Warning: Contains Langauge, Graphic Violence, Gore.
The call came through late, a tone engineered so precisely that no amount of heavy sleeping—chemically-induced or otherwise—could shut it out. Prolonged exposure led to mild nausea and other unpleasant side-effects that all but guaranteed it would be answered… and since the device was embedded into every employee via a terribly invasive and irreversible procedure, it could hardly be claimed that it had been lost or misplaced.
Reyna knew she shouldn’t complain; it’s not like the company hadn’t detailed exactly what she’d be getting into before she signed her name. And she did owe them, she reminded herself: between the pay and the new legs, there wasn’t much the Blue Corporation hadn’t made easier for her.
She just wished they had better timing.
A headache was brewing by the time she’d untangled herself from her current partner. They sat back and huffed, a bewildered look sketched onto their wiry features.
“What gives? I thought you were enjoying it.”
“Time to go,” she growled, hardly enjoying the metallic taste in her throat. She pulled herself to the edge of the bed. Tried not to retch. The tone burrowed deeper. Something warm dripped down her lip. “Now.”
Reyna almost answered the call with the escort still in the room. Instead, she snatched the pistol from under her pillow and twisted around to point it at the reticent night-worker.
“Grab your shit and get lost.”
Reyna tapped the bio-coded tag behind her ear and connected the call. “Yeah?”
“Thought maybe you were finally making good on all those nihilistic social media posts from high school.”
Marred by distanced and compressed, the caller’s voice was nonetheless unmistakable. The words resonated in Reyna’s skull like pleasant memories. Times before the accident, before everything holding her up was torn away, and she’d been plunged into a black sea of self-pity and terrible hopelessness.
A time before the Blue Corporation.
Reyna sniffed. “Screw you, Bailey.”
“Don’t threaten me with a good time.” A pause to let the humor bleed out, then: “Gotta situation. Olyphant facility: lockdown triggered twelve hours ago, no word from the inside. Suits are hoping accident, but an attack’s not being ruled out, either.”
Reyna snorted. “Christ. The hell is it this time?”
A sigh. “No clue.” The controller sounded tired; exasperation colored her voice. “You know how this works, Rey: it’s need-to-know and…”
“Yeah. Cuz why would we need to know?” Reyna bit back some of her own frustration—Bailey was a grunt like them. Not her fault the company had shit priorities. “Link me what intel we’ve got, let’s get the team prepped.”
“Already done,” Bailey replied, relieved at the return to business. “They’re waiting for you.”
“Efficiency, thy name is Bailey Cooper.” She could practically hear the blush in the woman’s aw-shucks laugh. Reyna tapped the studs above the steel plates hemming in the tanned skin of her thighs; the vibrations made her clench as the magnets powered up. Across the room, her blades skittered across the hardwood to join with the connectors, socketing into place with an electric hum. She stood, tested the weight.“Getting my legs under me. On-site in ten.”
“Copy.” The mirth was already leeching away. “Be safe out there, Rey. Whatever happened… it’s got the Suits real spooked. Haven’t seen ‘em like this since Kolstovo.”
Reyna clenched her teeth; pretended it was from the ache in her legs. She forced down the twinge of fear and reached for jest, though whether for Bailey’s sake or her own, she couldn’t say.
“Hey, if you want pics, you don’t gotta scare me. You can just ask.”
Bailey chuckled. “Screw you, Rey,”
“Don’t threaten me with a good time.”
Dawn had yet to break when they descended upon Olyphant; the liquid black of early morning was choked by gunmetal clouds that did well to conceal the ten bodies ziplining from the belly of the unmarked transport helicopter onto the overgrown fields encroaching upon Olyphant.
Not that it would have mattered. Despite its picturesque setting, that of a sleepy little commune cradled in the foothills of the Pennsylvania mountains, Olyphant was a front: deep beneath the fastidiously-maintained streets and cookie-cutter homes slumbered a marvel of engineering and secrecy: the Drop, home of Blue Corporation’s most classified projects, and workplace for Olyphant’s ninety-eight residents. Even the utility companies who serviced the community were on Blue’s payroll.
