Chapter 17 & 18

Chapter 17: It Begins…

 

My father walks out of the office with a laptop and approaches our table. He has a very determined look on his face like he’s going into battle too. He never talked much about his and Gene’s friendship before they became enemies; maybe the determination is to watch his old friend’s life crumble. Whatever it is, it seems to mask nervous.

My father asks, “Is everyone ready?”

I answer, “As ready as we’re gonna be.”

He opens the laptop then flattens it down and slides it to the center of the table. An outdoor 3D rendering of the Panoira branch of Menta-Life projects up for all of us to see. Their facility isn’t big like the Gharis branch, and neither is any other because Gharis is the heart of them all.

We all huddle around the table and stare at the rendering as my father explains. “Vanessa, Dayio, Ukiro, it will be up to you to search through their database and find where Mr. Kisomi is located. Once you’ve exited the facility, Odom, Jerry, and Jacks will then head to the underground base where they will be guided by Paul. He will lead them to the hourglass and Team A will be nearby to back them up and aid their escape. Once you are all out, you will meet us here and we’ll extract to the next base. If there aren’t any questions, it is time for Team A to begin.”

There is nothing I need to get from my room, so I ask Dayio and Ukiro, “You guys ready?” They both nod in agreement. “Follow me.”

I turn around and start walking straight for the entry to the sunken parking garage. When we pass through, I get in the first cruiser I see which is one of the three customs. I press the buttons to start it, then take off from the garage in a hurry; patience does not hold me back as I speed through the dark desert sands coursing for Panoira. I’m not sure how we’re going to get in, but my only idea is to drive straight through the concrete gate. That will be one hundred percent not survivable, though. After five speeding hours through the desert, we reach the city’s north perimeter.

I tap my Econ, “Call Jacks.”

The Econ connects us and Jacks asks, “Need a way in?”

I answer sarcastically, “You know me so well.”

With all the commotion, there is a guarantee that we’re all going to get scanned if we want in. My Traceille IDN is probably wanted for the Berkham break-in and my picture has to be at every entry in every city by now. Gate guards have separate scan systems where all of my physical properties can be matched up with a criminal database; their tech is, of course, more advanced than regular shop owners.

Jacks explains, “You took one of the custom cruisers. It has a cloaking mechanism. I can hack the gate system from here and cause a malfunction to open the gate. Security will be tight after that, though, so you’ll be on your own when you leave.”

“How come? Can’t you just hack it again?”

“System is one time use. After that, we’ll be under tracking radar. They pinpoint us and the rest of our mission is over.”

“I’ll take what I can get.”

He demands in a silly voice, “Don’t be picky, Van.”

“We’ll be at the gate in about three minutes.”

The call disconnects as I speed towards the gate. I use the buttons on the steering wheel that Jacks showed me to cloak our cruiser. When we arrive at the gate, a couple of guards are in a shuffle to figure out what’s happening with it. I seize my opportunity and speed straight between them. The dust trail I left behind is an obvious one, but it’s too late for them to do anything about it now except report the fast breeze.

I hear the gust of wind as we pass and enter the city’s north entrance. I shift through traffic quickly to the Menta-Life building in the middle. Once we get closer to the building, I turn into an alley on the left just for the time to deactivate the cloak on the way back out. I continue at a slightly faster than normal pace on our approach to the building as the sunrise shines in our faces from the east.

When we get closer, I tap my Econ, “Call Jacks.”

The Econ connects us, “Made it inside?”

“We’re coming up on the building.”

“One block away on the north side facing away from the building is the entrance to the underground parking structure. The building runs twenty-four hours a day, but right now they’ve just finished rotating shifts. While everyone’s gathering their bearings, you can sneak in and find the client database on the receptionist terminal.”

“Can’t we just storm through the front door and fight our way up?”

“Very funny. Need I remind you that this is a delicate operation? If reinforcements get there too early, they will be back at their base too early, making our mission difficult.”

I inanely reply, “We don’t want that.”

I tap my Econ then divert my route to the parking garage that Jacks specified. When we arrive, I calm my speed while observing the loads of cruisers parked down here. It only makes sense to have this many people when it’s open day and night. This is one place that never sleeps and where workers never stop. I spot a parking space halfway through the garage and take it. Fast getaways don’t always mean parking has to be near the door since it just makes the cruiser an easier target. I’ve been doing this for too long.

We all get out of the cruiser and start walking toward the elevator. Dayio asks, “Where should we start looking for the logs?”

I plainly answer, “Jacks says front desk.”

“You do know that we’re not supposed to cause a disturbance here, right?”

“Dayio, there’s nowhere else they’d keep a record of clients who walk in and out of there and we don’t have all day to do this discreetly. Cameras will be frozen, anyway.”

“Look just hang back and let me take care of it.”

Ukiro enquires, “Is she always like this?”

Dayio asks, “Impatient, irresponsible, and unsubtle? That’s not even half of it.”

We grow quiet as we walk. Dayio places a call to Jacks and tells him to start freezing the footage. We loop left and reach the three neighboring elevators then head up to the lobby. We quietly exit to a blank wall on the left and see the front door on the opposite side. There are two huge glass panels on each side of the main door and it looks like a reception’s counter on our right. Security isn’t around the lobby, but probably nearby getting filled in by the previous guard, or being lazy.

We sneak around to the reception’s counter to see a woman typing on the computer’s transparent keyboard. The counter is granite and has a desk underneath so no one can see what’s under them. Ukiro and I stay hidden at the wall as Dayio cautiously tip-toes behind the counter. We watch him quickly shifting his head from left, right, and forward in search of the prize.

I notice two suited men in deep conversation as they approach the huge double door entry. If I warn Dayio, the receptionist will hear us. I tug Ukiro’s shirt as I sprint behind the counter and wrap my hand around the receptionist’s mouth. I yank her down to the floor with me. Dayio hides under the counter with me and Ukiro takes the woman’s place in the computer chair.

