That Crypto. He’s such a scamp! And Dr. Tanaka returns for an appearance…
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Last week’s story fork…
1. Continue with the mission.
2. Abort the mission to get medical attention.
The group chose #2 and here is how that played out…
I shifted my position to relieve the ache in my ribs from resting against the hard metal step. There wasn’t enough room to lay down which meant I’d been uncomfortably draped across a few stairs for the last hour. It would’ve been better to rest on one of the flat landings at the entrances to each of the levels, but I hadn’t felt up to climbing more stairs after the fall.
But the hour rest had helped and now I was getting antsy laying around waiting for Martinez to return.
Where was she?
With or without Dr. Tanaka, she should’ve been back by now.
Crypto lay along the length of a single step with his head resting on the inside edge. His wild bush of hair hung out into the emptiness beyond. He held his arms up and the flashlight tucked into the crook of his arm shone on his hands, casting shadows onto the bottoms of the steps above. “Now this is a woman in the blossom of her bloom,” he said as he twisted his fingers together.
I looked up at the resulting shadow and saw a convincing silhouette of a woman with a curtain of long hair and curvaceous hips and bosom.
“Now this is us getting hot and heavy.”
The shadow shifted and a woman appeared on her back with her legs held up by a diminutive figure. Her legs squirmed as Crypto’s shadow self kissed her thighs and lower.
“And now this is us making sweet love.”
The silhouettes shifted to show the woman riding the smaller figure. She bounced up and down and her breasts moved with convincing motion.
“And now this is nine months later.”
The silhouettes shifted again and the woman walked in place. Her hands supporting a large protruding belly.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m long gone by then.” He broke out into wild cackling laughter. The vast stairwell swallowed the sound as it bounced away.
I shook my head with silent resignation. If I’d known this was going to happen, I would’ve insisted he go with Martinez. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to toss him over the edge and be done with it.
“How did you get so good with doing shadow puppets?” I asked.
“Lots of opportunities for practice as a kid. When you’re constantly having to hide in dark places to escape torment and abuse, you get creative to keep your mind busy. To not go…”
His voice trailed off.
“But shadow puppets weren’t the only way I passed the time. Being a virile boy with an inquisitive mind and a lot of free time on my hands, I—”
“Never mind. Sorry I asked. Can we not talk until Martinez gets back?” I asked, already knowing the answer since I’d asked ten times in the past hour.
“I’m bored here, Scout.”
“How about silently count to a billion?”
“Boring.” He started into a new shadow puppet performance. This one more even more salacious than the last.
I pinched my eyes shut and tried to imagine I was somewhere else. Anywhere that didn’t have Crypto nearby.
“You’re wrong, by the way,” he said.
“Oh, you think so?”
“I know so. She’s into me. I can feel it.”
Whatever. I’d already tried to put a damper on his amorous feelings. From what I could see, Martinez couldn’t stand him and would’ve been even more happy than me to be rid of him.
Maybe that felt like interest to some people.
Metal clanged from somewhere above and Crypto clicked off the light.
We lay in the inky darkness, listening to the echo of footsteps from above. A dim light winked in and out as whoever carried it descended the spiral staircase.
I eased the rifle into the crook of my shoulder, pointing up and across at the stairs above us. If it was anybody but Martinez, they were going to get a nasty surprise.
The dim light stopped several revolutions above us.
I couldn’t make out who it was.
I raised my aim, feeling it settle on the target. My finger rested gently along the side, ready for action.
“Scout?” Martinez’s whispered voice echoed down.
A slow exhale of relief as I lowered the weapon. “Yeah, we’re down here.”
Crypto clicked on his light and Martinez arrived with Dr. Tanaka in tow.
His face contorted with concern as he saw me. “Scout, what have you done to yourself?” He rushed down the last steps, a satchel swinging in one hand. He knelt beside me, already digging through his open bag. “More light, please.”
Crypto and Martinez obliged.
He pulled out a syringe and a tiny bottle. “Roll up your sleeve.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“Antibiotics,” he said as he filled the syringe. He glanced at the drain tube and grimaced. “Your wound is infected. And I hope I don’t have to tell you that an infection in that area can be extremely dangerous.”
