Tret Xu was beginning to think that the lunch break was a bad idea. If it weren't for his own appetite he never would have let those idiots talk him into a detour. Granted, he had been pretty hungry, and the food Thane and Zane brought along was surprisingly edible, but now that his stomach was full he was anxious to get moving again.
The brothers were in no hurry. They had produced a tattered white and red checkered blanket from the backpack and spread it out on the ground. Ol' Reliable sat in the center, bathing the whole cave in light. On the blanket they arranged a variety of fruits and meats, most of which looked somewhat familiar to Xu. He assumed he wouldn't keel over if he ate some, but he still waited for them to take the first bite, just in case.
From what Xu could tell they were enjoying their little picnic. Even as they stuffed their faces, they took their time picking apart their meals. He couldn't be sure if they were just savoring the food or trying to spite him. Either way, he could practically hear the seconds ticking by while they gorged themselves; that was time Xu didn't have to waste. He was well familiarized with the old saying, "time is money." In this case time was far more valuable than all the money in the world. Mar Lan could be hot on his heels and closing the gap for all he knew. At least they seemed to be running out of food.
"You sure you don't want some more, Mr. Xu?" Zane asked between mouthfuls of what looked like roast duck. "We ain't probably gonna find us another Farfetch'd any time soon."
"No. Just hurry it up. I don't have all day."
"More for us, then," Thane said, snatching the last leg. "Farfetch'd're hard to come by, y'know, an' it ain't easy to cook 'em right neither."
"Least they come with ingred'jents," Zane chuckled, twirling a leek between his fingers. "They're practic'ly askin' for it." He broke some bite-sized pieces off the leek and tossed them in his mouth with a handful of blue berries. He paused in thought for a moment, a puzzled look plastered on his face, before he spoke again, mouth still full. "You s'pose they want us to eat 'em?" He asked, juice from the berries dribbling down his chin.
Thane looked at his brother with a blank stare that screamed /are you really that stupid/? "No, you idjot!" he snapped. "If they was tryin' to be eaten, why'd they run when we try to catch 'em?"
"S'pose they want to make sure they're good 'n lean for us," Zane said, defending his theory. "They got to get some exercise 'fore they die!"
"I worry 'bout you sometimes," Thane muttered.
Xu took in the whole scene with a neutral expression. Zane, with his berry-blue stained beard and teeth, towered over a red-faced Thane brandishing a little Farfetch'd bone like a club. They looked about ready to turn their shouting match into a food fight. It might have been amusing if he wasn't relying on these two to keep him alive. They were his only ticket home, and that was nearly as frightening as Mar Lan hunting him down.
A faint noise caught his attention, and Xu whipped around to look down the unlit tunnel, weapon at the ready. It sounded like a pained cry. He listened intently, trying to tune out the brothers arguing behind him. He heard it again, faint but distinctly human. Judging by the high pitch it was probably a woman. Xu's first instinct was to turn tail and run, but he didn't want to pass up any valuable opportunities.
"Hush, both of you!" Xu whispered harshly.
The bickering brothers stopped immediately, eyes locked on the little black device in their boss' hand. The incident with their new Rhyhorn burned as fresh in their memories as the mark on the beast's face. If they were more observant they might have noticed his white-knuckled grip on the gun or his darting eyes or the way his voice cracked when he ordered them silent. As it was, the gun was enough incentive for them to behave.
"What's up, Mr. Xu?" Zane asked, curiosity besting his sense of self-preservation.
"I said hush!"
Mar Lan, if it really was her, cried out again. Who else could it be? Whoever she was, from the sound of it she was definitely in pain. Two possibilities sprung to Xu's mind: One, Lan could be trying to catch him off guard, in which case he'd be walking into an ambush. Two, she really was injured and he'd be an idiot not to take this chance to finish her off. A brief internal debate was all it took to decide that he'd rather take the chance and be rid of her than keep looking over his shoulder.
"What was that?" Thane muttered, trying to place the noise. Xu ignored him.
"Turn that thing off," Xu hissed, waving his free hand at Ol' Reliable.
