22: The Calm Between Two Storms
"I'm worried about him," Nolo said to me. "Just pains me to see one of our best drivers moping around like that."
"At least we saw Harrison again," I said. "I hope he'll be at least happy about that."
As we stopped by Room 36, Nolo knocked on the door three times. No answer.
"Probably arguing with Maila," I snarked.
"You've got to be kidding me!" That was Kurt screaming across the hallway.
"Kurt, you need to calm down," Lani's voice echoed in the same location.
"I hate that I'm right," I said to Nolo.
Moving closer, we saw him arguing with a wounded Maila; her forehead and (to a lesser extent, her) torso were still covered in dried blood. Lani was standing by Kurt, observing the two. "Y-you can't just have those murderous assholes going into the Realms!" Kurt shouted. "I mean, we seemed to be doing… doing okay until the Hammer showed up. Hasn't that been enough?"
"General Walker says otherwise," Maila replied solemnly. "If you're going to argue about this, argue with him, though I doubt he'll even listen."
Kurt's head tilted down. "Well, if you're closer to Walker than anyone in this base, at least tell him to have the ESF ease off. We don't need to be slaughtering those Drones when we already took out one of their most important bases and their cruiser."
Maila looked down on the ground for a few seconds before returning her gaze to Kurt. "You know, out of all the ESF operatives, I was the only one that questioned him. After the Turkish Civil War, he laughed at me when I saw my squad use our bio-weapons on a civilian. A civilian…" Maila paused to take a small breath and closed her eyes, "I fell in love with." Her left fist was clenched as she looked down again before she walked toward her room and sighed stressfully. "This is reality, Kurt." she said before shutting the door.
Nolo and I approached Kurt, who just stood almost motionlessly like an android. "Kurt," I said.
"It just keeps on getting worse and worse by the minute," Kurt mumbled.
Nolo and Lani looked at each other; the Teku leader had that look that was both annoyed and solemn while the former Wave Ripper looked melancholic.
Silencerz HQ – Kurt's Quarters
Five minutes later
When Annette's gone, we need a home…
Kurt sat on his bed, looking down on the ground and barely making eye contact with us as we explained our findings in the last operation.
"If Maila and those ESF soldiers keeping moving this fight the way it is," Kurt said pessimistically, "what Harrison said; it will never happen. They're just going to keep killing and killing."
"At least we know that Harrison is still alive," Nolo argued. "That will convince her to back down."
"I saw footage of Sorenson dragging that Hybrid woman by her hair," Kurt said, his tone becoming more disgusted. "At this point, I know that nothing is going to get any better."
"If we go the way we are, we could still have the rogue Drones rebuild," I continued.
"We're probably fighting on the wrong side. If Maila and the ESF are willing to commit more of these heinous acts with this nihilistic hipster philosophy… imagine if they slaughtered Harrison. More bad is going to come out of this than good." Kurt took off his goggles and began massaging his temples. "I don't know what to do…"
"Kurt…" Lani approached him.
"You should have told us, Lani," Kurt said bitterly, to which Lani took a step back. "Instead of keeping us in the dark. I don't need your pity."
I looked at my mechanical hand again. I then pondered how my life turned upside down for the past two-and-a-half years. At least I could have made money street racing after prison, but after receiving this new prosthetic, I could not get back into society; possibly even any street racing scene. Ditto for the rogue Hybrids, even Maila, fighting against Annette.
I knew Kurt was debating about the situation much more than I was. At the same time, as much as I hated to admit it, I was afraid.
Afraid of what would happen if I chose to fight on the rogue Drones' side, at least at this moment. But also, what would happen if the world knew of the Drones? Especially in the wake of the kidnappings of other racers (which had died down in the last three months, thanks to us)?
"All we can do is wait," I said.
Kurt looked in the mirror. "And I feel like that's another wrong move. Maila doesn't give a damn about slaughtering people. She's more machine than a woman."
"Kurt, if you're going to be so cynical, you should have just returned to maintenance duty," Nolo said with a slightly bitter tone.
