Episode 7

Brandon was more than happy to shed the lycra once they’d made it past the stunned shoppers. He felt much better in tactical leather, anyway, which Trent had somehow smuggled in.
            The concept of tactical leather – or “tacher”, as it was colloquially known – was something they’d taken from a particular X-Men story back in the early 2000s. Thankfully there was no yellow X covering their chests and backs, leaving them merely black jackets and pants with various pouches and attachments. The company logo was also embroidered over the right breast; apparently Damian was a big fan of corporate representation out in the field.
            Brandon’s thoughts strayed to his lady, trapped inside whatever doom fortress Dream had slung her in. He hoped she hadn’t divulged any sensitive details, but he figured she hadn’t. She usually kept her mouth shut when it came to that sort of thing, since it was kind of what she’d been programmed to do.
            Her lying circuit was experimental, though. Brandon hoped it hadn’t failed yet; his hadn’t, so he took that as a good sign.
            The team was now underneath the supermarket, having talked their way past everyone and ending up in the maintenance shafts that, for some incredibly odd and inexplicable reason, were below the building. He hadn’t remember Canadians being that odd, but it had been a while since he’d come home. Plus he was certain Glen had programmed him with more than a few American algorithms in the interim, distinguishing him from his former brethren even more.
            This is getting far too expository. Back to the matter at hand.
            Brandon switched his contemplation circuits off, coming back to proper reality halfway through Nick outlining their plan with Trent. “Alright guys, the strange energy signature is getting stronger the deeper we go. I’m still a little surprised no one up top’s noticed these underground shafts.”
            “Yeah, I thought that was odd,” Glen piped up. “I just figured, hey, it’s Canadia.”
            “Canada.”
            Glen turned to face Brandon. “My mum says it’s Canadia. Canada’s just the old spelling.”
            Brandon sighed, quietly contemplating firing a poison dart from one of the curled locks on his head. He realised people on this team really did try to kill each other far too often. “Whatever, Gardner. Back to business.”
            Nick nodded at him gratefully. “Thanks, Bran. Anyway, there’s a fork up ahead that looks big enough on both ends for the team to split in two –”
            “Fuck no.” Dac was standing tall and glaring firmly at Nick. “We are notsplitting up. I’ve seen enough horror films to know the end to that story.”
            “Running a review site does not make you an authority on movie clichés, Rogers,” Trent shot back. “If Nick says we split, then we split. No ifs or buts.”
            “And what if one of those parts of the fork turns out to be guarded?” Dac asked. “What if one of them has countermeasures we can’t disarm? There aren’t enough ECM tools to go around effectively for all of us.”
            Trent flexed his palm gently but noticeably. “I’ve got the only tool I need right here – besides the one standing in your spot.”
            Brandon tensed; he was fairly sure Dac wouldn’t rise to the bait. The two had been friends shortly after Brandon’s chassis had been completed, and he knew Dac fairly well. Still, he was unsettled at the venomous death glare that Dac gave Trent just then. If Dac had been any other man, Trent would most likely have a bullet in his brain – unless his Sloss powers stopped bullets, which wouldn’t have surprised Brandon.
            Thankfully, Mary intervened. “Alright guys, we get it. You don’t like each other. Now shut the fuck up and get back on track. You can continue this stupid bloody pissing contest after we stop Dream. Am I clear?”
            She hadn’t screamed, but her voice had carried clearly and hit everyone there. The entire room was silent, and the two male combatants looked at her slightly apprehensively. Brandon noticed her hand had drifted to her sidearm.
What is it with this group and team-killing?
Everyone finally stood down. Unfortunately, Brendan was the first one to speak next. “So, bros, who’s going in which half of the fork?”

Lonie was thoroughly unimpressed, and not just because Belinda had refused to find her one of the schnitzels from last week for a heat-up today. She had a craving for chicken, and it was the best damn chicken anything she’d ever had. Maybe she’d rifle through the kitchens when Belinda went home that evening.
            No, it wasn’t just lack of poultry that had left her unimpressed. The team had failed to check in at the proper time, and if the local Canadian news reports were correct then they were currently inside a random Toronto supermarket dressed in truly appalling lycra. She was very, very mildly curious as to who had supplied them with such garments, but was more concerned with the fact that the CRUD frontline team – infamous in terrorist circles for its subtlety and ability to enter theatres of operation nigh-undetected – was now on the goddamn local news dressed like a Eurovision entry.
