So, I've been wanting to work with a cyberpunk theme for a while. Mann versus Machine seemed to open the door up for that possibility. Given the influences of this story, I'm going to have to put this in the Adult Fanfiction section for now. It's not here for the good kind of adult themes, either. It's going to be messy. But, hey. Keep your eyes open. I might throw in a pepper. (Mods--feel free to move if gore is not enough of a reason to be in the adult section.)
Having said that, please enjoy.
The heavens were empty above the city of Kong King. No star could penetrate the rolling clouds of steam that boiled from storm drains and smoke stacks. Streaks of blue, green, and red lights burned in the eyes of gargantuan, black apartment towers. Spotlights combed the night sky, finding blimps and planes in their vain attempts to seek starlight. Water rolled thick and murky in its bays, wave crests vermillion and cerulean in the unnatural city lights. The massive port city was of its own world. It was wrapped in its own fog and light, bound by frothing waves.
Its residents, in their inebriation, went about drinking and laughing in the night. Their faces were as rosy as the lanterns that hung above their heads. Signs embossed in gold, black, and white hanzi led them home. They were of no use to a stranger rushing through the streets. The foreigner pushed forward with a sober mission. She rushed through waves of human traffic, desperately seeking a shining blue box. One glowed on a street corner next to a diner. Running past customers and their bicycles, she leapt into the booth. Plucking copper coins into its telephone, she dialed and spun about on her heels.
She hadn't been followed.
The woman placed a hand on the back of her neck. She felt wrong. She was almost never out in public with her hair down. Black hair ran in wavy, unbrushed spirals down her shoulders. She pushed it behind her back, taking a moment to fix her glasses. They'd gone crooked in her run. She was lucky to have kept them at all.
"Please, pick up. Please," the woman pleaded with the phone. The device in her ear crackled. She stiffened as the line died, her eyes widening. There was no dial tone. No operator. Just empty plastic.
Then, an outburst of nonsensical Mandarin and a hissing din came screeching out of the earpiece.
Miss Pauling slammed the phone back onto its cradle. She watched helplessly as static traveled throughout the city like a plague. The interference hit the street in a little restaurant. A small black-and-white television set exploded into gray static. White and black rectangles flashed across the faces of irritated customers. More hissing noise and fuzzy pictures spread across the street. Radios were the next to go. They burst into wild keening and blasts of nonsensical sound, permeated faintly by a radio jockey trying desperately to cut through the obscuration.
Those horrible men had released their secret weapon. The hissing transmission permeated through all communications devices. There was no television, no radio, and no phone. Their din cut through all signals. She raised her glare to the horizon, finding radio towers jutting like splinters in the sky. They were all failing to overcome the powerful feed now interrupting their broadcasts. Their second weapon would be soon to follow, quick to burn the city down under a haze of snow.
They would be made of her men.
Her team had failed. Miss Pauling had made the right call, but much too slowly. How many sacrifices had been rendered pointless by her failure? She leaned against the phone box, her stomach churning. The Administrator couldn't help her now. No one outside of Kong King could save them.
She rolled up her sleeves, then pushed into the crowd once more. If she was the last free agent, she couldn't roll over. Her men needed her. They were out in this twisted city, clawing and fighting as long as their lungs were filled with air. They had bought her time by sacrificing their own safety. This had been their only chance for getting external support. There would be no more help. They were on their own.
Electronic devices sneered at her as she set out to collect her men. Damned if she was going to let them fall to a bunch of machines.
The object was small, disc-shaped and clear. It was made of a flexible, transparent material. Miss Pauling had seen objects like this before. It was a lens. If it had come from anyplace else, she would have thought of it as nothing more than a fancy sort of contact lens. As a prototype from Tian Lu Technologies? It was anything but ordinary.
Miss Pauling dropped it into the caring hands of the soft-spoken Texan that had given it to her. "When did you steal that?"
"Managed to yank it out of a crate before Demo blew the whole damn warehouse to Kingdom Come," the Engineer smirked. "Also salvaged a few chips. Ya really ought ta see them, Miss Paulin'. We really destroyed some fantastic pieces 'a machinery."
"The only good piece 'a technology is a destroyed piece 'a technology!" the Demoman grumbled. He burped, then reached for the fifth bottle of peach wine. He'd found his own mighty haul of goods after their mission. The team was doing their best to help him polish it off. The Medic and the Heavy easily finished one off together. The Soldier and the Engineer slaughtered another one. Miss Pauling helped the Sniper empty one, but both were knocked off their feet. So, to be fair, that only left one that the Demoman had drunk on his own. At least the take-out food had helped their bodies soak up most of the alcohol.
The Scout, the Spy, and the Pyro were having none of their celebrations. The Pyro was off in his own little world, studying the activity on the street and glancing at the makeshift computer that the Engineer had set up to monitor the respawn system. The Spy was curled in a cloud of cigarette smoke. He'd eschewed the wine, believing it to be no better than moonshine. The Scout was just not having any of their celebrations. Not the food, not the drinking. It was all disgusting to him. He'd retired to bed, too exhausted by the day's events to be an amiable conversation partner.
"You know, my good friend. I have to disagree with you." The Soldier leaned towards the Demoman, wine sloshing in his glass. "Technology is good. Very, very good. When it's American! But when it's made over here? Gremlins. Nothing but gremlins."
The Demoman shook his head. "I thought gremlins were Japanese."
The Soldier jerked upright. "No! Well, maybe. But they're here, too."
There was a low grumble from the Sniper. He fumbled for his drink, already irritated with the conversation. His fingers brushed past his glass. In his stupor, he knocked it over. His face dropped, embarrassed with the lack of his usual dexterity. Pink color rushed onto his cheeks as he slunk beneath the brim of his hat. His teammates laughed at his embarrassment. He'd hit his alcohol tolerance too early.
"S-shouldn't we be concentratin' on actual problems?" the Sniper tried to divert the topic. "We took out a warehouse, but not a plant. They'll just make more 'a this crap." He hiccupped once, sending a new scarlet wave across his face.
Miss Pauling nodded in agreement. "We'll be hitting that soon. Not tonight, though. You guys earned a break."
The Spy cut into their conversation. He waved his cigarette about like an irritated warlock. "If you all were wise, you would not be getting so inebriated. I will not take pity on you, nor your hangovers."
"A little alcohol is good for you, every once in a vhile!" The Medic smirked. He picked up the Sniper's glass, then took the Demoman's bottle from his hand. He filled the glass up, smirking. "It relaxes people in a stressed state. And ve are very stressed people here, are ve not?" He downed half of the drink without blinking, then slammed the glass in front of the Sniper's knees. "Zhat, my friend, is how you relax!"
The Heavy's jaw dropped just a touch. "How many germs did you drink, Doctor?"
The Medic shrugged. "Alcohol kills all germs. And if it doesn't? Zhen I just had ze equivalent of a flu shot."
Miss Pauling nudged a cardboard box of food towards the Medic. "Hey. If you're going to do that, then eat your supper. I'm not having any sick men on the field tomorrow."
Wincing, the Medic tried not to look at the box's contents. The vegetables were most likely edible. He had doubts about the slimy pieces of flesh mixed with them. As a German with an affinity for agrarian food, seafood tended to leave a foul taste in his mouth. "You know, it's not good to be too healzh conscious."
"Perhaps we should discuss mission," the Heavy stated. He nudged pieces of beef from his meal onto the Medic's plate while he talked. "We have plan? If not, then we talk about it now."
The Engineer bobbed his head. "Sure thin'. I think it should go the same as today. Seemed ta work out well, anyway."
"I am not so interested in diversion work again, but I will do so," the Spy murmured.
"Then I will go with Spy. My Mandarin, not so good. But, is something," the Heavy stated. He pulled a spiral of lo mein noodles off his plate, then swallowed them.
The Soldier sighed, grabbing for a spoon. He slurped his soup, shaking his head in displeasure. "Should have known the Commie would have known Commie speak."
Getting the team back on track, the Demoman volunteered his part. "Then, Soldier, Pyro, 'n I will hit the main floor. Light it up. Hell, might even have some firecrackers around here. That'll be a load 'a fun, won't it, Pyro?"
The Pyro was slow to respond to the Demoman. He was staring intently at the computer's screen, watching numbers spin and graphs flow. Cocking his head to the side, he realized that he had been addressed. He gave a startled, "Hmmph!" He raised the Demoman a thumb, then went back to studying the computer. It was the closest object they had to a functioning television in this small, ramshackle building. Not that the state-run programs would have been that much more engaging.
"So, Engineer? You and I will be gazhering intelligence again?" The Medic shot a dirty look towards the ceiling. He leaned forward, projecting his voice at a stairwell. "Assuming zhat dummkopf Scout helps us out!" He received no reply from the grouchy young man. "Hmm. Perhaps he is already asleep."
The Engineer shrugged. "He's a youngin'. Still needs a lot of sleep." Nudging the Sniper on his shoulder, the Engineer asked, "Gonna be on overwatch with Miss Paulin'?
The Sniper sat upright, giving a long yawn. "Course. Not that I wouldn't want ta be with you, mates, but it's not every day that I get ta work with such a talented young Sheila."
"Mister Mundy, you had better keep your mouth shut. Or at least finish your meal." Miss Pauling reclined, fishing around a box of steamed rice.
"Tryin' ta save room fer dessert." The Sniper nudged a paper bag next to Miss Pauling's feet. She laughed, then shook her head. It was impossible to hide sweets from the men. One of them always managed to find out about treats, one way or another. She put her meal down, then placed the contents of the paper bag on the large, circular table they were huddled around. Prying back the lid of various containers revealed several golden cakes.
The Soldier's eyes widened. His right hand shot out, picking one up in the blink of an eye. "Mooncakes! I haven't had these since Nineteen Fifty Two!"
"Back vhen you were making ze same mess in Japan zhat you made in my country?" the Medic shot the Soldier a glance.
The Soldier retorted by shoving a torn-off hunk of cake in the Medic's mouth. "This ought to shut up your lippy mouth."
"Be nice to Doctor, or he will not heal you tomorrow," the Heavy grumbled.
The Medic shrugged, swallowing the small piece. "Not too bad, actually."
Glancing over Miss Pauling's shoulder, the Spy shook his head. "And how many zhousands of calories are zhose?"
Miss Pauling placed a cake into the Spy's hand. "Probably more than you ate today. You need to relax. You're going to worry yourself sick."
"You must forgive me, Miss Pauling. I am not myself tonight." The Spy bowed his head, then nodded towards the stairwell. "I will be retiring for ze evening. Zhank you for your generosity. I will save your purchases for my breakfast."
The Engineer stood up from his seat. "I should probably get some rest too. Not ta mention this fella." He nudged the Sniper. The Australian had managed to cut a sliver of cake and eat it, but he was sitting in a contented daze. He tried to shoo the Texan off. Being the stubborn man he was, the Engineer didn't let that slide. He hauled his drunken friend off the couch, then braced him as they both ascended upstairs.
"Buncha wee lads. It's barely nine o'clock! I'm stayin' up until—" A yawn escaped the Demoman's mouth. The Soldier laughed as the Scotsman blushed in frustration. His lively spirit had outrun his body. "Ya know, maybe some sleep would be good."
"Let's dismiss for the evening, then." The Soldier picked up what little was left of his food. His cake was already completely gone. "I'll take care of clean-up. You ladies go get your beauty sleep. I want you all awake at six in the morning! Sharp!"
The men dispersed from the table in waves. Miss Pauling was slower to leave. She stayed alongside the Soldier, picking up boxes, glasses and utensils. There wasn't all that much to wash and dry, but she felt uneasy leaving the task to one man. As everyone else slipped off to bed in their tiny quarters, the duo finished off the dishes in quiet solitude. For being such a man's man, the Soldier was efficient and meticulous at washing dishes. Between the two of them, chores were completed by nine fifteen.
"You'd better head off to bed too, Miss Pauling." The Soldier folded the washcloth he used for scrubbing glasses. "I might make fun of those other ladies, but you are a true lady. Never feel the need to push yourself. That's what we're paid to do."
"I'm fine, Mister Doe. Thank you for your concern." Miss Pauling patted the Soldier on his shoulder. Sometimes, his words came off as somewhat misguided or old fashioned. She knew he only meant for the best. "Have a good night."
As she departed for her bedroom, content with the day's events, she gave a few last salutations to the men around her. She went to her room and closed the door behind her. It didn't take her long to switch into lighter pajamas. As she unwound the hair from the back of her head, she smiled, thinking of the men in her company. In such a strange, unfamiliar place, it felt good to have someone at her back.
If she hadn't been so drowsy with good food, alcohol, and victory, she would have seen what was wrong with that idyllic evening. She would have been able to prevent the oncoming slaughter of her men and the chill of the weapons to strike Kong King.
There were a few basics rules to urban warfare that Miss Pauling had to live by. The first rule was to never fight in public. That meant keeping to alleyways and backstreets. Not safe for strangers in the city, and certainly not safe for petite women. It was the only way to avoid causalities. The danger of her situation meant to follow rule two. Weapons had to be prepared at all times. Her trusty revolver was stocked and ready to go. A lithe knife was strapped to her hip. A wristwatch was secured around her left arm, given to her in panicked haste. It was not much, but it would have to do. It would help her escape. Evading conflict was rule three. If she had to fight, then she had to end it quickly. Rule four emphasized efficiency above all else.
She was open to making a few amendments along the way.
Miss Pauling slunk towards a car park, keeping her back to the wall. She should have taken one of the Sniper's shields. That would have given her a little more comfort, if just emotionally. The watch on her wrist was like a strong hand clutching her arm. It was heavy, weighing against her thoughts.
She crept into the car park, wincing as she passed the guard posts. Both men were murdered. Blood pooled in syrupy piles, glass falling into the mix. The work of those machines, no doubt. Biting her cheek, Miss Pauling reached for the tip of her gun. She pulled back a tab. White light streamed from the flashlight component sitting just beneath the muzzle of the revolver. It was the only warning and help she could get.
The first floor was barren. The second was as deserted, lights all shot out. Ascending to the third floor was no better. Fresh bloodstains splattered across the cement floors. She wondered whom the blood belonged to, pitying its owner. She climbed the stairwell up one more floor. It was marked as the fifth floor, but Miss Pauling knew better. It was superstition that kept the true name of this floor hidden.
It was there that one of their rental vans had come to rest.
Miss Pauling tapped on her gun, making sure the safety was off. She kept low, almost crawling towards the vehicle. She'd told them. They shouldn't have gone back. She wanted to damn them for saving her life, but she found herself hesitant to do so. Poor bastards were probably in a world of pain now. Maybe they were with their fallen men. Maybe not. Either way, they were in trouble.
She approached the driver's side door. Lights beamed from the front of the van. Flashing her gun's muzzle inside, she found the vehicle completely empty. No guns. No hats. Projectiles had shattered spidery circles in the windshield. They landed in the back of the seats, tearing holes in their wake. She would not find her men here. They had been taken.
Glass tinkled behind her.
Miss Pauling did not waste a moment. She saw a hulking shadow rise out of the cars. With a sharp snap, she raised her gun. The dark figure flashed white as her gun's flashlight struck it. Fear pierced her nerves. She had to be sure. She would not fire on her men.
She gave a sharp yell at the towering figure in front of her. "Open your eyes! Now!"
Sneaking back online to say this looks like it's going to be awesome. Aww yiss, robots!
Ooh, the plot thickens already! Nice use of a flashback to help set things up after a more exciting hook, too....
I know this is barely started, but I'm already hooked. Can't wait to see more!
Hmm. What section am I writing in, again? Maybe I should get a touch bluer.
As always, please let me know if I'm doing something wrong.
Miss Pauling lay in bed on that night, eyes trying to focus in the dark. She had a few good hours of sleep before the thumping began. It was inevitable. She knew this would happen. She knew every intimate detail of her men's lives and what or whom they did. It wasn't that she was even mad at them or minded their peculiar behavior. She just wished they wouldn't be so damn loud.
Her brain drifted as she looked at the planks in the ceiling. Where was that coming from? Usually, the Medic was the culprit. He was capricious and tactless when it came to nocturnal activities. He was usually wrestling with a larger fellow, too. More mass, more force, more noise. It didn't sound like it was coming from his direction. That took the Heavy off the hook as well. The Spy seemed an unlikely suspect, as his paramour was still in the United States. For being a sneaky viper, he was not one to double-time his lady. She doubted the Scout had enough linguistic skill to bring anyone back to his room for the evening. The same went for the Pyro. She hardly ever heard a sound from the Sniper, as he was pretty secretive about his personal affairs. He was uncomfortable about letting his guard down, especially outside of his van. The Engineer was too polite to make much noise. He always beamed bright red if someone mentioned detecting his activities.
That left the Demoman or the Soldier. She doubted either of them would done anything, considering both were worn by the day's events. It was unlikely that the Demoman would have gone out bar trolling in his condition. That would have left—
A loud groan came from down the hall. "Ugh!"
Miss Pauling threw a blanket over her head, trying to hide the rising blush in her face. The Soldier. It was coming from his room. She wouldn't be able to look him in the eyes in the morning. Did he bring someone in from off the streets? Was he with another teammate? She didn't want to think about it. She buried her head into her pillow, trying to think of anything other than the steady thumping coming from his room. He was having a rough one, too. Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!
Miss Pauling's head popped up. That was a window shattering. Glass rained onto the streets. A thick, meaty thud hit the pavement outside their complex. Wood and bone cracked. She grabbed for a jacket and her glasses, throwing it over her pajamas. Slipping into her shoes, she scurried across the hall to the Soldier's quarters. She threw his door open as various teammates peeked out of their rooms.
There was blood on the walls and what little remained of the window frame. Thin scarlet streaks went up and down the wall next to the Soldier's bed. There were blotches of blood on his bed. Someone had struck him there twice. More imprints were on the walls, splatters at different heights. He'd fought back. They went back and forth, culminating in the broken window. She peered outside, finding a broken tangle of bodies lying outside.
She did not scream. She was not a screamer. She swore loudly.
Her men scattered from the bloody scene, rushing outside as fast as possible. She joined them as quickly as she could. The Engineer and the Medic were huddled around the bodies, both aghast with horror. The Soldier was dead. There was no arguing that point. The base of his skull was cracked, his helmet split. Of course he slept with his helmet on. That was so like him. His fingers were locked around the throat of his assailant, piercing flesh and cracking his innards. The assailant's torso was ripped apart, clawed out by those same fingers at its neck.
He—it—looked like the Scout.
The Demoman turned away from the scene. In an uncharacteristic failure of his impressive fortitude, he threw up into a gutter. The Sniper scurried over to brace him, holding the Scotsman upright as he emptied his stomach. Miss Pauling felt bile rising in her throat, but kept it in check. The Soldier's body was bad enough. Even if the team was used to seeing him blown apart in fleshy chunks, they still didn't like it. To see whatever this thing was at their feet was worse.
The Engineer turned the peculiar corpse over. He gasped as a metal ball glared at him, empty and devoid of power. This object had mechanical eyes. He could see a crack in the lens from where the Soldier shattered it. Steel components ran throughout the strange body, culminating in a door in its belly. He pulled at it with his fingernails. Beneath it lay rows of fans, wires, and motherboards.
"This thing's a goddamn robot!" the Engineer exclaimed.
The Demoman blurted at his team, wiping vomit away from his mouth. "Why? What's the point 'a puttin' blood 'n flesh on a bloody robot?"
Miss Pauling tried keeping calm as her men fretted. They were still awestruck by the scene. She had worse problems already forming in her head. Who was with her yet? There was the Medic and the Engineer studying the bodies. The Sniper was doting on the Demoman. The Heavy was glancing back at her with the same worried expression she carried.
That was it.
"Where is real little mouthy man?" the Heavy asked.
The Sniper shook his head. Smoothing his ruffled hair, he murmured, "Ya don't think…Where's Spook 'n Firebug? Ya can't tell me they slept through that!"
The Engineer fretted, his left hand twitching. He reached over to the Soldier's face, closing his friend's eyelids. "I-I just don't know what's happenin'. What's respawn doin'? Shoulda kicked in by now."
There was a nauseating squelch from the pile of flesh at the team's feet. They backed away as gore sizzled. Miss Pauling put a hand to her face as the Soldier's skin began to burn away. Muscle was next to ignite, disappearing in red fumes. The energy around his body seared his bones and clothing, igniting his corpse. His body disintegrated into scarlet vapor. The strange robot's husk underwent the same peculiar process. When the same process hit its metallic core, it melted and bubbled into silver flares. The Engineer tried plucking an object from its body, but retracted before the churning metal could sear his robotic hand. Both bodies burned away, leaving nothing but black ash on the sidewalk from where they once laid.
"I don't zhink zhat was supposed to happen," the Medic gulped.
The Engineer got off his knees, bolting towards the complex once more. "God, I hope he's back!"
"Wait! Don't—" Miss Pauling snapped on her heels, quickly addressing the team. "Follow him. Don't split up."
The Medic and the Heavy rushed after the disturbed Engineer. The Demoman was not quick to follow, still disturbed by the strange sight. Miss Pauling offered him a shoulder. He shook his head, summoning enough strength to stand upright and out of the Sniper's grasp. The trio kept close together, their eyes wild with fright. The Sniper kept staring behind them, fearful of his shadow.
The complex, save for the six that had gone out, was empty. The short-staffed team tore it apart trying to find their teammates. The Pyro's room was completely barren. There was not even one canister of flammable liquid to be found. His axes and flamethrowers were nowhere to be found. His bed hadn't even been touched. The Spy's room was in similar condition. There were trinkets of his left here and there, but a noticeable chunk of his weapons were missing. The same couldn't be said for the Scout's room. It looked like it had been torn apart from head to toe. It was hard to say whether or not that indicated someone being in his room. He was always such a slob.
The Soldier was gone, too.
A boiling kettle whistled from downstairs. There was no point in keeping quiet. The team was up for the night. The Sniper was quick to pour tea and instant coffee, distributing amongst the team according to their likes. At that point, nobody fussed about missing cream or sugar. Business had to be done.
"It had ta be someone from that damned Tian Lu Industries. Bastards 're strikin' at us for our hit today," the Demoman swore. He gulped his tea in one go. No alcohol snuck into his cup. He was a lush, but he knew when serious matters required his sobriety.
"Quite roight. I just don't understand when they snatched that little bugger." The Sniper placed a cup of coffee next to the Engineer, then sat down with his personalized mug. "He's a noisy git. Ya'd think he would've yelped if some baddie up 'n grabbed him."
The Medic nodded in agreement. "I could see zhem kidnapping ze Spy, perhaps. But ze Pyro? Nein! Not unless zhey had a fleet of men wizh fire extinguishers!"
"Wait. I missed a beat. Why do we think the Spy and the Pyro are kidnapped?" Miss Pauling leaned forward, blowing on her coffee before tasting it. "I mean, not to be cold, but—"
The Heavy shook his head. "You do not think that baby men are robots, do you? Is…well, is possible, but—"
"Guys, we've got bigger problems right now than tryin' ta find out who's a robot 'n who's a hostage," the Engineer interrupted.
The team turned to stare at the Engineer. His teeth were gritted, his thick jaw grinding his teeth. The Sniper hopped off the couch. He leaned over the Engineer's shoulder. Within a moment, his eyes widened, back straightening in shock. Both of them waved the rest of the team over. Miss Pauling managed to wedge her way to the front. Everyone stood together, faces nearly pressed against the screen.
