Episode 16

“Is that even scientifically possible?”
            Damian looked up from his recollecting for a moment, seeming confused. “Pardon?”
            “All the gases in one canister,” Dac asked. “Given how many different ones there were, that shouldn’t have been scientifically possible.”
            “Dear boy,” Damian said, slightly wearily, “if I had a shilling each time something happens that isn’t scientifically possible..” He trailed off, giving a mirthless chuckle.
            Dac winced a little, tiny twinges of pain making themselves known in his body. He glanced idly at the morphine drip, then looked away. Damian must’ve noticed. “Time for more painkillers, my lad?”
            Dac shook his head, intent on hearing more. “No, keep going. Glen made it seem like something really big happened that I missed out on.”
            The Director’s eyebrow quirked a little. “Did Agent Gardner inform you of something before you were shot?”
            “No, he was here right before you came in,” Dac explained, something cold rising inside his chest. “He called you to come and see me, didn’t he?”
            Damian’s expression of surprise gave Dac a cold realisation. His hands started to shake. “Boss,” he asked quietly, “where’s Glen?”
Thankfully, the bullet only penetrated Michael’s shoulder.
            He howled in pain and dropped to the ground, clutching the wound tightly. It was an in-and-out – no bullet left behind, thank God. Belinda still stood next to where he had, staring at the terminal pointedly.
            Tucker returned to aiming the gun at her. “Get the point?”
            Near-blinded by pain Michael struggled to look up, seeing Belinda staring at him with conviction. Her hands had clenched into fists, and she nodded slowly. “Yeah, I get it.”
            “Good.” Tucker snapped his fingers, and a hitherto unseen merc came in holding a large metal canister. He handed it to Belinda. “Install it, and get to spritzin’.” Tucker instructed.
            Belinda looked down at Michael pointedly for a moment – a moment so brief that anyone else who didn’t know Belinda wouldn’t have caught it – then started moving the canister towards the wall. She removed one of the empty ones from the hallucinogen wall and dropped it to the ground. It clanged hollowly as she started moving the loaded one to the free spot on the wall.
            Michael took a deep breath, and gritted his teeth as the pain flared again.
            Belinda dropped the loaded canister, knocking the dispersal nozzle against the ground with a loud metal clank. Almost immediately it bent inwards, tearing part of the metal and allowing a loud, ominous hissing sound to escape it.
            Tucker’s eyes widened but before he could speak Michael had reached upwards and grabbed him by the wrist holding his pistol. He pulled forward with whatever strength he had, feeling his muscles scream as the bullet wound lanced pain throughout him, and slammed Tucker’s head onto the terminal. The keyboard snapped off with an electronic ripping noise as it and Tucker fell to the ground.
            Michael braced himself for a shot from the other merc but turned to see him lying on the ground. Belinda’s revolver was in her hands, smoking.
            Damn, that’s hot.
            She holstered in behind her apron and grabbed Michael by the arm, ignoring the pained groan he gave as she did so. “Come on, we don’t have long.”
            Michael looked back at Tucker, lying unmoving on the floor of the dispersal room. The gas from the loaded canister was hissing louder now, and an ochre-coloured cloud was starting to fill the space. He saw Tucker get enveloped by the cloud before Belinda dropped him on the floor outside, shutting the door to the room behind her.
            He started to feel dizzy. The blood from his shoulder was covering the entirety of his arm, making it sticky and red. He clutched at the wound, wondering just how long it would take for the cocktail of gases to kill Tucker.
            He hoped it was quick, then passed out.
Beth knew something was wrong – horribly wrong – and not just because the radio line to Tucker had stopped unexpectedly. Something had most definitely turned for the worst.
            She’d left Damian to Rob-Bob’s tender mercies and rushed to the gas dispersal room with two other mercs – she hadn’t bothered to learn their names. They were all disposable anyway. By the time she reached it she saw the door closed and a thin cloud of ochre gas seeping out from below it. No-one was nearby.
            Her heart froze. She knew exactly what that was.
            “Open the door!” she screamed. “Now!”
            The two mercs unhesitatingly wrenched open the door, allowing a thicker amount of gas to escape it. She strode forward past them and held her breath before entering the dispersal room, looking as quickly as she could for Tucker and stepping over the body of the dead merc near the door. He was here, she knew it. She knew…
            There. Underneath the broken terminal. Down, and unmoving.