He depressed the plunger until a tiny squirt shot out the tip of the needle. “You don’t trust me?”
“Sorry, it’s hard to know who to trust.”
He almost looked hurt. “Well, you can choose to trust me or see what happens with that infection.”
I rolled up my sleeve and watched as he jabbed the needle into my shoulder and injected the medicine.
“That should be enough to deal with the infection.” He pulled out a water bottle with a spigot on the end. “We need to clean the wound and dress it.”
I clenched my teeth and balled up my fists, preparing for what was coming. “Okay.”
He went to work while I gritted my way through the pain. He finally finished getting me fixed up and nodded. “There. That’s as much as I can do here. But you really need to be recovering in a hospital bed.”
“Sorry, doc. That’s not an option.”
“So I gathered.”
Crypto sat down next to us, his head prominently entering the space. “What now? We can’t wheel you through Systems on a gurney.”
“Well, we can’t take him to the Infirmary level either,” Martinez said. “It’s crawling with Grays. I got lucky avoiding a couple of patrols and getting out with the good doctor.”
Crypto snapped his fingers. “How about we leave him here while you and I proceed with the mission?”
“What if we get captured or killed?” Martinez said. “I’m not leaving him here alone and without protection.”
“Well, I can’t go to Systems by myself!” Crypto said. “You may have noticed that I’m pretty recognizable! And by more than my dashing hair, striking face and tailored clothes!”
“You should go, Martinez,” I said. “I’ll be fine here.”
She crossed her arms and threw me an evil look. “I didn’t ask for your opinion, Sir.”
I almost laughed out loud. It was shocking how much disrespect could be layered onto a word whose purpose communicated respect.
Martinez wasn’t going to be persuaded.
That much was clear.
“Great!” Crypto said. “So we’re dead in the water?”
Doctor Tanaka coughed and raised his hand like we were in grade school and he wanted to be called on.
We all turned to him.
“I have an idea that might work.”
It was too late to turn back, but this was officially a terrible idea.
For a number of reasons. Not the least of which was because I couldn’t breathe inside the fluorescent green biohazard suit. Without the attached unit to recirculate air, the air inside got warm in no time and was getting hotter by the minute.
The recirculation units had been too cumbersome for Doctor Tanaka to retrieve, so we each made do with leaving a few of the seals slightly open. That allowed some fresh air in but didn’t help much with the stifling temperature.
And all that was before taking into account the full-face respiration masks that we wore inside the suits. The chemical filter cartridges further restricted breathing. Between the two, every breath was like sucking air out of an empty balloon.
Another reason was because while the rest I’d been forced to take had helped, I was now exhausted by the subsequent ascent to the Systems level.
We all stood in an abandoned store room filled with old computer parts and gear. Cobwebs drifted in the corners as the movement from our bodies wafted air by. A thick layer of dust coated every surface. Everywhere except for our footsteps leading back to the wall panel that covered the forgotten entrance to the stairwell.
I considered covering them, but it looked like no one had been in this room for decades. The chance that someone would suddenly decide to visit and spot the tracks was remote. I started scuffing away the area around the tracks. Better safe than sorry.
Besides, Crypto and Martinez were still arguing and I didn’t feel like getting involved. With our departure apparently delayed, I unzipped the suit visor and lifted the respiration mask. Air flowed into my lungs with welcome ease.
“For the last time, I’m not doing it,” Crypto said. “It’s demeaning!”
“We don’t have time for this!” Martinez said. She turned and kicked a nearby desk.
“Why can’t I have one of the green suits? Everybody gets one but me.”
I stuck to sweeping away the evidence of the tracks, keeping an sideward eye on the two in case it came to blows.
Martinez crossed her arms over her chest and the plastic fabric crinkled. “You know why! They don’t exist in your size. Besides, it would draw too much attention.”
“I’ll get in the duffle bag then. Doc, give me the bag,” Crypto said as he reached for the large bag the doctor had brought the suits in.
Doctor Tanaka didn’t hand it over. “That won’t work. They’ll check any bag or container we have. I agree with Martinez’s idea. It is the only way to get through security.”