The Soldier's folder had been pulled up. Considering it housed his life story, genetic structure, and overall statistics carried over four years of war, it was sparse. Most of the files in it were brief text documents. One terribly encoded image was pinned along with them. The Engineer tapped on the screen, pointing out a text file associated with the Soldier's information.
The file's name was encoded in kanzi.
"What 'n the hell is that?" the Demoman asked.
The Engineer shook his head. "I'm not certain. These damn things are all over the place. Found 'em attached to all our profiles. Gets worse than that, though." He moved to the computer's root directory. Sloughs of strange files littered the system. He found them in every directory.
"Truckie! What's goin' on?" The Sniper's voice was strained, slightly panicked.
"Looks like while we were out wreckin' their warehouse, Tian Lu was wreckin' us," the Engineer frowned.
"Maybe, baby Scout did this? But…" The Heavy lifted his head. "Pyro was looking at computer all night."
The six people groaned together. It only took one individual to bring the system to its knees. The Engineer's face was clammy, his skin breaking into a cold sweat. Not even his own doppelganger in Teufort had been willing to sabotage his work like this. Both teams relied on the respawn system to act perfectly. Neither wanted to risk their permanent demise by screwing with such perfect technology.
"Okay. So, we had a Trojan attack." Miss Pauling brought the Engineer's focus back. "What's the damage?"
The Engineer exhaled. "Well, on the upside? It's still runnin'. I don't think we're dead men walkin'."
The Medic lowered his eyebrows. "And ze downside?"
The Engineer leaned forward, putting his hands on his head. "Until I get this machine cleaned up, it's runnin' on their terms. No new data updates. No health adjustments. No records. And—I wanna make this perfectly clear—we ain't respawnin' on our ranch."
"Wait. Where did Mister Doe go?" Miss Pauling asked.
The Engineer returned to the computer screen. He began tapping commands to open the Soldier's respawn profile. The computer beeped twice at him. He snarled, then typed again, slamming his fingers into the keys. The terminal mocked him, giving that same horrible beeping. No amount of swearing let him through.
He leaned forward, his head landing against the terminal. "Ya might want ta sit down. This could take a while."
Miss Pauling kept her aim straight, waiting as the shadowy hulk dropped his arms. He opened his eyes. Pupils retracted in reaction to her piercing flashlight. They were as blue and cold as freezing arctic seas. The dark figure blinked, fighting not to squint. There was no hostility in his gaze. She lowered her gun, the flashlight extension running down the front of his gargantuan figure. His eyes were glassy in the dark, but not glowing. Not the eyes of a machine.
She smiled. The stranger was the Heavy.
"You gave me a good scare," Miss Pauling said.
"Da. You too." The Heavy took a few mighty strides towards her. He paused in front of the van, his brow furrowing. He drew a low breath, exhaling through his nose. "Did you get help?"
Miss Pauling shook her head. She fiddled with her gun, trying not to look the Heavy in the eye again. "I was too late. The line went dead, then…well, I hope not to hear the sound it made again anytime soon. Looks like radio transmissions and television signals have been sabotaged, too."
The Heavy took in this information with a slow nod. "Is whole city like this? Just to stop us?"
"I don't know. Seems like a huge risk to cut communications for an entire city just to catch ten people." Miss Pauling halted, then grimaced. "Well, how many of us are left, anyway."
A large hand traced down the bandolier on the Heavy's chest. Miss Pauling tilted her head up, startled. He was bloody. Had he been injured? She walked over to him, studying the splotches on his shirt. There was ash on him as well. The same burning that had taken their Soldier hadn't quite cleaned up whoever was left on the Heavy's shirt.
The Heavy answered the uncomfortable question on Miss Pauling's mind. "Is Doctor's."
"I'm so sorry," Miss Pauling responded. "When did he—"
"Little while ago." The Heavy's jaw was fixed firmly against the top row of his teeth. Miss Pauling didn't know if it was a snarl or his way of suppressing some greater emotion. He gave a large sigh, his chest and stomach shaking with his exertion. "Should have gone with him. Such a coward."
Miss Pauling's eyes widened. "No. You…you don't know what will—"
"Am I to leave Doctor alone?" The Heavy opened his mouth to yell at her, but he stopped. Shaking his head, he put a hand on the front of the wrecked van. It whined under the strength of his body pressing against it. He braced the sides of his eyes with one large hand, massaging his temples. He pinched them around his nose, then growled once.
"Listen. We need to stick together." Miss Pauling placed her left hand on the Heavy's arm. "We have to stop these people before they take out the entire city. It's one thing to kill us. It's another to murder civilians. If these madmen go unchecked, they will harm people that we can't revive. Do you understand?"
The Heavy nodded. "Do not want to leave baby men."
Miss Pauling forced a smile. "We're not." She patted his arm. "Come on. The Medic would not want to see you like this. Besides, he's probably already forced those Tian Lu scientists to tell him how the entire process works. They might regret killing him."
"Doctor is very curious man," the Heavy agreed. A smirk lifted the burden from his shoulders. "Very well. We fight, Miss Pauling."
It was difficult to choose a course of action. The only team member she knew was alive was the Heavy. It wasn't as if they could kick down the front door to Tian Lu Industries and kindly ask for their return. They needed supplies, bodies, and ideas to hit that fortress, and they were low on all three.
It was best to start solving the simplest problems first. "Do you think the van still runs? Did the Medic give you keys to it?"
Thick fingers dug a key ring from the Heavy's pocket. "Is good man, Doctor. Hold for me." He tossed Miss Pauling the keys to the van. Bracing his shoulders against the fallen vehicle, he gave the machine a good push. It flopped upright, bouncing as it came to rest on all four tires. The Heavy wrenched the driver's side door open. He dusted the seat clear of glass from the shattered windshield. With one sharp punch, he knocked the rest of the windshield free. He gave a few swipes on the passenger's seat before wrenching the door open for Miss Pauling.
"Didn't that hurt?" Miss Pauling asked.
The Heavy rubbed his bloody knuckles. "Is fine. Keys?"
Tossing the keys back to the Heavy, Miss Pauling hopped onto the passenger's seat. She slammed the door shut, then buckled up. The Heavy neglected his belt. His rotund belly was squashed against the steering wheel. He grunted, adjusting the seat for his girth. Attempting to adjust any of the rear view mirrors was pointless. The right-side mirror was smashed to bits, and the middle mirror snapped off in the Heavy's hand as he tried to adjust it. The left-side mirror was shot out.
It was no surprise to either of them when the vehicle failed to start.
"We walk, then," the Heavy grunted. He hefted his mass away from the van and out the side of the vehicle. The van shook as he exited.
Miss Pauling managed to keep her footing as she leapt out of the van. She searched the dark garage for a stairwell. Finding one in a brightly lit corner, she waved the Heavy over. "We have another way down."
The third floor was just as barren as when she'd first entered it. Not even vermin greeted them. They went down one more floor, greeted by the same emptiness. Static was growing. It was probably coming from the guard boxes on the first floor. She shook her head, a painful twist knotting up her guts.
"How many robots were here when I fled?" Miss Pauling asked.
The Heavy frowned, shaking his head from side to side. "Many Scouts, but I distracted them. You ran very fast. They were, too." He scrunched up his face, his skin shivering. "They killed Doctor. Men up front as well. So many of them."
Miss Pauling agreed. "I can't believe that corporation can make so many of them so fast. I mean, a barebones robot, yes. One with skin, though? You would think that would take a lot of time."
"Maybe. Maybe not. I am not man of science. Cannot say," the Heavy replied.
After one last sweep of the bottom floor, the duo left the complex. Miss Pauling stopped by the guards' posts. Their security cameras were completely static. That transmission had even gotten into closed-circuit systems. She wondered how many criminals had discovered that already.
The Heavy brought her attention back to the street. "What now?"
Miss Pauling marched away from the garage. "What we always do when machines act up. We find the Engineer."
Just in to say how your stuff'll always catch my attention
The beginnings of an excellent story. There's so much left unexplained, but instead of leaving us with the feeling that those parts will stay that way, the flashbacks and foreshadowing promise the mystery's eventual unraveling.
I'll be eagerly waiting for more!
I love the story so far, and I'm very curious to see what happens next. Your stories always have very captivating plots :)
I have a minor criticism: even though the story takes place during Mann VS Machine, you still focus exclusively on one Team.
On the one hand, this is great for exploiting the expected loyalty and affection between teammates as a source of drama (that is to say, obviously BLU Heavy will be desperate to save BLU Medic, and feel heartbroken and guilt-ridden over his death. If that had been RED Medic, the scene wouldn't have been half as powerful).
But on the other hand, it feels like a waste. Here we have a story where the protagonists are being infiltrated by human-looking robots: can you trust the ally watching your back, or is he the enemy who captured your real ally and took his place? In such a suspicion-dripping environment, you could milk so much interesting drama from the pre-existing tension between allies who used to be enemies. Hell, what if the ally is not a robot at all, but is still plotting against you, maybe trying to use the robot army as a way to take you out for good? The guessing games keeps the tension up.
Plus, now that both Teams are supposed to be working together against a common enemy, it doesn't make much sense for the enemy to only target one Team. You could say that the enemy is currently focusing on the one Team that is currently stuck within the city's borders, employing a "divide and conquer" strategy. But if the enemy has got so far as to sabotage Respawn, I'd expect "Purple" Miss Pauling at least to express concerns over the possibility that the RED Team might be under attack as well, wherever they are (it's not like Gray Mann, or these Tian Lu people who are likely connected to him, couldn't send some of their robots to Kong King and others to entirely different locations in the world).
Again, this is just a minor criticism. The question is not so important that it couldn't simply be handwaved off, and the plot is engaging as it is. I just think there might have been more potential if you had made the group of protagonists a mix of REDs and BLUs.
>>9 Fair criticism. Nothing to argue against there.
Finally got my spine and spirit back in line. Have at it!
The Engineer was a stubborn, prideful man. He took great satisfaction out of his work. He was meticulous, careful, always planning for a contingency. It was why his workshop had boxes full of floppy disks and punch cards, walls papered with blueprints and photos. He fought like a dog. He was always at the throat of another man, growling and gnashing at anyone foolish enough to consider his reliance on his creations a weakness. His teammates relied on him to keep moving, running as smoothly and efficiently as his beautiful machines. He did not give up. He couldn't.
His will cracked just ever so slightly as he pressed his head against the computer terminal, helmet clinking on the screen. "I'm gonna need more coffee."
"Come on, mate. Ya've gotta be close ta figurin' out what's broken with yer magic box by now," the Demoman smirked. Cheering was all he could do. He certainly didn't know what to do with the damn machine. If he had his way, he would have rigged it with sticky bombs and sent it straight to the moon.
"I've made some progress, but…" The Engineer gave a low huff. "Can't say it's any prettier."
"Alright. Mister Conagher, take five." Miss Pauling got off the couch, then rubbed her eyes. "Let's take another round of coffee and review what you've done."
The Medic grumbled at the news. Events were progressing much slower than he hoped they would. He glared at the Sniper, who had fallen fast asleep on the couch during the Engineer's work. He flicked the Australian in his hat. The Sniper groaned, but sat up. He wobbled back to the kitchen to make another pot of coffee. Shaking his head, the Heavy shot the Medic a dirty look. The German shrugged, not exactly sorry for his actions.
A fresh brew wafted through the air. The smell perked up the remaining team members. They shuffled into the kitchen one by one, taking their cups. Cream and sugar were passed about. Miss Pauling passed leftovers from supper around once more, hoping the food would give her men another boost of energy. They ate and drank in silence, color spreading through their faces as caffeine and calories revived their spirits.
"Here's what I can tell ya." The Engineer tore off a chunk of mooncake, then swallowed. "Good gravy, that is salty. What's in this thin'? Anyway. Haven't been able ta get write permission for our files, but I can read 'em again. Here's the weird thing. None of our files have changed. So, Solly shoulda been respawned here."
Miss Pauling frowned. "Wait, what? Then how—"
The Engineer jumped into her question. "That's where it gets mighty interestin'! They've got a program runnin' alongside our standard programs. Our little Trojan is able ta read 'n write inta addresses. So, when the computer loads up our coordinates fer respawnin', it doesn't override the file. It writes over the address in RAM."
"Cheatin' little bugger," the Sniper growled.
"Wait. How in the hell does that work?" the Demoman asked.
The Engineer smirked. He leaned forward, "Well, ya see—"
"That's not important." Miss Pauling cut in, too tired and impatient to be polite. "Mister Conagher, do you know where they respawned?"
It was with a bright smile that he replied, "Yes."
There was a round of laughter and clapping. The Sniper punched the Engineer in the arm, then gave him a rub and a tight squeeze. "Knew ya could do it, mate."
"Yeah, well. It ain't gonna be easy ta get them back. No one's respawn coordinates match," the Engineer grumbled. He hopped off his chair, then snatched up a notepad by the computer terminal. Tapping on his notice, he pointed out his problem. "All four 'a them have respawned in various places around Kong King. See these two? That's the Pyro 'n the Scout. They both revived in the warehouse we hit today durin' our mission. So, that's when they were taken. But the Spy 'n the Soldier? Two completely different places 'n times."
The Heavy frowned, his eyebrows lowering. "What happened to other baby men?"
The Engineer gestured for an object behind the Demoman's shoulder. The Scotsman looked behind him. There was a stack of tourist guides left on the floor. He scooped one up, then winged it at the Engineer's head. The Texan caught it with his right hand, then threw it open with one swift crack of paper. He reviewed his notes, then began scribbling on the map. Two of the dots were placed on the warehouse, along with appropriate timestamps. Another dot landed on a prominent harbor to the south of the city. This one was dated with a time prior to their mission. The other landed towards the east side of the city, along with a later time.
"This is where the Soldier went," the Engineer smirked, tapping his pen on his last measurement. "Not sure what the deal is with the Spy's coordinates, but that's where he last respawned."
"Ve had some supplies come zhrough zhere zhat ve vere not able to get past ze airplane customs," the Medic explained. "Ze Heavy und I vere vizh him at ze time. He stepped out to have a cigarette break. He must have been attacked, zhen."
The Heavy nodded in agreement. "He did not say anything about it at time. More reason to doubt, maybe?"
Miss Pauling frowned. "Perhaps. We should stick with the most recent data, though. Mister Conagher, what do you know about the place at which that Mister Doe respawned?"
The Engineer shrugged his shoulders. "Not a clue. We'd be flying blind inta whatever's goin' on there."
Had she been a little less rattled by the sudden slaughter of the Soldier, perhaps Miss Pauling would have hesitated. Her men were tired, running on little more than what was in their bloodstream and stomachs. If they were lucky, they had maybe three or four hours of sleep in them. Sending them into battle like this was a risk. They were tough men, though. They did not take threats against their crew lightly. Knowing that the enemy could be at their backs at any moment did not sit well with her. Above all else, she valued their safety. That left two uncomfortable alternatives. Either they got a few more hours of rest and leave themselves exposed to potential attack, or they would go out and extinguish the threat burning at their behinds.
She was never one for procrastination. "Let's get them flushed out."
The team members agreed in their own ways. The whites of Medic's eyes shined, eager to get into another battle. The Sniper knocked back the last of his coffee in one go. He leapt off the couch, quick to rush upstairs and grab supplies. The Heavy nodded with a terse bob of his head, then stood off the couch. The Demoman grabbed for a sixth bottle of peach wine and tore the cork out with his teeth. He tossed the Engineer a few more maps, to which the Texan began plotting more coordinates out. He threw maps to his teammates as they passed. No matter who fell, they were going to know where to go.
Miss Pauling went to prepare herself, too. Fighting in pajamas was not her style.
Ash rolled on the night wind.
It was the most prominent aid that Miss Pauling and the Heavy were given. They knew their fellow teammates hadn't been left alone by the swarm of human-like robots that swathed the city. There were scorch marks and hunks of pavement taken out of the streets. The Demoman's work, no doubt. Some of the traffic signs and lights had puncture marks torn through them, crowned tears pointing away from where the Sniper had fired. Sentry shots pierced potted plants, ripping benches into fine wood pulp. Even with the scars of battle leading them, trailing their remaining teammates was slow work.
Miss Pauling shivered. "This jacket doesn't help much."
"Is not so cold," the Heavy shrugged.
"For the man that lived in the Dzhugdzhur Mountains? I guess not," Miss Pauling smirked.
The Heavy pulled his lips back. His smile never quite formed. He made an attempt at a jest, but his heart wasn't in it. "If tiny woman did not worry about being tiny, it would not be problem, I think."
He had been quiet for most of their investigations, ponderous in his movements. His gaze kept traveling behind his shoulder. It had to be some sort of tick he'd picked up. The Medic would always be right there, dancing madly in his massive shadow. The Heavy's security and invincibility were torn from him, and with it, his ability to focus and keep upbeat.
"Sorry. Not myself right now," the Heavy grumbled. "Keep thinking, 'There is easier way…'"
Miss Pauling raised her head. "Come on. I thought I'd talked you out of that. Forcing yourself to respawn would put you in—"
"What? No! Not like that." The Heavy bobbed his head towards a taxi. "Cab would be faster."
"Oh! Well, then. I agree," Miss Pauling nodded.
The duo walked over to a line of taxis. They were squat and red, their noses smashed short. The first vehicle they approached was empty. Miss Pauling lifted an eyebrow. Perhaps the driver was on a smoke break. It did not get any better as they continued walking. Car after car was abandoned. Their eyes darted around, trying to figure out where the drivers had gone. They weren't the only people missing. Shops had rolled up for the evening, metal shutters fastened down. Apartments were pitch-black. The drunk and the homeless were nowhere to be found. Only metal canisters burned in their wake.
The Heavy asked, "Where did everybody go?"
"Nobody would just leave their vehicles unattended." Miss Pauling searched about the cabs for fallen keys. She had no such luck.
"Men run when there is danger. If baby men went through here with guns, maybe they scared others off," the Heavy observed.
"You'd still think someone would be here. I mean, this city has got to have at least one million people in it," Miss Pauling murmured. She paced down the street, trying to recover her men's trail.
The Heavy nodded, then rejoined Miss Pauling's search. As they continued passing through blocks, the streets became darker. Neon lights cracked and sparked. Abandoned television sets hissed at them as they passed. In turn, they burned out and died. Vending machines were punched in, contents long stolen. The ads on the machines were old, pictures faded by smog and time. Even graffiti had cracked and bleached away. This wasn't just a recently abandoned sector. It was a black tumor in the dazzling city, ill and poisonous.
Continuing forward, the duo rounded another corner. The stoplights were burned out. Street lamps throbbed in dull strobes. Rats perked their noses into the air, then scattered. The Heavy walked carefully, his feet swarmed by the tiny vermin. Miss Pauling did not flinch as the beasts ran across her path and back towards their burrows.
Apartment complexes became as black as the foggy night sky. Temples molded and rotted on their corners. Roadside shrines were caved in, symbols smashed and donation boxes emptied. The smell of burning rubber percolated through the air. The Heavy lifted his head, taking the scent in deeply. He frowned, then cracked his knuckles and reached for the shotgun on his back. Miss Pauling took his cue. She grabbed her pistol, making sure that the borrowed time piece on her wrist was charged.
Heat rushed through the night air. Both the massive Russian and the petite assassin placed their backs to the walls of a local complex. The Heavy was the first to look around the corner. He whipped his head back, jaw dropped. Miss Pauling stole a glance over his shoulder.
There were a dozen or so forms huddled around a burning van. Most of them looked like slender twigs, hunched down with bats slung across their shoulders. The rest were bulky, standing with an awkward rigidness to their backs. Fire poured from the bells of their weapons. Their target crackled black under the pressure.
The Heavy pulled Miss Pauling back before she could be spotted. She collected herself, but not without a great shudder. So, those robots had caught the rest of their men. How horrible. Having the Demoman or the Sniper as willing, able-bodied machines was bad enough. Their skills and wiliness made them formidable foes. But, the Engineer? Now they were doomed. He was a smart man, if stubborn. He had his weaknesses, though. All it would take is for the right man to find his soft underbelly, and he'd be churning out complex war machines for a new company.
There was a tap on her shoulder. The Heavy nodded towards the carnage again, placing his hands on his wrist twice. She sighed. She'd forgotten about the timepiece. She reached down to find a glowing ball of light on her pulse. Her spirits took a sudden jolt. She raised her eyes, glancing down a large, barren street. She caught the barest flash of a laser sight a few blocks down.
At least one of her men had made it out.
Miss Pauling bobbed her head towards the location. The Heavy nodded in agreement. The duo fell back, looking for another street to cross. Going straight to the location was suicidal. The path led them away from the robots, but still into their crosshairs. They approached the next block over, rolling their feet as they walked away. Quietness and stealth were their own saving graces at that moment.
They raced up the back paths. The Heavy went as quick as his legs could haul his mass. Miss Pauling covered the distance much faster. They went straight across from the abandoned complex where the Sniper was crouched. He gave them a smirk, but no wave. He didn't dare attract any attention. The duo on the ground took a moment to review the entry points of the building. There was a fire escape that ran on the north side of the building. The front door was all but smashed, hunks of concrete and plaster heaped in front of it. She hissed. Of course, the only way up was the riskiest path possible.
"Go," the Heavy nudged Miss Pauling.
The small woman slammed on the Spy's wristwatch. She shimmered away. As soon as she was completely invisible, she bolted across the street. She grimaced, then rushed towards the fire escape. Her invisible shield began to falter as she fell once more into the shadows. She paused, then deactivated the watch. She would need it to recharge before she dared climb the stairwell.
As she waited, she observed the state of the fire escape. Several sticky bombs were strewn about its steps. So, the Demoman was still there, too. She lifted her eyes, trying to see if she could find him in the dark complex. Perhaps he'd fallen away from the windows. She turned back to the stairwell, noting the rust on its screws and nails. It didn't look safe at all.
The Heavy slunk to her side. He frowned at the state of the stairwell. "Do not like this."
"Not sure what other choice we've got," Miss Pauling whispered.
He paused, his teeth gritting. As he studied the stairs, a door to the top apartment slowly shimmied open. The Demoman was there, waving for the duo to climb up. He stepped back behind the complex's walls, afraid of being spotted. The robots down the street remained quiet, save for the occasional pop of fire consuming the van. At least they had something to keep them occupied.
"Ladies first," the Heavy grunted.
Miss Pauling pressed down on the watch one more. She tip-toed onto the stairwell. It gave a light creak, but held fast. She rounded one flight, then the next. Her heart was hammering at her throat by the time she reached the top of the stairs. The Demoman was there with open arms, waving at the invisible specter approaching him. The cloaking device gave away as soon as she reached his position. He grabbed her by her jacket, then pulled her inside. Both scrambled away from the door and collapsed just inside their nest.
"That's a good lass," the Demoman smiled. He patted Miss Pauling on the back as she collected her nerves and breath.
"We've gotta get another way up here. There's no way he'll be able to make it up here without attracting a lot of attention." Miss Pauling bobbed her head down to where the Heavy crouched.