Ukiro greets the men as they enter, “Good morning and welcome to Menta-Life gentlemen.”

I quickly whisper to the woman, “You make a sound, you die.”

One of the men greets, “Good morning. What happened to Gwendolyn?”

“I’m afraid she’s fallen ill this morning. I’ve been sent in as a temporary replacement until she recovers.”

“Have you been fully trained on everything down here?”

“I’ve had training with these systems and Raphael is on his way back down here to finish refreshing my memory.”

“Excellent.”

I hear the quick succession of footsteps making their way around the counter. Once the footsteps go silent, Ukiro rolls back towards the elevators in the computer chair then peeks around the corner. She signals us to get up as she rolls back and quickly types away on the keyboard.

I raise Gwendolyn up with us as I compliment. “Good job. How did you know the guy’s name?”

She points to a digital sheet stuck to the wall of the counter and answers, “Schedule’s posted here.” She adds as she stands up, “They have him on the thirty-first floor, let’s go.”

We quickly go back towards the elevator as I drag Gwendolyn along, “Sorry, Gwen, but we gotta go up.”

Once we make it back to the elevator, we take it up to the correct floor and Ukiro exits first. After her quick peek left and right, she signals us and starts rapidly walking right. We follow her, passing multiple numbered rooms, then around the corner to a halt.

She confirms, “It’s this one.”

It’s an average sliding door that looks like it leads to a normal room.

My Econ starts beeping, so I tap it and whisper, “Hello?”

Ukiro enters the room as Jacks’ voice shouts, “Stop her!”

I look up and see Ryishi standing in front of Ukiro with that uncaring blank expression. Ryishi quickly attacks Ukiro with her bare fists, then I hear a hovering sound behind me. When I look back, I see Tylyn in some kind of oval-shaped flying ship that I’ve never seen before. Payge is standing on top of it in a squatted position. Payge is a gorgeous young black woman who appears to be in her mid-twenties. She has two small weapons pointed at us and I don’t recognize them; they look like a smaller version of pulser rifles with a bigger barrel and an adjustable tool on the back for steadier aim.

I quickly yell, “Get down!”

Payge’s pulser begins rapidly spewing heat rounds through the window as I bring the receptionist down to the floor with me. I look at Dayio and see that he is on the floor, also.

When the shooting stops, I shout, “Help her get him out of there! I’ll draw them away!”

Dayio quickly crawls into the room, dragging Gwendolyn with him, then the door closes. I stand up into a sprint and run away around the hall. There has to be some kind of security room here with a weapon and, hopefully, not just a stun rod. The sounds of whirring and glass shattering follow my trail as I run around the corner.

Jacks questions, “Van, what’s going on? I can’t see you.”

I shout, “Now is really not the time!”

I look back to see the rounds getting closer to me, so I drop into a slide. They immediately stop. I turn around as soon I stop sliding, then see Payge coming, feet first, through the window. She zooms straight at the wall with her feet, pounces off, then kicks me across the face. I fall over at the wall underneath the unbroken window. When I look up at her, she points her un-holstered machine pulser at me. I quickly rush into her chest and pick her up. I raise her in the air, but then I instantly feel myself getting pulled backwards.

Her body somehow whips mine towards the wall, trapping me between her legs, and her waist is leveled at mine. She starts punching at my face, but I block her attempts with my forearms. I quickly drop down and jump away to my left. After I roll back up onto my feet, I realize she’s still attached to the wall. Somehow, she managed to create gravity boots, but how they function with normal gravity is beyond me. Payge, being able to walk on any surface is going to be a problem.

I compliment, “Nice shoes.”

She quickly raises her eyebrows at me, then brings her left leg around towards my face and does a backflip in her missed attempt. As her feet attach back to the wall, I jump at her and grab the machine pulser, but she doesn’t let go. She quickly whips her feet up to the ceiling, whips another backflip, and kicks me in the chest. I fall back with her machine pulser in hand. I start shooting at her from the ground. She quickly jumps out of the window, bringing down plaster from the ceiling.

I quickly get up and point the pulser out of the window and start shooting at the ship, but Payge isn’t there. I stop firing at the ship, because the rounds are barely scratching the metal. Heat rounds start penetrating through the lower wall, so I start running as I fire back down at her. I turn the corner then continue the square back towards Dayio and Ukiro. Her firing stops again. I look back to see her on the ship as it swings around the corner.

She pounces through the window, back onto the hallway’s left wall. I throw my right hand back at her then start shooting. She runs toward me as she grabs a fire extinguisher then quickly pounces to the ceiling. She digs in with her free hand, pulls out a piece of piping as she drops to the ground, and jams it inside the extinguisher’s tube. She turns the extinguisher’s butt at me, then lines her pulser up with the pipe. I start sprinting faster, already knowing what she’s going to do.

She sprays the extinguisher and shoots her pulser at the same time, causing the extinguisher to spew a wide fire at me. I approach another left turn and notice the blazing sound behind me stop. What’s odd is that the only thing I can think is “that’s never good.” I hear a clanking sound bouncing behind me and it’s not safe for me to assume that her flamethrower is bouncing back there. I sprint faster and bend the corner as sharp as I can, using the back wall like a bumper.

I hear a pulser begin firing as I bolt away from the corner. An explosion pounds through the hallway. The force pushes me down. I look back to see the corner chunk of the building is missing. That was too close. The fire is so close that I could feel my skin burning. I catch a glimpse of the ship through the fire and broken wall, so I inch close to the window out of sight by the fire.

I double tap my Econ, “Call Dayio.”

Dayio answers and quickly updates, “We’re heading downstairs with a lot of others and there’s a lot of security coming up. I have her brother, but Ukiro is still in there with Ryishi.”

“I’ll get her.”