            If she could’ve breathed, she’d’ve cried out in terror. She quickly walked out of the room and grabbed one of the mercs by the arm with her left hand, the right covering her mouth and holding her breath in. The second merc took the hint and followed.
            She dragged her cohort to Tucker’s body and pointed. The merc got the message and he and his buddy grabbed Tucker’s limp form by a shoulder each, quickly taking him out. Beth came behind them, closing the door quickly and moving them all down the hallway before finally breathing again.
            She tried to get her breath under control, then radioed the main floor. “Someone activate the vent system near the gas dispersal room! Get all the ochre gas out of the corridor!”
            She didn’t wait for a response before switching the radio off. She turned to the two goons holding Tucker. She could see he was still breathing – weakly. “Get him to the infirmary, immediately!”
            The mercs immediately began running in the infirmary’s direction, one of them lifting Tucker up into a fireman’s carry. She watched them go, hoping they got there in time. There wasn’t much she cared about in the world besides money, and Tucker was something she cared about a lot.
            Someone was going to lose their balls for this.
            With terrible conviction she strode back to the conference room, where Rob-Bob was busy burning another car-related symbol onto Damian’s skin. From this distance it looked like an old car registration sticker, its brown plastic melting onto the Director’s skin. He looked like he was in an incredible amount of pain, but judging by Rob-Bob annoyed expression he still hadn’t given up any intel.
            “You,” she said acidly, pointing an accusing finger at Damian. “You know what your fucking cook just did to my Tucker?”
            Damian looked up from the sticker burning his skin and gave her his best amused expression, despite the pained face he wore. “She didn’t headshot him with the Smith and Wesson, did she? I always said – arrrgh! – she was a dead eye with that gun!”
            Beth’s rage swelled inside her like an untempered storm. She grabbed her crowbar off the conference table and swung viciously, striking Damian in the kneecap. She ignored his cry of pain and smashed the other kneecap, growling in fury as she did so.
            Every word of her internal thoughts was punctuated by a swing. This. Bastard. Would. Pay. If. Tucker. Died.
            She didn’t care that Rob-Bob was moving backwards, as far away from her as humanly possible, and she only vaguely heard his cry of, “Steady on, Beth! I can’t question him if he’s a pulpy mess!”
            All she cared about was taking her frustration out on someone, and it might as well be her brother.
It felt like forever to Jacob since they’d decided to move to the server room. He wondered if the building’s architect had intentionally placed it as far away from the civilised parts of the headquarters as humanly possible. All this jogging with tacher and guns did was make him thirstier than he’d ever been in his life.
            That, and Glen was insufferable.
            He’d been bad enough with his Coconut fetish, going on frequently about how awesome that bloody horse was, and now all he did was complain about his rapidly-growing headaches. Jacob had suggest Advil – which no-one had on hand – which had just led Glen to ramble for what felt like eons about the ineffectiveness of modern painkillers.
            Please, God, let me kill him. Seriously, he wouldn’t be missed.
            When they finally did approach the server room they found it deserted, at least on the outside. Nick approached the door cautiously, holding a pistol rather than the rifle slung awkwardly over his back, and tapped it open with his stump. Jacob noticed a small grimace flash across his face as he did so – apparently the pain hadn’t subsided.
            The door opened all the way and Nick rushed in, followed closely by Glen with Jacob bringing up the rear. The darkened chamber, littered with computer servers and monitors, was devoid of enemies.
            “Search for bombs,” Nick said quietly.
            Jacob paused. “Why?”
            “They’ve avoided this room for a reason,” Nick explained. “It’s possible they got here and planted explosives.”
            They did a quick sweep of the room, checking every place a bomb could be hidden. Once they knew the place was clean they got to work.
            Glen, as the resident tech expert, sat down at the nearest terminal and logged in as Jacob and Nick stood behind him, looking on. Jacob leaned in and started laughing when he saw Glen’s login ID.
            “‘GardenHose’?” he asked, between spurts of laughter.
            Glen grimaced, massaging his temples. “I suspect yours is some pasta-related pun, right?”
            Jacob frowned, still laughing a little. “What do you mean?”