The Sniper spoke softly from his spot. "That's a no go, Miss Paulin'. Tavish bombed out the stairwell when we got here. Blimey robots came in through the front, so he had ta toast it. Barely got Truckie hauled up after the floor gave way. Kept quiet, 'n then rest of them buggered off. So, here we are."
Miss Pauling's eyes widened. "Mister Conagher?"
The Sniper nodded towards a prone figure on the ground. He was lying in a heap next to a crackling dispenser. Neither man nor machine looked fit to fight. The Engineer's helmet and goggles were tossed aside, plastic and lenses cracked. His left arm was blotched and bloodied, forehead scraped. The only saving grace he had was the dispenser nursing him while he rested. He gave her a small wave, then closed his eyes again. A small beep from a nearby sentry greeted her. Its master didn't do so much as a slight repair to the contraption. A single strike from his wrench or fists would wake up the entire neighborhood.
"Lucky he had a dispenser up, or he'd be a goner," the Demoman lamented.
Miss Pauling shook her head. She could worry about the Engineer's state later. The Heavy needed help now. "Come on. There's got to be another entrance. We need to get him up here before—"
There was a screech, then a horrible crash.
Miss Pauling bolted towards the fire escape's door. Half of the metallic contraption had crumbled beneath the Heavy's weight. He clung to what little remained, thick fingers laced through holes in the latticed path. The remnants creaked, bending with his mass. He reached up, then grabbed onto the security railing. He gave a mighty groan as he tried hauling himself up. Miss Pauling latched onto his bandolier, her arms trembling as she pulled. She stood no chance of pulling a man three times her size to safety. The Demoman joined her side, grabbing one of the Heavy's massive arms. It was the only force that stopped the Russian from plummeting to his death.
"Mates, ya'd better hurry up 'n get 'im in!" the Sniper growled.
The Demoman hissed. "Get yer fruity arse over here 'n help us!"
The Sniper gawked, eyes and jaw wide. There were more threats incoming. He snapped his rifle up, then began firing. Thunder rumbled through the complex as his weapon pierced the mechanical brains of some of the oncoming hoard of robots. The Engineer wobbled from his location, scrambling to help what little he could. He reached just past Miss Pauling's back, snatching the Heavy's left hand. The Demoman grunted as both men pulled on his arms. The Heavy's thick hands reached the doorframe, his belly flat against what little remained of the fire escape. He roared as he pulled himself up, muscles straining.
Heat and flame crackled beneath him as the robots with the Pyro's figure caught up with the group. Scout bots clambered around the complex, beating at what little support remained for the fire escape. Their skin bubbled in the heat of the Pyro bot's flames. Their screams were for something more sinister than their own pain. There was a horrible din as the metallic devils coated in human skin clambering for the death of their meaty sacrifice.
With one last scream of metal, the fire escape completely collapsed.
I love this so very much, you can't even know. I love the tension, and I really enjoy the way you characterize Miss Pauling. Your interactions between the characters feels natural and real and I love the way you use verbs.
My only complaint is thus. Sometimes your sentences sound... weird. The cadence is blocky. I don't know how to explain it.
Example: Heat and flame crackled beneath him as the robots with the Pyro's figure caught up with the group.
"the robots with the Pyro's figure" - I don't know, this just felt weird to me.
Never stop writing!
I always enjoy the combination of suspense and action set in an unusual locale in your works, and how you incorporate all of the characters as a team without making it hokey or after-school special-y. Every update is a good one, can't wait for more.
Good lord! How long has it been since I updated?
Cripes. Let me fix that by instantly killing my cliffhanger. But, hey! At least there's a brief state of undress in this chapter.
The team's nerves rolled as the fire escape collapsed onto the writhing mass of robots in the street. They screamed, metallic voices warbling with a tinny tone. Most of the Scout robots were crushed instantly by the collapsing fire escape. A few Pyro bots struggled to unhook themselves from the heavy metal, but slowed as red and black fluids flowed from their bodies. Small pops of fire licked flames onto the building. All it left were black streaks.
The Heavy clung onto the door frame as his guts twisted. He growled as he pulled his bulk into the apartment where the meager remnants of his team hid. The Demoman and Engineer snatched him by the belt. As soon as he'd gotten the majority of his bulk inside, they let him go. The Sniper stepped to his side, rifled pointed down at the remaining robots. The force of his rounds exploded in their heads. When the Demoman was certain the Heavy was safe, he joined the lanky Australian. It didn't take long before their pursuers were reduced into scrap metal and pulp.
Flopping onto his back, the Heavy panted with great effort. "Next time, I find elevator."
Miss Pauling knelt next to the Heavy. "Are you going to be okay?"
"Da. Need to rest, though," the Heavy nodded. He stood up, then walked towards the Engineer's dispenser. The Texan was quick to join him.
Giving a low sigh, the Engineer began repairing his buildings, his wrench echoing in the hollow night. "Suppose there ain't no reason to keep quiet now."
"Everythin' in earshot's gonna be up our bums in no time flat." The Sniper knocked his hat back, then fussed with his hairline. "We're gonna need ta get down, 'n fast."
Miss Pauling took a glance around the complex. There wasn't much left to this small room. Most of the remaining furniture was damaged beyond use. If appliances were left, they were rusted and spotted with black mold. She glanced down the hall. There was a bedroom just past what used to be a kitchen. A beaten mattress was left on the floor. That would have to do. She grabbed at its edge, then began tugging it towards the front room.
"Let me help ya with that." The Demoman grasped the left-hand side of the mat. "Where we takin' this?"
"You tell me. What's the lowest fall we'll have to take?" Miss Pauling asked.
The Demoman nodded his head towards a door out of the apartment. The duo dragged the bedding out of the front door. The Sniper lifted his head, wondering what the two of them were up to. He gave the exhausted Engineer and Heavy two pats, then joined them. The trio picked the mat up, then walked towards a wrecked stairwell. Cheap materials were scattered everywhere, blown to kingdom come by the Demoman's tricky work against the previous wave of robots.
"Okay. Toss it," Miss Pauling commanded.
The three of them threw the old mattress down the stairwell. It landed a few floors down, smashing debris flat beneath it. Miss Pauling paced around what little railing remained of the stairwell. She could see the collapsed front door. Scorch marks surrounded the materials that lay there. If the Demoman had destroyed it once before, then it was likely that he could blow another hole in it. All they had to do was make it safely downstairs.
"Gentlemen, see if you can find more mats." She turned to face the Demoman. "Mister DeGroot, I'm counting on you to get us out of here."
The Demoman gave her a cheeky grin and a salute. "Aye! Leave it to me."
As her two assistants ran off to find more mattresses, Miss Pauling went to check on the rest of her men. She found both of them huddled next to the Engineer's dispenser. The Texan was sitting with his legs folded, listening quietly to the Heavy's story. The Russian's face was long with sorrow. She didn't have to hear the whole tale to know that the Heavy was telling the Engineer about the lost Medic. She kept quiet as they continued conversing, checking to see if the water was still on in the kitchen. The assistant was a strong woman, but her endurance wasn't nearly that of the men she was watching. A drink of water would have restored some of her resolve. Of course, it was shut off.
"Got some bottled tea, if yer lookin' for a drink," the Engineer said.
Miss Pauling sighed, then left the sink alone. She sat between the healing men. The Engineer tossed her a glass bottle. She recognized the wrapping. Several of the destroyed vending machines around this location had an old advertisement for it plastered on them. Her men must have raided one. She checked for an expiration date, but didn't find any. Throwing caution to the wind, she cracked the bottle open and drank its bitter contents.
"Are you two doing okay?" Miss Pauling asked. She wiped the top of her bottle off with the inside of her jacket. "Here. You two should—"
The Heavy shook his head. "Nyet. Drink it. Already had one."
"Finished off a Coke, myself," the Engineer grinned. "At least, I think it was a Coke. Could have been carbonated tea, for all I know."
Miss Pauling shrugged, then took another drink. "Thank you. I'm sorry for interrupting."
"Is fine. I was telling Engineer about Doctor. Needs to know what happened, I think," the Heavy replied.
"Sorry ta hear about him, too." The Engineer gave a low sigh. "Coulda used his help. Not ta mention what those lowlifes would do with a man 'a science like him."
Miss Pauling smirked. "Give the man some credit, Mister Conagher. He's not one to take his captivity lying down."
The Heavy agreed with her. "Medic is stubborn man. He will cause much, much trouble."
Chuckling, the Engineer asked, "Ransom of Red Chief, hmm?"
"Something like that," Miss Pauling replied.
There was a knock on the doorframe. The trio glanced up to see the Sniper's head peeking around the corner. He gave a low sigh, then a smile. "We're plum outta mattresses. Think we'll have ta wing it."
Miss Pauling waved for her men to follow. The Engineer grabbed a hunk of scrap metal from his dispenser as he got up. Everyone reconvened on the Demoman's location. He was standing with arms akimbo at the top of a broken stairwell. He'd knocked the railing aside, allowing for a clear fall down to the first floor. The pile of mattresses wasn't reassuring or comforting. Most of the mats were moth-eaten and flat from decades of use. It would be a rough landing.
The Engineer was quick to whip up a plan. "Tell y'all what." He tossed his tool box down onto the floor. It popped open, revealing a spinning set of prongs atop a flat base. As the machine whirled to life, the Engineer continued speaking. "Let me get this nice 'n fixed up, 'n I'll take the leap. Once I get ta the first floor, I'll toss down an exit. Sound fair?"
"That's a long fall, mate," the Sniper frowned. "Don't hurt yerself. Yer the closest thing we've got to a doc 'round here. Not ta mention what those bastards would do with a man loike you."
The Engineer patted the Sniper on the shoulder. "I'll be fit as a fiddle. No worries, right?"
The Heavy stepped in. "Maybe I can lower you little bit. Less way to fall."
"If ya can hold the both of us, I think I could help ya, too. Little more distance, anyway," the Demoman offered.
"Sounds like a plan. Be back in a jiffy." The Engineer scurried off to collect more scrap metal. Both he and his teammates ran back and forth, hauling what they could to speed up the Engineer's work. It wasn't long before the spinning teleporter had grown.
Miss Pauling was impressed with the team's speed and vigor. Despite having their numbers cut in half, they were eager to fight as always. That confidence was wonderful. Maybe it was foolish, but it made her work easier. She would have to document it in her report.
As soon as he was prepared, the Engineer tossed his tool kit down to the first floor. It landed with a soft whoosh towards the edge of the mattresses. It was a shame that the little kit didn't prop open remotely, or it would have saved her men some time. The Demoman wrapped two arms around the Engineer. The Heavy followed suit. Slowly, the three men draped themselves over the edge of the railing.
When the Heavy lowered the two men as far as they could go, he began counting. "Tri. Dva. Adeen!"
The Scotsman didn't need to know the Heavy's meaning to know when to let go. As he released the Texan, everyone's stomach knotted up. Time slowed, the emptiness of the building suddenly full of rushing wind. The Sniper winced, body tensed in case something awful happened. Even Miss Pauling closed her eyes. There was a soft thump as the Engineer landed.
It wasn't long before the teleporter on the top floor glowed and spun to life.
The Engineer gave a cheeky call upstairs. "Let's get movin', ladies! I'm itchin' fer a fight, and y'all didn't find any pillows."
Miss Pauling did enjoy her subordinates. They were a quirky bunch of men, quick to come up with unique plans and to strategize to best fit any situation. Having the Pyro, the Scout, and the Spy out of the mix was hobbling them, but they worked around it as best as they could. They had weaponry cleaned and filled before she was done getting out of her pajamas. Their efficiency was to be admired.
Their knack for barging into rooms, however, was a problem.
She had just finished zipping her jeans when the Demoman and the Sniper slammed into her bedroom. Both men were embroiled in some sort of debate, weapons thrown over their shoulders. All three squawked as they made eye contact. Miss Pauling hadn't finished dressing quite yet. Both men spun on their heels, quick to hide their embarrassment. Miss Pauling turned about as well. She fidgeted with the last of her blouse buttons before speaking to them. "Alright. I'm decent."
"Sorry 'bout that," the Demoman apologized.
The Sniper nodded in agreement with the Scotsman. "Just wasn't thinkin'."
"It's fine. No harm, no foul." Miss Pauling grabbed for a brush in her suitcase. She continued grooming herself. "Now, what is it that you two were willing to violate my privacy to discuss?"
The Sniper scrunched up his face. "Blimey. When ya put it like that—"
The Demoman shook his head, then got down to business. He tossed a box of items onto Miss Pauling's bed. "Me mate 'n I came ta talk to ya 'bout getting' armed."
Miss Pauling patted her thigh, stroking the back of her revolver. "Gentlemen, I know how to dress myself."
Both men's faced flushed with embarrassment. The Demoman was the first to recover. "That's all good and well, Lassie, but we need help. We're down three lads." He opened his hands into a pleading gesture. "I know it's not our right ta ask, but if there's anythin' ya can take…"
Miss Pauling cocked her head. She studied the weapons her men had offered her. Most were pilfered from the Scout and Spy's collection. It was probably for the best—she didn't have the training, physical strength, or mad temperament to use the Pyro's flamethrowers. She rummaged through them, looking for what would suit her. One of the items was a silver watch. The Spy's standard cloaking device. She picked the timepiece up, then strapped it to her wrist. It didn't fit like a glove, but it would do.
"Probably should pack a knoife, then," the Sniper suggested.
The Demoman frowned. "Ya can't be wishin' fer her ta sneak around like that back-pokin' snake does, are ya? Those bloody robots would rip her ta shreds!"
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Miss Pauling muttered.
"Ya know I don't mean it like that, Miss Paulin'." The Demoman sighed, then placed a hand against his right temple. "We can't risk losin' ya. It'd tear me up if those Tian Lu bastards got a hold 'a ya."
The Sniper paled at the thought. He opened his mouth to retract his statement. Miss Pauling raised one finger, and the Australian fell silent. She grabbed the first knife she could find in the box. A peculiar balisong found its way into her possession. There was a rose stamped on its handles. She undid its latch, flipping the handles open. The knife's blade was serrated, a rose's winding path laced up its face. This must have been a new acquisition. She'd never seen the Spy work with a weapon quite like this.
"Think ya can handle it?" the Sniper asked, breaking the silence Miss Pauling had placed on him.
She nodded, then folded the blade shut and locked it. "Just don't ask me to do fancy tricks with it."
The Demoman grinned, then crossed his arms. "Looks perfect in yer hands. Better than any of me old swords, anyway."
The Sniper scratched his chin. "Can't say I'd want that in my spine."
"Good. I'll start with this, then." Miss Pauling placed the knife alongside her gun. She snatched her jacket off the edge of her bed. "If you boys think I need anything else, then pack it. We're going to war, after all. Might as well bring as much as you can."
"Now that's what I like ta hear!" the Demoman cheered.
Miss Pauling ushered the men out of her room. They split in their own ways, ready to grab as much as they could. She searched through her suitcase, grabbing a few last items. Her clipboard was loaded with a fresh pad of paper, as well as a pencil and the maps that her boys had whipped together. She fished her wallet out of her purse. She made sure her passport and remaining personal effects were hidden and locked away. Satisfied, she went to check on the troops.
The Heavy and the Demoman had spear-headed loading up the two vans in the attached garage. The Medic and the Sniper were loading up what they could. She wondered how either van was going to have room for passengers. The Heavy's large arsenal, the Medic's healing gels and supplemental aids, every grenade launcher that the Demoman had packed, the Engineer's toolkits, the Sniper's uncouth stacks of ammunition, rifles, and machine guns—all these items had been crammed into every nook and cranny in both vehicles. If there was anything her men knew how to do, it was how to pack an army.
A metal fingertip tapped Miss Pauling on the shoulder. She jumped, then sighed. "You scared me, Mister Conagher."
"Sorry. I'll have ta use the other hand next time." The Engineer nodded his head towards the living room. "Got another situation on our hands."
Miss Pauling lowered her eyebrows. "What now?"
The Texan led her back to the computer terminal. He offered her the chair. She sat down. The seat was warm, having absorbed the Engineer's body heat. She narrowed her eyes, adjusting her glasses. He had discovered another strange file. Somehow, he'd gotten read access on this one. She stumbled through the code. While she could operate a machine like this, getting into programming was a bit beyond her.
"What am I looking at? Assembly code?" Miss Pauling asked.
"No. But, it is some kinda script." The Engineer poked at the screen. "See this? Our little file here's talkin' to somethin', and it ain't another computer."
Miss Pauling's eyes widened. "What is it talking to, then? Our satellites?"
The Engineer shook his head. "No. If I'm readin' this right, then this code's sendin' some kinda signal to some major operatin' assistance machines. Phone lines."
"What?" Miss Pauling gasped.
"Ain't the last of it, neither." The Engineer stole the mouse for the computer, then continued scrolling through the file. "This here? Talkin' to nodes fer television. Over here? It's using some kinda radio tower to transmit a noise. God knows what kinda noise, but that's what it supposed ta do."
Miss Pauling frowned, then rubbed her head. She hopped out of the seat, then worked her way towards the kitchen. The stocky Texan followed her. She picked up the phone, listening quietly for a dial tone. There was an empty sound in her head, her pulse echoing in the hollow plastic. The phone line was dead.
"Damn," Miss Pauling hissed.
There was a static scream in her ear. She yelped, jumping away from the phone and tossing its receiver aside. The Engineer reached out, instinctively catching her as she leapt away. Chinese shrieks and crackling noise rattled from the machine. As soon as she got over the shock of the noise, Miss Pauling picked up the phone and slammed it back on its cradle.
"We've got to try and get a hold of Helen. This kind of breach can't stand," Miss Pauling muttered. "Do you think a payphone would work?"
The Engineer frowned. "Right now? I wouldn't trust two soup cans and a string."
"Well, we've got to try something." Miss Pauling paced out of the kitchen. "Let's get moving. We'll hit up the nearest payphone, and I'll tell Helen—"
Miss Pauling's skin prickled. There were people standing outside of their complex. They had been so still that she had hardly noticed them. They stood with blank expressions, eyes glowing in the night. Each of them were lithely built. They all shared the same face. Their jaws were slack, bodies leaned forward and prepared to dash forward. These shadows stared at her, eyes widening slowly and unnaturally with anticipation.
She grabbed the Engineer's arm and yanked him towards the garage as a dozen Scouts poured through the front window.
Miss Pauling: getting shit done like a boss.
As ever, I'm looking forward to what happens next, and as much as I don't like to, very willing to wait for it since I know it's going to be good.
Oh my goodness I like where this is going, can't believe I didn't look at this earlier! I'm looking forward to updates.
Hello again. Did you miss me terribly?
Let's get this chapter on the road.
There was no consensus between the teammates on what their destination would like. Everyone had their interpretations. Whatever they had pictured in their mind's eye, it was grandiose. A skyscraper as tall as a mountain. Warehouses packed to the brim with robot parts. A brightly-lit manufacturing plant, spilling smoke into the night sky. Any of these thoughts would have rightly suited Tian Lu Technologies.
What they found was an abandoned convenience store.
"You have gotta be kiddin' me," the Demoman huffed.
The Engineer shook his head. He lowered his gaze to his map, then lifted it once more. "This is the place. I'm sure of it."
Miss Pauling hated to agree with the Demoman, but it looked like the Engineer had messed up. The front of the convenience store was coated with a liberal layer of dust. The shelves inside were barren. The only light that reached the interior of the shop came from the hissing streetlights. A faded company logo waved at the team from the window, an octopus with large eyes taunting them with its pink tentacles. The face of the shop was otherwise left as-is, its front doors closed and windows untouched.
In fact, they were in perfect condition.
The Sniper must have picked up on the same detail as Miss Pauling. He darted his eyes around the empty street. "Doesn't make sense."
"Well, I ain't gonna get 'em all right," the Engineer conceded.
"No, not that." The Sniper pointed across the street. "Look. See all the vendin' machines? Punched out 'n tipped over. Storefronts all have the glass knocked outta them."
The Heavy caught onto the Sniper's suggestion. "Vandals are not picky. They take all. Then, why leave this building alone?"
Miss Pauling shrugged. "Well, they do have a cute octopus in the window."
"Wouldn't think that'd be enough." The Sniper rolled his sleeves above his elbows. "Give me a tic."
Without any reservation, the Sniper approached the front of the store. He took a short breath, preparing to throw himself. He pushed against the door. It gave away smoothly. As the door flung open, a loud noise burst out of the store. The team panicked. Each person drew their weapons and snapped them towards the offending sound.
The Sniper rolled his eyes. "It's a dorm chime, ya drongos."
Everyone sighed. Danger hadn't sprung upon them yet. The team reconvened behind the Sniper, then entered the convenience store. It was just as empty and filthy as it appeared to be from the outside. The Engineer shook his head, then found the mechanism that controlled the door chime. In an act of vengeance, he cut it. The Sniper teased his shorter companion. He gave him a cheeky grin and a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. The Engineer responded with a shake of his head and a low groan.
The Demoman broke up their moment. He bobbed his head towards the back. "Oy, mate. Take a peek at that."
The Engineer glanced at a corner in the back of the store. There was a gray hunk of plastic sprawled in a tangle of cords above their heads. A tiny green light glowed just below a round lens. The Texan stood below it, giving it a dirty look. That had to be a security camera. It was clearly still active.
"Heavy? Could ya help me cut this?" the Engineer asked. "Ain't right ta let this thing keep chewin' up electricity."
The Russian picked the Texan off the ground by the back of his overalls. As the duo began fiddling with the camera, Miss Pauling paced around the shop. Cameras weren't left on just for the hell of it. She rocked on her heels, watching as the Engineer picked the machine apart. The camera's head wasn't set on a pivoting joint. It was just staring straight ahead, its one lens focused on what used to be the counter. She titled her head.
A little light in her brain went on as the camera went dead.
The small woman paced behind the counter. There had to be something there. No one left a camera on a spot without good reason. She patted beneath the counter, looking for levers or buttons. There was nothing nearly so complicated below it. A few spiders scurried away as she disturbed their nests. She shook her hand free of spider silk, watching as they ran away through cracks in the floor.
She grinned. "I see."
The Sniper leapt over the counter, landing in a sitting position next to her. His eyes widened. "Good find."
"Whatcha seein', guys?" the Engineer called over his shoulder.
"Floor's wonky here. Some 'a the tiles look disturbed." The Sniper dug his fingers into the crevices where the spiders had disappeared. "Blimey. Feels like cool air down here."
The Demoman strolled over to the Sniper's position. "Let me help ya with that, mate."
The duo flipped the strange tiles back. It revealed a false trap door. A cold blast of air rolled over their faces and Miss Pauling's legs. She knelt down next to them. A metal ladder was descending into a dark room. There was growling from machinery below.
Both the Heavy and the Engineer stood over the rest of their teammates, jaws dropped. The Texan spoke for the both of them. "Well, I'll be damned."
There was nothing quite as irritating as the Scout. He was a cocky little man, so full of himself. He had his talents, sure. The unfortunate fact was that he knew how skilled he was. He didn't just let his feet do the talking. He was a motor mouth, and his favorite subject to discuss was himself. It took divine intervention to get him to shut up. He didn't have the physical stature to be intimidating, so his mouth had to do the work for him. He was all limbs and words. Not the picture of a terrifying monster.
As a pack of dead-eyed robots? The Scout's form was horrifying.