I tap my Econ, then sneak my way along the wall back to the room. Since the noise has ceased, people from other rooms are exiting into the hallway in a panic to get out of the building. If the duo on the ship doesn’t think I’m dead, they’ll definitely lose me in this confusion. I reach the room to see that it is in horrible condition with broken equipment everywhere. Ryishi has Ukiro pinned down in the Dreamcatcher. Apparently, it’s the most comfortable reclining chair in the world, but I bet it’s not for Ukiro right now.

I aim the pulser at Ryishi, then shoot as I noisily command, “We gotta go!”

Ryishi dodges the shot and pulls out one of the two swords on her back and plunges it down at Ukiro. Ukiro rolls out of the chair just in time. I rapidly fire at Ryishi. She pulls out her other sword, then uses them both to vanquish the rounds that I’m firing at her. Ukiro runs out of the door and presses a button on the side to close it. As the door closes, I see Ryishi whip one of her swords back. When the door closes, the blade pierces through it so hard that the metal door slightly bends outward toward me. I lean back to avoid it.

The bruised Ukiro looks in shock of me almost getting stabbed in the neck. She comments, “She has some serious anger issues.”

I reply, “She’s not more pissed off than I am right now, but we gotta keep moving.” We make our way toward the stairs as I conceal my weapon and ask, “Is your brother okay?”

She answers, “He’s fine. Jacks messaged him in his Life and woke him up. Dayio is taking him back to the cruiser.”

We reach the stairs then I take my jacket off and cover Ukiro with it. I make it look like I’m helping her as we join the ranks of people rushing down the stairs in a panic. Security passes us on their way up, and I avoid eye contact with them as I take on a half panicked, half hysterical expression. We descend the never-ending stairwell and wind up down in the parking garage. We quickly take off, dodging people on the way to the cruiser. When we get there, Dayio pushes the driver door open and I quickly jump in.

He demands, “Hurry, let’s go.”

I press the buttons to start the cruiser as Ukiro gets in the back. I quickly leave the space to the garage exit. As soon as we pass under the threshold, I activate the cloak and speed out to the street. Since other cruisers can’t see me, I have to be extra cautious in our hasty getaway. How did Gene’s entourage know we were coming for Ukiro’s brother? Gene is smarter than I thought.

I inquire, “Is everyone alright?”

Dayio answers for them, “We’re good.”

Ukiro says to Dayio, “Speak for yourself.” She aggressively continues to me, “What was that back there? Who was that girl? And where were you?”

I answer, “While you were dealing with Ryishi, I had to deal with the other two that were trying to kill us. Menta-Life has been genetically altering people with mutagens and you just met one of them.” She grows quiet then I tap my Econ, “Call Jacks.”

The Econ connects us. “Are you guys okay?”

I reveal my attitude, “We’re just peachy, Jacks. What happened?”

He quickly, but hesitantly answers, “I don’t know. I followed your route the entire time. You were supposed to notify me when you found out where he was so I could guide you.”

He has a good point. Had I followed directions and not been over-zealous, this could have been somewhat prevented. Either way, we had to go in to get Ukiro’s brother out.

I quickly reply, “You’re right. Oops. Where’re we going from here?”

Jacks states, “The base is between Gharis and Ferona.”

“Send me coordinates and I’ll find a way out of the city.”

“Done.”

The Econ disconnects then I divert my route toward the sun. My Econ beeps and directs me to where I’m already going. That was intense back there. How did they know where we were going to be? Gene had to know beforehand that we were going to go after Ukiro’s brother in order for him to send Ryishi, Payge, and Tylyn after us.

I was certain that it was Equility that went after Ukiro yesterday, but it’s not surprising that Gene heard about it. I actually recall forgetting that I don’t know whose side they are on. Something bigger may be going on here. I look back at Ukiro’s brother and he seems to be fine; just an innocent young guy staring out of the window. Why didn’t they harm him?

They knew that we’d come for him, but they had to know taking him would make Ukiro their enemy. Now that she has him back, what does that mean for Menta-Life or Equility? I can’t help but think their objective was to take me down and not take him at all. I catch a glimpse of something descend into my view as I face forward. I double take back for a better view.

That strange ship is behind us. How is that even possible with the stealth active? Of course, I can’t tell that it’s on from the inside, so I must have made a mistake somewhere. I press the buttons again to activate the stealth and the cruiser just beeps as a result. It can’t already be active because they’re approaching us fast. This cruiser doesn’t have any weapons for us to defend with.

I face forward. Dayio asks, “What’s wrong?”

I plainly answer, “The stealth is engaged, but somehow they’re right behind us.”

In my peripheral view, I see Ukiro look back then say, “No one’s back there.”

I quickly look back to see that they’ve disappeared. I know I wasn’t hallucinating, but they shouldn’t be able to see us. A loud bump hits the roof of the cruiser, clearly indicating someone’s on top of us.

I shout, “Everybody down!”

I continue to watch the road in a low slouch while everyone else leans away to avoid being in the center. A sword pierces through the top of the cruiser right behind my back. That must be Ryishi up there. I swerve very heavily to the right, then lean towards Dayio and draw my pulser with my right hand. I start firing heat rounds through the ceiling to my left while trying to watch the road at the same time. The sword gets yanked out of the roof. I adjust back to the road.

Dayio asks, “Did you get her?”

I look back and whisper, “Shut up.”

The sword pierces through closer to Dayio, then so does a second one. Ukiro snatches the machine pulser from me and begins firing through the roof. The swords get pulled back out of the roof, then pierces straight through into the dashboard system. The cruiser jerks a couple of times then a holographic screen appears and reads: “system failure.” If they couldn’t see us before, they can certainly see us now. I see a blue cruiser rising up in front of me to a higher gravity level, so I speed up to it.

As soon as the front of our cruiser reaches underneath the bottom of the rising cruiser, its gravitational pull becomes unstable. The blue cruiser’s trunk drops, making it raise straight up on top of our hood. Ryishi’s sword gets pulled out as the blue cruiser bumps our windshield and flips over us. Ryishi appears in my view, then throws her sword at the windshield as she falls over the front of the cruiser. The sword is soaring in Ukiro’s direction, but she’s looking back at the blue cruiser crashing behind us.