I didn’t know how much longer I could sweep an already swept clear floor, but I’d give it a few more minutes.
“Scout, you’re with me on this, right?” Crypto said.
“Umm, I think Martinez is probably right. As ridiculous as it sounds, I can’t think of a better way to get you into the mainframe core. As an alternative, maybe you could stay back and tell Martinez or I what to do when we get there?”
Crypto rolled his eyes. “That would be like trying to teach quantum physics to a chicken.”
Martinez motioned for Crypto. “Let’s go already!”
Crypto brushed his fingers through his perpetually windswept hair and shook his head with resignation. “Fine. But if any of you ever tell another soul, I’ll have you tortured and killed.” His eyes were as cold as liquid nitrogen.
He stomped over to Martinez like a child after being grounded.
She lifted him, rotated him sideways, and then stuffed him into the opening in the torso of her suit.
Belly to belly, he wrapped his arms around her waist as she held him up. Looking past her hip, he caught my eye. “I’m talking painful torture and death if a single word slips.”
I swallowed a laugh and walked over to help out. Martinez and I got him secured in place with discarded cables lying around and then got her bulky green suit zipped up.
Doctor Tanaka and I took a few steps back to appraise our work.
She did look like a pregnant woman, more or less. Lumpy, to be sure. But the loose fitting suit helped mask some of the stranger contours.
“Can you walk?” Tanaka asked.
She took a few steps. “Yeah, well enough,” and then yelped. “Oww!” She smacked her large belly. Rather, the small man parading as her large belly. “Bite me again and I’ll shove a pen in your kidney!”
A muffled voice came from inside the suit. “I’m trying to make the best of a bad situation.”
“Well make it without using your teeth!”
“Can I use my hands?”
Martinez smacked her belly again. “If those hands touch something they shouldn’t, I’ll remove them from your body!”
A muffled sigh. “The fetus is ready to go.”
“Stay quiet,” Martinez said. “Fetuses don’t talk.” She put her respiration mask on and zipped the suit up over her head.
I took a slow deep breath and did the same. After, I glanced back with longing at the spot where we’d hidden our rifles behind an old server cabinet. Going in unarmed had my nerves prickling.
Or maybe it was the cocktail of antibiotics the doctor had injected into me.
“Everyone ready?” I asked.
Martinez did the same.
A sniffing sound and then a muffled voice spoke from inside her suit. “Martinez, when was the last time you bathed?”
Doctor Tanaka led the way as we approached the security check point to the mainframe servers that were the brain of the complex. He looked every bit the part in the play we were performing. Martinez and I on the other hand?
Not so much.
I focused on breathing and walking. Walking in a straight line without veering too far to one or side or the other. That was usually an easy thing to do.
It wasn’t easy right now.
Every step carried with it the possibility of catastrophic calamity.
The normally balanced scale inside my head drifted back and forth with every shift of weight and tentative step. I thought I was doing reasonably well. But I could’ve been swaying like a drunk on a three-day bender for all I knew.
Two Grays stood at attention at the checkpoint. One on each side of the glass door. Battle rifles held at the ready across their chests. A sign etched in the glass read Core Systems. A security badge reader attached to the bulkhead on one side. Beyond was another nondescript hallway with closed doors lining the sides. The Grays leveled a hard look our way as we approached.
I glanced to the side to see Martinez hobbling along like she was eighteen months pregnant. Between the two of us, it was a surprise they hadn’t already shot us.
There was no way this was going to work.
So I started forming a plan B.
The soldier on the right had a flat and square buzz cut with flecks of silver throughout. He wore a scowl and the lines etched in his face suggested it was a permanent feature. He stood erect and unyielding, looking like we’d already insulted his grandmother.
The soldier on the left was much younger. Probably right out of basic training. His cheeks still round, his posture awkward from trying too hard. His eyes serious, pretending to be the seasoned warrior that only time and experience could create.
He was no threat.
But the older Gray was. He would need to be taken out first.
A hard chop to the throat would incapacitate him. Side step behind and wrap an arm around for a chokehold. He’d be pliable and good cover so long as he didn’t collapse completely. Draw the pistol from the holster on his hip and level it at the other guard. Disarm that one by whatever means necessary. A few stern words would likely do.
