1x01 - "Shadows Are Security"
by Zachary A. Applebee
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Previously on DarkWatch...
Elliot Washington finally found a job. On his first day, he is captured by an escaped convict and held hostage. Collections Team Alpha, from the DarkWatch Institute, is dispatched to contain the escapee, tracking the pair through White Oak Hospital. Things quickly get out of hand, however, when the Corruption rears its ugly head and Elliot discovers an unknown power within himself. After watching the young man mercilessly slaughter his captor, Alpha takes him in under the care of DarkWatch, somewhere in the bowels of the earth...
The smokey aroma wafted past his sleeping face, soaking into his nostrils and causing his eyes to flutter open. As the comforting smell of bacon and eggs frying pulled him from his slumber, his heart leaped in excitement. The glow of his alarm clock confirmed the early hour, but he did not care.
It was Saturday.
He jumped from his bed, pulled on some thermals and a pair of jeans, and raced down the stairwell, not caring that everyone else in the house was sleeping. Today was for him and his dad, everyone else be damned.
His father was dressed similarly, working over the stove on breakfast. The smell of bacon soon mingled with the eggs and his stomach rumbled with anticipation as he sat at the table. His father looked over his shoulder and smiled.
Mornin’, sport! I thought I’d have to wake you.”
He laughed. “Are you kidding? I’ve been waiting for this forever!”
His dad smiled again and turned his attention back to breakfast. Soon the boy had a steaming plate of eggs, bacon, and toast in front of him. He grabbed the hot sauce from the middle of the table and slathered it over his food before devouring it quickly.
So, where are we going?” he asked. “The state park?”
"No, that would be too crowded. Do you remember Mr. Baris?” The young boy grunted in affirmation through a mouthful of eggs. “He has about twenty acres of nothing but woods on his farmland that he said we could use.”
The shiver of excitement was almost visible. He looked towards the door at long foam cases with shoulder straps and knew that at any moment he would be carrying one of them.
"Your move, old man,” the Scottish voice lilted.
Talbot Nox scoffed at the auburn-haired young man across the table while he scanned the plastic pieces in front of him before deciding on moving his knight. Resting his broad shoulders on the back of the overstuffed chair, he was planning his next maneuver of his weekly chess game with Zebediah MacPhearson. It going as well as he expected—that is to say that the game was only three moves in and Talbot was already on the bad end of the stick. He wasn’t surprised, though. Whether the chess board was literal or metaphorical, Zebediah was usually three steps ahead.
Talbot was waiting for the thin man to make his move on both.
Zebediah arched his hands in front of his mouth, hiding a grin. Finally, he advanced one of his pawns, locking his dark blue eyes with Talbot's hazel.
"Have you considered my offer?” He asked his question casually, but Talbot felt the pieces on the unseen board move. Check
"Yes I did,” Talbot replied, “and with all due respect, sir, you can go to hell.”
Both men laughed. Zebediah knew that Talbot would not want the position that had opened up recently. Talbot knew that the man across the table was going to try and make him take it anyway. Neither man really minded.
"Seriously, Tal,” Zebediah started. “You’re the only one here qualified to even think about holding the position."
"I know. But maybe I’m still a little miffed that you didn’t tell me that you were planning on terminating Ellington. I would have loved to have been there.” Zebediah scowled and Talbot knew he crossed a line. He also did not care. “Honestly, I would have brought popcorn and everything.”
"Admit it, it’s at least a little funny.” At this point the game lay forgotten between them as they actively engaged each other. Talbot met his superior’s gaze coolly and shook his head. “Look, mate, I would have done the exact same thing in your shoes. I would have done it in a heartbeat. If there’s anyone here besides you that knows what exactly is on the line here, it’s me.
"On that same coin, my team is down to two people after the incident last week and one of those is a bit on the small side. We still have a bit before Momo is cleared for active duty again, but still, that would only be three. Not even a full squad.”
Zebediah cocked his head to the right, eying Talbot from across the table. “We could bring in some fresh recruits--.”
"They would get slaughtered,” Talbot denied, his British accent reverberating in the small space. He caught himself and quieted down. “Slaughtered just like all the other rookies you’ve fed us the past three months. Or do you not remember Jenkins rushing into a nest of Chaotics?”
Talbot didn’t mince words; he didn’t have to. Zebediah knew that this was the kink in his plan and that he might not be able to get around it. Still, Talbot could feel his tone sharpen more than he wanted it to and stopped himself short.
"Zeb. I'm your mate, so I’m trying to be blunt: I’ve been fighting far longer than anyone else here. I don’t belong strapped to a desk, I belong in the field."
Talbot checked the time on his watch and stood, stretching to his full height. Zebediah looked over the rows of pieces towards his friend. “Where are you going in such a hurry? We have a game to finish."
"Things to do, old man. Visiting Imogen before I meet with Gloria,” Talbot said, scratching his scalp through blonde hair. “Your new project isn’t going to interview himself, you know.”
Silently sticking her head through the door, the nurse on duty was checking the new patient in the ward. She was the first person he saw when he woke up and the higher-ups decided that she should be the primary caregiver to give him a sense of stability. Not that she expected anything about this patient to be stable—he had survived an attack by a Corrupted and brought it down single-handedly.
Her ward was not moving on the bed, but she could easily make out his profile in the dark room. Her thin frame was about to retreat from the door before the patient spoke.
"Well, someone's feeling creepy this morning.”
The young woman cringed slightly before reaching for a light switch. The pale green walls were suddenly illuminated; the patch next to her reflecting the bright orange hue of her hair. Not caring if it blinded her patient, she put on her best smile and crossed the room.
"Good morning, 88,” the nurse said. “How are you feeling?”
"For the last time,” he growled, “my name is Elliot.”
Elliot Washington scowled, restrained to the lumpy hospital bed. He was not fond of his new lodgings or the leather straps biting into his wrists. Nor was he fond of the perpetually chipper woman at the foot of his bed.
"Of course, Mr. Washington. I apologize.” The nurse brushed a few errant bangs away from her eyes, catching on the small stud in her brow, before reaching for the clipboard attached to the bed.
"Where's my wife?” Elliot asked. “Does she even know I'm here?”
The nurse ignored the question, flipping through the chart at the end of his bed with her outrageously red nails. “Hmm... looks like you start rehab today. Are you going to behave or am I going to have to keep you restrained?”
"Don’t worry, Nurse Ratched, I won’t hurt anyone.”
The nurse giggled as she loosened his straps. “How did you know I love that book? Don’t worry, Mr. Washington, no shock therapy today."
Gloria Day opened her eyes and ran a hand through the unkempt blonde mop atop her head. Her fifth cup of coffee was positively affecting her mental exercises and she felt ready to start her day. Her teammates often picked on her for her morning routine, but she did not care.
Their jobs are just trapping and killing, she thought as another mouthful of the warm, bitter liquid swished around her mouth. My job is so much more complicated.
A deck of cards was spread out face-down on the table. Gloria was scanning them, searching for the ace of spades. Her eyes lingered on one at the far edge of the pile and she deftly picked it up. Sure enough, it was the ace. She smiled and gathered the cards back into an orderly deck before putting them back in their box. She felt ready for her assignment today.
Setting the box of cards on the counter, Gloria made her way to her bathroom. She reached for her hairbrush but only came up with air. That’s right, she thought to herself, returning her reflection's cerulean gaze, I left it in Imogen’s room. Gloria winced, pushing the mental image of Imogen Natura out of her head and trying to block out the screams of silent anguish. Instead, she slipped her petite frame out of her bedclothes and into her dress uniform.
The young woman was using a dinner fork as a comb in an attempt to tame her mane when a familiar knock echoed through the near empty quarters. Her eyes darted to the clock above the mirror. Early, she thought with a frown. That’s a first.
"It’s open!” Gloria shouted. She heard the door open and shut, sensing Talbot standing in the living area. She could feel his discomfort ebbing through the air around her, invading her once-calm thoughts. “You’re early. Sit down and stop feeling awkward.”
"Sorry,” she heard him mumble. “You know how I get with young lasses’ homes.”
"It’s the twenty-first century, old man. It’s kosher these days.” Gloria pulled her hair back into a ponytail as she stepped out of the bathroom. Talbot was sitting on the couch, stiff and awkward in his dress blues. He met her eyes for a fleeting moment before returning them to the floor.
"Didn’t you brush your hair?” he asked.
Avoidance. Gloria could see it from a mile away. “My brush is in Imogen’s room. How is she doing?”
"There's still small traces of Corruption, but nothing the nurses can't handle. She’s conscious, should be field-ready in a week or so,” Talbot said. “How did you--?”
"Know you just came from there? Telepath, remember?” She tapped the side of her head for emphasis. “That, and you’re thirty minutes early. That never happens.”