I push her towards the passenger door then the sword hits the pulser, taking it out of the back window. The sword punctures the ship that Tylyn is flying and Payge is standing on top of. I guess she wanted her pulser back pretty bad. Our cruiser begins jerking as we approach the east gate. It looks like the guards are letting someone cross into a hyper warp and all I have to do is make it in there.

Dayio loudly states, “Van, I know what you’re thinking and we’re not gonna make it.”

I riposte, “It’s either this or prison. This is our only–”

I feel a sharp pinch in my left leg and let out a painful scream. When I look down, I see Ryishi’s sword in the left edge of my thigh. My leg goes numb as she quickly yanks it out. I jam on the pedal and swerve from left to right. The ship catches up to the side of us, then Ryishi jumps off during my left swerve towards the ship. She catches onto her sword with one hand then the ship zooms away.

For her to make that jump, she had to have been hanging on the side of my door; makes sense with what little power she’d have to stab me from underneath. The guards are signaling me to stop as the gate closes and the purple warp decimates to a bluish color. I press on past them then catch the warp just in time to be swept toward an unknown city. I take a sigh of relief as the pain in my leg settles in a little bit. I try to ignore the pain as I set the cruiser to auto-drive and tear a bottom piece of my tank top off.

Ukiro says, “Let me–”

I swiftly reject her. “I got it.”

She sits in the silence for a second, then checks on the others as I wrap the piece of shirt around my leg and tighten. I promise, Ryishi will pay for this the next time I see her. They probably saw through our heat sources to track us with my reckless driving, unless they’ve placed a tracker on Ukiro’s brother or something a little more creative. Needless to say, they probably know where we’re going, and I should warn the others in case there’s trouble.

I tap my Econ then say, “Call Jacks.”

The Econ connects us and Jacks asks, “Did you guys make it out of the city?”

“Yeah, but your cruiser’s in bad shape. We’re heading to meet you guys now, but we gotta wait until this warp is over.”

Jacks surprisingly asks, “They warped you?”

“No, we jumped in behind someone else.”

He pauses then asks, “Van,… how much time difference was between the other person’s entry and yours?”

“Only like ten seconds, I think. We got in just before it was about to disappear. It was like a bluish color.”

“Van, the warp is only supposed to last for the duration of the single driver entering. You know that right?”

“Yeah, but we made it.”

Ukiro taps my shoulder as she’s looking out of the back windshield with a shocked expression on her face. I look back to see a black emptiness with an electrical field closing in.

I quickly jam my foot on the pedal and focus forward. I ask Jacks in a plain tone, “Just out of curiosity, what happens if the warp ends before we get out?”

He answers, “The electrical currents creating it might cause your cruiser to explode.”

“Oh.”

I feel the pedal touching the floor. I use the buttons to activate the power thrusters to boost us faster through the warp. Unfortunately, Ryishi crashed our system when she jammed her sword through it.

I say to Jacks, “We’re gonna die if we don’t get out of this warp, Jacks. What’ll happen if we crash out of it?”

He reassures fast, “Your chances of survival will very likely go up, but still a bad idea.”

“I’ll accept that.” I turn to everyone and suggest, “If you don’t have a seatbelt on, I’d highly recommend it right now.”

I quickly turn a sharp right and the cruiser starts shaking very hard as we drive into the blue swirls. The warp seems to be holding us inside of it. Instantly, we get pushed out of the warp and speared downward towards the desert below. I start pushing and pressing everything to stop our nosedive. I manage minor success when I press the brake and pedal at the same time. Our nosedive turns into a slight slant; it’s not in my favor as the back of the cruiser shifts left.

We near the ground and I tuck my head between my forearms, then brace for impact. The cruiser smacks hard against the ground and the safety sponges activate, releasing a sponge material all around us. We begin tumbling sideways through the dirt, coming to a hard halt after four rolls. The cruiser landed on its left side. It could have been a lot better or worse, but I’m alright.

There’s so much sponge that I can’t see the others. I hear the cruiser door pop open on the passenger side, then some of the sponge is released, loosening up some maneuvering room. My door is pinned to the ground, so no material got out of my side. I see Dayio uncomfortably leaning towards me. He’s conscious.

I ask, “Can you get out?”

“I think so. You guys okay back there?”

Ukiro answers, “We’re okay. We can get out up here.”

I hear loud crunches coming from the back as I take off my seatbelt and watch Ukiro climb out of the open passenger doorway. After Dayio climbs out, I stand up on my good leg, then climb out of the cruiser and sit on it with my legs dangling over the seat. I should be grateful that my mornings don’t always start out like this: crashed cruiser and a great view of the sun in my eyes. With the cruiser destroyed, we’re pretty much screwed unless Jacks can help us out.

 

Chapter 18: … and It Ends

 

Jacks sends over the only person who has nothing to do except observe, and that is Hines Aldwich. He shows up with one of the scientists to deliver one of the custom cruisers and lets us know that the others have left. I want to send Ukiro’s brother back to base with them, but she refuses to trust us with that task. I have to get to that facility using the coordinates from my Econ. Whether footage was played back or not, I’m sure that explosion is all over the major networks.

With the assassins working for Equility, backup may need to leave in full force, so the others will have even less to deal with. My worry would make me drive faster, but I’ve already got thrusters and stealth engaged. Ukiro and the others don’t look as determined as I do; like their motivation was stripped away by what’s happened so far. I know Ukiro’s brother has nothing to do with this, so naturally he’s in fear, but not much with his sister around. He doesn’t look half as capable as she does.

