Part IX

ERIC

Three Cleansers waved the transporter in, guiding the driver through the path in the woods.  The trees seemed to blend together, and the thick carpet of leaves on the ground covered all traces of the ground below, making it easy for the large, bulky vehicle to lose the trail and crash.  They had decided it was worth it though: their enemies would have just as much work getting there, and even more in actually finding the place.  Besides that, supply deliveries were a rare occurrence, and would gradually diminish in regularity as soon as they were done moving into the building.

Eric Hader stepped out of the front door just as the vehicle pulled up in front of the building.  He walked over to its trailer, nodding in acknowledgment to one of the Cleansers who had helped guide it in as he passed.  The driver arrived there the same time as he did, and he unlocked the door before pulling it upwards.  The two then lifted themselves into the trailer.  Once inside the driver removed a checklist from atop one of the boxes, and began flipping through it.  Eric took the opportunity to study him.  Greying stubble shadowed his face, accentuated by deep wrinkles and a toughened leathery appearance, and upon closer inspection he noted grime beneath his fingernails.  The overall combined effect gave him a rugged, somewhat unkempt look akin to most Transport drivers.  Eric sniffed in faint distaste; they were nothing more than tools, their job simple and requiring more memorization and routine than skill, yet they were still considered Cleansers, and colleagues as such.  They were not held to the same standards, and long hours on the roads had a strange, undesirable effect on both their appearances and the way they acted in social situations.

The driver continued flicking through papers, absentmindedly tugging at his uniform, which seemed a size too big and had a dark, rusty red stain on the upper left corner.  Eric turned away, grimacing in disgust.  By then the other two Cleansers had arrived with several others trailing behind to help, and the driver set the clipboard aside.  Together they set about unpacking the trailer by passing supplies down to the Cleansers below, who then took them inside.

“So,” Eric huffed, passing a large box down to the Cleanser below, “how are things in the rest of the city?”  The driver studied him out of the corner of his eye, much like Eric had for him, before nodding.

“I just now came from Block 3, so I don’t know much else ‘bout the other three- or two, I suppose.”

“Well, whatever you know is certainly more than what we know.  We’ve been holed up here working on finishing this infernal building for the past two months or so, no contact with the outside world aside from drivers like you delivering supplies.  Coms still aren’t set up properly, so until then we’ve been trying to find out as much as possible from them whenever we get the chance.”

“Well, I can’t honestly say I have much t’ give you.  Nothing big, which I suppose depending on how you look at it can either be a good thing or a bad thing.”  Eric nodded in agreement.  “Hmm.”  The driver thought for a moment.  “Nope, nothing to really mention.  I mean, there was that whole skirmish in the Village, but I suppose you’ve already heard about all that.”

“Sorry?  Something happened in the Government Village?”  The driver looked startled.

“You haven’t heard about that?” Eric tried to hide his irritation.

“If I had, would I be asking about it now?”

“Well, what was it now, two weeks ago?  One of them Inner Circle guys was found dead in his house, lying in bed with a bullet in his head.”  He tapped his temple twice, indicating where he had been shot.  “No evidence or anything.  All the surveillance stuff, all them cameras and security traps, turned up nothing.  Whoever it was got past the Hell Robots patrolling the house outside, too.  So nothing turns up.  Then, a few days later, another Inner Circle member’s Hell Robots started going all crazy and shooting after something, but no bodies or anything were ever found.”  The driver paused, and Eric took a moment to absorb the information.  “So now there’s a bunch of the more paranoid Government members who’re bringing their robots into the house with them.  You know, in case anyone gets in.  Personally I wouldn’t have one of those things anywhere near me, much less five or six watching me while I sleep.  Those blank, faceless heads, all cold and expressionless.  Clear bodies, like a ghost.”  He shuddered.  “Unnatural, if you ask me.”

“There are no leads whatsoever?”

“Well… you know how they are.  No one ever really knows everything that goes on in the shadow of those walls.  They’re not revealing much information.”  Eric nodded.

“The victims, they were…”

“No biggies.  I couldn’t even tell you their names.  Minors compared to the others, easily replaceable.  Still, to assassinate any member of the Inner Circle?”  He whistled appreciatively.

“And inside the Village walls, no less,” Eric mused.

“Yeah.  Makes you wonder.”  He glanced around conspiratorially, as though afraid someone might be eavesdropping, and then leaned in, his voice low.  “In fact, there’s a rumor going around that no one ever actually got past the wall.”  He left the sentence hanging in the air between them, and it didn’t take long for Eric to puzzle out what he meant.

“An inside job.  You think someone inside the Village is committing these murders.”  The driver shook his head, and gave his nose two quick taps with his finger.

“Not me.  No, I’m just a deliverer.”  Eric scrutinized the Cleanser who accepted the box from him, and she seemed to intentionally avoid meeting his gaze.  He waited until she was out of earshot, taking the box inside, before talking again.

“But why?  What purpose would it serve?  Is it a coup?  Or is it just an individual murderer, killing for the fun of it?”  The driver grinned, flashing a mouth of yellow teeth.

“How should I know?  Like I said, I’m just a deliverer.”  He turned away, walking to the very back of the bus.  Eric looked about and saw with some surprise that they had finished unpacking the trailer, save one item which the driver was now heading towards.  Eric followed, trying to see past him at what it was.

“I was told to give this to your first-in-command, but seeing as she didn’t feel the need to grace a humble driver with her presence, I suppose you’ll do just fine as her second-in-command.  Besides, I like you.”

“What is it?”  The driver grunted in response, his back still facing Eric as he fumbled with whatever it was he was facing.

“Said I liked you; didn’t say I trusted you.  Still, I suppose telling you will feed your curiosity for some time, if not entirely satisfy it.”  Eric had stopped listening, and now stood just behind the driver.  He peered over the shorter man’s shoulder, but couldn’t make out what he was doing.  “This is a very important item.”  He turned.  “It may very well hold the key to ending the war.”

Eric’s eyes trailed downwards, to the object in his hands.  It was a cardboard box, aside from its smaller size very much the same as all the other boxes that had been in the trailer.

“What is it?”  Eric asked again, finding his fingers twitching with the urge to take the box from his hands.  The driver shrugged.

“You really think they’d tell the delivery guy?  Hell, it could be anything, granted it fits in the box.  All I know is what I was told and what I was told is that inside this box is a very important item that could very well hold the key to ending the war, and that I was to give it to your first-in-command as soon as I got here, and t’ tell you- or her, I suppose, that you would need to take it on the second half of the delivery to the Block 4 Cleanser Leader.”

“Mr. Basket?”  Eric frowned, before looking up at the driver with suspicion.  “Why don’t you just take it yourself?  And if it’s as important as you say, why the hell would they transport it here, to the middle of nowhere?  And with no guards and minimum protection to boot?  And why is it even going to Mr. Basket?”

“All very good questions.  Let me tell you something; never stop asking questions, especially the right ones.  Especially the right ones.  But, suffice to say, I can’t answer any of them.  Just the deliverer, remember?”  He grinned again, a smile that, despite his claims to the contrary, suggested he knew more than he was letting on.  “Now,” he shoved the box into Eric’s hands, “I’ve gotta go.  Plenty of deliveries, and not enough time.  Never enough time.”  He walked out of the trailer, Eric following behind still studying the box.  He turned it in his hands studying all angles, and lifted it to his ear.  “Don’t you dare shake that box, Hader,” the driver warned without turning, voicing Eric’s exact thoughts.  He stepped down off the platform with a grunt, and began making his way back along the trailer to the driver’s seat.  Eric hopped down with ease, looking up and noticing they were now the only ones outside.

“It’s delivery man, you know.  Or woman.”

“What?”

“You called yourself a deliverer, but you’re a delivery man.  Deliverer has an entirely different meaning.”  The driver turned aside slightly, so that Eric caught the profile of his face just as the grin spread over it.

“Who says I can’t be both?”  It was only as the large transporter pulled away, now making easy work of the path, that Eric realized there was no way the driver could have known his last name or his position as second-in-command.

Back inside the rest of his squad were making quick work of distributing and sorting through the pile of supplies.  He supervised for a moment, barking a few commands and directing his subordinates on where to take the various provisions, before heading for the stairs.  Ascending two steps at a time, he considered the box in his hands.  The manner in which it had been delivered was suspicious, to say the least.  Eric knew how things worked back in Block 3.  Those pompous blowhards didn’t know the meaning of incognito, and wouldn’t be clever (or modest) enough to think of protecting something by making it seem undesirable.  The importance of their own invention would be too much for them to undermine in any way, including in the amount of security it was given.  Even if they had managed to go with the inconspicuous route, it was still often a better idea to risk stressing its value and importance with more protection.  The chances of enemies organized or powerful enough to overwhelm the guard happening across a transport were small enough to be considered insignificant, and the likelihood of anyone outside knowing of a transport before the date, allowing them to prepare in advance, was even more unlikely.  Of course transport robberies were always a possibility, undertaken by Rebels or the occasional desperate band of Scavengers, but unsuccessful attempts outnumbered these considerably, even more so by uneventful deliveries.

Nevertheless it was hardly justifiable to protect an item that “could very well hold the key to ending the war” with the old misleading trick.  Especially from people who were desperate enough to take anything and risk everything.  The only real benefit to travelling with a lighter guard was speed, but getting the item to them had hardly been urgent enough to risk losing it to the Rebels.  Which brought him to the item itself.  He could not fathom why they would bother sending it to them to then take to Mr. Basket rather than taking it directly there.  Not only were they out of the way by several miles, but they were also still undergoing preparations and were hardly capable of defending themselves against a large threat, much less the kind of response an item of such importance might stir up.  It simply didn’t add up.  Again, he found himself longing to open the box to see what it contained, but he knew the possible (and likely) consequences would not be worth satisfying his curiosity.

He took the box all the way up to the ninth floor, where their squadron leader was rooming.  Outside her door he hesitated one last time, looking at the box’s peeling tape with temptation painted across his face.  All it would take was a quick reapplication of tape, and no one would be the wiser.  Even if the tape wrinkled or something no one else had seen the box yet and he could bluff his way through any curiosity easily, claiming it had come like that.  His fingers itched.  A sound from the other side of the door stirred him from contemplation, and shaking his head to clear it, he knocked twice.

“Enter,” came the curt reply, to which Eric rolled his eyes before turning the knob.  She was convinced it made her sound professional, powerful, and above all else, intimidating.  Inside Deborah Carsen stood at the window, looking out into the dense foliage of the forest below.  From above, the canopy was so thickly clustered, the leaves overlapping one another until the ground below was completely obscured from view, that each individual tree was indistinguishable from the mass.  “What do you need?”

“That promotion,” he said, dropping the box onto the desk loudly enough to catch her attention without potentially causing damage to whatever might be inside.  She turned, and frowned at the invasion of her work space.

“What is that?”

“Hell if I know.  Some screwball delivery man gave it to me, said it was imperative to ending the war.”

“He said that?”

“That’s what I just said, isn’t it?  Yes, he said that, after about fifteen minutes of senseless rambling.”  Normally she would be on his case for the backtalk, but now she was approaching the box, watching it intently as though expecting it to solve the war right then and there in front their eyes.  He noticed, and watched her suspiciously.  “Crazy, right?”  He paused, but received no acknowledgment, and after a moment’s hesitation he pressed on.  “I think we should open it.”  This finally earned him a reaction as her eyes flicked over to meet his with a cold intensity.

“Are you mad?”

“To the contrary, I think that driver was mad, almost as mad as you if you’re even considering believing what he said-”

“If what you said is true-”

“No, no, no.  If what he said is true, not me.  I’m just the messenger here.”

“Fine then.  If what he’s said is true-”

“You weren’t even there!  I saw him; I know what he said and how he said it, and I can almost guarantee you he was either crazy, or he was making some kind of screwed-up joke.”

“What did he say, exactly?  Word for word.”  He took a deep breath.

“He said the item could potentially end the war, that we had to take it to the Block Leader as soon as possible, and that he didn’t know anything more than what they had told him.”  She raised an eyebrow.

“That doesn’t sound word for word.”  Eric ran his fingers through his hair with a deep exhale.

“For life’s sake- look, okay?  That’s the gist of it, and everything else was rambling.  I already told you he was nuts.”  She looked back towards the box contemplatively.

“I think we should deliver it to Basket now,” she said quietly after a moment.

“What?”  he exploded.  “Are you actually crazy?  Because that was a joke, what I said before.”  He received a pointed look, and forced himself to remember that he was talking to his boss.  For now, he thought with gritted teeth.  “Look, at least tell me we’re going to open it first.”

“And you’re accusing me of being crazy?  If this thing is as big of a deal as has been suggested by your crazy delivery man, and Basket finds out we tampered with it…”  she shuddered, so perfectly synched Eric wondered if perhaps she had forced it.  “You don’t know that… monster in man’s clothing.  He’s done things that make your twisted lack of humanity look positively compassionate.  And you dare suggest I play against that?”

“But it doesn’t make sense!”  He was practically begging now.  “Why wouldn’t they just take it straight to Basket, rather than risk losing it on the way here?”

“Maybe… maybe it’s a test.”

“A test.  Really.”

“No- listen.  Things have been shifty lately.  Placing us in the forest so far out of the way, practically cutting us off, maybe it’s all some sort of test.  Yeah, maybe, maybe it’s some kind of test.  And this is just another part of it!”  Her excitement was revelatory, as though she had suddenly connected all the dots.  “They want to see if we’ll let our curiosity get the better of us and betray the cause.”

“You do realise it’ll take forever to arrange getting a psychologist out here, right?”

“Just shut up for a minute.  I’m thinking.”  He consented, watching her through narrowed eyes as she bit her lip in thought.  Suddenly she looked back at him, a strange expression on her face.

“Hell, I think it has to do with you.”

“I’ve heard they have some really good rehabilitation programs with the asylums down in Block 3,” he said gently.

“Shut up, or I’ll see to it that promotion never leaves my desk.  You know you need my approval as your squad supervisor to get the ball rolling for the Block leader.”  He mimed zipping his mouth shut and throwing away the key.  “Now listen.  You’ve been on the list for a promotion for a while now, right?  But you’ve been kept back for… assorted reasons.”