Thane didn't question him. Xu could see the hate simmering in his red-faced leer, but it was tempered by fear and a hint of respect. The elder brother complied. Muttering something to Ol' Reliable, he pocketed the dimming red and white ball. Zane, clueless as a squirrel on a freeway, had more trouble grasping the situation.
"We can't see nothin' now."
"And nothing can see us," Xu replied. He didn't share that disadvantage. The path before him shone an eerie gray through the scope of his weapon. One of the handy features it boasted was an infrared sensor. The image it provided was in hazy, muddled shades of gray, so he had to tread carefully to avoid tripping on uneven ground. While he couldn't pick out the subtleties of the terrain, a human heat signature would stand out in stark white contrast. The moment Mar Lan was in his line of sight, she was as good as gone.
As he moved silently forward, Xu felt a sense of nostalgia nipping at the back of his mind. He'd been behind a desk for far too long. He'd been in the thick of things once; not just giving orders, but taking action. He had memories of staring down big game through that little lens. It had been decades since one of his guns was used for sport. Those were simpler times.
Sometimes he yearned for the days before the masters' war, when his business existed solely for his own benefit. However, survival called for adaptability. When restrictions on big game hunting tightened, he developed nonlethal methods of capture. His customers could still enjoy the thrill of the hunt without risking heavy fines and jail time. He doubled the profits when he decided to buy out some zoos and turned the things into catch-and-release reservations. (Xu's Zoos. /That/ was a catchy name. Soomwa-Xu be damned.)
When the masters brought with them sweeping change, he let himself be swept up in it. They demanded weapons and he supplied them. Of all his business ventures the most lucrative was undeniably weapons manufacturing, and the masters were frequent buyers. A recent lull in demand brought with it falling profits, but peacekeeping efforts ensured the continued need for bullets and shock grenades. It was good business, but Xu looked forward to the day when his investment in the masters would pay off. The war would be over and he would retire to bask in his hard-earned wealth and fame. Maybe he'd even use some of that free time to go hunting again.
Heavy footfalls brought Xu's attention back to the matter at hand. The brothers were stomping along behind him, oblivious to the noise they were making. No wonder they had so much trouble finding Farfetch'd and whatever else they hunted. He might have noticed earlier if it weren't for the explosions and fearing for his life . Now that they weren't shouting and blowing things up, though, it was rather conspicuous. That wouldn't do at all if he was going to get the jump on Lan.
"You two wait here. Don't move a muscle, y'hear?" Xu said.
There was a brief silence before Zane asked, "Can we move so's to say we heard you?"
"Shut up and stand still," Xu ordered. "I'll be back in a few minutes." If at all, he thought morbidly.
Xu was a proud man, he could not deny, but he wasn't overly confident about going up against Mar Lan. Underestimating her was what got him into his current predicament, and he wasn't about to make the same mistake again. Even if she was injured, she was still dangerous. Perhaps even more so, given the old 'backed into a corner' mindset. Xu never really learned what Soomwa and his merry band of mad scientists had done to her, but he knew the end result: she was a living weapon. She was more lethal with a paperclip than anything his engineers and factories could produce, or so Soomwa would have him believe. The official reports weren't for Xu's eyes, but he'd seen her in action once or twice. She was dangerous, but far from invincible. With only one shot, though, Xu would have to take her by surprise. If it came down to a fist fight he was a dead man.
He could tell he was getting closer. He could almost tell what she was saying; the words were just barely lost in the air between them. The pain rang through, though, clear as a bell. It certainly sounded authentic.
A splotch of white dotted the scope and Xu's heart nearly jumped out of his chest. He took a moment to steady his breathing before continuing forward. With each step he fought the urge to cringe. To him the footsteps were little louder than a pin dropping, but to her it might be a ton of bricks. Did she hear him coming? Was she expecting him? The white shape in the scope hadn't moved except to grow larger as he approached. He could distinguish the head from the rest of the prone figure, but he needed to get a bit closer. He couldn't risk missing.
He only managed a few steps. A pebble went skittering forward and he froze up like a deer in the headlights.
"What was that?" Mar Lan's head turned toward him. There was panic in her voice.
