Demonic Symphony – Scene 096 & Onwards

The EasyCare dorm is a very odd place. The last building inspector that voluntarily stepped into the building was mysteriously eaten on the biologists’ floor, and since then the inhabitants had more or less been left to their own devices.

It had never been planned for the floors to be segregated by major, but like attracts like, and all the floors had been left marked by their inhabitants; from the ridiculously automated world of the mechatechnicians’ floor, to the rather disturbing place that the quantum mechanics’ called home.

The strangest of all the floors was floor three. Floor three had been many things over the years, the music floor, the artist’s floor, and most recently the psychology floor. Floor three was no longer any of these things, although it carried on the traditions of all of them. Floor three was now the floor that people went to when they didn’t care about the majors they had spent huge sums of money to study, or if they had finished their majors and didn’t want to leave, or, most ominously, if they were just people who chose to live there over a thousand saner options.

Laurie’s room was on the third floor, and that’s where she was now. She was staring at her door, which was covered with safety tape, stickers and graffiti.

Laurie didn’t like the stickers; or anything for that matter, she hadn’t put any of them there and she didn’t like having them around, it felt like an invasion of her privacy. She smiled grimly as she read the stickers; she had been right about the reaction that the dorms inhabitants would have to her newfound notoriety.

‘Bomber!’ the stickers screamed. ‘Terrorist’, ‘Anarchist’, ‘Protestant whore’. There were pictures all over the door depicting Laurie lighting things on fire with a crazed look on her face; some of them were quite good; others seemed to have been drawn in crayon.

Laurie felt a little betrayed. She rested her head on the door and closed her eyes. She had guessed the reaction that her dorm mates might have to her, but it was a different thing to see it in person; it was like being bitten by a friendly dog.

There was a loud snapping noise and someone in an alligator costume bounded past the end of the corridor; singing a raunchy song involving barnyard animals.

Laurie realized with horror what it would look like if anyone saw her resting on the door like this. Her eyes snapped open and she jumped back to the other side of the corridor. ‘I shouldn’t even be here’, she thought, ‘I meant to find Derek.’

She didn’t move.

Laurie thought about just walking on, but somehow it just didn’t seem right. She thought about making another attempt at finding Geordie’s room and getting Derek, or at least their prisoner, out. She knew it was the right thing to do.

Laurie continued to not move.

Laurie hated those stickers; really hated them.  Her hands just curled naturally into fists whenever she looked at them. ’I could rip them off’ she thought, ‘I could just rip them right off, and maybe there would be more tomorrow, but for today I’d feel better.’

There were the sounds of partying in the distance.

Laurie really wanted to tear the stickers off. She wanted it so badly that she had to slap her own hands down to stop them reaching up. ‘It’s stupid’ she reminded herself, ‘It’s stupid, and unprofessional, and emotional, and you didn’t go to all this trouble just to give yourself away now. You should go get Derek’.

The stickers stayed where they were and so did Laurie.

Laurie knew it was time to leave; if anyone was watching her then she would have looked extremely strange. She twisted her body and her feet and prepared to walk away, but her head kept facing the door. ‘I need to get my glasses as well’, Laurie reminded herself, ‘it wouldn’t do any harm to just pop in there and pick up my spares. It would only take a moment; so that would be alright’

The door stayed where it was, but Laurie walked forwards.

*

Once Derek had decided what to do he moved quickly. He dropped his chair and marched away, leaving the circle to stagger behind him.

Derek liked having a plan, even if it was borderline suicidal, it gave him a sense of purpose and made him grin as he walked; it made him feel strong.

The guy was still propped up on the couch. And the drunken idiots were still around him. In between Derek and the guy the conga line stretched endlessly past.

Derek could feel the blood pulsing in his ears and it was getting harder to hear the sounds outside. He felt alive again; even more so than he had when he had been fighting for his life. Derek looked at the conga line, and then looked back at the dancing circle.

The circle had recovered and was carrying on without him.

Derek’s mind put two and two together, and he grinned. ‘I think I can see what Laurie sees in this’ he thought. He walked over to the conga line and pushed himself into it.

Strong hands grasped him from behind.

Derek grinned again. ‘So far, so good.’ He thought. He declined to grab the person in front of him and instead danced his way back to the chair dancing circle.

The circle seemed glad to see him again. One of the girls looked up and winked as he approached.

Derek felt a little confusion, but mostly he felt flattered. He winked back and grabbed onto the girl from behind. Derek was having fun again; like he hadn’t had since he was a kid. He couldn’t believe that he had let himself forget how.

The dancing circle continued to rotate, and the conga line continued to follow it.

Derek was looking around; taking stock of things and making sure that everything was working alright. He saw that the rest of the conga line was about to wrap around him, and he decided it was time to leave. Derek took his hands off the girl in front, and put the hand of the man behind him onto her. Then he turned and walked away.

As Derek walked the line kept streaming past and the ball at the centre kept getting bigger. Derek managed to get as far as the first couches before he slowed down.

Derek knew he should keep walking, but every fibre in him told him to turn back. Derek swallowed and took one step forward. Then he turned on his heal and looked back.

The circle at the centre of the room was now seven layers thick, and more people were spooling in. It really didn’t look as though they knew how to stop it. They could break up and go in their different directions of course, but a conga line is serious business and they had to absolutely follow the leader.

Derek thought it was hilarious, and he turned away stifling a giggle. He hoped the leader would try grabbing onto the man ahead of them in the spiral. Derek walked to the couches and dragged the guy onto his shoulders.

The drunks looked up in shock; they hadn’t realized anyone else was there. “Dude.” Said one, “You shouldn’t pick him up, you should put him on his side; it’s better for him.” The man paused, “Unless” he went on, “That’s the old Amish hangover cure, designed to purge the toxins out of him”

Derek was surprised by how coherent the man sounded. He hefted the guy into a more comfortable position on his shoulders, and replied, “of course; my grandma is an old Amish electrician; she taught me everything there is to know about alcohol”

“That’s cool man” said the drunk, “You should always listen to your grandma“

Derek couldn’t dispute this logic. He nodded slowly and walked away.

The swinging man had crashed three more times while Derek had been watching. But he seemed to be getting the swing of it now. He did a couple graceful arcs around Derek, showing no signs of slipping.

Derek was impressed, but he scowled anyway; his plan relied on the man crashing. Derek reached for the first thing that came to hand, which happened to be a set of feather studded underwear, and threw them in the face of his foe as he passed.

The man slammed into the ground with a splatting sound, conveniently right at Derek’s feet.

Derek loved the feeling of a plan coming together. He smiled and rummaged through the bag that the man was carrying to pick out the biggest piece of rubber hose he could find. With that in hand he walked to the end on the room and swept back the blackout curtain.

Everyone in the room shielded their eyes from the light and made exaggerated hissing noises.

Derek didn’t mind. He opened the window and hopped up on the window sill, feeling like a rebellious teenager again.

It did look to be about three floors to the cement.

Undaunted, Derek winked at everyone in the room, tied the rubber hose securely to the window, and leapt away.

The window drew away from him and the wind whistled in Derek’s hair.

All in all, Derek decided, it had been an absolutely smashing party; he hadn’t been to one that good in years. Derek was beginning to think he would enjoy living at the EasyCare dorm.

Derek hit the first floor window with a dull thud.

Derek felt like himself again. ‘Oh yeh’ he thought, as he slid back to ground proper, ‘Diamond nanotubes’

*

When Laurie had last seen her room it had been a weird mix of styles. Laurie was naturally messy, while her roommate was naturally neat, and the battle between order and chaos tended to leave pretty swirly patterns on the floor.

Now the room was totally neat from top to bottom

Laurie didn’t like it. She grimaced at the room as though it had wronged her personally. Laurie had often told her roommate that she wished she could keep a clean house like she could. But this hadn’t been Laurie’s choice, and she didn’t like not being the one in control.

A complex matrix of cards surrounded the door; Laurie’s roommate had been a math major and she liked to show off by building incredibly strong card towers. This one looked like it was meant to be a security system. Laurie didn’t see why getting a new lock on the door wouldn’t work just as well.

The card tower was a complex one and Laurie didn’t like it. She clucked her tongue, and rubbed her face. She was sure that if she just walked into the tower it would collapse onto her and something bad would happen. She didn’t feel like herself and she didn’t feel like she could solve this problem.

Laurie stared long and hard at the cards, and then she slapped herself.

The pain seemed to help, and even as Laurie reached up to rub her cheek ideas were occurring to her. ‘Next time I’m just going to bring the cube with me’ she thought, ‘I bet Casper could solve this in no time flat’

The wall of cards stretched all the way to the ceiling. They looked surprisingly sturdy. They looked like they were tensed for an attack.

Then in a flash Laurie saw the answer.

She felt kind of silly, and she shook her head and smiled at the mistake she had made. ‘I’m spending too much time around Derek,’ she thought.

What Laurie had forgotten was that the whole world wasn’t against her. Her roommate always left a simple way of disabling he traps; just in case Laurie came home late one night and needed to get in. Laurie was prepared to bet that the trick still worked.

Laurie was glad she finally had a reason to try the trick. She smiled to herself as she spread her arms. ‘I’m a beautiful ballerina’ she thought as she started to spin.

One card was knocked cleanly out of its spot, then another card was knocked away, and then a third. Suddenly a beautiful arc of cards fell away in front of Laurie.

Laurie liked the arc; she had always thought that her roommate should have taken an art minor. She stretched her arms out and stepped through into the room.

Something was wrong. Things of Laurie’s tended to end up on the floor, but what most people didn’t realize was that this was simply Laurie’s way of filing; everything she needed was always right at hand.

None of Laurie’s stuff was at hand at the moment; even the shelves were empty.

More than anything else this hammered home Laurie’s impression that this wasn’t really her room anymore. She pulled herself tighter and scratched the back of her hand. ‘What did she do with all my things?’ Laurie thought.

She suddenly started moving again and strode to her bedroom.

Her bed was made; for possibly the first time in its existence, but everything else was gone. Laurie’s room was neat, clean, sterile, and not really her room anymore.

Laurie felt a surge of anger. It spread out through her; starting with her feet and moving up until her eyes flashed. ‘When this is over’ she promised, ‘I’m going to demand a full apology from the people who are accusing me’

A little voice in her head answered. ‘That might be difficult; after all you did do most of the things they’re accusing you of’

Laurie felt totally wrong footed, as though she had been climbing a flight of stairs at night and had put her foot down where she had expected to find a step only to find that there was nothing there. She gapped a bit as she fished around for an answer.

‘But that was all for the government, there’s special rules about that right?’

There was no answer.

Laurie didn’t feel comfortable with being alone in a house that clearly wasn’t hers anymore. She rubbed her arm and thought, ‘Come on, time to leave; it was stupid to come in here; the prisoner is higher priority’. Laurie turned and started walking for the door.

Then her roommate walked in.

*

The chemists’ rooms were decorated to be sparse and functional. The reason for this was simply mechanical; all the furniture had to be made of diamond nanotubes and be bolted to the floor. There was also the face that the decorating had been done by simple mechanicals, and they tend not to think of those things.

Derek was sitting at a table in room seventeen. He was wearing a plaster on his nose and rubbing his mouth.

Derek didn’t like what he was hearing; he winced and looked up at Emma again. “When did you say she followed me?”

Emma had found a diamond nanotube knife and was twirling it in-between her fingers. “Right after you left, man. She said she knew where to go so we left her to it”.

Derek didn’t think it sounded any better the second time. He nodded slowly; resting his head in his hands, and then let his hand slip away so that his head hit the table. “Guess we have to go after her” he said.

“Why?” said Emma, “This is her home turf, she knows what she’s doing”

Derek felt frustrated; it was annoying having to constantly explain himself, and he kind of wished that he was talking to Laurie. “Right, this is her home turf.  Look, when she’s out there she’s surrounded, completely surrounded by people who know her and have a good chance of seeing through her disguise”

Emma was nodding, but her eyes were blank.

“Which would be bad” Derek clarified, “We can’t kill an entire building full of people just because we were careless. So I’ve got to go get her”

Emma looked thoughtful. “What happens if you go up looking for her and she comes down again and you’re not here? I reckon she’d probably just go back up again.”

Derek felt a little wrong footed. He scratched the side of his mouth and said, “She won’t come after me I’m not a high priority target.”

Emma threw the knife into a makeshift target, and said, “Well nah, but you know what Laurie is like; I bet she’ll go after you anyway”

Derek knew in his heart that Emma was right, and it annoyed him to have to think that. He flopped back in the chair and raised his hands up. “All right” he said, “What do you suggest?”

Emma was getting another knife out of the cutlery draw. She shrugged without bothering to turn around, “I dunno,” She said, “Wait for her?”

Derek could feel tiredness seeping through him. He sighed deeply and rested his head on the table, “That won’t work” he said, “that’s what we’re doing now and it still leaves Laurie in a bad position.”

Emma shrugged again and started playing with her second knife; spinning it behind her head and catching it with her other hand. “So you got two bad choices” she said, “Just go and pick one”.

Derek thought about it and realized with shock that a couple days ago he would have gone after Laurie in heartbeat. A couple days ago her had considered her enthusiastic but not very smart. Now though…

Derek rubbed his mouth and said. “Laurie is competent; we have to trust her abilities”

*

Laurie’s roommate walked calmly into the room. She nodded at Laurie and put her shopping down on the table before giving her a good look. “How did you get past the cards?” She asked

Terror blanked Laurie, she fought to keep her face calm, but it was losing battle. ‘Stupid!’ she thought ‘it was stupid and unprofessional to come in here for simple emotion!’

Laurie’s roommate stepped closer. “Who are you?” she asked, “You have such beautiful eyes”

Laurie felt like screaming and diving out the window. She tensed up and screamed inside her head, ‘She knows!’ Laurie tried to invent wildly, “I’m Laurie’s aunt” she said, “I’m here to pick up some of her stuff”

Her roommate raised her eyebrows, “I thought she was raised by her grandma?”

Laurie felt annoyed and cursed inside her head. It was just like her roommate to spot something like that. “Yes” she said, “But her grandmother’s dead now, and that makes me her only living relative” then she decided to go for broke, “Like it said I’m here to pick up her stuff, I did call ahead.”

Her roommate nodded slowly. “I suppose I can believe that you’re Laurie’s aunt” she said, “You look quite a lot like her”

Panic was bubbling in Laurie’s mind and threatening to boil over. She began scratching her leg compulsively. She couldn’t say anything; she just nodded back.

Her roommate took another step closer. “Especially around the eyes” she said, “You have beautiful eyes”

Laurie’s mind was beginning to pulse. She started to frantically search around for a weapon, but there wasn’t one. For a moment Laurie seriously considered using her guns, but then, to her surprise, her roommate turned and walked back to the kitchen bench.

“I’m afraid I don’t have Laurie’s things,” she said, “Yesterday the student council got together and burned an effigy of her with all of her stuff. They would probably still have her more valuable things, if you wanted to go and talk to them”

Laurie felt disappointed; in the situation and in herself. There was only one thing she had left in the room that she actually cared about. She forced a smile and said, “Right, I’d heard about the student council and their effigies. Well I suppose I better be going then” she started walking to the door.

“Sunglasses count as clothing”, said Laurie’s roommate.

Laurie felt baffled; so baffled that she stopped in her tracks. She didn’t get it, was she being mocked?

“I decided to hold onto the sunglasses though” her roommate went on, “I had a feeling that they would be handy if Laurie ever came back.”

Laurie couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. She blinked, raised her hand and turned around.

Her roommate was holding up her sunglasses. “I don’t know what you could do with them” she said, “Given that you are Laurie’s aunt and not Laurie herself the glasses probably wouldn’t work too well for you. But perhaps you should take them anyway. If only for the purpose of looking cool”

*

The door closed behind Laurie with a firm click, and Laurie just stood there.

Laurie was feeling a little confused; she didn’t really understand what had just happened. ‘Well’ she thought, ‘That was a positive; I think’ she slipped her sun glasses on.

The world seemed less harsh all of a sudden; more sensical.

Laurie decided to go with feeling glad about this turn of events. She smiled and hummed a few notes of a song she half remembered. ‘I need to go find Derek’ she decided, ‘And then I can get the prisoner and we can get down to business.’ Laurie started walking.

It was like the dorm had been simplified. Laurie took a few turns and suddenly found herself in front of Geordies place.

Laurie felt a little conflicted; she had been to Geordies place many times before, but this time she felt like an intruder. She clucked her tongue; she was on a roll and she wasn’t going to stop now. She opened the door and walked in.

“Heeeey, sexy mama” said Geordie.

Laurie almost jumped and looked to see who Geordie was talking to; he had never addressed her like that before; it was almost as bad as being called ‘Ma’m’. Laurie kept a smile on her face and said, “I’m looking to find my husband.”

“Oh darrrrrlling” said Geordie, swatting her on the arm. “You came to the right place! A nice girl like you could have dozens of dozens of husbands by the end of the night.”

Laurie had forgotten what an experience talking to Geordie was. She laughed; it wasn’t faked. “Thank you” she said.

“Oh darling, it’s my pleasure. Come on dear; there’s someone I want you to meet” Geordie bustled her across the room and into the waiting arms of a rather androgynous man wearing nothing but a feather studded leather Speedo.

Laurie felt surprised, but she was having fun. She smiled at the man and together they danced.

The room was filled with people. Laurie saw the twins in the corner chatting away with a group of guys who looked too drunk to move. The man in the alligator costume that she had seen earlier was riding laps around the room on what was either a man in an ostrich costume or an actual ostrich; probably the latter. In the centre of the room a conga line slowly rotated in a tightly packed spiral; the people on the inside were yelling instructions to the people on the outside; telling them to conga to the right. As the man swung her  around the dance floor the two of them had to duck to avoid a man who swung above them on a piece of rubber hosing; before letting go, doing a graceful back flip, and grabbing another piece of hose to start again. There was no sign of Derek or the man though.

She looked up at the man she was dancing with. “I’m looking for a man” she said.

The man pressed her closer. “I’m happy to help” he said; he had a surprisingly deep and sensual voice.

Laurie was flattered, but she fought to keep her mind clear. She put on her ‘earnest face’ and said, “No, I mean I’m looking for a specific man, he’s…” Laurie paused; trying to remember Derek’s disguise, “He’s a little taller than you, he has brown skin and he scowls all the time”

The man laughed. His laugh boomed and made the lights shake in their sockets. “Oh him, everyone’s looking for him.’ He threw a wink at Laurie and went on ‘You’re not the only lady who would like to get him alone”

Laurie was surprised. Her mouth dropped open and she said to the man, “Why?”

The man told her.

“He jumped out the window on a bungee swing to get his drunken friend home safely?” Laurie repeated; half suspecting she had misheard somewhere along the line. She gave it a moment’s thought and added extra lines to her description.

“Still him” said the man, “Last time anyone saw him he was walking into reception. A bunch of us went to meet him on the stairs, but he had already vanished” the man sighed, “I wouldn’t mind getting him alone actually.”

Laurie only half heard; she was translating the man’s story and working out what it meant to her. Derek was back in room seventeen, she decided, and he had the prisoner with him. Laurie was having fun, but it was time to leave.

Laurie took control of the dance, spun the man around and caught him as he fell. She kissed the man and said, “Thanks for the dance.”Then she walked away.

She hadn’t gotten very far before someone called out, “Laurie, is that you?”

*

Back in room seventeen Derek was cooking lunch alone. Christine had gone to bed on an old futon she had brought with her; claiming it was a more natural way to sleep. Emma had said some unkind things about Christine’s sleeping arrangement and had gone to sleep in one of the many bedrooms; Beatrice was sleeping with her. Casper was sulking in the corner; he hadn’t been happy to find that there was nothing in the room he could disassemble and make into tools. Finally there was Jade; who was sitting at the table; playing with a knife and sulking about there being nothing in the room she could break apart and turn into a weapon.