“‘Excessive use of force and unwarranted cruelty’, and ‘several accounts of unprecedented actions pertaining to the unauthorised executions of prisoners of war’,” he quoted, word for word.

“Yes.  Now return to shutting up.”

“Yep.”

“The only reasons you haven’t been executed, severely reprimanded or at the very least demoted by now is partially because they’ve mostly been minor cases, but chiefly because otherwise you’re a damn good Cleanser.  I’d warn you not to let that go to your head, but I know that’d be a waste of breath.  Anyways, to make sure they can trust you when it comes to the big things, they set this test up.”

“So you say.”

“What did I say about shutting up?  I mean, think about it.  You said it yourself: why else would they send it here rather than straight to Basket?  And why give it to the second-in-command?  If it was that important why not deliver it straight to me?”

“He did say he was supposed to give it to you,” Eric mused.

“Well he didn’t, did he?  Why risk losing your job over laziness?”

“You’re forgetting he was a transporter driver.”

“Stop stereotyping.  And shut up.  Now, they want to check if you’ll let your curiosity and power lust get the better of you, and disobey a direct order.”

“Technically I outrank a driver, so he can’t give me an order.”

“He can deliver an order.”

“In writing.”

“Look, I’m not going to get sidetracked.  The point is, they’re doing this to test you.  Listening to me is in your best interest.”

“All implications pertaining to my mental health aside, assuming your theory is correct why wouldn’t they tell you anything about this?”  Carsen shrugged.

“Maybe they’re testing me too.  Hell, for all you know they did tell me, and I’m just giving you a little advice disguised as self-interest.  Look, I agree with you as far as the item is concerned; it makes no sense for them to give us the most important weapon in the history of the war.  So the way I see it, the only explanation is that they’re testing you.  It fits, doesn’t it?”

“The last time I checked, they didn’t go to such… creative lengths to make sure their candidates for squadron leaders were suited for the job.  Doesn’t this seem a bit too far-fetched to you?  At all?  I mean, admittedly my case deserves an extra once-over, but that seems like something my interviewer might take care of, not some elaborate and overcomplicated plan to determine if I’ll let my curiosity get the better of me that has nothing to do with the real reason I’ve disobeyed commands on occasion.”

“Okay then, so what’s your explanation?”

“I don’t have one.  But I know where to find the real one.”  He pointed one accusatory finger towards the box.

“No.”

“But- but whatever’s in there will explain everything!”

“Or it could screw up both of our futures forever.”

“Since when have you ever even been interested in my well-being?”

“Are you kidding?  If you get this promotion you’ll be out of my life once and for all!  Your ‘well-being’ at this point is my number one concern!  So no, we will not be opening that box.  In fact, I’m going to put the box in your care, so that any repercussions fall directly onto you if it is opened.”

“You realize they’ll still blame you, as my direct supervisor, for entrusting it with me?”

“Nope.  Not after I deny ever receiving word of this.  And considering that driver delivered this to you, not me, I think I’ll be in the clear.  Maybe something small for not having better knowledge of what goes on around here, but I can always pass that off as a consequence of all the moving-in chaos.  And, as an added bonus, given your history of truancies…” she left the implication hanging in the air between them.

“Shit, I came here looking for your advice-”

“And I gave it.”

“-how the hell did we get to another conflict in which one of us gets screwed over, threatened, or blackmailed by the other?”

“Like I said, the box is yours now, as is whatever it contains.  Do with it what you will, just know that if things go south I will not let you drag me down with you.  When the time comes tomorrow for you to meet with Basket to discuss this,” here she took up his promotion candidate file from the desk and shook it in the air, “you can either bring it with you unopened and untouched as that driver said, which is my suggestion, or you can screw around and likely get yourself killed.”  Eric opened his mouth for a retort, then thought better of it and turned to go.  “You’re forgetting something.”  With one final glare he grabbed the box, tucking it under his arm as he turned to go.  Her smug grin was the last thing he saw before the door closed.

Part VIII

SAMANTHA

The nightmares finally shocked her back into the waking world at 11:26am, about two hours after the sedative-hypnotics she took to help her sleep wore off and the dreams first began to creep into her subconscious mind.  What followed from that point up until the moment she shot up in bed gasping for breath, her body trembling and covered in sweat, were a series of visions and scenarios which started off disturbing and rose in intensity until they were completely unbearable, making her toss and turn in bed, moaning quietly and occasionally muttering a vague, hopeless word of objection.  The particular vision that finally woke her started off misleadingly safe: she was in a large, empty room, surrounded by her closest friends and family.  At first everything seemed normal enough; in that strange way dreams have she didn’t so much as question her surroundings, nor did she recall any of the things she had experienced in the dream before.  All she knew was a sense of security and belonging, and an immense sense of relief.  In the real world, her sleeping body relaxed, unquestioning of the reprieve.  Unfortunately for her it didn’t last long, and things suddenly took a drastic turn for the worse.  Everyone but her suddenly collapsed, their skin paling as the strength and life visibly drained from their bodies.  Sam stood in the centre of the circle, surrounded by the crumpled bodies of everyone she had ever cared about.

Bleed.”  The hoarse whisper, like wind rattling the dry leaves of a dying tree, echoed through the room.  Sam turned in a circle, searching for its source, but found nothing.  She saw now that the room had no walls; the centre where she stood was bathed in a strange greenish tint, but the further you were from the centre the darker it got, to the point where you couldn’t see what lay ahead in the darkness.  As she searched for the source of the voice something flickered in her peripheral vision, and after straining her eyes for a moment she realised with sickening terror that there were things in the shadows; the fleeting images of some unidentifiable, nightmarish creatures, darting in and out of the border where the light faded away to dark, there one moment and gone the next.  A soft moan of terror involuntarily escaped Sam’s mouth, and in the waking world the same thing happened.

The creatures’ movements began to hasten, their surges towards the light getting bolder and more frequent until Sam no longer had to look for them to see them.  Soon the entire ring of surrounding darkness was writhing with flashes of movement and passing body parts.  A harsh sound began to fill the air, one she might have likened to the caws of crows or ravens had she been awake and had full control of her thoughts.  As it was though she could not identify it, and the fear of the unknown seized her heart in its terrible clawed hand and began to squeeze.

Just when things seemed like they could get no more terrifying, an appendage the likes of which she had never seen suddenly reached out from the darkness and grabbed one of her fallen friend’s legs, and in the time it took her to blink he was gone, dragged off into the night.  His shrieks began to fill the air, piercing and torturous.

No!” Sam screamed, reaching forward as if to go towards him but caught in her place, terror-stricken and helpless to stop it.  Even before his screams stopped Sam heard something behind her, and whipped back just as another one of her friends was pulled away.  “Stop it!” she screamed again, but the only response she received were the screams of her friends.

Bleed!” the voice cried again, this time more urgently.  “Bleed!  Bleed!  Bleed!”  The words became a chant, and it seemed as though more voices joined the first, until it blended and intertwined with the creatures’ strange cries and those of her friends.  The sounds rose and rose in intensity, and soon it was so loud that Sam was forced to press both hands over her ears to block out the macabre soundtrack.  As she watched two more of her friends were grabbed, then a third, and fourth.  “Bleed!” the voice said again and again, and now it was in her head, drowning out her thoughts and making it impossible for her to think, and soon she was on her knees, her eyes squeezed shut and her hands pressed so tightly over her ears that the skin went pale.  A knife appeared on the ground in front of her, and the voice kept screaming and her friends kept disappearing and the darkness closed in around her and she grabbed the knife and dragged its blade across her wrists first the left and then the right and the blood flowed from her wounds like a great sea pouring out and pushing back the darkness and saving her friends but then she didn’t stop bleeding couldn’t stop bleeding and she felt the life draining from her body and then-

And then it was over and she was sitting up in her bed in Rebel headquarters, her body covered in sweat, head pounding, chest heaving with each deep breath.  She forced herself to calm down, repeating the mantra her father had taught her many years before, back when her nightmares had first started.

“It’s not real, it can’t hurt me.  It’s not real, it can’t hurt me,” she said under her breath, over and over until her heartbeat had slowed.  When it did she fell quiet, the sudden silence a stark contrast to the terrifying panic of just a few minutes before.  In the wake of her terror she found her mind drifting back to the past for comfort as it so often did, recalling the last time she’d truly felt safe.

She’d been plagued with nightmares for as long as she could remember, and even as a little girl she’d suffered through the terrifying glimpses into worlds of darkness and despair, as if the one she’d been born into wasn’t enough.  Yet as bad as they’d been her father had always been there for her, crouched at her bedside with that same look of loving concern etched into his face each time she woke screaming.

“You know, Sammy,” he had said to her, seated at the foot of her bed with one hand gently stroking her hair back, “what you see, or what you think you see in those dreams, are exactly that.  They’re just dreams.  They can’t hurt you.  Sure it’s scary, even for a brave girl like you,” he pinched her nose gently, earning a hesitant smile from the six year old, “but they can’t hurt you.  I promise.”

“How do you know?” she blurted, pulling the covers down under her chin as she spoke and then drawing them back over her mouth as soon as she had finished.  Her father smiled.

“Because I used to have them too.”

Really?”  This time when the covers came down they stayed.

“Yep.  When I was a little boy, just the same age as you are now, I used to have bad dreams too.”

“Were they like mine?”

“Ah- not quite, no.  But they were still very scary, and I used to be afraid of going to sleep because I didn’t want to dream.”

“What did you do?” she asked softly.

“I’ll tell you what I did.  Whenever I woke up from a bad dream I simply said, ‘It’s not real, it can’t hurt me.’  Just like that, over and over until I felt calmer.  Then I would get up, and go about my day, and the next night if I had another nightmare, I would so the same thing all over again.”

“That’s it?”  She frowned.  “You couldn’t stop it?”

“No, Sammy.  Unfortunately there are some things in this world that you can’t stop, things that you can’t change.  But what you can do is not let them scare you.  If you can’t change something, then why bother worrying about it?  Just accept that it’s out of your control, and move on.  Whenever I had a bad dream I would just tell myself that it wasn’t real, that it couldn’t hurt me.  And you know what?  Eventually, they didn’t bother me as much anymore.  And one day I woke up and realised that it had been weeks since my last nightmare.  To this day I still have the occasional one, but they still don’t bother me as much, and they don’t happen nearly as often as they used to.”

“But I want them to stop now!  I want them to stop now, daddy!”  Her eyes teared up in frustration, tiny fists bearing down on the comforter.

“I know, sweetie.  I know.  But trust me; just try it my way, okay?  Whenever you wake up from a nightmare, just say ‘it’s not real, it can’t hurt me’.  Just like that.  Can you say it?”

“It’s not real, it can’t hurt me,” she mumbled begrudgingly.

“Good job.  Just like that, over and over until you feel better.  And one day you’ll wake up and realise you haven’t had a nightmare in forever.”

But that day had never come, and almost eighteen years later Sam still suffered from bad dreams on a nightly basis.  Her only reprieve were the drugs she took every night, but even those had begun to fail her, her body becoming acclimatised to their effects.  Her doctor had strongly cautioned her of the danger of upping the doses, but she had tried it anyways, desperate.  At first it had helped somewhat, but when the effects began to taper off again she upped it a second time, and woke up in the hospital.  The doctors told her someone had been passing by her room when they’d heard a thud, and after knocking several times opened the door and found her on the ground having a seizure.  She’d been lucky, they told her.  If he hadn’t been passing by at that moment she could very well have died.  So very lucky.

She didn’t feel lucky.

Her father had tried to take her medication away entirely after that fiasco, but the doctors managed, after almost an hour of heated debate, to persuade him to leave it be, so long as she promised to stick to the appointed doses.  And so she’d promised as much, but promises didn’t count for much those days.  Yeah Dad?  Well, you promised the nightmares would go away, and look where we are now, she thought bitterly, glancing over at the empty prescription bottle on her nightstand.  Look where we are now.

Samantha had taken to working at night and sleeping during the day, a habit which while not uncommon among Rebels (or anyone else in the city, for that matter) was still viewed as somewhat odd, especially when it was a matter of personal preference and not a requirement of shiftwork.  She would have been hard-pressed to put into words exactly why she so preferred night over day, but knew well enough why she tried to avoid sleep entirely.  As for the rest, she suspected it may have come about as a result of efforts to acclimatise herself to the darkness she was so often plagued by in her nightmares.  Whether or not it worked in the dreamscape was still up for debate, but there was no denying she’d grown accustomed to and even fond of the night.

Grabbing her Digifile off the nightstand intent on checking the time, she was filled with instant regret as the screen came on and her vision was flooded with blinding white light.  The onset of a migraine already flashing through her forehead, she brought the device closer and squinted at the clock in the upper right corner.  Shit.  11:34am; not even close to eight hours of sleep.  Still, she knew it would be hopeless to try and fall back under now, even without factoring in the risk of taking more medication.  The nightmare had shaken her, more than she cared to admit.  As if staying asleep wasn’t hard enough already, now she couldn’t even fall asleep.  Pressing one hand to her forehead and feeling the pain throb beneath her fingers, she sighed as she mentally prepared herself for what came next.  It was going to be a long day.

Part VII

PATRICK

“Holy shit, Mike!  How is that-”

“Possible?  I don’t know.  I mean, I know how it’s possible, but exactly how they managed it, I don’t know.”  They were both talking quickly, waking in counter circles of one another.  If someone had seen them at that moment they might have assumed the two were related.  “My guess is they either have a hell of a lot more blood that I thought, or–” he fixed Patrick with his signature intense gaze “–they have some kind of pump system rigged up.  Something that’s transporting the blood collected on the ground back up to the ceiling.  I don’t know how I missed it.  I mean, we all assumed that the bleeding had taken place in the room, and that it had just been… spread everywhere afterwards, but that was never really a viable possibility.  The whole thing was just so… bizarre, so unreal, that we couldn’t get past that.  Our minds tried to rationalise it with the closest thing we knew, which was the idea that the room was simply covered in blood.  But that was never it, see?  The room isn’t covered in blood, the room is transporting blood!”