"She wants to see you before the interview. Says it’s important.”
Gloria snorted. “She’s still going on about him?” She spoke again before Talbot could respond. “Whatever, let’s go. I need my hairbrush anyway."
Elliot’s hands felt uncomfortable against the diamond grip of the pistol. The weight of the weapon felt unnatural; sweat beaded on his brow and the gun shook in his hands.
"Is there a problem with the weapon, 88?” The voice through speaker was impersonal, clinical. Elliot hated it. He wanted to go home, or at least back to his room. He would even be fine with being strapped in again.
"Elliot, dammit. My name is Elliot, and I’m fine.” Blatant lies, but if he did not play along he would not be allowed to leave. “Guns just make me nervous, is all. What the hell does this have to do with rehab?”
"Aim your weapon downrange and fire at the target,” the voice said, ignoring Elliot’s query. “I warn you that the window to the observation room is bulletproof and any aggression displayed against the staff will be met with lethal force.”
Elliot shook his head. “Why are you treating me like a murderer?”
There was a barely audible sigh from the speaker. “You ripped a man into unrecognizable pieces.”
Oh. Right, Elliot mused to himself, gritting his teeth. Almost forgot about that.
"We know it was in self-defense but these precautions are standard operating procedure.”
"Whatever,” Elliot replied in annoyance. “I’ll shoot the damn gun.”
Locking eyes on the paper target thirty yards beyond the counter in front of him, the black printed silhouette seemed to almost mock Elliot's nerves. He slowly raised the pistol, lined up his shot and found himself naturally slipping into a steadier stance. He took a measured breath to steady his hands and pulled the trigger.
Five rounds, rapid. Each hit its mark within the 8 ring. Elliot froze before he could fire the other four rounds in the magazine. He suddenly remembered the woods, clouds of breath hanging in the air around...
His prey staring him down, and a scared little boy's finger trembling inside the trigger guard.
Arms falling limp in front of him, numbness began to spread across the bridge of Elliot's nose, setting his face abuzz. A tightness settled in his chest as his knees buckled, his thoughts choppy and panicked. The sensation was too much to bear; he sunk to the ground in a crumpled heap. The voice on the speaker droned on, but the young man decided it did not matter. All he wanted was to get out of that room and crawl into the loving arms of his wife as the panic attack took a firm hold.
Gloria walked through the door to Imogen’s room, leaving Talbot in the hall. From the mental broadcasts she picked up while just down the hall, she could tell Imogen was conflicted over the newest subject. Conflict was never good; the telepath did not feel comfortable awash in such muddled ideas.
Imogen’s appearance did not betray that, however; even in the medical gown draped over her shoulders, she maintained her business-like demeanor over her olive-hued face and had her hair pulled back in a tight bun held in place with two tongue depressors. The “tough chick” front was up, but Gloria could see right through it. Unease, fear, and gratefulness were thrown far and wide from the brunette’s head.
"You wanted to see me?” Gloria got straight to the point. She had things to do.
"Yeah,” Imogen confirmed. “You’re interviewing that guy from the other day.”
"What about it?”
He saved me. He’s Corrupted. He fought it off. He can control it. Help him Save him help mehelphimrunrunRUNheisdifferent
heiswrongrightbadgoodhelpcarefulOHGODMAKEITSTOP— Gloria closed her eyes and focused, blocking out the unorganized mass of conflicting thoughts flying through Imogen’s mind and mixing with her own. The brunette winced apologetically.
"Sorry,” Imogen said. “Are you ready?”
Closing her eyes to maintain her focus, Gloria took a deep breath before replying. “Yeah. I didn’t think you would be this bothered.”
"Did you see what I’m going to ask you to do?” Imogen’s eyes were slightly hopeful, not that Gloria noticed.
"Your thoughts are… You know, you might want to talk this one out.”
Imogen sighed and sat down on the edge of her bed. “Washington…DI-1188, did you scan him during the hospital incident?” Gloria nodded. “Could you sense the Corruption?”
"No,” Gloria replied, twisting her mouth in remembrance. “He was afraid, tired….”
"Different?” The question hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity before Imogen continued. “How much do you remember after I shifted?”
Fear. Anger. Grief. Bravery. An echo of emotions crashed over Gloria but she could not remember if they were her own or Washington’s. The events of that afternoon escaped her; she remembered breaching the door with Talbot and Imogen and she remembered Talbot kneeling over her while Washington and Imogen were being wheeled out of the room on gurneys. Between those events, her memory was annoyingly blank.
"Tal let me know about my episode,” Gloria said, opening her eyes. “From what he told me, it sounded like I locked with the target.”
Imogen shook her head. “I don’t think so. You couldn’t get a scan on him, remember?”
Gloria frowned. “You think I locked with 88 instead, don’t you?”
"Yes.” Imogen steadied herself. She glanced up to Gloria with a sheepish grin. “Sorry, the meds are making me a little woozy. He shifted away from the target. While shifted. He controlled the Corruption when it overtook him, or maybe he fought it off.”Not possible. “What are you saying?”
"I’m saying watch your back. He reminds me of those creeps we ran into during the CrimsonTech job.”The man-made anomalies. How could Gloria forget that? “He was scanned for their hardware and it came up negative. Besides, CrimsonTech wouldn’t let one of their experiments just wander around, let alone live a normal life.”
Imogen nodded, more to herself than to Gloria, and tried to control the sudden wave of discomfort for the sake of her friend. “Yeah…yeah, you’re right. That makes him a horse of a different color, and that doesn’t sit well with me.”
"I’ll be careful,” Gloria asserted as she moved to the door.
"Gloria.” The blonde paused, turning back towards her friend. “He saved my life—our lives. He killed that guy to protect us. Don’t burn him out, ok?”
The young boy looked down at the plastic cup in his hand before he checked the clock on the truck’s dashboard. 4:57 am. They were a little early, so his father and he shared a cup of coffee from the aluminum thermos sitting between them on the console. His excitement was almost palpable. His father ruffled his hair with a grin.
A man was slowly walking into the beams from the headlamps. The boy recognized Mr. Baris and waved through the windshield, not realizing that the man more than likely couldn't see him through the glare. His father got out of the truck and he followed, practically leaping off the seat onto the soft ground below.
"Heya, sport,” Mr. Baris chuckled. “Ready to bag your first buck today?”
Elliot walked through the door, head hung low and wrists bound to his ankles in shackles. He looked up to examine the new room: brushed steel table in the center with matching chairs on either side, a third chair against the opposite wall. A big mirror ran the length of the wall to his left, reflecting his grizzled, unshaven face and mussed brown hair. Christ, I look like the Unabomber.
"Why do I feel like a suspect in one of those cop shows?”
"It's an interview room,” The nurse replied. “Just going over your story one more time before we release you.”
"Is it that hard to believe?” Elliot asked.
"With everything I see day in day out, I believe just about anything,” she giggled, shutting the door. The click of the lock echoed through the near empty room.
"That's why we're here,” a voice echoed with a distinct British accent, “to help fill in any blanks. If you could have a seat at the table, we can get started.”
Elliot turned back towards the table, now occupied by a stern-looking young man, broad shoulders imposing over the steel tabletop. The far chair held a petite blonde woman with hair pulled back, face blank. She nodded towards the open chair, and Elliot sat. He went to scratch his nose but the chains stopped his hand short.
"Can you take these things off?”
"Not until we've cleared you,” the man responded. “This won't take long, Mr. Washington.”
Elliot snorted. “You're the first person to call me by my name right off the bat. I appreciate that. Call me Elliot.”
The man across the table nodded. “Duly noted. My name is Talbot Nox and this is Gloria Day. Feel free to use our first names, we're all mates here.”
"You took me in some sort of messed-up hospital, had me chained up like an animal, denied me the right to see my wife, and then had me shoot target practice against my will. I don't know what the hell we are, but I don't think we're 'mates.'” Elliot attempted to gesture the quotations in the air, but the shackles held fast against his wrists. Talbot looked over his shoulder to Gloria, who nodded.
"Before we begin,” he said, “I want to thank you. You saved my team at great risk to yourself, and that's commendable.”
"You don't need to thank me for doing your job.”
Hoping to throw his interviewers off-kilter, the young man let the biting remark hang the air. Talbot and Gloria did not seem affected, the former shuffling through a stack of papers in a manila folder. Elliot strained his neck to try and see what Talbot was looking at, but failed.
"Well, let's get the simple stuff out of the way, shall we?” the Brit continued. “What is your name?”
"You know my name,” Elliot growled.
"Humor me.” Talbot peered over the folder, watching Elliot's reactions.
"Elliot Washington. Sometimes I go by Rooster. It's a nickname.”
