“Bob, she won’t stop. There, in Roland’s old room. Between the dresser and the wall.”
“What is she doing?”
“Just keeps saying the same thing over and over again.”
“Melissa?” Bob knelt down by the chest-of-drawers. “Can you see me?”
“Time is broken,” Melissa said. “Steven.”
“Steven? The Crow kid?” Bob asked.
“Time is broken.” Melissa rocked back and forth, wiping her eyes. “Steven.”
“Melissa, you’re at the Sanctuary. You’re safe here.” Bob caressed her hair as she seemed lost in her vision. “How long has she been like this?” Bob looked back at Lynda.
“This morning.” Lynda wrung her hands anxiously. “Please. Get Steven.”
“He’s not allowed here. You know that.”
“It wasn’t his fault!” Lynda yelled. “Look at her!”
“We have a Calmer coming to treat her.”
“Steve used to do that. He was really good.” Lynda looked at Melissa.
“Steve…is not here anymore.” Bob reached out and grabbed Melissa’s hand.
“He wasn’t a bad person,” Lynda said, subdued.
“He wasn’t human either. And he lied to us all.” Bob glanced at Lynda.
“Neither is Steven. Call him.”
“Lynda, it is just too dangerous.”
“He saved us. We were safe with Steven. And he healed her.” Lynda pointed. “He’d do it again. Make her well.”
Bob scowled. “He unsettled her when you were abandoned in the Cooperative.”
“We weren’t abandoned,” Lynda said quietly. “They were hunting him. It wasn’t his fault.”
“He promised you would be okay.”
“And we are.”
“There was a war going on right where you were.” Bob stood up. “An alien war. I’ve seen the devastation.”
“It was just a couple of…”
“That’s all it takes.” Bob interrupted her. “With them. Just a couple of them and now miles of black ash. Lynda, they are so far beyond us, imagination cannot comprehend it. It’s just way too dangerous. I’m surprised we still have the embassy on Endard.”
“She needs him.” Lynda pointed at Melissa. “Your Calmer won’t fix her. She’ll just…quiet her.”
“Melissa needs a chance to collect herself. Without Steven.”
“But she’s seeing something. Something bad.”
“Yeah. And she’s blaming Steven.” Bob crossed his arms.
“No, she’s not!” Lynda shook her head.
Bob opened his mouth to respond then glanced back past Lynda. “Good. Sheila’s here.”
She fumed as a timid, young black woman scooted between them and knelt down in front of Melissa. “It’s not going to fix anything,” Lynda grumbled.
“Melissa will have to do the fixing. Sheila just takes the edge off.” Bob nodded.
“I’m not strong enough,” Sheila said quietly as she held Melissa’s hands. “Not for her.”
Bob scowled. “I’m not sending you to the Cooperative.”
Sheila looked back at him, pleading. “Just the embassy. Lynda told me about Enos’rel. Their treatments have made them so potent. It would do the same for me.”
“Why won’t you let her…”
“No one else is going to the Cooperative,” Bob said resolutely. “Not after what happened.”
Lynda squinted at him, then closed her eyes. She shook her head. “You’re jealous.”
Bob shook a finger at her. “Do not read me, Lynda. That’s beside the point.”
“You wanted to go!” Lynda waved her hands. “That’s what this is about.”
“Just do your best,” Bob said to Sheila. He gave Lynda an angry glance, then stormed out of the room.
“He wanted to go,” Lynda told Sheila quietly.
“He doesn’t understand.” Sheila sat down on the floor as she caressed Melissa’s hand. “I’m not strong enough for Melissa. Her visions are way too powerful. She’ll never get better.”
“What can we do?” Lynda knelt down beside them. “He won’t contact Steven.”
“He doesn’t have…” Lynda started then stopped. She sighed as she shook her head. “It’s not like that with us. Not like Asherah. I have to touch him.” She rubbed her face and moved a red lock of hair out of her eyes. “We’d have to find one of them. Someone who can contact him.”
Sheila looked at Melissa who still rocked back and forth with her eyes clamped shut. “The future is terrifying her. It’s not going to get better.”
“We can’t leave.” Lynda sat on the bed, dejected.
“Sure you can.”
Both of the girls spun around, then gaped.