Derek didn’t like her playing with that knife; he thought team three was having all together too much influence on her. He sighed and scraped the last of his charcoal and grease from the flying pan and onto his plate. He started walking towards the table, but then stopped and took a good look at what he was intending on eating.

His meal squatted on his plate. If it had eyes then it would have been regarding him balefully.

Derek felt a little sickened and decided that he wasn’t that hungry yet. He wrinkled his nose and started scraping the sludge into the trash bit. Then he just lost interest and threw the entire meal in; plate and all. He walked over other dining room table anyway; he wanted to have another go at connecting with his daughter.

Jade barely glanced up as he sat down. She was balancing the knife on the tip of her finger and watching it as though daring it to fall.

Derek still didn’t like the knife, but decided to press on anyway. He searched until he found a happy memory, and let the smile spread across his face. “Jade, Honey.” He said.

Jade glanced up at him and then looked back down again. She really did look dour.

Derek didn’t like seeing his daughter this way. He sighed and took out the gun that Laurie had given him. “Here” he said.

Jade suddenly beamed. She slapped the gun down on the table and started to reduce it to lots of little pieces with incredible skill and the knife; the knife’s importance could not be overstated. Then she stopped halfway through a looked shyly up at Derek; keeping her head tilted as far forward as she could manage. “Thank you daddy” she murmured.

Derek’s heart swelled to see his daughter smile. He smiled an easy smile. “Jade there’s something… I’m glad you…” but there it was again; the words just didn’t come.

Jade didn’t seem to have noticed too much; even while she had been looking at Derek her hands had crept over and continued working and now she snapped back around and continued making a gun look like a jigsaw puzzle.

Derek still wanted to convey the way he felt about his daughter. He braced himself as though he were about to storm a castle and opened his mouth. It was no good; the words weren’t there.

If you didn’t count Casper, and, as Casper had zero interest in anything not demon related, Derek didn’t, Derek and Jade were totally alone. There probably would never be a better opportunity for a heart to heart.

Derek opened his mouth, and was cut off by a knock on the door.

Derek felt enormously frustrated; who dared to interrupt? He gritted his teeth, marched to the door, and wrenched it open. “You are interu-” he began.

*

Laurie recognized the voice that was calling to her; it belonged to a man named Zendo Cal. Zendo was one of the long stayers at the university; every year he failed, and every year he re-enrolled. The general feeling around campus was that if you cloned Cal ten times over and combined all the clones into one super being then you would almost have a half wit.

What people often didn’t realize until far too late was that Cal was very clever in some very specialized ways.

“I knew it was you” said Cal as he ran up, “Since you’re still wearing your sun glasses.”

Laurie fought against the stream of curses that she wanted to shout. She forced a smile and looked around; trying not to look at Cal’s face. ‘Buggerbuggerbuggerbugger’ she thought

People tended to only half hear Cal, but those standing closest to him were looking around to see what had got him so excited, and they were noticing the similarities as well; same height, same stance, and then there were those sun glasses.

Laurie felt like an animal trapped in a corner. She took a step back and flashed her smile at everyone, “I’m Laurie’s aunt” she explained.

Everyone looked away; her explanation made sense; she looked like Laurie but was clearly older, it made sense that she was her aunt.

“Wha? No you’re not” said Cal, looking hurt, “Why would you have the exact same eye condition as Laurie if you were only her aunt?” he raised his voice. “Hey twins, is this Laurie”

The twins looked up from their couches. “Yep” they said brightly, “That’s her.”

Laurie was shocked by this betrayal, and then she was shocked by her own idiocy in assuming that the twins would know what she was doing.

More people were taking notice now; the twins weren’t regarded as being much smarter than Cal, but they were regarded as being far more attractive, and people tended to listen when they talked.

The crowd was moving now; whispering amongst itself and drawing away from her. Even the entrapped Conga line was eying her suspiciously and managing to edge back.

Laurie felt like she had had a rug pulled out from under her. She felt tears well up in her eyes, and though she tried her best to hold them back they fell anyway. Laurie had never felt what it was like to be hated before.

It was too late to protest; the whispering had ended and the mob had reached its verdict. Someone darted forward and pull Cal back. The man in the feathered Speedo was pulling back to the back of the room. Someone switched the music off and Geordie was standing on a table and trying to find the source of the unnatural hush that had fallen over his party.

Laurie hated the silence and the staring. She made one last valiant attempt at smiling, but her smile was broken, and any effect was ruined by the tears that were running down her cheeks.

The partygoers had become a solid mass. They kept as far back as they could and front line regarded her with hate in their eyes.

Laurie felt so bad it was like she was sick. It wasn’t just that she might have just compromised the mission; what really hurt was that when she looked around she saw people she had known most of her life, and she saw in their eyes that she was nothing more than a common criminal to them now.

Geordie was still standing on the table, and that meant he stood above the crowd. He locked eyes with her and said, “I think you should go now”

Laurie felt ill. She hung her head and slowly walked to the door; feeling all their eyes burning into her back.

At the door she stopped and looked back.

No one had moved; they were all just staring at her; making sure she really left them alone.

Laurie turned back to the door, and as she turned a single tear dropped off the side of her face and landed on the carpet.

Then she was outside. She let the door swing slowly shut, and it gently swung into place, until the last moment when it slammed as though someone had hit it from the other side.

Then she was in the corridor, and she was all alone.

Laurie’s pain turned to anger; then to rage. She gritted her teeth and opened her eyes, it been for the government! She had done it all for them! The empty space on her finger where her grandmother’s ring should have been seemed to burn her. She had helped them, now they owed her; ‘When this is over’ Laurie decided, ‘I’m going to make them set everything right again!’

She marched down the corridor and leapt through the hole to the biologist’s floor. Some sort of man eating plant attacked her, but she didn’t even notice as she slammed it’s bulb into the wall.

She marched down the staircase; with such forcefulness that even Serv looked up. The door to the chemists’ area was as strong as ever, but Laurie bashed it aside. She was so angry now that her blood pulsed in her ears and her rage powered her movements.

She reached room seventeen and pounded on the door. After a moment Derek opened the door and said in a testy voice, “You are interu-”

“Get the prisoner out here” ordered Laurie; her rage overpowering his, “I’m going to clear my name.”

*

In practice it took some time to get an area set up for interrogation. While the chemists’ room was nicely bleak and barren, it had the problem that the chairs were totally unsuitable for the task. The chairs had been made of diamond nanotubes and with no thought to design, so it was uncomfortable enough for the task, but out of necessity all the furniture in the chemists’ rooms was bolted to the floor.

In the end Derek solved the problem by dragging two chairs and a desk from the reception area; while Laurie paced circles around the room. This took some time; not so much because it was difficult work, but because Derek was hoping Laurie would calm down before they started the interrogation. He had rarely seen her this angry before, and he couldn’t help but remember the time on the rooftop when she had sounded like she was doing now, right before she’d attacked Emma.

Eventually everything was set up. There was a weird room in room seventeen that had nothing but a single chair facing the door. Derek set up the desk to the right of the chair and wheeled the office chair behind it. Then he set up his own chair facing the prisoner’s one. After some thought Derek even overcame his objection to ghosts and got Casper to make sure that the chair alternated between being too hot and too cold; once he had got over the unpleasant feeling he got whenever he talked to ghosts, Derek was quite proud of himself for thinking of this touch.

Things got underway.

Derek looked in at his setup with a certain amount of pride. He patted the door frame and turned back to Laurie, “Were ready” he said, “Bring him in”

“Right!” said Laurie and she stomped towards the prisoner with clenched fists.

Derek had a shock of precognition. He jumped forward with his hands waving back and forth. “No no, I’ll get him” he said, and he quickly darted around Laurie before she had a chance to argue.

The prisoner was locked in a cupboard at the edge of the room.

Derek heaved him out and put him over his shoulder, feeling glad that they would soon be rid of him.

He suddenly had a twinge of worry; what he used to think of as the sensible voice was advising him to drop the prisoner and start running. Derek stopped, but then he shrugged the prisoner to a more comfortable position and kept walking; he was still alive, so the mission was going a lot better than the voice had said it would.

Laurie was already sitting in her chair when Derek had walked in, and alarmingly Emma was there as well. Emma wasted no time in getting to the point. “I want in on this” she said

Derek was afraid of that. He twisted his mouth and started tying the prisoner to the chair; wondering about the best way to phrase his next sentence. “Emma” he said, “You’re not good at anything other than killing and torture, we need this man alive, and able to give us useful information.” Derek paused and decided to go for broke, “There is no way that this investigation wouldn’t suffer if you were involved”

Emma stood up with her eyes flashing, and she advanced on Derek.

Derek was afraid that he had gone too far. He jumped back, put his hand to his hip and a said in a warning voice, “Emma!”

Emma stopped. “I’ll be an observer” she said

Derek wasn’t really happy even with Emma just being an observer, but he didn’t think he could make her compromise any further. He glanced to the side and nodded.

Emma stood back against the wall, and leaned on it with her arms crossed. Laurie was still just sitting her chair; she looked eager for the interrogation to start.

Derek had never before appreciated how disturbing these two women could be. He glanced from left to right as he finished tying the man down, and then he sat down himself. “Casper” he called, “Wake him up”

A beam of orange light shone through the door and stuck the prisoner in the chest, after a few seconds the prisoners eyes started fluttering.

Derek could feel himself hardening; getting ready for action. “That’ll do” he said.

Casper seemed to hear him, and suddenly the beam was gone. The man’s eyes flicked all the way open.

Derek felt cold; he was thinking of the best way to start. He smiled, but even to him it didn’t feel warm. “Good morning” he said.

The man’s eyes hardened as well. They flicked to the right and saw Laurie staring at him over a desk. Then they turned back to Derek; filled with hate.

Derek was interested. He held eye contact with the man and thought about what this meant. It meant that the man was experienced enough to keep quiet under interrogation, but not experienced enough to just switch off and leave his body behind; that meant he might still break, if Derek could get him talking. “So I had a chat with your pal Mckingle a few days ago” he said.

The prisoner said nothing.

Derek smiled inwardly; he had seen the man’s eyes widen; just for a moment. Derek nodded and went on. “A very rude man, I thought; spent a lot of time swearing at me.”

The man kept looking at Derek.

Derek saw the brief look of confusion as it flitted across the man’s face, and he was filled with wicked glee. ‘Got him’ he thought. “He designed that remarkable cube in your arm right?”

The man continued to stare, but this time there was an obvious flash of fear.

Derek mentally added the fact that Dr. Arron Mckingle designed the cubes to the short list of information they had. He gave the man a smile and went on. “He had quite a lot to say them obviously; a man proud of his work. Of course most of it went over my head; I find this kind of technology quite baffling, don’t you?”

The man looked up and said, “Fuck y-”

“Now really, there’s no need for that; there are ladies present” said Derek. He was congratulating himself on the fact that he was making good time; now that he had him talking it was just a matter of getting him to say something useful. “As I was saying, we have enough experts lying around to make up for my failings. You can stop trying to use the cube now; we’ve neutralized it.”

The mouth tightened. “I’m not telling you anything you fucking pigdog” he said.

Derek was happy; the man was using complete sentences now; it was going to be a productive day.

Soft and dangerous; Emma’s voice drifted from the corner of the room, “What did you want with the timetablers?”

Derek was annoyed, he blinked and scowled. One of the defining traits of an observer was that they observed and didn’t put their two cents in.

The man stiffened slightly at the unexpected noise, but then he relaxed again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about” he said.

Emma emerged from the shadows. “The people who worked at Gamble Developments” she said. “Why don’t you tell me why they had die?”

The man looked up at Emma and sneered. “Fuck you” he said

Derek felt exasperated; they had been doing so well and now they were taking steps backwards. He decided it was time to step in and opened his mouth.

“TELL HER EVERYTHING, YOU BASTARD!” screamed Laurie; slamming her hand on the table.

The man slammed his hand down; mocking her. “FUCK YOU!” he screamed back.

Emma’s hand blurred.

The man tried to jerk his hand back, but now there was a knife through it.

“Aughhhhhh” screamed the man.

“Aughhhhh” screamed Derek.

“Yaaaaaaaa” screamed Laurie as she launched herself at the man and started beating him around his head.

Derek was horrified. He leapt forward and pulled Laurie off the man; getting several elbows to the head in the process.

Emma jumped in and started punching the man instead. She punched a lot harder than Laurie and Derek swore he could see the man’s teeth rattling.

“Beatrice!” he yelled, “Beatrice, get in here!”

*

It was later; they were sitting around a table. Derek had sent Christine out with Jade to get supplies, Beatrice was taking Emma on a walk, and Casper was still in his corner; occasional fiddling with Laurie’s cube, but mostly just sulking about the lack of equipment. That just left Laurie and Derek.

Laurie felt ashamed. She hadn’t felt ashamed before; putting the fist to someone who seemed to have a direct hand in her troubles had been one of the most satisfying feelings of her life, but she felt ashamed now; she hadn’t behaved very professionally.

Derek was talking; he looked more tired than she could remember him looking before. “I want to know” he said, “exactly what happened in there.”

Laurie didn’t really know what had happened; attacking then had just seemed like the right thing to do. It had felt like her rage had just picked her up and borne her across the room. She stared at the ground and said, “I don’t know”.

Derek sighed and straightened his back. He watched a corner of the room; he didn’t look any more comfortable with the situation than she did. “I didn’t expect this from you” he said.

Laurie felt confused by that statement. She looked up and said, “You always think the worse of everyone”

“Yes”, said Derek, “Because they always deliver. I didn’t want Emma in on that interrogation because I knew she was a loose cannon, you, I thought I could rely on”

Laurie hung her head again; it was just too painful.

Derek sighed. “I don’t want you anywhere near that prisoner again” he said, “I have a new mission I want you to take and I want you to take Emma with you”

Laurie was shocked, she looked up and stared at him; breaking up partners was not something that was done lightly. “Why?” she asked.

Derek met her gaze steadily. “Both you and Emma have proven that you can’t handle interrogating this particular prisoner.” He said, “Given the shear violence of your reactions I would feel a lot more comfortable if you two weren’t even if the same building as him.”

Laurie felt that might be a bit extreme, then she imagined what she must have looked like from the outside and she hung her head again

“This mission should be fairly low risk,” Derek went on, “it will take you two away for several days; giving Beatrice and myself time to finish interrogating the prisoner and giving you time to find out why the timetablers were so important to Emma”

Laurie looked up again, feeling left out of something. She fought the urge to ask ‘Sir?’ and instead satisfied herself with just asking “What?” and wondering why she hadn’t been consulted when Derek had taken over Chief’s job.

Derek had a faraway look in his eyes. “When Emma picked something to be angry about” he said, “She didn’t pick Chief, or Tony, or even Lenard. Instead she picked a group of people who, as far as I know, she had never met. I want to know why.”

Now that Laurie thought about it, it seemed strange to her as well; if Emma had been that close to the timetablers, then why had no one in the office noticed? Laurie thought about the mission; the double nature appealed to her. “Okay,” she said, “I’ll do it”

Derek nodded, “Great” he said, “Now I just need to convince Beatrice, so she can convince Emma”

Laurie realized she had forgotten something very important. “Hold on” she said, “You never told me what the mission was.”

Derek smiled. “Ah” he said, “I got my hands on a paper as I was getting back in here. I found something that we overlooked back at team three’s apartment.”

Derek showed Laurie the paper. The front page depicted a military convoy in front of something she vaguely recognized as Symphony.

*

The sun was setting by the time that Laurie and Emma drove away in team three’s old 2CV, and all around them the dorm was coming to life.

Derek watched them go from one of room seventeen’s windows, and took a moment to soak up the dissonant power cords that were filling the air. Derek breathed in and smiled; everything was in place and it was time to go to work.

The room was virtually deserted; Beatrice had wandered off to do, whatever it was that she did with her free time, and Derek had used some old theatre tickets to get his wife and child out of his hair for the night. That only left Casper.

Derek really didn’t like talking to ghosts; there was something about the whole experience that made him rather uncomfortable. Nevertheless, he took a deep breath, turned to face the ghost sulking in the corner and said, “Casper?”

Derek saw the ghost in the corner turn and a heavy buzzing feeling settled on his head.

Derek resented the buzzing feeling; ghosts were better when they were ignoring you. He shuddered and went on. “I’m going to find some equipment so you can get to work on the cubes”.

The buzzing changed; it was scraping on the front of his brain, rather than punching at the back. Casper liked the idea of working on the cubes.

Derek was starting to feel the same sick feeling he got when he was close to a demon. He forced a smile onto his face, and then dropped it again; Casper couldn’t see and assuredly didn’t care if Derek was enjoying himself. “I need you to come with me” said Derek, “So you can show me what you need.”

Casper lost coherency, and then regained it; it was the ghost equivalent of nodding.

Derek was glad that was over. He had insisted to Laurie that Casper had to stay at the dorm; his interview with the man they had locked in the cupboard had led him to think it might be a good idea to know how the cubes worked. He turned away for Casper, breathed out, and started walking.

Casper shot past him and went straight through the ceiling.

Derek was somewhat surprised. He jumped a good foot in the air and thought, ‘Shit!’ with all his might, and then he started running.

The corridor was completely deserted; even more so than was normal for the chemist’s area of the building.

Derek felt like an idiot. He stopped running and ground his shoe into the ground. He had thought he had been doing so well; he had got the teams running again and given them actual missions, and then he had been made to look stupid because of some ghost. Derek flapped his hand at empty air as he turned back into the room; he wasn’t going to chase all around the city after a ghost who couldn’t play the game.

There was a huge bout of pressure. It felt like a gross of hippos were squatting on his head. An image snapped into focus; it depicted a huge bank of flashing lights… and probably some other things to but Derek could only report what he had seen.

The image shifted and shifted fast. It drew back sharply until it showed a closed door. Then it dashed through several corridors, flights of stairs, holes, and vines; going downwards all the time until suddenly Derek was looking at himself.

The image vanished.

Derek was angry. He gritted his teeth and shook his fist at the ceiling. “I didn’t give you permission!” he yelled, “I didn’t say you could just mess with my head like that!”

Then Derek thought about how Casper had done that, and he started to get worried. Ghosts didn’t have the same range of emotions that a human had; the idea of a ghost with access to something as clearly powerful as one of the cubes was worrying to Derek.

Something else landed in Derek’s head; more subtle this time. It was a little feeling that he should walk to the reception area.

Derek didn’t like Casper messing with him, and he gave serious thought as to whether he should just walk back into the room, wait for Beatrice to come back, and just go right ahead with his other mission.

But in the end Derek wanted to live, and part of that was having good information, and part of that was getting Casper to tell him how his enemies best weapons worked. Derek took a deep breath and started walking.

He walked up the staircase at reception, climbed the vine at the biologists’ floor, dodged some female partygoers on the third floor, and many other things that would take too long to narrate.

As he moved higher in the building he began to wonder just what he was going to do when he reached the top. Casper might have found useful equipment, but there was still the closed door which definitely gave the impression that the equipment already had an owner. Derek didn’t have much money, and the company credit he could extend was worse than useless because it belonged to a wanted criminal.

Derek considered the possible ways that this shopping trip could turn out, and decided he didn’t like any of them. He grimaced and tried to remember anything he had ever learnt about making a beating hurt less.

At last he exited the quantum mechanics’ floor by way of something he didn’t really have any words to describe, and emerged blinking, and twitching, and convulsing on a floor he recognized.

The door from his vision was within touching distance.

Derek realized he had no idea where he was, and that made him feel a little exposed. He tugged at his hair and looked around.

The corridor was easily the strangest one in the entire building; it was clean, for one thing, and not the spotless, sterile clean of the premed floor; it was just pleasantly clean. The carpet under Derek’s feet was a bright new blue, and as he looked down the corridor he saw only professional neatness; broken up by the occasional pot plant or tasteful piece of wall art.