The robots with the Scout's skin slammed through the living quarters. Aluminum bats struck furniture and plaster. The Engineer flinched as one of the bots smashed the team's computer terminal into thousands of glass and plastic chunks. His jaw dropped as the pack of Scouts rounded on both himself and Miss Pauling. If it hadn't been for the assistant's constant tugging, he would have been bludgeoned to death, eyes wide with fascination.
They were pretty well built machines, after all. If he could appreciate anything, it was good craftsmanship.
Miss Pauling yelped as the edge of a bat burst through the wall. The strange machines tore through the base's infrastructure, eager to bash anything in their paths. She shoved the Engineer into the garage. "Dammit! Did you see that?"
"Yeah," the Engineer nodded. "Strong little buggers, ain't they? Mighty jealous."
His wonder didn't stop him from opening fire on their assailants. Two pumps of a shotgun discouraged the first wave squashing through the narrow hallway. Miss Pauling took the lead, kicking the door to the garage open. All of her men were pacing around the two vans, hands full of boxes. As soon as they heard gunfire, they dropped what they were doing and grabbed their weapons.
Miss Pauling shoved the Engineer towards the first vehicle. "Get going!"
He grunted as he reloaded his weapon. As he backed away from the garage's side door, Miss Pauling slammed the portal shut. It wasn't much of a deterrent. Within seconds, the Scout robots had broken through that wall, too. Some forwent their armaments, punching through wood with their bare fists. Flesh peeled, revealing the intricate metalwork in their hands. They left scarlet patches in their wake.
Robots with blood. Miss Pauling shook her head. The world was a strange place.
The Demoman and the Sniper buckled into the first vehicle. The Engineer ran to take the driver's seat, his short legs scuffing the floor as he ran. The Heavy and the Medic gathered into the second vehicle. A bright gleam caught the Medic's eye as he took driver's seat. The Heavy's face fell, little worries starting to creep up on him. The Medic was all too gleeful about getting the opportunity to drive. There was a crack as the garage door rolled back. Both vans rumbled, coughing fumes as they came to life.
Miss Pauling hopped into the back of the second vehicle as the first screeched out of the driveway. There was a thump as that van exited the compound, garbage and flesh bursting into the air. He'd hit both another patch of robots and a trash bin. The Medic laughed at the chaos, then slammed his foot to the floor. His ride was all too willing to accommodate his lead foot.
In the Medic's defense, he did not know that the back loading door had not been properly secured. When everyone had been so quick to fly from the base, it had not been latched and locked. Miss Pauling would have been wearing her seatbelt if she had a clear head. The unfortunate lack of attention on the team's part lead to another wrinkle in their escape plan. As the Medic hit the accelerator, the van shot forward. Miss Pauling, unprepared for the lurch, fell backwards—straight into the ajar door and right out of the van.
The Scout-bots swarmed her within seconds.
Hitting the cement floor of the garage stung well enough. It was nothing compared to the flurry of swats at her prone form. Miss Pauling cried out, gnashing and swatting as hard as she could. One sharp kick knocked two assailants back and let four more in. She fumbled for her gun, trying to protect her cranium as she squirmed. Chunks of cement flew up as a lethal blow just missed her head. Another caught her in the torso. She couldn't breathe, fingers laced tightly around the handle of her revolver. She pulled the gun up and opened fire.
Miss Pauling didn't have her eyes open as she fought. She followed the billowing pain around her body, letting her bruises be her guide. There was a pop and a scream. The tinny rattle of the robot's voice box turned the Scout's dying shrieks into a horrifying mimicry of a sound she was intimate with. A bat missed. She didn't. Another fleshy bot caught her in the thigh. She put a few rounds through its stringy chest. Wet hot liquid splattered against her as she held her ground.
If she was going to die—if she would become like the Scout—then she would put as many of them as possible out of commission.
Sparks and thick flesh hissed against her skin. There were two mighty roars. The first was from a purring machine gun. The second was from a bellowing Russian. She laid flat on the ground, letting bullets whistle over her form. Heaps of robot chunks collapsed onto her. Hot metal scalded her left arm. She flung the piece aside. Damned robots were doing their best to murder her, even as they lay in bits.
She didn't have time to get her bearing before two massive arms swept her off the ground. The Heavy hauled her back to the van. He placed her head against the left side of his chest, legs swept over the crook of his elbow. He gave another started gulp, then stampeded into the van. There were bright, billowing curtains of fire just behind his rear end. He slammed the door shut as a new wave of robotic Pyros entered the garage. They scalded the van's bumper as the last vehicle finally escaped the compound.
The Medic spared a glance over his shoulder, then gasped. "You are alive! Zhank Gott! Heavy, mein medi-gun."
"Doctor, drive. I take care of Miss Pauling," the Heavy replied.
He fished the Medic's medi-gun out of a supply-crate, then crouched down beside the battered assistant. He flipped the backpack to the medi-gun over first, touching buttons and levers. There were sparks of activity, but nothing happened. He growled at the device, then tossed it up front in defeat. Without even sparing a glance at the pack, the Medic fired the medi-gun up, his fingers flying across the pack in a speed that the Heavy's meaty digits could never hope to reach. The German tossed it over his shoulder. From that point, the Heavy could handle the device. He pressed the lever forward.
A cool mist billowed around Miss Pauling. Her throbbing wounds ceased to ache. Skin returned to its natural color and strength, splintered bones becoming whole once more. She sighed. The vapors of the medi-gun were soothing as a fresh breeze, almost lulling her into a daze. "Thank you."
"Very strong woman. Very lucky, too," the Heavy smiled.
The Medic hissed from the front of the van. "Zhat is vhere our luck runs out." He waved his hands around the dark streets. Cars scattered around the fleeing van. "Ve have lost ze ozher members of our team." He gawked as flares erupted in his rear-view mirror. "Very stubborn followers, too!"
"We'll be able to catch up to the others. We're meeting on the place Mister Doe respawned, after all. We'll just have to take different paths." Miss Pauling glanced out of the back window. "I've got to get a hold of the Administrator."
The Heavy grunted. "Now is not good time for phone calls."
Miss Pauling explained her reasoning. "When I tried to call out, the line was compromised." She leaned against the back of the front seat, reloading her gun as she spoke. "Killing things is your job. Reporting to the Administrator is mine. I think you both know what will happen if I fail to alert the Administrator."
Both men flinched. Crossing the Administrator was not something one did lightly. The potential unraveling of their last five years of work together was nothing compared to the unholy dimensions of wrath the Administrator would bring down upon them. She had a malicious streak and a sense of ingenuity. It wouldn't take long for her to hollow both of them out for even the most minor of failures.
"Do you have plan?" the Heavy asked.
"I've got the Spy's wristwatch and enough money to make a call." Miss Pauling shrugged. "I'll make it up as I go."
"Improvization? Ha! Zhat is my favorite plan!" The Medic stepped on the accelerator. "Hold onto your keister, zhen!"
The German madman tore through a populated district. Cars slammed on their horns, men frustrated with the chaotic driver. The robots went lost in the thick of humans. One or two popped up here and there as the trio continued fleeing. Miss Pauling's skin bristled with apprehension. How did no one see these monsters milling about the place? Were the citizens of Kong King all drunk?
The Medic swiveled his head around. "Now vould be zhe time to jump."
Miss Pauling nodded. The Heavy gave her one last worried expression, then moved towards the back door. Miss Pauling patted the large Russian on the shoulder. He mustered up a smirk. Both waited until the Medic dropped just enough speed. The Heavy threw the door open. Miss Pauling leapt onto the sidewalk. Her men sped away, careening towards a car park. She dashed into a nearby alleyway, activating the cloak as she sent.
She was left alone, only reuniting with her colleagues after the city fell under a veil of static snow.
The flashlight on the end of Miss Pauling's pistol illuminated the freezing room below the team's feet. It appeared to be a large refrigeration unit. She dashed the light across the room. There were no robots lying in wait. She could catch the edges of metal poles gleaming just below her. She bobbed her head towards the men. They nodded, then descended. First went the Engineer, then the Sniper, then the Demoman. The Heavy was almost too broad-shouldered for the hatch, but he managed to squeeze his way through. Screwing up her courage, Miss Pauling followed them into the freezing, dark abyss.
The poles she had seen were connected to large wire racks. Each rack had rows of blue tubs. These bins were sealed with a plastic, transparent cover. A strange substance filled each container to the brim. The Engineer cracked one open. There was a semi-solid goop lying inside. It hadn't frozen. He prodded it with his robotic hand. The pink substance resisted his poking quiet well. His face coiled into a grimace.
"Smells somethin' awful," the Engineer muttered. "Like copper."
Miss Pauling wasn't as brave as her men when it came to testing unknown substances. She liked to keep her hands clean. She knelt next to the racks, glancing at the logo imprinted on the side of the bins. It was not the friendly octopus they had seen upstairs. Rather, it was a strange, feral monster. It looked a bit like a tiger with one sharp horn jutting from its forehead, lips turned upwards and teeth exposed.
"That's definitely Tian Lu's company logo," she said.
The Heavy frowned. "Then, this stuff is—"
The Demoman growled, suddenly nauseated. "Ah, cripes! It's robot goop!"
"Stinks like raw flesh, anyway. Probably what they use fer fakin' skin," the Engineer grumbled. He closed the lid on the container he was view, then turned his nose away from it.
The Sniper scratched his chin. "So, let me get this straight. Respawn says the Soldier came back here. This doesn't look like an office building or anythin' fancy 'n insidious, like ya'd expect a proper corporate lair ta be. At best, it's a weird ol' warehouse full 'a robot crap. So, where'd the Soldier go?"
He was answered with a loud slam above his head.
Every yelped as the refrigeration unit went dark. Miss Pauling was quick to snap her flashlight towards their entrance. The trap door was sealed shut. The team fell together, pulses racing. The darkness that permeated the refrigeration unit made the freezing temperatures all the colder.
"If anyone's got an escape plan, now would be the time to share it," Miss Pauling hissed.
The Demoman was already on it. He launched half a dozen spiked sticky bombs into the ceiling. They landed with soft little thumps. Pushing the team away from the blast radius, he grinned. "Watch yer heads!" With one press of a button, he detonated the bombs. There was a sharp explosion as the hatch blew open, the metal door landing with a clatter above ground.
They were met by the decapitated torsos of several Soldier replicas.
The Demoman sighed. "Well, I did give a warnin'."
A fresh rush of robots clogged the newly blasted hole. The Demoman squawked as strong hands swatted above his head. The team fell back, spines pressed against the far wall of the storage cell and guns at the ready. As one door closed, crammed full of robots screaming obscenities, another blasted open. Rockets blew through the sides of the refrigeration unit. The team fell backwards as the wall that supported them collapsed.
They found themselves staring face to face with more robots. Each unit was bare, stripped down to a metal frame. These were all composed of half-finished Scout, Pyro, and Soldier forms. A Soldier snatched the Sniper off the ground. He slammed the Australian onto a paved floor. The team struggled to get a grip on their new situation as each member was besieged. Three Scout bots jumped the Heavy. He threw two off, only to have four more pile on him once more. The Engineer scrambled away from one Pyro, landing on his knees next to the collapsed Sniper. His eyes darted over the filth at the edge of the pathway.
"A goddamn sewer," he cussed. "Ain't been stinkin' enough."
"We gotta get goin'!" the Demoman yelled.
It was easier said than done. The team was overwhelmed almost instantly. Each attempt at rescue was met with growing peril. The Engineer was pulled from the Sniper's side by another Soldier, fingers wrapped tightly around his neck. The Sniper stabbed through the robot's arms, cutting the Engineer free, only to be smacked upside the head by a Scout's blunt bat. The Heavy was dogpiled, every swarming bot eager to rip into him. His mighty strength was nothing compared to tempered steel.
A desperate situation called for a daring resolution, and the Demoman had it.
The Scotsman turned to Miss Pauling. He shoved her out of a Pyro's reach. "You get goin', lassie! We'll cover ya!"
Even if she was the defacto leader, she took his plan. The short assistant ran to the right, firing covering shots over her side as she went. The Demoman followed her, but not for long. He slowed his pace, then found his target. One bomb went up, then another. He sewed a zigzagged line into the ceiling above the chaos. Miss Pauling spun on her heels, realizing what madness the Demoman was doing one second too late.
She yelped as the ceiling of the sewer and the building above it collapsed.
Miss Pauling was just out of the detonation's range, spared certain death by millimeters. Never-the-less, the blast knocked her off her feet. She barely had enough sense in her head to feel soft plaster powdering over her body. It took her several minutes to come to her senses. In turn, those minutes were followed by her staring blankly at the heap. She pounded against it, clawing towards her men. Silence to her calls rebuked her futile efforts. She slumped against the debris, her body collapsing under a sudden torrent of fatigue.
She'd lost them all. Again.
She wouldn't be alone for long.
I'm not usually one to post comments, but I wanted to let you know that I'm following this with excitement and trepidation.
It's pretty darn cool to see an action story with Miss Pauling taking an active role, but I can't help but wonder if she's all by her lonesome against the robots now - that's one hell of an ominous, ambiguous cliffhanger you've got set up there!
A ha ha! You thought I'd abandoned this story? Too bad for you!
At any rate, I hope you enjoy at least the second part of this chapter. I think it adds a bit of pepper.
Captcha: unnecessary ancyfa. I'll show you unnecessary, hippie!
Her flashlight flickered.
Miss Pauling had plenty of reasons to panic before this event. She had lost all nine mercenaries at her disposal. She was wandering without purpose in a sewer system that stretched for miles. There was a robot horde threatening to harm her at any moment. If they made it to the mainland United States, they would wipe out everything her bosses had built over decades of intense work. She would be fired, if not executed. Assuming the robots wouldn't kill her outright first, of course.
The dying light on the end of her gun was the final straw. She couldn't spend any more time underground. Once that light died, she would be blind. If the robots didn't catch up to her in the dark and kill her, then she would ramble until she collapsed from exhaustion and died. That maddening sort of death did not appeal to her.
It was time to go above ground once more.
She whacked her flashlight's side twice. The beam stabilized. It spilled white light down another four-way split in the sewer system. Flashing the light about, she watched for anything reflective. There had to be a ladder somewhere. Dirty water reflected sickly waves, cans and plastic packaging bobbing in its channels. Rats ran in terror from the rushing woman and the bright light. She hopped over one, careful not to step on its tail.
Her eyes caught sight of a rusty hunk of metal protruding from the side of a wall to her right. She bolted for it as her flashlight gave another weak sputter of light. The assistant ran her smooth fingers across the rough surface. The ladder couldn't have been here for more than a decade, and it was already in terrible shape. Just above its top rung was a circular disk. She put her gun and its attached light upon her hip. Pulling herself up as fast as she could, she knocked her head against the lid. The damn thing was twisted on. She wrapped her legs around the rungs, then pushed backwards. With three sharp spins, she loosened the top off. She pushed against it. The lid fell back with a loud clang.
She popped her head above the sewer lid and raised her eyebrows.
A sad, dreary pair of eyes stared at her. There was a withered old man sitting on a bench. His hair was gray and matted, drool gathered in dried clumps at the corners of his mouth. He didn't move as the little assistant pulled herself from the sewer tunnel. It didn't take long for her to discover why he didn't react. The emptied glass bottle in his rough hand and the layers of coats and newspapers covering him told a sad tale. He was a man without a home, living in the dark recesses of—
Miss Pauling asked, "A subway tunnel?"
The homeless man did not stir as Miss Pauling continued her investigations. Yellow lines ran along the concrete edge of the transit platform. She passed several glassy-eyed, strung out men. One was closing his tiny shop. The rolling metal shutter made her jump. Two guards sat in tiny booths, staring at her as she paced onwards. Neither flagged her down. For a city that showed little pity for the homeless and the aimless, she was surprised that such well-dressed men would let any of this pass. Perhaps they did not want to get their uniforms dirty.
They did have nice hats, though. Perhaps she would have to look for some similar adornments for her men.
Thinking of the team brought a sinking sensation to her stomach. Hot guilt burned slowly there. She buried her nose in the map that the Engineer had created for her. How long had it been since she'd lost them all? She lifted her head, trying in vain to locate a clock. Cold panic spread through her face. Her eyes widened. She snapped her head down.
She was a professional, wasn't she? Professionals didn't get flighty when they were alone. They had contingency plans and swift ways to execute them. Plans and manners and efficiency. Her back stiffened, the Sniper's mantra fresh in her head. They were both fools. She was wandering without a plan in a dingy subway tunnel, and he was—they were—
"Make a plan," Miss Pauling snapped at herself.
A tattered, filthy transit map was pinned to the wall. The petite woman paused in front of it, trying to work out where she was. Tracing her finger along the map, she recalled numbers that she had passed. She was heading east. She squinted, trying her best to read the tiny hanzi letters on the map. Slowly, she began to match up her location. Not that it made all that much difference. In the end, she was still lost, even if she had a name for her location.
Miss Pauling sat down on an abandoned bench. She folded her map, then tucked it away. Fatigue struck her like a typhoon. If she headed towards the next toll booth, she could sneak past the guards and get above ground. From there, she could hire a cab. Assuming a cab would take her credit card, of course. That didn't seem likely. Perhaps finding an ATM was the better goal. From there, she could get to a cab, then perhaps a boat or a plane. Then, if she left—
But what about them?
Terrible thoughts overwhelmed her again. If she fled, she would leave each and every one of her men to the likes of Tian Lu Technologies. People who thought it fit to wrap machines in their stolen skin. God, how had they made that? Where were they keeping her men? There was no way any ordinary group of men could hold them. They would have any prison that held them crumbled and burning before the next sunrise. So, where were they? What had happened to them?
Were they poisoned? Drugged? Tied to chairs? Floating in medical tubes? Tortured? Blackmailed? Brainwashed?
The screech of a train broke her frantic thoughts. It rumbled onwards, swallowed up by the spreading darkness in front of her eyes. Miss Pauling tipped her head. How strange. Were there no other active train stations? Why were the lights out? She hissed, then stood up. She hadn't come out of the pitch-black sewers to be thrust into more darkness. She turned back, prepared to head towards the last train station.
Two more sounds sent cold chills rushing through her. The first was the clack of lights going dead. She pressed towards the wall, not daring to risk being hit by some train running through dark tunnels. The second sound was someone clopping towards her. She didn't spare one glance behind her. She rushed into the last lit section. There were two claps, then the locking of machinery. It came from the turning gates.
The ticket station guards had vanished.
This was no time to be a well-behaved traveler. Miss Pauling bolted over the locked turnstiles. Lights snapped off in sets of two. She gasped, rushing towards each disappearing light. They led up stairwells and onto the main streets. She hopped up the left stairwell, her shoes clicking on the steps. A guard was rolling an iron-laced gate shut in front of her. She bolted past him. He cursed at her in Mandarin, but she paid it no mind. As soon as he'd locked the gate, she felt safe.
That was, until there was a slam.
Miss Pauling caught a look at her pursuer. He was locked well behind both her and the guard. Thick fingers flexed around the metal lattice, tensing around the lock and chains that held him. His face—his stolen visage—was one of steel and strength. There was a glow to the eyes set below a thick brow. It burned yellow where it should have been blue. The man's sharp jaw pulled into a foul sneer as he pulled against the chains. Flesh peeled from his hands as he snapped the lock.
The little assistant fled before the Soldier robot could do the same to her neck.
The Administrator was not a paranoid woman. She was a lady who was well acquainted with the seediness of others. She could size up and cut down anyone who crossed her. She knew the darkness that lurked behind every man's eyes because she was made of the same crafty, morally ambiguous material. Because she could pinpoint when anyone was gearing to fight or betray her, she knew how to destroy anyone that dared to challenge her. If she had a weakness beneath her steel skeleton and leathery skin, it was her own paranoia.
The scheming nest of snakes in her brain was in full force that evening.
"I should have never hired her," she hissed. "Those damned fools always liked her better than me. All she had to do was bat her eyes! I was a fool, Saxton! Now, I'm going to have to kill her, then kill those traitorous bastards! Finding replacement mercenaries will be simple enough, but I'm never going to find a secretary that could file and type as fast as she did!"
The Administrator's dinner guest had a perplexed expression fixed on his face as he gnawed on his steak, the meat shoved off to the side of his cheek like he was some sort of cannibalistic cow. "Come again? I just bit into the marrow, and the crunching drowned you out."
The Administrator slammed her fist into the table. "Miss Pauling has betrayed me! She's run off with my men and stolen my resources! Do you know how difficult it is going to have to hire a replacement for all of them? What the hell mercenary is interesting in killing robots? There's no challenge to it!" She slumped in her seat, then scowled. "I'm ruined! Might as well just hope for a fourth Mann son to shake out of the woodwork and get them to fight each other! All my years of managing these morons and their worthless gravel pits—wasted!"
Saxton grumbled. This behavior was highly unusual from Helen. At any rate, they were attracting too much attention from other restaurant customers. He scowled at a particularly nosey bunch of hippies until they went back to their rabbit food. He threw back a glass of beer, then grimaced. That piss water wasn't even worth being processed by his kidneys. "I'm still not following you."
"Miss Pauling reports on a quarterly basis to me. She even wakes up in the middle of the night to make a report." The Administrator fished a cigarette out of her blouse. She put it to the lit candle on the table, then drew in a thin stream of smoke. "If she hasn't reported to me, then I can only assume she's gone rogue."
"Not to spoil your pity party, but you know that's not like her." Saxton screwed up his face. "For all the times she's interrupted us while we were busy…Never even had the courtesy to join."
The Administrator shook her head. "Well, then what could it be? If she failed my mission, then I'd assume that I would get notification of at least her capture or execution. Or, at least, one of those sniveling man-children would have come crying back."
Saxton tore another hunk of steak off his plate before speaking again. "Where did they go, again?"
That question earned him another dirty glare. Helen's eyes were sharp as lasers. They cut straight into his liver. He'd forgotten one of her rules. They were never supposed to talk about her missions in public. God forbid a spy overheard one of her plots. A functional one, too. Not those whisper-thin swizzle sticks the Manns had hired to masquerade as a spy.
"Kong King, if you must know," the Administrator murmured.
"Hmmph. Damn city's causing us both trouble." Saxton roared on about his job, much to the Administrator's chagrin. "The entire stock market's been run through the grinder thanks to those bludgers. Some bastard forgot to pay the telephone, and the whole city goes the color of a burned-out bulb. Having the third largest Eastern market in the dark? Makes it hard to trade keys for hats, I'll tell you what. "
The Administrator raised her head. "What?"
"It's like that tellie show you Americans had goin' a few years back. The one with those two cute girls and the rest. No lights, no phone, no motorcar. Whole city's gone mum," Saxton rattled.
Leaping out of her chair, the Administrator growled, "Why didn't you tell me that?"
"I thought you already knew!" Saxton paused for a moment, his moustache failing to conceal his devious smile. "Then again, you were a very busy woman today…"
The Administrator's brain had snapped back into work mode. Her supper was unappealing, especially now that she had an excuse for Miss Pauling's strange behavior. Not that she would have ever doubted her loyal and thorough assistant. No, not even for one second. She left her supper on the white cloth, snatching the opened wine bottle from the table.
"I will have to take a rain check on our little business excursion," the Administrator snarled. "I've got work to do."