“Steve?” Lynda half stood up, keeping a hand on the bed. “I thought…they said…”
Steve smiled as he walked past her and knelt before Melissa. Sheila cringed when he winked at her. With a touch, Melissa calmed down, almost falling asleep. “I’m sorry I deceived you.” He glanced at Lynda. “If it’s any consolation, I didn’t know either. It’s the only way we can operate around Elves.”
“But, you’re alien,” Lynda said quietly.
“So is Steven.” Steve mimicked her tone, then grinned.
“Bob is here. He’s looking for you.”
“He left. A meeting with Nate about your alien friends.” Steve stood up. He sighed as he gazed at Melissa. “You two were my favorite.”
Steve shrugged. “Back when I didn’t remember.” He looked around. “It was all so innocent. But… reality intrudes.”
“What are you going to do?” Sheila backed up against the wall nervously.
Steve reached down, grabbing her arm and pulling her to her feet. “Well, Melissa needs help. And I would like to see Steven again.”
“You’re not going to hurt us?” Sheila rubbed her arm.
Steve gave her a perplexed look and shook his head. “I’m not your enemy. They are.” He pointed out the window. The girls looked and saw a massive Cooperative cruiser hovering on the horizon over Phoenix.
“But, they’re… the war. People died,” Lynda stammered.
“Because of them. They blew up our homes, which blew up your homes.” Steve crossed his arms, fuming. He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Steven is what matters.”
Lynda just stared at him.
“Have I ever been cross with you? Ever? Or Steven?” Steve held his arms out.
“No.” Lynda slumped. “But, we could get in trouble. They’re looking for you.”
“I’m not important.” Steve shook his head. “Steven is.” He looked at Melissa. “And his friends.”
“Who has done him the most harm? Done you the most harm?” Steven looked around the room. “Destroyed this room even? Nice job getting Roland’s books back, by the way.”
“My boss has done nothing but try to help him. His biggest problem came from those who wish to use him. From them.” He pointed out the window again.
Lynda looked down, playing with the carpet with her toes. “I don’t know.” She sighed. “What do you want with him?”
“I want to help him get Asherah back.”
~ ~ ~
The agents knelt down, taking aim into the garage. The commanding agent signaled to flank right. Three of them silently broke from the group and entered the garage, hugging the far right wall behind a line of SUV’s as they stalked the intruder.
Laurence arrived and knelt down beside the commander. “How many?”
“Just one. Behind that.” He pointed. “We’re working to encircle him.”
The commander looked at him.
“No, sir. And cloaked.”
Laurence nodded. He closed his eyes and brought up a holographic display. The commander backed up a little to give him room as Laurence manipulated the display. “There. He’s moved two vehicles closer.”
The commander caught the eyes of the flanking agents and made a sign.
“The creature knows they’re there.”
“That’s the objective. I want it to feel boxed in.”
“It’s not Terran. They don’t react the same way.” Laurence stood up. “Weapons?”
“None were deployed.”
Laurence grinned. “Great. I’ll keep it busy. You complete the encirclement.”
Laurence strolled out into the garage, whistling as he walked. He stopped near where the intruder had hidden and stretched, yawning a little. He looked at the empty space between the vehicles and grinned. “I see you.”
“You know Common.”
Laurence shrugged. “Meh. It’s a hobby.” He looked back at his men. “You know you won’t get out of this alive, right?”
“Neither will you.” The creature lunged towards Laurence.
At the last moment, Laurence dropped straight down, kicking a foot up into its midsection. The creature flew over him and rolled, landing on its feet. Laurence laughed. “You know, sweet talk like that will get you anywhere with me.”
The creature walked towards Laurence and Laurence met it halfway, kicking out at its knees while parrying a devastating strike to his head. As he spun out of the strike he grappled the next attack and swung the creature around into a concrete column.
For a moment they locked. Laurence laughed. “Now I know why they say we smell like Venda. You really do stink.”
The Venda smirked at Laurence then twisted. Laurence found himself flying through the air and slamming into the grill of an SUV. He fell to his knees then dropped flat as the Venda smashed into the grill where he had been. He wrapped his leg around the Venda’s and sat up quickly, pulling the Venda to the ground. It rolled out of his grip and regained its feet as Laurence jumped and delivered a solid kick to its head from above.