Elliot's ears began to ring and what sounded like muted mumbling filled the air. Closing his eyes, he shook the sensation away.
"Date of birth?”
"May 26th, 1988.” The mumbling was getting louder now. Images, like long forgotten memories, flashed in Elliot's mind's eye.
"Good,” Talbot continued, unaware of the sensations arcing across Elliot's synapses. “How much to you remember....”
The question was quickly lost in the din of noise. Elliot wanted to cover his ears but the chains held his hands fast. How can they not hear all this racket? More images flashed, voices shouted. The room began to spin and one image flashed more frequently—a blonde girl, about ten years old, with a large, golden dog. The young man could no longer see the world around him, as if his retinas were playing the most chaotic screen saver ever conceived; he could feel hands on his arms, trying to hold him steady as pain exploded across his scalp.
"Get outta my head!” Elliot screamed at the top of his lungs.
Talbot and Gloria laid him down. The prick of the needle in his arm barely registered through the waves of discomfort, however. All he could see and think about was the girl and her dog. He had no idea who he was seeing, but it seemed like he had known the pair his entire life.
The sedative was quickly taking effect and the cacophony of sensations were dying down. Elliot felt his lids get heavy and his breathing began to slow. The dog...the dog...a wolf?
"Jasper.” That was the last word Elliot could muster before falling deep into unconsciousness.
Gloria followed Talbot down the hall, rubbing her throbbing temples. She thankfully managed to block out the subject's neural burst before he was tranquilized, but she didn't escape completely unscathed. She had seen it before; most telepaths have the same reaction to the sudden influx of surface thoughts when their powers first come to light. Washington had been tested extensively. No signs of telepathy, let alone any other anomalous abilities. She feared that Imogen's assessment was correct.
"He's one of them,” she muttered.
"One of what?” he questioned, stopping to face her.
"He's a vore,” Gloria clarified. “No other explanation.”
Talbot's eyebrows raised in alarm as he looked back and forth, making sure there were no others in the hallway before continuing the conversation.
"Not possible. We scanned him for tech and found nothing. Couldn't he just be a latent teep?” Gloria cringed at the slang term for her ability and Talbot was quick to notice, thrusting out a hurried and apologetic, "Sorry.”
"First thing we went over in my training,” Gloria continued, “was how to block out other telepaths. He said 'Jasper.' That was my dog's name.”
"So, he scanned you, Talbot dismissed. “Are you sure you're not just off your game because of Momo?”
"He didn't just scan me, he forced his way through every mental defense I had and brought up something I wasn't even thinking about.” Gloria swallowed, her throat feeling like sandpaper. Fight through it. “If he was focused, it could be possible, but there's no way in hell if he was physically incapacitated from all the white noise. That's not mentioning the obvious, though.”
Talbot sighed. “No dramatic pauses, Sweets. Spit it out.”
"Washington didn't have any psychic activity until I started scanning him.” Gloria looked down, suddenly interested in her feet. “If he is a vore, it wouldn't have triggered any other way. It also explains how he controlled the Corruption instead of ripping us all to shreds in that board room.”
"And the adrenal response while target shooting.” Talbot's eyes widened as the realization dawned on him. He quickly spun on his heel and began heading towards the elevator at the end of the hallway. “I'm reporting this to Zebediah directly,” he called back over his shoulder.
Gloria remained still. “What should I do?”
"Get something to eat and watch some telly. I'll keep you posted.”
Zebediah walked into Command and Control, weaving through the go-fers undoubtedly retrieving coffee or paperwork for their taskmasters. The room was lit by the glow of various monitors, tracking everything from agents in the field to how much water was being used in the Zoo. He glanced over a couple of shoulders, only half paying attention to the read-outs, before making his way to the technician that summoned him. On her screen, he could see a well-played game of Minesweeper in progress.
"Not bad, lass,” he said with a chuckle. “You rang?”
The technician looked over her shoulder with a look of boredom that snapped to surprise once she recognized her boss.
"Yes, sir!” She quickly turned back to her terminal, minimizing the game and bringing several logs forward. “I tracked down the source of those brownouts.”
"Yes, sir,” she confirmed. “You sent a memo wanting it checked, but considering how the lights have been going dim at random times I took the liberty of checking before.”
Zebediah frowned. He did not remember sending out any memos today, let alone one regarding a scourge of brownouts that apparently were causing the facility issue. Making a mental note to double-check his files, he continued through the meeting.
"Oookay. So, where's the issue?”
"Seems to be Vault triple-zero-three.”
Zebediah's breath caught in his throat. Oh, bloody hell. “The Ark?”
"Yes sir.” The tech highlighted several entries in the log, bringing them to Zebediah's attention. “It seems that the containment field is under more stress than usual so it's drawing more power.”
Zebediah released the rest of his breath quietly. Traces of the Corruption must be having a reaction with the Ark.
"It's on the high end, but it's within normal ranges. Keep an eye on it and let me know if anything changes, good or bad.”
The tech's “Yes sir,” was overpowered by a man shouting, “Zeb!” He turned towards the door and saw Talbot crossing the room, moving at a good clip and almost knocking over one of the go-fers, earning him a dirty look.
Zebediah crossed his arms, eying the vampire suspiciously. “Did you send out a memo in my name without authorization?”
"What? No.” The vampire quickly dismissed the accusation and beckoned Zebediah towards him.
"I'm not going to like this, am I?” Zebediah knew bad news when it reared its ugly head.
"Washington's head popped when Gloria scanned him,” Talbot uttered. “He's back in his room getting checked on.”
"I hope you don't mean literally.”
"Talbot grunted in mild amusement and continued. “Neural burst, and we had to knock him out to stabilize him. It seemed to be triggered by the scan.”
Zebediah leaned on the terminal beside him. “So, you two think he's a vore?”
"That would explain what happened topside, but--.” Zebediah was interrupted by a loud alarm coming from the console propping him up. It was quickly joined by several others before he could fully right himself. "Status!”
"Containment field is down, sir! We lost all power to the Vault!” the tech shouted.
"Multiple contacts are breaching through the Ark! Outbreak!” another voice cried, confirming the worst.
"Shit,” Zebediah muttered. “Deploy all security forces. We need to get all non-combatants to the shelters ASAP.”
Talbot leaped over the railing to the terminals below. He occupied the nearest vacant one and typed furiously in an attempt to alert Gloria. The signal connected to her earpiece, but it was left unanswered. The vampire swore under his breath as several lights blinked on the keyboard in front of him.
"Incoming call!” Talbot shouted over the din of scrambling technicians. “Patching it through.”
"DI-DC-L-1142 to Command,” a gruff voice called from the speaker. “Everything went dark down in R&D. What's happening?"
"This is Command,” Zebediah answered, punching away at a power terminal in a bid to reroute power back to the Ark. “Blaze, gather Delta and suit up. Assist the security in evac then stand-by for further orders.”
"Roger that,” Blaze confirmed. “Bad guys?”
One of the technicians examined the readout on their terminal. “Contacts are confirmed as small-scale Corruption-based entities.”
"Chaotics,” Talbot grunted. “Better be prepped for crowd control.”
"Delta Lead, rapid-fire weaponry is authorized,” Zebediah commanded. “Get our people out of there.”
"Copy that,” Blaze returned. “We'll bring out the bullet-hoses. Delta Lead, out.”
The connection died and Talbot resumed hailing Gloria's earpiece. The technicians were reporting the status of the various wings of the facility.
"Clear that terminal!” Zebediah shouted over the insanity. “The Chaotics are closing on the Residential wing. We need to lock down that containment grid to slow them down!”
"Damnit," Talbot swore, fighting with the communications terminal. “C'mon, Sweets, pick up!”
The rifle was heavy in his hands. It had been hours since he saw his father and Mr. Baris; they had left him in this tree stand to keep an eye out for deer after he froze trying to take his first shot. He had disappointed his father, he knew, but it was surreal. He had only shot at foam targets, not something that was living, breathing. He had been afraid.
The boy spotted something out in the field, about two hundred yards away, and reached for his binoculars. It was his father, ghostly in the day's first light. Something dark and shadowy lept from the nearby brush and pinned him down. The boy gasped. A wolf.
Elliot woke to the sound of gunfire. Before his eyes opened he could feel someone fighting to release his restraints. He heard the now-familiar voice of the nurse shout over the din of gunfire.
"Wake up, Elliot!” she was shouting. “Nap time's over.”
Elliot's eyes snapped open as two shadowy creatures, about the size of children, landed in his lap. The nurse's hands stopped fumbling with the leather straps and produced a Sig Sauer, unleashing two rounds into the creatures. A tar-like substance splashed all over Elliot's face, stinking of bad meat. He coughed instinctively, trying to clear his mouth of the foul liquid, and tore at the other strap with his free hand.
