Oh yeah! The awesome train keeps on rolling with this week’s story segment. We get to meet a profoundly weird individual by the name of Crypto.

And if you’d like to get involved on the creation end of the story and get the chapters as they are released, come join us in the FB group.

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Happy reading!

Will

Last week’s story fork…

CHOICES:

1. Decline the meeting.

2. Accept the meeting.

The group chose #2 and here is how that played out…

 

Chapter 17

Scout didn’t let up the pressure on Caleb’s groin. Not because the leverage was required. This kid was no threat. It wasn’t his proudest moment, but it felt good to grind out a bit of the frustration he’d been feeling since waking up and constantly being in reaction mode.

It was the lack of control that did it.

He’d been pinging around responding to every new threat and focusing on staying alive long enough to figure out a few things.

And that had him cranky. Cranky enough to give this poor kid a serious case of bruised balls.

“Who is Crypto?” he asked Kat.

“He runs the lower levels. Not officially, but everything goes through him one way or another.”

“What about the grays? How does he handle them?”

“They don’t come down here much. Not after what happened the last time they came down to arrest one of Crypto’s men.”

“What happened?”

“People died. Some of Crypto’s. Some of the grays. Some innocent people that were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And everyone on this level blamed the grays.”

Scout turned to Martinez. The hard edge to her face told him it was true.

“Now, an unspoken truce keeps the peace. They don’t come down here and we don’t give them a reason to.”

“Hey, dude, your boot is still on my balls.” He struggled to relieve the pressure.

I leaned into it as I rested the muzzle on his forehead.

His eyes crossed as both focused on the barrel. His balls suddenly seemed less important because he raised his hands in surrender. “Don’t shoot, man! I’m a nobody! Just a messenger!”

“You’re going to take me to your boss. I want some answers and he sounds like he has more than most.” I let the weight of the rifle rest on the muzzle, pressing harder into his skull. “And if you make one wrong move, I’m going to kill you.”

Caleb didn’t look away from the barrel. “I promise, man! I’ll do anything you say!”

I shifted my boot off his crotch and moved the rifle to the side. With a wad of his shirt in hand, I yanked him to his feet. The kid really did need to get some calories and exercise in him. He was skinny to the point of being unhealthy and as weak as a child.

“You can’t go,” Kat wailed. “You promised date. I have cheap but effective moonshine vodka for us. I thought you were man of word. Not like all the rest.”

She may have been doing her best to manipulate me, but she did look utterly disappointed and I did feel bad. A little.

“Look, Kat, I promise you we’ll have that date. I said I’d do it and I will. I just need a raincheck for now.”

“All men say that. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. And then never.” She unscrewed the cap on what was presumably the terrible vodka and poured a few inches into a hazy glass. She slugged the whole thing down in one gulp and poured another.

Yeah, definitely trying to manipulate me.

“Don’t pretend to whine. It makes you look weak and I know that’s not true.”

The cup paused at her mouth and a smile spread across her lips. “I like you, Mr. Scout.” She gulped down the contents of the glass. “Don’t worry. There’s always more.”

Wasn’t that the truth?

Wherever there were people with a little bit of time on their hands, there would also be alcohol and other leisure time pursuits.

“Martinez, you’re with me,” I said.

“Uhh, sorry,” Caleb said. “The message didn’t include anything about this girl. It was for you.”

I shook him by the collar and his head bobbled back and forth. “You need to understand who’s in charge.”

“I know who’s in charge! Crypto! And he ain’t gonna be happy with her showing up unannounced.”

“Your boss isn’t my boss,” I said as I shoved him toward the door.

“He’s not gonna like the guns either. Two strikes out of the gate. Might not be a chance for a third.”

“We’re taking the rifles.” Martinez said.

I couldn’t have agreed more.

“It’s your necks,” Caleb said as he shrugged. “Just tell him I told you, okay? So he knows it’s not my fault.”

I briefly considered Kat’s warning about carrying rifles openly down here. That it would cause trouble one way or another. I didn’t want a firefight to break out in the narrow corridors. They didn’t offer much cover and the chance for collateral damage was high.