As Laurence attempted to follow through with his attack he found himself thrown into another vehicle. He laughed as he shook it off and prepared for another attack. As the Venda descended on him he locked up its arms in another grapple and both of them landed in an ignoble heap on the ground.
“I like you.” the Venda said. “You know how to take a beating.”
“Yeah. I fought Steven. Everything else has been a buzz-kill after him.” Laurence grinned as he tried to shift his grip to his advantage.
“You fought the Blessed One and survived?” The Venda almost seemed in awe. “I hope you survive what is to come, then.”
“Um, you’re surrounded and I’ve got you,” Laurence said, shaking his head. He glanced at his men, then kneed the Venda’s cloaking unit, causing it to spark and fail.
Several bright flashes momentarily dazed Laurence as the agents released a volley from their new weapons. The Venda leaned closer to him. “Your upgrades don’t work on my armor.”
“Head-shots!” Laurence yelled.
The Venda yanked hard and Laurence found himself bouncing from the ceiling. As he barely landed on his feet he looked around for the Venda. His men were already running towards the exit from the garage and Laurence followed. He ran past several agents at the entrance who were picking themselves off the floor to join the chase. “Really? He got by you?”
“Sir, all we saw was a quick blur.”
Laurence squinted at the displays that hung in the air in front of him. “This way. It’s headed towards the reactor.”
“We need that thing in your head.” The commander grumbled as he struggled to keep up with Laurence.
“Reverse engineering is a work in progress,” Laurence said. He slowed as they got to the lift. The doors had been ripped off. Looking down the shaft, he could see light from where another set of doors had been torn off their mounts. “Level B2,” Laurence said into his radio.
“We have the reactor contained, sir.”
Laurence nodded. “Be aware this creature is very strong and armored. Head-shots.”
Laurence grabbed a rung on the service ladder and started sliding down at a barely controlled fall. His men followed. As they approached the opening below, he noticed something and signaled his men to stop. Squinting, he saw that the door to the level above the reactor had bare metal on its track. “B3. Get men to B3 immediately.” Laurence said quietly.
He reached to a control panel and keyed in the code to open the door, then winced as it scraped loudly on it’s damaged track.
“Can you detect it?”
“Only a faint heat trail. It’s been here.” Laurence quietly entered the dark service hallway. “Our environmentals are on this level.” He helped the commander into the hall and the rest of his men followed.
“The roof above the reactor is armored. There’s no way in, unless he has a weapon.”
“One he neglected to use against us?” Laurence glanced at the commander. He tapped his radio. “I want men inside the reactor chamber. He may come through the roof.”
“I thought your friends were hunting these guys?” The commander said as they made their way quickly to the rooms that were above the reactor chamber.
“They missed one. Venda are notoriously hard to track.” Laurence said quietly.
“I don’t sense it. I thought we could sense all life now.”
Laurence shook his head. “Most. Not all. These guys are heavily modified.” He looked at the commander. “Way more modified than us.”
“So, don’t destroy the carcass.”
“Yep. No disintegrations.” Laurence grinned.
“That was a joke.” Laurence sighed. “I’ve been hanging around Steven too much.”
The commander gave him a strange look then crossed a door to the office closest to the reactor below. Without any prompting, they both stormed into the office, flanked by their men, all taking well-planned positions and covering their sectors.
Laurence looked around as the others checked in. “This is where I would go if wanted to breach the reactor room below. He looked at the floor, imagining the thick armor below the tiles.
“Could it have teleported?”
“No. It would have back in the garage or even sooner. It came here.” Laurence said quietly as he looked around. “Led us here.” He looked over his shoulder as more agents arrived. “B2 is secure?”
“Sir. Most of our defense is on that level.”
“What could it be distracting us from?” Laurence mused as he left the room and looked down the hall. That level was only dimly lit and was full of pipes and ducting that served the rest of the building. “Below us is our reactor. This level is the utility level. Our most important levels are up higher.”
“Could he try to get into the reactor chamber from another office?”
“Not likely.” Laurence looked at a sub-commander and nodded. A number of agents broke from the group and started searching neighboring offices. “Possible. But it isn’t logical. Soft targets?”