They closed in on the power station, charcoal blurs against the twilight backdrop. Past the humming generators, inside the small manager’s office and hidden behind a fully-stocked and functional snack machine was the lift that led to the Drop. There was no need for forced entry: they had the master keys and override codes for the surface entrances. CJ fed the computer the commands from her PDA, and soon enough the team was on the lift, stomachs lurching as it began its long descent.
Nobody talked. They’d all done this enough times to have the nervous chatter beaten out of them. Back when they’d first signed on, there were jokes and ribbings; talk of family and friends; guesses as to what might await them. Some might see it as healthy, tension-breakers to ease the mind and take solace in one another’s shared humanities. But they all knew what it really was: delusion—a symptomatic outpouring of desperation as they tried to convince themselves that they weren’t just killers on the company tab, that somewhere behind all the bodies they’d left in their wake, there was still a normal life waiting for them.
Blake had held on the longest—a natural optimist, it probably had pained him to see his teammates fold into their shells. Now, he only talked to his god, and it was in silent tongues.
Reyna had read once that the number of bodies wasn’t the worst thing about a massacre; it was the void that followed. A sudden, crippling sense of un-life that couldn’t be undone.
She felt that now in her guts, below the knees where the ghost-pain swirled. There would be death ahead, she could feel it.
The killers around her hardly moved; hardly breathed. Faceless avatars of un-life, she saw herself reflected in the lenses of their gas masks.
Bailey’s voice in her ear would be a comfort. She was a reminder that somewhere behind the cocoon of blood and death Reyna had woven about herself, an all-too-human heart still pumped. That in spite of what she might think of herself, Reyna was more than just a trigger to be pulled.
It was a nice thought, anyway.
Having been raised in the New Mexico badlands outside the comfort of Green Zones, trained to hunt and fight and, if necessary, kill to survive in a world still recovering from the catastrophic changes beset upon it by humanity, Reyna understood well the relationship between violence and death; an understanding that had only deepened with her foray into wetwork. There were nuances to each, subtle strokes of the brush that identified the work like a nameplate below a gallery piece: natural causes, gang killing, animal attack, government crackdown.
This one was titled massacre.
No one said a word: they’d waded through enough blood and eviscerated bodies to know whether they were looking at sabotage, or an experiment-gone-wrong. It was, Reyna decided, most assuredly the latter. The only question was:
Where are the bodies?
The once-sterile hallway was befouled with blood, great swathes of it stretching from floor to ceiling, practically black against the brushed steel and buzzing lumen plates. Scraps of clothing littered the floor outside the entrance like confetti. She eyed a few name tags and personal effects mired in the scabbing blood. A smashed lumen plate above flickered and sparked, casting a strobe through the grisly hall.
“I’m not picking up any contaminants, viral or otherwise,” said Jansen from the back of the formation, his voice muffled behind the gas mask’s filter. “Air’s clean.”
Reyna made no signal to de-mask: clean air or not, there was no telling what the scientists down here had been cooking up. They would stay sealed.
“Security’s ‘round the bend,” CJ chimed. The computer specialist gripped her PDA tight, free hand anchored to the pistol secured to her chest. “Left turn, at the end of the hall.”
They reached the intersection. Reyna split the team; Kieran took four to sweep right, while she took the rest of the team down the left. Blood squelched beneath their boots, syrupy beneath the treads. Curses hissed through the static in her earpiece.
“Clear right,” Kieran called. “Another corridor ahead, left-side; moving to secure area. Manny, take point…”
Reyna spared a glance as the second team moved out of sight and into the gloom of the halls beyond; the crimson streaks trailed behind, a hesitant tour guide. The ghost pain in her legs moaned.
CJ was at the door to Security, fingers skittering across the PDA’s touchscreen, jacked into the open port below the card reader. Reyna imagined she could see the pursed look on the stubby woman’s face.