The nurse turned her attention to the door, splattering three more of the creatures before looking back to Elliot.
"No time to explain. Hope you're as good with one of these as the eggheads say,” the nurse spat, tossing a second pistol into his lap.
"What...the fuck--” Elliot's inquiry was cut short as the nurse fired her weapon three times, severing the remaining restraints from the bed.
Over the ringing in Elliot's ears, he heard her say, “We need to get you to one of the shelters. Now."
Gloria's eyes were closed when a familiar chill washed down her spine to her fingertips and toes. She could feel them in her mind, slithering amongst the shadows, getting closer, and her adrenaline spiked.
Eyes still closed, Gloria's hand flew for the service weapon on her hip, punching through one of the oily creatures. She felt the spray but ignored it, rolling off of her couch and firing four rounds from her now free weapon into the creature, black tar spraying the off-white walls. Gloria's eyes finally opened; she dug through the end table's drawer with her free hand, firing on the fierce, swarming creatures with the other.
Finally, she found what she was looking for—her tactical earpiece and her back-up pistol. Gloria quickly placed the device in her ear and turned it on, holding back the increasing number of Chaotics phasing through her walls as oily puddles. The little speaker squealed to life with a burst of static before a desperate voice called over her frequency.
"--tus? Alpha Three, please respond!” His accent was cloying over the radio.
"I'm here, Tally,” Gloria replied as calm as she could, making her way towards the door to her quarters. Three more rounds, three more oil slicks.
"Good to hear,” Talbot replied through the static. “What's your status?”
Gloria backed out into the hall, firing the last of her clip into the crowd before slamming the door shut. Buy a little time. Get to the others. She slammed a new clip in place and pulled the other pistol out with her off hand, aiming them in opposite directions down the hall. Clear. For now, anyway.
"Looking for action. Where's the party?”
"The Vault, Crypt triple-oh three.” Talbot raised a questioning eyebrow to Zebediah, who nodded in confirmation. Gloria let out a little sigh in his ear.
"I was afraid you were going to say that,” she replied. “Containment?”
Zebediah fielded her second question.“The grid is back online, so if we're lucky it's only one Hive. Alpha, your job is to clean this mess up.” The Scotsman ignored Talbot's glare. “Delta is securing non-combatants in the residential and medical wings. Once their job is done, they'll back you up.”
"Roger that, moving out.” Gloria replied. “See you on the flip side, Tally.”
The link went silent. Talbot stood and glanced around the room, checking entry points. He tapped the tech's shoulder, who looked up at him “How's the grid here?”
"No fluctuations. We should be able to hold them here.”
"Damn straight, lass. Here, catch.” Zebediah tossed a long object to Talbot, who caught it in his right hand. “Hope you remember how to use it.”
Talbot looked down at the scabbard in his hand: simple, black leather was sewn around the steel blade as well as the handle.
"This will do nicely,” Talbot said. He unsheathed the weapon and discarded the now-useless hunk of hardened leather on the tech's desk. He tapped the blade against his shoulder, testing the weight, as he walked towards the exit. “Not bad at all. I'll be in touch, old man.”
Elliot felt dizzy. He wasn't sure if it was the foul-smelling, tar-like goop covering his entire body or the fact he was gripping the pistol in his hands like it was his only child, but he was going to have to rest soon or pass out.
"How much farther?” he gasped to the nurse.
"Two more sectors,” she answered, equally breathless.”Are you feeling ok?”
Elliot shook his head. “Gimme a few seconds and I'll be good. Still a little wiped from earlier.”
The nurse screwed her face into a scowl of disapproval for a second, but seeing Elliot close his eyes and lean against a wall in exhaustion softened her a bit. She found a spot on the wall next to him and rested as well.
"Holy shit, lady,” Elliot said after a few seconds. “So, does stuff like this happen often?”
"No,” she casually replied. “At least not in the facility. Out in the field is a different story entirely.”
"Huh.” Elliot's head was spinning; he could feel the little...things closing in on them, but he was not sure how. They felt like cold spots in his mind's eye, swarming towards him. This must be how those guys on the Nostromo felt, he thought with a grimace. “They're coming closer. We should get moving--”
"My name is Margaret. Margaret Rumsfeld. 'Lady' and 'Nurse' are getting old.”
Elliot chuckled to himself, more to keep from cracking than from finding anything humorous. Being attacked by things that look like animated asphalt would get to a person, he reasoned. He nodded to Margaret and pushed himself off the wall. He motioned down the hall with his head.
"There's people down that way,” he said plainly. “Soldier types, I think. Maybe they can help us expedite this trip?”
Margaret cocked her head to the side. “How do you know?”
"Couldn't tell you,” Elliot responded. “I just do.”
Gloria shoved her way through a mass of Chaotics, firing her pistols at whatever she could. Their dark bodies were popping like water balloons, splattering their tar-like innards all over the walls and her dress uniform. She took a brief moment to look at the mess on her front and sighed.
"Damn,” she mumbled to herself, “I just had this dry-cleaned.”
Gloria shook it off; she would just leave it for the orderlies to take care of after this was all over. She quickened her pace down the hall, hitting the button on her headset.
"Alpha Three to Command,” she said, running towards the nearest stairwell.
"Command here,” came Zebediah's reply. “Give me a sit-rep, lass.”
"Just got clear of the Residential Sector, heading down to the Vault via stairway...” Her voice trailed off for a second while she searched for the routing sign. “Stairway 1138B. Any word from Delta yet?”
"Delta is securing the Med Wing shelters as we speak. They've got their hands full over there.”
Damn. “Copy. Looks like we'll be taking down the hive mind on our own then?”
"Negative. You don't have enough manpower to take it out. Just hold it at bay until Delta Team arrives.”
"You might want to hold off on that, even.” Talbot's voice was tinny in her ear. “I'm still a ways out.”
Talbot calmly guided the blade in his right hand through four of the little chaotic monsters swarming around him while he zipped down the hallway with ease. He quickly reversed his grip on the hilt and forced the sharp steel behind him, impaling two more. His left hand went immediately for his sidearm, flicking it in front of his face and firing four rounds, each hitting one of the creatures down the hall from him.
"What do you mean?” Gloria growled in his ear. “You were closer than I was!”
Talbot spun on the ball of his left foot, planting his right into another of the nearby creatures as he looked at the navigation signs flying past him on the walls. Medical, medical, medical. He found the hallway he was looking for and turned sharply to his left, firing the rest of his clip through the double doors leading to the Medical Wing before kicking it open.
"I'm taking the scenic route,” he said with half a sneer. “Got to check up on our favorite pain in the arse.”
Elliot and Margaret continued down the hall, splattering any of the tar-creatures that appeared before them. Crossing from the Medical Wing to the Main Junction, the sound of assault rifles and grenades rang from down one of the hallways. Elliot turned towards the din and ran, Margaret close on his heels.
What they saw was pure chaos. Three soldiers in full combat gear were holding off large amounts of the tar-creatures, shouting to each other. The creatures were exploding from gunfire, covering large portions of the gray walls in black smears. A small group of the creatures were trying to sneak up behind one of the soldiers, but the soldier's hand engulfed itself in flame and a stream of white fire incinerated half of them. Elliot was stunned.
Margaret's expression showed a hint of relief. “Delta Team! Let's go!”
Elliot and Margaret ran towards the chaos, firing their pistols into the sea of black creatures. The closest soldier looked at them, shot down a couple of the creatures, and gestured for them to hurry. She suddenly froze, focusing on something beyond the pair. Elliot made the mistake of glancing over his shoulder. What looked like a tidal wave of tar was closing the gap behind them.
"Seriously?!” he shouted, firing his pistol over his shoulder. “Where the hell do these things keep coming from?”
"Less talking, more running!” Margaret was ten feet ahead of Elliot, focusing her fire on the creatures in front of them.
One of the other soldiers shouted to the closest one, “Seal it off! We can't risk the casualties here!”
The soldier quickly motioned her hand towards the incoming wave of creatures. Margaret stopped and turned towards the oncoming chaos. Elliot, now twenty yards behind, sensed something change in the air, like lightning about to strike.
"Elliot!” Margaret shouted, but it was too late.
The soldier knocked Margaret out of the way and raised her hand in a violent motion and a wall of rock erupted from the floor, blocking the area off from Elliot and the incoming creatures. He ran to the wall and punched it. Solid granite. He pounded his fist against it again and again hoping that it would miraculously budge, but to no avail.
"Shit!” he shouted, turning towards the tar-creatures slowly closing in around him. “Shit shit shit!"