Derek felt his bile rising in his throat, and he started sweating; after fifty odd floors of variations on the theme of lunacy, this professional setting disturbed him more than anything else. Derek swallowed. ‘I didn’t come all this way just to quit’ he thought. Of course he had no idea what he was actually there to do, but he chose to ignore that fact for the time being. He walked to the door and put his hand against it.

The door was smooth and warm, and there was a disproportional amount of noise on the other side. Whatever that thing in there was, it definitely wasn’t alone.

Derek had just climbed most of a building and he could feel the sweat sticking under his clothes; it made him feel really out of place. Something about this floor was tripping every survival instinct that Derek had, and he wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else. He reached for the door handle.

There was a loud explosion on the other side of the door, followed by uproarious laugher.

Derek didn’t like it; he took his hand away. Whose floor was this anyway? Just who exactly liked to combine neatly trimmed pot plants and loud explosions?

The door offered no clues.

Derek pictured himself in his mind’s eye and didn’t like what he saw. He scowled, put his hand on the door knob, and tightened his grip. ‘Stop being an indecisive pansy’ he growled inside his own head, ‘Stop hovering at the door; either go in or go home’.

Derek swallowed and opened the door.

He got hit by something colourful, flying, and huge.

Then everything faded out.

*

The lights of the city had faded behind them before Laurie thought it was a good idea to broach a question about the timetablers.

Laurie realized with a little surprise that she still knew nothing about the organization itself. She smiled and decided to start with that; hopefully it would get Emma talking. “I couldn’t help wondering” she said, “Why is there a secret government agency to keep the trains running on them?”

Emma was slouched back in her seat with her eyes closed. “Someone’s got to do it” she said,

Laurie was glad the Emma was talking; she was half expecting to be given the silent treatment. She looked back at the road and said, “Right, but it’s overkill isn’t it? Dedicating an entire organization to making the trains run on time.”

Emma made a noncommittal grunting noise.

Something not to dissimilar to the thrill of the hunt was filling Laurie; Emma was presenting her with a logic puzzle; since she clearly wasn’t willing to talk about the timetablers, Laurie would have to apply creativity to find another angle, and she would have to do so against a strict time limit. Laurie injected concern into her voice and asked, “How are you doing without Beatrice? You two seem close”

Emma snorted, but this time there was far more emotion in it.

Laurie knew she had hit a nerve and as was glad. She looked at Emma; making sure she still looked suitably concerned and said, “I mean it isn’t that much fun for me to be separated from my partner, and Derek and I aren’t even that close”

“Fucking Derek” said Emma, “What’s up with him? Why’s he chief now? I don’t remember voting for him”

Laurie was thankful that she had finally found something that could get Emma talking; through she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear such venom against her partner. She compromised by nodding and saying, “He did take command fairly quickly after the interrogation”

“Yeah, damn right, he did” Emma settled back in her seat.

Laurie couldn’t stop herself from completing the thought; the uncompleted logic burned behind her eyes and made her squirm. She gave a small sigh and went on, “But I took the lead for a short while back at your apartment remember; it just seemed natural, and it wasn’t permanent”

Emma snorted and looked away. “Whatever” she said

Laurie felt like she had screwed up somehow. She drew little patterns on the steering wheel with her thumbs and a thought, ‘Oh dear, I’ve lost her’. Laurie didn’t really know what to say, so she said nothing.

The silence stretched between them like the unbroken desert outside.

Finally Laurie was sick of the uncomfortable silence. She looked at Emma and asked, “What do you think of the mission?”

Emma was lying back with her hands behind her head and her eyes closed, but she was clearly still awake. “It’s fine” she said.

Laurie was annoyed with Emma and her unhelpful answers, and decided she wouldn’t let her get away with this one. She narrowed her eyes just a little bit and said, “What, just fine?”

Emma opened one eye and fixed it on Laurie. “You want me to write a poem about it kid? We go and find soldiers with guns, and then we work out where they’re from, it’s boring; I’ll rather have wine, but in the end it’s just fine, it might be better if we had a bomb.”

Laurie couldn’t help feeling condescended to, and that annoyed her. She turned back to the road and tightened her grip on the steering wheel. “You better be glad we don’t have a bomb” she said, “Without Casper to manage the cubes or Beatrice to back us up, we couldn’t handle any solders who might want to pick a fight with us.”

Emma was still watching her, “You said your piece?” she asked.

Laurie felt like she was on a roll though; she wasn’t going to stop now and she had just remembered her reason for starting the conversation in the first place. She fixed Emma with her glare and said. “No I haven’t ‘said my piece’” she said, “I want to know why you cared so much about the timetablers that you would think of them before your own dead team mates”

Emma kept her face blank, but she rolled in her seat so that she was facing Laurie more directly and her eyes narrowed. “Fuck you” she said softly, “That’s a part of my past; I don’t go and ask you about your grandmother”

Laurie wasn’t having any of that; she was saying some important things and she wanted to keep saying them. She flashed her eyes and said, “You want to know about my grandmother? Fine. My parents were explorers, anthropologists, and big game hunters. One day, when I was five, they were in the Amazon and a coalition of tigers managed to hunt them down; it’s one of the risks of being an anthropologist. I was already living with my grandma whenever they went away on one of their trips so my grandma just adopted me officially. She raised me until she died, two years ago. There, that’s my story, now what’s yours?”

“Fuck you” said Emma; turning back in her seat and closing her eyes.

“You can’t-”

“Fuck. You”

They drove on in silence

*

When the world faded back in, it was considerably worse than unconsciousness.

There were two blobs of colour above him; a white one and a blue one.

Derek blinked.

There were two people above him; one had blond hair and looked was wearing white, while the other looked like megaman.

Derek blinked.

There were a man and a woman above him. The woman had long blond hair and was wearing a sequined gown; the man was wearing an odd costume involving half a motor cycle helmet and a cape.

Derek blinked.

There were a man and a woman looking down on him with concerned looks on their faces, or at least the woman looked concerned; the man looked a little guilty. The woman was attractive, but she seemed to be covered by a network of fine scars. The man was bearded, and his costume announced him with red stars and the name of ‘The amazing human cannonball’.

“He’s waking up” said the woman, “Bert, he’s waking up.”

She leaned down and raised Derek to a sitting position, Bert settled on the other side of Derek. “How many fingers am I holding up?” he asked

Derek’s head was spinning; he looked at the hand and groggily replied, “I don’t know; why are you wearing a baseball mitt?”

Bert looked down at his hand, “Oh” he said, “Oh, that was part of the stunt and I guess I forgot to take it off. Sorry” He took the glove off, “Now how many fingers am I holding up?”

But Derek wasn’t listening; it was beginning to dawn on him why his instincts had been sending him warnings. He looked around.

Behind the two people helping him there was a man on fire. The man was running around in circles and screaming, but no one was helping him. Most of the people who weren’t doing anything were watching a man who was making threatening gestures at a mirror. As Derek watched the man punched the mirror and shattered it, then fell to the floor weeping over the blood pouring out of his fist. Casper was there too; he was sitting on top of the bank of lights he had seen in his vision, but suddenly that didn’t seem as important.

Suddenly Derek was terrified. He drew his limbs in as though he were trying to curl up into a ball. Then he kicked out, and sprang to his feet. “Ah” he said, feeling the wall at his back, “I see it now; this is the stuntman’s floor.”

The two people got to their feet; they looked worried. “That’s right” said the woman, “Calm down; no one’s going to hurt you”

A man hurtled past; pursued by train. Bert and the woman stepped nimbly out of the well; without bothering to look. Neither of showed any signs that this was odd.

“It’s perfectly safe here” the woman went on; in the kinds of tones that one might use to calm a baby who is worried about going swimming for their first time.

Derek couldn’t feel the door at his back, and that made him feel a little sick; since he would very much like to leave this madhouse now. Derek pressed his back against the wall; as though expecting it to give way, but then he stopped; he still had a job to do. Derek took a deep breath and a step forward. “Thank you”, he said, “For reviving me.”

The two of them smiled at this; they seemed to think it was a positive sign. “You’re welcome” said the woman, “It seemed like the right thing to do since we’re the ones who,” here she paused and looked away, “you know- hit you”

Derek filed this piece of information away and suppressed the emotion it caused. He smiled and said, “I appreciate it. Where exactly am I?”

The woman smiled. Now that she didn’t think Derek was in any danger she seemed to be lapsing into a tour guide mode. “You’re in the study room” she said, indicating towards a man who seemed to be strangling the man next to him with his own intestines. “I’m Andrea” she went on, offering her hand, “and this is Bert”

Derek would rather he moved quietly through his mission, and the idea of knowing these people well disturbed him, but there wasn’t going to be a nice easy mission here. Derek smiled and took her hand; which had a hard line of muscle under the skin, “Daniel” he said.

Bert offered his hand and Derek shook it as well. Bert; for all his flamboyant costume seemed to be the quieter of the pair, and Derek was just wondering whether he could use that somehow when Andrea said something that cut across his thought.

“So why are you here Daniel?”

Derek mentally jumped; was he being kicked out already? “What?” he said

Andrea put her hand out and explained. “Well,” she said, “You were clearly planning on doing something before Bert did an across-room headbutt on you, is it anything we could help with?”

Derek relaxed a little bit; of course that’s what they meant. “Ah, maybe you can” he said, desperately trying to find something to say that didn’t sound like ‘I followed a ghost up here to steal the glowey thing you have in the corner’, “I was sent by the computing floor” he decided, “They were getting some weird readings from this room and they wanted me to find out what it was, could you tell me what that thing in the corner is?” Derek was quite proud of this story.

“Well that’s a Tal-234k”, she looked at him strangely, “I would have thought you would have recognized it, being from the computer floor”

Derek mentally kicked himself. “I’m not from the computing floor” he said, trying to think his way out, “My little sister lives there; I was just visiting and I kind of got roped in” he rubbed the back of his neck and tried to look embarrassed; it wasn’t very hard.

“But why would they send someone inexperienced to investigate something that none of them had seen before?”  Andrea asked.

Derek cursed mentally. In spite of his original impression it was becoming clear that Andrea was an uncomfortably sharp woman. The words ‘I taught my little sister everything she knows’ were on the tip of his tongue before he bit them back; he knew from experience that setting up that kind of expectation would only lead to trouble later on. “I wondered that too” he said, stalling for time, “but everyone up there was stuck in some kind of huge project, none of them could tell me what it was; you know what they’re like over there.” Even to him it sounded weak.

To his shock Andrea smiled. “Yes,” she said, “I know what they’re like.” She turned and gestured over her shoulder, “If you want to know more about the Tal” she said, “Then follow me.”

Derek felt a little disorientated by this turn of events. He put his hand to his head and engaged in some rapid thought, but Andrea’s If-Then statement had been perfectly clear, and Derek needed to know why the computer was important to Casper. He followed Andrea.

Bert fell into step beside him; looking uncomfortable.

Derek thought there was something odd about Bert; something about him just made him feel nervous. He raised his hand in a half wave, “What’s up, Bert?” he asked

“What? No, fine.” Blurted Bert; looking like the anthropomorphic personification of suspicious behaviour.

Derek was surprised by the force of Bert’s response. He wondered just what it was that Bert had to hide. He opened his mouth to form a question.

“You’d better get us some coffee Bert” said Andrea, “You know how Crush can run on when someone gets him talking about his little toy.”

Bert disappeared; looking very relived.

Derek felt worried; there was something very important going on under the surface and he had no idea what it was. He bit his lip and caught back up with Andrea. “What’s up with him?” he asked.

“Oh don’t worry about him” said Andrea. She didn’t sound airy; she sounded totally convincing. “Being fired from a cannon always puts his nerves on edge. It’s sad but the only thing you can do when he gets sweaty like that is send him off to do something.”

Derek felt confused and conflicted; Andrea had sounded convincing enough, but Derek’s internal bullshit meter was running red and whistling. Derek nodded and fell back a step; looking around and noting all the quick exits.

They had been walking closer to the big flashing monolith, and now they stopped directly underneath.  “Hey Crush” Andrea called, “we have a man here who wants to know how the Tal works”

“Frankly my dear” said the man who stepped out, “I doubt that”

The man was a large rotund gentleman wearing a tweed jacket and a huge bushy moustache. He was smoking a pipe and looked annoyed.

Derek was floored. The name ‘Crush’ seemed to fit on this man about as well as a bikini would. He picked his jaw up and said, “You’re Crush?”

The man looked even more annoyed and a puff of smoke rose out of his pipe. “No, my boy I am not” he said, “I am Professor Julian Stephan Fawkes the third, however these quivering cock joints find it amusing to mispronounce my Lordly Name and instead have saddled me with that horrific title”

Derek’s head was spinning; the world didn’t make sense. He opened his mouth and tried to find words, but eventually he settled for nodding.

“Close your mouth, you audacious cunt” said Professor Crush, “Close it or I shall fly at you like a sack of cocks”

Derek closed it.

“Right” said the Professor, “Now kindly explain why you have intruded on my time, or remove yourself.”

Derek had a flash of fear; he knew he would only get one chance to explain himself and he had no time to think. “The computer” He blurted out, “I wanted to know about the computer”

The Professor snorted, but it didn’t sound like he was laughing. “A computer? You puss dripping cock latch; the Tal-234k is not a mere computer. Be gone with you, or lose your middle testicle to my rapier.” With that he turned on his heel and walked back the way he had come.

Derek was horrified; he was losing his expert. He stepped forward; waving his hands around. “Wait wait wait wait.” He said, “The comput- The Tal, it’s causing a disruption on the computing floor”

The Professor stopped mid-pace. “What was that you said?” he asked; without bothering to turn around.

Derek was relived; he had at least gotten the Professor to stop walking. He took another step forward and went on, “The computing floor; their computers are being interfered with by an anomalous signal from this room; it’s got to be the Tal” he stopped; hopeful that this would be enough.

The Professor took a long time to answer; several clouds of smoke billowed towards the ceiling. Finally he turned around. “A likely story, you syphilitic rectum enthusiast” he said, “I happen to know that the Tal is totally shielded; it emits no signals.”

Derek knew what his next move had to be; it made him worried that it was such a long shot, but practically everything he had done so far was a long shot. He stood up straight, and looked the Professor in the eye, and said, “That may be so Professor, but I don’t know that. I don’t know anything about the Tal, and that means I can’t report back on it.”

The Professor stared at Derek for a long moment. Then he said, “Fine, you knob chewing cock bite, if you really believe you’re so smart then I shall show you just how little you know.”

Derek was incredibly relived. He bowed his head and said, “Thank you Professor”. He couldn’t believe he had actually won; in a few minutes he would know exactly what Casper thought was so important about the Tal.

Derek was so relieved that he didn’t notice the Professor jumping to one side with a nimbleness that would have done credit to a much younger and thinner man.

Something heavy hit Derek with a sound like a train whistle. He was smashed through a large window at high speed.

About fifty floors below him, the ground started to accelerate upwards.

*

It was very late; the desert shone in the moonlight. Emma was leaning against the hood of the car while Laurie filled up, she wasn’t smoking a cigarette, but Laurie didn’t think it would be too far out of character for her.

Emma hadn’t spoken since her small fight with Laurie at the start of the drive, and it was starting to wear on Laurie’s nerves. Laurie sighed and said, “I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier; I’m just a little stressed about the mission and what it is costing us.”

Emma didn’t reply; she didn’t give any outward sign that she had heard.

Laurie was getting tired of the silent treatment. She beat down her irritation and kept talking, “We’ll be in Symphony by morning” she said, “I really think we should discuss what we are going to do when we get there.”

“Sleep” said Emma

Laurie was glad Emma was talking again; she wondered whether she could extend that into Emma talking about the timetablers, but she decided not to push her luck, for now. She hung the fuel nozzle back up. “We should probably do that before we get there” Laurie thought out aloud, “I bet we would be a lot safer if we were sleeping without all these military guys around. I was thinking of what our first move should be when we get the mission going”

Emma shrugged. “Why don’t we just find the general?” she asked, “find the guy in charge, flash badges, demand all the files he has on the guys he’s booted out”

Laurie thought about this; there was certain simplicity to it that she admired. She spotted a flaw though. “We’re assuming he’ll recognize our badges” she said, as she hopped back into the 2CV’s driving seat.

One major problem with being a semi secret quasi government agency was that the agents were issued badges, but there was no guarantee that the person they were showing them to would A; recognize it and B; not shoot them.

They drove away; Mt Symphony bulked hugely on the horizon.

Laurie had been running the plan over in her head and she decided she liked it. “Okay” she said, “So the plan is to find the general that kicked out the paramilitary group, and get together any files he has made up on them”

There was something like an explosion without sound, and suddenly Mt Symphony was backlit with an iridescent glow.

Laurie was shocked. She stared at the burning sky with wide open eyes. “We’re going to need another plan” she said.

*

There is an old piece of common wisdom about there being no atheists in foxholes, and like most pieces of common wisdom this is totally wrong. No matter which country you are in a quick search around the local veterans association will turn up people who were atheists in foxholes, knew people who died as atheists in foxholes, and wish to put you through a realistic re-enactment of the battle of Lechaeum for suggesting that they would be cowardly enough to change a major life choice just because they were in a little danger.

However humans are social creatures, and when we are stressed we tend to seek help from those that we know are nearby. For the vast majority of people this means friends, or family, or, if they happen to be in a foxhole at the time, the equally scared, but totally armed people beside them. The equation’s different though if the man in the foxhole happens to know that there really is a god nearby.

The wind rushed past Derek’s ears, and his heart fell. Far more importantly, Derek fell as well. Derek irrationally clawed at the air as it slipped past; hopping that it had suddenly gained enough density to stop him. “Casper help me!” he yelled.

A cloud of yellow light started to coalesce under Derek, and Derek started to slow down. The cloud was warm.

The cloud came to a complete stop, about two and a half stories from the ground. There were people staring at him from out of the windows.

Derek was in the grip of that manic humour that people get when then they have just been terrified beyond all belief. He grinned and waved to the people watching him, knowing that they would turn him into even more of a hero tomorrow, and he lay back on the cloud; which was surprisingly soft.

He was already thinking about what his next move was; he decided that after Casper lowered him to the ground he would just call around manufacturers and find out what the Tal-234k was and why it was important.

Then the cloud exploded, and suddenly wind was whistling past Derek’s face again.

With utter terror felt himself being shot upwards a good forty stories. Derek felt his stomach rise and didn’t dare to scream.

As he climbed he started losing speed, and at the very top of his arc he found himself hovering for a split second in front of a completely shattered window. Then he started to fall again.

Animal survival instinct and shear bloody terror combined in Derek. His hands flashed out and punched through any safety glass that had stayed in the pane. A human would have known not to do that, he thought, goddamn ghosts.

He was hanging onto a window frame over a fifty something story drop. Glass tinkled away underneath him, and presumably hit the ground eventually, he didn’t know; it was too far down.

Derek wondered just what kind of life his preincarnations must have lived in order for his lot in life to be justified. He thought with irritation and a weird kind of pride that it couldn’t possibly be a single person’s karmic debt he was paying off. Derek heaved himself up; straining his arms, and shoving his head through a big sheet of shattered glass. ‘This is turning into one hell of a night’ he thought.

There was a smattering of polite applause as he finally pulled himself in. “Yes indeed, good good,” said the Professor, “but it’s rude to start practicing when someone is speaking to you, you terminal cockbag, now follow me and lets have no more of this tommyrot”

Derek felt like he had missed a memo somewhere and was now horribly misinformed. He looked around to see what the crowd was doing.

Andrea had melted away at some point and no one else seemed to care about Derek. The crowds were all going about their normal business; practicing their various stunts.