“Oh wow.  Oh, man.  I think… I think I’m going to be sick.”  Patrick suddenly looked drained, as though the revelation had sapped him of energy.

“What, are you joking?  Aren’t you excited?  You just had a breakthrough all on your own!  Well, pretty much on your own, I mean I helped a little but-”

“No, it’s not that, I just- I’ve got to get some fresh air.  I’ll be out on the fire escape.”  And with that he quickly rushed out of the room.

The hallway was empty, but he didn’t stop to think about where Jeffery might have gone.  Instead, he burst through the door to the fire escape, rushing outside and grabbing a hold of the bannister, leaning his upper body over the edge and taking deep breaths.  He stayed like that, the wind tugging at his clothes, his hair, until he had calmed down enough that he no longer felt like puking.  He heard the door opening behind him, and turned to see Mike.

“You okay?” he asked, frowning in concern as he closed back the door.  “You didn’t look too good back there.”

“Yeah, no, I’m good now.  I’ve just… you know, with the blood and all.”

“Right.”  Mike nodded, and then he frowned to himself, and Patrick saw his face change and knew he remembered.  “Right,” he said, with more conviction this time.  “Do you… I don’t know, what to talk about it?”  Patrick smiled weakly.

“No, but thanks for making an effort.”

“Oh, okay,” he said, looking relieved.  “You were pretty good back there, actually.”  Patrick scoffed.

“Yeah, sure.”

“No- Patrick, I’m serious.  You did good.”  He managed a smile, and Patrick returned it.

“So, what now?”

“Well, I was thinking we check the room beneath, see if the blood’s leaking through.  With that much of it, the only way it wouldn’t be is if there’s some kind of collector for it, to feed it into the pump.  That way we could be sure.  If it’s leaking through then that’ll support the second theory.”

“That there’s more… you know, than we thought.”

“Right.  Exactly.”

“But won’t it be dangerous to go to another floor by ourselves?  And how will we know which room is the one directly beneath this one?”

“Come on Patrick, think.  Look where we are.”

“Oh, right.”  He smiled apologetically, and Mike rolled his eyes.

“Sometimes I wonder about you, boy.”

“Should we tell the others?”

Mike shrugged.  “We’ll only be a second.”

They walked down the grated staircase to the floor beneath, using Mike’s pistol (because it had a silencer) to shoot the lock off the door.  Then they pushed it open, guns at the ready.  They scanned the area, and then made their way over to the room directly to their left.

“Dust’s intact,” Mike noted.  “We should be alone in here.”  Even so neither of them made any move to holster their weapons.  They did a quick scan of the apartment to make sure they were alone, ending their search at the room matching the bloody one above.  Mike grabbed the door handle in one hand, his other still holding the gun, and then, with a look to Patrick, pressed down and pushed the door open.  His hand groped the wall inside for the light switch, his feet making no move to enter.  When his fingers located the switch he flicked it upwards, and a familiar amber light filled the room.

“It’s dry,” the detective remarked.

“Yeah, I’m not blind.”

Mike gave him a look, stepping into the room.  He studied the ceiling for a moment, and then nodded.  “Completely dry.”

“Well, guess we have our answer.”

“Guess so.”

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Patrick remarked, still staring at the white ceiling.

“What?”

“Looking up from down here, there’s no indication of the, ah… things going on up above.”  Mike followed his gaze, as though there was something he had missed.

“Yeah.  Yeah, I guess it is weird.”  They stared at the ceiling for a moment, silent, thoughtful.  “Come on,” Mike said eventually.  “We’ve got a lot to do.”

Back up above they stood in the living room and sent two short bursts over the radio, the code to rejoin.  They got only one reply.

“Why didn’t the others respond?”  Mike shrugged.

“Could be they just didn’t bother.  It’s not required, you know.  Just common courtesy.”  Patrick studied his face, just as Mike himself had taught him, and he could tell he was trying to reassure him.

A short while later the door opened and both heads turned to see Penny returning.

“This had better be important,” she grumbled.  “I was only a few rooms away from checking them all on my path.”

“It’s important.  Have you seen the other two?”

Penny shook her head.  “Do you want me to go look for them?”  Before Mike could respond the door opened a second time, and Jeffery came in.  His eyes found Mike’s, and he shook his head, his mouth set tight.

“What?” Penny asked, looking from one to the other.

“I was looking for Ross.  Didn’t find him.  ‘Course, I wasn’t finished checking all the rooms; he could still be out there.”

“Well, assuming his radio’s intact, I guess we’ll find out soon enough.  I’m not going to wait though.”

“What is it?”

“We figured it out.  The blood isn’t just covering all the walls and ceiling; it’s actually flowing from the ceiling, down the walls, collecting on the ground, and then being pumped back up.  It’s a cycle.”

“Wait, actually?  What the hell?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s just… sick.  Why?”

Mike shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Whoever did this is as intelligent as they are twisted.  What matters is catching them.”

“Well, as… interesting as that discovery is, how does it help us in finding them?”

“Because if it’s coming from the ceiling now, that’s where it came from originally.”

“How do you know?  Isn’t it possible they did the bleedings on the floor in there, and then just let it pool before starting up the pump?”

“No.  At least, not to my knowledge.  It would have to be an extremely strong pump to resist gravity like that.  Something that powerful would be making a lot of noise; noise we would have heard.  No, I think it started above, and the force of the blood falling from the ceiling would create a suction that would continue to pull blood from the ground back up to the beginning.  Not by itself, of course; there’s almost certainly an actual pump of some kind, but the force of suction would need to be there in the beginning.”  He paused.  “Or so I’m hypothesising.  My field of expertise isn’t physics.”

“It sounds reasonable to me.  But there’s just one problem.”

“What’s that?”

“There’s no floor above this one.  This is the top floor, remember?”

“Yes, I see how that could be a problem.  If, of course, that were true.”

“What are you saying?”

“While I was out on the fire escape I happened to take a look at the top of the building.”

“And?”

“And there’s a lot of room up there.  Enough, say, for a hidden floor.”

“A hidden floor?  Why the hell would an apartment building have a hidden floor?”

“Maybe because it was added recently.”

“Alright, you’re losing us.”

“The material was different!  I mean, it was the same material, or at least close to it, but the ageing was all wrong.  You could tell from the colouring, the texture.  It was nowhere near as old as the rest of the building.  Whoever it was did a damn good job though.  It took me a while to spot it.”

“Phil, that’s ridiculous!  Who the hell would add another floor to a building?”

“I don’t know,” he said, and only Patrick, who knew him the best, recognized the lie as he said it, “but whoever it was, they’re working very hard to keep all this a secret.”

“Shit,” Penny said, running her hands through her hair.  “What the hell have we walked into?”

“Can you even imagine the kind of manpower it would take to do something like that?  To build a whole other floor onto a building?  The kind of resources?  That’s… wow.  Just wow.”  Jeffery shook his head.  “There aren’t any gangs who could pull this off, or at least none that I’ve heard of.  So that leaves…”

“The Cleansers.”  All eyes turned to Patrick, and he looked up.  “Well, it’s true, isn’t it?  They’re the only ones with the resources, the manpower, the capability.”

“The Cleansers,” Jeffery whispered.  “Shit.”

“What I’m still stuck on,” Penny said, facing the group, “is motive.  Right now I don’t care who the hell did it, what I’m concerned with is motive.  As if dousing a room in blood and setting up a shower wasn’t weird enough, who the hell would bother building a new floor onto a building?”

“This is more like a cult thing than anything else.  But there’s no cults that I know of who could pull this off.”  Mike, who hadn’t spoken for some time, looked up sharply when Jeffery spoke, seeming to study him intently.  The soldier looked like he was about to continue with his train of thought, but before he could Mike interjected.

“Look, we can speculate about this as much as we want, but it’s not going to do us much good.  Especially not when the answer is right above our heads.”

“So… what, you’re suggesting we get up there?”

“But of course,” he replied, looking sincerely surprised.  “What did you think we were going to do?  If our missing colleagues are anywhere, they’re there.  Not to mention the person -or persons, as its starting to look like- who are responsible for this whole fiasco.”

“Alright, fair point.  But how do we do it?  I mean, if it really was added on afterwards then the building doesn’t actually connect to it anywhere.  Not by the fire escape, not by the stairwell, and certainly not by the elevator shaft.”

“True,” Mike said, “but whoever made it needed to access it too, and I doubt they scaled the walls to do it.”

“You think they made a way to get to it.”

“Either that or a rooftop entrance.  Buildings like this often had a set of stairs that would lead up to a rooftop garden or something.  If we can find one of those…”

“Then we can get to the hidden floor,” Patrick finished, understanding.  Mike nodded.

“Exactly.”

“So, what?  We split up into twos, search the whole floor?”

“That’s what I had in mind, yes.  Patrick and I, and you two.  Keep an eye on the ceiling at all times; if it is a secret entrance it could be anywhere, and it’s probably very well disguised.  Anything at all, anything that looks like it could be something, check it out.  Got it?”

“Got it, but shouldn’t the pairs be switched?  A detective and a soldier each seems like it would make more sense.”

“Actually I’m only a detective apprentice-” Patrick started, but Mike was already nodding.

“Good idea.”

“Okay, how about I go with Patrick, and Paul goes with Jeffery.”  Everyone agreed, and after a moment to go over the plan again, they headed out, Mike and Jeffery heading off to the right and Penny and Patrick going straight, each soldier going in the direction they had already started searching.

“Remember to keep an eye out for Ross,” Mike said just before they separated.  “If anything he’d most likely be in our direction, but you never know.”  And Patrick decided he was right: you never knew.

Penny took the lead, her gun at the ready.  Patrick walked behind her, inspecting the ceiling as per instructions.  They re-checked every room Penny had been in, to her evident displeasure.

“Waste of my time,” she mumbled.  Watching her move, her feet treading carefully across the carpet with scarcely a sound, the muscles in her shoulders taut and tense, her movements like that of the predator cats they sometimes saw prowling the city at night, he felt a nervous kind of relief that he wasn’t on the other side of her gun.

“Kinda funny, isn’t it?” he said, more out of a need to break what he perceived as an awkward silence than anything else.

“What?” she murmured, in a voice that indicated she was only half listening, her focus almost entirely on the task at hand.

“Penny and Patrick.  Two P names.”

“You mean three.”

“What?”

“Three P names.  Penny, Patrick, and Phil.”

“Oh- yeah, of course,” he stammered, his face flushing red at the near slip-up.  Thankfully she was still facing the other way, and if she noted the panic in his voice she didn’t let on.  “I just meant the two of us, because we’re partnered.”

“Yeah,” she said absently.  “There’s also Penny and Jeffery.  Both have double letters, see?”

“Huh, you’re right.  Cool.”

“Sure.”  The mistake all but killed Patrick’s desire for small talk, and the rest of their search was carried out in almost complete silence.  They scoured each room, checking the ceiling throughout, looking in cupboards, ducking their heads out of windows to check for ladders.  The process was painstakingly slow, but eventually they made it past the point Penny had gotten up to herself and began searching new rooms.

“Looks like about six to go down this stretch,” Penny said as they neared the end of one of the corridors branching off the main one.

“Yep.”  His fear of being attacked long forgotten whilst behind Penny, Patrick had begun to lose interest.  By the time they’d finished checking all the rooms and started heading back his short attention span had kicked in full-drive.  His mind began to wander, admiring the surprisingly appealing splatter-patterns the mould on the walls had achieved.  It had a certain charm, he mused.  Very… abstract.  He took a mental photograph, resolving to try and replicate it later on with his paints as soon as they got back to the base.

“Hey.”  Patrick turned, momentarily disoriented as he was called away from his daydreams.  He saw Penny staring upwards, her gun raised and pointing in the same direction.  After a moment Patrick followed her gaze, and saw what had caught her attention.  “Think it’s worth checking out?”  Even though they were alone, it took Patrick a moment to realise she was talking to him.

“What?  Oh.  Uh, maybe?”

She gave him a sideways glance.  “Aren’t you supposed to be the inquisitive one?”

“Actually, I never wanted to be a detective.”

“Well, I feel like I just opened a can of worms.  Maybe we should reschedule the psych talk until after this is all over.  In the interest of achieving that…” she nudged the gun, gesturing towards the matter at hand.  Patrick looked uncomfortable, but he shrugged.

“Yeah, why not.  Just so long as you don’t think for a second that I’ll be the one to go in.”

Penny rolled her eyes.  “Coward.”

“Hey, my questionable capabilities regarding immersion in uncomfortable situations has nothing to do with this.  You’re the smallest.”  As the words left his mouth Patrick realised they were potentially offensive, raising his chances of bleeding out on the ugly carpet beneath his feet to a solid eighty percent or so.

“You talk like you’ve been spending too much time with your mentor.”

Patrick, who had been preparing to duck into the nearest room, was a moment in registering what she had said and another moment in responding.  “That’s exactly what I said!  Oh, uh, sorry about the… short comment.”

Penny shrugged.  “Why?  It’s not like I find it offensive.  Why would I?  So I’m small.  It’s not like it’s a bad thing, or something I should feel guilty or bad about, or even something I have any control over.  Even if it was a bad thing it’s not like I’m to blame, you know?”

“Yeah, that actually makes sense.  Good for you.  Although, to be fair, in this situation it looks like being small is a bad thing.”

“It’s not like you can’t fit too, you know.  Hey, we could both go.”

“And have someone come by and close us in?  No thank you.  I’m good standing guard.”

“Alright, alright.  I suppose it’s only fair, after all.  I did point it out.  Which begs the question,” she said, turning to Patrick, “what kind of detective are you?”

“The in-training kind.  Do you want a boost?”