Then again, we were being escorted by Caleb and my guess was that everybody down here knew he was one of Crypto’s lackeys. With the way he was being talked about, it sounded like there was going to be an invisible bubble of Don’t mess with us! surrounding us.

Kat flopped down onto the only chair at the small table in the kitchen. “Thank goodness you’re taking Toothpick Waist.”

Martinez growled. “Can you cut it with the Toothpick Waist, already?” She showed her front and then turned in profile. “Look! Quite a bit wider than a toothpick!”

“Toothpick Waist has ruffled feathers, Mr. Scout. You need someone like me. Someone who don’t let nothing get to them.”

I smiled. Not because I agreed but because my preliminary estimation of her had been correct. She was tough as nails and ready to play the game to get what she wanted.

In other words, she was a good ally to have.

“I’m not upset!” Martinez protested, a little too passionately to support her assertion. “I’m not.”

“Can it, Martinez. You’re proving her point.”

Martinez’s mouth clamped shut and she huffed in silence.

“Let’s go,” I said as I shoved Caleb toward the door.

Kat toasted me with another glass of vodka as I left. “I hope you live to have date, Mr. Scout. I’m beginning to really like you.”

Chapter 18

I figured we’d head back toward the main elevators, but no. We instead continued further into the rat’s warren. I was right about people leaving us alone. Whether it was the rifles, Caleb, or both, people slipped behind hab doors, side corridors, or did about faces and headed in the other direction whenever we drew near.

The corridors got more and more narrow until it was no more than four feet wide and the narrow doors crowded next to each other so tight they made the cells in the brig look spacious in comparison.

That we kept going and going wasn’t the only surprising thing about the trip. There was no way this area was constrained to the grounds beneath the White House. That or Caleb had looped us back around at some point and I hadn’t picked up the repetition yet.

Normally, I would’ve trusted myself to catch the smallest thing. Noticing the details was part of my makeup. I knew that much. But I also knew that I wasn’t in the best shape right now and so my perceptions didn’t come with a money-back guarantee.

And then the second surprise I mentioned.

That the bunker ended.

But kept going.

Caleb turned and we entered the narrowest corridor yet. We had to continue on in single file, with Caleb in the lead, Martinez in the middle, and me in the back. It had no doors. No habs. Just a long, featureless passage that would’ve given anyone with the slightest bit of claustrophobia a panic attack.

“Uhh, I don’t like this,” Martinez said.

I agreed.

This was a shooting alley. No room to maneuver. No room to hide. If an automatic weapon opened fire at the opposite end, we were going to be leaking out of a hundred holes in seconds.

We came to a heavy steel door.

A blast door.

No port hole. No glass. No polycarbonate.

Just a slab of ridged metal.

Martinez reached by Caleb and smacked the butt of her rifle against it.

The dull thud suggested it was thick. The kind of thing that would be impervious to anything but a direct nuclear strike. A glint of light in the upper corner drew my attention. A camera attached to a stubby body bolted to the ceiling.

Caleb waved at it. “You know it’s me! Let us in already!”

We waited.

My shoulders tensed. My finger drifted closer to the trigger. Something wasn’t right.

Caleb reached up and slapped the clear protective enclosure. “Open the stupid door already! He’s waiting for us!”

A disembodied voice responded. Not the usual female one I’d gotten used to hearing in the elevator and Residence One habs. “Tell them to drop the guns.”

Caleb gestured back at us. “They can hear you, you idiot! You tell them.”

“Shut up, you diseased bilge rat. And you two, put the guns on the ground. House rules.”

“Your boss requested a meeting with me. I’m here as a guest, not a prisoner.”

“So you’re not going to put them down?” the voice replied.

I shook my head. “Not going to happen.”

Something scraped behind us. I spun around with the rifle raised and ready.

Four barrels on actuating arms lowered through a retracted panel. They must’ve used independent targeting systems because two locked on me and two locked on Martinez. The diameter of the barrels was double the size of any normal service rifle. They were going to shoot bullets that could literally cut people in half in no time.

Several somethings clicked.

The safeties was my guess.