Dayio may have given him a small rundown of what’s going on for him to not be absolutely hysterical. Speaking of Dayio, he and Ukiro just look bored. I’d say the anticipation wore off. Who could blame them? We just got torn apart and the real battle hasn’t even started yet. I’m not big on motivational speeches, so I let them wallow in whatever funk they’re in. Bottom line, Ukiro will go any length to protect her brother and Dayio simply wants to make a difference.

We arrive at the coordinates for the facility and see a base sunken in the sand. The perimeter inside the sunken area is large, like it was intentionally dug in. The building is made of solid concrete with no windows, so I can’t tell how many floors go up; it looks like only two. I can see transport vehicles outside, but no security guarding them. What I don’t see is a way in, but with the transports being on the right side of the building, I’ll assume that’s the front.

I tap my Econ, “Call Jacks.”

The Econ beeps and alerts, “This user is offline.”

I try again but I get the same response and inform the others, “His Econ is offline.”

Dayio asks, “What about Paul? He’s supposed to be guiding them through the base. If their Econs are offline, they could be in serious trouble.”

I tap my Econ, “Call Jerry.”

The Econ alerts, “This user is off–”

I double tap my Econ then demand, “Call Odom.”

The Econ alerts, “This user–”

I double tap again then demand, “Call Paul.”

The Econ alerts, “Connecting…”

Paul answers, with a hasty question, “Have you heard from Jacks or any of the team?”

I answer, “No. What happened?”

He quickly explains with worry. “I lost contact with them. The further in they got, our connection became worse, then they ran into some heavy resistance and the connection stopped. It says they’re offline. Something must be jamming it from within.”

I ask, “Are you still on their camera feed?”

“After they were detected, they ran a diagnostic bug search. Their firewall is completely locked down. They can’t even steal a memory right now if they wanted to.”

“We have to get in there.”

“I have a document of their base layout. I can lead you in, but I won’t be able to see around corners.”

“What was their entry?”

“From the main shutter, there’s a duct on the left face of the building. That’s where they entered.”

I look out from the windshield and see what he could be referring to. I ask, “Is it closer to the main face?”

“That’s the one.”

I say to Ukiro and Dayio, “The others are in trouble and Paul can guide us through.”

Dayio asks, “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s get in there.”

“Paul is locked out of the system. He can only guide us by map, not sight. And he can only get us in so far until our comms are blocked.”

“Is there some kinda plan?”

This place needs to come down so I can get my memory back. They all knew the risks of coming here. What do I do? We could get them and leave without having to go through the heart of it, but then the fight isn’t over. My father wants this, but is it worth sacrificing them to get it done? They might be able to escape without my help.

Dayio calls out, “Van?” I look at him and he continues, “We have to help them.”

I ask, “What about the facility?”

“It’s not going anywhere. We have to get to the others; they’re in trouble.”

“Then that’s the plan. Let’s go.”

Once we check out things inside, we’ll go from there. We get out of the cruiser and Ukiro instructs her brother to stay inside. I haven’t heard him say a word since I’ve seen him, but that doesn’t seem to bother her.

Dayio and I start our way down the hill as I ask, “Is something wrong with her brother?”

Dayio answers, “He only speaks to Ukiro.”

“Why?”

“Not sure.”

Ukiro catches up to us, as we jog down the hill and bolt toward the already opened ventilation entrance. It’s big enough for us to only duck our heads a little bit to enter, so we do just that. Following the vent, Paul instructs us through the maze until we reach a long white hallway. I poke my head out, then look both ways to see a couple of unconscious guards on the right and a lot of doors on both sides. An unconscious guard here means they must have had no way to avoid them or had to double back when things got too hot.

I inform Paul, “The hallway is clear. Where do we go?”

He instructs, “Take a left then a right into the second door.”

We all exit and follow his instructions. I enter the room and see two guards behind a flipped over table with pulsers pointed at me. The guards begin firing as I hastily back out of the doorway and take cover next to the wall. Something is wrong. The room is just a lab of some kind and the door I’m at is the only way out.

I whisper, “Paul that room is just a lab.”

Paul shockingly questions, “Really? Are you sure? Okay, maybe you didn’t go far enough in the vents. Keep going through the hallway and make a right then an immediate left.”

I signal the others to follow me as I run to where he specified, but the left turn he’s talking about isn’t immediate at all. There is a right hallway and a stairway door on the left before the turn. I make the left turn coming across a firing squad of guards with their pulser rifles ready. In a flash, I dive to the opposite side of the hallway and take cover by the wall. Dayio and Ukiro look at me from the other side as the guards spray heat rounds out of the hallway.

I loudly say to Paul, “There’s a firing squad here.”

Paul’s voice cuts out, “I… You… Van,… Upstairs… Hurry…”

My Econ alerts, “Connection failed.”

Crap, I lost the connection. We’re blind in here and have no weapons to defend ourselves with. The last direction I caught was upstairs, so we find a way up. The shooting stops, so I quickly get up and dash back toward the other side, diving out of the line of fire again.

I rise up to my feet and quickly order the others, “Come on.”

I enter the stairway door nearby seeing that there are metal stairs that lead up and down.

I start running up, but Dayio stops me. “Wait.” I stop and turn to him. He asks, “Where’re you going?”

I answer, “We have to go upstairs.”

“Why?”

“That’s where Paul said to go before we got disconnected.”

He shakes his head and reminds me, “Your father said the base was underground. Something’s not right here, Van. I can feel it.”

Ukiro adds, “Something as big as to hold the memories of hundreds of people can’t be something small that can fit in a second floor room.”

It does make sense, but what’s upstairs that Paul was talking about? My gut wants to trust him because maybe the others are trapped up there. Then again, they wouldn’t be up there either.

Dayio rushes me, “There’s no time, Van. We’re on our own and they need our help.”

I trusted Dayio with my life multiple times before, so I’ll trust him again. He’s always been the only person I can depend on and truly call a friend. Besides, he’s led us around a lot on smuggling runs and always got us out; hopefully this time doesn’t break tradition. I agree and follow him down three flights of stairs to the bottom level.