They removed the four screws keeping the vent grill in place using Penny’s Swiss Army knife, or rather made their best attempt at it.  The years had taken their toll on everything in the building, and the metal was no exception, caked with rust and practically melded to the grill in some places.  In the end they had to use the butt of Penny’s assault rifle to smash in the last two screws, which refused to relent to the screwdriver.  Patrick watched her with wide eyes as she attacked the grate, raising the weapon (safety on and ammunition removed, of course) high and repeatedly bringing it down as close to the spot as she could.  The first screw crumbled and the grate swung to the side, only held up by the last screw.  She readjusted her aim and after a few more hits this one also gave in, and the grill fell.  Patrick caught it just before it hit the ground, averting the racket it would have caused.  The Rebels shared a look of crisis-averted, and then Patrick rested it aside to lean against the wall.  Penny retrieved her flashlight from its place on her belt, and shone it into the void.  The beam did little to penetrate the darkness, but it did shine on the metal walls of the vent, dulled with the thick coating of dust that had built up over the years.  Penny moved the light this way and that for a moment, and then she sighed, smacking her palm against her forehead.

“I just realised something.”

“What?”

“Well, if they are using the vents to get to the top floor, it certainly hasn’t been through this entrance.”

“How do you mean?”

“Think about it.  Do you think they would go through the process we just went through every time they had to get to the top floor or back?”

Patrick scratched the back of his head, squinting.  “Jeez.  So, what?  Do we even bother still going in?”

“First of all there is no we going in, as you were so adamant on earlier.  Second, yeah, I think so.  After all it’s not like this is the only vent on this floor, much less the rest of the building.  And I’m pretty sure they all interconnect, so it should still lead us to the top floor entrance.”

“Assuming there is one.”

“Exactly.  And, really, there should be one, because I’m pretty sure all buildings have a ventilation duct on the roof.  From what I’ve seen, at least.  I mean, I’m not exactly an architect.  But if there was one on the roof before the new floor got put in then it stands to reason the opening is still accessible.”

“I think you’re right.  I mean, I’m not exactly a detective, but this sounds like as good a lead as we’ve found so far.”

“Right then.  Glad we’ve agreed to sacrifice me.”  Patrick opened his mouth to object and she raised a hand to silence him.  “I’m only kidding.  Now, I’ll take you up on that boost you mentioned earlier, if you don’t mind.”

He got down on one knee beneath the vent, and offered her his hand for support.  She took it, and stepped up onto his outstretched leg, keeping her other foot planted on the ground as she steadied herself.  His leg wobbled for a moment, then stabilized.  Penny hesitated, and then propelled herself upwards, stepping off of the ground and grabbing a hold of the vent’s ledge as soon as it was within reach.  Patrick made an effort to conceal it, but a groan of pain escaped his lips as all her weight was put on his thigh.

“Oh, don’t be a baby,” she grunted.  “Now whatever you do, don’t let your leg give out.”

“No… shit…” he managed, his face turning red with exertion.  “Just… hurry and pull yourself up.”  Penny pulled upwards, and the pressure on Patrick’s leg alleviated.  He got to his feet just as she pulled herself in, torso disappearing into the darkness followed shortly by her legs.  Before long she’d crawled far enough in that from a distance he could hardly make out the soles of her shoes, the dull thumps and scrapes of her progress the only testament to her presence.  He watched her go for a moment, shuddering as he contemplated being the one in such a claustrophobic scenario.  Eventually even the sounds of her movement faded from notice, and Patrick found himself alone in the eerie hallway, imagining all the possible ways he could be ambushed.

“Well, shit.”

Part VI

GABRIEL

The cherry blossoms were in full bloom, and as Gabriel stepped into the garden their fragrance enveloped his body like silken sheets, stopping him dead in his tracks.  He inhaled deeply, eyes closed in euphoria.  The courtyard’s walls kept most of the scent from dispersing out amongst the rest of the village, and the result was a concentrated atmosphere of tranquility.

The teen walked along the path admiring the flora, the ground at his feet littered with little pink flowers that had already begun to fall from the trees.  He came to a bench and sat down before a particularly picturesque scene, taking the opportunity to gather his thoughts.

Gabriel was a prisoner.  He’d been sent to the Government Village two months ago as a mechanic/technician, to serve at their beck and call.  Word of his aptitude for all things technological had reached the walled-off village after one of the Government Leaders his father served under mentioned the need for such a person.  His father had been all too happy to offer up his son as tribute, effectively taking him off his hands.  As a matter of fact, Gabriel thought begrudgingly, the only hard part about sending me away was having to admit that I might actually be good for something.

His father had come to him in the middle of the night, shaking him awake.

“Come.”  Knowing better than to question him Gabriel quickly hopped out of bed, hands shaking as he dressed himself under his father’s gaze, penetrating even in the dark.  He remembered thinking the time had finally come; the moment he’d always known was looming just beyond the horizon.  His father would take him out to street level, maybe walk him a few blocks away from the Cleanser housing units, and then he would put a bullet in his brain.  But it hadn’t come.

Instead they’d been met by a transporter just outside the building’s front door, engine rumbling idly in the night.

“Get in,” he’d said, and once again Gabriel had obeyed without a word.  He’d stepped into the passenger seat, closing the door behind him, and then they had pulled off.  He remembered watching his father’s silhouette slowly disappear in the rear-view mirror, and for a brief and ridiculous moment Gabriel considered telling the driver to stop, that they’d forgotten his father and couldn’t leave without him.  He’d never so much as left their apartment without his father; though it had never been explicitly stated the threat of what would come after was more than enough to dissuade him from exploring.

And now he was living on his own, was free to roam the Government Village at his leisure, and only had to answer to his mentor on the job.  At first the newfound liberty had been more than overwhelming, and he’d spent all his free time holed up in the little shed they’d given him, in constant fear that so much as a step outside without their permission would result in severe penalties.  On the fourth day his mentor had come by with a grim look on his face.

“See this?” he’d asked him, grabbing the door’s handle and making a dramatic show of opening and closing it.  “It opens from the inside too, believe it or not.  You’re free to come and go as you please.”  Gabriel had stared back at him, unsure of how to respond.  His mentor sighed, running a hand through his hair.  “Look- you’re Cassius’ kid, right?  I get it; we all know what that man is capable of, and I can’t even imagine what it must have been like living with him.  I mean shit, look at what happened to the first two.  But that’s over now.  You got out, kid!  You’re free.  Now start acting like it.”

And he had.  Slowly, ever so slowly, but he had.  Jules, his mentor, had taken him around the Village on a tour of sorts, and for the first week or so after that he’d made sure Gabriel got out of the shed at least once a day.  He’d still felt uncomfortable going out on his own, far less actually doing things when he was out, but as the days turned into weeks his mind settled into it.  It wasn’t long before he found himself admiring his new surroundings.  Even the work was engaging, not to mention he’d taken a liking to Jules almost immediately.

“Things work around here,” he’d told him on one of their walks through the village.  “It’s like clockwork.  Everyone has a job, everything has a purpose.  And no one steps out of line because they don’t have a need to.”  Jules had an uncanny ability to guess what you were thinking and answer questions before you asked them, something that came as an immense relief to Gabriel, whose conversational skills were shaky at best.

“What they’ve accomplished here is nothing short of revolutionary, Gabe – do you mind if I call you Gabe?”  Before he could so much as open his mouth to respond Jules was off again, describing in detail all the Village’s accomplishments.  “You want food?  We have more than enough.  Or we would, if production wasn’t regulated to ensure minimum wastage.  You want something to do?  Jobs and tasks are delegated based on what you want to do, provided you’re good at it, of course.  The remaining jobs are divided up amongst everyone, the system ensuring everyone does their share.  You want security?  What could be more secure than a fifty foot wall surrounding the entire northwest corner, and the Cube itself covering the southeast?”  As he spoke he gestured up towards the wall, and Gabriel’s eyes followed his finger up towards the top.  The wall was indeed impressive, and dauntingly so.  The Village had been built up in the Cube’s utmost southeast corner, taking advantage of the pre-existing security it offered.  All that had been left was to build a wall around the vulnerable side, and they had done just that.

The result had protected the Village from countless assaults from the outside, from both Rebels and gangs and even the occasional desperate and solitary Scavenger.  Many had tried to scale or blow through the wall and many had failed, their bodies littering the base before being picked off by wild animals.  Cleanser guards and Hell Robots constantly patrolled the top, watching for signs of an impending attack.

“It’s a utopia, Gabe.  A perfect society.”  Jules spread his arms wide, gesturing to all that surrounded them.  “It’s perfect.”  Gabriel watched him with a mix of reverence and confusion.  His loyalty and sheer faith in the Village was admirable, but how could he say it was perfect when just outside those walls people were killing one another daily?  When Cleansers were carrying out mass genocides – and on the Government’s orders no less?  It was then that Gabriel had realized two things: first; like most if not all of the Village’s occupants, Jules truly and wholly believed in the cause, and second; as nice as his new home may have been, at the end of the day Gabriel was a prisoner.

His mental sorting was abruptly interrupted when someone walked over and sat down beside him on the bench.  Out of the corner of his eye Gabriel determined it was a woman, somewhere in her late forties.  She wore a suit, crisp and elegant, and practically radiated an aura of importance.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” she said, in a way that suggested she really meant it, and wasn’t simply using it as a pleasantry.  “I always try and make it down for the blooming at least once a season.  The courtyard is probably my favourite place in all the Village, to tell you the truth.”  She paused, and in the silence they watched the flowers drift down from the branches, landing ever so delicately amongst their kin on the ground.  “You’re Cassius’ son, aren’t you?” she said eventually, and once again it wasn’t a question.  “A pity, if you don’t mind me saying.  It’s a travesty that men like him even exist, to be quite frank.  Worse still is the fact that we require his – and so many others’ – services, yet the ends always justifies the means.”  And what end could possibly justify something like this? he thought, and she seemed to guess his thoughts just as Jules did, because she continued: “What we’re doing here is ugly, there’s no denying that.  It’s an awful, dirty business, but it has to be done.  It has to be done,” she repeated firmly, in a tone that sent a shudder down his spine.

“The village is incredible and wonderful, to be sure, but it’s not enough.”  She balled her hands into fists, a motion Gabriel was not entirely sure was done consciously.  “We need to expand.  We need the rest of the city, and that can never happen so long as the broken remains of that old society remain.  Those remnants cannot be allowed to endure, to continue spreading their violence and corruption from one generation to the next.  Like a disease,” she said, the word laced with venom and contempt.  “A disease that must be cured.  Cleansed, if you will.”  She gave a thin smile, but Gabriel found nothing amusing about the word.

“And of course we cannot do it ourselves, and not just because we don’t have the numbers.  To taint our citizens with that disease, with that taste for violence and evil, would be to doom our civilization just as so many others before ours were.  No, it cannot be us.  It has to be them.”  She took a deep breath, and for the first time since sitting beside him she turned to face Gabriel.  “So you understand now why we tolerate men like your father, why his kind are an unfortunate necessity.”  For a moment Gabriel was lost, but then it clicked: she was apologizing to him!  Or at least as close to an apology as she could manage, which happened to be more of an explanation, and a shoddy one at that.  He considered telling her this but held back, and not just because he wasn’t good at confrontation.  He knew better than to jeopardize his already precarious position.  He had to tread carefully, and if that meant silence then at least it was familiar territory.

She was still staring at him, apparently expecting a response of some kind, but before long she gave up, once again turning her attention to the trees.  “Did you know the courtyard was designed specifically to contain the cherry blossoms’ fragrance?  The walls keep it from dispersing amongst the rest of the village, so visitors are gifted the full effect of the beauty they have to offer.  Inside these walls you feel relaxed, feel safe.  It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?”  She inhaled deeply, just as Gabriel himself had done upon first walking in.  “Beautiful.”

She stood, looking down on Gabriel with that thin smile again.  “I hope to see more of you as we move forward, Gabriel.  I expect great things from you.”  And then she’d left, leaving Gabriel to the trees.  He looked up at the courtyard’s walls, thinking about what she’d said.  Inside these walls you feel relaxed, feel safe.  And yet…

And yet it was all an illusion, because just outside those walls the rest of the village was scentless, deprived of the beauty the blossoms had to offer.  The entire village was an illusion.  A good one, mind you, but an illusion nonetheless.  They could sit around pretending the whole world smelt like cherry blossoms all they wanted, but just beyond those walls the city was in chaos.  They tried to hide from it, to keep their hands from getting dirty, but dirt had a funny way of getting where you least expected it.

And Gabriel was not looking forward to being on the wrong side of the wall when it did.

Part V

CELIA

Celia walked through desolate streets, bordered on both sides by the timeworn remains of buildings long since abandoned.  It was quiet; even the city birds flew from rooftop to rooftop with little more than a gust of wind to mark their presence.  She walked with a careful confidence, boldly marching through while keeping an eye open for anything out of the ordinary.  The quiet may have unnerved others, but Celia thrived in it.  It gave her a strange sense of power, being the only one who not only dared to break the silence but did it without so much as an attempt to cover it up.  She studied the buildings as she went along, looking for one in particular.  Things had changed since she’d last been there, vines of various plants entwining the concrete and forcing themselves into even the smallest of crevices, pushing pieces apart as they grew.  They would break the buildings, and yet it was those very same vines which kept them together after they were broken.

Yes, things had changed, but Celia was certain she would recognize her building as soon as she saw it.  And she did.

Expecting some sort of change, she almost overlooked it, but did a double take and stopped in her tracks right in front of the doorway.  Like its neighbouring buildings, the never-resting vines that seemed hell-bent on covering the entire city had snaked their way around its front, covering some of the wall and slipping through empty window panes and chips in the wall, but other than that there had been no apparent change to the building she had once called home.  Breathing heavily, which she assured herself was a result of the backpack’s weight on her shoulders, Celia began walking towards the gaping hole in the wall where the front door and a window had once stood.  Ducking under a jumble of thick iron rods, long since aged with rust, she stepped over a cluster of concrete debris from the remains of the wall and entered the first floor.  It was, aside from the coating of dust that now covered every available surface, and the vines once again making their presence known, exactly how she, how they, had left it.

