“Andrew?” The young detective looked up from the cluster of papers scattered about his desk, a grin forming on his face as he spotted his girlfriend approaching. He stood, glad not only for the chance to see her but also for the excuse to take a break from the case he had been working on for the last hour and a half. He planted both hands on his hips and arched his body backwards, stretching the soreness from his long-stagnant muscles and bones.
“Hey,” he said when she had finished her approach, giving her a quick kiss before pulling away, holding her by the shoulders at arm’s length to study her expression. He noticed she was biting her lip, a childhood habit she had all but kicked long ago and would only revert to when nervous or upset. Andrew frowned, suddenly concerned. “What’s up? Is something wrong?”
“The Chief wants to talk to you,” she said, still not meeting his eyes. His grip on her shoulders slowly weakened, and then released completely, arms falling back into place at his sides. Those seven words told him all that he needed to know. Having the Chief request your presence was never a good thing. With little more than a handful of exceptions, it meant one of three things. In order of increasing likelihood, it meant he either had a particularly dangerous and low-profile assignment for you to undertake, you had done something wrong to such an extent that he felt the need to address it personally, or, as was most often the case, someone close to you had died.
Andrew knew from his past experiences with the Chief that Lana was afraid it would be the first. Almost immediately after his arrival at the Rebel base just over three years ago he had been specifically and personally chosen by the Chief to carry out a string of tasks, the details of which were undisclosed to everyone else. Lana had been forced, time and time again, to await his return not knowing a thing about where he was or what he was doing. Her frustrations had only been reinforced by his own unwillingness to talk about the missions, and the way he would shut himself off whenever she brought the topic up. The tension had put a strain on their relationship, and suddenly they were arguing on a regular basis when before there had been nothing but affection, stumbling through awkward silences where before they had talked for hours on end. The conflict came to a climax when their first dinner together in a long time, their first step towards patching things up, was interrupted by a messenger from the Chief who came to collect Andrew for a new case. The argument that ensued resulted in their living quarters being completely trashed, and left Lana standing amidst the wreckage alone, crying into her hands.
Three days had passed without his return before Lana finally realized something was wrong. The Chief, who was holed up in his office, denied her requests for a meeting and made no move to explain things to her, other than sending a messenger ‘on his behalf’ who told her that the Chief was busy and would see her as soon as possible, and that Andrew was fine. Naturally, this only served to make her even more furious. On the eighteenth day a second messenger approached her, with dark tidings wrapped up neatly in the guise of good news. He told her that Andrew was back, and it was only when she asked eagerly where she could find him that the messenger admitted he was in the base’s hospital. After making her way there and franticly questioning several flustered nurses, she found his room.
He had been shot twice, once in his upper left abdomen and the other passing clean through the muscles of his left arm, but stranger still was that much of his body was covered in unusual lacerations, and two of his fingers, one from each hand (thankfully not his trigger fingers), were gone; nothing left but a neat cut where the joint between bones had been separated, not even the smallest of stumps to attest that there had ever been fingers there. None of the staff could (or would, as she suspected) tell her anything about how his injuries had been contracted, although one nurse had taken her aside from the others to confide that based off of the clean cuts they were certain his fingers had been removed intentionally, not through some accident. Lana had stayed at his side for seven days while he lay unconscious, getting friends and coworkers to cover her shifts. She hadn’t been particularly worried about the lack of information; she had been angry, certainly, but not worried. She hadn’t even considered for a moment the possibility that Andrew might not tell her everything when he woke up.
He awoke while she was resting, her head in her arms, folded on his bedside. Sensing his movement, she was immediately roused from her light and restless sleep, the bags under her eyes holding back none of the excitement that shone within them.
“Andrew?” she had whispered, fatigue and awe contributing to her soft voice. If she had been tired then he was absolutely drained, as though the past three days had not been spent in an unbroken sleep. She saw his eyes darting from side to side in fear, yet he barely seemed capable of keeping them open. “Andrew, it’s me. Lana, Andrew. It’s Lana.” His attention turned to her, and she watched as the fear literally drained from his face, replaced with an exhausted relief. It was one of the saddest and most beautiful things she had ever seen. With a weak smile in acknowledgment of her presence, he closed his eyes and fell back to sleep, but not before shifting his hand to rest atop hers.
For several weeks after the incident he was a quiet, hollow shell of his former self. At first he had faded in and out of consciousness with alarming regularity and inconsistency, and was disoriented and incoherent even when he did manage to stay awake. Eventually he got better, staying conscious for longer and more consistent periods of time, but as a result Lana could no longer kid herself about the extent of his psychological damage.