Derek found it all very strange. He held his head and tried to push away the headache he could feel forming. These people had just seen a man get knocked out of a fifty story window, then bounce all the way back up to the top and crawl back into the room, and they didn’t think it was unusual enough to warrant anything other than the mildest attention. Derek was beginning to think that Laurie had lied to him when she had told him that the dorm was safe; he didn’t think there was a sane man to be found in the entire building. Derek thought all of this, and then he got up and followed the professor; after all he still had something he needed to do.

The professor led him into a small room at the back of the Tal. The walls of the room were totally black; a solid matt black that stated that light wasn’t even a possibility.

Derek was confused. He looked around and asked, “What are we doing here professor?”

The Professor turned around, puffed his pipe and touched one of the walls. The walls immediately betrayed their no-light promise and glowed in an unearthly rainbow. The walls were full of the room outside.

Derek was amazed. He looked around holding his head. He was holding his head anyway because the walls showed the room outside from every possible perspective; it was like looking through an extreme version of a fisheye lens, and it was hurting Derek’s brain. But he was also holding his head because he was amazed. “What is this?” he asked.

The professor let off another puff of smoke and touched the wall again. Now there were symbols along the images. A man was hit by a car, and the computer drew the lines and angles of his tumble, another man fell off the top of the car and rolled, the computer timed him and made calculations about the best way for him to improve, Andrea was standing in a corner and talking to some sort of metal eater, and the computer was even drawing lines against her, and making recommendations about the best way to improve her stance.

Derek realized what Casper wanted, and realized with a sense of all the unfairness in the world that he had no way of getting it. He bit his lip and said, “I see, so this- Tal, is like your floor’s coach. Out of interest, how much did this cost?”

The professor told him a number, and called him a simpering trouser ferret. Once the world had stopped rocking around him, Derek said, “That seems a bit high. How much would it cost if I had my own experts and refineries and just bought the raw material?” The professor told him another number, and the world started rocking again. “How can it be more?” asked Derek. Then he regretted asking.

The professor was clearly in his element. he started talking; using extremely long and convoluted words that looped back on themselves and involved quantum far too many times for good taste.

Derek felt glazed and basted, but at least he wasn’t being roasted anymore. He scratched his face and tried to watch the professor through his swimming eyes.

The professor didn’t seem to care if anyone was listening to him or not; he was just talking.

Derek felt words flow past him; ununderstood and ununderstandable. He nodded along and tried to think. There was no way that the stuntmen would ever give up the Tal, and he didn’t like the idea of taking it from them by force. He wondered what he had to trade, and the only thing he could think of was the cube that Casper was using, but that would be important and he didn’t want to give that up. His eyes wandered to the walls.

Andrea was talking to a different group of people. But there was something wrong; everyone was still practicing, but they were doing it with a faraway look in their eyes as though they were thinking about something else.

Derek suddenly felt panicked. His instincts gave him an ultimatum; get out of there now, or don’t get out at all. Derek knew all he wanted to know about the Tal, it wasn’t a hard choice, Derek ran.

As Derek burst out of the small room and into the main practice hall he found himself face to face with a Bert loaded cannon.

Derek beat down his surprise and quickly re-evaluated. He looked around to find out what had happened.

He was surrounded; no one was practicing anymore; they were all making a half circle and boxing him in. There was no way out. The cannon wasn’t accidental this time, Andrea was behind it, and smiling while holding the string.

Derek hadn’t expected to see everyone set up, and he felt a little confused and disorientated. He pointed at the corner where he had seen Andrea a few seconds ago and said, “But you were…”. Then he pointed at Andrea, “How are you…?”

“I took the liberty of telling the cameras to run at a ten second delay, you hideous cock drop.” Said the professor as he exited the room behind Derek, “I quite like the effect it had”

Derek didn’t like his position; he felt small and vulnerable. He slowly put his hands up and said, “What are you doing? What’s this about?”

Andrea smiled at him. “Given that you’re the one in considerable danger” she said, “Maybe you should be the one answering questions. Let’s start with who you really are and what you’re really doing here”

Derek felt a little sick. He clenched his throat and drew back, and then he drew forward again; since the professor was behind him holding a rapier. ‘Where did I go wrong’ he thought. Out loud he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I was sent by the computing floor to investigate an anomaly.”

The crowd seemed to shift uncomfortably. Andrea said, “Yes, that’s the story you told me too, but there are two glaring problems with it; number one: you clearly haven’t been around computers before, and number two: we don’t have a computing floor.”

Derek straitened up, he didn’t really feel stupid; mostly he felt baffled. “You don’t have a computing floor?” he repeated in disbelief, “But you have everything else; you have stuntmen and quantum mechanics’ within one floor of each other”

“Yes” agreed Andrea, “but not computing; not since the thinking machines disaster of two months ago”. Everyone in crowd the hung their heads at this; although they kept their assorted weapons trained on Derek.

Now Derek felt stupid. He clucked his tongue and looked away; it would have been so easy to pick one of the other floors; he could of picked the quantum mechanics’; it’s not like anyone would have been about to find flaws in his knowledge.

“But that’s enough of that” said Andrea, and all the other heads in the crowd snapped up. “Tell us who you are or we shoot.”

Derek found that remark especially worrying as Andrea was still pointing the Bert loaded cannon at him. He looked around him for some corner he could hide in, but there wasn’t one. He cast his mind around for some other story he could use, but he didn’t like the idea of getting the story wrong a second time. In the end he decided to go with the truth. He flicked open his badge and said, “I work for the government”, ‘Please, please, please recognize the badge’ he thought.

There was silence while everyone studied the badge. “Hey, I know that” a voice from the back drifted in, “that’s a demon hunter’s badge.”

The crowd stirred and murmured; they were clearly impressed.

Derek was glad there was someone who knew who he worked for; the badges were usually good for stopping people from shooting them, but it was always a bit hit or miss whether they would actually recognize them. He breathed out slowly and whipped the badge away quickly; he didn’t anyone to add that they knew the name on the badge.

“Hey” said another voice, “I know that name; aren’t you the guy the papers are looking for? The guy who-”

Derek felt his rage catch in his throat; “Right, blow this for a game of soldiers” he said, “Casper, a little help here?”

*

The little 2CV streaked down the desert road like a bullet from a gun that fired cars.

Emma had insisted on taking over the driving when the sky had lit up, and Laurie was beginning to suspects she had made some modifications to the car since it had been issued to her.

As the car started to wind its way up the face of Mt Symphony there was the bass clattering of rotor blades and the 2CV was joined by a very large and dangerous looking helicopter.

Laurie didn’t like the helicopter, she didn’t like it at all; she couldn’t help but remember that the last time she had been anywhere near one like it she had almost been shot dead. She reached for her gun and then realized that the only one she had only had one containment crystal in the clip; even if her aim was perfect she doubted that she could find anywhere on the helicopter where a crystal would do any damage. “What are we going to do about that?” she asked.

Emma didn’t take her eyes off the road, probably a good idea given how fast they were going. “Nothing” she said, “We haven’t run by any stop gates; so all it can do is spy.”

Laurie felt surprised to see such evidence of competency from Emma, but she still didn’t like the helicopter. Laurie tightened her mouth and felt in her pocket; she had found the cube in there and was wondering if she could use it with enough control to swat the chopper out of the sky without rolling the 2CV in the process.

In the end through, Emma turned out to be right about the chopper; it showed only the slightest interest in the 2CV and kept climbing up the mountain. It wasn’t alone; now that Laurie looked there were a lot of choppers in the sky and they were all climbing the mountain as fast as their rotors would carry them.

Laurie wondered what was going on over the mountain; it looked violent and scared her just a little. She took her gun out and looked in the clip; the one remaining crystal there looked back at her a little pathetically. “You wouldn’t happen to be carrying spare bullets would you?” Laurie asked.

Emma didn’t give any sign that she had heard her; she kept her eyes fixed on the road. Now that they were closer they could see that the sky was flickering like a bad TV set. It wasn’t one colour either, but instead it was hundreds. The light grew more and more intense as they closed on the top of the mountain saddle.

Laurie could feel herself ramping up for action; he heart beat faster and she could feel herself starting to sweat. She slammed her clip back into her gun, but didn’t put it away. ‘This is it’ she thought.

They came around one of the last bends and onto a long straight piece of road. Symphony was still over the horizon, but the road was levelling off; and they would be able to see it in a matter of seconds. There was something else on the road though; near the top of the ridge and blocking both their path and their sight was a military checkpoint. It was clearly a military checkpoint; the sheer number of guns gave it away; that and the army trucks.

Laurie was wondering when they were going to meet resistance, but she still felt annoyed that they had met it here. She narrowed her eyes at the checkpoint and asked, “Do you think they’ll let us through if we show them our badges?”

In answer Emma put any weight she hadn’t already used on the accelerator. The men had been looking at the lightshow with dumfounded looks on their faces, but they noticed the 2CV as it accelerated on them; not that they looked any less dumfounded. One young soldier blundered out onto the road waving his arms back and forth.

Laurie screamed inside her head; no matter what Emma had done to the engine there was no way that the 2CV’s ancient frame would stand up to an impact with an army truck. She covered her face with her arms.

The 2CV was only a scant few meters from the young soldier, when realization finally hit for him. He dived out of the way of the speeding car and got clipped for his trouble; sending him spinning away in a graceful pirouette. The 2CV hit one of the barricades and somehow got airborne, it spun over the amazed men at about 200 kilometres an hour, and hit the ground on the other side with a sound like an over tensioned windup toy.

Laurie was amazed, relived, impressed and a bunch of other emotions, but she was mostly very, very bruised. She sucked up a deep breath of air and blew it out again, feeling a huge smile etched on her face. “Wow,” she panted, “I didn’t know you could drive like that”. It would have been just as accurate to have said that she didn’t know that anyone could drive like that.

Emma didn’t take her eyes off the road, “really,” she said, “Well that’s interesting aint it? We’re almost over”

The 2CV shot over the ridge, becoming airborne for much longer than a small car should be capable of, and started hurtling down the other side; improbably, it managed to pick up even more speed.

The town was a mess. The gouges in the earth that had been inflicted when they were last there still hadn’t been fixed, but they were now all the more obvious because they were filled with sparkling lights. There was a huge glow emanating from the ruined church that hurt Laurie’s eyes a little; even through the glasses. As they watched, two arcs of light appeared; the first was a huge one that reached high into the sky and led from the church to one of the gouges, the second was a small one that reached from the gouge and ended on top of a tank at the end of the street. It was over like lightning, and the tank was destroyed.

Laurie was shocked. She fingered the cube in her pocket and said, “Demontech; they’re using demontech, we have to be careful”

There was the snap, rattle and pop of gunfire from behind them, and suddenly there were holes in the car.

Laurie felt her mind focusing; automatically blocking out the emotion that could kill her now. She gritted her teeth, held up her gun, and looked in the rear view mirror.

There were two trucks with large guns on their backs, and they were backed up by one of the helicopters.

Laurie didn’t like those odds, and she could feel the natural panic bubbling up under her enforced calmness. Keeping her eyes on the road behind her she said, “Those trucks are gaining fast.”

Emma didn’t say anything back. They were coming up to a sharp bend in the road, beyond which there was nothing but air. The guns started rattling again, they were much closer this time and they were far more accurate.

Laurie could feel herself losing her grip; the panic was threatening to consume her. A bullet punched through the edge of her leg, and made her bite her lip to stop herself from screaming.

Then the bullets stopped, and they were round the bend.

Laurie felt panicked relief. She started giggling hysterically as she watched the rear view mirror.

The trucks barrelled around the corner and started firing again, but there was no point, the trucks had just lost too much distance, and the bullets sprayed harmlessly around them.

The helicopter seemed to realize that it couldn’t keep hugging the mountain and pulled itself outwards; waiting for an opportunity.

The trucks were following a tenaciously as they could, but they couldn’t take corners as well as the 2CV could and they were losing everything they picked up on the straights.

Despite herself Laurie started to feel relieved; for a moment there she had really thought that she was going to die, but now it looked like everything was going to be all right. The panic started to subside; not all the way of course; they were still being followed by angry men looking to kill them, but it wasn’t threatening to take control of her anymore. Laurie smiled to Emma, “All in good fun right?” she said.

Emma didn’t respond. She was taking the car as fast as it would go through the corners and she wasn’t willing to speak.

Laurie was starting to feel better; she grinned and looked at the road ahead.

Around the curve of the mountain Laurie could see a long straight piece of road, and the helicopter that was moving to intercept.

Laurie realized with sudden shock that being on that stretch of road would mean their deaths. She yelled and pointed, “We have to get off the road!”

Emma was finally willing to look up for this. “oh no”, she said’, “oh sweat fuck, No!” They kept driving because stopping would kill them as well, and Laurie suddenly saw something that she recognized.

It was the ravine that the first 2CV had rolled into.

Laurie was shocked, but glad to the point of religious ecstasy. She clapped once and pointed. “Emma”, she yelled, “You have to drive off the cliff.”

“What!?”

“There will be a dirt ramp in the next few bends, you need to hit it!”

Laurie felt a little uneasy. She bit her lip and added for her own benefit, ‘unless someone’s removed it since then.

They streaked around the last corner and started accelerating down a hill. The barrier seemed to be removed at the bottom, but the light was playing hell with Laurie’s eyes and she couldn’t see if the ramp was still there.

The guns started rattling down on them from the top of the hill. They were inaccurate, but they were firing a lot of bullets. The car plunged into the darkness.

Laurie put her arms in front of her face again, and didn’t manage to stop the scream.

There was no sound from the car’s tires.

Laurie felt strangely hopeful. She opened her eyes and looked around.

The car was airborne, the rock tower was rising to meet them; the ramp had been there.

Laurie felt laughter bubbling inside her, and she let it out. They had made it! They were safe! Or at least as safe as could be reasonably expected given their profession.

The helicopter executed a graceful back flip and turned to meet them.

Afterwards Laurie remembered what happened in slow motion. The helicopter always started the memory off; with it’s ooh so dangerous looking gun pointed through the window far too close to miss.

Then there was a flash of light, and a suggestion of arcs reaching into the sky, and the helicopter was a disintegrating fireball. Than Laurie would remember that she almost felt happy, but then she noticed that the blast had sent the car spinning. And that they were already too wide to make their landing.

For some reason the last thought that Laurie had as they arced gently  past the rock tower they should have landed on was, ‘I sure hope Derek’s doing better than me’.

*

Derek dug himself deeper into the dumpster and thought, ‘I sure hope Laurie’s doing better than me’.

There was a sound likes someone bouncing off the lid of the dumpster, followed by the sound of running feet.

Derek cursed himself as an idiot, and would have slapped himself in the head if he had been able to move his arm around the McDonalds bag that was holding it in place. The stuntmen had turned out to be a lot tougher than he had given them credit for.

There was the sound of more yelling from outside, and the dumpster moved slightly as though someone was leaning on it.

Derek didn’t feel comfortable; and it wasn’t just because of the assorted things that people had thrown out. He dragged what turned out to be a box of banana skins over himself and thought about what he should have done. He could still see it clearly in his mind’s eye; Casper sweeping the entire crowd away as though they had been mice, everyone rolling and tumbling realistically in the direction they were pushed, and then him giving the orders that Casper should do whatever he needed to do to the Tal, followed by one heart stopping moment when everyone had leapt back to their feet as one.

Someone lifted up a lid, and threw a cigarette in which landed on Derek’s nose.

Derek was angry; how dare they throw lit cigarettes into a dumpster; especially if he was inside at the time. He felt his muscles tense as he prepared to leap out, but then, thankfully good sense prevailed, and Derek remained totally still; even leaving the cigarette that burned on his face.

The lid was closed.

In the darkness below Derek was relived. He was a little bit relived, but mostly he had an urge to kick his own arse for letting the situation develop in the first place. He swept the cigarette off his face and subbed it out on a hand cardboard box. ‘I was stupid’, he thought, ‘I should have waited for Beatrice; and then I’d have back up.’

Whoever was outside departed singing an obscene barnyard song.

Derek’s anger flared up. He clenched his fist and crushed the avocado he was holding. ‘Hold on’, he thought, ‘I just wanted to go look at equipment, and maybe think about buying some; it was Casper that forced me into this ridiculous situation. Goddamn ghosts.’

With his self pity turned into good wholesome rage, Derek was ready to try to find a way out of his situation. He considered the possibility of fighting back against the stuntman chasing him and caught himself grinning like a loon, but there was the fact that he couldn’t do that without help; he either had to find Casper or Beatrice again; preferably the former, and that would take time either way.

Derek felt disappointed and would have hung his head if it hadn’t been pinned back by a huge amount of potato peelings. Fighting back just wasn’t an option if it meant trailing through stuntmen haunted streets totally unprotected. So what if he called Beatrice?

There was the sound of more laughter from outside.

Derek cursed and clucked his tongue. He had no way of knowing if there was a phone around anywhere nearby, and he didn’t have a cell phone; in hindsight it seemed like a huge oversight; he was surprised that cell phones weren’t standard issue for all agents. What if he just stayed where he was?

Derek heard someone land heavily on the roof of the dumpster. They didn’t get off, and they seemed to be shifting their weight and looking around.

Derek thought about what would happen if they were to look inside and he was scared. He held his breath; which he was doing anyway because of the smell, but this time he had other excellent reasons.

There was a muffled voice from a fair distance away, and then the person on top of the dumpster replied, “We haven’t found him yet, but the whole area is pinched off; he can’t get far.” The first voice said something else, and the weight shifted off the roof of the dumpster. There was the sound of agile footsteps, and then there was only the background noise of the city.

Derek felt himself relax. He breathed out and his heart returned to a normal rhythm. No, staying put was not an option; if he stayed put long enough then someone would eventually think of searching the dumpster.

There was the sound of a helicopter clattering overhead; with a general ‘you are being watched’ vibe that marked it out as a police chopper.

Derek was under stress, but his mind was whirling. He glanced to the side of the dumpster as though taking an inventory of its contents. Could he steal some sort of car, he wondered, would that work? If that would work then he only had to go as far as the nearest car, and that would have to be much closer than the closest stuntman, he could get back to the dorm and get help.

Now that Derek was thinking about it, the air was full of the sounds of cars. It was resonant with the sound of motors and horns, and that strange whooshing sound that tended to belong to tires.

The more Derek thought about it, the more he liked the idea. He smiled in the darkness and started thinking about the particulars. He knew that hot wiring a car was probably beyond him; could he start the ignition the same way he would pick a lock? It seemed like a bad time to try. So that really just left carjacking.  He was near the heart of the city and there were traffic lights everywhere; it would be a simple matter to hop into one of them just as the light turned green.

In the darkness Derek’s smile became a wicked grin. That would be his next move; some poor citizen was about to be carjacked.

*

A beam of orange demonic energy spurted from the window of the little 2CV. For a moment the car seemed to sit upon the pillar of light, but then the car slipped to one side and started spinning like a Catherine wheel.

Laurie was horrified; she waved the cube around and said, “Aughhhhhh!”

“Aughhhhh!” Emma agreed.

The car hit the ground spinning like a dynamo. It shot away across a, thankfully, open field before coming to a rest in a stream.

Laurie came to life. She ripped off her seat belt, sprang from the car, scrambled up the bank, and only then did she collapse from the pain in her leg.

Laurie felt the pain shoot through her and tensed her own body in response. She hissed and thought, ‘Dammit’; the bullet had only punched through the edge of her leg, but the pain was still extreme.  “Emma!” she called.

There was no answer.

Suddenly Laurie felt very alone. He hugged her arms to herself, “Emma?” she said, in a small voice.

The 2CV was lodged in the creak and now resembled a badly made cigar; there was clearly no one inside. Apart from the demonic battle that raged on in the distance there was no sound other than the sound of the trickling stream. Laurie was alone; there was no-one else in sight.