We cautiously enter into a hallway of flickering lights. Each flicker unlocks a new view of destruction that recently passed by. There are guards on the ground and holes everywhere from pulser fire that took place. If we want to find the others fast, we can’t afford to take our time. I suggest that we arm ourselves with the guard’s pulser rifles and black jumpsuits to move around with ease.

Dayio instructs, “Set pulsers to shock. We’re not murderers, after all.”

We do as he says, then add the final touch to our costumes which is the black militia style hat. These guys are definitely freelance mercenaries likely run in from Teykrys; their muscular physique and tattoos under their old uniforms suggest that. We jog the maze of corridors following the path of destruction until we hear pulser fire. I make my way to the front of Dayio and Ukiro, then slowly move forward to see a security room on our left.

Instead of following the pulser fire, we go inside and check out the camera feeds on the wall. A lot of the cameras are down, but these systems only view this floor. I spot Mr. Nobody, also known as Kurtnan, on the security monitor. He is inside an opened door shooting at approaching mercenaries. I also see heat rounds coming from behind him directed at the mercs also.

On another view of the same hallway, I see Odom and a couple of BAMechs firing, also. Clearly my team is okay, but no sign of Jacks. There are flipped over metal desks being used as barricades by both sides. I check more camera views and see Jacks at a terminal typing really fast. They’re all okay and down here on this floor.

Dayio approaches another monitor and asks, “Is that where they keep the memories?”

I step over to his screen and see a diagonal view of a huge room with what looks like a giant hourglass. It’s oozing out bright green lights from smaller objects housed inside. I recognize the gem-shaped objects as the same emeralds I saw and delivered to Menta-Life in my Life, probably on many other occasions in reality as well without knowing what I was smuggling and for whom. The circular darkness inside of each gem is swirling and the hourglass is surrounded by computers.

Ukiro pledges, “That must be. I’m surprised they have that many. It’s a terrible beauty.”

I reply, “They don’t deteriorate, so they have to go somewhere. We have to get the others.”

They agree and leave the room, but I notice someone is in the room with the hourglass. The camera is so high that I can’t tell if it’s a man or woman and the person has their back towards me. Is it my luck that Gene is here? I leave the monitors and catch up to the others. We rush through the corridors then arrive at the intersection behind the mercs. I signal Ukiro and Dayio to stay behind cover, then I shift across the hallway to take position on the other side. We take aim with our pulser rifles, then start firing at the guards’ backs to help our teammates.

Although trapped and taking fire from both sides, the mercs still try to put up a fight. Once we clear them all out, Dayio, Ukiro, and I step out. They don’t recognize us with the hats on, so they’re still on guard against us, but not firing. They keep their weapons pointed as we scan each body with our weapons down. When we see that all of the mercenaries are down for the count, I relax my weapon and we take our hats off.

We approach them and Jerry rushes to me. She states with relief, “Van. You’re alright.”

I respond, “Of course.”

Odom approaches and insults, “About time you guys showed up.”

I look at the spy and he greets with a handshake, “Van.”

I shake his hand with uncertainty of his role in being here, “Kurtnan.” I ask Odom, “Where’s Jacks?”

Odom answers, “He’s doing something to their systems and starting the self-destruct. I need a good view to watch this place blow-up. It’s been trouble since the second we got here.”

“What happened?”

“Paul was kicked out of the system when we got inside. After that, we ended up in one bad room after another, then got pinned down here.”

“Jacks couldn’t figure out where to break the signal?”

“He said there wasn’t a signal. He can better explain it to you than I can.”

“You guys secure things here. I’ll go see how much longer he needs.”

The signal was supposed to only be from placing viruses from the outside, but our Econs are offline too. I leave everyone in the hallway and I go into the room on the left where I see Jacks working on a couple of different computer systems; there are so many that it seems like he could be linked to the whole building. Breaking him out of his zone is probably not the best idea, but I need to know what’s going on.

He speaks, “I just need a few more seconds and we’ll be ready to get out of here.”

I lean against the doorway and reply, “Take your time.”

He turns his head and greets, “Oh. Hey, Van. Welcome to the party. I was wondering when you guys would get down here.”

I approach him and ask, “What are you doing, exactly?”

“Uploading a virus and setting this place to blow sky high so they can’t stop it. It’s almost complete. I didn’t think you guys would make it.”

“Why not?”

“Our Econs are down and I bet yours is too.”

“Yeah. Paul got us as far as he could and told us to head upstairs, but we improvised our way down here. Odom mentioned the block wasn’t internal.”

“I tried to trace their system and shut it down, but I found nothing. We were blocked from the outside and I’m certain it was Paul’s doing.”

“You think Paul is–”

My head starts to hurt, briefly, but not bad enough to draw attention to it. It’s happening again? We have to hurry up and leave before they have to carry me out of here.

Jacks adds, “I already have our escape route down. We just have to leave and figure things out when we get back to base. The program just finished. Let’s go. We have seven minutes.”

A female computer voice announces, “Self-destruct sequence has been initiated. Seven minutes remaining.”

Jacks corrects, “Now we’ve got seven minutes.”

Jacks leaves the room and I follow behind him. We all regroup and follow Jacks back the way I came in, but more mercenaries rush in from that way.

We all duck behind cover and I shout to Jacks, “Get back here! We’ll cover you!”

We begin shooting at the mercs to keep them at bay as Jacks shouts, “We have to get out this way!”

Two mercs turns into four, and four turns into six. They’ve got us evenly matched already and soon, outnumbered. There has to be more than one way off of this floor. Heading in the opposite direction would be a better bet.

I shout over the pulser fire, “Jacks?!”

Jacks shouts back, “We can’t go back that way, it’s longer!”

I yell even louder, “Don’t be stupid! Hurry up and get back here!”