Elliot fired into the mass of writhing creatures, more of the noxious black substance splattering on and around him. He began feeling dizzy again, slowly backing into a shadowy corner. His head wobbled and he tripped over himself, sinking to the ground, darkness overcoming him as his body went cold.
He waited for the impact of the ground on his backside, but it never came. Elliot kept sinking for what seemed like forever, surrounded in cold shadow. So, this is what it feels like to die? he thought to himself. Wow. Dying sucks.
To his surprise, Elliot landed on his feet on solid ground. His vision cleared and he raised his pistol, checking his surroundings. A hospital room, not unlike the one he was kept in for the past week. There was a familiar-looking woman standing there, covered in black tar and gripping a scalpel in her white knuckled fist.
She disappeared from his field of view and he felt a crushing blow to the back of his leg, causing him to stumble. His right arm twisted around behind him, yielding his gun to the unseen assailant before another strike to his shoulder sent him tumbling to the ground. Elliot quickly rolled over to be greeted by his own pistol hovering a few inches from the bridge of his nose.
"Who the hell are you?” the woman spat, shoving the gun against his forehead.
It was then that he recognized the woman from the hospital; the woman that tried to save him from that crazy security guard.
"Oh, boy,” he said in a meek voice.
Before he could even think, the boy was closing the distance between himself and the marauding beast pinning down his father. He paused, the realization that he could not run quick enough sinking in as the rifle instinctively came up. Leveled in his sights was the gray, furry creature attacking his father. Time seemed to slow down; the young boy could almost count the individual droplets hanging midair in the cloud of his breath. His nerves were calm as he adjusted for wind he could not feel. He drew a breath, held it, and pulled the trigger.
The gunshot was deafening; it echoed through the trees with a haunting crack as crimson splashed over the wolf's pelt and his father's clothes. He ejected the spent cartridge and sprinted towards his father, who had pushed the wolf's carcass off of him.
"Nice shot, son,” his father told him after a long moment, picking himself up off the ground. “But I thought you didn't want to hurt animals.”
The 8-year-old lowered the rifle from his shoulder with a sigh too heavy for a child his age.“That animal was hurting you.”
"Sorry about your arm,” Imogen said, motioning with Elliot's absconded pistol. “I didn't recognize you.”
Elliot rubbed the offending injury. “I'll live. Can I have my gun back?”
"No.” The word was heavy in the air and Elliot didn't like it. Imogen ignored his pouting scowl and changed the subject. “Where did you learn that little trick? Popping out of the shadows like that?”
"Don't know, don't care,” he spat, sitting on the foot of the bed. “Can I have my gun back?”
"I don't think so. You know, they move like that, too.”
Elliot winced, remembering the dark tidal wave heading towards him mere minutes before. “The tar things? Yeah, I noticed. Can I--”
"Shut up.” More heavy words. Imogen could feel Elliot's distaste burning through his gaze. “You did the same thing in the hospital.”
"No, I didn't. I got kidnapped and had the shit beat out of me,” Elliot replied in exhaustion. “But then again, it does seem that whoever runs this place is doing the same thing.”
Elliot disagreed with her statement; he found it quite horrible, in fact, but Imogen didn't care.
“Might as well make yourself useful and help me get to the shelter.”
Elliot sighed. “Two things: one, I would be more helpful with a gun. Two, the way to the shelter is blocked.”
"Good to see you're at least as intelligent as a tape recorder. Yes. Blocked by some earth-bender bitch before I could get there.”
Imogen closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “We need to go.”
Elliot stood on shaky legs. His stomach growled but he ignored it; now was not the time to be worrying about food. “Go where? The shelter's blocked off.”
"We're going to the Vault. I'll bet that's where the Chaotics are coming from.” Imogen tossed him the pistol, which he bobbled between his hands for a second before he found a grip. “Time to go on the hunt.”
"Wait, what?” Elliot shouted. “I didn't sign up for this, you know.”
"Yeah, well neither did I, kid. Welcome to DarkWatch.”
Gloria lept down the last half of the stairway, twisting in midair and aiming her guns at the landing above. She landed hard on her rear as five Chaotics rounded the corner along the wall. The petite warrior unleashed a wall of lead in their general direction and discarded her now empty clips, not even checking to see if she hit any of them. At this point she was just looking for a way out of the cramped quarters of the stairwell.
Rolling towards the next set of stairs, Gloria kicked her legs in the air and sprung off the ground from her shoulders with a grunt, landing less than gracefully on the stairs. The blonde tried to catch herself on the railing, but slid further down, the stairs bruising her shins through the thin material of her dress uniform. She finally got her footing and made her way further down, offering up a silent prayer that she would be able to procure replacement slacks before her next dress inspection.
Gloria could hear the creatures closing in from above and behind. She cursed to herself, firing one of her pistols over her shoulder. There was no way she would be able to get through the security door leading to the Storage Wing before the mass of Chaotics overtook her and devoured her flesh. It was time to improvise.
"Alpha Three to Command and Alpha Lead,” she shouted over her gunfire.
"Go ahead, Gloria,” Talbot's voice responded.
"The little shits are hot on my heels.” Three more shots. “Gonna be late for the party.”
"That makes two of us,” Talbot grumbled, kicking the irregular stone wall in front of him. “Looks like Slate blocked off a couple paths in Med Wing. Are you hearing this, boss?”
"Copy that, Alpha.” Zebediah let loose with a frustrated sigh that crackled in the vampire's earpiece. “Find an alternate route and get to the Vault ASAP. Delta's on surface containment.”
"Could this get any worse?” Talbot said, shocked.
"Dude,” Gloria spat into his ear, “they want to eat us and they're multiplying.” Gunshots from her channel caused his ears to ring for a moment. “No. I don't think so.”
Talbot turned his back to the stone blockage and looked around. He considered the stairs for a moment, but left them neglected for a surprisingly more attractive option.
"Gloria, meet me on level seven.”
"You're kidding.” Zebediah's disbelief was audible. “Gloria, he's kidding, right?”
"Doubt it. Tally, which box?”
Talbot opened the cover to the garbage chute and peeked into the metal ducting. “Looks like 26. Catch me if I fall?”
"You're insane!” Zebediah shouted.
The Brit lifted his right leg over the threshold, looking down the dark, vertical passage. He whistled, impressed by the distance between him and the pile of putrid refuse below.
"You know what, Zeb?” Talbot said, hefting his other leg over. “I think you're right.”
"You see? This is the shit I was talking about.” Elliot waved his hand at the irregular stone edifice blocking the hallway. Imogen crossed her arms, considering the obstacle before them.
"Yeah,” she growled. “Definitely Slate.”
"That 'earth-bender bitch.'” Imogen pinched the bridge of her nose in annoyance and exhaled sharply through it. “Figures that they'd try to put the place on lock-down, other survivors be damned.”
Elliot swore, looking for a way through. No dice; the irregular stone was piled flush to the ceiling. He saw some air vents, but there was no way that even his skinny frame would fit through them, let alone his more voluptuous compatriot. He gritted his teeth and pounded against the artificial wall some more, praying that he could make it budge.
Imogen watched his fruitless efforts for a few seconds before her eyes began to drift across their surroundings. Nothing but blank, white walls and doors leading to dead ends.
"So, explain to me how you ended up in my room again.”
Elliot furrowed his brow. “I fell. A bunch of those tar things--”
"Yeah, whatever. They had me cornered, I fell, and next thing I know you just about dislocated my shoulder and came within inches of blowing my head clean off.”
Imogen thought for a moment before continuing. “Was the corner shadowy?”
"How am I supposed to remember that? I was too busy trying not to crap my pants.”
Imogen disappeared from Elliot's view for a moment. He felt a rush of air when she popped back into existence right in front of him. Startled, he took a step back. Imogen suppressed a smile and took a step forward, resting her hands on his shoulders.
"I understand that you're scared,” she comforted, her tone almost motherly. “That's fine, but I need you to remember. If you are what I think you are, our lives and the lives of everyone in this place depend on you remembering how it happened. Okay?”
Elliot nodded, closed his eyes, and tried to remember. “I think there were shadows. One of the lights broke when the wall went up. It felt like I was being pulled through the ground and then I ended up there.”
"Do you think you can make that happen again?”
"I don't even know how it happened the first time!”
Imogen gently took the pistol from Elliot and pulled him into an embrace. He could feel soft curves press against him through their scrubs; her breath was tickling his neck and the sweet smell of her floral shampoo permeated every fiber of his being, reminding him of old times.
Chloe. Elliot squirmed uncomfortably for a moment before the realization dawned on him. She was trying to get him to take her along through the shadows.
"Just go with what feels right,” she said calmly, raising the pistol in the air. She brought the sights in line with the florescent light in the ceiling. “Ready?”