He scarcely ate or talked, just laid in bed staring off into the distance at something only he could see. Through it all Lana stayed by his side, feeling his pain almost as vividly as he did, and watching him suffer silently, helpless to do anything more than be there for him. His recovery had been gradual, in a way that made it seem to have taken forever and yet have happened overnight, although to anyone paying close enough attention the signs of his improvement had always been there. It had been unbearable for Lana to see her boyfriend in that state, and she had begged, pleaded that he would never put himself in that degree of danger again (although she never did find out exactly what degree it had been, as he never divulged to her or anyone else as far as she knew the details of what had happened). His responses had been vague, skirting around the question and avoiding giving a direct answer while remaining reassuring, and she had pretended not to notice; he had still been suffering from emotional trauma after all, and she hadn’t wanted to start an argument or distress him anymore than he already was. But now, for the first time since that fateful, mysterious task, he was being summoned once more.
“I’m sure it’s just a check-up, Lana. You don’t have to worry.” They looked into each other’s eyes and he saw that she was on the verge of crying.
“If it’s another one of those… those assignments, please, please promise me you’ll refuse it.” He looked down at his feet and was silent for a moment.
“You know I can’t,” he started, moving to put a hand back on her shoulder, but before he could continue she suddenly reached up, swatting his hand aside and storming off. “Lana!” he cried after her hopelessly. Several people looked up from their work to see what was happening, and he glared at them through tired eyes until they looked away again, shamed into minding their own business. Sighing again as she disappeared from view, he headed towards the Chief’s office.
The station’s first floor was known as the archive, and it was where they kept all information pertaining to their primary objective of making the city safe. Although unrequired, most Rebels would often record notes on certain cases, specifically ones which might reappear later on or that included information that might prove helpful should a similar situation ever arise. These included information on gangs and groups they often clashed with, important notes on certain locations they found themselves in, and all other unresolved or ongoing issues, most notably of which was their conflict with the Cleansers. They recorded every last piece of information they came across whenever there was a run-in with the Cleansers, including what weapons they used, battle tactics, and anything else. Other documents contained in the archive included maps, often highlighting areas considered to be high-risk or safe heavens, marking the locations of all five hospitals in the city, and showing Cleanser strongholds, storage buildings, etc.
The second floor was directly beneath the first, and it contained the armoury and engineering rooms; the third floor consisted of the kitchen, food storage and cafeteria; fourth was the infirmary; and fifth and sixth were the housing floors, where the Rebels had assigned living quarters. The second floor had hundreds of tunnels branching off in different directions, all of which opened up several miles from the station in hidden areas, to make it harder for unwelcome eyes preying on the movements of Rebels coming and going from the base on their various excursions, effectively revealing its location. In the event of someone actually finding one of the secret entrances, they were all fitted with cameras, their feeds constantly being monitored back at the base, and a trio of guards was positioned at both the beginning and end of each tunnel.
The Chief’s office was located at one end of the archives, raised above the ground level on a platform so that the room’s window wall overlooked the rest of the floor.
“Girlfriend troubles?” someone called out as Andrew passed by, and without needing to see the person Andrew knew they were addressing him, and that the speaker was Jeffery Nar. Jeffery was a soldier stationed near Andrew’s desk, near enough at least to have noticed the scene with Lana granted he was eavesdropping, a completely reasonable assumption for anyone who knew him to make. He seemed to have as many enemies as he lacked friends, a result of his pretentious and aggravating personality. Surprisingly enough he seemed to enjoy his infamy, and toyed with his least-favourites as often as possible, a group to which Andrew was affiliated for reasons impossible to guess, if existent at all. The coworkers nearest Nar’s station were known to bring earplugs to work.
“Not now, Nar,” he said without stopping. “Just… not now. I’m not in the mood.”
“Ah, I see. You’ve been shut out. Denied access. Abandoned in the desert. Stuck in the ol’ proverbial dog house. What did you do now? Certainly something big, to have the pearly gates shut in your ah, nose. Must ‘ave been awhile now, too, to have you in such a tizzy. What, two, maybe three weeks, with no candy for Andy?” By now Andrew had started back towards Jeffery, fists clenched and gait determined, and Jeffery stood at his desk in anticipation.
“I will kill you Nar. Do not ever refer to my girlfriend like that again. In fact, don’t even mention my girlfriend again. Ever.”