“The boss is going to be upset about you getting turned to mush, but he’d be more unhappy about me letting you in carrying guns.”

Martinez and I zero’d in on the weapon system. What we hoped to achieve, I didn’t know. We weren’t going to be able disable it before getting chewed to pieces.

“So, what’s it gonna be?”

Caleb shrank into the corner. “Don’t shoot! I’m right behind them, you fat piglicker!”

The voice laughed. “Getting rid of your bony butt is a bonus.”

I gritted my teeth in frustration. I’d chosen to walk down this corridor. I’d chosen to be put in an indefensible position.

Was it any big surprise then that I now had no choice but to comply?

No. But it still made me want to shoot somebody. General Curtis would’ve been good for target practice.

“Martinez, lay your rifle on the ground.”

“What? No way!”

“That wasn’t a request. Do it. Now.”

This Crypto character had information. Information no one else would have.

How did I know?

Because he was the boss.

Information was the thing that separated the muscle from the brain. And I was willing to do almost anything to get that kind of information right now.

I laid my rifle on the ground and pointed at Martinez to do the same.

She grumbled but my followed my lead.

I stood with my arms raised. “Alright. We’re doing it your way. We’re not here to fight.”

“That will be for Crypto to decide. And God help you if he decides to.”

Something inside the door whirred and thunked. It started to slide to the left, retracting into the wall with the screech of metal against inadequately lubricated metal. It opened to reveal two large men wearing all black with submachine guns pointed at us.

The muscle.

They looked like mirror images of each other. Short sleeves stretched around bulging biceps. Crew cuts that looked like they were poured from the same mold.

Caleb sprinted between them and continued on until he disappeared around a curve in the distance.

“Don’t go for the guns,” one said.

“No. Go for the guns,” the other said. “Please go for the guns.” His mouth split into a toothy, leering grin.

I saw Martinez’s posture. She was thinking about it.

“No, Martinez.”

She sighed with frustration. “Fine. But I won’t forgive you if we end up dead.”

If we ended up dead, I wasn’t going to be worrying about her forgiveness.

One waved us in. “Let’s go. Crypto’s waiting.”

The brain.

We were going to talk with the brain.

 

Chapter 19

We passed the door and it was three feet thick if it was three inches. What was Crypto worried about? Was a nuclear attack down here a legitimate threat?

It didn’t sound remotely likely.

Then again, I didn’t know a lot of things right now.

“What about the rifles?” I asked.

“Leave them,” the one that seemed to be the leader said.

“What if they’re not there when we get back?”

They both laughed.

I wasn’t sure if they were laughing about the idea of someone stealing them or of us making it out alive.

One of the men took the lead while the other took up the rear after we passed. The door started closing the instant we cleared the threshold. It scraped closed and thunked shut. The whirring sound sound presumably locks sliding into place.

Remember that second surprise?

The end of the bunker that kept going?

This new passageway was carved through dark gray rock. It wasn’t manufactured like all the levels we’d been on. It had been tunneled out with some kind of mechanical tools whose crude imprint remained. Short gouges and smooth surfaces where the rock had cleaved away.

Industrial size hammer drills, maybe.

Larger than the previous corridor, though not by much.

A thick black cable ran along the peak of the arched ceiling. A packed dirt floor completed the primitive passage. We followed it through several unmarked intersections. I cataloged the number we passed and which direction we took at each.

Breadcrumbs in case we needed to find our own back.

Our path ended at another metal door. A name was printed on the embossed metal cross piece. The letters were mostly worn away, but enough of the edges remained to read it.

SALVATION

A large black scorch mark covered most of the left half of the door. Whatever had been written there was now a carbonized scar. Still, the damage had only been surface level as the metal itself looked untouched.

The door slid open in silence. Whoever maintained this one seriously need to pay some attention to the first one.

We entered a large cavern. Not a cavern. A spacious room constructed of metal panels and textured metal floor, presumably for better traction. Forty feet square and a dozen feet high.

Martinez let out a slow breath and her posture relaxed a hair.

A candidate for claustrophobia?

Seemed likely.