Cursing under his breath, he took the shot. The cave was bathed in red light. The image in the scope went white from the heat of the weapon's discharge, but a scream confirmed he'd hit his mark.
When the scream faded, the sound of shallow breathing and sobbing puzzled him. That wasn't right. He'd definitely hit her. She should be dead. He moved in to finish her off, but he hesitated. He didn't mind the thought of getting his hands dirty, but he couldn't help remembering the last time he was within striking distance of her. Vividly. Painfully. Perhaps the idiots could help him out.
"Thane! Zane! Get over here!" Xu shouted. "And turn that light on!"
Almost immediately Ol' Reliable flashed to life, filling the narrow passageway with light. The brothers rushed toward him, feet slapping the ground hard. It was definitely a good idea to leave them behind, assuming he'd actually caught her off guard. Suspicion swelled in him. Knowing Lan, even as little as he did, it was a miracle they hadn't given him away earlier, and Xu didn't believe in miracles. All the more reason to have those two test the waters before he dove in.
"What's goin' on?" Thane asked. "Me an' Zane, we don't like bein' left in the dark."
"Lit'rally or figur'tive-like," Zane added.
There was determination in the way they spoke, a challenge that hadn't been there before. Perhaps they had been talking in his absence. Leaving them alone had allowed them a chance to trade complaints, and now they felt confident enough to confront him. He thought he was through with that when they saw what his gun could do. Clearly he was mistaken. He would just have to put them in their place.
"Let me worry about what's going on. Right now, I need you to-"
"We're worryin' 'bout it right now, actually," Thane cut in. He walked up to Xu, beady eyes glaring at him.
"You'll worry about it if and when I tell you to worry about it," Xu said. Maybe he'd been too lenient with them. He made a point to bring the gun up to Thane's red face. The muzzle was still hot, and Thane winced as the metal grazed his cheek. Before he could step back, Xu grabbed his shoulder and spun him toward Mar Lan. "Until then, I need you two to take care of that."
"What do you want us to do?" Thane asked through grit teeth. He seemed to be getting the message.
"Blow it up or-"
Xu didn't respond. He was too busy trying to process what he was seeing.
"That's not right."
He walked toward the injured woman lying on the cave floor. The woman he'd shot. A woman with blond hair, not black, wearing a white coat. A woman he'd seen before, turning dials or monitoring readouts or something of that nature. A woman who was not Mar Lan. He picked up the pace.
Thane and Zane followed close behind, thoughts of rebellion quashed for the time being. They traded near identical looks of puzzlement, confirming their mutual cluelessness.
Xu skidded to a halt next to the woman he'd shot. Thane and Zane stumbled into him with a pair of "Oof!"s at the sudden stop. Ignoring them, he knelt down to inspect the damage: a nasty burn around a bleeding hole in her right shoulder (in a dark corner of his mind Xu noted that he needed a refresher course at the shooting range) and a stump of a wrist poorly bandaged with cloth where her left hand ought to be. She was still gasping for air and tears ran down her face.
A gasp drew Xu's attention, and he spun around reaching for a shock grenade and holding the empty gun as if he were ready to fire. If this was Lan's ambush, he could at least try to intimidate her.
"Please don't-" There was a figure huddled in the corner, arms crossed protectively in front of her face. Her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Her lab coat was torn and her hands were bloody. Clearly not Mar Lan. She slowly unfurled from her position on the floor, a mix of shock and accusation on her face as if he'd slapped her. "Xu? Son of a- What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Shoulda' spoke up sooner," Xu said, lowering his weapon.
The traces of fear vanished and the scientist adopted a more professional demeanor. She marched over to her fallen colleague. She tore another strip of cloth from her coat and wrapped it around her colleagues shoulder. The injured woman cried out as the cloth pressed against her fresh injury, but at least it slowed the bleeding.
"What were you doing firing at us in the dark?" she asked angrily.
"I thought she was someone else," Xu said, hiding the relief from his voice. He felt bad for shooting the woman, but he felt worse that his aim was so far off. If it had been Lan he'd be dead.
"You shot her?" Zane asked, alarmed. Thane seemed to have caught on already, as he'd been glaring warily at Xu. He was more fearful than angry, a change that Xu welcomed.