            “‘Aldente’ is a hardness of pasta, you idiot,” Glen explained, sounding more frustrated than condescending as he started typing into a command prompt. “Didn’t your parents tell you what it meant?”
            “They told me…” He trailed off as he thought of what they’d told him, when Glen almost immediately yelled at him.
            “Hey!” he said. “What’d they tell you it meant?”
            “Give me a second!” Jacob grunted, struggling to think.
            “He did, mate,” Nick interrupted, sitting next to Glen. When did he sit down?
            Jacob blinked, bemused. “What?”
            “He asked you what it meant, and you froze for about fifteen seconds,” Nick explained, watching Glen work. By now the command prompt was full of coding.
            That can’t be right. I only stopped for a second or so. It appeared he’d lost more time. It was starting to worry him now.
            The others didn’t seem to care anymore as Glen made a noise of triumph. “Ah-hah! I think I’ve found root access to Dream’s server!”
            “What?” Nick asked incredulously. “How the hell’d you do that?”
            “It was easy, really,” Glen told him. “See, all I did was –”
            The voice was melodic and female – it could only be Beth, unless Lonie had suddenly taken singing lessons. “Ah, boys, you wonderful little boys…how’s my Intern doing?”
            Obviously she knew where they were. There was no way for them to reply, unless they wanted to key her into their team frequency. The last thing they needed was that witch paging them every five minutes directly with more codewords.
             “Don’t worry,” she went on, her voice sickly-sweet, “I’m not calling for anymore codewords. I just wanted to let you all know that we’re almost ready to start exfiltrating. There’s not a lot left here for us, and quite frankly your boss is giving me the screaming shits. So, we’ll be on our way to the failsafe device now. Oh,” she added, almost as an afterthought, “we already siphoned off all important data from your servers. That root access you found, Agent Gardner? Total fake. Just allowed us to take all your stuff faster. Toodle-oo!” Jacob could almost see her waving mockingly to them in his mind’s eye.
            They’d failed. The server room was a bust, and all it meant now was the failsafe would be triggered.
            Glen slumped back in his chair resignedly. “So, that’s it. Made it all the way here for nothin’. Now Dream’s got all our stuff.”
            Nick looked confused. “What’d she mean by a ‘failsafe’? It is some kind of lockdown, or –”
            Jacob cut him off. “It’s a bomb. Several thousand pounds of semtex, all wrapped up inside a neat little forcefield device that wraps itself around the building.” He swallowed, remembering what he’d learnt back in basic training. “There’s a big vault, a kilometre or so deep, below the building. The semtex is at the top of the vault, in a place we call ‘The Grave’.”
            Glen chimed in, sounding like his best friend had just been diagnosed with cancer. “The failsafe activates, and the building’s foundations crumble down into the vault. The forcefield encapsulates the building, making sure there’s no collateral damage on the street topside. HQ falls into the Grave, leaving no trace that CRUD ever existed here.”
            Nick rubbed his stumped wrist idly, looking horrified. “But…how the hell is that all scientifically possible? I mean, what are the building’s supports made out of? Adamantium or something?”
            Glen shook his head. “No, it’s…”
            He trailed off, looking at the screen before turning around to face Jacob. “You alright?”
            “Yeah,” Jacob responded, a little unconvincingly, “why?”
            “You just haven’t said anything for a while,” Glen explained. “I was just telling Nick how the building supports work and you, like, didn’t say a thing. You sure you’re ok?”
            Shit. More time lost. Jacob nodded hurriedly. “Yeah, just wondering what we can do next.”
            “Well,” Nick said, a little admonishingly, “if you’d been listening you’d’ve heard we’re going to meet up with Trent and Lonie, then make our way to the Grave before Beth can activate the semtex. Glen just mentioned there might be a way to spring the forcefield over HQ and trap the mercs inside.”
            “Yeah,” Jacob said for what felt like the umpteenth time. “Good plan. Let’s get to it.”
            He headed over to the door before the others could talk to him further, realising his hands were shaking uncontrollably. He was missing chunks of time more and more now, and it frightened him.
            Why did it frighten him? What was he afraid of?
            Am I losing this time because of conditioning? Am I the Intern?