“Problems?” Reyna stepped inside the perimeter laid out by Gantz and Blake.
“AI keeps locking me out.”
Reyna frowned. Blue and their damn AIs.
Every Blue Corp facility had one; unknown even to their employees, the sophisticated programs were the true overlords of facilities like the Drop. The Master of the house through which all information flowed.
Reyna tapped Blake, gestured for CJ to take his position while he applied the thermite charge to the lock mechanism.
The thermite hissed, a bright flare of light and smoke that bored through the reinforced metal and reduced the locks to slag. Blake grabbed the handle, Reyna at his back, H&K pointed over his shoulder. A tap, and he shouldered it open, sidearm sweeping left while she took center-right.
Nothing but a small room, practically a closet, with a wall-screen above a console manned by an empty chair.
“CJ, you’re up.” Reyna stepped aside, her blades scraping against the tiles as she let the specialist through. She clenched her teeth.
A hurried tapping filled the sterile space.
“I’m in.” CJ always sounded pained when she worked; her voice was tight. “Key’s accepted. Gonna take some time for me to sift through all the data.” It was more force-of-habit than necessity: they’d pulled AI dives before.
Reyna nodded. “Gantz, support. Blake, on me. Let’s—”
Kieran, her voice blasted with interference.
“Negative copy. Say again, Kieran?”
A pause. Then: “I—aid… found… survivor. Rec—“
“A survivor?” Blake sounded incredulous, and not a little wary. In their line of work, a survivor presented a tricky scenario.
Reyna considered ordering Kieran to terminate, but the crumbling communications line kept her in check; besides, whoever it was might be able to tell them what happened, or at least what they might be up against. Jansen had given the place a clean bill for virals, so they shouldn’t need to worry about dealing with infected. At best, they’d learn something, maybe even manage to extract an important asset for the company; at worst, the survivor was incoherent or a threat.
If that was the case, well… bullets were cheap.
“CJ, get me eyes on Kieran’s last position. Now.”
His name was Mathis Eckert, a thirty-something with an impressive title and the white coat to prove it… though hardly anything of the eggshell color could be seen under the thick film of blood and grime. The rest of him didn’t look much better: the skin of his face was waxy and slick, eyes bloodshot, the hollows bruised, as though he hadn’t slept in some time, and his veins stood out like spider cracks, sketchy and gray. His left arm was bandaged heavily, cradled against his wasting chest like an heirloom; his free hand fiddled with the gauze, almost excitedly, like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to peel it off and show them.
Reyna found her finger staying close to the trigger of her rifle.
“I knew you’d come,” he said when she’d walked into the rec room. Kieran had forced it open after hearing the scientist inside.
She didn’t like the way he grinned at her. “What happened here, doctor?”
His lips fluttered; for a moment he looked lost, eyes casting about aimlessly until finally they drifted to her prosthetics.
“My eyes are up here,” she snarled.
His body found enough blood to force a flush. “Apologies,” he stammered; not fearful, Reyna noted—just confused, like he was having two conversations at once and struggling to focus. “Just… beautiful. They’re…” He cleared his throat. “What happened? Yes, of course. There, uh, was an accident.” A chuckle. “Yes, an accident—or, a test—no no: an awakening. That’s right. Accident is such a negative word; it can be disparaging. I’m sure you can agree.”
“This guy’s cracked,” growled Blake.
“On the contrary: I’ve never felt better,” Mathis said. He kept picking the gauze, like a scab. “It’s just difficult to think… to keep things straight. You understand? The others, they couldn’t—” A pale tongue darted out to wet his cracked lips. “Ants in the brain… like fire. I-It can be painful, waking up. I don’t think I’ve slept since.”
“A moment, doctor.” Reyna motioned for Kieran to join her. “Infection?” She spoke into her throat mic so as not to be overheard.
“Jansen ran tests. No viral agents detected. I think he’s just rattled, ma’am.”
“He say anything to you?”
Kieran swallowed, a landslide in her earpiece. “Just that he was happy to see us.”