It was impossible to argue with the Administrator as she bolted off, sticking the CEO of Mann Co. with the check. Then again, Saxton didn't mind watching her storm off. She was a woman with a mission, a passion for bloodlust, and a dynamite pair of stockings. He admired that.
Miss Pauling leaned again the alleyway's walls, her energy flat lining. She either needed a stiff cup of coffee or a glass of wine and a nap. She lowered her head, then pushed her fingers against the brim of her glasses. For all the good she was doing, she might as well just clock out. At least she wouldn't be costing the Administrator money when she was failing to uproot an international corporation and losing her men like socks in a dryer or mittens in a snowstorm.
If she was a smart woman, she would just give up. Maybe if the robots killed her, she would wake up with the rest of her lost men. Sometimes, it was just easier to let the monster swallow her whole and cut her way back out. That was the way it worked for her men, at least.
There was a clatter to her left. She jumped as a stray cat leapt out of a dumpster. For half a moment, she thought that Soldier android had caught up to her. She slumped down, then wrapped her arms around her knees. Five minutes. She just needed a little rest.
Of course, that was not something her pursuer allowed her.
"Son of a—" Miss Pauling hissed.
The Soldier robot's silhouette stood out, backside illuminated by a distant streetlight. As it stomped towards her resting place, Miss Pauling fiddled with the Spy's watch. There was just enough charge for a few more seconds of hiding. She activated the cloak, then squeezed herself against the dumpster. If the damn thing would just pass her by…
It was hard to hold her breath as the Soldier robot investigated the alleyway. Its shoulders were rigid, jaw set tightly shut. The robot turned its head with an unnatural, smooth arch. Her heart almost pounded out of her chest and straight into the dumpster when the robot's cold gaze landed on where she sat. There was no mistaking this machine for a human. It had reflective eyes, round and bright like an owl. She didn't move a muscle. The Spy's cloak held fast to her like a silvery second skin.
As the robot turned away, the watch began to fail. Miss Pauling slipped her hand towards the second item she'd procured from the Spy's implements. It was time to put this robot out of commission. The machine didn't make five paces before the little assistant rushed it. It wasn't a human, and it was more complicated than Gray Mann's standard line of robots, but it still had the same default flaws. It build was based on the human body, and humans had several unfortunate structural issues.
Like, for example, their fragile necks.
Miss Pauling drove the knife up through the back of the robot's spine and neck. The blade lodged itself in the base of the machine's head. That would have been enough to kill most men. The machine spun on its heels, its eyes dull and lifeless. Its jaw went slack, fingers digging into her wrists as the robot snatched at her. She yelped. The robot bore down on her, its entire form landing on top of her as they went onto the filthy alley floor. She kicked at it twice. Her shoes dug through pseudo-skin, clanking against the metallic underbelly of the machine.
She stopped panicking when she realized the robot wasn't moving. It had a vice-tight grasp on her arms, yes, but it wasn't trying to fight her. Kicking at the robot again, she managed to flip the machine over, flinging herself over it. The robot's body was frozen in place. It had locked up the moment its power had run out. She bit at the robot's fingers, prying its thick digits from around her wrist.
As soon as she was free, she flipped the machine over. The wound she'd inflicted was gruesome. The fake tissue and blood certainly looked real enough. She pulled the knife out of the wound, finding metal plating separated by the thin blade's edge. Several red, blue, and green cables were cut into two pieces. That must have been enough to take it down.
"Too lifelike," she muttered.
Miss Pauling stood back from the robot. It wasn't good to leave it in the open. The robot was too realistic. It could easily be mistaken for a corpse. Not to mention what Tian Lu Technologies would do if they recovered data from the machine. She grimaced, wondering where the memory chips were on this machine. Did it already send video footage back to its headquarters?
She couldn't stay here.
After a lengthy couple of awkward minutes, she was able to pitch the heavy top-half of the robot into the dumpster. She batted its legs in, then slammed the lid shut. There was no time to waste. She had to run. Somewhere, anywhere—she just had to go. The smell of the ocean caught her as she ran out of the alleyway and down more streets. Its scent was rejuvenating. In a way, comforting as well. Something familiar in a foreign land.
Then she realized why she remembered the smell. "An ocean? Then, maybe—"
Snapping open her map, Miss Pauling smiled. Her eyes darted between the map and the street signs around her. Slowly, she matched hanzi characters to the map's locations. There was a big, bright cross on the map not too far from her location. A harbor. The place that her men had picked supplies up from. More importantly, it was the location of another suspicious death. If she found the reason for why the Spy had been respawned there, then she might be a step closer to figuring out where her men had gone.
Miss Pauling expected the sun to meet her at the shore. She was greeted by a silver typhoon.
Cripes, I've let this sit too long.
If the sun ever showed its face upon Kong King, Miss Pauling wouldn't have known it. The skies went from a blue-black vacuum to a sickly gray haze. White clouds ran in streams from smokestacks in the distance. Tobacco floated from the tips of various citizens' cigarettes, little wisps lost in the immense cloud bearing down around the city. Rain fell in long, runny streaks from the pallid fog. Salt and mist clung to Miss Pauling's skin as she approached her destination.
The little assistant crouched behind a tower of wooden boxes. Putrid green waves broke, spilling froth and foam onto pale beaches. Orange cranes squealed as they came to life. Short men—just specks in the distance—waved at the beasts' faces. One by one, they'd pluck up shipping containers and plop them down onto a waiting cargo ship. They were packed together like massive sardines, their bellies smeared with scum.
Miss Pauling sighed. It would take days to comb through the entire shipyard.
If they were even there.
The thought of searching every last block in the city made her nauseous. Not even a well-coordinated search would be able to break through it within a week. She placed a hand on her forehead. This was it. She was over her limit this time. She needed extra eyes and feet, working phones and more guns. Even a shower would be helpful right now. She knew she'd have to get up in a moment, but the gravity of the situation had sucked her down to the filthy floor.
Miss Pauling removed the map from her pocket. She gave it one last glance, preparing to travel to the Spy's last known respawn location. If he had been snatched, surely she would find something related to Tian Lu Technologies there. It couldn't be a coincidence. He wasn't a clumsy man. He wouldn't have been out for a smoke and fallen off a dock.
The petite woman found her courage again. With a task at hand, she could keep her mind busy and push aside her worried thoughts. It would be easy to slip past stockyard guards. After all, she still had the Spy's watch. She dusted off her pants, then fiddled with the device. When she was sure that she was protected, she bolted down the coast towards the flotilla of ships. She threw herself behind one stack of crates, then another. Box after box, fish piles following barrels, Miss Pauling ran. The trusty little watch was quick to recover through each dash. It felt like a warm, if metallic hand was wrapped around her wrist.
It was strange to feel secure in such dire circumstances.
Men barked at each other as they hauled their cargo to and fro. She observed their jumpsuits and helmets. Not many of the logos were familiar. Sure, here and there was one she recognized. A generic grinning panda. Crossed reeds. A smiling octopus. She grinned, remembering the logo from the convenience storefront. It was easy to keep moving once she recalled it and the enthusiasm of the men she'd lost.
They'd be a pill. She knew that they would stall for time, if nothing else. Each was stubborn and irritating in their own way. The Medic would feign ignorance. The Engineer would talk circles around a person's head. The Scout wouldn't shut up, and the Sniper wouldn't say a damn thing, just keep staring with his piercing eyes. The Soldier would put up a brave front, never lying but never admitting to anything he didn't want to share. The Demoman would outright bicker and spat, not wasting his time with politeness. The Spy would use whatever he thought would work. Sometimes, it was seduction, and other times, it was cold hostility. The Heavy could debate, but he often times would just plunk down and not budge one inch. And the Pyro—well, it was hard to rile him up to begin with. Maintaining an argument with him was nigh impossible.
They'd hold out for her. She just had to reach them.
Miss Pauling kept crouched as two men crossed her path. They were bickering with their boss, although she couldn't tell what about. A part of her was envious, frustrated that she couldn't get in touch with her own. She knew that Helen trusted her, though. That was enough. She could hope that her employer had decided to send someone to investigate their lack of communication. It was best just to depend on her own wiles, for the time being. They'd gotten her to the Spy's last respawn point, after all.
There was a cement slab hanging over the edge of the ocean. It was just below the trim of a nearby warehouse, painted with yellow diagonal lines. The slimy bodies of octopi were heaped along its interior, tentacles spilling out of a nearby warehouse. There was just enough space to stand on the edge for an average-sized man. Far away from explosive gasoline barrels, it was a safe place to smoke. She crept to the location and crouched down.
"Okay, Spy," Miss Pauling murmured. "What did you see?"
The dead octopi were a given. Granted, they probably weren't the same lot he had smoked by. At least, she hoped they weren't. She leaned on a nearby crate, letting her fingers graze the top of the boxes below her. There were left over cigarette butts just belong her fingertips. She picked one up, unfurling the stomped wrapper. They were marked with the Spy's insignia. Had he littered, or had they remained after his death?
What had killed him? That was a more critical question to ask. She doubted the octopi had anything to do with it. The edge was slippery with sea foam. Perhaps that could have done something. Miss Pauling knelt down, taking in the building around her. Little dents peppered the walls. She felt the sharp holes. Bullet marks, perhaps? That would have done him in.
"Who saw you?" Miss Pauling asked.
She was answered with a rifle round to her left eye.
The little assistant crashed back to life in a dark room. Her mind struggled to fill in seconds just prior to her assassination. There had been a bright light shining off her left glasses lens, coming from a nearby cargo ship. She'd turned around, and wham! Hot, speeding lead went in her eye and out the back of her head. That was it. She'd been done it before she had a chance to retaliate.
She didn't even get a chance to see who—or what—killed her.
Reviving was almost as startling as dying. Having a sense of weight after incapacitation always made her internal organs feel like they were going to drop out. She gasped, breathing ragged. How did those mercenaries of TF Industry go through this every day? Hell, every couple of minutes? She grabbed around for a nearby wall, propping herself onto her shaking knees. It would be a few minute before her nerves would stop buzzing.
"Okay. Pull it together," Miss Pauling coached herself.
Any sense of self-confidence and control she had spilled out of her when the room's door slammed open.
Of all the horrors she had expected to endure, being forced into a corporate meeting was not one of them.
It was bad enough that Miss Pauling and the entirety of the team of men at her disposal were captured. She knew that they were undergoing something dreadful. No one would let her voluntarily meet with them, save if they were to be used as a threat. The Administrator would no doubt have to disavow any knowledge of her. That was, even if she could be contacted. Sitting at the end of a large table with a man staring into her collarbone with a stern grimace was the cherry on the sundae.
Here was a man that should have been by all accounts pleasant company. He had a wide face, his hairline receding in silver waves. His eyebrows were large, like broad triangles. His cheeks were round and full. If there was any kindness in him, he would have had a perfect smile. His face hung low and full of resent. She felt like his gaze was going straight through her. It didn't help that one of his eyes was gouged out, replaced with the same robotic eyeball that had haunted her throughout the night.
It wasn't like she didn't see men deform themselves in the name of technology. Still, the man's appearance threw her off.
"Can I help you?" Miss Pauling asked.
"I am sorry," a voice interrupted. "My employer does not speak English."
Miss Pauling jumped as a smooth hand rested on her shoulder. Behind her stood a handsome fellow. He looked molded, pressed, and factory released. His hair was combed in a sweeping arch from left to right. His chin was sharp, his teeth straight and white. He resembled less of a man and more of a girl's toy doll, even down to the suit and shining watch.
It took Miss Pauling a second to regain her composure. "And you would be—"
The second man extended his palm. "Mason Hammond. I serve as an aide and translator for President Jia Yin-Wu."
"President—oh!" Miss Pauling snapped around. The sour-faced man with the robot eye was the source of her current problems, the defacto leader of Tian Lu Technologies. No wonder he was so frustrated with her.
"The least you can do is introduce yourself," Mason whispered in her ear.
He was just too close to her. She had to fight shivering in response to his voice slithering in her ear canal. She kept her eyes focused on the harsh gaze of the company president, offering a white palm. "Miss Pauling."
The president didn't take her hand, and for that, she was glad. She would have shaken like a wet fish.
There was a smooth laugh from Mason as he paced around the table. "Don't tell me you're afraid of him. Or, have you grown a conscience from your actions?"
When forced into a corner, Miss Pauling could fight back. "I could drag both your names and actions through the mud, but I'm choosing to overlook that. We're both thieves and murderers. Either you two get down to business, or I will."
"Fair enough," Mason replied.
He turned to his employer. The two spoke briefly. The sound of President Jia's voice surprised Miss Pauling. There was no grandeur to it. He spoke with a constant rattle. Every sentence was preceded with a long, whistling gasp for air. He sounded ill. The inside of his mouth was dry, teeth a peculiar shade of yellow. The president should have been healthier, given his business. Why was he so ill?
"My employer would like to inform you, first and foremost, that he is offended with your attacks on his personal property. He realizes that it stems from an issue you have with one of his customers. A Mister Mann? At any rate, President Jia and Tian Lu Technologies are free to deal with business how we see fit. As Mister Man has paid us a lucrative sum, we will fulfill our end of the bargain and supply him with what ancillary items he needs." Mason paused to catch his breath and whip up a sly smile. "Should you wish to give us a counteroffer—"
Miss Pauling narrowed her eyes. "You have got to be kidding me."
"—we would be willing to do business with your company. However, we have to hold you and your organization responsible for the damages you have inflicted on us." Mason folded his hands. "Surely, you can see where my employer is being reasonable."
Reasonable. The word made Miss Pauling seethe. "And am I supposed to forget about your company's little modifications to our resources?"
Mason's face tightened. He turned to President Jia, his tone frustrated and frantic. His eyebrows lifted as the businessman rasped his thoughts back. "Ah, yes. Your computer network. Our president commends you and your team for your efforts in constructing such recycling software. It seems like nothing more than necromancy to me, but he is impressed."
"You had to have someone break into it. Some mole," Miss Pauling growled. "I'm guessing it took much longer to hack and modify its contents than it took for my men to wreck your warehouse."
"One of our warehouses," Mason corrected.
It was hard for Miss Pauling not to reach across the table and slap the smarm off that man's face. "You messed with my employers, and we messed with yours. So, let's make this even. Give me my men and the name of the person who hacked us, and we'll refund you the losses of your warehouse and stock."
The bargain was painful to offer. Even if Tian Lu Technologies took the trade, there would still be massive problems for Miss Pauling's employers. The entire mission in Kong King would have been a waste of time and resources. It was unlikely that Helen would accept the terms of this deal, anyway. Her goal was to protect Mann Co., and that meant wiping out the competition as far away from their factories as possible. Inviting the enemy over for tea before breaking chairs over their heads was too much of a risk. There would undoubtedly be more property loss if these men leased their modified robots into the United States than if they wiped them out here.
Miss Pauling needed her team. Even property damage would have been insignificant compared to the loss of their skills, expertise, and amicable team spirit.
Time passed all too shortly between Miss Pauling's offer and the returned translation from President Jia. "My employer has a question to ask of you, Miss Pauling. You must think about this carefully." Mason leaned forward, the president keeping sour and cold. "Why do you think you're not being processed for replication right now?
She didn't have a quick answer for either of them. It hadn't crossed her mind. Why wouldn't they use her? She was just as capable in a fight as any of her men. Granted, she wasn't as physically strong as many of them, but she shared their accuracy and endurance. Her slight stature and reserved style kept her as an ace in the Administrator's sleeve.
So, why wasn't she being mass-produced as a gynoid?
Miss Pauling covered her surprise as best as she could. "Get to the punchline."
"Simply put?" Mason snickered. "We received models of a certain stature from Mister Gray Mann. Given his orders, we enhanced his products using our own offerings—faster microprocessors, better optical devices, so forth. He was instrument in providing blueprints to us."
Miss Pauling nodded. "And you received—"
"Nine," Mason interrupted. "Nothing that can be so easily retrofitted for you."
The little assistant growled. Deals? Threats? Information? What was the purpose in all of this meandering talk? She had enough of this meeting. "I'm tired of this. What do you want me from me? You can't use me as a robot for the time being. You don't want to accept my offered reparations. You could put me in a deep freeze, or underground, or whatever you've done to my men, and yet you sit here and mock me. Just get it over with. Put me back."
"There is one thing you can do for us," Mason smiled.
There was a crack at the other end of the meeting room. Three forms stood in the doorway. All were humanoid, although one was not the genuine article. The smaller two were standing side by side, arms tied behind their backs. The larger—the one with the shining yellow eyes—had both men by their suspenders.
It was hard for Miss Pauling not to flinch as she watched the replica with the Heavy's body rough-house the very human Medic and Engineer.
President Jia gave a sharp cough, snapping the assistant's attention back to his translator. "These two possess skills that we would like to implement. Get them to construct a better machine than our androids, and we will send you all back to your insignificant dirt war."
There were a thousand sharp words on Miss Pauling's tongue, but she held them. A better machine? What did he mean by that? These damned robots were almost indistinguishable from humans as they were. They certainly were efficient at murder, too. What did President Jia want them to do? Pass the Turing test? That would take decades! A damned missile would be better at mass destruction than any robot army. It was a mad request, and they were insane for asking it.
It wasn't easy to focus on either human. Tian Lu Technologies had been working on persuading them long before Miss Pauling showed up. The Medic's right eye was nearly swollen shut. Blood was running from the Engineer's nose. Neither man could stand straight up. They looked like they'd been walked straight out of a boxing ring. Knowing what President Jia probably would have ordered, they may have been tortured straight up to this meeting. Death and respawns included. It was what she didn't see that made Miss Pauling's stomach twist.
There was something else they shared—a dark smile.
The Engineer coughed, then asked, "Miss Pauling? You okay? They treatin' you well?"
"I've had better times," she replied.
"Trust me vhen I say zhat zhese negotiations have been rough on us," the Medic chuckled. He winced, his stomach aching. "Ve have been so busy zhat ve lost track of ze time."
"Speakin' of which—what time is it?" The Engineer snorted, his lips curled up.
Miss Pauling turned her attention to her borrowed wristwatch. Their words struck her in the back of the brain. Obvious. So very obvious. She fiddled with the watch, her fingers trailing just above the cloaking button. She gave a quick glance up. Both men held their tired grins. She didn't know what they were planning, but she knew what they needed her to do.
She slammed on the cloak and ran for the door.
You and your taunting us with cliffhangers *finger waggle
And all you sage-nannies can sod off, it's not been quite a week yet.
Oh, look! I'm updating again!
Miss Pauling hated improvising.
She was a neat woman. Her office was always kept just so. Her skirts were always ironed, hair tucked into shiny buns. Notepads were always stocked with paper. Excellent penmanship, fantastic accuracy, great attention to detail. Willing and able to complete any task. That was why she'd been hired, after all. Trying to make a plan on the run was aggravating, especially if there was no clear-cut goal and no perfect path to success.
Luckily, the Engineer and the Medic were cutting her a path. Or rather, pushing. Both men bucked against their metallic captor. The android Heavy held both injured men by their tied wrists. It was built in the form of a strong model, and its core was tempered metal. Even Miss Pauling's weight crashing into it was little deterrence.
As stubborn as the machine was, the Engineer was more obstinate. He slammed his wrists back. There was a whine, and then a terrible thud as his prosthesis ground against flesh, bone, and metal. The Engineer howled in pain as his own hand tore open his back. The robot at his back gave an awful cry, its voice built out of square and triangle-wave approximations of the Heavy's voice. Red slop gushed onto the floor as both man and machine collapsed.
Neither the Medic nor Miss Pauling stopped for the Engineer. He was gone before he hit the floor. Given the two irritated men still in the room, both drawing revolvers, they didn't exactly have time to gawk. The Medic bolted to the right, shouting foreign insults and obscenities over his shoulder. He ran away with a grin. Both the President and translator bolted after him. After all, he was noisy and taunting. Compared to the invisible assistant? He was an eight-point buck leaping in a field to a pheasant in the brush.
She placed a hand on her head. "Should have asked them where the others were."
Now wasn't the time to complain about a misstep. She didn't have a lot of time before President Jia and Mister Hammond would be back to cook her goose. Letting off the invisibility cloak, she slunk down the hallway to the left. If she just found a secretary's desk or an office worker's cubicle, she would be set. Someone would have to have information on where her men were.
Miss Pauling rushed towards a massive window. It was wide, the horizon of Kong King spread before it. Gone were the ill harbor and its boats. Two stairwells spilled down the front of the building. They opened into a main lobby, the floors polished like fine gemstones. They dazzled, even in the sickly weather and barrage of gaudy neon lights. Black furniture lined the entrance. A desk was between the rows of couches, two ferns trailing out of pots on top it.
The little assistant took the stairs. She glanced behind the desk. There was what she'd been seeking, riveted to the wall behind her head. A floor plan! She studied it, grumbling. The floors were labeled in hanzi. That did her no good. She crossed her arms, then shook her head. She could understand the numeric markings of the floors well enough. No parking out front, and a garage out back. Men's bathrooms to the right, women's to the left. Elevators here and there. Three floors above, one below.
Nothing was insidious quite like the bowels of an office building.
She turned to head for the nearest stairwell to the basement. She didn't get far before gunshots rang out in the halls. Her heart hit her ribcage like a car into an iron wall. There was no time to run. Miss Pauling dove under the secretary's desk. She kicked on the cloaking device once more, hoping it would hold out long enough for the shooters to disappear.
There was another cry of pain behind here. A body hit the floor. Miss Pauling tensed up, then readied her gun. That wasn't the Medic's voice, nor his body on the ground. She leaned towards the bottom of the desk. Peering through a crack, she found herself staring at bloodied, tattered backside of an elegant pinstripe suit.
Men's dress shoes clicked on the ruined floors. There were two sets of angered voices, both speaking Mandarin harshly. The President and Mister Hammond. The translator shook the front door, its lock holding fast. He grumbled, then growled suggestions to his boss, his open left hand gesticulating towards a camera hanging above Miss Pauling's head. Probably wanted to check the security tapes, no doubt.
She held her breath as both men passed by. She didn't dare make a sound until their footsteps were far gone and forgotten. Another sound made her jump and crack her head against the desk's top. A static spark caught her completely off-guard. She rubbed her head, then opened her eyes. She was greeted with a Frenchman's smirk.
"Bonjour," the Spy said.
Anger flared through Miss Pauling's arms. She caught the Spy by his necktie. "You bastard! Where have you been?"
"Reconnaissance," he replied tersely. He raised a hand, then checked the top of Miss Pauling's head. "Are you alright?"
Miss Pauling hissed, "No! Yes! Goddammit!"
The Spy's smile dropped. "Apparently, you are not as glad to see me as I am."
"I thought you were another robot! The least you could do is tell someone before you run off!" Miss Pauling chewed the Spy out. "We could have used your help! We've lost the base. Not to mention what's happened to your teammates! When—why—"
"Let me make it up to you," the Spy interjected.
Fishing into his left breast pocket, the Spy produced a plastic card. It was slippery with fresh blood. A moppy-headed man's portrait was on the front of the card, as well as Tian Lu's company logo and a number. She didn't know who this man was, and given the condition of the card, she wasn't about to get to know him.
"Zhere was a door downstairs. I'm certain zhat I heard our companions behind it. I saw zhis man coming and going from ze same location, so I took him out when I could," the Spy explained. "Hopefully, zhis makes up for my absence."