Laurie was alone and lost, and scared. She looked around, desperate for some sign, but there was none. Laurie tried to clear her head and think.  There was clearly some sort of battle going on, and Laurie wasn’t even sure of the sides. She was out of the way of the bulk of the fighting for now, but this nice flat field would be a natural roadway for tanks when the army counter attacked.

Laurie knew with cold certainty what a group of what a group of speeding tanks would do if they crossed paths with her in the dark. She shuddered and knew she had to get to ground.

Laurie pushed off of the ground and stood up.

A bolt of pain struck her. Making her grit her teeth against the yell and sending her back to the ground, ‘Right’ she thought, “Right, the bullet wound.”

The open field around her was completely devoid of trees, and she had no way of cutting a crutch anyway. The car was ruined metal, but didn’t have anything she could lean on. The field was totally remote, and even if Laurie had been inclined to call for help, there was no one around to hear her.

Laurie was tired and lost and hungry, but she was a long way from finished. She narrowed her eyes, ignored the throbbing in her leg and started to crawl; keeping as much weight as she could on her good leg and wincing every time her bad one touched the ground.

Laurie was crawling back the way she had come.

She stopped, and cursed herself; had she been planning to crawl up a mountain?

There was the sound of gunfire from around her; she was sure it was closer now. There were a couple of whooshing sounds; followed by the sound of explosions.

Laurie realized her untenable position and smiled manically; she was caught between a rock and an explosive place. Laurie tried to think; the sun was coming up, and the countryside would be warm enough for now, but there wouldn’t be the medical care she would need.

The demontech arcs flickered behind her, and there was the sound of screams.

Laurie felt a jolt of fear and started crawling again; even if her leg got infected, it could hold until the fighting died down and she could steal some medical supplies.

Laurie was crawling as fast as she could when she stumbled across something unexpected.

Laurie caught the joy in her throat and held it down; recent events had taught her not to be too optimistic.  She raised herself up as high as she could and said, “Emma?”

The figure lying under the bank didn’t stir. Now that Laurie thought about it there seemed to be too much red around the figures head.

Laurie didn’t want to think about what it would mean if a teammate died while she could still protect her.  She gritted her teeth against the pain and crawled as fast as she could towards the figure.

It was Emma. But she was lying still, her eyes were open, and there was a lot of red around; staining her clothes and her face.

Laurie had never really seen death close up before; it was far more horrible than she had ever imagined. She blinked to hold back the tears; she was determined not to cry; she didn’t think Emma would have liked that. Instead she sat over Emma and bowed her head.

Emma’s blood was still wet and as Laurie watched a fresh drop dripped off of her face and onto the earth.

Laurie didn’t want to be there anymore. She didn’t want to be there, in that field, looking at Emma’s body. She didn’t want to be in Symphony listening to the rattling of guns and the distant screams of the dying. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to hunt Demon’s anymore, not after it had gotten so far out of hand. She didn’t want to be back at the dorm, with its judging glares, or in the city, with its endless parade of nothingness, or out in the country, where nothing ever started. In fact Laurie had no idea where she wanted to be; except that it was somewhere where her old life didn’t exist anymore.

Emma stared up at the glowing sky with her empty eyes.

Laurie tried to hold her emotions under control. Her throat felt choked, but still she would not cry. She leaned a little further over and closed Emma’s eyes.

Emma’s eyelids were warm.

Laurie paused; sudden thought killing emotion in its tracks. Her eyes slowly widened; it was too much to hope for, and it would be stupid to hope, but still. Laurie leaned over again and slowly put her fingers along Emma’s neck.

There was a pulse! It was faint but it was there!

Hope surged into Laurie. She parted her mouth in a crazy half grin and started to laugh.

There was another series of whooshing noises and explosions; both seemed to be a lot closer than they had been before.

Practicality snuffed Laurie’s joy; Emma might be alive now, but there was no way of guarantying she would last. Emma’s pulse was weak, and that meant that Laurie had to act now. Laurie put her arms on Emma’s shoulders and braced herself to try lifting the larger woman.

No! Screamed a voice in Laurie’s head, her neck could be broken!

Laurie paused. Fear was starting to take hold again. She could imagine what lifting Emma would mean if her neck really was broken, and it made her shudder. ‘I don’t know how to check for a broken neck’ she thought. She tentatively ran her fingers down the back of Emma’s neck.

It just felt like the back of someone’s neck. Laurie couldn’t feel any break, but how could she know?

Laurie’s breath was in the top of her chest, and her blood was in her ears; she had no idea what she should do if Emma had a broken neck, or even what she should do about the head injury; medical training had not been something that the office had routinely given its agents, and Laurie’s expertise was basically limited to ‘Dial 111’.

The blood on Emma’s head didn’t seem to be moving any more.

Laurie bit her tongue. She knew she was out of time. If she couldn’t move Emma, or treat her where she was then she really had only one option, and it was a truly awful one. Laurie tilted her head up to the sky and bellowed “Help! Please help!”

There was the sound of gunfire from somewhere very close, and then another flash of the demontech arcs, and the gunfire came to an abrupt end.

Laurie felt cold, she breathed deeply through her nose and kept yelling; all the while thinking about what a fitting end to the night it would be if she got taken out in some big explosion before anyone heard her.

There was the distant sound of human voices.

Laurie felt huge relief. It didn’t even matter if the voices belonged to friend or foe, they were still people, and they would be able do something; anything would be better than having Emma pass on while Laurie was powerless to help her. She took another deep breath a yelled in the direction of the voices, “Help! Please help us!”

The voices changed in recognition, and suddenly there were people running towards them. One man was faster than the others and got to them first, he was holding what looked like a sparkling hand mirror. He saw the two of them with a surprised look on his face. “We’ve got two women here”, he yelled back at the group following them.

“Ours?” came a replying voice from the approaching group.

The first man looked at the two of them, “I don’t think so” he yelled

“Kill them” yelled the other voice.

Laurie was shocked; she had been intellectually prepared for the possibility that they might meet the enemy, but it felt different to have them suddenly appear. She reached for her gun automatically; knowing that one containment crystal would never hold off an angry mob.

The first man turned his back on the two girls and faced the oncoming mob. “Now hold on” he said, “We can’t go round killing civilians.”

The rest of the mob had caught up with the first man and were surrounding him and the girls; they all held mirrors, and they all sparkled with different colours.

Laurie felt that she was at the centre of a very tense situation. She looked left and right and slowly took her hand away from her gun; while keeping it close enough that she could grab it quickly. She decided that it would be a bad idea to pull her gun out before the matter in front of her was settled.

The voice that had recommended killing them turned out to belong to a squat, angry looking man. He walked up to the first man and said, “Civilians?  Look around you boy, we’re the civilians here; everyone else therefore is the enemy.”

There was a burst of high pitched laughter from the edge of the crowd and a small rat faced man said “Civilians? What do you call this then?” he was waving around one of the mirrors.

The squat man’s expression didn’t change. “We are extraordinarily well armed civilians who happen to be in the middle of a combat zone and shut up Gerick”

The tall man; the one who had gotten to them first said, “Look at them, they aren’t wearing uniforms or carrying rifles; they are clearly on our side, or at least they aren’t on the enemy’s side”

“That proves nothing” insisted the squat man, Laurie was beginning to hate him. “They could easily by spies sent to infiltrate us”

The tall man pointed an exasperated hand at them, “Look at them” he said, “They’re hurt”

“That just means that they’ve already tried to sneak in once and got caught.” said the man, “We’re in the middle of a war; my military instincts tell me that we shouldn’t let potential spies live”

“What military instincts? You’ve been a greengrocer your whole life”

Many small arguments broke out in the crowd, but a nontrivial amount were still focused on Emma and Laurie. A voice drifted in from some point in the mob, “Hey” it said, “I know the redhead; she helped us clear up after the big explosion”

There was muttering from the mob, but it was the good kind of muttering; the kind of muttering where people suggest that maybe it would be in poor taste to kill someone after they had helped you.

Laurie was pleased. She gave a hopeful kind of smile, and was glad that the good karma she earned by helping out after the demonic explosion had returned to her with the precision of a laser guided missile.

“Wait a minute,” said another voice, “I know the blond; I saw here a few years ago when she and he partner destroyed the hospital and forced the sanatorium to be closed.”

There was some mutinous muttering from the crowd; this is the bad kind of muttering, the kind of muttering that suggests that it’s probably totally fine to kill someone who has destroyed a valuable public utility, and anyway she would be almost certain to do it again to some other humble town and that makes it a public service, maybe even an act of heroism.

The tall man was still standing between them and the mob, but it was clear that the mob was reaching a consensus. The consensus they seemed to be reaching was that they should probably kill Emma and let Laurie live.

Laurie was horrified by this situation. A big part of her; the part that was concerned primarily with her own survival was advising her to keep quiet; her own life would be assured and what she was planning was far too risky. But there was a more powerful part of her; a part that was concerned with her essential Laurieness that wouldn’t let her just leave Emma to die if there was the slightest chance that she could be saved. She swallowed and said, “We’re partners and we protect each other; either we both live or we both die.”

This cause renewed arguments in the crowd. And for a moment it looked as though it could go either way.

Then fear crossed the faces of the crowd. They stopped talking and parted, or to be more accurate, they drew away and cowered like dogs.

A familiar figure walked through them, and for the first time in the entire night, Laurie knew what fear really was.

*

Now that Derek had a plan he was beginning to hate the smell of the dumpster. He wrinkled up his nose and pushed up the lid with his head.

Through the tiny gap he could just make out a line of cars on the road outside the alleyway.

Derek was glad to see the cars, but he didn’t grin; he had no way of knowing when those cars were going to start moving; and that was going to be important knowledge if he was going to carjack a car without attracting the attention of the stuntmen. Derek knew that he couldn’t risk waiting for more information; he kicked off the roof of the dumpster and jumped out into the alleyway.

There was no one in the alley, and as Derek scanned there was no one watching him from the rooftops.

Derek was very glad, and he let himself smile this time. But one lucky break is not the same as actually getting away, and Derek knew he had to keep moving. He took a deep breath and started striding out of the alleyway.

The people in their cars looked at him strangely as he walked out of the mouth of the alleyway, but then it was probably justified; Derek looked angry and there was still a few potato peelings stuck to him. A small gang of street kids looked for a moment like they were going to try roughing him up, but then they saw the determined look on his face and decided to wait for easier targets.

Derek’s mind throbbed, and he paid no attention to any of this. He just gritted his teeth and kept walking. He only had eyes for the traffic lights at the end of the road; when they turned green all the cars behind them would start moving and that would be the ideal time to hop into one.

Derek kept walking, but the lights didn’t seem to be inclined to turn green.

Derek started to get worried; what would it look like if he reached the end of the road and stopped; it would definitely be suspicious enough to make the drivers at the front of the queue lock their doors, and if Derek couldn’t get into the first cars then by the time the end of the queue rolled round they would be going far too fast. Derek flicked his eyes up and scanned the skyline as he walked.

Maybe it was his imagination, but he though she saw a figure there; watching him.

Suddenly the lights turned green.

The effect on Derek was electrifying. He immediately straightened up and jumped to the side, his hand caught a door handle and he pulled.

Nothing happened; the door was locked.

Terror shot into Derek, but there was no time to give into it.  He jumped backwards and caught the second car as it went past.

This one opened; albeit almost ripping Derek’s arm off in the process.

The driver slammed on the breaks. Causing more screeching breaks behind him and slamming the passenger side door closed again.

Derek wasn’t willing to let the situation go that easily. He yelled and wrenched the door back open as the driver tried to lock it, that done he dropped into the passenger’s seat, pointed at the windshield and said, “Drive, Drive Drive!”

The Driver looked at him, and then he ripped his keys out of the ignition and threw them out the window.

Derek couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He threw his hands up and cursed himself for not thinking this part through, “You stupid …!” he began, but then something caught his eye.

It wasn’t his imagination this time; there were people coming at him from further up the road; dodging nimbly in-between traffic.

Derek was starting to feel trapped; it made him feel claustrophobic. He waved his badge in the drivers face and pointed at the approaching people, “If you don’t get your keys and start driving” he growled, “Then we are both going to die.”

The driver didn’t wait around. The combination of the hastily waved badge, the people advancing on him, and the threat of imminent death led to him leaping out of his car.

Derek watched as the people got closer and felt very worried. He reached for his gun, but of course it wasn’t there since his daughter had modified it back at the dorm. “What’s taking so long!” he bellowed at the driver.

“I can’t find them!” the driver yelled back.

Derek felt like he was trapped between two closing walls. Behind him he heard the honks of the enraged motorists, and in front of him he saw the stuntmen closing on him without any regard for the traffic they were skipping around. Derek slumped slightly in his seat; he knew that he had no chance of out-running the stunt men on foot, and he wondered what death was like.

There was a sudden movement of air, and the sound of an engine turning over. “Found them” said the driver.

The car screeched forward and sent the stuntmen tumbling over its roof.

“Jesus!” exclaimed the driver, “Should we go back and check on them?”

Derek thought that would be a terrible idea. He waved his hands in front of him and said, “No, hell no!”

The driver was shivering a little bit, but he also seemed to be weirdly smiling. Where are we going?” he asked.

Derek thought about that. He knew that he needed to get into contact with either Beatrice or Casper, but he didn’t really know how to achieve that. He scratched his leg and said, “Take me to the Easycare dorm.”

The driver shivered. “That’s a horrible place” he said, “Why do you want to go there?”

Derek was glad that someone shared his opinion of the dorm. “There are some things I need to pick up there” he said, “Don’t worry about slowing down as you go past”

The driver laughed. “Oh I’ll keep my speed up” he said, “I’d like to keep my wheels on my car”

*

Laurie travelled back towards Symphony; partly because she didn’t have the slightest idea where else she could get medical care, and partly because the people carrying her weren’t giving her a lot of choice.

Laurie didn’t like the fact that they were getting closer to the explosions. She twisted a little bit so that she could see one of the people carrying her and said, “You don’t really have to take me in there you know;  it’s just my friend who needs help; I could probably rest until the fighting was over.

The man looked and her like she was crazy, “You heard the sister” he said, “We have to take you to see the boss-man.”

Laurie felt she was missing something. She made a confused face and said, “But half an hour ago you were debating whether to kill us or not, why are you suddenly following orders to the letter?”

The man looked at her strangely again, “Because it’s the sister’s orders.” He said, and the entire group shivered.

Laurie felt sure she was missing something. “But Sister Silverdon doesn’t have military experience right? Who’s to say her orders are the right ones?”

One of the men carrying Emma laughed nervously. “They say she was the result of a top secret weapons project” he said, “They say she spends her time wandering deserts and toppling governments. I don’t know what I believe, but I won’t be the one who crosses her.”

The men all shivered, and Laurie felt herself being shifted slightly as they all crossed themselves.

Laurie found it all very odd; an hour ago she was wondering if she would be able to kill these men before they could use their mirrors on her, and now they were taking her to get help and discussing their greatest fears with her, it was very odd, but Laurie shrugged; it didn’t seem to matter much; if the men were marching on Symphony then they must be reasonably confident that they weren’t going to get shot up.

There was the whistling sound of an artillery shell and the ground down the road from them disappeared in a cloud of debris and shrapnel.

Laurie was shocked, both by the suddenness of the explosion, and by the fact that the men were already getting back up. She sat up as fast as she could and said, “Hold on, is this area secure?”

The men looked at her with the slightly deadened eyes that people wear when they are trying not to speculate on the possibility of their own demise. “We don’t know” one of them said, and with that Laurie and Emma were both picked up, and the procession kept making its way across town.

Laurie was feeling on the edge of dementia. She rubbed her mouth and looked around.

The sun was starting to rise, and the demonic arcs were looking less impressive as a result. So, for that matter, were the conventional explosions, which were no longer lighting up the buildings with their sudden lightning flashes. However as the sun rose the full extent of the damage done to the town was becoming clear; it was clear that whatever happened here after all this was over, wouldn’t bring the town back to the pretty tourist town that Laurie had seen potential in at the start of the week. For a start, barely any of the buildings seemed to be still standing.

Laurie felt a weird sense of loss. The town had looked so peaceful when she had seen it for the first time, and now it was ruined; Laurie wasn’t sure why, but she couldn’t help feeling that it was her fault somehow. She tried to look up, but that is a hard manoeuvre to pull off when you are being carried by two other people and so she said, “Where are we going exactly?”

For a long time no-one answered her; they all seemed to be wrapped up in their own thoughts. But finally someone said, “Our headquarters are set up in the church, you can met the boss and see the medics there”

Laurie was glad that was settled; the silent men with the dead eyes were starting to creep her out. She settled back and listened to the sound of battle; it sounded reassuringly far off.

The sound of footsteps ceased, and suddenly they were walking on a paddock.

Laurie looked up with confusion.

The church loomed on the horizon with surprising potency for a one storey damaged building. It was surrounded by people; people laying on the ground, and waiting for medical care, people walking around, and dispensing medical care, and people standing on top of the church’s ruined walls, who were holding mirrors and watching them suspiciously as they approached.

Laurie looked around with interest. Even pulling on own legs in order to get a better look.

The church all together looked much the same as when they had left it; despite the sprouting of highly armed men.

The men carried Laurie through the large double doors of the church, and Emma disappeared off to one side.

Laurie didn’t like that they were being separated, she twisted to follow her and asked, “Where is she going?”

“To get fixed up” said one of the men carrying her, “You’ll see a medic too, but first you need to see the boss”, with that they put her down.

Laurie caught a glimpse of the back of a huge man backlit by the light of a huge glowing machine, before the pain in her leg forced her onto one knee.

Laurie felt humiliated; she wasn’t about to bow in front of a man who she had just met. She forced her head up so that she could look the man in his eyes as he approached.

Reverend Sammy laughed. “I’m glad you’re pleased to see me, girly” he said, “But maybe someone should bring you a chair.”

*

The driver made good on his promise not to slow down.

Derek leaped out with a thrill in his heart. He covered his head with his hands and the distance to the door by the simple expedient of rolling and praying.

The reception area was totally empty.

Derek was very relived; he had been expecting people to be waiting for him there. He spun away from the door and sprinted for the chemist’s corridors.

The door was slightly agar; as though someone had come through it, but hadn’t been sure that it wouldn’t self lock.

Derek’s breath caught in his throat, and he started running faster; there were only a few people who he could think of that wouldn’t know how that door worked; and he didn’t want any of them in his room.

The door to room seventeen was open; Derek knew he had closed it before he had followed Casper out.

Derek felt could fear pierce into him; was it early enough that Jade and Christine couldn’t be home? With wide eyes Derek rushed in.

The twins were there; chatting away at the kitchen table. “Hii Derrek!” they said in unison.

Derek felt so relieved that he was willing to overlook how much he disliked people talking in unison like that. He walked forward with a relieved grin spreading across his face, “Hello girls” he said.

Andrea was chatting to them at the kitchen table; she was also pointing a gun at him from underneath the table. “Hello Derek” she said, with a gentle smile, “It’s nice to meet you. What do you think girls? Should Derek join us?” At this she twitched the gun; in a way that wasn’t exactly pulling the trigger, but certainly carried suggestions of it.

The twins were enthusiastic, “Oh definitely” they said, and one of them got up and seated him next to Andrea.

Derek felt the barrel of the gun push into his stomach.

Thoughts blazed in Derek’s head, and his heart rate soared as he tried to think of a way out of this situation. Andrea was pushing the gun at him a good deal harder than she needed to, and Derek had seen enough of her to suspect that she got a thrill out of the power high; that meant she could get to emotional and make mistakes, if he could just slip to the side and pull the gun up… but no; Andrea was a stuntman; her reflexes had to be excellent, and Derek knew he wasn’t fast enough.

