The bold rescue mission commences! But does it succeed?
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Last week’s story fork…
1. She was obviously injured, so they would take her to the Infirmary level. General Curtis wouldn’t be able to question her if she died. So she must be locked up in a room there.
2. General Curtis would take her to where he felt the most secure. To where he was surrounded by people of unquestioned loyalty. Other Grays. And that meant he was holding her in a room somewhere on the Security level.
The group chose #2 and here is how that played out…
I continued climbing, using the recessed holds hewn evenly every eighteen inches into the rock. They’d begun several feet above the entrance, apparently to discourage any casual explorers from entering the shaft. They made ascending the claustrophobic space doable, but doable didn’t mean easy or pleasant.
This was a long ways from both.
I counted them as we went to find out how many it took to reach the next level up, Administration.
The air was cool, but sweat streamed from my brow, down my cheeks and clung in annoying little drops off the edge of my jaws. They slid along the line of the under hang as I moved until a gathered accumulation grew large enough and fell away. My heart beat faster than it should’ve. Faster than was comfortable. Not dangerously fast, not yet. It thumped in my ears. A hollow sound that seemed to echo in the tight space.
I reached up toward the next hold, pushing up with the opposite foot until my fingers latched onto the ridged lip of the recess. Like a machine. A climbing machine.
Left hand. Right foot. Right hand. Left foot. Over and over in an endless robotic cadence.
My spine scraped a metal bracket securing the bundled cables. Either I was larger than the typical repair person or whoever created this corridor was more interested in getting it done than ensuring it was comfortable for the task.
Most likely both.
An electric tightness grew in my chest, sending out pulsing waves of energy to my limbs. The two red pills were coming on strong now. My legs wanted to sprint. My arms wanted to feel the thrill of tossing around heavy weights. It required constant focus to constrain them to the simple strain of ascending one more step.
I swallowed and found my throat dry and tongue thick. It squatted inside my mouth like a toad drying under a grow lamp. My fingers tingled like the rock carried a low voltage current and touching it completed a circuit.
A line of hot fire traced down my back.
I pulled closer to the hewn steps, straining to look over my shoulder to see what had happened.
A few feet below, the jagged edge of a deformed bracket was tipped in red. Apparently cut through my shirt and skin. I hadn’t noticed while it was happening. The pain competing with the other sensations soaking through my conscious mind.
Crypto moved with feline grace above. I’d worried that the distance between the holds would cause him problems, but my concerns had proved unfounded. He moved with a natural ease and economy of movement, like a fish in water.
They didn’t think about swimming, about moving their fins this way and their tails that way so that they would go in the desired direction. No. They just did it.
Just as he did. He wasn’t hurried or frantic, but the smooth mechanics of it kept him comfortably ahead even with the pills rushing through my system.
“I see something a little further up,” he said.
His voice echoed down with a hollow, far away feel. Making the small distance between us feel incongruent. Like hearing a voice calling from across a large room and turning to feel the person’s touch on your shoulder.
He paused some dozen feet above. “Yep, looks like a junction box. My guess is that the branch here goes to the Administration level.”
I caught up and saw that the tunnel had been enlarged to make room for a large metal box. The thick bundle of cables from below entered on the bottom side through a punched out circular hole. A smaller bundle exited from a hole on the top and continued upward beyond the glow of my flashlight. A large bundle came out of a hole in the side and ran into a horizontal circular shaft of the same dimension of the one we’d come from.
Crypto sat on the edge of the box, dangling his feet over empty space. “So, did you make up your mind yet?”
“About where we’re headed. You never answered.”
“Oh yeah. Sorry.” I remember thinking about it, but then the sensations roared in and swept the thought away.
“The Security level. Let’s head there.”
“You sure? If she’s as injured as you think, don’t you think he’d take her straight to the Infirmary level?”
“He would if her well-being was his first priority. But it’s not. He wants to lock her away where no one can get to her. To where he won’t be challenged when he decides what to do with her.”
“So you’re guessing?”