“Boy, she’s really locked you out then, hasn’t she? Must have, to get you so hormonal. You’re usually so… in control of your testosterone.” He grinned, in eager anticipation of the climax, as those around them watched with equal anticipation, if not for the same reasons. All had been pestered by Jeffery at one point or another, and all were more eager than could be considered healthy to see him get his comeuppance. A few were actually planning on sneaking in a few blows themselves before more responsible Rebels (otherwise known as Rebels not yet introduced to Jeffery either personally or by reputation) closed in on the brawl and got it under control. Thankfully, in never came to that.
A hand rested on Andrew’s shoulder from behind, stopping his advance gently but firmly. “Leave him; he’s not worth it.” Turning to face their arbitrator , he saw a man that looked to be maybe eight or nine years older than him. He had black hair, and sad, light grey eyes. It was immediately apparent that he was void of any hostility, and was acting purely out of pacification. Andrew felt his tension unwind, the muscles in his arms relaxing and his fists unclenching. He took a moment to compose himself, and even managed a smile, albeit weak.
“Yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right. Thanks.” Still standing at his desk, Jeff regarded the stranger with a cold curiosity, but said nothing. The others, sensing the fight was off the table, lost interest and turned back to their work, some with reproachful glances at the man who had ruined their hopes. Andrew held out his hand. “I’m Andrew. Fetcher,” he added, feeling the need to say more. The stranger shook it, studying his face carefully, and nodded.
“A pleasure.” He then turned to Jeffery without, Andrew noticed, introducing himself. “Jeffery Nar, I presume?” Jeff nodded, suspicious. “You’re coming with me. You’ve been assigned to my team. We have to go to the northwest corner to investigate a missing Rebel and possible murders. The other two are already at the tunnel entrances waiting. Maybe if you spent more time doing your job and less time flirting you would have noticed the notification sent to you ten minutes ago. As it stands we are now late, thanks to you, so hurry up and come with me.” Jeffery blinked, mouth open but clearly unable to formulate a response.
“Yeah, alright,” he said finally, sputtering, “but I need to go to the weapons room first.” The stranger shook his head and tossed Jeffery a pistol, which he fumbled, only just managing not to drop it. Andrew snickered, and Jeffery shot him a hateful look but said nothing.
“Well, nice to meet you Andrew,” the man said, and walked off with Jeffery in tow, flicking through his Digifile, presumably checking for the notification he had missed.
“Yeah, nice to meet you too…” Andrew said, trailing off as they walked away. Then he remembered he had an appointment with the Chief, someone who did not like to be kept waiting. He continued on through the orderly chaos of the floor, and soon arrived at the Chief’s office, knocking on the door and waiting there for permission to enter. It came seconds later and he opened the door, walking in and ensuring it closed behind him. The Chief was sitting at his desk, going through some papers. Andrew took the seat facing the desk, and waited. After many antagonizing minutes of nothing but the sound of papers shuffling (which Andrew felt sure was revenge for taking so long to come), the Chief put the papers down and looked up.
“Andrew, good to see you’ve completely recovered from your incident.”
“Well, not completely. I’m still missing my fingers,” he said with a wry smile, which the Chief did not return. Andrew cleared his throat to break the awkward silence. “Umm, Chief? I… To be honest, I don’t think I’ll be able to continue with our arrangement anymore.” The Chief remained silent for a moment before speaking again.
“Do you know why I chose you to take on this extremely important and dire task all those years ago?” he said finally.
“Yes, because I owed you for-”
“No, no. That was why you agreed to do it, not to mention why I was able to… let’s say… persuade you into agreeing, but why did I choose you?”
“With all due respect sir, I’m not entirely sure.” This time the Chief did smile.
“I chose you because you’re smart and analytical, something that, as you’ve hopefully already discovered, is quite important for what you have to do. I could have chosen someone better at combat and action than you -like your sister, for example- but I chose you because those people are unpredictable, rash, and far more concerned with shooting first and completely bypassing the questions -like your sister, for example.” Andrew rolled his eyes, knowing he was right. “Don’t get too excited, there are still a few people here smarter than you who probably could have done a better job, but in the end I decided I trusted you most, and wanted to give you a chance to both prove and improve yourself.” Andrew held up a hand, frowning.
“Sorry, not to be rude, but what’s your point?” The Chief stared at him thoughtfully.