There was only one real option, and Derek just wished he had thought of it before he had sat down; when there had a least been a slim chance of Andrea missing if she chose to shoot. “Casper, help me!” he yelled at the ceiling.

At first there was no response, but suddenly there was still no response. All four people slowly lowered their heads from the ceiling.

Andrea and the twins were staring at Derek.

Derek was fighting against panic. He could feel his breath getting shallower and a single drip of sweat running down his spine. He put his hands on the table and focused on some old breathing exercises that he half remembered; trying to ignore the eyes on him.

Suddenly one of the twins’ faces flashed with a look of recognition; “Casper?” she said, “Isn’t that the ghost that Laurie keeps talking about?”

“Oh yes,” said Andrea, “Your partner in crime.” She jabbed her gun at Derek again, “But I don’t remember anything about a ghost.” She asked the twins.

Derek was starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable. He clamped his jaw shut and tried to mentally broadcast the words ‘Shutup shutup shutup’ to the twins.

“Laurie told us” said the twins, “she said that her office had a ghost to manage all the technical aspects of demon hunting”

“Is that so?” said Andrea; nodding along to encourage them. While Derek wondered just what part of ‘semi-secret’ Laurie had found unclear.

“Yep,” said the other twin, “He’s a really smart ghost that makes them all magic bullets.”

Andrea nodded at this, looking a little confused anyway. While Derek wondered just what kind of conversation Laurie had had with the twins that had resulted in her describing the containment crystals as ‘Magic bullets’

“And then Laurie takes the magic bullets and goes out to fight all the evil demons in the world” said the first twin, revealing an insightful political mind and a keen understanding of the civil service. “Daddy always says that they make his life more difficult because he has to process the messes they dig up; but he says things like that about everyone”

Derek realized that Andrea was starting to look confused, and he carefully concealed a smile. Now that he thought about it, Derek was glad the twins were here, anything they could say to add to confusion of the woman who was holding a gun to him was definitely appreciated.

“I see” said Andrea, but she didn’t look like she did; she looked very lost and somewhat deflated.

She jabbed her gun at Derek again, “Tell me what you want with the Tal!” she demanded

Derek was glad to see that Andrea wasn’t enjoying herself anymore, but he was still worried about where her limits were; he wasn’t sure how far he could push her without getting shot. He leaned further into the gun to guard against her powerthrill coming back and said, “I don’t know.”

Anger shot across Andrea’s face. She jabbed the gun at him again, “Don’t you dare think you can get away that easy.” She said. “You attacked us over the Tal; it’s clearly important.”

Derek found the assumption a little insulting. He looked Andrea in the eyes and said indigently, “I attacked you because you were about to attack me.”

Andrea snorted, “You can’t know we were about to attack you” she said.

Derek was annoyed to see her trying to wheedle out of her intentions; he rolled his eyes and asked “Well were you?”

Andrea put her full weight behind the gun, and half rose from her seat so that she was eye level with Derek, “So what if we were? You’re a serial bomber; it would have been a public service.”

Derek felt old anger being drawn up from his bones, “I’ve never blown up anything in my life” he growled. Then he stopped and thought, “I’ve never deliberately blown up anything in my life” he amended. Then he stopped again, and paused for a very long time “I’ve never deliberately blown up someone else’s building while they were inside it” he concluded.

“As if I’m going to believe the words of a serial bomber” snarled Andrea

“Are you two dating?” asked one of the twins; who had been having trouble following the conversation.

“Shut up!” said Derek and Andrea together; without taking their eyes off each other.

The twins shrugged and shut up.

Andrea opened her mouth again.

“I’ll tell you everything” sobbed a voice.

Derek felt disorientated by this non-sequitur. He drew back in his seat and looked in the direction of the voice.

Beatrice walked into the room; leaving the door to the interrogation room open. Sounds of sobbing drifted out to fill the kitchen.

Andrea looked shocked; she clearly had had no idea how good the sound proofing was in the chemists’ floor. Her gun spun around in a wide arc and locked on Beatrice’s head, “Alright hold still, lady” she said.

Beatrice dropped the clip out of Andrea’s gun and threw both halves into separate trash cans. Then she jerked her head and walked back into the room.

Derek tried to keep from laughing at the look on Andrea’s face, and went after Beatrice; if she had got the guy talking then all he had to do was find Casper and everything would be back on track.

Derek closed the door to the interrogation room behind him. Leaving the twins discussing whether latex could be incorporated in makeup, and leaving Andrea fumbling vaguely at mid air with her mouth open.

*

It all would have come out of nowhere.

The town would have started out peaceful. Not totally peaceful, it would have still have had all the problems that one tends to find in small towns, but it would have been peaceful enough that the firemen spent most of their time sitting around and playing cards.

Then one morning; before most people were awake, the explosion would have come. No one would have been quite sure what to make of the explosion, and Laurie was surprised they had even called it that, but it had happened and the townspeople had reacted.

Deep gouges had been torn into the very ground they lived on, leaving only destruction behind them. And though the townspeople sob and wailed, their practical side won through, and they set about clearing up and burying the dead.

No one knew what the explosion had been, many people speculated of all manner of natural phenomena; from earthquakes to sinkholes, but generally as people gathered together in the now ruined church in order to remember the dead the feeling, was that if it was going to happen again then it would have happened by now.

The next morning there were more people up; not everyone had done all of their mourning last night, and so a great many more people saw when the helicopters clattered their way into town. Some people welcomed the helicopters; thinking they were long overdue aid, others were wiser; and after seeing the helicopters immediately ran for the edge of town. In the end it didn’t matter what the people did; the helicopters, and the men inside, pinched off the town and herded everyone to the centre.

The townspeople fought back of course; the invaders had better weapons and armour, and were actually communicating in a tactical sense, but the townspeople had shear weight of numbers; senseless mob or not the townspeople should have ripped the invaders to shreds.

The invaders turned out to be very resistant to being ripped to shreds, or rather they could be ripped to shreds; the problem was that they never stayed ripped to shreds. The revelation that they weren’t fighting humans was demoralizing to the townspeople, and the allowed themselves to be herded like sheep.

The invaders lined them all up with their hands on their heads and started asking questions. They asked about the explosion, and the old sanatorium, and whether anyone had left town since the explosion.

As a matter of fact there had been two people who had left town since the explosions; they hadn’t been townspeople, but they had showed up after the explosion and started helping, so some people tried to protect them, but these people were a minority, and soon the invaders had all the information they wanted.

More of invaders showed up in their own helicopters, and three of them were dispatched on the long road to the city. The townspeople decided that within the hour the visitors would either be dead or be dragged back, some people sympathized with them, and some people felt that they were somehow responsible for what had happened, but both these groups were minorities, and most people just put the visitors out of their minds; they had their own worries.

For the entire day they just kneeled in the centre of town. The invaders were odd; they seemed to be waiting for orders that never came. Eventually the invaders ordered everyone up and sent them home.

For the next few day things followed a weird routine; everybody tried to carry out their days the way they always had, and just tried to ignore the cut phone line out of the town, the men standing guard at every exit, and the occasional circle of a helicopter overhead.

For most people the days passed with low terror and uncertainty, but there were some people who were more proactive.

Reverend Sammy had always been the emotional centre of the town, and so he was now; he believed that it was possible to kill the invaders; it just took a lot of effort.

The Reverend had a secret radio that he had been using to listen to news reports. He told the people he had gathered that the army was preparing to move in against the invaders and also about the downed helicopter in the desert with three dead bodies next to it. He told them that the time for action was now. He told them to fetch their guns.

And so on that night the town rang with gunfire. Some people pulled their covers over their heads, and intended to plead total ignorance tomorrow. Some people went to their windows to yell encouragement, or went to get their own guns. But most people sat in bed and wondered who had thought it was a good idea to set off fireworks with trigger happy soldiers around.

The battle went on throughout the night; the reverend and his men were communicating now. They fought in shadows and disorientated the invaders, passing information to each other. The invaders could be killed! They whispered. A shotgun blast to the back of the head at point blank range; that would do it, or if you didn’t have a shotgun; just shoot them through the right forearm. The right forearm? Yes; if you shoot them there then they go down just like normal people the next time someone shoots them in the head.

By the time dawn broke almost half the invaders were dead. It wasn’t enough though, the others were hanging around the edge of town; unwilling to venture deeper to where the buildings provided approaches for anyone who wanted to attack them.

Some people declared victory, and attempts were made to get a street party started, but most people were wiser and wondered what would happen when the invaders decided to fly in with their helicopters.

In the end those people never found out; since that was when the army appeared over the hills.

The invaders only put up a taker resistance; understandable given that they were down to three helicopters and barely enough crew to fly them. They flew at the army convoys and buzzed their lines, but retreated as soon as the army counter attacked, and flew away much faster than the army’s own choppers.

The townspeople welcomed the army. Even though many of them asked each other just how much work the army did. The general was a charming man who assured the townspeople that they would catch the invaders, and that for the mean time the army would be setting up base; in case the invaders came back.

In gratitude the townspeople held that party they had been planning, and all though the day and the following night, they danced, and sang, and played the trombone, and none were so merry as the general.

Over the next few days though it became clear that the army’s intentions were not innocent. Somehow the phone lines were always in the process of being reconnected, and when people tried to leave so that they could tell relatives that they were fine they were advised not to, since the roads were still a disputed territory.

Discontent began to spread through the townspeople, but none dared to strike out; the army was equipped far better than the invaders had been. And so the townspeople suffered in silence, and not even Reverend Sammy was willing to propose action.

Then his mother appeared. It was not clear where she had come from or how she had got past the army checkpoints, but one day she just glided into town.

None of the townspeople had known anything about the Reverend’s mother. All they had known was that the Reverend had a mother, and changed the subject as soon as anyone tried to talk about her. The reverends mother was terrifying; a symphony in black. She glided into town and the townspeople followed her mutely; they could all sense that whether for good or for bad, she meant the end.

The sister glided to the church and met the reverend there; who shook so hard that many thought that his legs would break. The Reverend fell to his knees and laid his head on the ground to avoid her stare, and those who knew about the Reverend’s hard drinking habits didn’t blame him. Many of the watchers wanted to leave, but somehow that just wasn’t an option.

The sister indicated and a small boy walked forward. He had dead eyes, and wouldn’t look up, and many of the townspeople stared at him because it meant that they didn’t have to look at the Sister.

Then the sister spoke; in a voice that wasn’t loud but still echoed around the entire area and shook the listeners to their souls. The sister told them that the time had come for them to fight, and while every man feared the army, there were none who dared to speak up. Then the sister told them that she had a weapon that would let them win, and all glanced up with more interest. Then she summoned all the engineers forward.

For that night the sounds of welding drifted from the church. While the towns mortician found a party of hundreds who wanted to collect the dead  invaders.

When the device was complete the townspeople stared at it in wonderment. It wasn’t much to look at certainly; just a tall bronze pole with at cage at the bottom for the dead invaders, but if the sister was telling the truth; and there wasn’t a man there who even wanted to think that she wasn’t, then it was the weapon that would let them turn back the full force of the army.

The device was turned on and the sky became aglow. The little hand mirrors the engineers had whipped up began to sparkle with their own lights, and the townspeople held them up and roared; they didn’t quite know what was happening, but they knew what they’d be doing for the next few hours.

*

It seemed like a simple job. All they had to do was go and act as enforcers for some other manic with a grudge. Then the manic had issued his first order; ‘Come in and be augmented’, and that had given Captain Swift pause; there were far more mad scientists around than most people realized, and when they said a word like ‘augmented’ it was probably best to start running.

Captain Swift had spoken with his officers, and they had come to the decision that there was no way they were going to comply with the order. He communicated his views to Mckingle; the man who connected them to the manic, who communicated to him that he could expect another zero on his payment if he completed this task.

The Captain insisted on half down, and once he got it, the entire company moved out.

To be more specific they moved out of their temporary lodgings and started heading west; one of the commanders had heard a tip about riot control that was needed there.

They drove all day and then set up camp some way off the road. They made sure that they didn’t leave trails, and rested for the night.

When they woke up they found that their camp had at least tripled in size, and that the new additions liked to sleep with their guns facing inwards.

The leader of the other forces; a cheerful red faced man by the name of Captain Rollin, congratulated Captain Swift on his clever dog leg; saying that it would be certain to prevent anyone from guessing where their mutual employer was. Captain Swift agreed, and together they drove up the road and turned south.

Though he only saw him for a moment, Captain Swift knew he had been right about his employer; the man was tall, thin, and grey haired, and he looked, if not a few grapes short of a fruit basket, then at least a couple grenades in excess of it. He addressed his new troops from an indoor balcony; using all the usual statements about how they were going to change the world for the better; but Captain Swift hadn’t been listening; he had been watching the quiet man next to him who was making notes on a clipboard.

The man looked nothing like his employer; he was short, squat, and dressed in a way that suggested he had mugged random people of all shapes and sizes in order to get each item of clothing. Somehow though, Captain Swift hadn’t managed to keep his eyes off him; there was just something about him that triggered Captain Swift’s ‘Run away!’ sensors.

But running away wasn’t an option, and after the manic had finished his speech and exited, the smaller man had come down and introduced himself as Mckingle, and told Captain Swift to lead his troops into the surgery. Captain Swift had taken a good long look at Captain Rollin’s troops outside before, feeling like a slaughter house goat, he had done so.

At this point Andrea entered the room, causing Captain Swift to stop, and Derek to look up from his notes before nodding to the Captain to keep going.

The ‘Augmentation’ hadn’t been as bad as the Captain had assumed it would be. Mckingle had given them all local anaesthesia and had put some kind of cube in their forearms. Mckingle had told them that it would make them harder to kill, but he had been evasive when it had come to the specifics of how they worked.

After everyone had had the surgery they had been lined back up; some of them a little unsteadily and they had been told that they were now quick response troops, that they should split into three units, and that they could  see their new helicopters and pilots outside. They had all absorbed this, numbly and had then saluted; a few people slapping themselves in the face in the process, and had marched away to their separate postings.

After that nothing had happened for several weeks, and Captain Swift had begun to think he had gotten lucky. The augmentation had turned out to be a good one for himself and his troops; suddenly they could walk off five story drops, and punch through thin concrete walls; it was one of the most successful mad scientist experiments that the Captain had ever seen; even if it did mean that their new barracks fell down after one week and had to be rebuilt as a one story building. The best thing though, was that their pay checks were coming through regularly and they weren’t even working for it.

Then they got their next orders.

‘Deploy within the hour’, they were told, ‘you have a new mission’. Someone had stolen something that the secret conspiracy thought was very important, and they had to go and steal it back; preferably leaving enough of the thief behind to answer questions. It was a standard sort of mission, and Captain pleased with it.

It took rather longer than an hour to get everyone together and get them airborne, but eventually they were on their way. Another one of the three units had been ordered out as well, and by the time that Captain Swift’s unit rendezvoused with them they had already done a full inspection of the place where the theft took place and quarantined the only nearby town. Commander Perkins had been made the acting Captain for the second unit, and he had told him that the only thing that till needed to be done was to chase down some people who had already left the town.

Captain Swift had felt that the day was getting better and better; a nice easy mission, and then back to do a little enforcement; it would interest his men and not be stressful for anyone. So he had taken his men and three helicopters, as well as some sort of scanner that Mckingle had sent them, and he had set off.

He staggered his helicopters along the main road back to the city and sent them off, Captain Swift was in the middle chopper and was watching the scanner, but he didn’t think it would be needed; Commander Perkins had told him that the two people had been driving in a gremlin, and he figured with a car that ugly they should be visible from miles away. Here Captain Swift started laughing, and Andrea chuckled along, but Derek glared and Beatrice was as impassive as ever. Gradually the Captains laughter turned into a brave attempt at laughter, and then into a semi-voluntary throat spasm, and finally into silence.

Anyway, they flew back towards the city with the Captain keeping one eye on the road, one eye on the scanner and one ear to the radio. The helicopters ahead and behind kept reporting that they hadn’t seen anything, and Captain Swift agreed with them, when suddenly the scanner started rippling. Now according to the instructions that the Captain had received the scanner probably wouldn’t be able to give him an exact location, but it could tell them when the cube was roughly nearby.

The Captain was really happy about that; it meant that not only had they found the people, but they had the stolen object as well, which meant after a short application of violence they could all go home. The Captain stared at the road and didn’t let it out of sight.

The road kept slipping by, but there wasn’t much traffic, and there were definitely no gremlins.

After a while the scanner stopper rippling; that annoyed the Captain, because it meant that someone was hiding from him.

He thought about the problem and came up with a good solution. They had passed a group of rough buildings that probably counted as a village and that was probably where they were hiding, now he could send men it to kick down every door in that village; he had enough, and after Mckingle’s augmentation there was no way some dirt farmer swinging a shot gun around would be able to stop them, but the Captain was a smart man, and he had an easier idea. He pulled out a map and found the only turn off from the main road; if they were hiding from the helicopters then they would be certain to take it, so he told the chopper behind him to slowly move up the road, and the chopper in front to go up the road, turn around and slowly turn back. Then he took his own chopper and landed it near the turn off.

Sure enough the runners fell for it; the other chopper herded them right up the road, and the captain shot their bonnet full of holes.

The Captain paused at this point, and Derek who hadn’t liked the tone of the Captain’s story so far urged him to go on.

They probably landed a little too close, the captain admitted, and a lot of sand was kicked up, but they managed to capture the people and the object, and since the people weren’t important they were just going to kill them to save seats in the chopper, here the captain paused again.

Derek urged him again to go on.

Then there had been gunfire, and laughter, and everything went black.

When the Captain had come around again he was lying in a line with his men. Some of them were stirring like he was, and some of them were still lying still. The captain was happy that he had stumbled onto Mckingle if it meant he could get back up after being shot in the head. The men all gradually healed and they got ready to get a ride back, but there were three who didn’t seem to manage it.

The captain paused again before he went on. The men hadn’t been happy about the people who hadn’t gotten up; not so much about the death itself; men who turn war into their profession have to be prepared to see friends die, but about the fact that they could be hurt badly enough to not get back up; they hadn’t realized that there had been a limit before.

There were more unpleasant surprises to come. The radio in the helicopter wasn’t working and they were out of the loop, but when the trailing helicopter came back it told them that the leading helicopter had lost control when it went to intercept the targets and had crashed; killing everyone. Also they had no idea where the targets were; they had flown back to the city and gotten lost among the skyscrapers.

Feeling like idiots they had all flown back to commander Perkin’s little town, and there the news had gotten worse. Without the object recovered they couldn’t liquidate the small town, and that was fine for a couple days, but the townspeople were getting restless. Just after they got orders that Captain Rollin would be taking over the operation so that it looked like the army protecting the town rather than dangerous mercenaries invading it, the townspeople had turned Viet Cong on their asses.

Captain Swift had lost far too many men, and he didn’t want to risk losing anymore so he had pulled back and handed over to Captain Rollin as soon as he could. The smug bastard could deal with it himself and more power to him.

Captain Swift had flown back with his men, but they never got to their barracks. They got orders to return to the marshalling point where he and his men had been augmented, and there he met Mckingle for the second time.

The captain had been bracing himself for a dressing down, and he was surprised when he had just been asked about how the augmentation had been going. He had answered all the questions and then had been told to march his men back into the surgery, and there they had all had new cubes put into them.

And then they could fly. It was the most incredible feeling; three months ago they had been mere soldiers, and now they were gods. They could fly, and shoot laser beams, and basically do anything they could set their mind to.

Perkin’s unit had been merged with his and they had all gone back to the barracks; where they had gotten no work done since they were only interested in flying laps around the barracks.

There were a few people who didn’t seem as happy as the others, and the Captain decided to send them off on a few errands that had to be done, but mostly everyone was living in paradise.