"What happened to her hand?" Xu asked, ignoring the brothers.
"She lost it. I'm not sure how. It was pitch black in here until you came along. I think I preferred the dark," she said snidely. The scientist finished tending to her injured companion. She looked first to Xu then to Thane and Zane. There was a question in her eyes. "Who are they?"
"Who are you?" Thane shot back. The woman didn't seem too keen to answer. She and Thane traded glares. Hers was icy and debasing, looking down on him like something under a microscope. His was full of fire; he was fuming with impotent rage. Their staring contest lasted for a good ten seconds before Xu cut in.
"Hired help. Nothing to worry about," said Xu. "They're gonna get us home, isn't that right boys?"
The brothers were nervous and confused now. Thane was trying to look intimidating. He stood like a statue, arms crossed, but his squinted beady eyes gave away his fear. Zane wasn't trying to hide anything. He was just plain confused, scratching his thick head with a berry-stained hand. Neither brother answered Xu.
"Break's over!" he snapped, making the brothers jump. He gestured down the tunnel with his gun. "Pick up your picnic and get back to work!"
"How do you expect them to find the anomaly?" the scientist asked.
"I know the way," Xu said with a confidence he didn't quite feel. He knew they were heading in the general direction of the anomaly, but the occasional twist and turn had him second guessing the path they were taking. "We're heading in the right direction."
"You'd better be right about this," the scientist said as Thane and Zane raced back the way they'd come. "because if she dies, it's on your head."
The Ambassador was deaf to the whirring drill, to the broken rock bouncing off of the trucks with the pitter-patter of hail stones and smashing on the ground, to the groans of the husks of men beside him, and the urgent beeping from the dashboard. He was blind to the spinning metal and cutting lasers reducing solid rock to pebbles and powder, to the lights flashing in the cab of the truck warning of overheating equipment, and the meat puppets slouched at his sides. His full attention was focused on the bird in his lap.
It was difficult to keep his grip on the bird. His mental fingers slipped over its mind like water on down feathers. Though it could not consciously fight his influence, its sleeping mind erected walls impenetrable to his prying eyes. Such an intricate labyrinth of thought was difficult to breach. It took such concentration just to keep it still in his lap that he was forced to leave behind several of the security men. Maintaining control of the extra minds had been too taxing.
For the sake of caution he left them with orders to defend their position. He was fairly confident that no one was following him anymore, but it wouldn't do to simply throw away available resources. If the brats had survived somehow, they would be delayed at the least.
The bird twitched, green feathers standing on end. It was making another subconscious attempt to regain control of its body. He smoothed the ruffled feathers with a firm hand, at the same time brushing aside its pitiful resistance with a thought. It had a potent mind, but it was all raw, untamed and wild. It only responded to stimuli, involuntary and impulsive. The power of a god in the body of an animal. If he could only breach its defenses he could turn that power against it. He could turn those defensive walls into a prison. Then, with its volition in chains, that power would be his to command. His influence would expand tenfold.
He probed the walls of the labyrinth with renewed vigor, greedy hands reaching out in search of the proper path. The defenses seemed to grow more elaborate the further he breached. A few times he thought he'd finally broken through, but the power was not there. He seemed to have entered the conscious parts of its mind; these were not as heavily guarded. He could grasp the bird's thoughts and memories at times, observe them. They were strangely... human? No, they were complex, more so than most animals, but it was not quite human.
Regardless of its apparent awareness, he was searching for something else. The power would not be found in some memory. It would be deep in its- her?- subconscious mind.
He felt a strange sensation. A sudden assertion of will from the bird's conscious mind. Perhaps it -she- had not appreciated his intrusion.
No. She -it, he persisted- did not.
The bird in his lap twitched again, this time lifting a wing. He forced it back into place, but it -she- used the distraction to push against his prying mind's eye. For an instant she was in his -it's, she mocked- mind, rummaging through its -his!- thoughts.
He severed the connection violently. It was like slamming a door on his own fingers. He cried out, hands jumping to his aching head. The security men and their employer shared his anguish, doubling over and screaming. Even the bird screeched in pain, though he could swear he detected a hint of satisfaction in its unfocused eyes.