“Is it that you don’t want to continue, or you don’t think you’ll be able to continue?” Now it was Andrew’s turn to stay silent. “See, we already know the answer, Andrew. This is my point. You are perfect for this job because you are inquisitive and curious, but you know how to go about it safely and cautiously. You care about your work, Andrew. Really care. You’re involved, you’re passionate, and that’s something I can’t say for a lot of your colleagues, unfortunately. Admit it Andrew, you couldn’t just up and leave this assignment even if I gave you permission.” Andrew’s face was flushed red, but he managed a nod. “Tell your girlfriend that she doesn’t have to worry though, because I won’t be needing you to do anything concerning this case for a while. Things have gotten very intense, and you won’t be able to investigate for some time. I’ll wait for things to calm down a bit before sending you in to find out what’s happening.” Andrew sighed with relief, happy enough to accept the temporary solution.
“Thank you, Chief.”
“You’re very welcome, but I’m not done yet. I also called you here because I need you to investigate a building in the northwest corner.” Andrew recalled the stranger saying he and Jeffery had an investigation in the northwest corner as well, but said nothing. “We’ve reason to believe it’s currently undergoing construction and is soon to be the permanent location of a Cleanser stronghold. They’re expanding again, and as you already know, Block 3 is their strongest location. As it stands they’re only a few more of these strongholds away from completely securing the Block. If that happens we will lose all of our influence on events in and around its borders, and the upper hand they will have achieved in the long run could very well spell the end of our fight. We can’t let that happen. I’m not trying to scare you, you understand. Nor am I trying to say the fate of the whole war rests on this building and your investigation.”
“It’s okay,” Andrew assured him. It wouldn’t be the first mission of its kind he would participate in, and he was more than aware of what was at stake. “I get it.” The Chief nodded.
“Good, good. Of course you do. It’s to be solely an investigative assignment; if it does turn out to be a Cleanser building you are not to engage the enemy in any way. Ensure you remain undetected, but make certain of the results.”
“Yes sir. Will this be a solo expedition?”
“I’ve made arrangements for your sister to accompany you. With that be… satisfactory?”
Andrew wasn’t too sure how he felt about that. He had been on assignments with his sister before, but still couldn’t decide if it was a good thing or not. Although they got along fine most of the time, and were, as corny as it sounded, best friends, they were complete opposites in most if not all aspects of their personalities, and as such opinions and decisions would clash often. He liked working with her because it gave him the opportunity to look out for her, but sometimes she drove him crazy with her instinctive and rash decisions. He realized the Chief was waiting for a response, probably thinking that he would be grateful for the chance to spend some time with his twin.
“Yes. Yeah, that’d be… that’s great. Thank you, again.” The Chief dismissed this with a wave of his hand.
“Don’t mention it. The coordinates will be sent to your Digifile, if they haven’t already.”
After being dismissed Andrew went over to his sister’s desk but found it empty. Soldiers did not have as much use for their desks as detectives did, because in general it wasn’t necessary for them to make or keep notes on any assignments. He paused for a moment, noting the desk’s disorder with a shudder, and racked his brain to think of where she might be before settling on the second floor armoury. Lately she had started spending more and more of her free time there, working with their resident mechanic Garry on various weapon projects. As to when she had developed a taste for mechanics he could not say, although the fascination with weapons had certainly been around for a long time. At first he had suspected she was actually sneaking off to meet with someone, but had ‘happened by’ on several occasions and determined her interest was both sincere and undivided.
Celia was extremely attractive (most would say intimidatingly so), and it was far from uncommon for men to throw themselves at her feet wherever she turned. Despite being the same age, ever since childhood Andrew had felt the need to protect his sister, and that included protection from anyone he did not deem good enough for her. Celia hated that he still felt the need to approve her relationships at 29, and she gave him hell for it. Admittedly he knew his concerns were misplaced; she was more than capable of taking care of herself, even if it she did occasionally go out of her way to convince him otherwise for nothing more than the pleasure of watching him squirm. Even so Celia had only had one real relationship in her life, and aside from frequent uses of her looks and devious charm to manipulate men into doing her favours, she showed no intention of getting into a new relationship anytime soon. Still, that relationship had been a disaster, and if that man was any indication of the sort of guys she would have a tendency to get involved with then as far as Andrew was concerned he had every right to be protective, no matter how much she detested it.
“Looking for someone?” a voice behind him asked, one he instantly recognized.
“Hey sis.” He smiled, turning to face her. “Where were you?” The resemblance between them was striking; gender difference aside, they were identical.
“Oh, I was with Garry. We were working on this new explosive when I got a notification. You and I have to go investigate a possible Cleanser stronghold, although considering you’re here I’m guessing you already know about it.” Andrew nodded.