It was a simple plan.
One I normally would’ve considered to have a high probability for success.
But now wasn’t normal because I wasn’t normal. That coupled with the awkward bulk of the hazmat suit lowered the probability for success considerably.
Still, a marginal plan was better than no plan at all.
The older guard stepped forward and held his arm out to stop Tanaka. The younger soldier’s grip tightened on his rifle. Some combination of anxiety or excitement spiking his nervous system. It was a subtle movement imperceptible to most people.
I wasn’t most people.
I edged to the side to get around Tanaka and clear a path to the bigger threat.
“What are you people doing here?” he demanded.
“I’m Dr. Tanaka and this is my team,” he said as he gestured to Martinez and I. “We’re investigating a likely outbreak on this level.”
“Outbreak? What outbreak? I haven’t heard of any outbreak.”
Tanaka puffed up his chest. “By the time you hear about it, it’ll already be too late.”
The soldier’s prominent Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. He glanced at Martinez, eyeballing her large midsection. “Is it safe for her to be doing this? I mean, she looks like she’s about to pop.”
Tanaka leaned forward and whispered. “Tell me about it, but she refused to rest until we get this outbreak is contained.”
Martinez stepped forward, peering at the soldier. “Doctor, do his eyes look red to you? They look red to me.” She lifted his chin, feeling his neck. “Do you have swollen glands anywhere on your body?”
The soldier’s hard bearing cracked. Fear seeped out of the fractured demeanor. “Uh, no. I don’t think so.”
Tanaka pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and studied the man’s eyes. “He is looking symptomatic.” He dug into his satchel, pulled out a forensic collection baggie and tore it open. He pulled out a cotton swab and poked it at the soldier’s mouth. “Open, please.”
What had started as hard-nosed questioning had quickly transformed into confusion and just as quickly again morphed into growing terror.
He opened his mouth, trying to speak while Tanaka swabbed the inside of his cheeks. “I ah no sih. I fll fie.”
Tanaka pulled it out and dropped it into the baggie. He pulled out a small cup with a lid. “We’ll also need a urine sample.”
The soldier glanced at Martinez with alarm. “You mean, right here?”
“The faster, the better,” Tanaka replied. “Infectious diseases don’t wait for a convenient time to spread.”
“There’s a bathroom around the corner. Can I do it there?”
Tanaka smiled like he was doing the guy a favor. “Sure. Just be quick about it.”
The guard turned to his younger companion. “Don’t leave your post while I’m away. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Copy that, Sarge.”
The first guard took off at a sprint with the cup in hand.
Tanaka approached the remaining soldier. “We’ll need samples from you as well. But we can do that on the way back. Right now, we need to gather samples from the engineers working inside the core server rooms. And I’m going to need to you to swipe us through as there wasn’t time to authorize my badge.”
He looked doubtful. “I’m sorry, doctor, but I can’t do—”
“How many people are working in this wing today?”
“There are six engineers on duty right now. Six others clocked out a couple of hours ago.”
“Dammit!” Tanaka said. “We may already be too late! If this thing gets loose, it could wipe out our entire community!”
The poor kid’s lips quivered. The tears would arrive any second.
“Open that door this instant, young man!”
“I’m sorry, doctor. I can’t do that.” The rifle started moving to a more aggressive position. To his credit, he tried to do his job.
But I also had a job to do.
I skirted around Tanaka to get within striking distance. “You look pale,” I said as I closed the distance.
“I don’t feel—”
And then he started gagging and clutching his throat as I drew back from a lightning quick strike. His eyes went wide with fear. He was scared. Couldn’t blame him. Not being able to breathe would scare most people.
I shoved him back against the wall and helped him slide down to sit on the floor. “You’re going to be okay. Just give it a minute.” I relieved him of his rifle and sidearm while Martinez tore the badge off his chest. She swiped it over the reader.
It beeped and turned green. Magnetic locks thunked and the door slid open.
Tanaka and Martinez went through while I brought up the rear. The door slid shut, cutting off the choking sounds of the recovering soldier.
Martinez unzipped her suit and pushed it down around her legs.