Distracted as he was, the Ambassador hardly noticed the bump in the road, and the faint scream was lost to the drill and the symphony of pain the bird had just conducted.
He would resume his search later. If he tried again so soon, he feared he might loose the reins on the security men. He was still reeling from his surprise at the bird's retaliation. He hadn't met such resistance since Mar Lan's interrogation, and he had /never/ had anyone invade his mind. Such power. It exceeded his initial estimation. When it was his, there would be no stopping him.
For a fleeting moment he wondered how his colleagues were faring. With any luck he would meet them at the anomaly. If not, he was sure he could figure things out for himself.
It was dark.
He clawed at the rock walls, his only guide in the lightless tunnel. He stumbled over the uneven terrain and the occasional small organism. He could not be certain what sort of animals they were, or if they were animals at all. At times a fungal odor seeped into his nostrils, but the shriek that accompanied the squelching beneath his boots suggested otherwise. He could not see. His eyes were useless, as useless as the filter that was keeping him alive.
Oh, it was doing enough to keep him moving, but it wouldn't be enough in the long term. The clean air reserves were depleted long ago. He was forced to rely on the damaged filtration system. The patches were insufficient. Dirty air was bleeding through, and he had no means to replace the tubes. He could feel the unfiltered air burning in his throat with each ragged breath. The poison was clogging his lungs, settling there like sand at the bottom of an hourglass. He was the countdown to his own demise.
He had found a man early on, wandering in the dark. He thought it might be his master, but the man tried to flee when he approached. He tried to follow, grabbed him, and found himself flying again, but without the magnificent light. In daylight he quickly realized it was not Soomwa. He tried to attack the imposter then, but he was driven back into the dark by the gray-skinned creature that had severed his air supply.
Since then, he had been running for what must have been days without food or water or sunlight. Soon he would be running without air. When he could run no farther he would crawl. It did not matter. Pain, fear, thirst, hunger, fatigue. It was all background noise buzzing in his skull. Like a fly at an orchestra, it would not, could not, distract him from his duty. He needed to find his master.
A faint glow caught his attention. It stood out like the moon in the night sky. He staggered toward it, useless eyes wide with recognition behind his mask. He had seen it before, at the heart of the black machine, before it blossomed, blinding him and warping white walls and tile floor to stone. He knew he was close, so close to salvation. Soomwa had built the machine. He would be there, waiting.
The black sphere sat in the center of a large chamber. Its lightly pulsing heart cast the only light. He was confused by Soomwa's absence. The computer stations surrounding the machine had been abandoned, and the chamber was barren of life.
His foot caught on something and he lurched forward. His arms slammed into the ground and his mask met rock with a dull /crack/. He tried to lift himself, but he lacked the strength. He collapsed, cursing his body's weakness.
Hoarse laughter assaulted his ears. He mustered the strength to turn toward the source, craning his neck, and discovered what had caused him to fall. The saboteur kept laughing, or tried to, but her lungs troubled her as well. Coughing fits racked her body, and flecks of blood spattered his white mask.
Mar Lan was sprawled out beside him, catching her breath. She met the cold, black stare of his mask with a spitefully jovial gaze.
"I hit a wall," she said with a smile. "Broke some ribs, I think. You're looking as healthy as ever."
He met her taunt with a sharp intake of toxic air. He didn't have the strength to suppress the sign of irritation, and the fact that she knew it annoyed him further. He expected her to go for another personal attack, insulting his intelligence or his loyalty to his master, the man she had betrayed.
"We're going to die here," she said plainly, hacking again. "They're all going to die here, and there's nothing you can do about it." And she laughed.
He was not angered by her words. He'd been stripped of the capacity for such emotion long ago. He was displeased, though, and he found some meager imitation of pleasure in the idea of killing her. With the last of his strength he crawled toward the laughing saboteur and wrapped his fingers around her neck. She smiled even as he crushed her throat.
His muscles went limp and he collapsed beside her once more. He lay there, wheezing through his useless respirator until his useless vision faded away.
It was dark.
Special thanks to Tyrogue for the review!