“Yep. But we’re only investigating. The Chief said not to make any form of contact, even if we do find they’re Cleansers.” He emphasized this part, knowing from past experiences that his twin’s headstrong demeanor often prompted her to ‘forget’ the rules. The Chief himself had once told them, after a particularly messy case, that if she hadn’t been such a capable and valuable soldier he would have exiled her a long time ago for unnecessarily endangering herself and other Rebels. She had taken it as a compliment, Andrew had considered it a warning.
“Yeah, yeah. Anyways, so considering I was already there I grabbed some weapons before I left so we wouldn’t have to go back.” Andrew looked past his sister and saw a backpack on her shoulders.
“Some weapons,” he echoed, his skepticism evident. “Alright, open it up; let’s see what you have.”
“Open it. Now.” With an infamous roll of her eyes, Celia removed the backpack and unzipped it, revealing her kukri knife tucked away in its sheath, two pistols, an energy gun, a pair of binoculars with infrared capabilities, a steel ball whose function Andrew could only guess, a detonator, and enough volatiles to blow up a house (not to mention several boxes of ammunition). Andrew’s face was that of someone who’d just been shown a ticking time bomb, which really wasn’t far from the truth.
“What?” Celia said, handing him one of the pistols. “Oh, I almost forgot.” She grabbed the forearm-long blade and reached behind, raising an eyebrow in concentration as she clipped the sheath to her belt, before slinging the pack over her shoulder.
“Okay, you do know this is just a recon mission, right?”
“Do you even know what recon means?”
“Calm down, Andy,” she said, placing emphasis on the nickname he so passionately loathed, a fact that did nothing towards getting her to avoid using it and everything to give her reason to do exactly that. “This is, you know, just in case. To be extra safe. You should be happy I’m listening to you for once. You’re always telling me to have a backup plan and not to be so rash.”
“You know that’s not what I mean. All that stuff will just slow you down and make you tire faster, assuming something doesn’t misfire and kill you.”
“I have my reasons, okay? A building collapsed a few days ago, and Garry thinks it may have blocked off a route that had been previously shown on his Digifile maps. It’s more or less on the way to the building we’re investigating, so he wants me to pass by and check it out, then I can let him know if he needs to change his map.”
“We have an entire branch of Rebels for plotting maps.”
“Well, yeah, but it’s on our way, so why waste manpower on sending out more than necessary? Do you want to endanger some unfortunate Surveyor’s lives by sending them out unnecessarily, just because you were too lazy to take a quick detour?”
“I’m not lazy! Look- I just think that-” he trailed off into a sigh, exasperated and unable to think of a retort. The arguments had already started, and yet he had known something along the lines would happen; when they were together they always did. “Alright, here’s what. We can go do what Garry asked, but we’re not bringing all those weapons. You are not bringing all those weapons.” Celia glanced down, digging the toe of her shoe into the ground.
“Well, the thing is, apparently the area is kind of dangerous.”
“Dangerous? Dangerous how?”
Celia shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a rumour, really.”
“A rumour? Celia, what the hell does that even mean?”
“Look, it’s nothing. But… if you’re really worried about it, I can always go by myself, and meet up with you later down the path before we get to the building.
“What? No way! Do you realize how risky that is? We can’t separate when we’re out there! Besides, you just said the area was dangerous! Do you really expect me to let you go alone? Celia, it’s a bad idea.” Celia sighed.
“Yeah, okay. You’re probably right. Okay, I guess I’ll put some of these weapons back.”
“Thank you,” Andrew sighed again, exasperated. It seemed sighs of frustration were as common to him as eye rolls were to her. With a defeated pout, she turned on her heels and began walking back.
Several minutes later it dawned on Andrew that she wasn’t coming back. He ran downstairs to the second floor, where he met up with Garry and demanded he plug in the route Celia was taking. He complied, but by that point Andrew knew it was hopeless; she had already had an almost ten-minute head start, and catching up to her before they reached the reunion location would be impossible. If he followed her she would be alone even longer than if he simply took the original path, letting her meet up with him there rather than having her wait. Gritting his teeth, he realized this was exactly what she had suggested they do in the first place, and had probably been planning it the entire time. Still, it was out of his hands now; the only thing to do was get going and hope for the best. He would give her hell when they met up, but it wasn’t like he could report her to the Chief. And really, how bad could it be? They were both more than competent at taking care of themselves, if the past 29 years were any indication, even considering how dangerously unpredictable the city could be. What was the worst that could happen?