“I’ve got a hunch.” And that was as good as anything right now. “Let’s go.”
He pushed up to his feet and stood on the edge of the junction box, shining his flashlight up into the tunnel above. It appeared to go on forever. And that was only the part we could see. It faded to black and kept going beyond that. “You realize that Security is the uppermost level and we’re going to have to climb all the way there?”
“Fine,” he stood on the edge of the box, reaching out for a carved hold on the opposite side.
The box shifted under him. The outside edge dropping several inches.
A creak like a rusty hinge moving for the first time in years.
He slipped and his fingertips missed. He pitched forward over the yawning abyss and fell, arms wheeling.
I shot a hand out as he blurred by.
Latched onto his forearm and held tight.
He slammed into the cables below the box with a grunt of escaped air from his lungs.
I hauled him up and held him in place until he had a solid grip on the holds.
He glanced down at the endless darkness below and then at me. A wide grin broke out across his face. He whooped with glee. “What a rush! I thought I was going to die for a second there! That would be a hell of a way to go, right? Getting all battered and broken before going splat at the bottom!”
“You’re welcome,” I replied. “Let’s go.”
“What kind of sorry person doesn’t let a guy take a second to enjoy the fact that he just cheated death?”
“Me. That’s who. Now, get moving.”
His face twisted into a scowl, but he bit off any complaints and started climbing.
I followed along behind, hoping I’d made the right call.
After all, breaking into the Security level was just about the dumbest thing anyone could do. And if we were doing it for no reason, well, what did they make us?
We continued on, returning to the robotic sequence that was both mind-numbing while also requiring absolute focus.
An endless cycle of predictable repetition.
Until something unexpected occurred.
So faint at first, I thought it was my overheated imagination.
But then clear and present and dangerous.
We recognized it at the same time.
Slender gray wisps curled up into the space above us, vortices that spun apart to combine and create new pockets of turbulence.
I looked down.
Far below, a dim orange light flickered.
The junction box. When it moved, it must’ve cut into the sheathing of a power line and shorted it. It was as good a guess as any. Besides, the cause didn’t matter so much as the effect.
The light flared hot white and I snapped my eyes shut.
The carved rock shook and a booming pressure wave hit an instant later.
My feet jarred loose and I dropped, still clamping on with one hand anchored to a hold. My shoulder wrenched as it took my full weight.
I groaned with pain as my ears popped to equalize.
A blast of heat across my cheeks and forehead. The air sucked out of my lungs as if by vacuum pressure.
The temperature spike ebbed and I opened my eyes. Somehow, I was still hanging by the one hand. I anchored to the steps and looked up to see Crypto with his eyes pinched shut and his head buried under his arm.
Looking below, the bright white had dulled to hot yellow. I coughed as a cloud of acrid smoke billowed up and flowed around my head. We’d gotten lucky to survive the blast. Confined spaces magnified the destructive effects of an explosion.
But luck was a fickle friend. It would save you one instant and watch you die the next.
The smoke was going to kill us if we didn’t get out sooner than later.
I hurried upward and smacked Crypto’s lower leg as he hadn’t moved yet.
One eye blinked open, staring at me.
“Climb!” I yelled.
The other eye blinked open. He lifted his head and looked around. “We didn’t die?”
“No! But we will soon if you don’t get moving!”
“We didn’t die! We didn’t die! Nothing can kill us! We’re invincible!” He broke into shrieking laughter and bounced up and down on the balls of his anchored feet. One foot slipped. “Whoa!” The laughter cut short.
He looked down at me with disdain. “We’re partners, you know. I’m not in the military and you’re not my boss.”
“Why don’t you tell me all about it while we stand here suffocating to death?”
I was seconds away from grabbing him by the seat of his pants and dropping him into the abyss below me.
He took a breath and coughed. “Moving out!”
The smoke grew thicker as we raced up the side of the shaft, moving as fast as we could without jeopardizing a hand or foot hold.
The higher we went, the thicker the smoke.
