It was a peculiar kind of silence. Not true silence, not a complete lack of sound. Something soft and dreadful. Like traffic on lone streets too far away, the soft beeps of a pulse monitor, hissing radio static. There should have been great sound—and at one time, there had been—but this dreadful quietness permeated the atmosphere. Only the soft clinking of machines in the cold hallways rose above the vacuum of noise.

A short man sat in a plain room, his left hand resting on the bare, metallic stump that was once his right forearm. His head was lowered in contemplation. Perhaps sorrow. Not prayer. Begging for mercy was beneath him. He was unarmed, outwitted, stripped of his teeth. In his core, he was still a fighter. Not that there was much point in fighting anymore. Not without the rest of his teammates.

Glowing eyes stared at him from outside the room. The short man growled at them, voice low and graveled. "Didn't yer maker program ya not to stare? Mighty rude."

His captors buzzed in unison. "The maker is good. All hail the maker!"

The little man clicked his tongue. It did no good to argue with Gray Mann's robots. They had a degree of artificial intelligence to them. Still, it was no greater than an ant's. Just enough to recognize their leader and defend him, to gather supplies and exterminate all other forms of life. He had spent a long year fighting them. The money had been good, and the company had been great, but—

Well, the stocky man was Texan. He knew this was his Alamo.

There was a scuffle in the cement hallway. The man lifted his head. Distinct robotic voices hummed and buzzed at the sight of their approaching master. The prisoner's stomach dropped. Proceeding that wrinkled sack of skin and bones was another clot of robots. A large one—modeled after the team's massive Russian—was carrying away the boneless body of his last teammate. Traits that endeared that body to the prisoner were hollow memories on the shoulder of a lifeless machine. Long, lean, relaxed. Limbs devoid of control swung without purpose, legs little better than fleshy drapes. Piercing eyes and sharp tongue were lost to the dark void. The spirit of the man the prisoner once knew was gone. Only the body remained, now a weak mockery of its missing will and fire.

The little man's handheld onto the left clasp of his overalls as his last friend was taken away.

He barely heard a human voice address him. "Mister Conagher."

The Engineer turned to see the sneering face of an elderly man at least three times his age. That old bastard's features were scrunched together, reassured and smug. He was still whole, suit pressed and hair slicked back. Only the faintest red splatter was on his right lapel. It had long since dried, not belonging to the gangly friend that had been taken away.

The thought to kill Gray Mann raged in the Engineer's head like an untamed dragon. The clever old man saw straight into his brain. "Come, now. Be reasonable."

Had he possessed his right, mechanical hand, the Engineer would have crushed the old man's head like an aged watermelon. The left one might have done the trick, but he didn't have the time to figure it out. Two sturdy robots reached out for his arms. They grabbed onto him, fingers folding and surrounding his forearms. Fighting was pointless. It had gotten him into this mess, and it wouldn't deliver him from it.

It hadn't saved the rest of his team.

"I think it's fair to tell me what in tarnation ye're gonna do to me," the Engineer grumbled.

Gray smirked, saying nothing helpful. "Come with me."

There wasn't really a choice in the matter. Mann's machines dragged the Engineer forward. The short man cast a glimpse over his shoulder, trying to see where the other robots had taken his last companion. It was in vain. They were long since gone, disappeared into the black bowels of Gray Mann's fortress. The snide scientist caught the Engineer's gaze and smirked. His smile only brought more anger into the Engineer's chest.

"Don't worry. I will make sure he's cared for," Gray said.

The Engineer blurted. "That was my job."

"No," the old man corrected. "Helping that man was your doctor's job. It was your hobby."

Gray hung on that word long enough for the Engineer to try and lash out, as if he could snatch those words out of that old fart's teeth. His strength was nothing against well-tempered steel. Gray smiled once more, then nodded his head forward. His robots responded with an energetic, "Yes, Master!"

The Engineer was dragged down half a dozen corridors. The only difference between them that he could tell was in the different shades of monotonous gray. Some slightly lighter, some darker, some sloppy and unevenly painted. It was oppressive. RED bases were warm and toned with wooden supports. BLU places were metallic, but rusted and calming. This place was void of personality, as inorganic as the stony mountains that jutted out of the base's peculiar island.

The old man brushed a door aside. The Engineer was quick to follow, if only because he was forced in by his captors. At first glance, the room seemed like some sort of hospital room. There was a gurney sitting in the center. Leather and steel braces were attached to the arms and base of the chair. The robots were all too eager to throw the Engineer onto the relaxed table. They snapped the restraints on him, then began clicking on monitors. As their master washed his hands, they flipped the Engineer upwards. All he could see was the cement ceiling and impossibly bright light fixtures.