Dim light made the space just bright enough to suggest the silhouettes of tables and chairs, computer terminals, a curved screen covering one wall.

A single light in the center shone brighter than the rest.

The muscle in the lead headed straight for it. The one in the back shoved me forward.

“Careful,” I said with malicious intent.

He was half again as wide as I was, but the ability to lift a hab didn’t decide a fight. Sure, power was important. But so were speed and accuracy. I had an urge to slash a spinning elbow across his nose and finish him with a vicious chop to the throat. The kind that was designed to do more than incapacitate an opponent.

The kind that was meant to permanently incapicitate.

“Try me,” he replied, apparently also itching to make it personal.

I exhaled slowly, consciously calming and centering. I was here to talk. Not fight.

They led us to the cone of illumination and stopped us in the middle.

I glanced up and blinked at the bright light. The rest of the room faded to darkness.

“Isn’t this a bit much?” Martinez said to no one in particular.

A voice echoed out of the darkness, from every direction and none at once.

“I admit, I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. I think it comes from an unfulfilled yearning to be a storyteller.”

“I assume you’re Crypto?” I said.

“Don’t assume. You know the reason.”

The reason?

“What reason?”

“It’s right there in the word! And I think you meant presume, in any case.”

“I didn’t come here for a grammar lesson.”

“No? Then why did you come?”

Looking around the room, not knowing where to look, was grating on my nerves in a bad way. “I came for answers.”

“And why do you assume that I am the one who will give them to you?”

“Enough of this nonsense!” I yelled. “Show yourself or this conversation ends right now.”

The light above us faded and a nearby light grew in intensity.

Out of the murk, a large chair appeared. Made of curved metal and attached to the floor on a swivel. It faced away from us.

More mystery?

I was about to throw that elbow and damn the consequences.

“Maybe you didn’t understand what I just said.”

The chair rotated around and stopped when it faced us directly.

Reclining against one arm with his feet crossed and kicked up on the opposite arm was the smallest man I’d ever seen.

At least the smallest man I could remember seeing.

Which admittedly wasn’t the best sample size.

Still, he was short.

He grinned and waved. “Not what you were expecting, huh?”

A shock of wild black hair perched on his head like a wind-blown bush. Twigs hung down over his eyes. He brushed them back and then scratched a few weeks worth of dark stubble. “I’m Crypto. Welcome,” he gestured around the room, “to my little corner of the world.”

I hadn’t recovered yet.

I didn’t know what I expected, but he wasn’t it.

Crypto. With a name like that, a skinny teenager with bottle cap glasses, greasy hair, and a feverish glow in his eyes would’ve felt right.

“You disappoint me, Scout. From long and tragic experience, I know I’m a surprise, but I expected better from you. Maybe you aren’t the man I thought you were.”

I recovered my senses enough to stop being an idiot. “Sorry, uh, Crypto. No offense intended. I’ve had a rough couple of days.”

“So I’ve heard,” he said with a mischievous smile. He looked at Martinez. “And what’s your excuse?”

“Excuse?”

“Ahh, I see. It looks like I’m not the only one with a penchant for idiot trigger-pullers.”

“Idiot trigger-puller?” Martinez said as she took an angry step forward.

A huge hand clamped down on her shoulder and dragged her back.

Martinez gritted her teeth in obvious pain. “Tell your ape to let go before he loses an arm.”

The ape laughed like a lion would after being threatened by a mouse.

Scout didn’t know how that fight would turn out, but Martinez was no mouse.

Crypto lazily waved and the hand let go. “She can speak. Wonderful. Now, shut up while your betters discuss business.”

Martinez was about to reply, but I cut her off.

“Why did you ask me to come here?”

“Because, Scout, you could be a valuable ally in the coming war.”

My brows inched together in confusion. “The coming war?”

His eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Why are you wearing a bedsheet on your head? You’re not a mystic and no mystic would wear that on their head anyway. So what am I missing?”

CHOICES:

1. Lie! Do anything but tell him that I can’t remember much. Telling the truth would be a strategic blunder.

2. Go with the truth. Maybe a show of honesty will help gain a powerful ally.

What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!