “Will Heyrman.” 

“I’m Jen Reynolds,” the young woman replied in a low voice.  She followed Will as he navigated around meticulously labeled crates and large pieces of machinery that were covered in greasy sheets.

“Miss Reynolds, you didn’t happen to say anything important to good ‘ol Tony, did you?” he asked quietly.

“Tony?” Jen repeated, confused.

“Sorry.  Anthony Hampson,” Will explained as he fished a tool from his satchel and began prying open a large window.  “The Grand Doctor?”

“Oh.  Well, I told him what you told me.” 

The young man glanced up from his task.  “Remind me.  What did I tell you?  I wasn’t exactly…thinking clearly at the time.” 

“You told me the Watch was trying to kill you, that a new day was coming, that I didn’t need my mask, and to stay away from the assembly and the Oracle for my own safety.” 

“Wow.  You have a good memory,” Will observed, shoving the window open and glancing down at the darkened courtyard far below.  “You didn’t…tell all that to the Grand Doctor, right?”

“Um, well…Yes.  I did.  Is that bad?”

Will muttered something angrily, apologizing in the next breath.  “Sorry, you wouldn’t have known better.  I shouldn’t have told you that much.” 

“What’s wrong?” Jen asked.  Will clambered through the window and stepped onto a narrow cement ledge.

“It just would have been safer if good ‘ol Tony didn’t have any reason to suspect we were planning something,” the Maskless explained, helping Jen onto the ledge.  “Careful.  Just follow me.  It’s quite safe.”

The young woman heartily doubted that to be true, but she followed him nonetheless.  The alarm had stopped sounding in her broken enhancer, and her ears were assailed by a wide variety of unfamiliar night noises.  She supposed that Will was used to the sounds, but after so many years of having them filtered out by her enhancers she had to purposefully ignore them in order to focus on keeping her footing.

The ledge was two stories off the ground and wrapped around the courtyard to the back of the building.  Will led the way, edging past many dark and greasy windows before clambering onto the roof of a storage garage that had been built adjacent to the complex.  From there it was only a matter of crawling down the slick slope of the roof and onto some conveniently-stacked crates before dropping the remaining few feet onto the cracked cement below. 

Jen glanced around nervously.  The windows of the towering buildings stared down in silent condemnation at the two figures that dared to populate the silent city streets.  The pavement was wet, a few flickering streetlights giving it a golden sheen.  It had recently rained. 

Will stared down the street, lost in thought.  “Look, if you don’t want to come with me, I won’t force you,” he said curtly, turning toward Jen with a grave expression.  “You’re free for now.  Go wherever you want.  If you come with me, your fate will be in the hands of my superiors.” 

For a brief moment, a spark of hope flashed through the young woman’s mind.  She could go back to her home and back to her work.  She could forget any of this had happened.  But then she felt the pressure of her wrecked mask and remembered the flatness of the Grand Doctor’s tone when he informed her that she would be terminated.  “No,” Jen stated, her voice sounding strange to her own ears.  “If I stay, they’ll terminate me.”  She looked up at Will.  “I’ll come with you.”

The man nodded self-consciously.  “Alright.  Some of the others won’t exactly be…welcoming.  But you’ll be safe.  I promise you that.” 

Just then, a metal canister sailed past their heads and exploded with a bang and a flash of light against the side of a warehouse.  Jen spun around and saw a squad of the Social Watch appear from around the corner of a building.  Will seized her hand and turned toward a narrow street that led away into the darkness.  “This way!” he yelled.

The two dashed down the alley as the Watch gave chase.  Will pulled the young woman along, his breath smoking in the damp air.  As Jen stumbled through the maze of streets that made up the sector, she felt that the hope of a new life lay ahead of her.  Behind her, the life she was leaving behind was in hot pursuit, racing after her to the sound of the pounding boots of the Social Watch.  She panted, her feet slipping on the wet ground as Will pulled her around a corner. 

The boots of the Watch were gaining ground.   


Copyright © 2022 Aidan Jones All Rights Reserved

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