Miss Pauling sighed. "I don't know whether to punch you or kiss you."
The Spy chuckled. "Most women do not." He patted her hand. "Let us move."
Not pausing to revel in his victory, the Spy crept towards a dark stairwell. Unlike the one wrapped like a content boa constrictor out in the lobby, this one was chipped and dirty. Well-painted walls faded into cheap plaster. The rectangular light-fixtures hanging from the ceiling burned in a sickly, throbbing pulse. Humidity in the basement was oppressive, almost swamp-like. Worst of all was the rotten stench that permeated the building. It hung in the back of their noses, draining down their throats.
Even for a woman who saw dead men every day, the smell was too much. Miss Pauling put a hand over her nose. "Don't think less of me if I have to stop to throw up."
"I would not." The Spy's face wrinkled in disgust. "Ze quicker we find ze ozhers, ze sooner we get out of here."
The Frenchman bolted to the right. Miss Pauling was quick to follow him as he weaved between door frames. It didn't take him long to find the door he was seeking. A metallic contraption was hung to its right. It was complete with a sliding slot for cards and a number pad on its face. The Spy slid the card through the device. With a few quick taps, he disengaged the door's lock. He hesitated , gloves tight as he gripped onto its grimy level.
"Brace yourself," he warned Miss Pauling.
The horrible stench hit both of them like a strong sea wave as the Spy threw the door open. Another disgusting taste flooded Miss Pauling's mouth. She turned to a nearby trash bin, then vomited. That decayed, rotten scent stayed lodged in her nose. With weak knees, she turned back to the room. The Spy offered her his handkerchief. She wiped her mouth clean, hunched over.
Miss Pauling murmured "I'm sorr—"
"Non. Do not fret," the Spy interrupted. He placed a hand on her shoulder. "Wait here. I won't be long."
Miss Pauling shook her head. "No. I'll be okay. Let's get them."
Both focused on the rank room. Half of the light fixtures were burned out. Miss Pauling felt a rush of panic overcome her. Had this been where she had respawned? She didn't remember it smelling so foul. The source of the odor was apparent. Several plastic containers were stored about the room. One of them had been punctured at the top. She steeled herself, then peeled its lid back. A thick substance shook in the container. Fake flesh, no doubt. This batch had gone bad, the surface curdled and chunked apart. In the poor lighting, it looked like someone had scooped out someone's belly fat and slopped it inside.
"We found this stuff in another location. A refrigeration unit." Miss Pauling wondered aloud. "Why did they leave it here? Seems sloppy on their part."
"Zhere is no time to investigate that. Help me," the Spy responded.
Miss Pauling hopped over to his side. He was standing in front of a wall of safes. Her gut twisted again as she realized her mistake. The Spy popped open the first of these locked doors. As he rolled the door back, boots broke the dark interior. He pulled the contents of the secured box out. Miss Pauling's stomach hit the ground. There, lying as lifeless as a corpse, was the Pyro.
There was a strange scent coming from inside the crypt. She didn't dare smell it for long. It brought back ill memories, of having no feeling in her body. Chloroform, no doubt.
"He's been drugged," Miss Pauling murmured.
The Spy hefted the Pyro's torso upright. The rest of him flopped upwards with the motion. "Help me. He's too heavy."
Miss Pauling tucked herself under the Pyro's left arm. Both the assistant and the saboteur were able to place him on the ground. As soon as he was down, there was a sharp bang. The Spy and Miss Pauling gasped, thinking it was someone at the door. The sound came from the wrong direction. They turned towards the noise. Someone else had woken up in the safes.
The Spy was quick to twist the locked door open. He flung it back, then went to the next door. As he flew throughout the room, Miss Pauling took time to pull the teammates free. The noisy man gasped as she yanked him onto his feet. He was woozy, but very alert. She pinched her eyebrows in surprise.
"Take it they killed you, too?" Miss Pauling asked the Medic.
The German doctor nodded. "Oh, yes. It vas very unfortunate." He glanced over at the busy Spy. "Oh! I see you found some help."
"He decided to show up for work." Miss Pauling shook her head. "Could you help everyone? Seems like they were all put under."
The Medic nodded. "Feeling a bit dizzy, but I have never let zhat stop me before."
As the doctor tended to the Pyro, the Spy and Miss Pauling set about pulling everyone else loose. They released the Engineer next. Having died just a few minutes before the Medic, he was noticeably more drugged than the German. Everyone on the team was hacked and programmed to respawn here, directly in the cloud of gas being dispersed inside the safes. There was barely enough room for the Soldier to lie down. He was trotted away by the Engineer, his body slumped and weak. His bravado had been doused in the cloud, but it wouldn't be gone for long. It took three men to pull the Heavy free from his safe. His eyes were wide with delight and joy. Being crammed in such a small space was claustrophobic, even for a slight person. For a man as large as the Heavy, it was a nightmare.
The next safe was empty. The Spy huffed, then continued. Another empty safe greeted him. He went through the entire wall, his movements faster as he cracked doors open. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. He put a hand to his chin, his lips pulled back in a frustrated snarl. Miss Pauling was quick to join his investigations.
"Zhey're gone," the Spy muttered. "Ze Scotsman, ze Scout, zhat foul bushman—"
The Engineer's face paled. "They're not back yet?"
"What do you mean? Where did they go?" Miss Pauling asked.
The Engineer stammered as he tried to get his thoughts straight. "I can't account for the Scout's whereabouts, Miss, but I can tell ya that the Demoman 'n the Sniper were taken away. Most 'a the rest of us, they were able to make models of real nice and quick like. Not me, though, 'n not the Medic. Not them, either." The Engineer paused to take a deep breath. "We—we weren't right. Not good enough."
Miss Pauling raised an eyebrow. "Nobody's perfect."
"Ze zhing is, mein doppelganger? Not ready for replication. Bad design on Herr Mann's part, vizh ze vheeled contraption instead of legs," the Medic explained. "So, I vas rejected."
"Near as I can understand, these Tian Lu fellas just got my robot. Fresh model. Not enough time to rebuild it for me. 'Specially not with my hand the way it is," the Engineer added. "But the Sniper and the Demoman?"
"What about them?" Miss Pauling asked.
All six men gave her a confused glance. She frowned back. Why wouldn't they have been completed? Hell, hadn't she been shot by a robotic Sniper? That would be the only explanation for her demise at the harbor. Both the men and the woman waited for each other to respond. Finally, both the Engineer and the Soldier sighed. One tapped on his left eyelid, the other the left side of his cheek.
The puzzle snapped in place. Miss Pauling shook her head. "You're kidding me."
"Zhink about it. Ze rest of our duplicates? Wizhout noticeable deformations or facial scars." The Spy gave his opinion on the matter. "But ze Demoman and ze Sniper? If a human survived an attack from zhem, zhey would be able to easily report zhem to authorities. Zheir appearance is memorable."
The Soldier snapped into the conversation. "And when you're building a commie-robot army, you want each and every last model to look the same! Perfect! Without major characteristics! Just to sneak in, do their dirty work, and leave. The perfect criminal is faceless and forgettable—I mean, look at our Spy!" That comment earned him a dirty look from the Frenchman.
Miss Pauling put her fingertips on the bridge of her glasses. "And the Scout?"
Nobody had an answer for her. She felt a dull throbbing in her head burst into a thousand thorny vines. Everything always had to be a mess. Deprived of sleep, she was losing her edge. She glanced at her men. Most of them were drained, even after being drugged and unconscious. The Soldier was struggling to put on a grin, but it came out looking cartoonish and goofy. Everyone else was worried and frowning.
She lowered her head. "Okay, gentlemen. I know you're not feeling well, but I need you to focus. If you know where any of these men could be, you've got to tell me. Otherwise, we have to stick to our mission."
"Kill all robots." The Heavy bobbed his head. "We take down this place, then. Would be easier if we had Demoman. So, we look for him. Maybe find other baby men with him?"
"I hope so." Miss Pauling crossed her arms. "Any recommendations on where to find them?"
The Soldier's eyes widened. "There was this large room. It was like the Kraut's infirmary, but less full of bird crap. That's where they did their evil science magic and made inferior Chinese copies of me."
The Heavy reflected on the Soldier's thoughts. His jaw went firm. "Many slabs on walls. Not like these walls. Standing rectangles. Like children's toy—one with oven that makes tiny, slimy bugs. Strange American toy."
"Drr wuff rr strrnge bun drr," the Pyro buzzed. "Hrr ser mrr nrrkrd. Ai drdrnd rik id."
Miss Pauling tipped her head. The Engineer translated for the Pyro. "There was a strange man. A scientist, most likely. He…he saw the Pyro naked."
"That son of a bitch," Miss Pauling hissed.
"Rts rrkay," the Pyro replied. He shrugged his shoulders, then continued. The experience had been degrading and humiliating, but at least it was over. The Engineer put a hand on the Pyro's left shoulder. At his touch, the Pyro revived. It wasn't like the fireball to stay smothered for long.
Miss Pauling straightened her back. The taste of her objective at hand was stronger than the remnants of bile in her mouth. "Two last questions. One—do you think your teammates are in this room the Soldier is talking about? Two—can you take us there?"
The Heavy and the Soldier smiled in unison. Behind his mask, the Pyro beamed as well. All three men verbalized their positive responses in their own native tongue. Miss Pauling beamed. There were still a few complications in the road ahead of them, but there was a new plan. Save the men, raze the building. Get back to the harbor, and find out why she'd been killed. She didn't have victory in the palm of her hand, but it was in sight.
"Well, fellows? Let's go torch that room," Miss Pauling said.
Well, this is it. The chapter that I thought would be needing an adult flag on it.
So, I should warn you--there is some non-consensual activity in this chapter. A few basic rules of scientific study get twisted in a bad way. If you are not comfortable with this, please skip this chapter.
Here goes nothing.
It was hard to look at his own face.
No. It wasn't his. The Sniper grimaced. That thing had his nose and brow and jaw, but it wasn't him. Hair didn't grow from its skin. It was dotted, stitched, knitted to come out in even rows and columns. The pores on that thing's face were similarly manufactured. Worst of all was his scar. It had messed up during the application of skin. What was a neat diagonal slice on his face was warped and bubbled, dribbling thickly down the prototype's face. His skin didn't melt like candle wax. He was looking at an aberration. Not quite human. Not really anything else.
These prototype machines—what should have been his replacement—couldn't be sold. Not with the way they looked. Perhaps Tian Lu Technologies would recycle them or use them for personal security. He didn't know. All he knew was that he would have to be remade. The thought made his stomach twist. How were these maniacs going to do that? Reprogram his respawn file? Shave his scar off? Hell, he didn't know how these men were able to get his hair to look somewhat reasonable, but not get his scar fixed.
Maybe there was a bug in the machine.
The Sniper lulled his head to the side. The Demoman was lying quietly in the next cot. The man working on his missing eye had his back turned to the Sniper. Had his arms or legs been loose, the Sniper would have jumped the man and cracked his neck. Sadistic lunatic, he was. The Sniper wasn't sure if the man was a plastic surgeon or just a run-of-the-mill mad scientist, but he made the Sniper's skin crawl. His eyes were too wet, gleaming, bulbous like a toad.
It was a funny thing about the Demoman's missing eye. The Sniper hadn't ever seen him without his eye patch. Not once in over five years. He didn't know what it would look like. The empty socket in his head wasn't horrifying. There was no scarring from the eye's removal. Perhaps the work of magic. His eyelids were still functional, if a little atrophied. Behind the lids was soft tissue. Orange and pink and red.
The maniac working at his empty socket had a tray of prosthetics at his side. He was working on finding just the right eye for the Demoman. Nothing too big or small. Hell, he was picky enough to try and find one with the right shade of dark, warm brown for the Demoman's iris. So enthralled with his task was this man that he didn't see a crack at the door split open. The Sniper tipped his head. The halls outside were dim. He couldn't see anybody at the door.
So, who had opened it?
The Sniper's skin prickled. Every last inch of it, all exposed to the cold, open air. A reflexive fear shot through his nerves. He could never forget what that feeling was. He could smell a disturbance in the air. Tobacco smoke and musk. He tried sitting upright, but wasn't able to fight the bonds around his ankles. The best he could do was raise himself slightly off his tailbone. If there was something the Sniper loathed, it was when he couldn't see what was going on.
And yet, that smell—
"What are you looking at?"
The Sniper snapped his head around. The quack was talking to him. "Sorry. Seein' spooks."
The madman tutted, then muttered to himself. He picked up a nearby tape recorder. Pressing onto the recording button, he noted, "Patient seven is experiencing anesthetic-induced hallucinations. Will have to have additional testing on Chemical Y, recipe four before public release."
"Oh, would ya stop with the bloody notes?" the Demoman snarled. "Gonna share every damn thing 'bout us? Rather not have every damned doctor know the size 'a my willy."
The Sniper smiled. "Least he's not got video tapes, hmm?"
"Aye. I charge for that!" the Demoman laughed.
The doctor turned off his tape recorder. He set it back onto his tray before working on the Demoman's face once more. "Please remain silent."
"Hmph. If you wanted that, you should have drugged me more," the Demoman snarled.
His taunting didn't disturb the surgeon. The man continued coldly with his work. He picked up a prosthetic eye, then placed it into the Demoman's eye socket. The Sniper squirmed. It must have been less painful than it looked. He turned away, staring at the door once more. Why had it been opened, and—
There was a flash of movement. The Sniper's gut twisted. He turned back to the shadows, watching them flicker. The room was perfectly still. Darkness spilled on the floor gave its fourth occupant away. The Spy was here. What was wrong? Why wasn't he killing this surgeon?
Lightning went off behind the Sniper's eyes. Of course. He wanted an assured kill. A distraction.
Well, that was something the Sniper could provide. He smirked, then coughed. "Say, Doc."
"Don't call me doc," the surgeon rebuked him. "I have a name."
The Sniper pulled a face. "Doctor Worthington."
That earned him a smile from the diligent doctor. "Yes?"
"Could use a little clue here. So, fill me in." The Sniper paused, then grinned. "Why'd ya take our pants off?"
Doctor Worthington tossed the Demoman's replacement eye back onto its tray, then grabbed another. He responded sharply. "We have to make the model like yourself in every way. It's the best way to avoid detection."
The Sniper winced. He started over-exaggerating with his voice. "Oh, crikey! So, what ya mean is—"
"Your replica must be fully operational," Doctor Worthington replied.
"Fully?" The Sniper shook his head. "I don't like the sound of that, Doc. Sounds wrong. Don't ya think, Tavish?"
The Demoman couldn't nod with Doctor Worthington's fingers jammed in his eyes socket. He smiled, all the same. "Aye, lad. Pree-verted."
Doctor Worthington rolled his eyes. "Please. It's not that complex. All we have to do is make a little lever occasionally go up, extend, and go down."
"Blimey. And who goes about testing that?" the Sniper asked.
There wasn't an immediate answer. Everyone went quiet. The Sniper's eyes darted away from the doctor for a moment. That question certainly got his attention. He was hoping for the Spy to reappear behind his back, knife in hand, and slice open the man's throat before he could answer. Hopefully, before he could strangle the Sniper. He slid down far as he could, struggling to cross his knees. Now, more than ever, he felt cold and exposed. The gleam in Doctor Worthington's eyes wasn't one of anger.
He spoke softly. "I do."
The Demoman fidgeted. "It's…ah, well, suppose someone has to do it."
"Of course." Doctor Worthington agreed. "And it was my pleasure. My countrymen, you know, they don't agree with me. Always wanting to pass the Turing test. All respect for the test, none for the man. It's a shame, really." He hung over the Demoman's face, teeth shining from operating lights. "Don't you think so?"
Now, the Demoman felt the same stinging embarrassment that had assaulted the Sniper. "Ain't no man's business but his own." He smirked, then collected himself. "Just…just somethin' else when some stranger's handlin' your own body, of course."
"I see," Doctor Worthington nodded. "Yes, that would disturb me. Rest assured, I will not touch either of you. Well, not so more than this."
A stupid idea struck the Sniper square in his skull. The words slipped out of his mouth before he could cram them down. "Then how do you know it's like bein' with us?"
The conversation came to a screeching, slamming halt. The Demoman's stomach dropped out of him. The Sniper's throat went dry. He felt like a cold, naked fool. What had he said? He squirmed again, hoping that the Spy would hurry it up and off the man. What was he waiting for? Was he wary of the surgical tools not so far away from the man? Perhaps the cameras and the tape recorder? The Sniper's breath quickened, his brain dizzy.
"Hmm. Good question." Doctor Worthington grinned. "You are a bit of a thinker, aren't you?"
The Sniper vigorously shook his head. "Not a mark."
Doctor Worthington swiveled around to meet the Sniper's gaze. The Australian sunk into the cot as the surgeon's piercing eyes lanced straight through his body. He felt hot and warm, pink and red. He stamped down his panic. He was a professional, wasn't he? Not some gal in the back of her boyfriend's truck.
His resolve cracked when a latex-gloved hand rested on his exposed stomach. The doctor, his glasses fogged, was more curious than ever before. "How would you recommend I test my work, then? Certainly, I'd need a control to compare against. Tactile testing. Response rate. Perhaps refractory, if you have the time."
"Yeah?" the Sniper asked. He laid his head down, trying to find the Demoman behind the surgeon. His Scottish friend was looking up at the security cameras. He glanced back down, finding the Australian. He mouthed two encouraging words, then glanced towards the shadows. So, he'd noticed the Spy, too.
He found power and strength within his core. Just a few more seconds. The Spy was stepping out, blade drawn. Security cameras had gone still. He just needed to give the Frenchman an opportunity to strike. The Sniper took in a low breath, then nodded. "Do it, Doc."
At once, he was seized. Doctor Worthington's hands were strong, the latex on them unnaturally smooth. There was a hand at the back of his neck, another along the base of his spine. His fists tightened as both trailed lower. Fingers tensed around skin untouched by the sun's rays. No bastard was going to twist him around. Not without a strike of his own. He couldn't stand his forced submission. He squeezed his eyes shut, then latched onto the doctor's neck. Even if his teeth didn't break the skin, he could imagine himself chomping down, turning a loving bruise into ripped flesh.
Weight collapsed onto the Sniper. He grimaced. How far was this testing going to go? He laid his head back, trying to remember anything that would take his mind off this. Being flat on his back in his van, buried in quilts, his tea kettle shrieking. On its top, northern stars and Southern Comfort, cold and warm. In dust, in rain, in wheat fields and grass. One bad memory. He could take one bad memory.
A voice was in his ear. "Sniper."
"Get on with it!" the Sniper snapped.
"He's dead!" the Spy barked. "Put on some pants, for the love of God!"
The Sniper's eyes flared open. The Spy had cut his bonds loose. He was working on freeing the Demoman, his face bright red. He glanced up, looking straight into the glassy, dead eyes of Doctor Worthington. He kicked the corpse off him. It landed on the knife that sunk into its back. He huffed, then went pale. There was his team, all staring at him with jaws dropped. Them, and little Miss Pauling, her round face rosy and eyes wide, a hand clasped over her mouth.
At once, the Sniper dove for his clothes.
The Spy shook his head, then patted the Sniper on his back. "Good show. Top shelf. Your lack of shame has finally come to be of some use."
"I really ought ta punch ya," the Sniper hissed. "Hurry it up next time, would you?"
"Ah, sorry, Stretch. That was my fault. Damn cameras were a little tricky to cut. Couldn't let him do his dirty work documented," another man apologized. "I suppose that's not a problem fer you."
The Sniper fell on his bare ass. "T-truckie! Ah—ah, Christ, don't tell me ya—"
Another thick voice boomed behind him. "All got show! Very good! Been taking lessons from tiny poodle man?"
Now the Sniper wanted to sink into the floor. He growled towards the Demoman. "Next time, you can do the bloody seduction routine!"
"If the next mad doctor be an ample-breasted redhead from Ireland, then I will gladly take that bullet for ye," the Demoman smirked.
The team took a minute to make sure the Demoman and the Sniper were dressed and armed. The Medic gave both of them a quick check-up. Nothing damaged. The Demoman popped out the prosthetic placed in his eye socket, then pitched it across the room. It shattered into a dozen ceramic pieces. As soon as it had left his eye, his patch went back on. The Soldier adjusted the Demoman's eye patch, then gave his teammate a pat on the shoulder. Both men did a quick headcount. There was the Pyro, cheerfully reunited with his flamethrower. The Soldier was passing out weapons to everyone. From a pilfered room, no doubt. The Heavy and the Medic stood quietly, watching as Miss Pauling paced nervously around the room. The Engineer was following her. He was just a few steps behind her the entire way.
There was no Scout.
"Aye! Wee man's gone?" the Demoman asked.
Miss Pauling stopped in her pacing. "He wasn't in the room the rest of your teammates were stored in. We were hoping to find him here."
The Sniper shook his head. "Haven't seen hide nor hair of him."
Miss Pauling put a hand to her temples. A headache was starting to kick up. This was the last obstacle she needed. Where had that damned twerp gone? She sighed, then crossed her arms. There wasn't time to waste here. The team had a stellar opportunity. Her hesitance was going to cost them their mission. She clapped her eyes on several slabs hanging from the back of the medical room. Iron-cast forms. The Soldier, the Pyro, the Heavy, the Sniper, and the Scout. All now with robot clones.
"We've got to destroy this lab. Make sure they can't use these again," Miss Pauling said.
The Demoman was on it. "Yer wish is my command."
He checked over the bomb launcher the Soldier had passed him. The Scottish Resistance. It would do nicely. He began lobbing bombs around the room. One by one , they latched onto the slides, into each crack and crevice of the room. When we was satisfied, he stopped and smiled.
"Perfect," he grinned.
"You can hit it whenever you'd like," Miss Pauling nodded.
The Demoman agreed. " 'A course. When we get outside! Bloody hell, I ain't gonna blast myself to Kingdom Come!"
"Of course," Miss Pauling sighed. That was an embarrassing oversight on her part. She waved her hands towards the door. "Gentlemen? Follow the Spy. He'll know the best exit. Mister DeGroot? You know what to do."
The Demoman gave a grin, his hand at his brow in a salute. "You've got it."
The team crashed out of the examination room. They weren't whole, but they moved as if they were back in Teufort. Many gaits, many sizes, one goal. They rushed past dead security cameras, around a corner, and up a flight of tiny cement stairs. The Medic lead the charge out. He marched into the lobby of Tian Lu Industries. Security officers and robots alike stared at the oncoming stampede. Drawing their weapons was pointless. Within moments, the last remaining barrier to freedom was shattered, along with bone and metal.
Colored lights trailed the team into the gloomy streets of Kong King. The Sniper snapped on his heels. With less than a second's aim, he popped the head off a melted, robotic version of himself. He continued his escape backwards, every four steps punctuated with a solid crack. The Heavy reached back to pull his teammate onward. The last of the laser sights was on his breast pocket.
As the Russian caught the Sniper, there was a thunderous roar. Fire billowed from the basement of Tian Lu Technologies' headquarters. Plaster and dust billowed upward in a great plume of debris. The last colored sight went upward as its owner was swallowed by the explosion. The Demoman cheered with delight. Another successful detonation! He stopped his celebrations, then panicked. He ran to the front of the pack, yelping in surprise.