"I suppose I should offer you a choice. After all, it would be a shame to lose a mind like yours," Gray called from a distant corner of the room. "We could be good partners, you and I."

The Engineer was blunt. "Go to hell."

Gray sighed. "If only you would. Trust me. Death is preferable to what I am going to do to you."

The intimidation did little to deter the Engineer. He kept his large jaw snapped shut. Silence did little to coerce him. It had been his tormentor for several hours and had done little to pierce the steel shell of the Engineer's will. Had Gray not seen the Engineer's lingering gaze at his unconscious teammate, he would have wondered if the stubborn mule had any emotions other than anger.

"This is your last chance," Gray informed his captive. "Think about it. With your technical savvy and my knowledge in artificial intelligence—"

"Either do it or cram it," the Engineer growled. "I can't stand hearin' another word from your filthy, lyin' ol' mouth."

Silence leapt into the throats of both men. The Engineer was bright red with anger. Gray was pale as the undead, almost hurt by the Texan's refusal. Almost. It was no good to argue any further. They could yell at each other until they switched skin colors, and it would make no difference. The Engineer was standing by his fallen team, and Gray had business to do. It was just a shame he had to do it alone.

The old man huffed once more. "Such a waste."

"My thoughts exactly," the Engineer agreed.

He would never be able to fully recall the surgery. What fractured thoughts remained stung him like dead nettles. His mind imagined redness that wasn't ever there. His face felt torn and blasted outwards. Sinuses were ripped apart. His throat was scraped. Something cold and foreign was dropped within him, a tiny metallic pellet in a sea of scarlet flesh.

Perhaps the procedure had been more methodical. Maybe the most technical of the Mann brothers had a bit of surgical knowledge. The Engineer wouldn't know. Once that tiny device was put in him, installed like a chip, his memories exploded. Six years disappeared behind a painful wall of static. The neurons that held his thoughts were still there. The delicate webbing in his mind was intact. He hadn't been cut out of his own body.

He had been locked in it.


But, he had a dream. He'd had it nine times, in fact.

The man that had been the Engineer loathed it. Not that the dream was by any means a nightmare. It was ghastly and unsettling, sure, but it was mostly pleasant. He dreamed of a world he'd long left unvisited. There were warm, dry winds and an infinite, beautiful sky. Blue burned red, then faded to purple and black. Billions of bright stars arranged in front of his eyes. He would never figure out the constellations. They were just garbage, random processing in his brain as he slept.

He must have been sleeping on the top of some large vehicle. He could never look down or around him to see what it was, but it had to be some sort of van. It didn't do well to fidget in the dream. Looking up was always okay. If he glanced anywhere else, he would see the grotesque heap lying next to him. Even thinking about it made the man's neck turn just a little bit. He fought it, trying to quell his churning stomach. No. Thinking about it would—

"Dell," it said.

The man swallowed. It always tried to talk to him. At first, it had been cartoonishly monstrous. He thought it had been a prop for a bad film. It was some kind of yellowed skeleton, battered and scratched. Lately, it was unrotting. That was the best word he could think to describe it. Unrotting. He'd turn, and he'd see small organs blooming in its torso. Turn again, and red scraps of flesh were dripping from it. Every time, it had more detail. More flesh, but never complete. Like watching a zombie reconstruct itself.

He didn't want to look at it. Dell didn't want to know how the figure had built itself this time, what sort of fleshed puzzle was being completed.

"Knock it off," Dell grumbled.

"Please," it begged. "Dell…please…"

Dell raised his hands over his eyes. His right arm brushed past the peculiar body. He tried to calm himself. If he looked, the terror would only last a moment. He would be wide awake. Still, he couldn't bring himself to peep. The only thing he could take comfort in was the dryness of his arm. Nothing hot or wet stuck to it. No open flesh, no sewing wounds.

"I'm so sick of this," Dell sighed behind his fingers. "Quit tormentin' me. Go haunt someone else."

The voice rasped again. "Last time. I swear."

Promises from an imaginary man were meaningless. Dell groaned. What else was he going to do? He always had to see that half-finished man before he could awaken. The script had to run once more. He closed his eyes, then slid his fingers down from his face. He took a deep breath. One more, and he steeled himself. On the third, he flipped onto his right side.

The corpse man was nearly whole.