            She made a mental note to execute whichever barmy-ass blunderer had made the suggestion.
            She’d made her way to the cells to speak to Graham 917 – just because he was mentally impaired did not mean he couldn’t still receive legal support – and was not surprised to find him curled up in a ball on the floor. His chair had been knocked over, and Lonie spotted pieces of days-old food stuck to each of the three walls inside the concrete cube. The only surface unblemished was the glass divider between them.
            She sat down in front of it, opening up her case folder and flipping to the relevant section. “Are you ready for a conversation today, Mr Graham?”
            Graham stayed where he was. “Only if the muffin stops spitting on me. I’m already covered in antifreeze and broken promises.”
            Lonie sighed; this was not an uncommon type of reaction from him. “I’ll ask it to momentarily, Mr Graham. Now, do you feel like telling me your surname today?”
            His limbs suddenly extended to full length and he fell sideways, stiff as a board. “I am Graham 917, patient of Doctor Dream. I am one of his Blessed Few.” He then turned back onto his side and retracted into a ball once more.
            This, also, was not uncommon.
            “Surely you had a surname before you were Doctor Dream’s patient,” Lonie reasoned with her magnificent, lawyerly brain. “Do you remember what it was?”
            “Twice between perdition, and once after the equinox of the tomato sauce. The only memory is what is engineered.”
            “And what was engineered in your memory, Mr Graham?”
            He paused a moment before responding. “Sunlight. And an apotheotic sense of synthetic equilibrium.”
            She sighed again, realising fast what a waste of time this was. “Do you know what’s going to happen to you if you don’t talk to us, Mr Graham?” She didn’t wait for his reply. “You’ll die. Not only have you seen the interior of this HQ, which makes you a security risk, but you’re also contaminated with an unknown chemical agent which may or may not be communicable in ways we cannot fathom. Director Ashcroft will put you in the incinerator if I don’t get something substantial from you soon, and none of Agent Ash’s protestations will stop that. Do you understand, Mr Graham?”
            He said nothing, remaining curled in a ball. Lonie waited a few moments before giving up and standing to leave, closing her case folder. This was futile. It was time for the incinerator.
            She was almost at the elevator door when she heard an inhuman voice behind her. “Three will die.”
            She stopped, turning to face him with more than a little shock. “What?”
            Graham was now pressed firmly against the glass divider, his hands reaching upwards in her direction. His eyes had rolled backwards into his head like something out of The Exorcist. He spoke in a guttural, unnatural tone. “Three of them will die by journey’s end. One will return. Two of one mind will silence a third. The eagle will be speared by the faceted spear of the phantasm. The facsimile will replace its template.” His white, upturned eyeballs suddenly went completely bloodshot. “And you, Miss Ramona will have to kill before this is over. You will have to kill, and you will never be the same.”
            He closed his eyes, slumping down from the divider. Almost immediately Lonie ran to the wall comm panel and paged the med unit. The security guards covering the elevator had rifles raised at him, standing a good distance back from the glass.
            “Get a team down here!” Lonie cried. “917’s collapsed!”
            She realised she was shaking. That wasn’t possible. She never shook, even when she was cold. Nothing could threaten her equilibrium.
            You, Miss Ramona, will have to kill before this is over.
            There was no way he was right. This was some kind of adverse reaction to whatever ungodly chemical he’d been exposed to. That was it – just some stupid science thing.
            As the med team arrived and began to cart him off to the infirmary she could hear him quietly whispering, over and over again, “The medicine works. The medicine works. The medicine works…”

In the end, Team A had been Nick, Jacob, Glen, Ash and Brendan, with the remainder of Trent, Brandon, Mary and Dac (who had insisted on keeping Trent where he could see him) making Team B. They’d each crawled through a path from the fork, and if the mapping software was correct they’d reach a median point together in a nearly a kilometre.
            This was far too large a shaft for Brandon’s liking, and it looked like it had been here for a while. Dream had planned this for a long time. That unsettled him more than anything else.
            “So, where exactly do you come from, Trent?” Mary was asking.
            The team foreigner seemed reluctant to chat. “Elsewhere.” It was the same response he’d given Dac at the safe house.
            “And what do you do, besides scavenge intel?”
            Trent paused for a moment. “I paint houses.”
            Dac coughed in derision. “Seriously?”
            Trent’s palm flared angrily a little in response. Dac took the hint and shut up. Brandon just wished they’d both get it over with and engage in a deathmatch. So much less protracted.