We cover his escape then we all cover each other as we go the opposite way and make the diagonal right turn into a big doorway. Kurtnan and I take positions on each side of the door then cover everyone else. Jerry still has control of the two BAMechs who are outside of the door helping us.

I notice a wall panel that must be for the door, so I demand from Jacks, “Seal the door.”

Jacks quickly approaches the panel, then pops it open and starts working on the circuits. The mercs reach our view and we open fire at them to hold them back. The door begins closing slowly and the BAMechs both get shot down in a barrage of heat pulses. Odom walks over to the panel and punches through it then pulls out a handful of wires. The door immediately slams shut.

I turn to Jacks and shout, “What was that?!”

The computer voice announces, “Six minutes remaining.”

I look back at Jacks, the man who almost got me killed, then I start walking the other way. They follow behind me as I jog around the loop looking into each door and down each hallway. We pass up a big glass window on the left with a view of the green hourglass inside. I catch a side glimpse of the familiar person in the window making me stop as everyone passes by, but soon stop too.

I approach the glass, then place my hand on it and call out, “Simon?”

He’s either ignoring me or can’t hear me through the glass as he’s quickly typing on the terminal. I bang on the glass and call out his name again. He stops typing then turns to me, with a nervous expression on his face. What is he doing here? Him being here wasn’t part of the plan at all and this place is coming down in a few minutes.

My father walks over to the glass with a saddened look and apologizes, “Emily, I’m so sorry.”

I ask, “What are you talking about, we–” He continues to stare at me with a face of sadness, so I continue. “What’s going on?”

Simon looks behind me and I look back to see that he is looking at Jacks. It becomes clear that there was a reason why Jacks was fighting so hard against coming this way. The system announces five minutes remaining.

I look back at Simon and sternly repeat, “What’s going on?”

He lets out a sigh then says, “Emily, please.”

I shout as my angry eyes begin to water, “Explain!”

He looks down then back up at me and explains, “When Gene and I developed the system, we needed to protect it at all costs from falling into the wrong hands. We integrated it with certain functions that only operate with one of our vital signs and handprints.” I place my hand over my forehead and start processing what’s really happening as he goes on. “Your part in this was to initiate the first sequence and cause a diversion to allow me to activate the second.”

I ask, “Then why the secrets? Just activate it and let’s go.”

“It’s not that simple, Emily. The fail-safe was created for the event of a compromise to this facility, thus shutting down the core and all of this room’s functions. I’ve already input the sequence, Emily.”

I turn to Jacks and heatedly ask, “You knew about this?”

Jacks answers stutteringly, “No. I mean yes, about the fail-safe, but I–”

My father interrupts, “Emily, don’t blame Jacks. This is my responsibility and I wish there was any other way.”

Simon turns to his left then starts walking so I lightly tap on the glass as I follow and rapidly repeat in a low tone, “No, no, no, no, daddy, please no.”

The system announces four minutes. Simon doesn’t stop. Out of anger I backtrack over to Jacks and grab him by the back of his shirt. I yank him over to the glass.

I point the rifle at his back and shout, “Stop!” The others try to stop me, but I aim my rifle at them and demand, “Back off!”

When I turn back to the glass my father is watching me as he begs, “Emily, please don’t do this.”

I forcefully demand, “Open the door.”

My father replies, “I can’t.”

I aim the rifle at Jacks and furiously demand, “Abort the sequence and open the door or he’s dead.”

Jacks very uncertainly calls to my father, “Simon… I’m willing to accept–”

I shout as loud as I can, “Shut up! Shut up! Don’t say another word!”

Tears begin crawling down my face and I start sniffling the drips from my nose back up as I wait for him to do what I say. I can’t believe that he’s doing this to me. Without him, my world is going to be over. Everything I’ve done up to this point was to guarantee his survival and I’m not going to let him die now.

The computer announces, “Three minutes remaining.”

My father says, “Emily, you can’t stay here.”

I move the rifle away from Jacks and state in my angry whimper, “We had a plan, Dad.”

“I know, Emily.”

“We had a plan.” I quickly advise, “There has to be another way. I can find Gene and make him do this himself.”

“We don’t have the time to find him. Without your memory, you won’t survive. No one else will survive either.”

“I will Dad. I promise I will do whatever it takes. Give me my memory right now and I’ll have time.”

“Everyone’s memories will only release when this hourglass is destroyed, Emily.” A tear drops from my father’s eyes as he demands, “Now, just go.”

I lowly deny him, “No.” He repeats himself so I shout louder. “No!”

He sits in a brief silence then says in a sad tone, “I found the memory… The memory they made you forget. The one they stole. I’m sorry, Emily. I love you. Paul Quentin works for Menta-Life.”

I feel my head start cringing really hard as I unwillingly drop my rifle and hold my head between my hands. I let out a loud scream hoping to stop the relentless pain, but I can’t hear anything. The pain feels worse than it did before; is it because I’m remembering? Is it because my brain is rejecting the memory I’m not meant to know?

My body is being pulled away from the glass. They’re taking me away, but I can’t stop myself from paying attention to this brain-racking pain. I feel like I’m getting out my begging words to stay with my father, but I’m still screaming at the same time. I black out. My heart is beating loudly and so is the ringing in my ears. I hear a loud bang.

My eyes catch a glimpse of an explosion at the base. Huge cement wall pieces and steel bars get sent flying in the air. I hear pulser fire as I watch my legs dragging lifelessly through the sand and someone firing rounds over me. I can’t feel my body. I lose vision again.

I hear Kurtnan command, “Get her inside!”

My eyesight returns with a little wink of sunlight, but then I hear a shutter close and darkness takes my vision away. I wake up in a queen-sized bed and quickly reach for a pulser that I realize I don’t have. Where am I? This place, it looks like Feegle’s bedroom. How did I get here? Where are the others? I look at my fists and arms in the sunlight to see that I’m bandaged.