"Kurt…" Lani said. "Nolo has a point."
"The only thing that's stopped me from doing something stupid…" Kurt said before pausing to catch his breath, "is you, Markie." He looked at a photograph on the table with myself and Kurt two-and-a-half years ago, wearing our World Race attire and posing next to the spire at Hot Wheels City. "I've made so many mistakes in the past. Hell, I've probably making some terrible mistakes right now just letting this go as they are. It's like everything I do or don't is going to be a mistake." He looked at my mechanical arm and his eyes began to water. "It's my fault for getting you in prison. My fault the Drones captured you. I just don't know if what I'm doing is going to end up making everything worse."
"No," I responded as I fidgeted my fingers. "I brought this on myself."
"We should never have driven for Tezla again, yet here we are in another horrible situation." Kurt sighed.
I put my hand down and clenched my fist. "Things have become more complicated now. But what can we really do? We have little idea what's going on with both sides."
"I know you're thinking of pulling something," I said. "Probably thinking of stopping Maila and those ESF guys. It's just that things might not go well if you act right now. That's what I mean when I say that we need to wait. Yes, things have been pretty awful, but…"
Kurt glared at me for a second.
"Kurt, we don't know if we're really doing something good, or something horrible," Lani said as she put her hand on my shoulder. "This is why I've had to sit out. Look, I know you've gone through a lot. Maybe it's best if you just sit out for the rest of these operations."
"And let my friends get captured?" Kurt said, his voice raised a couple notches.
"We've been perfectly fine, Kurt," Nolo replied. "I'll be honest, you'd probably be making things worse if you keep acting this way. I agree with Lani; you should just rest."
Kurt looked at me as I nodded in agreement with the other two. "You too, Markie?" he questioned.
"Kurt, we're worried for you," I said. "I can't see you going on like this…"
"Sooner than later, you're gonna have to stop enabling that bitch," Kurt said. He then turned to Nolo. "Unless you're too fond of having the original Teku leader back."
Ten minutes later
Kurt's words burned into my brain as we walked back to the garage.
"I just wanted to punch him in the face," I admitted frustratedly. "This is the worst I've seen of him."
"I've seen something like this before," Lani said.
"What do you mean?" Wylde asked.
"After the World Race, I was diagnosed with PTSD," Lani said to me and Wylde. Knowing that she was nearly killed in the first leg, it was not a surprise. "I knew what I had to do when the Realms began, not knowing it made things ten times worse for me."
I remembered that during the Lava Realm, Lani was unusually silent, almost never communicating with us when we went in. She never told us about what happened to Dresden, Banjee, and Alec before we came until she told Kurt. Perhaps she was under a lot of pressure from Tezla, but a part of it could have been because she would have to relieve the traumatic experiences in the Warped Realm.
"All I know is that If Kurt keeps trudging through, even after we get through this, he'll be facing a lot of psychological damage. I can't see him going through it all anymore."
"I couldn't imagine kicking Kurt out of the Teku," I said. Even the Metal Maniacs would not do something like this, but if Wylde was suffering like his brother was, I would not doubt it if they did the same for his sake. "He needs us, but he's turning us down."
Lani put her hand on my forearm. "I'm getting Esmerelda and Krakatoa to keep watch on him. I don't think he can make it for another Realm." She then hurried across another hall.
I sighed harshly. "My team's falling apart," I said to Wylde.
"When I first raced with the Maniacs, I trashed Tork's car to win first place," Wylde admitted. "After everything, the Maniacs forgave me time and time again, even if nothing seemed to change… about me at least. What I'm saying is not to lose hope for Kurt. I'm sure he'll pull through."
I sighed again. "I'm trying to hope…"
I stood outside my room, looking at the same photograph. Markie seemed tenser towards me as he was before, and to see Nolo showing some animosity made me nearly tear up.
The bonds we shared were breaking again.
I had brought the Teku and the Metal Maniacs together when we rescued my brother. But now, it seemed like everyone was becoming much more distant towards me, even if they said they wanted to help me.