Trent thought the plan sounded simple enough. Once he’d explained it to Lonie – who’d taken it all in quite well – the two of them had left the safety of the armoury and begun making their way to the Shovel, the elevator that ran between the building’s lowest floor and the level where the Grave’s semtex was housed. It was convenient that Graham’s cell was on the way there.
            In all honesty, he’d thought of this plan after they’d heard Beth’s broadcast too. Apparently great minds thought alike.
Lonie had been sworn to silence about the Intern’s true identity, promising that she would not mention it even if they were alone. It would be too easy for Beth to find out what they were discussing, link the speakers in the corridors to any radio in the building, and tip off the Intern – or, worse, cause the synaptic shock. Once Trent had whispered who it was in her ear her eyes had widened, but she said nothing more.
            “Did you know about the Grave beforehand?” She asked as they approached another set of stairs leading downwards.
            Trent shook his head. “I only know bits and pieces from what Belinda tells me. Obviously she didn’t think me knowing about it was necessary.”
            Lonie frowned. “What goes on with you and her? Is she an agent?”
            Trent chuckled. “Not of CRUD, no. She just does the menuing for you guys. For the rest of us, though…” He trailed off, looking around with shotgun aimed cautiously before continuing. “She plays mother to a real small team of about five or six operatives, placed strategically around the world. That’s all you need to know right now.”
            He half-expected the lawyer in her to press with more questions, but she apparently took him at his word and said nothing more. The last thing he needed now was to expose all of Belinda’s secrets to a legal titan, and there’d been enough bad goings-on today without that added bane.
            The situation was quite dire; Dream now had every piece of valuable intel that CRUD had gathered over the years, as well as, presumably, the identities of every agent and the locations of every base and safehouse across the world. If he had the military power to do it, there was nothing stopping Dream from wiping CRUD off the face of the Earth at the drop of a hat.
            The least they could do was slow him down a little. Who knew – maybe CRUD would be absorbed into Belinda’s intelligence network. They’d need a new acronym though; combining CRUD with hers would make for an unwieldy agency title.
            They approached another set of stairs and Trent heard a horrible scream – it sounded very inhuman, almost like an animal howl. The two of them double-timed it down the stairs and followed the sound, Trent feeling apprehensive at what they might find.
            The sound was coming from the elevator that led down to Graham’s cell. The doors to it lay twisted and broken on the floor of the corridor, and the animal noise echoed out from the elevator shaft. Trent and Lonie exchanged glances, the lawyer looking utterly terrified as they slowly approached the opening.
            They were both thrown backwards as something large barrelled upwards from the shaft and rammed into them. Trent lost his grip on the shotgun and it went skittering across the floor, far away from his grasp. He sat upright as he tried to get a good look at whatever had assaulted him.
            His mouth dropped open in horror.
The howl sounded like the sound Mary made whenever her favourite sporting team lost a match – inhuman and terrifying. Apart from making him more nervous than he already was, it made Jacob miss her even more. He hoped she was alright. He had something he needed to ask her when she woke up.
            The others had heard it too, and they quickened their pace as they jogged the length of the corridor that led to the last set of stairs. Jacob’s rifle was clutched tightly in his hands as he dropped down the stairs two at a time, landing on the level that led to the Shovel.
            Empty. No-one around, no hideous creature making the awful noise, nothing.
            Well, nothing except the grotesque-looking figure that had just jumped down onto the opposite end of the corridor from the other set of stairs that led down.
            Jacob raised his rifle to fire, taking aim as the odd-looking shape ran full-pelt towards them. He heard feet running up behind him and saw Glen stand next to him, rifle similarly primed to fire. Jacob lowered his eye closer to the iron sights as the figure got closer, coming into focus…
            Oh my God.
            The figure was large and oddly muscled. It had a distinctly female face – a term Jacob used very loosely, at it looked more like a patchwork quilt with a nose and strange-shaped eyes – that was split open partially down the middle, with long, mangy red hair the colour of dried blood. The body was an odd mix of colours, mostly looking olive and ragged. As it got closer and the light shone on it better Jacob noticed it was plush – soft, felted material covered its entire body, except for a thin strip in the center of the chest area that was split partly open. Inside the strip Jacob caught sight of something crimson red, beating slowly. As it did so he snatched a glimpse of a white manufacturer’s tag poking out of it.
            The plush heart Dac bought the other day.