But there was no other choice. We couldn’t go back down to the raging fire far below.
The biting air scraped down my throat as I did my best to sip shallow breaths. “Faster!” I tried to yell, but croaked instead.
We moved quickly, but our speed only took us deeper into the smoke. We had to be getting close to the Security level. By my count, only eighty steps to go. The smoke was a thick fog. I could no longer see Crypto above me.
But we had to be close.
My eyes were pinched to slits, tears flowing down my cheeks. Sweat coated my skin and soaked through my clothes, leaving them stuck and clinging wherever they touched. A charred plastic taste coating the back of my throat.
My chest convulsed and I coughed out tendrils of thick mucus.
Twenty steps left.
Twenty if I hadn’t lost count somewhere. Skipped ahead on accident.
My eyes barely open, seeing nothing but swirling, choking gray.
A sip of air for my aching lungs exploded outward with violent shuddering. Coughing so hard I lost my grip on the hand holds and fell back against the bundled cables.
Just a few more steps.
Had to be.
I forced my eyes open a little wider, trying to see the end, before the end.
Nothing but blinding, suffocating, scorching fog.
A whoosh of air nearby and the smoke sucked away above my head.
A raspy voice from above. “Come on!”
A small, thick hand jutted through the fog.
I climbed the final few steps and saw Crypto as he scrambled on his belly into a horizontal shaft. I followed behind, my belly scraping over the smooth rock to stay below the ceiling of smoke a few inches above my head.
Mostly blind and choking to death, I pushed forward and abruptly smashed into Crypto’s head.
“Oww!” he yelled as he cradled his head. His body jerked as he kicked out a panel blocking our escape. He kicked again and the metal clanged but held fast.
I crawled over the top of him, smothering his protests with my full weight as I went.
I reared back one balled fist and slammed it into the metal.
Well, pain. Lots of that. My top knuckle on the middle finger felt like it had broken in two.
But the panel didn’t budge.
There had to be a way to to open it from this side, but the ceiling of smoke concealed whatever clasps or screws or locks held it in place. The opaque fog was coming down fast. We wouldn’t last much longer.
I scooted forward. Forearm against the warm metal.
One more try.
I reared back and lunged forward, digging my boots into the rock to add force. I slammed my elbow and forearm into the panel.
It exploded away and bounced across a floor a few feet below.
I wriggled inside, collapsing into a heap. Then spinning around and reaching back inside to drag Crypto out.
A computer room. Similar but much smaller than the one we’d left.
Smoke poured out of the access hatch and rose to the ceiling above. The leading edge drifted across as the rising column behind drove it on.
On toward the fire alarm in the center of the ceiling.
Rolling toward it in continuous curling waves.
I grabbed the bent panel and jumped to my feet, fanning the air to blow it away.
Until I made the mistake of taking a deep breath and doubled over with a wracking cough that felt like it was turning my ribs into splintered toothpicks.
I cradled my middle until the spell passed.
And by then it was too late.
I glanced up as the leading edge of the smoke hugging the ceiling rolled across the sensor.
An ear-splitting shrill alarm sounded.
The alarm in this room was quickly joined by a cacophony of distant alarms, all shrieking at maximum volume. The entire level must’ve gone off.
Someone would know that it was this detector that set off the general alarm. And that someone would send someone else to investigate. And that someone would more than likely arrived armed and expecting trouble.
Crypto bent over, clutching his knees and hacking out dark globs of slime.
I managed to stifle the coughing enough to take a few shallow breaths. The air singed the insides of my nose and throat before settling in my scorched lungs.
And the beating.
The fast and furious slamming of my heart against my ribs, like a frenzied beast fighting to get free.
The whooshing rush in my ears. Deafening and silent at once.
The sound of stomping boots coming from beyond the closed door.
I reached for the pistol tucked into my pants at my lower back.
I realized with horror that I couldn’t feel its pressure anywhere. It must’ve fallen out somewhere along the way. I bit my lower lip in disgust. I should’ve secured it better.