She trailed her hand across a table where they had lain one of their friends when they’d been forced to extract a bullet, walked on the floor where they had sat in a circle planning for the future, stepped into a large empty room where they had practiced hand-to-hand combat with one another, all a lifetime ago.  As she made her way through the building, reminiscing on times lived and lost, she kept one goal in mind; the goal that had driven this trip down memory lane in the first place.  Glancing around doors and checking every hiding spot she could remember, she did her best to find him, drawing the line at calling his name aloud.  The silence that she had been queen of moments before was now smothering; it was a sleeping beast she dared not wake, a delicate object she treaded around lightly lest she break it.  It would have made things too easy, ended her search too soon.  If she called his name and received no answer, it would be indisputable evidence of his absence.  She found it easier to let herself down slower, one floor of the building at a time, gradually using up all her hope until she reached the top.  That way, she reasoned, if she did not find him at least it would not come as a huge blow, all at once and overwhelming.  As she continued on, with no luck in finding any signs of recent human activity, the sadness and the nervousness gradually gave way to simple rapture at being able to relive the memories, both good and bad.  She almost completely forgot her original purpose, so enthralled as she was in her reminiscences.  A broken railing that Andrew, in a fleeting moment of immaturity, had decided to slide down made her laugh aloud, and a shattered windowpane only a few floors from the top had her holding back tears.  Finally though, the anticlimactic conclusion to her travel through time came when she pushed open the rusty, stiff hinges of the door to an empty rooftop.

The wind gently tugged at her clothes, a soothing, calming feeling coursing through her veins trying to combat the sudden feeling of emptiness that was now making its home in her heart.  She picked her way around several dry bushes that had sprung up through the gravel covering the ground, making her way towards the billboard that stood tall and proud over the city on the roof’s edge.  What it had once advertised there had long since faded, beaten into submission by the weather’s elements, and now all that visibly remained was a dark purple collage of various shades, plaster peeling away in several areas to reveal the brown board beneath.  She climbed the ladder to the platform two rungs at a time, and stood on the edge for a moment, watching over the city, over her city, with hands on her hips in a dominant, proud gesture before sitting down with her back resting against the board and her legs swinging over the edge.  She closed her eyes and imagined a star filled sky, a warm body sitting next to hers, a hand in her hand.  When she opened her eyes she was utterly alone.

Celia climbed down from the ladder, and made her way back down through the building, two steps at a time.  Andrew would be getting antsy, and she still hadn’t gotten to the real purpose of her detour.

The rumours were well known around the base; she was certain if Andrew had known the location he would have put two and two together, but thankfully she’d managed to keep that little piece of information to herself.  A serial killer, almost certainly male, was said to have ‘claimed’ the street, using it as his culling grounds.  Naturally the Chief had sent sentries to look in on the stories, whose origins despite efforts were never pinned down, but nothing came up conclusive and they were shortly withdrawn for more productive assignments.  After all, Rebels were in as short supply as they were in great demand, and manpower could not be wasted.

“As unfortunate as it is, I have more pressing issues on my hands at the moment,” he had said in a brief meeting to address the matter.  “Mainly those which actually pose an immediate threat to Rebel lives, Cleansers being the most significant.”

Which, of course, Celia understood.  She and the Chief may not have seen eye to eye whenever they met, and they often locked horns on certain issues, but at least she understood him.  Agreeing with him though was another matter entirely.

She had always been an instinctive person, and her instincts had told her there was more to the rumours than the Chief believed.  The fact that he had issued a warning to any Rebels considering undertaking a personal investigation outside of the base, and that this had immediately bristled her rebellious personality, had had nothing to do with her decision to do just that.  And even if it had, what was the point of being a Rebel who couldn’t rebel?

The story about the building falling and obstructing the path hadn’t been made up to give her an excuse to go; rather it was the excuse she had been waiting for since deciding to check the area out.  You couldn’t get out of the base without a valid reason, meaning approval from the Chief, and it wasn’t like sneaking out was an option.  She wanted to get more out of her job, not lose it.  So, as much as she hated it, she was forced to be patient for some time.  And then the building had come up, mentioned by chance by Garry while working on an explosive in the base’s lab, or as he liked to call it, the garage.

“Where is this?” she had asked immediately, recognizing the street name from studying the map of the area.

“Codaline Street, I think?”  It wasn’t the one where the murderer had been rumoured to be, but it was close enough for her to take a detour without it taking a suspicious amount of time out of her schedule.

“I know that area!  Hey, if you want, Garry, I could go check it out for you.”

“Well… I don’t know…” he pulled at a wire, his eyes averted from her own.  In their time together he had apparently come to learn that eye contact brought him one step closer to submission.  “I mean, shouldn’t the Surveyors do that?  It might be dangerous for you.”

“You haven’t reported it to them yet, have you?”  This was met with more wire-picking.

“No…” he admitted eventually.

“Well, then great!  I’ll just swoop down there quick as a wink and check it out for you.”

“But Celia-”

“Garry, it’s okay,” she soothed.  She didn’t want to work him into a panic; he would occasionally get frustrated and start acting out, more often than not inflicting harm on himself.  “It’ll be fine.  I’ll be fine, Garry.”  He had balled his hands into fists and they were now raised up to his temples; not a good sign.  “Garry, listen to me.  Garry.  Are you listening?”  He still wouldn’t look at her, but he managed a nod.  “It’s okay.  What are you so worried about?”

“I don’t want you to get into trouble with the Chief again.”

“You know I won’t get in trouble with the Chief.  I’m too smart to let that happen!”  This earned her a quick laugh and a second of eye contact, but he shut back down right after.  “Garry, why would I get in trouble with the Chief?  What I’m doing isn’t bad, it’s good!”  Finally he lowered his hands from his head, resting them on the table.  He looked into her eyes, but suddenly she found something about his gaze unnerving.

“I know you, Celia Fletcher.  I know you, and I know when you’re up to no good.”  She faked a perplexed smile, trying to hide how his words had shaken her.  Garry was always doing things like that; you thought you had him all figured out and then he would pull the rug out from under your feet by saying something completely unexpected.

“Garry, what on earth are you talking about?”  At this he had looked back down to the explosive’s parts, arranged on the table before them.

“Don’t talk to me like you’re one of them.  You promised you wouldn’t talk to me like one of them.”

“You’re right,” she said after an uncomfortable pause.  “I did promise.  And I’m sorry.  But I won’t get in trouble.  I promise.  I’ll be extra careful, just for you.”  It was then that he said something which scared her more than anything in recent times had scared her before.  His eyes had met hers, and she’d felt the severity of what he was about to say before his mouth even opened.

“Celia, I have a bad feeling.  A bad one.  If you go looking for the seeing man, something bad is going to happen to you and to everybody else.”

There was a moment where neither of them said anything, Garry seeming to study her face to gauge the effect of his words while she herself tried to puzzle them out, doing her best to push aside the inexplicable cold feeling they had left in her heart.  She had opened her mouth to ask him what he meant, and that was when her Digifile had pinged with a notification.  Relieved at the excuse to pry her gaze away from his, she murmured an excuse me before reaching for the device.

“I’ve been assigned a recon mission with Andrew,” she had said, whispering without noticing.  “We’re going to check on a possible Cleanser building.”

“Don’t go, Celia.”  She looked up in surprise.  Somehow Garry’s presence had escaped her attention.

“It’s a direct order from the Chief, Garry.  Whatever it is, it must be important.  I can’t just ignore a direct order from the Chief.  Not if I want to avoid getting in trouble, like you said I should.  Besides, it’s nowhere-” she had been about to say “it’s nowhere near the street with the collapsed building”, but just before she did she read the location and noticed that it was in fact more or less on the route there.

“Nowhere what?”

“Ah- nothing.  Look, I’ve got to go.  Don’t finish this thing without me, okay?”

“Celia-”

“I have to go, Garry.  Andrew’s probably already waiting.”

“Celia!”  But she had kept walking, ignoring Garry as he called after her and ignoring the stares of the other Rebels in the garage.

The visit to the building had been another happy coincidence; she had of course been aware of its location, forever imprinted in her memory, and had subconsciously sensed as she neared it, but she had refused to admit to herself that it played any part in her decision to travel there.  It was simply on the way, and she had taken the reasonable opportunity to revisit it.

But now she meant business, and forced herself to focus.  All other thoughts and feelings had been set aside for the time being, allowing her to put her undivided attention towards finding the killer.  It wasn’t a question of whether or not he existed -she could feel in her gut that the rumours were true- but rather of whether or not she would be able to find him.  After all, the sentries had already come and gone, turning up nothing in the two days they had investigated the area, and she would only have a matter of minutes, at most half-an-hour.  Any more than that and Andrew would know something was up.  Not that he would ever rat her out to the Chief, but he would be extremely angry if he found out, and it would take him weeks to forgive her.  Sure, he would forgive her eventually, but it was still a long time, and if she had the option to avoid it altogether, which she did, then she would.  So, unrealistic time limit it was.  Thankfully there was one card up her sleeve; something that the sentries had almost certainly lacked.  She was alone, small in stature, and appeared to be unarmed, all of which would, if everything went according to plan, make her irresistible to a murderer.  Celia wasn’t planning on finding the killer.  She was planning on having the killer find her.

She turned right at the intersection, supressing the urge to turn back and give her building one final glance, and found herself passing a street sign that read ‘Web St.’  She stopped directly before the white line that seemed to indicate where one street ended and the next one started, the toes of her shoes lightly kissing the paint in a tempting, almost taunting display of indecisiveness.  Celia stood there with the whole world ahead of her and the whole world behind her, and the whole world was nothing more than one long stretch of road, and she felt insignificant.  She felt alone.

She felt powerful.

Right foot first, she stepped over the line and walked onto Web Street.

A strange feeling overcame her, and it took her a moment to realize that she had been expecting some sort of change once she took the first steps, but nothing happened.  It was just another street, not unlike any other.

Except it wasn’t.  Not if the rumours, and her instincts, were to be believed.

The trick would be to get the killer’s attention without scaring him into hiding.  A murderer didn’t get to be the source of so many rumours by being stupid, and he would have almost certainly perfected the art of caution.  If she began firing off rounds into the sky and screaming her head off chances were he would stay hidden, and reasonably so.  On the other hand walking through undetected would be just as ineffective.  Her hopes were currently sided with the probability that he would be watching the street for passersby, the apparent preferred method of catching victims amongst the serial killers that had run-ins with the Rebels.  If that didn’t work she knew she would have to improvise, meaning a delay that she couldn’t afford to have.  Her tour of the building had already taken up more time than she had planned; any longer and as much as she hated to even contemplate the notion she might have to call the whole thing off, if not for a later date.  Her brow furrowed at the thought.  No.  It wouldn’t happen.  The fact that things had worked out so well for her in getting the chance to not only get out of the base but to also be given a time limit-lenient assignment, so close to the location, was proof to her that this had been meant to happen.  Proof that it wasn’t all for nothing.  Proof that something would happen here, and the matter would be closed.  For Celia, it was as good as physical evidence.

She felt so full of energy that for a moment the thought actually occurred to her that he might somehow see it in her and stay hidden, and she forced her shoulders to slump into what she hoped would convey a more defeated, vulnerable state.  After all, it wasn’t that ridiculous to assume he would be able to read her body language.  Not in a place where it was the first and potentially last source of information for determining if you were dealing with a friend or foe.  People lied; it was as simple as that.  Lying was something Celia knew a lot about.  People lied, but very rarely did their bodies.  Their actions conveyed more than they wanted or even knew.  Not to mention more often than not you wouldn’t even get to the discussion part of the encounter to give them a chance to lie.  One of the unspoken rules of the city was shoot first, ask questions later.  Using someone’s body language to interpret their intentions, behaviour, or even a general idea of what kind of person they were was an invaluable, if not necessary skill.

She was now almost halfway down the street, and had yet to see any sign of life.  Shit.  She was drawing to the point where she would have to take more involved action in drawing the killer out.  That would mean making noise.  Which might draw in more than one killer, likely more than she would be able to handle.  In the ensuing chaos she might be able to kill whoever it was along with her target, at the very least escaping with her life, but it wasn’t something she was looking forward to.  This was partially untrue; some part of her craved the chaos, and it was no small part either, but rationale convinced her it would be best to stick with the plan, for once.  Something about the day had unsettled her.  She felt strange, as though the ground beneath her feet was slightly angled and she had only just realized it.  It took her a moment to identify this sensation, because it was one she was quite unfamiliar with; she felt uneasy, vulnerable.  Celia felt cautious, for the first time in a long time.  In that moment it didn’t occur to her that this was a result of Garry’s ominous warning, which was exactly what it would turn out to be.  Part of it, at least.

She was passing by an alleyway a few feet before the first intersection of the road when she heard the noise echoing out from its walls.  It sounded like metal knocking against metal, but faint and somehow hollow.  She stopped directly in front of the space between the two buildings and stared down into the passage.  The sun’s rays were angled to its left and as such only the top of the right hand building was illuminated.  The rest was shielded from the light, shadowed but still visible.  The alleyway itself was cluttered with various unidentifiable things, their details smudged out by the darkness.  A fire escape clung to the wall of the building on her right, the stairs descending from the top floor and opening up into a platform at every subsequent floor’s emergency exit.  Its final platform stopped just before the last floor, the ladder to connect this final stretch to the ground hoisted up in its track and folded across the platform’s floor.  With only subliminal interest she noticed something bunched up on the platform next to the ladder, pieces of whatever it was hanging off the sides and seemingly through the grating, but she paid it little attention.  The noise came again, seeming louder, although she suspected that was only because now she had been listening for if not expecting it.  With cautious motions, her eyes surveying the area as her feet seemed to glide through the air crossing over one another and stepping over the gravel without a sound, she walked towards the alleyway stopping just before its entrance where the light gave way to darkness.  She would later remember having a distinct feeling of no, of this is wrong.  A distinct feeling of danger.

But hand in hand with this warning instinct had been one of inevitableness, one of unavoidable consequences set in stone.  She felt like her future was already written out for her, and that there was nothing left to do but play on in her preordained role.

She stepped into the alley.