Elliot took a deep breath, centering himself behind closed eyes. “Do it.”
Imogen fired one round into the fixture, bathing them in shadow. Elliot felt the cold sensation from earlier return, as if the shadows were pulling at every molecule in his being. His vision blurred and the floor disappeared from beneath them.
It felt more like falling than sinking; Elliot barreled though what seemed like a dark tunnel with Imogen clinging on for dear life. He thought he heard her shouting but the noise sounded darker, more sinister. The travelers could hear—no, feel—the inner workings of the tar beasts. Dark instructions to kill, maim, consume.
The impact from the landing caused Elliot's knees to buckle. He could tell that he went much farther than the last adventure through the dark. The young man opened his eyes slowly, afraid of what he might see and waiting for more of the tar-creatures to rend his body asunder. There were no creatures but what he saw made his stomach wretch.
Dead bodies littered the dimly-lit hallway, painting the gray concrete walls crimson. Some of them were stripped of flesh, clutching feebly at whatever weapons they had tried to defend themselves with. The putrid stench of perforated bowels complimented the horrific scene. Elliot looked at his companion to see if she was affected as he was, but Imogen had already moved to the closest body, trying to pry something out of its hands.
Elliot fought down the urge to vomit everywhere and joined her, curious as to what she was reaching for. He recognized the silhouette of an assault rifle.
"What are you doing?” he gasped.
"We need it more than he does right now,” Imogen rationalized. “Go find one for yourself. That peashooter of yours isn't going to be much good against the Hive.”
Imogen checked the clip of her recently procured weapon. She noticed a familiar, black plastic apparatus in the ear of one of the other corpses andreached for it. “Get moving, Washington. If we hang around here too long the Chaotics will be on us like piranhas."
Gloria sprinted through the hall towards the garbage chutes, pausing to fire a few shots behind her. There was no time to aim; she needed to meet with Talbot if either one of them wanted a hope of today ending on a good note.
"Tally, what's your twenty?”
"Bollocks deep in a rubbish bin,” came his reply though the earpiece. “You?”
"Almost there. Hang tight!”
Gloria skidded around the corner, gaining just enough traction to push forward to the garbage bins. She saw Talbot round the next corner, aiming at the creatures behind her. She hit the ground in a baseball slide before he opened fire. The bullets whizzing overhead were hitting their marks, leaving a black spattering on the surrounding walls. Gloria rolled into a crouch, bringing the muzzles of both of her pistols to bear on the horde of Chaotics behind her.
"Did you send out the invites?” Talbot called over the din of gunfire. “I thought I told you, only fifty people.”
Gloria checked the ammunition in her pistols. “You okay?”
"Brilliant, if a little sore. You?”
She grinned at her commanding officer and gave him a playful wink. “Never better. Let's get moving.”
Talbot motioned behind him, opposite of the thinning horde that followed Gloria. She ran in that direction, checking the shadowy corners for more of the little beasts. Talbot followed closely behind.
"Alpha Lead to Command, do you copy?”
"Go ahead, Talbot.”
The pair rounded the corner, heading towards a stairwell. “Rendezvoused with Alpha Three, heading to objective. What's the situation with Delta?”
"Delta's holding them at the door, but they won't last much longer unless we neutralize the objective. Time's running out, Alpha.”
Imogen pocketed a couple grenades from the corpse she was kneeling over, listening to the conversation play out over the earpiece she recovered from one of the dead security forces. She glanced at Elliot, making sure he was still standing. The woman knew that if he kept pushing himself like he had been that he would collapse under the stress. His face was pale and gaunt, the signs of burnout becoming increasingly more prevalent on his frame.
"Alpha Two to Command, do you copy?” Imogen spoke. No reply. “Alpha Two to Alpha Lead, do you copy?” Nothing. “Damn.”
Elliot tried to steady his grip on the assault rifle he had found, but the mixture of blood and the black goop made the task more difficult than it should have been. He frowned at the weapon and instead fixed his glare on Imogen, looking for direction. She met it and considered their next course of action.
"Let's move,” she huffed, motioning towards him. “There's a stairway about sixty yards up. It looks like we're by R&D, so our destination should be three or four floors down. Got it?”
"Yes, ma'am,” Elliot replied with a mock salute. “Question, though.”
"When you said 'hive,' did you mean we're going to be fighting a whole bunch of these things at once?”
"Nope,” Imogen said with a shake of her head. “The Hive Mind is what's controlling all the Chaotics. It's the same sort of creature, just bigger and meaner.”
Elliot gulped, matching pace with Imogen as they made their way down the hall. “For the record, I'm glad I don't have to do this every day.”
Imogen nodded but hid her scowl. Kid, you have no idea.
"I'm sorry I was harsh with you earlier,” his father uttered, driving down the highway towards home. “When I was your age, if I didn't take that shot on the buck my dad would not have let me forget it.”
The boy was quiet, watching the corn fields pass. He still was not happy about it. What his father had said when they first sighted the buck hurt his feelings.
"Look, what you did with that wolf was...amazing. And brave!”
The boy still did not reply.
"There is nothing wrong with not wanting to take a life.” The boy's father risked a glance at his son, who remained silent.
A few moments later, the boy finally uttered,“But I did.”
"Do you feel bad about it?”The boy was silent again, but he was deep in thought opposed to ignoring his father like before. The older man let his son think for a few moments.
"No. No, I don't.”
"Is the coast clear?” Talbot's question was urgent, pleading. He had switched his pistol for his saber, hoping it would give him an edge in the cramped environs of the stairwell. Instead, it was eerily silent.
"As far as I can tell, yeah,” Gloria answered. “Looks like there's nothing between us and the Vault.”
"Good,” the knight breathed. “Cover me, I'm opening the door.”
Talbot began fiddling with the keypad controlling the electric lock. He punched in his identification number and heard the first lock click open, but the security in place required two people.
"Gloria, I'm going to need--”
"Movement on the landing above,” Gloria cautioned. Both soldiers froze, raising their weapons. Talbot adjusted the grip on the hilt of his blade.
He could hear the footsteps now: two sets softly echoing above them, descending the stairs. Gloria could sense them preparing to round the corner.
Two figures popped into view at the landing above them, both aiming rifles down towards Gloria and Talbot. There was a stunned silence before the pair on the upper landing lowered their weapons.
"You two ok?” Imogen gave her squad mates a grin, descending the stairs between them. “Look who I picked up off the side of the road.”
"More like 'fell into your lap and was violently disarmed,'” Elliot quipped. “But, hey, who's keeping track?”
Gloria arched an eyebrow. “Washington? Why aren't you in the shelter?”
Talbot grunted. “Why aren't either of you in the shelter?” he growled.
Imogen glowered at her superior. “If Delta hadn't of boxed us in, we would be! Instead, I have to fight off these little bastards with a scalpel until our favorite little vore shows up.”
"That's where the 'violently disarmed' portion of my story comes in,” Elliot filled in. “Trust me, though, the last thing I want to be doing right now is playing hero.”
"It's true,” Imogen confirmed. “He hasn't stopped bitching the entire time. Oh, by the way, Gloria?”
"You left your hairbrush in my room.”
Gloria looked up at her ragged hair, all in knots and tangles. “Yeah. I'm painfully aware.”
Talbot stifled a small laugh and keyed his earpiece. “Alpha Lead to Command, I have a situation here.”
"This is Command. What's happening, Talbot?”
"We have a couple tag-alongs. Alpha Two and Washington, of all people. Please advise.”
The tiny speaker was silent for a moment. “Alpha Two, can you hear this?”
"The mic's busted on this set,” Imogen told Talbot. “I can hear him loud and clear, though.”
"She can hear you, Zeb.”
"Alpha Two, you are not cleared for field duty. What the hell are you doing?”
Imogen grabbed Talbot's earpiece from him, much to his protests. “Delta blocked off the Med Wing, sir. It was either get moving or get eaten. Washington's in the same boat. Between the two of us, we have been more than capable.”
"Imogen--” Zebediah started.
"Don't expect us to stand down.” Imogen's tone was sharp, making sure the message was received. “Two people cannot take out a Hive Mind on their own without risking casualties and you know it. With four of us, we at least stand a chance.”
Zebediah's sigh crackled through the airwaves. “Acknowledged. Natura and Washington have temporary field-agent status, but both of you are to report to Med Wing immediately after this mess is cleaned up. Do I make myself clear?”
"Yes, sir,” Imogen replied, a wry grin crossing her face. She tossed the earpiece back to Talbot, whose face expressed mild concern. “Relax, old man, I'm fine. Let's do this thing.”
Talbot fitted the communication device beck into his ear. “We're moving in to neutralize the target. Anything else while we're down here, Zeb?”