Crypto tumbled out onto the floor in between her suited boots. He lay on his back staring up between her legs. “Like a second birth. There was warmth and shelter and then I arrived in a cold, hard world.”
“Shut up,” Martinez said as she kicked him in the ribs.
Crypto grunted. “What kind of woman kicks her baby?”
We all shrugged out of our biohazard suits. They were too unwieldy and the time for subterfuge was over.
“I like watching you undress,” Crypto said, still on the floor.
Martinez shot him a snarl. “Scout, give me the rifle and I’ll discourage them from coming in after us.”
I passed it over and drew the pistol out of my waistband.
Crypto tapped Martinez on the leg. “Did you know that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar?”
“Did you know that I have a rifle in my hands?”
I hoisted him up by the collar. “We don’t have much time. Get to work.” I let go as he slapped my hand away.
He started off down the hallway of closed doors.
Martinez stayed behind, crouched in the minimal cover of a doorway.
“We’re looking for something like transport engineering or control systems or—” Crypto said as he wandered down the hall, looking left and right.
I pointed to an upcoming door. “Core Transport Control?”
“That sounds promising,” he said as he approached the door. He swiped the soldier’s badge over the reader and it responded with a low beep and a red light. “Okay. What now?”
“Hey, what are you people doing here?” an engineer stood outside of an open doorway further down the hall.
I had the pistol on him a second later.
His eyes went wide with fear. They darted back toward the open door.
“You think you’re faster than a bullet?” I said as I hurried over.
He stayed put.
I dragged him back to the waiting Crypto and Tanaka and passed his chest badge over.
Crypto took the badge and swiped the door open. “Do you know where I can interface with the core transport subroutines?”
The engineer shook his head. “Sorry, no. I work on data back up and retrieval.”
I dragged him inside and waited for Tanaka and Crypto to enter before slapping the button to shut the door.
“Let’s see,” Crypto said as he strolled down a narrow corridor with a wall of servers stacked to the ceiling on both sides. Hundreds of black metal and plastic boxes faced with blinking blue and green and red lights. Bundles of cables snaked across the ceiling, carrying data back and forth from various computation centers.
Crypto looked up and down each column of servers as he went, reading all of the printed labels stuck to the face of each box. He paused two-thirds down the corridor. “Here we are!” he said as he pointed to a box a few feet above his head. “Scout. Come. I need your help.”
I didn’t like being called over like a dog, but I’d remind him of that later. Now was the time for haste. I hurried over and reached down to pick him up.
He smacked my hands away. “I’m not your child to pick up and swing around in circles like you’re a doting father returning home after a long day at work.”
I reached for him again, and again he smacked my hands away. I was considering lifting him by this throat. “Well, how else are you going to reach that high?”
He pointed at me and then at the floor.
He wanted me to get down on all fours!
“I’m not one of your idiot bodyguards. I don’t take commands.”
He crossed his arms. “Fine. Then we’ll all hang out here until they come and take us away. Are you okay with that? Because I’m okay with that. I’ve endured more than enough humiliation for one day. ”
My jaws clenched tight, which was a good thing because I was about to insult him and his mother. I dropped to the floor and gritted my teeth as the little bastard climbed up onto my back.
“There. You see? That wasn’t so hard.”
Someone laughed and I looked up to see Tanaka with his hand covering his mouth.
“You find something amusing, doctor?” I said in the most menacing way possible. Which was obviously a good deal less menacing than it would’ve been had I not been on all fours like a dog with an insane dwarf standing on my back.
Crypto pulled out a recessed keyboard and started clacking away.
Minutes passed while the speed and tempo of the clacking continued unabated.
“How much longer?” I asked.
“Almost got it. I think. This isn’t beginner’s level hacking here. And as good as I am, I’m not at the level your daughter was.”
What had happened to her?
As much as I had learned since waking up after the bombing, there was still so much more that I didn’t know.
Muffled gunfire erupted in the hallway outside.
Martinez was under attack!
I started to rise, but Crypto stomped his boot down. “Stay still! I’ve almost got it!”
1. Stay put so Crypto can finish the job and hope that Martinez can hold out.
2. Jump up to help out Martinez. Crypto’s work can wait.
What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!