“Our labs are upstairs, Training and living facilities. Our armory is by the garage.” The commander looked down, thinking. “Server room and communications are on the top levels.”
“Down here. What would attract it? It’s not hiding.” Laurence started walking down the hall again. The heat signature had long ago wafted away. He adjusted his displays, but the armored equipment on this level interfered with it. He smiled. A weakness in alien technology they would have to explore.
As he neared the corner in the hall, his displays lit up. Laurence signaled. His men flanked him while several others took positions further back. Laurence glanced back and nodded. The side-hall was a dead end. He pointed further down the hall, then casually walked around the corner as several of his men crossed over to the other side.
The Venda was effectively bottled in.
He was surprised to see the Venda on its knees, its back to him. There was a huge ventilation intake duct in front of him, and Laurence wondered if the creature was about to attempt an escape into that. It would be futility, however. The duct was armored against just such a thing.
As Laurence took aim at the creature’s head, it looked to the side slightly. “What is your purpose? You’re Laurence, right? The one who fought the Blessed One?”
Laurence cocked his head. The creature just sat still, waiting for an answer.
“I’m fulfilling my purpose now,” Laurence said simply. He took aim again.
“So am I.” The Venda looked forward. “I was born for a single purpose. Today I am faced with the fulfillment my entire life has revolved around.”
“Dissection?” Laurence quipped. “Surely you knew coming here was suicide.”
The Venda chuckled. “You do not fear death, do you?”
Laurence didn’t answer.
“It is a product of our breeding. Our conditioning. For us, there is no greater glory.” The Venda looked to the side again. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
“We prefer to continue our mission as required,” Laurence said carefully, taking a step back. “After all, a dead agent is a useless agent.”
“Ah. But what if your death is a tool? A means to an end?”
Laurence looked over his shoulder and motioned with his head. His men backed up. The Venda’s absolute lack of fear and morbid obsession was starting to make him nervous. “So, you think that, what, blowing yourself up and killing a few of us is something to write home about?”
The Venda laughed. “If we wanted to destroy you, this building would be a crater now.” He sighed as he looked forward. “The process has begun. Soon your next stage of evolution will take place and my purpose of life will be realized.”
Laurence waved his men back as he took aim again. “That process is going to have to wait. We’re quite happy with our current stage of evolution, thank you very much.”
The Venda stood up and turned to face him as it’s armor fell to the floor. Laurence couldn’t help but admire his physiology. Bony plates covered his skin in an almost reptilian manner, but he was lithe and mobile. And as Laurence had discovered, extremely strong. “This is bigger than you and me, Laurence. I admire you. You are the pinnacle of your breeding. I sincerely hope you survive what is to come.”
Without hesitation, Laurence placed two bullets into the creature’s eyes. Without any drama, the Venda went stiff then simply dropped to the floor, as if it were a sack of grain. Laurence manipulated the displays in front of him as he walked closer to the body. “No explosives.”
His men stepped forward, keeping their weapons trained on the corpse.
Laurence tapped his radio. “Intruder neutralized. I need specimen collection on B3 by the ventilation intake…” He froze, looking at the intake, then ran over to the armored grate. “I need some light over here.”
One of the agents ran over and illuminated the chamber behind the grate. They could feel the air flowing past them. Laurence squinted, then shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Sir. The biofilters have been shut off.”
Laurence looked at the control panel. “Turn it back on. Immediately!”
“We’re locked out.”
Laurence tapped his radio again. “Shut down ventilation now!”
“We’re not getting a response, sir.”
“Cut the power!” Laurence stepped back and looked up. The actual air pumps were on the floor above. “Chop the mains. Shut this whole building down!”
There was suddenly a quiet explosion that filled the hall with black smoke. The smoke was sucked up through the ventilation as Laurence coughed and looked back. All that remained of the Venda was the armor it wore. “Evacuate the building now!” He looked back at his men. “Decontamination trucks now.”
They all backed up then began running down the hall to the exits. Laurence sat down heavily, staring at the pile of armor. “Inform Jacob that I have been compromised.” He rubbed his eyes. “Activate decontamination trucks. I have men on the way.”
“Sir. What was that?”
Laurence looked at the agent that had helped illuminate the ventilation chamber. “I have a feeling we may survive to find out. That’s not a good thing.”