I could not help but feel like Maila's actions were corrupting them.
Forcing them to become complicit with the escalating madness of her and the ESF's onslaught.
Even if Karma chose to spare Straussberg for the rogue Hybrids to capture, I would not doubt it if she chose to join those sick, sadistic murderers just to be with her sister.
Dresden looked at me as he passed by. I did not bother to shift my gaze up as I still stared at the photo. Why even? It was not like I was going to become friendly with him or the other Street Breed members after being such a terrible, selfish leader who blew his chances when that deal blew up on his face.
I went back into my room and looked at myself in the mirror. I closed my eyes for a few seconds.
This can't go on…
Even if I had just took a rest, I knew that there were going to be more atrocities to come. Whether if the Drones take any of the other drivers or the ESF killing Drones that could have been great people.
The image of Gelorum, short-haired and black-clad, replaced my reflection.
There are some mistakes you can never escape, she said. No matter if you tried to make amends to everyone you've wronged… the World Race drivers, your Street Breed teammates, your brother…
I clenched my fist hard.
No matter how much distance you've put from your past, what you have done will always be a part of you… Zed-36.
"Gelorum…" I whispered. "Shut up." I closed my eyes, and the image in the mirror returned to my own.
Silencerz HQ – Lieutenant Colonel Wheeler's Quarters
"Dad, I just want to know something," I told him.
My father's face sank down. "You're wondering about the ESF, aren't you?"
"Exactly," I said. "When I witnessed them on the battlefield, I just couldn't… couldn't help but wonder how could we be allies with them? Maila, I understand, but… I just feel even more unsettled with these guys."
Dad sighed and looked at the photograph of Mom, then at a photograph of all three of us together; I was nine years old at the time, piggybacking on my Mom's back while Dad stood in his military attire to our right.
"Years ago, I was offered a chance to become an ESF operative. I declined, since it meant not seeing you or Janet ever again, not even when I'm off duty. When one becomes an ESF operative, they are declared dead to the world; unable to be liable for war crime charges. Walker always claims that everything they've done was for the greater good, but I knew I could not stomach performing their methods."
"Yeah, I'm sure what they are doing to Zoe is a good thing," I said with a cynical, sarcastic tone.
"Truth be told, I hate what General Walker's done with the Silencerz," Dad revealed. "Imprisoning people who merely witnessed us for the sake of secrecy… knowing that you and your friends would be forced to join us… it's just hair-pulling. Now that Walker is having the ESF drive in the Realms…" Dad sighed stressfully. "Subjecting you to witness these atrocities is the last thing I want… but Walker doesn't care."
"I know," I said softly, breathing out slowly. "What do you think about Maila? What she's been doing?"
Dad took another long breath. "She has her reasons for choosing to stick with us and not with Team Odin. All the other ESF operatives chose to join out of murderous desires. They have no families to return to or have any interest in returning to." Dad then looked at me.
"And Maila's the opposite of that," I filled in.
"Let me show you something."
Silencerz HQ – Maila's Quarters
I knocked on Maila's door three times.
"It's me, sis."
"Come in," Maila said.
"Didn't see you in the infirmary," I told her as I opened the door and walked in. "How are your wounds?"
"They're nothing significant," Maila replied as I observed in the mirror the skin glue covering the cuts and abrasions on her forehead. Then I looked at the dish near the sink and saw about a dozen small, bloodied pieces of glass and metal inside. "Didn't hit any vitals."
"Not like those shards could even scratch them," I joked.
Maila chuckled as she grabbed a small glass. "Said you wanted to talk?" she asked as she grabbed an ice tray and tossed a few ice cubes in the glass.
I sat down on one of the chairs. "We saw Harrison again."
"The Drone that was in the Chrome Realm?" Maila questioned as she grabbed a bottle of chartreuse and poured it into the glass.
"Yes," I confirmed.
Maila chuckled. "Still alive, after all?" She sat down on her bed and took a sip of her beverage.