His skin was sunburned, blemished and scarred, but free from injury. Hair grew in dark waves from new follicles. Bones were whole beneath imperfect skin. His ribs rose and fell in a slow tempo, organs kept in his torso with lean, smooth muscle. His jaw was attached, teeth all present, nose sealed shut. The only missing detail to him was his eyes. Dell stared at what passed for the incomplete man's eyes. It was a light as bright as the skies above his head, shining in a horizontal band of cyan and white.

"Be seein' ya soon," the unrotting man said.


"Dell! Get your lazy ass up!"

The sleeping man shot up. He banged his head into the guts of a truck. Dell rubbed at the sore spot on his temple, then took a look around him. He'd fallen asleep on a mechanic's creeper. Not exactly the first time, but his boss had caught him sleeping on the job. Sheepishly, Dell rolled out from beneath the vehicle.

His boss was a fat old man, much too round to get beneath the belly of a car. Not that the crass fellow didn't know his way around a vehicle, but he could only do so much with a keg on his guts. That's how Dell had ended up with this job. He was short, and what pudge he had didn't interfere with his work. Given the sour look on his employer's face, Dell wasn't sure if he was going to be keeping his job for much longer.

"Sorry, Bob," Dell apologized. "Rough night last night."

Bob snorted. "I bet." He scrunched up his nose, then spat a phlegm wad the size of a quarter onto the garage floor. "Struck out with Linda?"

Dell struggled to remember who he was talking about. He vaguely remembered some redhead with a pile of hair big enough to cover her head and his. "Oh. Her. Ended up goin' home early last night."

"Early? What kinda lily-livered boy are you?" Bob laughed. "Thought you were Texan. Any Texan I've ever known can hold his beer at least until two in the morning."

Dell's head swelled at the mention of his home state. It always did. Even hearing his own name felt jarring. It was like his mind was touching melting metal, information meant to be kept behind lock and key. He massaged his skull, trying not to let his boss's words get to him.

"Hangover?" Bob asked.

Dell shook his head. "No. Just one 'a my spells."

Bob frowned, his chins jiggling as his mouth moved. "Hell of a deal, Dell. You sure it's not—oh, shoot. I forgot. Diane's shows always got someone with it—amnesia?"

"It ain't that. Just…it's there, but it hurts to think about it," Dell replied.

"Well, I'm sorry. Can't be easy going through life half remembering things." Bob struck Dell on the shoulder. "Just don't fall asleep on the job again."

Spared his livelihood, Dell smiled. "Thanks. 'N I'll try not to let my little condition interfere any further."

"Good man," Bob replied. "Now, c'mon up. The lunch crowd's gone, and Diane needs to get rid of a cherry pie."

Dell's stomach twisted at the thought. Not that Diane wasn't a half-bad cook, but he couldn't stand the thought of food at the moment. Certainly not truck stop food. The rotting man was just at the back of his consciousness, his stare sharp and infinite. He thought of food passing through that man's mouth, how it would have fallen through months ago. Now what? What had the strange man meant? Who was he?

"Gonna check out on me again?" Bob asked.

Dell shook his head. "Sorry. I'll be out in a few minutes. I've gotta finish this up."

Bob grunted, then shrugged. He walked out of the garage with the same pace as a bloated rubber movie monster. "Don't be too long, boy. Free meals don't last long around here."

The former Texan nodded, then laid once more on his creeper. Short legs kicked him beneath the truck. He threw himself into his work. If he kept his hands busy, he didn't have to think about his losses or the threats from his mind. He was still himself, at least in his hands. Even that felt strange to think about.

He paused, then studied his hands. Both were red and pink from the blistering sun. He stared at his right hand, wondering why it seemed wrong. It was just a hand, right? Nothing more to it. As long as it worked, it would get him cash. If he could just keep storing it away, he'd be able to get himself sorted out. A few hundred dollars here got him a junker, a few more new parts, a little more fuel to roam…

He needed to get out of here. To go and find his faithful, haunting dream.


Author's Note

This is an old trope that I've wanted to turn on its head for a while now. Many people want to write the TF2 fanfic where the war ends, and the mercenaries we've come to enjoy ride off into the sunset. The retirement fic. Usually, the plot is "Respawn shuts down. Everyone dies except for maybe one pairing, or one pairing has a tragedy where one dies and one lives. Redmond's dead. Blutarch's dead. Also, Helen is a bitch and dies, too. Butt babies ever after."

I don't wanna do that. I want to go backwards.

So, this is probably going to be an emotionally wanky piece. Well, more so than I usually write, anyway. Probably a little more in check than "Rocks fall, and my beloved one dies beautifully", but I want to dig deeper than I usually go.

We'll see how I do.