My torn-up black tank top is now a purple t-shirt and my black jeans are now black sweats. I don’t fully remember what happened right before I lost consciousness, but my zoning out told it all. Part of me knows what happened was real, and everything else wishes it wasn’t. In three minutes, I lost everything that mattered to me. As hungry as I am, I don’t want to leave this room so I just sit here in bed.

My memory has been returned and serves me correctly about Paul working for Menta-Life. During my Life when Simon unlocked the servers and granted me access, Paul was with Geilium as well. He attended a Menta-Life seminar and purposely creating a scene by accusing them of being responsible for the Deserted, baiting me in to finding him. Once Equility and I made it inside of Menta-Life, he wasted no time ditching us and aiding in Gene’s escape.

A long time into waiting, Dayio walks in. “Hey, you’re awake.” I ignore him and he closes the door after coming in. “How’s your head?” I still don’t respond to him, so he explains, “The base was attacked while we were gone. Nobody survived. Paul Quentin was nowhere to be found and–”

I plainly interrupt, “I don’t care, Dayio… I really don’t.”

Dayio releases a sigh and replies, “Van, you’re not the only one hurting. Some of us lost people too.”

I loudly ask, “What did you lose? You lost a squad of strangers that you barely had any attachment to. I lost my father, Dayio.” I angrily add, “And don’t you dare try to compare that.”

I look over at the balcony door on my left and can only think of leaving. Then my thought changes to something even better and I can only think of killing Jacks. He betrayed me. Did he think I was just going to sit back and be okay with my father’s disappearance? I would have found out eventually and he would’ve just delayed the inevitable. The spy, Odom, Ukiro, and Jerry join us in the room.

Jerry awkwardly greets from a distance, “Hey, Van.”

I ignore her, then see a shoulder rested at the door behind her. I assume it has to be Jacks, thus anger takes control of me. He’s on the other side facing the ballroom listening in.

I stand from the bed and shout, “Why are you hiding?!”

I bolt towards the door and everyone holds me back except for Jerry. Trying to push through a five-man defense isn’t working out too well for me, but I feel like I’m making some progress.

I shout, “What are you hiding for!?! Show yourself! Let me see your face, you traitor!”

Jacks turns around and stands in the doorway with tears running down his face. As I try to break free of the others, he can’t even bring himself to look me in my eyes. The sadness in his face doesn’t bring empathy out of me at all because my tears mean more than his right now. The shaking of his hands shows the fear in his heart of having to face me. He knew that my father was going to the base; maybe not what for, but he knew.

I stop struggling with them and angrily ask, “After everything I’ve done for you, how could you go behind my back and betray me!?! Look at me!”

He looks at me with an expression like he’s barely holding his self together. I start crying then shout, “Why did you do it?! Why did you take him away from me?!” I feel my body and voice weakening. “What did I do to you?”

I start crying uncontrollably as I drop to my knees and sink in my mental pain. My father made me promises and gave me hope knowing that it wasn’t going to come true. I threw my life away for his cause and he just left me alone. I’m a fugitive in every city that has anything to do with Menta-Life now, and for what? I stumble over to the nightstand then angrily push it aside and sit down next to the bed with my head against the wall. I cry over the sound of everyone’s footsteps leaving the room. The door closes. I cry so much that I fall asleep.

I wake to the sound of Jerry calling my name in a whisper, “Hey, Van. Wake up.” I look up at her and see a plate in her hand. “I brought you some food.”

I look back down at the sunlit floor and she sits the plate down next to me She starts walking away as I acknowledge, “Thank you.”

She stops and replies, “Anytime.”

“Wanna keep me company?”

“Sure.”

Jerry comes and takes a seat next to my plate as I slowly pick at my food piece by piece. She doesn’t watch me; she just stares at the wall in front of her and I could tell I’m making her nervous.

I question, “When did we get here?”

She answers, “Yesterday. After…, yeah. The base where everyone was located was attacked while we were gone, and the other one that we were supposed to go to was destroyed too. We’re all that’s left.”

Not only are we screwed, but we’re alone and screwed. Without my father and without Hines, this was all just a waste. Paul Quentin is a traitor and I’m not sure if it was my father telling me or the memory that came back to me that brought on my headache. The six of us have no chance against Menta-Life.

Jerry asks, “Will you ever be able to forgive Jacks?”

I answer, “No.”

“It wasn’t all his fault.”

“It doesn’t matter whose fault it was because my father is dead. He is dead and he is not coming back and that is Jacks’ fault. He had every chance to stop it.”

“Van, you came for me. Everything that we’ve done is because I followed you. In everything that we do on our missions, my loyalty is to you. Jacks worked for your father.”

I quickly respond, “That doesn’t condone letting Simon kill himself. Regardless of who’s loyal to whom, I deserved to know.”

“What about the people we helped?”

“Those people don’t matter to me. I did all of this sacrificing and destroying my life for my father. Now that means nothing.”

“For the people who will get their memories back, it means a lot. Now you move forward. If you dwell in the past for too long, you’ll get stuck there. Accidents happen.”

“It wasn’t an accident.” We hear a knock on the door and I say, “Come in.”

Dayio opens the door and quickly says, “There’s something you need to see.”

What’s happening? He walks out of the room then Jerry and I follow him out onto the balcony. Feegle has a projection dot set up on the wall across from us with an enhanced view for us to see. A news report is playing and everyone else is downstairs watching, including Feegle.

The reporter is on the streets telling the story, “-have begun to come out of hiding, causing a stir amongst the populace of Gharis City.” The camera shows footage of the Deserted walking the streets in packs. “Action has been taken against their odd behavior and their retaliation is destructive. From reports gathered, they are in search of information regarding a current fugitive which is the public’s number one enemy, Vanessa Pheros.” Everyone looks back up at me on the balcony as the reporter continues. “For your safety, we urge everyone to stay indoors until this situation can be contained by Regulator and BAMech forces. Being on the city streets right now is dangerous for everyone. More reports and updates will follow as things develop.”