"There were a fair number of rogue Drones this time," I reported. "I have a feeling their numbers are going to grow after glassing that desert."
Maila looked at her gloved hands; this was far too habitual for both of us at that point, and even I began fidgeting my fingers. She then closed her eyes and smiled. "Huh. You were right about that Hybrid. To think I believed betraying the Drones was impossible. With the loss of their facilities, I have a feeling a civil war is about to brew. Anyone that still pledges with Annette…" Maila began fidgeting her fingers, "well, I just hope the arms of Death will save them from their self-inflicted suffering."
"Maila, I want to know something."
"What are you going to do after we overthrow Annette?"
"Karma…" Maila stood up before crouching before me. "You know I love you, and I've dedicated my life for you." She lightly stroked my jaw-line with her right hand. "I want you to live life to the fullest; I want you to be who you want to be." I then moved my hand down to her left forearm, then I began massaging her hand softly. "You're a rare beauty, sis. And I'll never let anyone taint that."
"I know, sis," I said as I caressed her shoulder. "But I want the same for you. Harrison told me he wanted a home for the Drones. Have you… have you thought about settling down after this war's over?"
Maila looked down at her right hand again and sighed pessimistically. "I have so much blood on my hands, sis."
"I know you had to do what you did," I said. "I'm sure Harrison would pardon you."
Maila chuckled. "Ironic that you say that, considering Mom named you Karma."
I snickered back in response. "But I really do want the best for you."
Maila stood up and looked at a digital photo on her tablet, the same selfie when I first got my driver's license. "I've freed myself from Gelorum. I hope to free myself from Walker." She shifted towards another photo of another woman, wearing a dark blue hijab.
Silencerz HQ - Garage
"This is the internal weapons bay of Octainium," Dad said as the liquid metal body dissolved off Maila's replacement vehicle. "Look at the two launchers." He pressed a button on Octainium's dash, which had two tiny revolver-like cannons pop out of the back of the car.
"Huh. Never saw Maila use these," I commented.
"She had them removed from her previous car," Dad said as he inspected the two launchers. "All Octainium units are only used by the ESF and they are equipped with a special weapon that is actually banned by the United Nations."
I knew where this was going. "White phosphorous?" I questioned.
"A bio-plague that we nickname, the Black Dust," said Maila. The Eiss sisters walked towards us from the garage entrance. "Anyone that isn't registered within the Silencerz' database could die within a minute. When one gets exposed…" Maila breathed slowly and bitterly muttered, "…let's just say what happened in Turkey made me want to down a fucking bottle of absinthe."
"I have a feeling it's going to come down to this," I said, massaging my temples.
"Vert…" Maila put her left hand on my right shoulder, her face looking disheartened. "I hate it too. When they deployed it in Turkey, all I could do was put my enemies out of their misery."
"We just bombarded a key target in Highway 35," Karma said to her sister. "What we've been doing sufficed; this is sadism."
"General Walker never cared about the messes we left," Maila said. "We're all supposed to be dead; we'll never be put on trial for our atrocities. All that matters to him is a better future that we build."
"That girl in the photo," Karma said.
"Aylin," Maila replied. "Her name was Aylin."
I knew that she was one of the tipping points for Maila becoming distant towards her ESF squadmates.
"During my time in Turkey, I was resting in an abandoned, war-torn mosque in Istanbul," Maila explained as she took out a picture of her lover. "We bonded because we both wanted the prime minister dead. She knew I was a Drone, but she wanted to give me a home after the war. The ESF carpet-bombed Istanbul with the Black Dust. Sorenson shot a canister at the mosque…"
Dad and I looked at each other while Karma closed her eyes solemnly.
"The last thing I wanted was to see… to hear her suffering," Maila said, eyes beginning to water. "But there was nothing I could have done." She did not seem to mean it from the bottom of her heart.
"I've done some terrible things for the right reasons," Maila said. "The ESF… they only care about their own gratification."