The change in temperature was immediate and obvious, and she pounced upon the opportunity to accuse it as the sole source of the chill that suddenly caused her body to give an abrupt shiver.  Now that she was out of the light and her eyes had adjusted Celia could make out the items in the alley.  A large dumpster, filled with the useless and decomposing remains of a civilization long since faded from living memory, several rusting machines of unidentifiable purpose, stacked up against one another in a careless heap, a pile of what appeared to be nothing more than rubble from the ruins of buildings that had been worn down by time, the pile itself reaching almost up to Celia’s waist.  The items continued down the list only adding to the peculiarity of this miscellaneous and seemingly random collection, all of which only had one thing in common: they all distracted and diverted Celia’s attention, as they had with every other unfortunate and now deceased soul who had found themselves walking that very same ground, towards the very same sound which had first caught their interest.  She found herself unconsciously studying each thing, wary of hidden dangers, still searching for the source of the noise, or perhaps simply conditioned by the world she had grown up in to simply be aware of her surroundings, to always be on the lookout for things that could be of use or present a threat.  Regardless, as such her vision rarely left the things to her direct left and right; despite her slow, cautious pace she was still too preoccupied with studying every item carefully for her eyes to absorb the information before she had only just walked past each one.  Her sight, aside from a few fleeting glances to confirm the absence of an immediate threat, did not study what lay ahead of her in the alley.  This was the exact intent that had been in mind when those items had first been collected there several months before, and this seemingly innocent slip-up was her undoing, just as it had been the fatal flaw of the ones before her.

She was below the fire escape’s platform now, and her eyes did a double take as she noticed an object at the base of the right side wall.  It was an effigy, the evidence of its longevity and neglect etched across its surface in the form of cracks and chips. What remained was propped up against the wall to balance its broken base and keep it from sustaining injuries from another fall, of which it appeared to have endured many, now barely holding itself together.  As if in ignorance (or spite) of this fact, the face of the knee-height statue was a childish display of superiority, its protruded tongue and sneering grin seeming to mock Celia from where it rested at her feet.  Something about the statue annoyed her, even upset her, possibly more than it should have, and she felt the sudden urge to quell her repulsion with a swift kick to its head, or perhaps a good stomp or two.  Before she could decide the best way to wipe that smug expression from its face, she heard the noise a third time, this time from directly above her.  Instinctively, just as the others before her had, and just as had been planned, she looked up to its source.  Hanging down from a string that looped around the grates of the fire escape platform were two rusty tin cans, empty and open at the top.  A faint breeze passed overhead, and they rattled once more, clanging against one another in such a way that it seemed as though they were almost asserting their innocence.  Look, Celia, we’re nothing more than two tin cans, blowing in the wind.  Nothing ominous here.  She continued to stare at them, almost transfixed, unknowingly taking a step closer.  The tins rattled again, and suddenly there was nothing innocent about them; the sound was that of bones rattling against one another as they hit the ground, the faint whistling as wind passed through the cans a scream in the dark.  Celia took a step back, and that was when she activated the snare trap.

At first her eyes shut reflexively, although she wouldn’t have been able to make sense of what had happened even if they had stayed open; everything moved too fast for her mind to take in.  When she did reopen them her vision swam, the image swaying and moving before she could discern what she was seeing.  Her body was in pain but she could not tell where or why; a confused and overall ache seemed to dominate her senses, a distinct feeling of being constricted, of something pressing against her body everywhere.  She felt like she was being smothered, being squeezed.  Vomit rose – or did it rise?  Who could tell what was rising and what was falling? – in her throat and she quickly swallowed it back down with a grimace; she knew, just as she had known there was a real danger on Web Street (ha-ha, joke’s on you now, isn’t it Celia?) that if she threw up now she would drown on it.  The panic had not yet settled in; it was trying desperately, she could feel it at the back of her throat just like the vomit, ready and eager to bubble over and drown her, but she swallowed that too and forced her mind to settle, to think clearly despite the insistent and urgent ringing of warning alarms.  She closed her eyes to block out the motion sickness, and waited until she felt her body’s swaying motions slow to a rest before opening them again.  After a moment for her vision to adjust and absorb what she was seeing, she was able to piece together what had happened.

She was looking through a black mesh of strings crossing over one another in an endless sea of X’s, and through the holes in the net she could see the ground of the alley several feet below.  Craning her neck to look upwards, she moaned in dismay and horror as she saw how horribly wrong her body was twisted up in itself, crushed in the tight net.  She felt sure something was broken.  Her left arm in particular seemed bent at an unnatural angle, and she hesitated to move it but sighed in relief when she did and felt nothing more than a dull ache.  Above her she could see where the net tied off, the rope then feeding through the grates of the fire escape platform’s floor.  Shifting her body into as comfortable and ideal a position as she could manage, she tried to reach up for the tie-off, intending on trying to untie or loosen it, but she found she could not reach it.  Her arms were too tightly pressed together, and her weight pulled on the net making it taunt and impossible to manipulate or stretch in her favour.  She groaned in frustration, hating the feeling of being immobile even more than the thought that she had fallen for something as obvious as a trap.

Something was digging painfully into her lower back, and she shifted again to try and ease the pressure, so focused on relieving the pain that she did not even stop to think what the source could be.  She squirmed, carefully and decisively at first, but growing more and more frantic as her efforts were met with failure.  She began to thrash around violently, biting her lip to keep back the screams of frustration (and yes, she might as well admit it, of fear) until she began to bleed, the warm liquid filling her mouth with its unmistakable metallic tang.  The thing beneath her continued to pierce her back.  Pierce.  She repeated the thought with a sudden clarity, and grinned despite the pain and fear.  Shifting once more, this time onto her side as best she could, Celia bent her arm behind her back and tried to reach the place where her knife was tucked in its sheath, on the left side of her lower back.  Certain she would dislocate her arm long before any progress was made, she fought to not only ignore the complaining ache of her joints but to push the limits even further.  When her fingers brushed the leather-wrapped hilt of the kukri she gasped in surprise, so convinced of the futility of her situation that she had thought the knife to be nowhere near within reach.  As she inhaled her arm was pulled back and her hand drew away from the knife.  Realizing what had happened she quickly emptied as much air from her lungs as possible, and with astounding effectiveness her fingers once more found themselves pressing against the knife.  Still holding her breath out, she began to fumble for a grasp on the hilt, which proved to be the most trying part of her ordeal.  It seemed the miracle that she was able to reach the knife was nothing more than a cruel tease; one final joke, played on her.

Eventually she could hold her breath no longer: her body screamed for oxygen, lungs burning and chest constricting.  She inhaled deeply, sucking in the air with bittersweet relief.  Immediately her fingers began to once more draw away from the knife, almost theatrically so.  She tried to get her breathing back down to a regulated rhythm, one she could use to prepare for holding her breath again, but her body was still recovering from the oxygen deprivation and her breaths were deep and long, impossible to slow.  She was forced to wait for almost a minute as her body calmed and settled back into its regular rhythm, and each agonizing second felt like a minute in itself, knowing her time was short.  You didn’t just set up a trap and leave it.

Someone would be coming for her.

Part IV

MIKE

Detective Mike Maloney looked around the room and sighed.  He turned a concerned eye to his companions, two soldiers whose faces were blanched a sickly shade of white.  The man, a youth named Jeffery Nar, was cradling his stomach in one arm.  He had the look of someone who was only now realizing the magnitude of what they had gotten into.  The woman’s name was Penny Sapp, and in the little time spent with her Mike had determined that her most striking and impressionable feature, her fiery red hair, was also an eerily accurate reflection of her personality.  The room had had a sobering effect on her though, as it had for all of them, and like a wet blanket thrown over a flame she seemed smothered, weighed down.   She was clearly making an effort to put on a brave face, but slight tremors of hand and pale complexion betrayed her discomfort.

“Hey.”  At the sound of his voice Penny looked up, jumping a little, and Mike winced inwardly.  “You might want to loosen up.”  He gestured with one hand towards her weapon, and her eyes followed his motion, resting on the source of his concern with surprise; she held the automatic in an evidently unconscious death grip, the skin on her hands even more pale than that of the rest of her body from clenching the gun.  She quickly removed one finger from the trigger, which Mike noticed with dread bounced back up as soon as she let it go.  “We wouldn’t want you squeezing off any rounds in here.  There’s enough blood as it is without you going and adding more.”  Sapp nodded, red in the face with embarrassment.  With almost morbid cheeriness, Mike decided the flush was better than no colour at all, and in fact seemed to go quite well with her hair and freckles.  This thought he (understandably) kept to himself.

The last two members of his small party had stayed outside to stand guard, a position his sickly companions no doubt now wished they’d taken.  His apprentice-in-training, a youth of 20 named Patrick Anderson, was one of the envied.  Mike had tried to coerce Patrick into entering the room with them, in an attempt to take advantage of the situation and use it to further his training, but the apprentice had taken no more than two steps into the area before his stomach gave way and he was forced back outside to regurgitate what little food he had eaten for breakfast.  The fifth and final member, a third soldier, also male, had stayed outside at Mike’s instruction to stand guard, an order he had been all too happy to accept.

The room was at the top of an eight story building, tucked away in the back of an apartment.  It had taken the team a good half hour to find it, after searching through the majority of the top floor’s apartments.  The scout who had first stumbled upon the room hadn’t specified in his message back to the base as to which room number it had been, and his subsequent apparent disappearance had made things all the more inconvenient for the investigation (and, if the need and/or opportunity arose, rescue) team.

The scout, who had been identified in the assignment details sent out to the team as Damien West, had been on a routine patrol of Block 1 earlier that morning.  The first alert had been sent back to the base at 8:24, and it stated that he thought he had heard screams coming from a building on Fir Street, address 10611, and was planning on investigating.  The reply, sent by whichever of the base’s responders West had connected to at the time, had ordered him to stay in place and wait for backup, and if at all possible he was to continue to covertly assess the situation in the meantime.  This was received at 8:26, at the same time that a copy of the assignment details was sent to each of Mike’s team members’ Digifiles.  It was a good eight minutes before West finally replied, and in the space between the responder sent several messages ordering him to confirm that the message had been received.  When West finally did reply, it was brusque and filled with spelling mistakes, giving the impression of having been written in distress and under pressure.  The message said that he had entered the building and followed the screams to the top floor, where after some searching had found a room filled with blood.  The responder had quickly sent an update to Mike’s team, and had asked West for more information, reminding him to remain covert.  To this the responder had received no reply, and after a second message ordering him to respond passed without an answer, they had flagged the assignment as urgent and a potentially dangerous situation.  By this time the group had organized, and at 8:54, exactly half-an-hour after the first message, the quintet set off for 10611.

The first thing Mike noted upon arrival was an apparent lack of the alleged screams, or for that matter an apparent lack of anything that might raise suspicions.  Rather than reassure them though, as it so often did the dead calm of the city unnerved the Rebels, raising the hairs on their arms like a kind of primal alert system.  The building itself had no telltale differences or unique traits, but as they passed through its empty double doorway, stepping out of the warmth of the morning sun and into the shadow of the interior, a chill that had nothing to do with the sudden drop in temperature came over them all.  A distinctly ominous feeling seemed to hang over the atmosphere, made no better by the beams of their flashlights, which only penetrated one kind of darkness.  With dread in their hearts they had ascended the stairs all the way to the top, where they began their search for the room covered in blood.

All regrets and personal definitions of the word aside, the search had been successful, more so than any of them had been expecting.  A room covered in blood was just too vague a phrase; it sounded like an exaggeration, too fluffy and casual to be accurate.  And yet what the team eventually found not only met the description of their lost comrade, it surpassed them.

The room was lit by a single amber lightbulb which hung from the ceiling, producing more noise than illumination as it steadily droned on with the unmistakeable sound of a dying bulb.  This alone broke the otherwise all-encompassing blood; these two things aside the room was visibly empty.  And with so much blood, it was almost understandable (in a hysterical reasoning kind of way) that there would be nothing else.  “Well of course there was nothing else, it was full of blood!  There was no room for anything else!  It was everywhere!”

It was indeed everywhere, or at least as close to everywhere as was physically possible.  The air itself was thick with the unmistakeable metallic scent, so much so that Mike could almost taste it.  The ceiling seemed to ripple and pulse in the light, a horrible living thing, as gravity forced the liquid to converge in certain areas before the strain grew too great, pulling the drops to the ground in a grisly red rain.  Both soldiers had already had the misfortune of being directly beneath several of these drops when their time had come, and they now had some poor (not to mention almost certainly recently deceased) soul’s body fluids matted in their hair and on the shoulders and back of their clothes.  Mike had so far been a combination of lucky and strategic, glancing upwards every few seconds to make certain he was in the clear.

The walls were equally as drenched, and the blood ran down in seemingly ceaseless streams.  Mike walked over to the nearest wall, and without hesitation he pressed a single finger into the surface.  It slid into the red just short of half a centimeter deep, and the flow began to pass around the sudden obstacle, some of it running over his finger and onto his hand.  Grimacing in both disgust and awe at the sheer volume of it all, he withdrew his finger, wiping the liquid off on the seat of his pants and ignoring the stain it had left on his skin.

The ground was by far the worst off, and understandably so.  While the ceiling and walls had the occasional patch where the blood, for no apparent reason, had drained away, leaving that unmistakeable red stain, on the ground there were no such places.  Not only was there nowhere for the blood on the ground to drain, it was also the place where the blood from the ceiling and walls came to rest as well, adding to the already staggering volume.  On level ground their shoes easily sank at least two centimeters; in places where the shed’s misshapen floor had depressions the blood pooled deeper, some of these almost deep enough to submerge the entire foot.  These were just as bad if not worse than the drops from the ceiling, the result being the trio were forced to watch both above and below when moving.

Almost as if to make up for the unsuccessful ceiling drops, as Mike walked back to the center of the room he stepped in one of these puddles, supressing the urge to cry out and quickly withdrawing the wretched foot and its now reddened shoe.  He pulled it upwards, resting the ankle on his other leg, and assessed the damage.  His shoe was leather, a rare and valuable find that had served him well for the better half of two years, and he felt certain it wouldn’t soak through to his sock.  The foot had been submerged almost to the rim though, and he could feel the blood seeping through the space between the tongue.