The stomping boots. More than one soldier. How many more?
I looked around the small room. Servers stacked to the ceiling. All bolted down to metal shelving.
My eyes landed on the bent panel lying by the far wall. I hurried over and grabbed it. As I stood, the door burst open and a voice yelled.
A young voice. Commanding but with a layer of fear in it. That could go either way. The slightest shifting of my weight could prompt a panicked shot that would punch a hole in my back. A slug tearing through my lungs or heart. Then again, a quick, decisive move might cause him to freeze.
Just for an instant, but that might be enough.
I spun around and launched the panel at him.
A spinning, slicing blunted blade.
The torque of the turn, the twisting power of my torso multiplied the lethal force.
The edge of the panel slammed into his throat before he could react.
A sickening crunching sound as he dropped his rifle and doubled over, holding his throat as blood trickled out of his mouth.
With the lead soldier out of the way, the one behind whipped her rifle toward me, but she was too late.
I lunged forward, twisting now in the opposite direction, bring my rear hand forward with terrible speed, force, and precision.
My balled fist hit her in the throat.
To her credit, she got off a shot.
But I was already inside the length of the rifle barrel and wrenched it out of her hands. The bones in her wrist snapped before her grip gave way.
Holding her throat with her working hand, she stumbled back but I grabbed her by the collar, dragged her inside and shoved her to the ground.
She fell over her fallen friend.
He wouldn’t make it. His trachea crushed and filling with blood.
I eased the door closed to a sliver as a squad of soldiers double-timed it down the hall.
Their voices floated in as they passed.
“What the hell is going on?” one asked.
“We’re supposed to augment the existing security detail. That’s all I know.”
Another added, “Is this just another drill?”
“I don’t think so.”
Their voices faded as they continued down the hall.
Augment the existing security detail?
Had Curtis or Skain correctly guessed that the fire alarms were part of a rescue mission for Martinez? Had they ordered additional Grays to keep her secure?
It seemed feasible. Perhaps even likely.
I glanced down at the dying soldier.
He was younger and leaner than me, but about the same height. Definitely a better match than the guy Martinez had knocked out.
The woman pushed up against the wall and tried to rise. She was a real fighter. If it had been her first through the door, I’d probably be the one bleeding out on the floor.
But a feeling of respect didn’t change my reason for being there. I whipped the butt of the rifle around and caught her on the chin.
Her head snapped to the side and she crumbled to the floor.
Lights out like the flip of a switch. The body’s response to a sharp and overwhelming input to the nervous system.
I glanced at Crypto, who was staring at me in amazement.
He coughed a few times and wiped his arm across his mouth. “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a bad ass?”
He was still a problem. Not due to the flattery. Due to his size. His attention-grabbing stature would have Grays on us like moths to a flame.
Only we would be the ones getting burned.
What to do?
I was the wrong gender to try to pull off a pregnancy, and besides, I doubt he would’ve gone for it anyway. The only reason he did earlier was because it was an excuse to get close to Martinez without getting a broken nose for his trouble.
I yanked a loop of zip-tie cord from the belt of the woman and tossed it at Crypto. “Put those on. You’re a prisoner.”
He looked at me like I was crazy.
Considering my mental and physical condition, he was probably right.
“I’ll act like I’m bringing you in,” I said. “There’s no other way.”
A few minutes later, I wore a dead man’s uniform and my clothes had the female soldier tied up tight. They were both tucked into a corner behind a shelving unit. Someone would have to come in and look around to find them.
Hopefully, that didn’t happen before we got away with Martinez.
“Ready?” I asked Crypto.
He stood with his head slumped, still coughing more than not. The smaller volume of his lungs must’ve been hit harder than mine. Or maybe the pills raging through my veins didn’t slow down to care. “Ready to get ourselves killed, you mean?”
“That’s a distinct possibility.”
With one hand holding the rifle and the other guiding Crypto ahead of me, we stepped out into the hallway.
We headed down the hallway in the direction the soldiers from earlier had gone. At regular intervals, fire alarms wailing and red lights flashing.