A beeping sound came from her phone. "Yes? Lani?" she answered. "Alright, I'll have them put him in the cell." She hung up.
"Let me guess, Kurt?" Karma asked.
Silencerz HQ – Kurt's Quarters
Two hours later
I heard the alarm blare from my room, indicating that the next Realm was about to begin.
Esmerelda and Krakatoa stood in front of me as I opened the door. "What are you two doing here?" I questioned.
"Kurt Wylde, you've been permanently barred from racing in the Realms," Krakatoa stated.
"What?" I shouted.
"We are taking you to a holding cell until the race is finished," Krakatoa continued as he and Esmerelda grabbed both of my arms.
"Wait, you can't do this!" I objected as they escorted me out of my room. "My brother… my friends are about to race."
"Lani knows you're incapable as an operative," Esmerelda said. "The order comes from Captain Eiss herself."
"Why are you…?"
"Things are going to get violent from here on," Krakatoa explained. "And we know you won't be able to handle it."
I looked over the Teku section, which was missing Battle Spec. "I feel bad for him…" I said to Maila as we walked towards Reverb and Octainium.
"He's not cut out for what we're about to do," she replied as she opened Octainium's vertical door. "It's for the best."
"It really is going to be horrible out there, isn't it?" I asked.
"Just don't let it stick to you like the black dust will stick to the Drones," Maila said.
The first ring stopped on the Desert symbol.
"All teams, you are about to enter the Desert Realm," Dad radioed.
"Just when I thought that I had enough sand in my shoes," Monkey complained sarcastically as he walked to Power Bomb.
"I know exactly what's going to happen," I said. "You don't need to suspend me."
"We would rather not see you witness what's they're going to do," Esmerelda said, as I struggled to free myself from her grip. Krakatoa pulled out a pair of handcuffs. "Please, just comply. For your sanity's sake."
"Get off me!" I shouted.
"Kurt, you don't know what you're doing!" Esmerelda shouted.
This was not fair.
The Drones are on the cusp of creating a full-fledged rebellion; Annette's own regime was on the cusp of crumbling. Why did we need the ESF to head into the Realms when Maila (and perhaps, Karma) were bad enough? Why did we need more needless slaughter?
"I said GET OFF!" I yelled as I headbutted Krakatoa from behind just as he was about to get the handcuffs on. I then grabbed the cuffs and tossed them like a nunchuk at Esmerelda, who blocked each attack until one of the cuffs locked onto her right wrist. I then threw her into the wall head first before I dragged her into my room and locked the other shackle on the bolted table beam.
"Kurt, this is not going to end well," Esmerelda warned as blood began dripping from her forehead and lip. "I know you hate what we're doing. You'll hate us more when the Realm begins. There's no going back from this. You just assaulted your own soldiers."
"I'm doing what's right, Es," I said as I ran into the halls towards the garage. All the lights for the portal were green. As I stumbled through the halls, I saw a group of scientists carrying a canister.
"Get the hell out of my way!" I shouted, pushing the scientists back, forcing them to drop the canister. White vapor leaking from it covered the halls; the scent was noxious enough to nearly make me vomit while my eyes watered.
"Damn," Krakatoa shouted. "He's lost it."
The entire halls were fuming with one of the chemicals needed to create Nitrox 3. Prolonged exposure would almost be the equivalent of walking with the Bubonic Plague.
"This is Lieutenant Sanchez to Captain Eiss," I radioed. "Kurt's escaped and he's likely heading your way."
I grabbed my helmet and ran for Battle Spec. "Ignite, dammit!" I shouted as I put the key inside before all four cylinders of the engine roared.
"Markie, I'm so sorry," I whispered.
There's no going back from this, I remembered Esmerelda say. All I knew from that point was I had to do what had to be done.
A/N: Fun fact: The mentioning of Karma being a "rare beauty" also pertains to her HW car, Chicane, being a very rare and very sought-after toy on Ebay since it was manufactured late in the line.
Oh, how I wish I had that vehicle.