“Then things got a little weird” said the Captain, “And you hit me, in the face, with a truck. I think you know the story from there” He grinned widely and slumped face first on the desk.

*

Laurie’s head spun as she walked out of the church.  She leaned back against the wall and looked over the town.

The town was in ruins; there was really no other way to put it.  The fighting seemed to have stopped for now, but there were sparkling lights all around the perimeter.

Laurie felt like she was to blame for everything that had happened.  She collapsed down the wall of the church and sat hunched on the ground.  Laurie tried to imagine a world in which she hadn’t taken the cube; would it have been any better?  She looked back at the Reverend.

Reverend Sammy was still pouring over his maps; he looked a lot older and more tired than Laurie remembered him.  As she watched him, he turned to her and gave her an exhausted smile.

Laurie felt very awkward, she blushed and turned away.  When Laurie had told her story to the Reverend she had glossed over the fact that she was probably responsible for everything that happened to Symphony.

There was the sound of heavy footsteps behind her. “You can’t stay out here forever”, said the Reverend, “if nothing else, The HQ won’t be here for too much longer”

Laurie was confused by this.  She looked around, and then looked up at the Reverend and asked, “Why?”

The Reverend smiled at her and ruffled her hair, “Ha!” he laughed, “I give us maybe half an hour at most before the army comes in here with cruise missiles and blows this church to hell and back”

Laurie was shocked.  She pulled away from his hair ruffling hand and said, “Would they really do that?”

The Reverend seemed totally unfazed.  He chuckled and said, “They have to have realized by now they can’t take us at close range; I wouldn’t be surprised if the cruise missiles were already in the air.  I have men moving the weapon already.”

Laurie looked behind her and smiled at the men already unbolting the giant bronze machine.  Then she looked up at the sky warily, “Shouldn’t we be moving as well then?”

The Reverend smiled at her, “Why do you think I’m here?” he asked, and he offered her his hand.

Laurie still felt a little guilty, but she took his hand; it’s a natural reaction when someone offers.  “Where are we going?” she asked.

The Reverend was leading her off the meadow.  “There’s a large abandoned warehouse at the edge of town” he said, “Emma will be meeting us there; she is recovering nicely.  What I’m far more interested in is what the two of you will be doing now that you’ve broken the blockade.

Laurie was surprised at herself; she honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead.  She raised her finger and opened her mouth, but no sound came out.

Laurie hadn’t really had any time to think; when she had been driving through the desert with Emma, she had been thinking that it would be an easy mission, and when the sky had lit up, she had only been concerned with getting into action as fast she could, finally, after everything had unravelled, Laurie had only been concerned with her own survival.  Laurie had almost forgotten the reason why she had come to Symphony in the first place, and she certainly had no idea what she was going to do now.

Laurie tried to muster her thoughts and scratched her head.  “I don’t really know” she said “I came here to get information from a leader figure”

The Reverend smiled at her, “I’ll be happy to tell you anything you need” he said

For some reason Laurie found that funny.  She chuckled and said “I was kind of hoping to get some information from the other side”

The Reverend gazed off into the middle distance, “Ah” he said, “now that I can’t help you with; what are you going to do instead?”

But Laurie’s mind was whirling again; her old sense of fun was returning.  Laurie idly scratched at the back of her hand, and thought ‘why not?’  If you took a step back and from all the horror of warfare, what were you left with?  It was just giant game, and you were free to set your own conditions.  “I’m going to go kidnap the general” murmured Laurie absentmindedly.

The Reverend looked at her with raised eyebrows “That may be difficult” he said.

But Laurie wasn’t listening.  “I’m going to kidnap General” she said to herself again as she drifted off.

*

Derek was having a lot less fun than Laurie. He collapsed into a chair at the table and wished he was the kind of person who kept whiskey around.  “I sent Laurie into a war zone!” He moaned

There was no whiskey to be had of course; highly explosive fluids were something the chemists felt strongly about.  Beatrice drifted back into the room, followed by a very confused looking Andrea, and sat down at the table next to him.

Derek’s survival instincts were shooting him warnings again.  He glanced up at Beatrice with suspicious eyes; he had sent Emma to a war zone as well and he was a little worried that Beatrice might want to seek revenge for that.

Beatrice was sitting silently and polishing a gun, but it was that probably wasn’t a threat.

Derek felt exhausted by how stressful his life had become.  He sighed and put the matter of Beatrice out of his mind; if she decided to kill him then he wouldn’t have any say in it.  “We have to decide what to do” he said

Andrea was hovering somewhere in the background, the twins were still discussing make up, and Beatrice was cleaning her gun and not paying him any attention.

Derek hadn’t really expected anything else.  He sighed again and said “We have to get its in contact with Laurie; the sun’s probably not even up yet in Symphony, we might be able to warn her before she gets over the hills”

“What’s going on?” said Andrea

Derek was somewhat annoyed by Andrea breaking his train of thought.  He ignored her and pressed on “Do either Emma or Laurie have cell phones?”  He asked

Beatrice looked up at him and shook her head.  The twins looked up at him and said “Laurie has one, we have her number”

Derek was glad that something had gone right.  He gave a weary smile and dialled the number the twins had given him.

There was a crackle of static and a sound like a truck backing up.

Derek was frustrated; both at the phone for not working, and at himself, for expecting it to work.  He sighed deeply and rubbed his forehand “It’s not working” he said

“Oh yes” said the twins cheerfully “Laurie’s phone is missing, she told us”

Derek wasn’t even surprised.  He glared at the twins and said “You could have told me that earlier”

The twins looked hurt “You didn’t ask us to” they said

Derek wondered what he had ever done to the universe, and he held his head in his hands.

“You could always go to after them yourself” Andrea piped up helpfully

Derek thought this was a terrible idea.  He fought against a gagging feeling and said “that would just put us in the middle of a war zone as well”

Andrea didn’t seem willing to let the issue go, “you wouldn’t be trapped there” she said, “you could take a helicopter and that would make you fast enough to get away.

Derek could see a real problem with this, and it annoying him that Andrea couldn’t see as well.  He turned around in his seat to glare at her and said “right up to a point where they send their own helicopters”

“Just use a helicopter that’s designed for speed” said Andrea; as though it was easy “then you could outrun anything they sent against you.

Derek didn’t know enough about helicopters to be able to say whether this was a good idea, but he had enough presence of mind to see one huge problem, “that’s a wonderful idea” he said, “but there is a serious problem with it; we don’t have a fast helicopter”

“You don’t” said Andrea, “but I do”

There was total silence around the table; Derek was staring at Andrea as though unable to process what she had just said, Beatrice stopped polishing her gun and looked at Andrea for the first time, even the twins; sensing something important had just happened, turned around to look in random directions.

Derek wasn’t sure that he had understood, and if he had then he was thinking about changing his views on the plan; flying close the ground in a helicopter that he never flown before towards an active military installation seemed like a terrible idea to him.  “What did you just say?” he said

Andrea laughed wickedly “Oh don’t think you can get out of it that easy” she said, “You need a way to rescue your friend?  Well now you have a way; you have to go and do it”

Derek couldn’t help but feel a bit insulted.  He shook his head sadly and wondered just what he had done to give her such a low opinion of him.  “Why do you even have a helicopter?”  He asked; it seemed like a very important detail.

Andrea gave him a contemptuous look “I don’t have a helicopter, you idiot; who has that kind of money?”

Derek thought that he had got the wrong end of the conversation somewhere.  He raised one finger, and was about speak.

“The stuntman department has a helicopter” and Andrea went on, “it’s necessary for the job; it’s class materials: but I’ll bet they’ll let you borrow it”

Derek didn’t think they would.  He shook his head and said “why would the stuntman department let me borrow a multimillion dollar piece of equipment to go and attack an active military force?”

“To get rid of you?”  Said Andrea, “I think they’d gladly give you the entire floor”

Derek felt a little confused again; he was sure he hadn’t behaved badly enough to inspire that much hatred from the stuntman department, but if they were prepared to give him the equipment he needed then he wasn’t going to complain, “all right” he said, “we will go and extract Laurie.  Where’s the helicopter?”

Andrea looked happy that they had reached this agreement “it’s on the roof” she said.

Derek could feel himself starting to ramp for action again; it was a weird feeling he got in his head when he knew that his life would be in danger soon.  He pushed himself up from his chair and started walking without backwards glance.  Then he glanced back “hold on” he said, “We can’t go without Casper”

Andrea sighed, “Fine, whatever,” she said, “where did you last see him?”

*

Something had changed in Laurie and she felt different.  She drifted through the night as though she were indestructible, and she smiled as she looked up on the cliff face.

Someone had lit a bonfire.  It wasn’t necessary, and it was probably pretty stupid; after all a modern military doesn’t really need a bonfire, but there are some things that simply have too much tradition behind them to be stopped.

Laurie was glad to see the bonfire; it wouldn’t be anywhere near the enemy camp of course: but it gave a rough direction to go in.  She tightened her coat against the cold, and started to trek up the cliff.

The fighting had more or less come to a stop at the cliff face; tanks tend not to work very well on near vertical surfaces, and any troops trying to fight their way up would’ve had enemy troops several hundred feet above them dropping rocks.  So the fighting had stalled, and the boundary lines had been drawn.

Laurie felt the thrill of adventure as she climbed.  She knew that she was leaving friendly territory; it made her shiver and every rock seemed to be sharp.  She started to hum to herself; only gently, but probably louder than is wise when you’re attempting to sneak up on an enemy encampment.  It was a song about its battles, and thieves, and kidnappings, and she smiled as she hummed.

Laurie met no opposition as she climbed and eventually the barren rock gave way to slightly less barren tundra.

Laurie was suddenly unsure of where to go; she knew the enemy had to be nearby, but she couldn’t see any sign.  She paused and looked around uncertainly, and then she picked a random direction started walking again as sound drifted to her on the breeze; it was a harsh sound, sudden and sharp.

Laurie was glad to hear it; because it meant she was going the right way.  Soldiers shouldn’t bring their dogs with them to war either, but like with the bonfire there are just certain things you can’t stop a man from doing.

The sound just got louder and louder as Laurie walked, until it seemed to fill the air as it bounced off the rocks around her.

Laurie wasn’t worried about the dogs; she knew that in a war zone any sane soldier would make sure that his dog was securely leashed where he couldn’t run in the path of explosives, so she shot a thankful smile and in the direction of noise and kept walking.

Two large dogs bounded out of the darkness towards her.

Not for the first time Laurie was shocked.  A certain amount of the feeling left her, and she was suddenly aware that she was deep in enemy territory without hope of backup and completely undefended and unarmed.  “Good doggies” she said

The dogs bounded around her barking loudly but not jumping in for the kill; they were unsure whether she was really friend or foe.

Laurie wasn’t worried about the dogs attacking her.  She put in her hands up to cover her throat, but otherwise she tried to tune them out.  She wasn’t worried about what the dogs might do to her; what she was really worried about was what might be attracted by the noise.

“You two found a rabbit?”  Came a voice from the darkness, there was the sound of crunching stones.

Now Laurie was scared.  She took a few steps backwards, but resisted the urge to run.  She knew that her actions in the next few seconds would determine whether she lived or died, and running would be the wrong decision.

The dogs were still barking, and a silhouette was starting to appear in the gloom.

Laurie felt trapped, and she knew she only had one option.  Her hands were already moving before she had even finished forming the thought.  She ripped her jacket off, shivering in the sudden cold, whipped off her glasses, and took on a sultry pose.

The silhouette turned into a young man; he looked relaxed and at ease for someone who had been in battle only a few hours before.  He was still wearing full battle armour and was carrying his rifle.  He paused in shock when he saw Laurie and said “You found a very pretty bunny, boys”

Laurie was glad; the lusts of a young man aren’t nearly as predictable as women’s magazines would have you think, especially when the focus of the lusts is disguised as a middle aged woman.  Laurie smiled, and it was only half fake, “thank you” she said “I was wondering if you boys wanted some company”.

The soldier looked like he was thinking about something; it was clear he wasn’t very happy about the plural in that last word.  He looked around and said “where did you come from?”

Laurie wasn’t happy about how quickly the soldier had gotten back to the important business.  She held back the facial expression she wanted to make and made sure she kept a smile on her face.  “I’m on a road trip with my sisters” she said “and they dropped me off here for the night and because they knew I was a big fan of the armed services”

The statement seemed to be having a good effect; the man seemed to like the fact that she was ‘here for the night’ as well as the suggestion that there would be ‘sisters ‘ coming to pick her up in the morning.  “And you’re sure you’re not some kind of spy from the enemy?” he asked, and he was smiling, but it was only half a joke.

Laurie’s smile came naturally to her; even if parts of the soldier were still clinging to good military sense, far more important parts were urging him to abandon it.  “Well I wasn’t last time I checked” said Laurie; it was technically true; what she had been planning wasn’t strictly spying.

The man looked very conflicted for a moment as though half his body wanted to move back and the other half wanted to move forward.  The dogs settled down and sat on either side of him like big, fuzzy gargoyles; they looked conflicted as well; they were still waiting to see how this will turn out

Laurie felt a sudden sense of urgency.  She knew she had to seize the moment, and she stepped towards soldier.  She knew that if she spent the night with him then she wouldn’t get close enough to the general to do what she needed to do, so she said “it took me a while to trek here; do you think the mess tent is still open?”

That had been a good choice; the man might being conflicted about spending the night with a girl he just meant, but certainly making sure a hungry gal got fed couldn’t be breaking any laws; it was practically chivalrous.  The man offered Laurie his arm.

Laurie was surprised by this; she hadn’t quite figured the man as the gallant type.  But she smiled and took it anyway, and together they walked into a darker part of the mountain.

The rocks loomed dense around them.  They actually seemed to be getting closer too, and certainly the dogs’ barking was reverberating more; it was like being assaulted by sound.

Laurie thought the environment was exciting; she could see the harsh shapes looming up out of the gloom, and it made her shiver.  “I love this landscape” she said.

“Really?”  Said the man, “I don’t”

And then they were suddenly at the camp. It really was suddenly; one minute it was just looming rocks, and the next; looming rocks with lots of soldiers underneath them.

Laurie was excited.  She looked around and thought that maybe she should have come to do a little bit of spying; if it was this easy to get in it, she might just be a natural.  “This is great” she said, “but where do you keep your tanks?  There can’t be that much room with all these rocks around”

The man smiled at her; it was clear he had appreciated the complement, “rocks?”  He asked innocently.

Laurie was confused for a moment, and she looked around.  Then slowly the whole picture started to form in her head.  Here a rock with a texture that wasn’t quite right, there a rock just the same height as a missile launcher, then another rock just the same height as a tank, and a thousand others like it stretching as far as the eye could see.  The sheer magnitude off the task she had set herself suddenly occurred to Laurie.’It’s going to be a very long night’ she thought.

*

The stuntman floor was a horrible mess; Derek hadn’t appreciated how much stuff he had wrecked during his dramatic flight.

Derek was a little embarrassed. He rubbed the back of his neck and said “Ah, I guess that’s why you can’t wait to see the back of me”

Andrea glared at him and said, “I actually hadn’t had a good look at it up till now, let’s just get your friend and get out of here”

Derek fervently agreed.  He was finding that he really wanted to leave this place where so many people seemed to hate him. He walked deeper into the room and looked around.

The room definitely hadn’t been this bad when he had left it; the Tal looked like it had been completely gutted.

Derek was horrified; why would someone choose to do that?  He ran towards the tower and looked inside.

He had been right; the Tal was completely hollow inside.  Wires dangled into the shell in random places, but they didn’t seem to be attached to anything.

Derek wasn’t happy.  He turned around and looked at Andrea, “what happened here?”  He said “how did this happen?”

Andrea looked suitably horrified as well,” I don’t know” she said “it wasn’t like this when I left”

Derek felt like he was just running into brick walls.  He rested his head against the cool metal of the case and wondered what was going to do next.

No ideas came and nobody offered any of their own.

An idea occurred to Derek.  He looked up slowly and turned to the others.  “Casper was sitting on top of this last time I saw him” he said “he could manipulate things because he had the cube; he must’ve realized that he could cut out the middleman; which is why he didn’t help me when I called for him”

Andrea was looking a little confused again; that was understandable since no one had bothered to tell her about everything that’s going on, but she was a quick study and she was listening “wait a minute” she said, “are you saying your friend did this?”

Derek was very tired, and he couldn’t see any point in concealing it.  He waved his hand vaguely in the air and said “yes, yes, it was him; it’s the only thing that makes sense”

Andrea hit him.

It wasn’t a gentle hit.  It wasn’t playful in any way; it sent him staggering backwards until he regained his balance.

Derek felt shocked; he hadn’t expected her to do that.  He opened his eyes and stared at her, “Did you really just punch me?”  He said.

Andrea was barring her teeth at him “I should have aimed higher when I fired Bert at that target” she said, and she stormed away.

Derek’s head spun, and he wondered if he was missing something; Andrea’s reaction seemed well out of proportion with what had been done to her.  Derek rubbed his jaw and dismissed it from his mind; there were more important things to deal with.  He turned to Beatrice and the Twins and said, “Casper would have probably gone back down to the first floor; we probably just missed him”

Derek felt a little annoyed as he said the last bit.  He rubbed his jaw and walked for the door. ‘If I had known that all I had to do was wait’ he thought, ‘then I could have avoided having to trek through those people on the third floor’

The procession started to make its way down again; Derek in the lead, muttering as he went, followed by the Twins, nattering about irrelevant things, Beatrice drifting along, and glancing into random doorways as she went past, and finally with Andrea at the rear; looking sullen.

Derek couldn’t believe the chain of events that had brought him to this point.  It suddenly occurred to him how strange the whole thing was, and he looked back on his assembled troops with astonishment. If he had been given a choice then the only one of them he would’ve freely selected would have been Beatrice; and even that was a maybe.  Derek turned back around and shook his head; he had a feeling that his life was going to get even weirder before this was over.

They met no opposition until they reached the third floor; which was approximately when the entire affair went to shit like a pig farm homing missile.  As Derek walked off the third floor stairway he found himself eye to eye in with the entire contents of the stuntman department; they were at the end of the corridor, but it was still eye to eye.

Adrenaline surged through Derek’s veins.  His legs were moving back up the stairs before his body had even finished turning around.  “Run!” he yelled, “Run!”

Everyone ran; there was just something in Derek’s voice that didn’t allow them to do anything else.  There was the sound of thumping boots behind them.

Derek didn’t know where he was running to, only that he had to run.  He looked around and took stock of his surroundings for the first time.  “What are we doing on the Baker’s floor?”  He demanded.

No one answered him; partly because no one had a good answer, and partly because running for your life is not something that makes people very chatty.

Derek thought he could hear the sounds of people coming up the stairs behind him; and he ran like hounds of hell were on his heels.  He knew he had to find a way back down, but the only stairwell was now blocked with angry people running up it.

The Baker’s floor was spacious and airy.  It was mostly clean but there was flour everywhere; it coated the floor like snowdrifts.  There were rolling pins everywhere, and more than a few knives, but nothing like the kind of force multiplier that Derek really needed.

Derek knew he had to get back down, and more to the point he badly wanted to get back down; he didn’t like the idea of running up through about a hundred floors to get to a helicopter that he didn’t really know how to fly.  He turned to the only person he knew who might be destructive enough to do what he needed.  “Beatrice!”  He yelled, “I need you to blow a hole in the floor” he didn’t have any idea how Beatrice could do this, but anyone could do it then she could.

Andrea caught up with him; panting and out of breath.  “Wait a minute” she said, “Who are we running from?”

Derek was so surprised by this new thought that he paused on the spot, and almost had Andrea run into him for his trouble.  He suddenly felt very awkward, he rubbed the back of his neck and said “Ah, well the stuntman.”

Andrea looked as annoyed as he had her expected to.  She put her hands on her hips and said “do you mean to tell me that we have been running from my own people?”  She glared at him.