            There’s that violence thing again. Odd.
            “So,” Trent eventually said to Mary, “when are you going to tell Jacob?”
            Mary seemed to falter in her crawling for a moment. “Tell him what?”
            “You know what.”
            Mary didn’t respond. Brandon, on the other hand, had no idea what he meant. “What is it? What does she know?”
            “Nothing.” Mary responded far too quickly. “We can discuss it when we’re out of here. It’s not important now.”
            “Are you sure about that?” asked Trent quizzically. “What if we happen to run into –”
            “We won’t.” Mary’s voice was rock solid, harder than when she’d chastised the two pissing contestants earlier. “Just keep moving.”
            Brandon kept plugging along, as his not-insignificant processing power started trying to work out what exactly she knew that Jacob didn’t. He also began trawling the internet for possible baby booty crochet patterns.
            Didn’t hurt to be prepared.

The only thing Glen hated more than cramped spaces was Coconut. It was a thin margin between the two, however.
            Something he hated almost as equally was whenever Brendan, in his infinite wisdom, decided to enhance the travel time between HQ and the objective, on every single motherloving trip, by giving a running commentary with the occasional jab at all who didn’t believe in Sloss. Glen had already had to suffer through a few minutes of bitching that he hadn’t been able to go with the other Slossblessed team member, and now the New Zealander was crawling behind him and extolling the virtues of beach cricket with echidnas as wickets. Apparently it was a national sport in his hometown.
            When Glen had asked why a New Zealand national sport involved an Australian national animal, Brendan had very awkwardly changed the topic.
            Nick halted them a while after starting on the fork. “Hold. Something’s not right.” He turned to Ash, the young woman holding the PDA with the mapping software. “Does it seem like we’re dipping a little to you?”
            “I don’t think so, bro,” Brendan interjected. “We’d need to be naked to go dipp-”
            Without hesitation Nick pulled out his pistol and nailed Brendan in the right eye. The Kiwi bastard went down like a sack of echidnas, blood and eye jelly splattered all over the walls of the shaft and the unfortunate face of Jacob behind him. Jacob did not look amused as he quietly got out a handkerchief.
            “As I was saying,” Nick continued, reholstering his weapon, “does it feel like we’re descending a little? I feel like we’re going downhill.”
            Ash examined the PDA, nodding slowly. “We’re definitely on a decline. The other team’s heat signatures are just above us.”
            “Maybe we got the garbage chute?” Jacob posited, wiping blood from his cheek. “I, for one, wouldn’t mind fighting a one-eyed penis creature in the middle of a garbage compactor. All we need is a Wookiee to bar open the walls.” He tapped Brendan on the boot. “How bout you, Hehn Sewlew?”
            Brendan didn’t respond. Glen turned to look at him; his eye was completely destroyed, and it hadn’t regenerated. By this time Brendan should’ve been up and making wisecracks; he’d taken less time to recover when Mary had knifed him in the throat back at HQ.
            Something was wrong.
            Jacob tapped his boot again. “Hey, B? You awake yet?”
            Glen shook his head slowly. “Uh, Nick? Something’s not right here.”
            Nick’s reply was prevented by a short burst of static as his radio went off suddenly. Mary’s voice cut across him. “Is anyone there? We’ve got a bit of a problem here.
            Nick grabbed the radio off his belt. “I gotcha, Mary. We’ve got a bit of an issue with Brendan –”
            “Fuck that! We’ve got gunfire coming from behind us! There’s someone with a gun in the vent!
            Glen’s blood froze; he was sure that if the vent were better lit, his face would be Cullen-pale. “Shit.” He wrenched his gun out from his holster, aiming down past Brendan’s still-inanimate corpse and Jacob’s bemused head. He activated the laser sight, moving it around the blackened aperture behind them.
            The red dot hit another figure – black, face masked and thickset. Jacob had turned with torch in hand, and the light glinted dully on the barrel of a submachine gun. Glen heard the customary click of a safety being disengaged.
            Well, fuck.
            Another sound came after the safety – it was the high-pitched whine of a termite grenade. Oddly, it came from behind him.
            Glen swiftly turned his head, losing his aim on the new assailant and catching sight of Nick holding his palm out. The tri-lit pattern of red, orange and yellow in the centre of his hand signified the grenade was primed.
            Without a word, Nick slammed his palm down against the vent.
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