“Look- could you hurry up or something?”  Completely absorbed in studying his shoe, Mike looked up in mild surprise at the sound of Jeffery’s voice; since talking to Penny he had all but forgotten about the soldiers, their unobtrusive presence fading into the background.  “This isn’t exactly fun for us, and as far as I can tell the only thing you’re investigating is your foot.”  Mike’s eyes settled on his, and the hostility in the soldier’s expression immediately died down.  The last of his speech dried up on his lips, and he was forced to avert his gaze.  Mike said nothing, and after a moment he returned his attention to the shoe.

He brought his face as close to the sole as he could, perfectly balanced on the other foot.  Blood dripped down from the shoe and onto his sock, his pants leg, but he either ignored it or was completely unaware of it.  His eyes squinted in concentration, and then they opened wide, an alert and slightly triumphant glow visible to anyone who might have happened to see them.  Without taking his eyes off what he had found, he reached one hand into the pocket of his jacket and retrieved a pair of tweezers.  These he positioned between forefinger and thumb, and as the soldiers watched him with something between fascination and repulsion, he pressed the tweezers into the sole and clamped down on the miniscule object lodged there.  With an inaudible change in his breathing pattern, he pulled it out and held it up to the light, placing his foot back down as he did so.  From their distance the soldiers saw something glinting faintly in the light, but otherwise it was too small for them to make out.

“You’re both dismissed,” Mike said abruptly, in a voice that was not raised and yet which seemed to command attention.  “Stand guard with the others outside.”  There was a moment’s hesitation, then they turned and filed out of the room, heads down in respectful shame and nonexistent tails tucked between their legs, like children who had just been scolded and sent to bed early.

They passed by Patrick, who was bent over in one corner of what appeared to have been the living room, still recovering from his nausea.  He raised his head at the sound of their passing footsteps, and gave them a nod of acknowledgment which Penny returned sympathetically.  The soldiers continued on through the apartment with Penny in the lead until they had passed through the front door and into the hallway.  Then she stopped, so abruptly that Jeffery was forced to sidestep her in order to avoid bumping into her back.  Without a word she turned to grab the door handle, closing it behind them before facing Jeffery.

“What the hell was that?” she hissed, looking like she wanted to push him over.  “Are you trying to make us look bad?  I mean, shit, you could have at least left me out of it.  What were you thinking?  You can’t just mouth off to our supervisor like that!”

“Did you see his eyes?” the younger soldier cut in, completely disregarding all of her concerns.

“What?”

“His eyes!  It was like…”

“Like what?”

“It was like he was staring into my soul,” he whispered, almost to himself.  There was a moment of silence as Penny regarded him suspiciously, trying to decide whether or not he was pulling her leg, and then she burst into scornful laughter.

“You’re joking, right?”

“I’m serious!  They were like ice.”

“Well you certainly know your cliché’s.”

“It’s a saying for a reason, you know.  They were blue and cold.  And sharp.  Like ice.”  He raised his hands, palms up, as if presenting his case in point.

“I’ll tell you one thing; you’re about as good with descriptions as you are with first impressions.”

“Fine, screw you too.  But I’m telling you, there’s something off with that guy.”

“You’re one to talk.”  Penny turned to leave, and Jeffery grabbed her upper arm.

“Wait- listen.”  She turned, giving him another glare, and he released her arm quickly, unaware of just how close he had come to having his fingers broken.

“What?” she snapped.

“Do you know what his name is?”

“What?”

“His name.  The detective.  Our superior, not the” – he gave a dismissive nod of his head in Patrick’s direction – “other one.”  Penny frowned, but it was in thought this time, not anger.

“I… don’t know.  I can’t remember.”  She paused, and Jeffery waited respectfully.  “You know, this is going to sound weird, but I don’t think he introduced himself at all.  Why?  Didn’t he introduce himself to you?”

“No, he didn’t.”  Penny hesitated, and then her expression stiffened.

“Well, I’m sure it simply slipped his mind.  You know how some of these detective types can be.  Eccentric and all.  Just check the assignment details on your Digifile.”

“It wasn’t in the assignment.”  This time the hesitation lasted longer, and Jeffery could almost see the doubt growing in her mind.

“Ridiculous.  Assignments always contain the team supervisor’s name.”

“This one didn’t.  Just his ID number.  Or didn’t you notice?”

“I- no, I didn’t.  That’s… not possible.”

“Don’t believe me?  Check.”  She reached into her pack, her hand hesitating over the Digifile, almost afraid of what she would find, and then she pulled the handheld device out.  Jeffery looked away respectfully as she entered her eight-digit code, and then watched her expression carefully as she opened the most recent assignment, received just over an hour and a half ago, and read through it.

“It’s not there,” she said finally, still staring at the screen.

“I told you,” he said softly, but there was no trace of satisfaction in being right.  Indeed, he almost sounded regretful himself, as though he had been hoping she would find something he had missed.

“It was probably just a mistake.  Some fault in the hardwiring.  An error in the system that prevented it from replacing the ID number with the name.”

“I’m not a detective, so I wouldn’t know, but don’t they say something along the lines of ‘there is no such thing as coincidence’?  What are the chances he forgets to introduce himself to both of us, at the same time that faulty programming causes his name to be excluded from the assignment details?”

“You’re right,” Penny replied, and Jeffery recognized the flash of anger just before it was too late, “you’re not a detective.  And unlike a detective, you’re not getting paid to stand around and think all day.  You’re paid to listen to your superiors, and right now your current superior told you to stand guard.  So if you’re so hung up on what his name is, why don’t you just go ask him?  Whatever you decide to do, keep me out of it.  Some of us actually plan on following the rules.”  She stayed just long enough for Jeffery to offer a response, and when he didn’t she stormed off, walking to the end of the hallway before stopping and assuming position to stand lookout.  Jeffery stared after her for some time, and then he too turned away, staring out the window and searching the horizon for something he didn’t want to find.

Mike’s fingers slid along the floor, unseen beneath the surface of the blood puddle, searching and probing.  Every now and then he would graze another piece of the broken object in passing, and his fingers would double back and calmly research the area until they found it again, gently but firmly grasping it between his thumb and forefinger and extracting it from the liquid.  Whenever this happened he would take the piece he had discovered and hold it up to the light, pinched between two fingers, and examine it for a second or two before dropping it into the plastic evidence bag held by his other, unoccupied hand.  Soon he had gathered an impressive collection of the pieces, so much so that the bag had been filled up to the halfway mark.  They ranged in size and shape, but most were indistinguishable from the first piece found in his shoe.  When his search had extended well outside of its original perimeters and he still had yet to find another piece, he stood up and wiped his bloodied hand on the seat of his pants before sealing the bag shut.

He gave the room one last lingering look, and had there been someone else there to see his eyes they might have registered sorrow in his gaze.  Then it was broken, and he walked outside with the bag still in hand.

Patrick was standing off to the left in the living room, leaning against the wall and inspecting the fingernails on his right hand.  Mike took a moment to survey the apartment, noting that the front door had been closed and the three soldiers were absent.  He walked over to Patrick, who remained fully absorbed in extracting the grit from beneath his nail until Mike was standing directly in front of him, at which point he looked up, doing a double take and dramatically placing one hand over his heart.

“Shit, Mike, you scared the hell out of me!”

“Feeling better?”

“Not anymore!  Jeez, you almost gave me a heart attack!  You can’t just go sneaking up on people!”

“Are you done?” Mike asked, raising an eyebrow.  Patrick gave him a look of reproach and sighed.

“Yeah.”

“Good.  What do you make of this?”  He held out the bag, and Patrick took it, pinching the corner between two fingers.  He raised it up to eyelevel, looking revolted.

“Do I even want to know what this is?”

“I was hoping you could take a guess.”

“Where did you even get it?”

“Come on, Patrick.  It’s covered in blood.  Where do you think I got it?”  Patrick made a face.

“Don’t tell me you were searching through that.”

“Suffice to say I’ve been through worse.”  The comment came off nonchalantly and might have been taken for nothing more than a comeback, but something about the way he said it made Patrick think he was telling the truth.  “Come on, take a guess.  Remember what I said; start with analyzing it.  You don’t need to jump straight to a conclusion.”

“Right.”  He peered at the bag’s contents.  “Well… whatever it is, there’s a lot of it.”

“You’re not wrong, I’ll give you that much.  Come on, you’re supposed to be learning.”

“You’re supposed to be teaching.”

“I am teaching.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I’m teaching you the only way I know how to teach.  This is how I learnt.  There was no one there to give me the answers when I first started.  There was no manual, no textbooks, no tests.  There was no one to tell me if I was right or wrong.  There was just a need.  And right now the need is to determine what this is.  Lives may depend on it.”

“Lives?  As in plural?  How do you know that?  Well, I suppose that much blood couldn’t have come from just one person.  But how could you know it’s urgent?  A mess like that doesn’t usually leave survivors.  Unless you think whoever did this is going to strike again.”  Mike gave a small smile, and while Patrick wouldn’t have gone as far as to call it unpleasant it was clear his face was unaccustomed to the expression.

“I didn’t ask you to analyze my words; we’ve already established that you’re well-versed in that respect.  Right now we’re focusing on evidence.”

“Okay, okay.”  Patrick returned his attention to the bag, clearly pleased and revitalized by the hard-earned compliment.  “Let’s see… well, they’re clearly pieces of the same object.”

“Clearly,” Mike echoed quietly to himself, his eyes unfocused.

“And whatever it is… well, it’s kinda hard to tell with the blood, but it looks like metal.  Lightly coloured though,” he added, just as Mike said the same thing.  They exchanged a glance, and Patrick shuddered.

“I think I’ve been spending too much time with you.”  Mike gave two sharp, dismissive waves with his hand.

“Keep going.”

“Okay.  Well, other than that, there’s not much else I can really see.  I mean, if we could put whatever it is back together that would certainly solve all our problems, but…”  He scoffed.  “Like that’s ever going to happen.  Right?”

“Wrong.”

“What?”

“That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

“What?  Put it back together?”

“Yep.”  Mike began walking to the front door.

“You’re joking, right?”  Patrick started after him, still holding the bag. “You’ve got to be joking.  Mike, look at this thing!”  He held it up, waving it back and forth.  “I mean, even if you did manage to get all the pieces, which is hard to believe, they all look the same!  How are you going to figure out which parts connect to which parts?  Hell, how are you even going to keep them together?”

“We’ll find a way,” he responded without slowing.

“Now wait a second.  I asked how you were going to figure it out; there was no ‘we’ mentioned whatsoever.  I did not asked to be included!  This is going to take forever.  You know I have a short attention span.”  Mike kept walking, the thin smile on his lips unseen from behind.

The apartment was in the northwest corner of the building, meaning that from the front door branched off two hallways, or rather one hallway bent to travel the width of the building, the apartment’s front door located where the hallway made its turn.  When this was factored in with the fact that the floor’s fire escape was located directly beside the room, even Patrick was able to see that it was no coincidence that specific room had been chosen.  But what had quite possibly benefitted the culprit now posed an issue of security to the team, namely a matter of guarding all three routes.  It wasn’t so much that they couldn’t; after all there were three soldiers.  The issue was that in order for them to each guard their respective routes far enough away from one another that they could raise the alarm in time to give the others a decent heads up they needed to be out of one another’s sight.  What made it worse was the fact that in a building, particularly one that large, it wasn’t exactly difficult to hide from a five-man team who had only searched the top floor, and not even the entire top floor at that.  The amount of possible hiding places was intimidatingly large, and separating was almost not worth the risk.  Unfortunately, if the entire team were to be caught off-guard all crowded into the same corner their chances of survival would be less than that of the alternative.  So as far from ideal as it was, it was also their best option.

“Where are we going?”

“To talk to the female soldier.”

“Penny.  Her name is Penny, Mike.”

“Yes.  I knew that.  What have I told you about using my name on cases with other people?”

“Sorry.  Slip of the tongue.  Besides, there’s no one around.  Why are we going to talk to Penny?”

“We are going to talk to the others as well.  She’s just first on the list, because she is by far the most reasonable of the three, and I’d like her input.  Not to mention she’s their senior, and my second-in-command for this mission.”

“No- yeah, I got that much.  I meant what are we going to talk to Penny about?”

“You know how much I hate repeating myself.”

“Yes…”

“Well why are you asking me to tell you what we’re about to talk about when we’re about to talk about it?”  Patrick fell silent for a moment, the only sound that of their muffled footsteps on the mildewed carpet.

“That was rhetorical,” he finally countered, to Mike’s chagrin.  He sighed, and Patrick couldn’t help but smile at the sight of his mentor’s head shaking slowly back and forth.

Just like everything else in the city, which all ran off the same, massive generator that powered the Cube itself, the building still had electricity.  It certainly came in handy when exploring what would otherwise be very dark buildings, but it wasn’t always easy or practical to find the controls for places with master switches.  Even when they did a lot of the time the wiring would be corrupted, a problem only encountered in pre-Cube buildings, the ones that hadn’t been built with the new and improved non-corruptible materials.  In this case they hadn’t had the manpower or the time to locate the master switch for the floor, assuming there was one and the lights weren’t out simply because the wiring had gone.  The lights in the rooms, or at least in the room they were most concerned with still worked, but Mike guessed the hallway lights ran on a different current.  As helpful as it would have been to have the hallways lit up, they couldn’t spare anyone to look for the master switch, and it really wasn’t all that bad; the hallways had windows every few meters that let in a decent amount of sunlight.

“Look- there she is.”  Sure enough as they rounded the hallway’s corner they saw the redhead’s unmistakeable locks, almost glowing in the dimly lit space, as she ducked into one of the apartments.  “Come on.  She’s searching all the rooms.  Did you notice all the apartments we’ve passed have their doors opened?  She’s leaving them to show which ones have been searched, and to make it impossible for anyone to close them without raising suspicion.  Clever,” he remarked, sounding impressed.

“Wait.  How did you know she had come this way?”

“Lucky guess.”

“You never ‘guess’.”

“Fine.  Then you tell me how I did it.”  They kept walking, Patrick falling behind slightly, his gait that of someone distracted and thoughtful.