The building was coming down on top of them.
The Soldier shoved his teammates to the front. He cracked at them, shouting with every last brave American obscenity he knew. The Medic was at the team's nose, running away with a mad smile on his face. Miss Pauling and the Engineer weren't far behind him. The Heavy tossed the Sniper to the front, his thick legs pumping with all their might. The rolling cloud of debris swept over the Soldier, the Demoman, and the trailing Heavy. Shards of glass, support beams, and concrete rained down. It would have blinded and ensnared them, had a blast of cold, compressed air not blown over their backs. Chunks of building blew aside as the Pyro held the end of the line.
Tian Lu Technologies' headquarters gave one last screech, then fell silent.
The team was flabbergasted. The Demoman wiped grit out of his face. His beanie was blown off his head, curled hair black and gray with debris. "Cor blimey!"
The Soldier clapped a hand around the Demoman. "Beautiful. Just beautiful. Couldn't have been prettier if it was on the Fourth of July."
"Ooh, yeah. Wunderbar!" The Medic was breathless. "You veren't kidding about zhat blast radius! Ha!"
"Little too strong, maybe," the Heavy gasped. His great chest struggled to breathe in the aftermath. He gave too mighty coughs, expelling polluted air with his lungs. The Medic patted his back, giving him a sympathetic smile.
The Spy gave a low whistle. "Merde. Zhat was close."
"Hope that little gremlin wasn't in there," the Sniper winced.
Miss Pauling's brain snapped to at the mention of the Scout. Was he still in the building? It didn't seem likely. After all, he wasn't in storage or the medical center. She rubbed her head, wondering where the dumb miscreant could have gone. Perhaps the team would have to go back to their abandoned base and get back into the respawn network. Surely, that would tell them something. Digging for hours at the sight of a major accident was only going to get them arrested when the police inevitably showed up. That, and that strange cargo ship—
Her mind clicked. That cargo ship! The one with her assassin on it! She spun about, trying to get her bearings. "Anyone know how far we are from the ocean?"
"Lost my map when I died," the Engineer said. "Reckon we all did. Whatchya thinkin'?"
Miss Pauling turned to the Spy. "You died at a harbor."
"…I had a little accident, if zhat is what you mean," the Spy pulled a face.
The Sniper tipped his head. "Accident?"
The Spy pulled his face, narrowing his eyes. "Oui. An accident. I was out for a smoke when some ne'er-do-well assassinated me. Threw my body into the ocean. A man with a strange beast on his jacket."
"Like that pussycat Tian Lu has on their crap?" the Soldier asked.
The Spy nodded. "It is as you say."
The Engineer crinkled his face. "And ya didn't think ta tell any of us about this?"
"I told ze Scout." The Spy lifted his head. "Did he not tattle on me? Or, perhaps he was already—"
"Look. I was there. At that exact harbor." Miss Pauling paced around the Spy. "I was killed there, as well. The last thing I saw before I died was someone firing at me from a cargo ship."
"Someone, or somezhing?" the Spy asked.
"Doesn't matter. Whatever it was, it killed you and me to protect a cargo ship. One belonging to Tian Lu Technologies." Miss Pauling clenched her fist, then pounded it into her open palm. "Get us there."
The Spy hesitated. He tipped his head, then sighed. "I need a map."
Miss Pauling spun around. People in the streets were starting to stare at the ash-covered humans. Behind the confused citizens of Kong King, there were iron, black rails popping out of the ground. A transit station. Where there was a subway tunnel, there was a map. There wasn't a lot of time to come up with a quick or stealthy plan. It would have to do.
She tapped the Spy on the shoulder. "There. Go down. There should be a map."
The Spy nodded. He took off towards the transit station at a light trot. The rest of the dirty teammates swung to the opposite side of the road. They shook the soot off themselves. The Pyro blasted their backs clean. It wasn't long before the Frenchman came back up, map in hand. He unfurled it, then got his bearings. The Sniper assisted him, giving the best directions he could from what meager shadows could form under the lifeless, gray sky.
Miss Pauling raised an eyebrow. "How did you get that?"
The Spy wriggled his fingers. "Helped myself at a newsstand."
"Really?" Miss Pauling dropped her head. "Theft, Spy? That's low."
The Spy rolled his eyes. "We just leveled a business complex and crushed several humans. I zhink robbery is ze least of our concerns right now."
It was hard to argue with him on that case. She rubbed her face. "Just get us to the damn harbor."
Yet another fantastic update. Although I suppose I have to say that, seeing as I beta'd it. Heh.
I told you how much I liked it in a far more in-depth manner, but I'll reiterate again: this was a great chapter, and I look forward to reading more.
Didn't Sniper go without pants for a bit during Your Eternal Reward, too? Poor guy.
Now what dose spy not regard as an accident, I wonder.
A lot of accidents happen when you're a spy. Especially if they don't practice proper protection.
Have another chapter.
Steel-gray waves rolled discarded refuse onto bleached-bone shores. Massive cargo ships bobbed like heavy toys in a bathtub, their cargo slick with foam and acidic rain. Intermodal containers were left along docks. The most decrepit were rusted through. They leaked red water, which spilled in contaminated streams down the hats and faces of stoic mercenaries hiding within. Guns were loaded. Plans were made. Jackets were recovered, their contents still intact. Miss Pauling zipped the jacket up to her throat, flicking chum and fetid material off it.
It was time to go to war.
Their target was simple to find. Its belly was bright orange beneath the ocean's tide. The length of it stretched out like a landing strip, its spine pierced with eight cranes. They plucked containers up with square teeth and a strong jaw. Thin lines paced about its deck. Even in the darkest of storms and thickest of fogs, their eyes pierced, bright and yellow. They searched the ground like spot lights. Even the most inoffensive of targets—little vermin which ran about in terror—were reduced to a pulpy, red ball of fur and flesh.
"Anyone have a plan?" Miss Pauling asked.
Offering the Soldier the floor was a mistake. "Here's what we do. Medic—get your girly Japanese wig on. You and Miss Pauling need to distract the enemy's attention. I recommend fan dancing. Once you've seduced the robots, the rest of us go on board and beat the crap out of everything on board. Then, we all head home to have an all-American victory dinner of tube steaks and fries."
The team was struck silent at the Soldier's suggestion. Miss Pauling's face turned white. The Medic's, however, went bright red. "You saw zhat zhing? You—you schweinehund!"
The Soldier's face dropped. "It's not a perfect plan, but I figure between your grace and Miss Pauling's hips—"
"Let's regroup." Miss Pauling shook her head, failing to hide her embarrassment. "Our primary goal is to stop this cargo ship from leaving port. Mister DeGroot? I'd imagine you'd be the man to ask about that."
The Demoman scratched his bristling beard. "Might be able ta blow a hole in the hull. Whaddya think, Engineer?"
"We won't be able ta sink it. The harbor's too shallow, 'n the hull looks mighty sturdy. We can cripple it, though." The Engineer dug a finger below his helmet. He scratched his scalp, then offered a new plan. "Think we'd be better off wreckin' the engine room. Might be harder ta get to, but I guarantee we'd kill the ship if ya went loose in it."
"Aye. Works for me. Didn't pack my scuba gear, anyway," the Demoman nodded.
The Heavy gave a low grumble, clearing his throat. He shared his thoughts. "Would be good to destroy cargo. Would be best for me. Pyro too, I think."
The Pyro raised a thumb. There was an eerie shimmer in his mask's goggles. "Hrr drr!"
"We should not forget about locating ze Scout," the Spy interrupted.
The Soldier pulled a face. "You're just afraid of how bad his mother would toast your crouton ass."
"Say what you will. I doubt you would leave a man behind."The Spy didn't deny the Soldier's claims. He snapped his cigarette case closed. A cherry-red ember burned below his nose as he drew a breath full of smoke. The Soldier opened his mouth to argue the point, but dropped it. The smoking snake was right. They couldn't abandon the Scout. Especially not after how hard the team had worked to get back together.
The Sniper broke the tense silence. "That's good and all, mates, but we've still got a couple dozen hands on deck that'll kill us on sight. We aren't goin' anywhere 'till I get them routed."
"Sounds like you've got your job picked out," Miss Pauling smirked.
The Sniper drew a breath through his teeth. As long as he wasn't spotted, he could take them. The trick was surviving the instant after his first strike. How smart were these robots? Would they keep track if he did manage to hide? He eyed the Spy's watch on Miss Pauling's arm with envy. He didn't ask for it. He wasn't a coward, and he certainly wasn't going to take away what had saved her all night.
"Just leave it to me," the Sniper said, nodding in agreement.
Miss Pauling regrouped the team. "Alright. Gentlemen, let's get ready."
The Engineer set to work first. He threw down his toolbox, then kicked it open. Within seconds flat, he had a dispenser up and running. While he worked on setting up a teleporter entrance, the team drew ammunition from the dispenser. The Demoman stood patiently beside him. The team dedicated to destroying the cargo ship's load huddled together. Streams from the dispenser and the medi-gun flowed between each member. The Pyro cracked his knuckles, then gave a playful punch to the Soldier's arm. The American grinned. He snickered as the Medic and Heavy prepared to lead their charge, throwing their hands together in a celebratory slap. The Spy leaned next to Miss Pauling and the Sniper, smoking slowly. He offered a hit to both of them, but neither accepted. The Sniper's eyes were fixed on the ship. His jaw was set. Miss Pauling was just as serious, her guts knotting up.
There could be no mistakes. The team had fought so hard to get back together. If any of them died, where would they go? Beneath the rubble of Tian Lu Technologies' office? Somewhere worse? They couldn't lose their target, not after they had come so far. Neither could they lose each other.
They had to win. Together.
The Sniper jumped, bumping into Miss Pauling. The Medic had turned his medi-gun on the skittish Australian. "Vell? Get going. You're ze man on ze front lines. So, you get ze first über."
"You kiddin' me? You're gonna give away my bloody position!" the Sniper hissed.
The Medic didn't take that as an acceptable excuse. He rolled his eyes, then nudged the Sniper out of the rusting container. The Sniper gave one last grumble before giving up. He trotted in front of the Medic, quick to disappear around another container. The team waited, each man poised for action. The Engineer fidgeted. The Soldier's hand steadied the troubled Engineer, then gave him a wide, confident grin. There was no fear of failure in his head. If only the rest of the team could be as self-assured as him.
The ocean crashed in their ears. In the stillness and quiet, it was deafening. There wasn't so much as the squawk of a bird, nor the squealing of other cranes loading cargo. Not a single other human. How strange. Miss Pauling frowned. Their absence would reduce the human casualty toll of their operations, but it was still concerning.
"You know," the Spy whispered. "You never said what you were going to do, Mademoiselle."
Miss Pauling smirked, then shook her wrist. "I've been doing your job for the past twelve hours. Don't see a reason to stop."
Her smile cracked when the first rifle bolt shot across the harbor. There was a pop as one malformed robot dropped to the deck. She froze in horror as the entire run of Sniper robots turned to the source of the shot. Sights sharp and clear pierced through the mist and pollution. They crossed like so many bright little threads, all pointed towards the rim of another container. The Medic had his beam trained on the Sniper, who was struggling to reload another shot. He found his composure, then swerved into the line of fire.
The Medic's übercharge covered his body like a second skin. The shining shield spread out through the Sniper's heart, then slathered his face as half a dozen lights trained on his head. He didn't do so much as flinch as his doppelgangers unloaded into his invincible body. The Sniper moved in a steady, trained fashion, his rifle moving in a smooth line. Like little fireworks, the heads of the robots popped off in red spurts. He was calm, peaceful, in a meditative state as he continued slaughtering the robots on deck. The Medic yanked him back inside just as the power around him began to flicker, sand erupting where he had stood seconds before.
The Soldier peeked his head around the corner. "Did they get them?"
Light snapped to his helmet. The Heavy pulled the Soldier back as the robots attacked the team's position. Frustrated, the Soldier put his hand on his head. He felt the brim of his helmet. It was sharp. Chipped. He'd nearly had his melon blown off.
"Think I'll stay inside," the Soldier said.
"Is good idea," the Heavy agreed.
There was another crackle, and the Sniper was at work again. The sounds of gunfire ricocheting off his body made the team nervous. He wasn't used to taking a charge, not to mention taking them back to back. It was so strange to hear him work. The übercharge fell once more, and there was another puff of sand. The Medic and Sniper were still alive.
They went silent for too long.
The Engineer's head snapped up. "He's out of ammunition."
Miss Pauling pressed down on the Spy's watch, then checked outside. There were four lights still narrowed on the Sniper's location. She leaned back, quick to switch the watch off."He's got four more."
The Engineer nodded. He reached into the dispenser's ammo compartment, then dumped several rifle rounds into Miss Pauling's jacket pocket. "I hate ta impose, but—"
She ran out before the Engineer could finish his thoughts. Sand rose and fell behind invisible feet. Sights trailed behind her, curious about the flying grit. Having no clear target, they did not fire. She leapt into the container where the Medic and Sniper sat. Both of them jumped, then relaxed as she faded into view.
"We heard you were out," Miss Pauling smiled as she dumped the contents of her pockets into the Sniper's ammunition pouch.
"Should've asked for a cup 'a sugar," the Sniper grinned. He turned back to the Medic, then nodded towards the container's opening.
The peculiar duo went out one last time. Miss Pauling darted further inside the container as a ricocheted round struck just next to her wrist. The Sniper made four final shots. He grinned as the last of his targets went up in electrical sparks and fake flesh. He lowered his gun, then relaxed his shoulders, his job complete.
He didn't stay still for long. "Oy! Wankers! Get moving!"
There was a tremendous roar as the team from the rusted container bolted out. The Heavy and Soldier were loudest by far. They ran at the offensive cargo ship, their bellows like those of an enraged bull. The Medic hopped off after the Heavy. Bounding and leaping, he outran and circled his companions, his smile brilliant and cheeky. The Pyro caught up to them. His voice was rattling in the muzzle of his mask, the same cheerful buzz he always gave. The Spy didn't run. That would be undignified. Behind him, the Demoman and Engineer struggled to keep up. The Engineer had his arms wrapped around his toolbox, his short legs working overtime. The Demoman was nauseated. He knew when the team was going in over their heads.
"This ain't gonna be pretty," the Demoman moaned.
A steel staircase sat was lowered on the side of the cargo ship. It scaled all the way up its side. Not until Miss Pauling stood beside the ship had she any appreciation for its mass. Powerful smokestacks blew hot, white clouds into the muddy skies. The ship stretched out at least a quarter of a mile—possibly more. It disappeared into the murky distance before then. She wiped droplets of water off her glasses.
She was starting to agree with the Demoman.
The Engineer ascended first. The Sniper was close behind him. He gave the Engineer a playful swat as he rose up to the top. As the Engineer boarded, the Demoman closely followed. The Pyro went next, then the Medic. The Spy took Miss Pauling by the hand, his demeanor gentlemanly but his smirk devious, and led her up. The Soldier and Heavy clanged on last.
As the Heavy set one foot onto the stairwell, there were dozens of squeals. The first came from aboard the ship. His eyes widened—that had to be the ship's shriek. The next cacophony came from beneath his feet. The stairwell lurched forward as the cargo ship began to chug forward. Leaving the dock, it dipped under the Heavy and Soldier's combined weight.
"Go!" The Heavy shoved the Soldier upwards. As they rose up, the stairwell bobbed, unchecked and free from its locked position. The Soldier hauled himself onto the deck. He smiled, then panicked as the stairs screamed from fatigue. The Soldier turned back to see the Heavy throw himself at the side of the ship. As his feet left the stairwell, the metallic contraption gave an awful buck. The Soldier grabbed onto the Heavy's belt. The larger man managed to hold on, pulling himself aboard with thick, sea-sprayed arms.
The Heavy growled. "Stupid stairs! Hate them!"
"If they were made out of one-hundred percent American steel, they wouldn't be a problem!" the Soldier laughed.
Miss Pauling tapped their sides. "This isn't a cruise! Let's get this over with!"
Swiftly, the team broke into their units. Men raced up and down the decks, descending flights with lightning speed. Miss Pauling watched in silent confusion as they went about their work. The Sniper ascended buckled-down containers, leaping onto the highest point he could climb. The Pyro took his axed and smashed one open. Androids were crammed inside. They screamed as fire melted their fake flesh, never having a chance to retaliate.
No one was stopping them. How could that be? The ship had taken off, hadn't it? Where was the crew?
The Spy snapped Miss Pauling out of her thoughts. "Come. We must search for ze Scout."
"No crew…" Miss Pauling nodded. "Something's off about this. Watch your back."
"I usually don't have to worry about zhat," the Spy said, then raised an eyebrow.
The Spy and Miss Pauling bolted for the nearest stairs. The Engineer and Demoman beat them there, racing down for the engine room. No one stood in their way. It made Miss Pauling anxious. A ship of this size had to have hundreds of crewmen aboard. There was no way it could sail on its own. What was going on?
"We should check the bridge," Miss Pauling murmured. "Someone's got to be steering this thing."
"Mais oui," the Spy agreed. He motioned down a hallway. Hundreds of feet down, there was another stairwell. Miss Pauling clicked her teeth. It would have been better to run that direction in the first place. She felt like she was already going around in circles. The Spy tugged on her sleeve, then led her. They rushed past plastic windows. Miss Pauling paused for a moment. The entire city of Kong King was already swallowed up by the smog and sickened air that perpetually veiled it. It was strange to think that such a massive labyrinth could be so easily hidden.
More gunfire erupted above their heads. It was much louder than before. More sounds. The rest of the cargo on deck was stirring. Their fighting was only spurring the team above Miss Pauling and the Spy harder. She sighed, hoping they'd be alright. Or, at the very least, that the Engineer built a buildings nest for their protection.
The Spy and Miss Pauling rushed up the stairs leading to the bridge. Their footsteps clanked. They echoed off the walls. Hardly stealthy for either of them. The door to the bridge was sealed shut. The Spy crept up to it, dropping low. Miss Pauling crouched next to him. She nudged him to keep going. With one twist, he opened the door ever-so-slightly. He pushed the muzzle of his gun through the door's gap, then slunk inside.
There was a shot, but not from the Spy's gun.
Miss Pauling jolted as the Spy cried out in pain. His body thumped against the wall. She loaded her gun, waiting for the Spy to reappear at her side, mysterious pocket watch in hand. He didn't return. She kept crouched, her nerves electrified. What could she do? Storm the room? Hide and wait out whatever was inside? Indecision bound her tighter than any restraint.
She knew what she had to do when she heard a posh voice hiss, "Now, tell me. Just where did that little bitch of yours go?"
Okay. I'm gonna wrap this up.
The ending will go live tomorrow.
If there was anything that was guaranteed to make an assassin's life hell, it was when dead men showed up alive.
It wasn't that Miss Pauling had forgotten about the wheezing, robot-eyed president and his snooty little translator. They just hadn't been at the forefront of her thoughts. She kicked herself. On a good day, she was better about making sure her enemies were dead and buried. Wouldn't a dropped office building have done just that? When did the two of them come out here?
More importantly, why?
It was difficult to form a strategy with the Spy's body sliding slowly down a wall inside the bridge. Miss Pauling could hear him grunt and gasp. Whoever had shot him had done a poor job. The man hadn't been wiped completely off the map. He was on his knees, gloved hands held above the injury that gushed blood down his fingers and solid-gold pocket watch. The sight was interfering with any logical, strategic plan that Miss Pauling was planning.
Neither the woman outside of the bridge nor the men within moved. Each party waited for the other to react. There wasn't so much as a warning shot fired. A frustrated rasp caught Miss Pauling off guard. President Jia was becoming irritated with the situation. He gave his translator a short, gruff order. Mason responded in kind, then stepped towards the doorframe. Both Miss Pauling and the Spy placed their hands on their watches in anticipation.
Mason fired a single round into the Spy's head. His body collapsed to the ground face-first. Miss Pauling flinched. Mason stormed around the door, looking for someone who wasn't there. Miss Pauling was all too grateful for the Spy's wristwatch. The irritated translator sniffed once. There was nothing to see.
The translator turned back to his employer, relaying his vision. As soon as his head was turned back inside, there was a sharp, electronic crackle. He shrieked as a gloved hand snaked around his neck. The Spy placed a gun against Mason's head. President Jia grunted, then drew his gun. A dead man walking was not so concerning to him. He held his fire, waiting for the right opportunity to strike. Miss Pauling wasn't about to let him. She fired once as she dropped her cloak. The shot went to the right of her target. It struck the end of the President's gun. He looked at his hand, surprised to find nothing but a broken gun the top of his hand full of shrapnel. He tossed the gun aside, more inconvenienced than frightened.
"Answer me, and I will not harm you," the Spy grumbled in Mason's ear.
The translator was compliant. "What do you want?"
The Spy got to the point. "My team and I are missing one last piece. Your first contraption was modeled after him. I am certain zhat you know of whom I am talking about."
"The skinny, lippy brat," Mason answered.
"Mais oui." The Spy readjusted his grip on the squirming translator's throat. "Is he on zhis vessel?"
Mason nodded. "Yes. We have him under sedation. We were going to use him as a comparison model for—" He would have continued, had his employer not grunted at him. President Jia held the man's tongue shut with his very breath.
"We know of your insidious operation all too well." The Spy lowered the hammer on his gun. "You will take me to him."
"What do I get out of it?" Mason snarled.
The Spy smirked. "Whatever my employers deem you deserve."
Mason's eyes were locked on President Jia. The two of them shared a silent sort of communication. Miss Pauling wondered how long the duo had worked together. They certainly were close, as far as communicating through body language went. Whatever thoughts were shared between the two was accepted by the president. He gave one terse nod, then Mason bobbed his head.
"I'll take you to where he's being kept," Mason said.
The Spy accepted his words. "Good. Miss Pauling?"
"I'll keep an eye on the president. Go get the Scout," Miss Pauling replied. "Get him to the Medic, then round everybody up. I'm assuming this piece of junk has lifeboats?"
"Of course," Mason answered.
"That's what I like to hear," Miss Pauling smiled. "You're going to need them."
"What do you—" The rest of Mason's words were cut off by an awkward squawk as the Spy wrenched him down the stairwell. Miss Pauling shut and bolted the door behind them. The president wasn't particularly alarmed with being held hostage. He held his ground.
Miss Pauling bobbed her head towards the console. President Jia got the point. He turned towards the helm, then took a seat. Miss Pauling followed in suit. It felt good to be off her feet. She kept a gun trained on the president, but wasn't too concerned. He was mellow, more than content to watch the gray ocean roll in front of the ship.
She took the time to observe the strange machinery in the helm. There was something off about it. The console was painted in sloppy coats of blue and grey. Parts of it were highlighted in yellow, others flat and black. Eerie lights pulsed around critical controls. Security cameras stayed fixed on her, not waving back and forth in a sweeping motion. Some of the parts looked haphazardly welded together. If she didn't know any better, she had to think that this console was custom-made by Grey Mann.
"Didn't think he was into ship building," she mused.
President Jia turned his head, staring at her with his cold eyes. She couldn't figure out which of the two was more haunting. The human one was cold and glassy, like staring at the eye of a dead fish. The robotic replica was glowing yellow, light splashing off the metallic components fixed around the ridges above and below where his eye used to sit. Both narrowed on her.