Reyna nodded. “Comms are shit at distance: take some men with you to CJ, get me an update. Whatever we get from Eckert, I’ll want it cross-checked against the AI’s data.”
Reyna returned to the group as Kieran slipped out the door with Jansen and Shy in tow.
“Where are the others?” Perhaps a slight change of course would net them some actionable intel. “We haven’t seen anyone since we arrived.”
Mathis sagged. “They didn’t like waking up,” he said, watery eyes bobbing. “I…” He faltered; a sudden lucidity took him, and it appeared to horrify him. “God, I did it, didn’t I?”
“They wouldn’t stop screaming—so much screaming, and the blood… theirs, mine. Children of a new age throwing a tantrum because they didn’t like their gifts. Do you have children? No, of course not,” he answered in a rush. “They can be rather destructive when they’re upset, you understand. I put mine to sleep when they get that way. That’s what I did: I found all the misbehaving children and put them to bed.”
Reyna thought of the blood trailing the halls. “You killed them?”
Mathis nodded. “Yes.”
Blake scoffed. “Bullshit.”
Reyna raised a hand for quiet. Her head was swimming; one man killed ninety-plus people? It was impossible. Yet…
“Why would you do that?”
Mathis fixed his watery eyes on her. The fingers continued to scratch at the bandages. “I told you. They were spoiled by their gifts.”
Mathis smiled, veins like lines of charcoal on his wax-paper skin. “I can show you.” He glanced at her legs again. “I think you of all people would appreciate it most…”
Reyna turned. CJ in the door, Kieran, Gantz, and Shy flanking her.
“I got it,” CJ huffed; she’d sprinted to get here. “They were experimenting… gray goo… application. Nanomachines designed to correct physical traumas, disabilities—it replicates, repairs, rejuvenates. Replaces what’s lost or missing with itself. Like an advanced, sentient prosthesis. They were testing it, and something went wrong. The subject escaped—”
“And enlightened us,” Mathis chimed in, “to the truth: that we are all broken. We all require repair. But not every mind is meant to be enlightened; it drove my colleagues insane. I however, heard clearly…”
Reyna was still turning when Mathis’ bandages split apart. Blake managed a shot, the round striking soft tissue—
—and she watched as the chittering blade of Mathis’ arm cleaved him with such force that his upper half ejected from his legs in a geyser of blood and trailing intestines. The wet thump of his torso hitting the floor sounded alongside the crash of her heart—
“What the f—”
—which she nearly choked on when he started scurrying across the floor, the muscular arms dragging behind. Something was bubbling in the stump of his collapsed legs too, thrashing about like questing tendrils, somewhere between liquid and solid.
The room exploded into chaos.
Blake’s severed pieces began attacking, whip-like appendages lashing out. Manny yowled as a nanite blade severed his arm… which intensified as the sentient machines burst from the stumps. They, in turn, attacked the nearest uninfected. CJ screamed, a rogue arm latched onto her mask, whip-thin cords stabbing through the lenses. Kieran and the others behind her opened fire, but even as the bullets ended their teammate’s suffering, gouts of the nanites erupted from CJ’s body to engulf them. Weapons discharged sporadically, turning the darkened rec room into a strobing hell.
Reyna turned to run, to get some distance, maybe kite the infected and work her way towards the single door. She already had a hand on the bag of high-explosive grenades hanging from her vest—more than enough to take out the room, not to mention half the lab.
Ten second fuse, and I gotta be gone—
She blinked. Tasted copper. Glanced in numb shock at the living metal pouring out of her ruined stomach.
“Don’t be afraid.” Mathis said over her shoulder. He stepped in front of her, his nanite arm curving smoothly to accommodate her bulk without interrupting its connection. He offered a genuine smile. “They just want to fix you.”
Through the burning, maddening heat spreading inside her, Reyna managed a smile of her own. She wasn’t scared of death. Never had been. Bailey was about the only regret she really had.
Not bad, all things considered.
“Fix this,” she snarled, and triggered the grenades.