"Negative. Just try to keep Washington in one piece.”
"Copy. Alpha Team, out.” The vampire took a deep breath and looked at his team. “Well, looks like the band's back together again.”
"Yippie shit,” Elliot said.
"Cram it, Yoko,” Gloria spat. “You're the reason we're scattered to begin with.”
"Ok, do you really want to--”
Cut the chatter.” Talbot motioned to the two offending parties with his sword. “Both of you. We have a job to do, remember?”
Elliot shut his mouth, suddenly pretending to be interested in the condition of his weapon while the others stacked up on the door. The soldiers looked at him, waiting. The tired young man realized that they were waiting for him to get clear of the door, lest he got attacked by anything waiting for them on the other side. He quickly got against the wall behind Imogen and waited for the door to open.
"Go, go, go!” Talbot threw the door wide open and the team poured through. Talbot, Imogen, and Gloria were tightly grouped, covering as many angles as they could with their weapons. Elliot followed suit, trying to remember how SWAT teams moved in the television shows he watched with Chloe. Chloe....
"Clear!” Imogen shouted. “Where's the target?”
"The Ark,” Gloria responded. “Vault triple-oh three. We need to hurry before the oil slicks breach to the surface.”
Elliot followed the group to the third door on the left, stacking up against the wall again. His mouth felt dry, and he shivered in anticipation.
"Ok,” Talbot commanded, “when we go through that door, we spread out and hit hard. Imogen, do we have ordinance?”
"Five or six frags,” the dark-haired woman confirmed, patting the grenades in her pockets.
"That'll work. Focus all your fire on its core, stay frosty, and we'll be back in our bunks in no time. Got it?”
"What do you mean, 'core?'” Elliot asked. “What exactly are we looking for, here?”
"You'll know it when you see it,” replied Gloria.
"'Pay attention'.” Talbot closed his eyes and took a breath. “Breaching in 3, 2, 1, hit it!”
The door to the Vault opened and the team rushed in, Elliot close behind. Thousands of obsidian crates were stacked on top of each other in the Vault—to Elliot's surprise, it was more of a warehouse—but no creature was to be seen.
"Where is it?” Imogen inquired, looking around the open area.
There was a groan from above that drew Elliot's attention to the ceiling. The source of the growl was firmly attached there, its dark, meaty skin glistening in the low light. Elliot's rifle was immediately aimed upwards and he unconsciously flipped the fire selector switch to burst.
"Oh, fuck me.”
The Hive Mind, by Elliot's estimate, had to be at least the size of a moving van, suspended to the ceiling by a thick cord of flesh. Long, spindly arms extended from the main portion, hanging limply down towards the crates below. The featureless face seemed to stare into nothingness.
Talbot turned towards him, looking the young man over. “What?”
Elliot motioned towards the creature, never letting it leave the sights of his rifle. Talbot followed the gesture, spotting the Hive Mind as well. He was silent for a few seconds, taking stock of the situation.
"Huh,” he finally said. “That's a new trick.”
"What's a new—oh.” Gloria whistled in surprise. “Can't honestly say that I've seen one just...hanging around.”
"Sweets, you officially cannot rib me about my puns anymore.” Talbot patted Elliot on the shoulder. “Washington, I heard you're one hell of a shot. Is it true?”
"Guess so,” Elliot agreed, rifle still trained on the monster. “Wait... why?”
"Shoot it in the arse.”
Elliot lined up the shot, but paused. “What?”
"Did I stutter?” Talbot scowled at the younger man. “In case you haven't noticed, it's up there and we're down here. Shoot it in the arse and make it fall down.”
Elliot lined up the shot again. As his breathing slowed, so did everything around him. The sensation was familiar, but he could not place where from. He shrugged it off and depressed the trigger. Three rounds exploded from the barrel, each hitting their marks true and splattering black gore across the concrete ceiling.
The creature bellowed from its hidden maw, curling up towards its injured tail. The wide, three-fingered hands planted themselves on the smooth concrete above before violently pushing off. Part of the tail ripped away from its body, spreading more of the black, oily substance across equally dark crates and unseen parts of the floor, as the main body of the Hive Mind plummeted towards the ground.
Although the creature's impact was blocked from view, Alpha Team felt the floor shake when it landed. Gloria and Imogen bolted for two different paths through the crates, and Talbot went to follow. Elliot was planted to the spot, too shocked to move.
"Time to move, Nugget!” Talbot shouted over his shoulder. “We need to get this thing cornered if we want any chance of killing it!”
Elliot ducked to the right, not even looking down the path he chose. The shadows cast from the tall stacks of crates enveloped him along with a bad case of gooseflesh. He could hear the blood coursing through his veins and feel the impact of his feet against the hard floor.
The young man thought he saw movement further down the row. He tried to skid to a stop and bring his rifle to bear, but he stumbled and fell to the ground.
And kept falling. The world around him darkened and he tumbled, seeing brightly lit concrete below him rapidly closing. Elliot's feet hit the ground awkwardly and he rolled forward. He felt the bruises forming on his appendages, but ignored the pain and brought his rifle up to scan his surroundings.
The Hive Mind towered above Elliot, yowling in rage through a maw in its chest. He did not even think; his rifle was on his shoulder and the fire selector was switched to full automatic.
"Oh yeah,” Elliot shouted, “well fuck you, too!"
The clip emptied in a matter of seconds, punching through dark flesh and ripping it away in chunks. The Hive Mind roared and staggered backwards on its long arms. Elliot took the chance to put some space between himself and the monster, backpedaling into a large stone object. He felt the smooth granite through his scrubs as he slid to the side.
Recovering, the creature slammed its stable arms on the ground with tremendous force. The textured concrete cracked around the point of impact, spider-webbing towards one of the stacks of crates. Elliot tried to hold his footing but failed, landing squarely on his backside. He scampered backwards on all fours, trying to give the creature a wide berth.
Elliot reloaded his rifle quickly, slamming the new clip in and chambering the first round. He bounced back to his feet and took aim at the monstrosity rapidly closing the distance. The young man fired a few rounds into the Hive Mind's head, slowing it only briefly.
"Washington!” he heard Imogen call over the pained roar of the Hive Mind. “Hit the deck!”
Elliot saw the grenade sailing out of the shadows, moving as if it was in slow motion. He rolled as far as he could, hiding his prone form in a shadowy corner. Let's see how my new trick can help me.
With merely a thought, his perspective on the scene changed. Elliot felt his body take a quick jaunt through the shadows and tripped into someone, toppling them over as the grenade exploded.
"Ow!” Gloria grunted. She glanced behind her, surprised to see Elliot there. “Where the hell did you come from?”
"Long story,” the young man muttered, jumping to his feet. He offered his hand to the woman, who took it with a small growl.“I'll explain later. What's the plan?”
"Well, you see that big, ugly thing over there?” Talbot indicated the Hive Mind from his unseen perch on top of a few toppled crates, a glimmer from his blade pointing in the general direction of the beast. “We should probably kill it.”
"It looks like the core is internal,” Imogen said. “We might need to blow through the outer layer to expose it.”
The creature finally found its footing again, leaning on a slightly shortened stump of an arm—a casualty of the explosion. The Hive Mind turned towards the group, roaring through the maw in its torso.
Elliot had an idea.
"Imogen?” he asked. “Can you hand me one of those grenades?”
Imogen fished into her pocket and tossed one of the green metal orbs to Elliot. He did not realize how heavy they were.
"Thanks. I'm going to need you guys to distract him for a minute.”
Talbot scowled. “What are you doing?”
Elliot looked at the Brit and grinned. “Something horribly stupid.” Talbot motioned to the two women to spread out.
Elliot examined the grenade as gunfire erupted before him, making sure he knew how it worked. Pull pin, toss. I guess it's just like the movies. He took his rifle in one hand and fired at the ceiling, knocking out a couple light bulbs.
The Hive Mind roared and swiped at Talbot, casting a long shadow. Elliot saw his chance and focused on that spot. He felt himself fall into place as he pulled the pin to the grenade, directly in front of the creature's gaping orifice. Its roars were deafening.
"Fire in the hole!” he shouted. Elliot released the safety on the hand-held bomb and pitched it overhand like a baseball into the Hive Mind's mouth.
Elliot tried to get clear of the beast, but the Hive Mind was too quick. The creature scooped the young man up in its hand, raising him high in the air to slam him against the floor.
"Kill it!” Elliot shouted, his rifle being crushed uncomfortably against his ribs. “You have to kill it!”
Before the Hive Mind could bring his arm down the grenade went off, blasting a gaping wound in the creature's topside. A dark, round object was jutting through the new hole, glowing with a dim red light.
"Momo!” Talbot shouted over the din of combat. “I need to get behind that thing!”