Soldiers in ones and twos hurried by but paid us no attention. They moved with purpose.
Not like us.
We didn’t fit the flow. We weren’t moving like the rest. We were looking for where to go, where they already knew.
Before long, we came to an intersection.
I paused to examine each of the three halls and the attached signs attached.
Sectors 3, 4 and 5.
Meaningless in my current state. Presumably perfectly helpful if I’d been able to remember more. I had once called this level home. Maybe I had once bunked somewhere nearby.
“Where to?” Crypto muttered.
I had to choose, and fast. Standing around like this would bring suspicion in no time.
“Hey! You there!”
I turned toward the hallway to the right as an overweight soldier strode toward us. His sunken chest puffed out as much as he was able.
I recognized him.
The pencil pusher at the security checkpoint by the brig.
He skidded to a stop several feet away and snapped a smart salute. “I’m sorry, Sir. I didn’t realize it was you.” His eyes drifted to the shoulder boards on my borrowed uniform. To the single chevron that indicated the rank of Private First Class. They narrowed with suspicion.
“Undercover work, Staff Sergeant,” I said. “We finally got him, Staff Sergeant!”
The pudgy Gray glanced down at my charge, all four and a half feet of him. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, bite me,” Crypto said. “Being a criminal mastermind isn’t predicated on being of average stature. Much less of portly stature like yourself.”
The soldier huffed with taken offense.
“How do you get to be a soldier carrying that much flab, anyway?” Crypto asked.
I cut in before the little megalomaniac got carried away. Got more carried away, rather. “I was just taking him to the brig.”
The soldier’s face transformed in an instant. Like it was his birthday and we’d brought a huge cake. “I happen to be heading there now, Sir. My shift begins in fifteen minutes.”
“I can appreciate a soldier that arrives early and stays late,” I said, happy to stroke his ego a bit if it helped.
“Are we talking about the dinner table or what?” Crypto said.
I cuffed him up against the head. “Quiet!”
He flashed me an angry look. It wasn’t manufactured either.
“Lead the way, soldier.”
“Yes, Sir!” the Gray snapped what he considered to be a smart salute.
I returned in kind and he headed off with us right behind.
We were going somewhere now. That was good. But was it the right place?
Did they take Martinez to the brig?
It was where Curtis had sent me when he wanted to keep me under his thumb.
But if she was somewhere else?
We couldn’t exactly go knocking door to door asking if anyone had seen her.
The Staff Sergeant wound through the corridors, taking turn after turn like he was on auto-pilot, like a mouse that had memorized the maze.
Several minutes later, we turned down a hallway that I finally recognized. And a minute later arrived at the security checkpoint where he worked. The same one that Martinez and I had gone through before.
Two other soldiers jumped up when they saw me enter.
“At ease!” I replied and they returned to their tasks.
The pudgy Gray circled around the desk and brought out a DAP. He tapped it on and swiped through several screens. “I have just the spot for him, Sir. Cell Nine. No bed and no toilet. Plus, it’s draftier than the others. Gets downright freezing cold at night because the heat never gets that far back.”
“I like the sound of that,” I replied as he held out the pad and pointed at a box for me to sign.
“It doesn’t sound good to me,” Crypto said. “In fact, it sounds downright uncivilized. I’d prefer a nice warm bed and three squares a day. And I wouldn’t turn down snacks between meals if they were offered.”
The sergeant glared at him. “Oh, I’m going to enjoy this.”
I signed the pad and we were about to go through toward the cells when a voice stopped me cold in my tracks.
A harsh voice, made of gravel and steel.
I turned, already knowing who it was.
Skain stood fifteen feet away, one hand resting lightly on the pistol holstered at his hip.
1. Go on the attack. Press the advantage. It is better to act than to react.
2. Try to talk to him. He’s my brother. Maybe it doesn’t need to turn into bloodshed.
3. Claim that I am Skain and the real Skain is me trying to free Martinez. (Added by the group!)
What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!