            It’s Ash.
            Glen fired without hesitation, apparently unfazed at the grotesquely odd form in front of him. The plush zombie ignored him and kept coming forward. Jacob couldn’t seem to fire; he kept pulling the trigger but it stuck, firing no bullets.
            The defective weapon was knocked from his hands as the zombie threw her long, disjointed arm out and slammed into him and Glen. The two men were thrown against the wall hard, and Jacob felt his skull rattle as he hit the ground like a sack of potatoes.
            This wouldn’t do wonders for Glen’s headaches.
            The zombie kept moving forward, catapulting towards Nick with arms flailing wildly. Jacob looked up, his eyes blazing with pain, and saw two more figures drop down from the same stairs the creature had entered from. The glowing hands that threw blasts of Sloss energy told him it was Trent and Lonie.
            The zombie slammed hard into Nick, throwing him against the wall behind him with a sickening crunch. She then turned and let out another ear-splitting howl, starting a charge towards the other two interlopers as Trent kept firing blast after blast at her. She moved past Jacob and Glen without a second thought.
Jacob caught sight of something hanging off its waist; a horrified recognition set in as he saw it was Graham 917’s detached head, tied by its hair awkwardly to the plush material above the zombie’s left leg.
            This is our chance – no choice. Jacob hauled himself to his feet and grabbed Glen by the arm, yanking him upwards. “Come on, GardenHose. We gotta go.”
            Glen seemed disoriented, mumbling something incoherent as Jacob pulled him haphazardly towards the open doors of the Shovel. He threw Glen inside and swung around the door to the control panel, immediately closing the elevator and taking them down the shaft.
            Glen groaned in pain as he leaned against the wall, looking dazed. “Jacob?” He muttered. “What…was that?”
            Jacob didn’t have a proper answer; he’d seen Ash’s corpse, dead in front of him, yet now it appeared she’d possessed some kind of sick plush toy to wreak havoc on them all. The inclusion of Graham’s head did not make him feel better.
            He pulled out his radio to contact the others, telling them to get somewhere safe, but no signal came through. No reception…of course.
            He pressed himself against the wall of the Shovel and slid down, tired. He had no more words as he and Glen went down to the Grave.
The zombie dodged some of Trent’s blasts, but the majority didn’t seem to faze her. Lonie fired a couple of pistol shots that did nothing to stop the monstrosity lashing out with both arms and throwing the two of them backwards into the wall. Trent was sure he heard a rib crack as he landed on the ground, grunting in pain and looking up.
            The zombie had left, racing up the stairs and away. Good, let Beth’s goons deal with it for a while.
            He got to his feet and helped Lonie up, and the two of them ran across the corridor to where Nick lay in a heap. He let out a long, low noise of pain as they tried to get him up. “I knew there was a reason I stay in the field wherever possible.”
            “Hey,” Trent said, wincing in pain, “you’re just as likely to see a plush toy zombie in the Canadian snow as you are here, my friend.”
            Nick gave a pained noise somewhere between a chuckle and a cough as he got to his feet, slightly unsteadily. Lonie looked down the corridor again, incredulous. “That was…didn’t that look like –”
            “Ash,” Trent confirmed grimly. “Yeah, it did. We’ll have to deal with that in a sec. Right now, we need to follow Jacob and Glen down to the Grave.”
            Lonie shook her head. “Can’t do it. Now the elevator’s on its way down, we have to wait at least fifteen minutes for it to come back up. There’s no reception down their either, so we can’t contact them.”
            Fucking perfect. Trent put a hand gingerly on his chest, blanching at the pain. It felt like Coconut had kicked him. “That’s peachy. Couldn’t have asked for a better situation to be in.”
            Nick frowned at him. “Come on, drop the sarcasm. It’s not gonna help.”
            “I ain’t being sarcastic, buddy,” Trent replied, his breath catching as he felt around for the cracked rib. “Means we can take you off the list of suspicion. Which is good, because I didn’t want to see you put back in the slammer when this is all over.”
            “What?” Most of Nick’s dazed state seemed to be passing. “What do you mean?”
            “I mean it’s not you,” Trent replied, looking over at the closed doors of the Shovel. “One of the two fellas in that elevator – who are most likely going to their deaths – is the Intern.”

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