“Alright.  Don’t strain yourself,” Mike interrupted finally.  “You’re cluttering the atmosphere.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“I can hear you thinking, and it’s distracting.”

“Tell me something.  Are all detectives full of sh-”

“Shush.”

“What?”  He raised a hand and pointed, and after a moment of peering through the dark Patrick made out Penny’s hair, this time leaving the room she had entered before.  As Mike had said, she left the door open.  She glanced back their way in the hallway, but made no indication of having seen them and continued walking.

“You’re going to startle the female soldier.”

“Penny, Mike.”

“Right.  Don’t say-”

“Your name.  I know.  And I’m not going to startle Penny.  What might startle her though is if we walk right up to her completely silent and then say something.  You know, if you keep that up you’re likely to get shot one of these days.”  Patrick cut in front of him and called out to her in greeting, knowing Mike would say and do nothing until he was directly beside her and wanting to avoid a repeat (potentially fatal at that, given the tense, alert posture Penny conveyed, and the way she held her gun at the ready) of the scare his mentor had given him only moments before.

Penny turned at Patrick’s voice, and Mike saw her raise the gun just slightly, before her body visibly relaxed, and she managed a reasonably amicable nod.

“What’s up?” she asked when they had both made it over to her, the trio forming a circle.  “Did you get what you need?  Ready to head out?”

“Not quite yet, no.  There’s still something about the room that’s unsettling me.”

“Aside from the obvious, I assume?”  Neither of the others acknowledged this comment from Patrick, but he paid it no mind.  While it used to bother him, he had long since grown accustomed to fading into the background during more serious conversations.

“I want to stick around a while longer and see if I can’t figure it out,” Mike continued.  “Patrick and I are heading back to the room now” – at this Patrick fixed him with a look – “and I’d like you and the other two to remain standing guard.  I just wanted to give you an update, just so you know what’s happening.  I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m… still inspecting my shoe.”  Penny flushed.

“Listen, about that, I’d like to apologize for my colleague’s behaviour earlier-” Mike raised a hand, and she fell silent.

“Don’t mention it; you have no accountability over his actions.”

“Then why did you even mention it?”  Mike raised an eyebrow, and then, to Patrick’s surprise, smiled.

“A slip of the tongue.  Trust me, I harbour no ill will, to you or your subordinate.”

“Okay, well, if that’s all…”

“No.  I also wanted to ask you to keep an eye out for any disturbances in the dust.”

“Ah, sorry, what?”

“I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to look out for anything suspicious, but I also want you to keep an eye out for any signs that a certain area has been disturbed lately.  Places like this have been abandoned for so long that the dust builds up considerably.  So when life finally returns it’s impossible to miss.  The dust is our friend.  You should look out for a spot where there’s no dust, perhaps because until recently there was something over that spot, or perhaps a surface, like a desk, or windowpane, where the dust looks to have been swept away.  Say, by a sleeve or fingertips?  Even footprints are visible in the dust, though they’re harder to spot on this carpet.  A job like that–” tilting his head in the direction of the bloody room “–would take a lot of time.  Whoever did it would likely have had somewhere nearby where they could take breaks in between, if not simply somewhere to store their things.  And the excessive amount of it is probably an influence, but the blood still appears fresh.  It’s not crusted or dried yet, see?  Even in areas where its shallower, the blood is still viscous.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that whoever did this is probably still nearby.”  Patrick rested a hand on his holster and began looking around, as though he expected the person to jump out at them right then and there.  “At the very least they were here when the scout came by, otherwise we wouldn’t have a missing Rebel on our hands.”

“So you think he’s dead?”

“Not necessarily, but he’s most certainly been captured by someone.  It might not even be the same person who did this, but I don’t believe in coincidence.  The culprit would want to make sure they had a secure location all to themselves before they even began to embark on their massacre.  There wouldn’t be more than one hostile in this area.”

“But you’re sure he’s been captured?”

“Why else would he be missing, or neglect to respond to the base?  I’ve ruled out all other explanations.  If his radio had broken somehow he would have either waited here for someone to come and retrieve him, as is standard protocol, or he would have made his way back to the base, in which case we would have seen him on the way here or heard about his return from the base by now.”  Mike fixed her with a grave look.  “He’s been captured.  The good news is that assuming the person who did this is still here, which I believe they are, then there’s a chance he might not only be alive, but rescuable.  We’ll have to act fast though.”

“Right, of course.”

“Good work searching the rooms by the way.  Good idea.”

“Thank you,” she said, looking thrown off by the compliment.  Mike nodded, and then, with a different kind of nod to Patrick, he turned to go back the way they had come.  “Wait!” Penny suddenly cried out, stopping them.

“What?”

“I, uh, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Phil,” Mike replied coolly, without so much as a moment’s hesitation.  “Phil Akens.”

“Ah.  Right, well, okay.  Thanks.”

“For what?  Telling you my name?  It’s not exactly a favour.”

“Right, of course.  It’s just that, well, it wasn’t in the assignment details.”  Mike frowned, the perfect image of innocent surprise.

“Really?  Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

That’s strange.  It was probably a glitch in the software; I’ll have to let them know when we get back.  Thanks for bringing it to my attention.”

“No problem.”

“Alright, Patrick, let’s go.  We still have to talk to the other two as well.”  Patrick nodded, giving Penny a small what-can-you-do smile as they left.

When they were out of earshot Patrick said, “What was that about?”

“What?”

“The thing about inspecting your shoe.”  Mike shrugged.

“A misunderstanding.  Nothing you need to worry about.”

“Okay, and what about the ‘slip of the tongue’?  You never have ‘slips of the tongue’.  In fact I’m fairly certain you plan what you’re going to say several days in advance.”

“I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Were you… flirting with her?”  The detective scoffed.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Holy shit, you were!  Boy, you need some lessons, because putting them off is definitely not part of the process.”

“Patrick, I can honestly say I was not flirting with her,” he said, pronouncing the word with distaste.

“Oh sure, sure.  Moving on, I figured out how you did it.  How you followed Penny’s route.”

“Go on.”

“You followed her footprints in the dust.”

“Correct.”

“Let me guess, you knew it was her by the shoe size.”

“Correct.”

“How is that even possible?  I mean I can barely even make out the carpet, least of all any footprints in the dust on the carpet.”

“Observance, Patrick.  I wasn’t following them the whole time, you know.  I just checked them whenever we passed by a window, to make sure we were going in the right direction.  The rest of the time I just guessed which direction she was going.  That’s a big part of detective work, you know.  Filling in the blanks, going off of what you’re given.”

“You can turn just about anything into a lesson, can’t you?”

“I’m serious.”

“Alright, alright.”  They walked in silence for a moment, until Mike sighed.

“You’re thinking loudly again.  Is there something you want to ask me?”  Patrick looked up in genuine surprise.

“You freak me out sometimes, you know that?”

“Come on, what is it?”

“It’s nothing, really.”

“Patrick,” he warned.

“Alright, alright.  It’s just that, well… why do we have to lie about your name again?”

“We don’t have to.  I just like it better that way.  My name attracts too much attention around the base nowadays.  I find it far more convenient if my coworkers don’t know who I am.”

“And that’s the only reason?”  Mike tilted his head to one side.

“What do you mean?”

“There’s no other reason?”

“No, not that I can think of.  Why?  What were you thinking?”  Now it was Patrick’s turn to sigh.

“Nothing.  I was just wondering.  The whole thing is just kind of getting sketchy, if you ask me.”

“It’s not sketchy, Patrick.  You’re just uncomfortable lying to your comrades.  But tell me: in the grand scheme of things, which takes precedence between your comfort and mine?”

“I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.  Please tell me you’re joking.”  Mike smiled, saying nothing.  The smile was answer enough.

They found Jeffery on the fire escape, and told him the same thing they had told Penny.  He also apologized for his actions, saying he hadn’t known what came over him, and that he believed it was just the stress and discomfort from the room.  Mike told him he forgave him, and they parted.  But when they went down the other hallway to try and find the third soldier, whose name neither of them could remember, they came up with nothing.

“Can’t you follow his footprints, like you did with Penny?” Patrick asked, his voice slightly raised in the beginning stages of panic.  “I mean, it’s not like he disappeared into thin air, right?  Right?”

“Of course not.  But the sun is on that side of the building.  There’s still light shining in on this side, but not as much.  Not enough to see the dust.  They were easier to track in the beginning, but now…”  He shook his head.  “They’ve faded.  Either he’s suddenly developed an aptitude for walking light footed, or…”

“Or?” Patrick asked impatiently when Mike didn’t finish.

“Or the dust here is less dense.”  He looked up, his intense blue eyes meeting Patrick’s.  “From having been traded on repeatedly.”

“What, you mean like someone was walking here before?”  Now Patrick’s voice was even higher than before, well on its way into hysteria.  His hand, Mike noted, had returned to the butt of his gun, like a comfort mechanism.

“More like several someone’s,” he responded, regretting the words as soon as they left his mouth.  Suddenly Patrick looked like he wanted to either throw up again or start shooting things.  “Look, it’s not a big deal,” he said, trying to backpedal.  “Whoever it was is long gone.  Unfortunately, so is our soldier.”  Damnit, he cursed silently.  Still not helping.  “I’m probably just overreacting.  I’m sure the soldier is just… searching rooms, like Penny.  Remember, he started before her, so he’s probably far down.  I could be wrong about the dust.”

“Well,” Patrick said, attempting to swallow some of his panic along with excess saliva, “if he is searching the rooms, he’s not going about it very well.”  He nodded towards the empty hallway, indicating all the closed doors.

“Yeah,” Mike agreed, unable to say more for fear of starting Patrick up all over again.  “Listen, let’s go check out the room.  The sooner we’re done the sooner we can leave this place.”  Patrick nodded, still looking shaky.

“Okay.  Okay, right.  I like the sound of that.”  Mike gave him his best attempt at a reassuring pat on the shoulder, earning himself a weirded-out look from his apprentice.

“Maybe don’t do that.”

“Right,” he said, his arm dropping to his side.  “Alright, you go ahead to the room, I forgot I need to tell…”

“Jeffery”

“Jeffery something else.  Okay?”

“Alright, but I’m not going into that room alone.”  Mike nodded.

“That’s fine, just wait outside.”  They walked back, Mike stopping at the fire escape with Jeffery and waiting until Patrick had ducked into the apartment before facing the soldier.

“What’s up?”

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen your comrade recently?”

“Who, Ross?  No actually, I haven’t.  Not since we went into the room and he stayed outside.  He was supposed to be watching this corridor, actually.  Why?”  His voice dropped.  “You don’t think… something happened, do you?  To him, I mean?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.  I feel bad asking you to do this, but do you think-”

“On it.”

“Are you sure?  I hate to send you down there alone, but Penny can’t leave her post, and Patrick’s not up to it; I can’t guarantee he’d be much of a help.  I’d do it myself, but I need to get through with this as fast as possible-”

“Man, I’ve got it.  Trust me.  Consider it an apology, for my outburst earlier.  Besides, I’ll be fine.”  He patted the butt of his gun for emphasis.  Mike nodded grimly.

“Alright.  I want your weapon out and at the ready at all times.  And make sure you have a line open on the walkie.  Be extremely careful.  We already have two soldiers missing.  I would hate for you to be the third.”

“Got it.”  He gave Mike a salute, and then, unholstering his weapon, started off into the darkness of the corridor.  Mike watched his figure as it was swallowed up into the darkness, and then, when he could barely make out his outline, turned away and headed back to the room.

“Patrick.”  He jumped at the sound of his name, reaching for his gun as he turned, but thankfully he registered that it was Mike before it was unholstered and exhaled deeply instead.  “Ready?”

“What…” he swallowed, “what do you need me to do?”  Mike took in his shaking hands, his darting eyes, his pale, sweaty skin, and made a decision.

“You just… stay outside for now.  Keep an eye out for me while I’m in there.  If I need you I’ll call, but for now, just wait.”

“Okay,” he said, visibly relieved.  “That I can do.”

Mike stepped back into the room, his shoes squelching softly as they were once more exposed to the blood.  He looked around, not sure what he was looking for but certain that it would come to him eventually.  There was just something… wrong with the room, aside from the obvious, as Patrick had said.  And that was just it, wasn’t it?  The initial impression, the shock value of the room, so to speak, was so attention-commanding, so distracting, that it was almost impossible to get over it and look at whatever it was that it was hiding.  Almost impossible.  But not quite.  He imagined the blood was water.  Still strange, but bearable.  And then he had it.

“Patrick!” he called, almost shouting in exhilaration.  “Patrick, get in here!”

“What?  What is it?” he said, rushing in, his weapon drawn.  He looked around the room, and when he registered the lack of immediate danger, lowered his weapon and looked to Mike for an explanation.  “What the hell, man?  I thought you were being killed!”

“Patrick, what do you notice about the room?  About the blood, specifically the blood.”  He was talking fast, excited now.

“I don’t know… it’s gross?”  Mike slapped him across the face.  Gently, but firmly.

“I’m serious.”

“Ow!  What the hell?” he exclaimed, rubbing his cheek.

Patrick!”

“Alright, alright.”  The young detective in training looked about the room, examining it for the first time.  Mike watched him eagerly, barely holding it in.  “I dunno, there’s a lot of it?”

“Exactly.  Go on.”  He looked at Mike, and opened his mouth to complain that he didn’t know what he was looking for, when a drop of blood fell right before his face.

“It’s dripping from the ceiling,” he said, more to himself in awe than to Mike.

“That’s right,” Mike said, encouraging him to go on.

“If it’s been dripping from the ceiling this whole time…”

“And flowing down the walls,” Mike added.

“Then by now it should have all collected on the ground.”  Patrick was fully invested now, staring down at the ground, his eyes unfocused as they always did when he was thinking hard.

“Unless…” Mike prompted, still watching his face.

“Unless… Unless it’s still coming from above.”  Mike heard the click as it snapped into place in his head, and Patrick met his eyes.  “Holy shit, Mike.  It’s being fed in from above.”  Mike grinned.

“Exactly.”

Part III

ANDREW

“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.”

“Andrew-”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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?