There was a blotch of light on Miss Pauling's shoulder. She gave it a quick glance. It reminded her of the Sniper's laser sight. The thought brought a rush of cold through her. Where was it coming from? She snapped her attention back to President Jia. His robotic eye was narrowed, a shutter-like iris contracted into a pinpoint source of light. Miss Pauling snapped her gun upright, now frightened.
President Jia struck first.
Laser-hot pain burned as a shot grazed Miss Pauling's shoulder. She ducked behind the helm. Where had that shot come from? She pulled the hammer of her gun back, then turned it towards the president. Another barrage of fire seared over her back. The intense blasts came from a different direction. She glanced up to find yellow eyes tracking her every movement, each lens buried in security cameras that hung from the ceiling.
"Perfect," she muttered.
Well, that explained why President Jia was so comfortable in letting her stay. The bridge was built in his favor. Why would he need a gun when he had four strapped to the ceiling? He was biding his time, his eye flashing with the same irritating glow as the camera guns. Miss Pauling growled. She really wished she hadn't locked the door.
Reloading her weapon, Miss Pauling aimed for the first camera. She unloaded a couple of rounds into its lens. The camera exploded in electrical sparks. Easy enough. She crawled along the underside of the helm, then shot out another camera. It wasn't so bad, as long as she paced herself.
Two shots burned the ground just before her. The sentry cameras were starting to catch onto her position. She circled back—crashing straight into President Jia. While the man wasn't much taller than her, he had quite a bit of weight on her. He struck her in the face with a closed fist. Her glasses shattered into thousands of tiny chunks. She shook them off her face, then crawled away on her elbows. She could feel cuts on her face. Her eye burned, her vision crippled.
Miss Pauling emptied her gun behind her. She could hear President Jia cursing in Mandarin. She threw away her clip, then reloaded. Finding the security cameras with her blurry vision was not as bad as she thought it would be. Their boxy, grey forms blended with the rest of the ship, but their lenses glowed with that familiar yellow shade. She took another camera offline, then inched forward. There was a blur headed for her ankles. The president again, no doubt. She aimed towards the last camera, her heart racing. It exploded into hunks as she was pulled backwards. Miss Pauling now stared at the president. She couldn't see anything human about his face. All she saw was a blur of yellow and metal at her legs.
A flashing pain struck Miss Pauling in the thigh. President Jia's aim had been slightly off her center mass. He landed on top of the small assistant, then struck her again. His fingers clenched onto her gun. She fired it until it went empty again, embedding several rounds in his flank and fingers. He didn't react to the pain. She did. She cried out, blood and tears on the corners of her lips.
She had one last chance to stop him. Miss Pauling reached for her right thigh with her left hand. He clenched onto her body with a vice-like grip, squeezing blood from her injuries. She gritted her teeth, fingers just on the edge of the knife she had taken from the Spy's abandoned inventory. As soon as she had her hand wrapped around it, she slashed outward. She cut through her gun holster, her pants, his suit, his flesh. She buried the knife just below his sternum, digging into something soft and still very human. President Jia screamed and hacked, blood and saliva dripping down onto Miss Pauling's chest. She pushed forward, forcing him onto his back. Withdrawing the knife, she made one last stab—straight into the robotic eye of the President Jia.
Miss Pauling didn't stop pressing forward until she felt the blade go through the back of his head and sink into the floor.
Blood pumping in her ears gave way to the roar of war on deck. Thumping at the door caught her attention. She collected herself, then pulled herself upright. A small, choked sob escaped her as she tried walking. Her left leg was throbbing with pain. Everything between the door and her was a mess of grey metal, glass, and blood.
There was a panicked voice behind the door. "Miss Pauling! Miss Pauling! C'mon, let us in!"
Miss Pauling raised her head. It was the Scout. "I…I'm almost there."
She stumbled as she released the lock to the bridge. The Scout caught her before she could hit the grated stairwell. The Spy and Mason were standing behind them, stunned. She looked like she had just stepped out of a meat grinder. There wasn't much dignified left about her. Her hair was a frazzled wreck, her left eye was swollen shut, and her clothes and skin were ripped.
Never-the-less, she tried getting a hold of the situation. She addressed the Spy. "I t-told you take him to the M-Medic."
"He insisted on seeing you," the Spy replied.
"I see," was all Miss Pauling could manage. Rebuking the Spy was out of the question at that point. Her brain went cold and dizzy. The Scout caught her before she could collapse to the ground. He was in no shape to be hauling her around, still groggy from the drugs that had kept him sedated for nearly a day. It was that same dopiness that made him all the more willing to hold her.
Mason was shell-shocked. "What did you—where did he—"
The translator saw inside of the bridge. An angry shriek escaped him. He saw his employer's head nailed to the ground, sparks from security cameras raining embers onto his corpse. He rushed out of the Spy's grasp, his chiseled jaw dropped, teeth flashing red and yellow from distressed lights in the console. He reached for the knife in President Jia's head, then pulled it out.
"Put it down," the Spy warned.
"You—you—" the translator stammered. "I—I'll—"
The Spy's patience snapped. A good man may have given Mason more time to think about what he was doing, but the Spy was by no means a good man. He knew of the rage in the translator's head. How the Spy would react if he found Miss Pauling so thoroughly stabbed and pinned? He knew what he would do, and he knew Mason's thoughts. He sighed, then plugged two rounds between the translator's perfect teeth. The flames of revenge were splattered along the bridge's floor, now meaningless pulp.
The Spy was blasé about his assassination. "I trust you have no objections."
Miss Pauling shook her head. "Let's go."
Holding the Scout by the shoulder, the Spy took charge. "Get her to ze Medic. I have to find ze Engineer and ze Demoman."
"Yeah. Right. On deck?" the Scout asked.
"Ah. Look at zhat," the Spy smirked. "Your mozzer taught you well."
The Scout's eyes narrowed. "You shut up about my ma!"
The Spy and Scout separated without another spat. Miss Pauling struggled to keep her head up. This was embarrassing on several levels for her. She loathed being doted on, especially by the men she was supposed to be keeping in check. No doubt the Scout would get some mixed feelings from all of this. She slunk in his arms, her heart rate slowing. All things considered, this didn't feel like a bad time to rest. She could sleep through the cacophonous gunfire on deck. It was almost like a soothing lullaby, at this point in the mission.
"Hey! Hey! Eyes open!" the Scout nagged in Miss Pauling's ear.
Her head was spinning. "Lost my glasses. Can't see too well."
"Dat's okay. Just keep 'em open." The Scout scuttled for a stairwell. He readjusted Miss Pauling, then began bouncing upstairs. "Geez Louise. What were you guys doin' while I was out?"
Miss Pauling laughed, though she hadn't meant to. "Trying to save you." She rolled her head back. "The Spy should have gone to the Medic, too. He got shot."
The Scout shrugged. "Yeah? Well, he gets shot every dang day."
The speedy runner hit the deck. It was in horrific shape. Columns of fire raced up and down. Some were grown by the team's Pyro, who was gleefully chasing down a pack of robots distorted beyond recognition. The Heavy had torn open an intermodal container. He poured a storm of gunfire into its contents. The sentry gun that the Engineer had left on deck was coughing, firing nothing more than empty clicks. More were hounding the Sniper, who was trapped on top of a communications tower. As he fired into the swarm below, the Soldier was blasting up to his position. Rockets burst at his feet, coating the Medic in soot as the doctor helped the mad American ascend to the Sniper's platform.
The Scout rushed for the Medic. His voice cut over the din. "Yo, Doc! I need help! Miss P's down!"
His shrieking caught the Medic's attention. The Medic raised an eyebrow, trying to figure out if the Scout was lying. His eyes widened as he saw the young boy running towards him, both his arms wrapped around Miss Pauling's shoulders and legs. The Medic made a sharp whistle. The Heavy stopped in his tracks, wondering what the Medic wanted. He caught the same pitiful sight. His jaw hit his chest. The Heavy gave one mighty roar, then finished off his destruction. He guarded the Medic across the deck. Both men pushed the duo towards an undisturbed section of the deck, then got to work.
"You dummkopf!" The Medic cursed at the Scout. "Vhy didn't you protect her? Oh, oh dear. Zhat is a lot of blood."
"Hey! Dis totally isn't my fault," the Scout whined back.
The Heavy took Miss Pauling from the Scout. He placed her down next to a quiet intermodal container—one he had thoroughly emptied. "Less fighting, more healing. Doctor, please."
The Medic nodded. He cracked his knuckles, then trained his medigun onto Miss Pauling. The Heavy fussed with her wounds. He grabbed the right sleeve of his uniform, then tore it at the stitching. With slow, careful movements, he tied it around her left thigh.
"It's just about healed," Miss Pauling smiled.
"Is not bandage," the Heavy replied. "Is patch for tear in pants."
"Thank you." Miss Pauling sat upright. The Medic's work didn't compensate for her blood loss, but her wounds were almost mended. Her vision was still blurred, but she could do without it. As long as she had eight and a half pairs of eyes to keep watch, that would be more than enough.
There was a clatter from the nearby stairwell. The quartet's attention snapped to the Spy rushing up. Following him were two soot-coated shadows. The Engineer was the first to reach them. His arms were coated up to the elbow in grease and muck. He had a painful smile on his face. The Demoman crashed next to him. His beanie was torn apart, bits of curly hair popping through the cotton fabric.
"You would not believe what kinda hell is in that engine room," the Demoman puffed.
Miss Pauling straightened her back. "Did you get the charges set?"
"Aye. Only after the Engineer torn this ship's heart out," the Demoman replied. He tapped on his stickybomb launcher. "Just say when, 'n we blow this thing."
"Alright." Miss Pauling nodded. "Gentlemen, we need to get a lifeboat."
The Heavy nodded. "Leave to me. Demoman? Could use help."
The Demoman rolled his one good eye. "Have ta do everything around here. Fine! Let's go get that bloody lifeboat ready."
"They'll need some protection." The Engineer hustled for his sentry. He caught the smoldering hunk of scrap metal before it could be blown to Kingdom Come. "Head 'em up, 'n move 'em out!"
The Medic stood upright. He gave another long whistled. Everyone's hair stood on end as he summoned the rest of the team. The Pyro was the first to report for duty. He flanked the busiest side of their fortified area, blasting robots back as they came. A pair of boots crash-landed next to the Spy. The Soldier landed, tossing the mortified Sniper off his back. The Australian righted himself, then licked his fingertips. He put out a small fire on the end of his Akubra.
Each man proved he was worth his paycheck. They moved in lockstep with each other, gradually pulling back to where the Heavy and Demoman were busy prepping a lifeboat. It was a good-sized vessel, large enough to hold them all. The top of it was covered with an orange plastic shell. A tiny motor was in the back of it. There was no way it could cross the ocean, but it would be able to get them a good ways away from the cargo ship once it went under.
The Engineer was holding down the fort. He and his gun were focused in separate directions, tearing through waves of robots. The Spy and the Scout flanked Miss Pauling. Both men forced her onto the boat first, much against her protests. The Pyro overshot the team. He plopped himself between the Heavy and the Engineer. If a struggling robot stepped one foot too close, he blew them off the side of the boat. The Sniper hopped next to the entrance of the boat. He continued his work, chunks of metal and gelatinous fake flesh burst from the distance. The Soldier and the Medic finished the protective hemisphere around the boat. The Medic separated to board, alternating his healing between each teammate. The Soldier emptied what remained of his rocket launcher, then tapped the Demoman in. The duo switched on and off. They both struggled to keep pace with the Heavy, who almost had the boat prepped on his own.
"Time to go!" the Heavy bellowed.
Everyone dove inside the lifeboat. The Heavy was the last to get inside. He slammed on the lowering mechanism, then leapt into the craft. The boat swung back and forth as it descended towards the murky ocean. The team shuffled around, trying to evenly distribute their weight. They hit the surface of the ocean with a solid thump. The Engineer kicked on the vehicle's motor, not bothering to cut the lowering ropes. They tore away from the cargo ship, snapping off the lowering mechanisms as they fled.
The Demoman crawled to the back of the boat. His good eye was gleaming with anticipation. "Let me know when I can—"
"Do it," Miss Pauling ordered.
The Demoman showed a little restraint. He waited until the lifeboat was at least a few hundred feet away before he hit the bomb's ignition. He grinned as the deck erupted into a geyser of splinters with a solid, loud boom. Dozens of windows shattered and belched fire. The communications tower cracked in half, then tumbled off the side of the deck. It crashed into the ocean, a giant, white spear headed for the bottom. Intermodal containers went flying. They bobbed helplessly before sinking into the abyss.
The cargo ship took much longer to go. The team watched silently as it died. As explosions continued to rocket up from the engine room, more pieces of debris went flying. The team flinched from splashes that landed much too close to their boat for comfort. Slowly, but surely, containers began sliding off the edge of the deck. The ship lost its balance. Water flooded into its starboard side. What must have been thousands of gallons rushing in all at once looked like nothing more trivial than dunking a toy in a bathtub. The ship rolled, then went under, metallic sides screaming as it sank.
Everyone was stuck silent.
Well, everyone but the Scout. "So, now what?"
Okay. Last call.
Miss Pauling wished she could clearly. Her face was warm in the bright sunlight. There was greenery for miles around. Palm fronds and ferns pushed towards the sky. The beach was filled with soft, white sand. Bits of debris floated on the tide. Some were clumps of trash from Kong King, bottles and newspapers and the like. Others were chunks from the cargo ship that had died many miles away. She felt like that same flotsam.
Like trash on the shores of paradise.
The Soldier was enthused to be back on land. He took one look around him, then grunted. "Looks like we'll have to get to work." He snapped on his heels. "Sniper! Go secure us fresh water and coconuts. Engineer? Use those coconuts to build us a radio. The Heavy and I will start harvesting the trees for shelter. Pyro, you get a fire started. Demoman? Make the biggest pile of rocks you can, then make a distress message. But don't make it too sissy. We're not desperate, here. The rest of you? Go gather some fronds, then start stitching hula skirts. Or kill a pig. Whatever you think will be more helpful."
The Spy frowned. "I object."
"On what grounds, you coward?" The Soldier frowned. "Or is this mutiny?"
The Demoman raised an eyebrow. "Can ya have a shipless mutiny?"
The Spy was losing his temper. He had been stuck in tight quarters much longer than he had ever wanted to be with his other teammates. That had been bad enough. Between that and the past day or so he'd spent killing robots, he had had enough. He grabbed the Soldier's head, then wrenched it to the right.
"Look, you simpleton!" the Spy shouted.
Sitting further back on the shoreline were several confused tourists.
The Soldier stopped. "Oh! I see. Well, then."
"Maybe they have telephones?" the Heavy asked.
"Or, at least a hotel," Miss Pauling grinned. "Let's go get some help."
The team moved together up the beach. Some of the tourists shot them strange looks. It was a little awkward of them to crash so rudely on their beach. Those that had hats tipped them down, trying not to draw too much attention. It didn't help that their clothes were torn apart, coated in ash, and stained in blood. They looked like a bunch of vagrants that needed a good, long dip under hot water.
A small hotel was further back. It wasn't nearly as anything as flashy as the hotels in Hawaii or along the coasts of Florida, but it was still very well-to-do. Several strange pod-shaped hotel rooms dotted the landscape. They looked like something out of a science fiction film. Miss Pauling sighed. She had had enough of B-grade science shenanigans for a while.
The group approached the main lobby. Several employees gave them a dirty glare. None of them stopped the team from entering, though. The Heavy took lead, then talked to the doormen. He spoke very terse Mandarin, but it was enough to do the trick. They led him to a black telephone on the wall. He waved Miss Pauling over. She followed him, patting for her wallet. It was blood-soaked, and her passport was shredded, but she still had enough money to place a phone call.
"You know country code for United States?" the Heavy asked.
Miss Pauling nodded. "Yeah. Just hope Helen's awake."
The duo paused in front of the telephone. Miss Pauling's hands shook as she reached for the receiver. The Heavy placed a hand on her shoulder, then handed it to her. She nodded her thanks, then began to dial. Her body was shot. Even the rest on the boat hadn't helped. She needed food, a bath, and sleep—it didn't matter what order she got them in.
A strange, lulling noise came from the earpiece. Her heart caught in her throat. It was ringing. She was nervous, expecting some gremlin to start screeching in her ear. The tones continued peacefully. She leaned against the desk where the phone sat. The Heavy put a hand on her shoulder. She wasn't sure who needed the reassuring gesture more.
Finally, a noise broke the silence. "Who the hell is this?"
"It's me, Helen," Miss Pauling smiled.
The voice at the other end of the phone lightened. "I didn't hire you to be my alarm clock."
"I know. Listen, we could use some help." Miss Pauling pressed her hip against the phone desk. "Could you trace this call?"
The Administrator paused. "That's right. Saxton mentioned…wait, where the hell are you?"
"Not in Kong King," Miss Pauling replied.
There was a rustle in the background. She could hear the Administrator slid out of bed. There was a masculine grunt protesting waking up. Miss Pauling's ears burned. She waited patiently for the Administrator the return.
"Alright. It'll be a few minutes." The Administrator's bed creaked as she slipped into it once more. "Did you finish your mission?"
Miss Pauling nodded. She wanted to smack her head with the phone. How could Helen see that? "Yes. We're done."
The Administrator was pleased. "Good." She yawned before continuing. "You sound dreadful."
Miss Pauling smirked, then glanced at the men waiting in the lobby. "We got hit pretty hard."
There was a long sigh from the other end of the phone line. "Look. You're tired. I'm tired. Let's give it a rest. Go get you and your men a few hotel rooms. I'll reimburse you for the cost."
The Administrator's generosity surprised Miss Pauling. "Thank you. I'll call you back with some contact information."
"Good. Once we have your position nailed down, I will schedule a flight for your return," the Administrator answered. There was a pause, and a small click on the other end of the line. Not the phone being hung up, though. Something like a lighter being spun. Miss Pauling could almost smell the tobacco wafting from Helen. "I would be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat glad to hear from you."
It took Miss Pauling a moment to work through the Administrator's words. "Thank you."
The Administrator was pleased. "I look forward to hearing from you soon."
"Ya do what, now?" the Engineer asked.
The Sniper grinned. "It's like this, yeah? First, ya roll a slice like so. Then, ya grab a can 'a soup, like this tomato here. Take one, dunk it in the other."
The team was shocked at the Sniper's behavior. Not many people would bring a can of soup to a pizza party. Barbeque sauce? Maybe. Salsa? Depending on the kind of pizza, it was necessary. But soup? Ridiculous. They watched him take a good tear out of his slice, as if he was biting the head off of a snake. He tipped the opened can towards the Engineer, trying to egg him on. The Engineer shook his head, then finally complied. He dunked in his slice, then took a bite.
"Not the worst." The Engineer screwed up his face. "Still like my barbeque sauce better."
The Sniper shrugged. "Ah, well. Least ya tried."
Now, the Medic was curious. He took the can from the Sniper's hand, then slathered soup on his pizza slice. He took a few moments to decide whether or not he liked that. "I zhink it vould be better vizh chicken stock."
The Heavy sighed, then tried it. "Nyet. Beef."
"What kind of backwards hippies are you all?" The Soldier took the tomato can, then dipped his slice. "What it needs is egg drop soup."
"Yous guys is nuts," the Scout said.
The Spy had to agree with him. "What back alley in Bangkok did you learn zhis in, Sniper?"
The Sniper narrowed his eyes. "It wasn't Bangkok!"
"I just get used ta eatin' this crap, then ya have to go making it weird." The Demoman rolled his one good eye, then took two more slices. "Next time, I'm picking what ta eat."
"Nobody wants to put haggas on pizza," the Soldier replied.
"Who said anything about haggas? Even I won't eat that crap!" the Demoman roared.
Miss Pauling almost snorted soda out of her nose. The Pyro shook his head, then reached for the can of soup. He picked up a straw and stuck it in. If there was anything he liked, it was a meal that he didn't have to take his mask off to eat. Nobody noticed the missing can, continuing to eat and bicker and laugh.
The light rest and journey back to Teufort had revived the team's spirit. They were raring to go once again. Sometimes, Miss Pauling wondered how much they soaked up their experiences. Then again, they were paid handsomely to fight nonstop for over half a decade. If any of them were scarred from the near-disaster that was their mission, they didn't show it. What had to be fixed was righted, and the path was closed off from further threats. A victory was a victory. For them, that was enough.
Piercing eyes watched the group from the doorway. Miss Pauling turned her head to catch the Administrator. She excused herself, then went to go see her boss in the hall. The Administrator raised an arched eyebrow. She hadn't expected Miss Pauling to come quite so quickly.
"You didn't have to get up," the Administrator said.
Miss Pauling rubbed the back of her neck. "Oh. I'm sorry. I thought you wanted something."
"No. I was merely monitoring the situation." The Administrator pressed her lips into a thin smile. "You do know how I like to watch."
"Yes, Helen," Miss Pauling replied.
Neither woman knew what to say next. Miss Pauling looked away. The men were back to another argument. This time, it was over the remote. The Pyro had the Scout in a headlock. The Scout was reaching for the remote, his fingers sometimes managing to mash the buttons. The shows continued flipping between the news, space dramas, and those awkward marionette shows from England. Before long, the Soldier joined the dog pile, if for no reason other than to fight. The rest were egging the three on, all in various stages of drunkenness.
It was a bit of a mess.
"Sometimes, I think Gray Mann has it right," the Administrator murmured. "We wouldn't have to deal with this if they were robots."
Miss Pauling shrugged. "It would be cheaper, I suppose. But you'd miss out on this."
The Administrator almost cackled. She managed to keep her jaw shut, but her thin smile bared her teeth. "Yes. I would miss this. That is the word I was looking for."
Miss Pauling shook her head. "It wouldn't be as much fun for you to boss robots around."
"Oh, I suppose you're right on that count." The Administrator put a hand to her chin. "There is something to be said about their eagerness, I suppose. Perhaps their cohesiveness. I find it—"
"Admirable?" Miss Pauling offered.
"Completely stupid," the Administrator replied.
That took the wind out of Miss Pauling's sails. She sighed, then fussed with her new pair of glasses. They weren't quite as cute as the cat's eye pair she used to wear, but they would do for the time being. They were a bit too small and square, for her tastes. It would have to do until Mann Co. had another delivery.
The Administrator broke the silence. "Well. Suppose I have to get going. I need to beat Saxton to the L'Appétit by ten minutes, then mock him for being late."
"Alright. Have a good time, then," Miss Pauling answered.
"Good. I'll be back soon." The Administrator folded her hands behind her back. "I trust you'll take care of them while I'm gone."
Miss Pauling nodded. "Of course."
Her eagerness brought the first genuine, happy smile from the Administrator in a long time. The pain hurt her cheeks. She wanted to swear at her assistant, but that seemed counterproductive. The two parted ways for the evening. Miss Pauling went back to managing the men, quick to tuck her glasses away before they could be crushed. The Administrator exited the building. It wasn't a minute before she was burning down the dusty roads of Teufort, fire burning on her heels.
Both women were true to their words.
That was wonderful! Seriously it was all amazing. I love the way you write Miss Pauling and her interactions with the team are lovely. You write really good adventure stories and they're always fun.
That was the fucking cutest thing omy god