"On it! Gloria, cover me!” Imogen tossed the petite blonde her rifle and ran towards the creature.
The Hive Mind took notice, turning its head towards the brunette's bum rush. It swung at her with its ragged stump of an arm, but she disappeared. The strike connected with empty air. Imogen unshifted to the right of the creature's arm.
"Over here, asshole!” Her taunt enraged the monster, focusing all of its attention on her while Talbot flanked behind.
The vampire planted his boot on the monster's tail and propelled himself up its spine. Talbot could feel the flesh underfoot give, springing back up after his steps yielded. He used that spring to launch himself in the air.
Talbot brought his blade down into the protruding core, shattering the hard outer shell. The Hive Mind howled, twisting to the side and sending Talbot sprawling across the floor.
"Gloria, take him!” he bellowed, pushing himself off the floor.
Gloria did not respond; she took a shot at the core but the Hive Mind adjusted its position and the shots struck the arm holding tight to Elliot.
The hand loosened around him, freeing Elliot's rifle. He stretched it to its full length, holding the weapon as steady as he could in one hand as he fired into the core. The crystal-like object began to shatter under the onslaught of lead being unleashed into it.
Elliot emptied the magazine, but it was not quite enough. In a last ditch attempt, he threw the rifle as hard as he could. The weapon sailed through the air and hit its mark true, sending the cracked core crumbling to dust.
The Hive Mind let out a piercing howl. Its body's structure suddenly gave way, turning the creature into a black, oily rain. Elliot unceremoniously fell to the ground as well, the wind knocked from his lungs.
The young man closed his eyes, trying to push past the pain. Elliot's back and legs would not yield to his command, instead perfectly content leaving his body on the floor. He could hear the squishing of boots walking through the mess that was once the Hive Mind. He waved without opening his eyes.
"I'm ok,” Elliot mumbled. “Just need to lay down for a minute is all.”
The only response he got was a girlish giggle. Elliot opened his eyes a crack to see Gloria standing over him, a small smile on her face.
"Looks like I have some competition for best shot around here,” she murmured. She offered Elliot her hand and he took it, thankful for the assistance to his feet. Talbot and Imogen were not far behind Gloria.
"Not bad, mate,” Talbot commended. “Not bad at all.”
The father watched the young boy as he carried the gun bags back to the shed. The boy smiled back for a moment before his face twisted into a serious frown.
"I'm sorry I didn't get that deer, Dad.”
His father shook his head. “Don't be sorry about that. There is no shame in not wanting to take a life, just like there is no shame in saving a life. Today, you did both.”
"So, I'm not a coward?” The young boy grimaced as his dad ruffled his hair.
"Elliot, you're no coward. You're growing up to be a better man than you know.”
Gloria flipped through the channels on the television, waiting for Imogen to wake up. Just as she was asked, the latter reported to the Medical Wing right after the fight against the Hive Mind. Other than being exhausted and a little dehydrated, Imogen was declared healthy. The doctors, however, wanted to get at least a bag of saline in her before they released her.
Gloria could feel a stirring in her head. She turned to Imogen as the shifter's eyes opened up. Imogen yawned and stretched her arms before focusing her sight on Gloria.
"Hey,” Imogen said with a small smile. “I needed that nap. Anything good on?”
Gloria rolled her eyes. “Well, there's a rerun of Springer and Maury....”
"Give me that remote,” Imogen leaned up and snatched the controls away from the blonde. “So, where's Talbot and the new guy?”
"How did you know that Zebediah was going to take him on?”
Imogen gave Gloria a condescending glare. “He took on a Hive practically by himself, he didn't drop into psychosis, and if he focuses, he can control his talent. It's practically Zeb's wet dream.”
"I don't know how I feel about it.”
"Come on, Glory,” Imogen said. “Coming across a vore is rare. Coming across a sane vore is rarer. Coming across a sane vore that's able to output at peak levels is unheard of. As far as Zebediah's concerned, he's in.”
Gloria sunk back in to her chair, focusing on the television again. “He seems like a good enough guy. With some training, he might even be a good field agent. All he needs to do now, I guess, is say yes.”
"You know,” Elliot started, shifting to his other foot in the doorway of the small funeral parlor, “I still have no idea who you are.”
The man in the trench coat smiled and gestured in front of them with a wiry hand. The first five rows of seats were completely filled, arced around a small lock box on a pedestal. It was surrounded by various flowers and objects, but Elliot could not discern what they were—save the Alice in Chains t-shirt hung on a poster board behind it.
"Do you know what we're looking at?” The other man did not avert his gaze from the proceedings before them.
"Your funeral.” The man calmly watched Elliot for a violent reaction, but received none.
"Wow,” Elliot whispered. “So, that crazy bastard from the hospital was right.”
"You take people like me,” Elliot continued, a little louder, “and you make them disappear.”
The man in the coat nodded. “Yes.”
The two men watched as a group of suited men approached the box. Elliot assumed they were his brothers-in-law; he had not seen them since the wedding and was slightly surprised they even showed up to mourn him. Immediately behind the group walked a beautiful redhead, tear-stained cheeks hidden under a black lace veil. Chloe...
"Why?” Elliot questioned, a small tear making its way down his cheek.
"Why do you do this to people?”
The man in the coat rested his hand on Elliot's shoulder, an attempt to comfort that failed. “And through the Ark, a man descends/the start of beginnings, the beginnings of ends/Born of Corruption, the Omega will rend/the world above and below us, well beyond mend. Have you ever heard that before?”
"Yeah,” the young man nodded. “It's an old children's rhyme, isn't it?”
The man shook his head. “Not just that. That's a prophecy, lad. A prophecy about a man like you or me.
"The Ark was located in Vault triple-oh three, where you fought the Hive Mind. We've had it there for the past decade, a gateway between worlds right beneath our feet. The Chaotics sneaked through a crack when the containment field went down for a minute.
"There are people in the world with...interesting abilities. You've met a few of them, I'm sure. There are also objects that allow their wielders to survive amazing things or not have to eat for a week. DarkWatch exists in part to help us understand these anomalies.”
"Ok,” Elliot mumbled, watching his wife return to her seat in the front row. “You know, you didn't have to 'kill' me. I would have agreed to an outpatient sort of thing—for the right price, anyway.”
"We normally do, but you're a special case,” the man said. “Just like me. Do you remember the hospital? Where you tore a man in half with tentacles that appeared out of nowhere? You don't have control of your abilities. We can help with that.”
"And if I refuse?”
"Elliot, you're in our custody and are, for all legal purposes, dead. In some circles, you don't even exist anymore. There is no refusing or going back to your old life, but I do have an offer.”
"We want to understand your abilities, but we have another job too. We protect people from the dangerous ones, like our Corrupted friend from the hospital--”
"Or the Hive Mind.”
The man nodded. “Exactly. The only people who are able to do that are other anomalies, people like you or me. We work in secret to protect the mundanes—normal, everyday people—from anomalous threats and to protect the special ones from a non-understanding populace.
"So what I want to offer you is this,” he said. “I want you to join Alpha, one of our collection teams. Help them capture the bad ones, or at least put them in the ground.”
"And this gets me out of being dissected?”
The man laughed. “No, no. When you kick the bucket, we're still going to slice you open and see what makes you tick. What it will do is get you out for some fresh air from time to time and give you the satisfaction of knowing you are making the world a safer place.”
Elliot watched his own funeral from a distance, not able to take his eyes off the scene. It was surreal. He sighed, staring at Chloe. He thought he saw her turn her head and look at them, but he could have been mistaken. There was nothing he wanted more than to run up to the grieving 'widow' and envelop her in his arms, to let her know she was not really alone in the world. To have children, grow old, have a normal life...
But what if...
"Those Chaotic things...can they pop up anywhere?”
Elliot frowned, staring at Chloe. The Chaotics were terrifying little beasts, their only thoughts were to consume every living thing and spread like a virus. The Corruption, he was beginning to understand, was much worse. He had a gift and he knew what to do with it: protect the love of his life, even if it had to be from the shadows.
"I'll do it, but on two conditions.” Elliot stood straighter, trying to stave off the unease of the situation by projecting confidence.
"First, I want Chloe to be taken care of,” he demanded. “Make sure she's able to make ends meet, you know?”
"Already taken care of.” The man dismissed the request with a wave of his hand. “Your life insurance has been tremendously upgraded, as far as she will know. The other condition?”
Elliot turned to face the man, his resolve building. “What is your name?”
"Zebediah Patrick MacPhearson, Institute Director,” the man said, tipping his fedora to Elliot. “Welcome to DarkWatch, Mr. Washington.”
Continue reading: Episode 02 - "Duck and Run" by K. B. Cribbett.