Derek felt even more awkward.  He looked away and murmured “yes, I suppose we have”

The stuntman had appeared at the top of the stairwell.  Andrea turned around so that she was facing them.  She raised her arms and opened her mouth, and that was when the whole thing went to hell.

In keeping with the hell theme there was a huge blossoming of flame as barrels of flour exploded; Beatrice had found something to blow up.

Derek hit the ground hard, but he was back on his feet quickly; it was just part of the job.  He looked around and took stock of his surroundings.

Beatrice was standing very calmly in the middle of the hallway; she looked when she just wandered in and hadn’t noticed the huge hole in the ceiling.  The Twins were lying on their backs and gibbering, but this was perfectly normal for them, so Derek wasn’t worried.  Andrea was lying on the ground too, she still had her hands up, though her mouth was now closed, and she looked rather stunned by what just happened.  The giant hole in the ceiling was still fire around the edges; it was as good as a giant memo reading ‘don’t ever come back to the Bakers floor’

Derek knew he was running out of time, he started running towards Andrea and yelled, “Get the Twins up, Beatrice; we’re running out of time” he reached Andrea and wrenched her back to her feet.

Andrea didn’t object; she still looked rather stunned.  Some other people did comment though; at the end of the corridor a group of people appeared; presumably attracted by the noise.  “It’s him!”  Squealed one girl; who was wearing far too much makeup, and she ran towards him with her arms splayed wide.

Derek felt like he was trapped in the jaws of a vice.  He turned in a tight circle but there was nowhere to run to “Damn” he muttered.

The group was in a box and there were only two ways out.  The first way was down the corridor, and that way was blocked by the huge group of people that joined the first girl in running towards Derek.  The second way, a far more difficult way, was back up the hole they just blown in the ceiling, and that way was blocked by the stuntman who were ringing the hole and looking down.  In short, they were trapped.

Derek was terrified, but he kept a cool head.  He grabbed Andrea and held her up like a shield, “say something” he said.

Andrea moaned.  “They’ve got Andrea!”  Came an outraged voice from above.

Derek didn’t think his luck should be this consistently bad.  Cursing his life he hurled himself into his oncoming fans, flinching against the sound of their voices.

His fans grabbed them and carried both Andrea at himself on their shoulders.  The Twins ran to join in with the crowd and danced around with them.  Beatrice walked carefully into the crowd; as though trying to make sure she didn’t step on anybody.

Derek was surprised; being carried away wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d thought it would be.  He was worried about the stuntman though, and he turned around to look back.

The stuntmen were pouring through the hole; like termites pouring out of a broken nest.  They were angry and they were charging at him, but they couldn’t make enough headway against the crowd.

Derek was happy.  He smiled, and then he laughed; it was about time he had some good luck.  But Derek was a practical man and he knew he had to get away from his fans while he still had the opportunity.

But there didn’t seem to be an opportunity; the crowd carrying him had formed a tight procession, and they were growing.

Derek didn’t like the idea of being carried off to a party.  Quite apart from anything that might be done to him there, it would only be a matter of time before the stuntman kicked the door down and got him.  “Ah, do you think you could put me down here?” he said

The crowd was chanting and singing as well as dancing, and it didn’t seem like anyone had heard him.

With a sudden flash of insight Derek realized he had asked the wrong question; these people thought he was a hero, and if he asked to be put down they would assume he was just being modest.  He slapped his forehead and asked “hey, do you think you could put me down by the window?  I want to do an encore”

This got on instant reaction from the crowd.  The people underneath started jumping up and down and cheering.  And the people at the edges of the crowd started cheering as well; they had no idea what they were cheering about, but it was clearly something important since everyone else was cheering.  Derek was passed through several dozen hands and he was put down with his back to a wall length window.

This left Derek feeling rather stupid; no matter what he told his hoards of screaming fans he had absolutely no intention jumping out of a third story window; especially if he had to actually break the window first.  He raised his hand, opened his mouth, and prayed for words to come, but before he could say anything he saw something that took his mind away.

Andrea had returned to the world of consciousness; she was standing some distance into the crowd and jumping up and down; she looked like she was trying to push her way through the crowd, but she couldn’t make any headway.

Derek felt conflicted.  On one hand there was a crazy hope that Andrea found some sort of solution to the crowd problem; which would mean that he wouldn’t have to jump out over a third story window and to appease a crowd that was braying “jump, jump, jump!  On the other hand was the hard certainty that she only wanted to push her way towards him so that she could mock him, as well in as the comfortable little knowledge that it didn’t actually matter what she wanted to do because she couldn’t make any headway through the crowd.

A playing card whipped into the crowd.  With perfect mathematical precision it ricocheted off at least a dozen people and forcibly cleared a path for Andrea.

Derek was confused; who wanted to help them?  For that matter who used playing cards as a crowd control device?  He looked left and right to try and find the card’s origin.

Which was when Andrea tackled him through the window.

Once again Derek felt the sensation of falling; he was really beginning to hate it.  He flailed around wildly; trying to catch hold something, and he gave serious consideration to screaming.

Andrea caught a hold of him and held him tightly, and then suddenly the two of them were swinging through the night.

Derek was rather surprised at this turn of events.  He opened his eyes and looked around “what’s going on?” he said

Andrea snorted at him derisively.  “Every stuntman likes to make sure there’s a rope outside every window” she said “It just saves a lot of time in the long run”

Derrick thought this was one of the most ridiculous things he had ever heard.  He brushed himself off and said “hold on, how did I get through that window without being cut to ribbons?”

Andrea rolled her eyes at him; not an easy thing to do when you’ll swinging by one hand from a tall building while holding a much larger man with the other.  “Every floor leaves his mark on the dorm” she said “one night all the stuntman sneaked out and switched out every window pane with Candy glass, it saves time in the long run”

Derek decided to amend his statements about the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard.  A lot of reasonable questions floated to the top of his mind, prominently amongst them was why no one in the building had noticed that flies were sticking to their windows.  But he was tired, and his eyes were aching, and he decided to just accept it.

They came to a running stop on the ground floor just outside reception.  Andrea let go of Derek with insulting speed and brushed herself off.  “Let’s go get your friend so that we can get rid of you” she said as she stalked off into reception.

The reception was completely lit up by a weird glow.  It seems to come from the door to the chemists floor, and it was so noticeable that even Serv was awake and watching it.

Derek was actually relieved.  He imagined what it would have been like if he had come all that way that way and found that Casper wasn’t there; he might have done something that would completely justify Andrea’s view of him.  As it was he smiled, and started walking.

There was a lot of noise drifting down the stairs as they walked passed them; it was the sound of partying, and the sound of battle; there isn’t nearly as much difference as you might think.  Derek looked up a bit nervously as they walked, but no one came down, and they made it to the door of room 17 without incident.  When they reached the door Derek suddenly stopped.

Something just didn’t feel right there; it was like the room was warning him away; it’s a disturbing feeling to be mildly threatened by an empty space.  He raised his hand up and put in front of the door handle, but he didn’t try to move any closer.

Andrea rolled her eyes at him and wrenched open the door.

The room was filled with yellow.

Derek’s brain fizzed; there really aren’t any emotions designed to handle being face to face with the wonders of the universe.  He stood there slack-jawed and waved his hands around, but there wasn’t even an attempt at making sounds; the human brain knows when it’s been beaten.

The room was filled with yellow, and suggestions of shapes within the yellow, and many, many parts of things that may, or may not have been parts of the Tal. There was a general sense that a great and private study was being carried out.

Derek felt a gentle but very firm pressure on his stomach, and he and Andrea were pushed backwards out of the room.  The door closed in their faces with a gentle click.

Derek just stood there slack-jawed.  Then he slowly turned to Andrea and said “you know what?  Maybe we can leave without Casper”

*

Laurie was having an ethical problem; she was having a good time.

The men of the 14th tank company seemed to have adopted her as a sort of mascot.  They had made sure she was well fed, and she was sitting in the mess tent watching them do a very creditable performance of the hornpipe.

Laurie felt a very odd mix of emotions.  She knew that these men were the enemy, and she had to move against them. She also knew that she was in the wrong place to carry out the mission, and that she should be looking for the general.  She was also very impressed by the force of the performance, and she was clapping in a way that wasn’t faked.

The entire mess tent was clapping along with a performance as well, and someone had produced some kind of instrument that wailed as it was blown into, and generally there was the air of everyone having a good time.

That made Laurie feel a little uneasy; all these men had been in battle the day before, and they’d been defeated horribly by a weapon they’d never seen before.  These men should be staring up at the roofs of their tents, not partying and having fun.  Laurie quietly clucked her tongue, and tried to put that out of the mind for now; she still had a mission to carry out.  “Would it be alright if I went for a quick walk?”  She asked the man sitting next to her.

The man stopped clapping and turned to Laurie, he looked a little concerned, “we don’t like to encourage people wandering around” he said, “This is an active war zone after all”.

Laurie had been afraid of that.  She put on her best embarrassed face and said “well it’s sort of a feminine need, you understand”

The man looked away from her, blushing bright red.  “Right: yes, of course” he murmured.

Laurie was glad.  As she slipped out of the mess tent she smiled and offered a quick prayer for her grandmother who had taught her this all-purpose excuse.  She slipped out of tent flap and looked around.

The cold hit her like a punch in the gut.  The night had worn on while she had been warm inside the tent.  The sky over the mountains was now crystal clear, and the stars blazed at her like she was inside a glittered marble

Laurie spirits were slightly dampened by the cold.  She pulled her coat more tightly around herself; no matter what kind of benefits she gained by keeping it open, it couldn’t possibly be worth the risk of hypothermia.  She hugged her arms to herself and took another look around.

The crowd of oddly shaped rocks stretched away into the distance.  They didn’t look any different to last time she’d seen them, and there was no way of identifying one rock from the other.

Suddenly Laurie felt a little bit out of place.  She stretched herself up so she could see further, but this made absolutely no difference.  She had no idea where the general’s tent was, or even if he had a tent; she had no idea where to go.

There was no one about; the night was too cold and everyone was making sure that they stayed undercover.

Laurie felt kind of stupid for not thinking this part of the plan through.  She shivered and started walking; hoping that an idea would come to her as she walked.

It seemed like she wasn’t the only one about at night.  As she walked sounds drifted out to her from underneath the cloths.  They weren’t loud sounds or even particularly noticeable; they were the rustles and squeaks of humans as they go about their lives.

Laurie was glad to hear them; whenever Laurie found herself in trouble too big to deal with on her own, she liked to recruit other people into the problem.  She turned and crawled underneath the closest cloth.

It was dark inside, even by Laurie standards.  The air was heavy and damp and smelled of oil.  The giant cloth rested heavily what appeared to be an artillery piece, and a man sat underneath it, eyeing her suspiciously.

Laurie wasn’t as glad to see the man as she thought she would be; something about the man just disturbed her, it just seemed strange to her that a man could love his weapon so much that he would choose to sleep with it.  However he was the man whom she had heard underneath the tent, and if she had her way then he was the man who is going to help her.  She waved and said “hi”.

The man jumped as though he’d been stung.  He spun around in his seat and struck a large switch.  A blindingly powerful light came on, and lit up the entire tent.

Laurie felt stupid, and she was in pain, she wasn’t sure which one was actually worse.  She shielded her eyes and tried to look away, but the light was bright even through her closed eyelids.  She cursed herself; of course the man had been surprised, he had had no idea that she’d been there.  “Do you think you can turn that off?”  She asked, “I have very sensitive eyes, and it’s hurting me”

There was the sound of a clicking gun “first” said the man, “identify yourself”

Laurie was suddenly worried; it felt like ice water was flowing in her veins.  She knew that she was only going to get one opportunity, and she made an effort to face towards the man.  “I’m from the 14th tank company” she said “they wanted me to send a message to the general”

“If that’s true” said the man, in a very careful voice, “then why are you here instead of with the general?”

The man was starting to annoy Laurie; she didn’t think it should be this hard to convince someone of your innocence when you were the one who called them in the first place.  “They didn’t give me directions to get to the general’s tent” she said; which was obviously the truth, “but was I didn’t want to disturb them again, so I decided to ask the next person I came across.”

The man’s voice was still slow and careful, “I see,” he said, “you didn’t want to disturb them, so you thought you’d come and disturb me”

Laurie realized she badly wanted to get away from this man, and she seized upon the opportunity he he’d given her.  “Yes, you’re right, I’m very sorry, I’ll be going now”.  She felt the edge off the tent fabric and started to lift it up.

There was a gentle but unmistakable sound of a gun being aimed.  “You are going to stay where I can see you” said the man “until I’m satisfied that you can safely walk away”

Laurie felt very unhappy with the way things were going.  She considered raising her hands, but she didn’t want to leave her eyes exposed.  She considered using the same trick she had used on the man on the ridge, but she didn’t want to try it with blinding lights in her eyes.  In the end she settled for freezing still, staying there, and waiting for the next development.

There was a very long pause; the man seemed to be thinking, “who is the leader of the 14th tank company?” he said

Laurie felt a weird sense of significance; and for the umpteenth time in the recent days she realized she was in a situation in which she had a few seconds to determine whether she was going to live or die.  She searched her memory furiously; trying to find the man who had led the 14th tank.  She must’ve been introduced to him, she realized, a fuzzy face swam into half focus, “Sergeant Mendes?”  She said tentatively.

The man was silent.

Laurie felt uncomfortable.  But the man hadn’t started shooting.  “Yes” she said more forcefully, sticking to her guns, “I think his name was Sergeant Mendes”

The man shifted, “what’s the message?”  He said

Laurie was incredibly relieved.  She fought the urge to laugh, and said “the men wanted to register a complaint about the lack of condoms being issued to them”

The man switched the lights off, and darkness descended upon the tent.  “I can carry that message to him” he said, “You don’t need to go any further”.

Laurie wasn’t worried; she knew exactly what to say to that.  She smiled and tried to blink away the afterimages that the light left, “I think it has to be me who delivers the message” she said, “that’s the way the men of the 14th tank company wanted it, and I think they felt it would be an important part of the message”

Behind the haze of blue and red afterimages the man watched her.  “Idiots” he muttered to himself.  Then more loudly he said “We don’t have a general”

Laurie felt a little wrong footed by that, but she was on a roll.  She gave the man a bright smile and said, “Really?  That seems a little odd.  Anyway, the men just called him the boss, and I just kind of assumed that meant general.”

The man carefully studied her face as though he were looking for something.  Whatever he was looking for he didn’t find it, and he walked to the edge of the tent and beckoned to Laurie.

Laurie felt great; it was the feeling of having played an extremely difficult game and having won decisively.  She skipped a bit and hummed a few bars as she followed the man out of the tent.

It was still cold outside, and Laurie’s breath hung in the air.

Laurie didn’t mind the cold this time; everything was going right again, and somehow that made the whole world seem brighter.  “Where is the gener- the leader?”  She asked

The man looked back at her; he wasn’t smiling and he didn’t look very happy about having her around.  “Just you follow me” he said.

Laurie did the mental equivalent of shrugging; she still kind of wished she could’ve won the man over, but in the end you can’t win them all.  She followed him through the camp; in the end it wasn’t like she had much choice.

The leader’s tent was underwhelming.  It looked exactly like the cloth covering over all the tanks around it, and actually looked slightly smaller.

Laurie felt a little disappointed.  She knew an intellectual level that it is a stupid idea for the leader of an army to identify himself to any enemy bombers, but the thespian inside her soul was outraged that the leader of such a large army would be living in such a small and undistinguished tent.  “Is that it?”  She asked, a little bit ungratefully

The man paused at the entrance to the tent and glowered at her.  Then, without saying a word, he turned and walked into the tent.

Laurie felt a little bit confused.  She really didn’t know what she was meant to do next.  It was like being a kid and standing outside the principal’s office; did she go in, or did she wait to be invited?  In the end Laurie’s curiosity trumped her sense of decorum, and she walked into the tent as well.

The tent was fairly sparse; it contained only a glowing table with a contour map off the surrounding mountains on it.  Around the table were about a dozen men in various states of arguing.  The man that had led Laurie there was talking to a short, jolly looking man.  As she watched they turned to her.

Laurie felt like spotlight to just been shone on her, and it suddenly occurred to her that she had absolutely no idea how she was going to capture the general; who clearly was quite well protected.  Nevertheless she smiled a warm smile and walked deeper into the tent.  “Good evening, commander” she said, “I was hoping I could have a word with you”

The man that had led Laurie took a step back, but kept his eye on both of them.  The jolly looking man chuckled, and said “strictly speaking, I’m a Captain”

Laurie could’ve kicked herself; she knew that military guys tended to take their titles seriously, and she was suddenly worried she ruined the mission by offending the man she had to capture.  She hung her head slightly and said, “I’m terribly sorry Captain.  Can I call you Captain? ”

The man bobbed forward with his eyes twinkling.  “Oh don’t worry about that my dear, you can call me anytime”

Laurie was very relieved; although she was somewhat confused as to why older men in positions of power had suddenly started finding her attractive.  She decided to press her advantage for everything it was worth, “I have a message for you Captain” she said, “I think it might be best if you that it is in private; shall we take a walk?”  She turned slightly to the side and pouted a little as she said this; it was quite suggestive, without being clear on what was suggesting.

The captain waggled his eyebrows at her, “Well far be it from me to refuse such a reasonable request such a lovely young lady” he said

Laurie was glad everything was going according to plan; insomuch as she actually had a plan.  She smiled and offered a hand to the captain.

The man who had taken to see the captain stepped in between them.  “Captain” he asked, “are you sure it’s a good idea to leave your post when you should be planning a battle?”  He said it in a way that implied it wasn’t really a question.

Laurie was starting to get annoyed with the man; she really felt that he was butting in where he wasn’t welcome.  She rolled her eyes, clucked her tongue, and looked at the captain.

The captain looked like he was seriously considering what the man was saying.

Laurie was horrified; the nebulous plan she had relied upon her getting the captain alone.  If she couldn’t convince him to leave the tent then there was no way she could carry out a successful kidnapping with all these other people around.  She stood up straighter so that she could look the Captain in the eye, “Captain” she said, “I’ll only take up a moment of your time”

“There you go, Gaston” said the captain while slapping the man on his shoulder, “She just wants a quick chat; I’ll be back before you know it”.  He walked past the man and he took Laurie’s hand.

Laurie actually felt slightly nervous; the window of opportunity had opened, but she had no idea what she was meant to do with it.  She made sure to keep smiling at the captain, and she led him out of the tent.

There was a bitter sting on the air, and that was a good thing because it meant that no one was around.  “Now” said the captain, “what was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

Laurie didn’t want to talk here; not when she was certain that Gaston was still watching them through the flap in the tent.  She smiled and said “can we walk a bit further?  There’s just something about this part of the camp that disturbs me”.  She knew she was pushing her luck; but she also knew she had to do whatever she was going to do where people couldn’t see her.

The captain smiled tolerantly.  “Of course” he said.

They walked further through the camp.  It didn’t look any different, but it was further away from Gaston.

Laurie was in the grip of a low yield panic; she knew that the time has come to act, but she had no idea what she was meant to do.  She found herself idly playing with the cube in her pocket; she hadn’t tried controlling the cube on her own yet, and this didn’t seem like the best time to try, but if there really were no other options, would it work?

“I think we’ve come far enough” said a Captain.  He was still smiling, but there was something different in his tone; a weird sense off immovable force.  “What did you want to talk to me about?”

Laurie knew this was the moment that she had to do something; anything, and somehow this knowledge felt freeing to her.  “Hold on” she said, “I need to tie my shoes back up”.  She bent down, and straightened back up holding a rock, which she bounced off the side of the captain’s head.

The lights went off behind the captain eyes, and he slumped to the ground.

Excitement flowed through Laurie; the time had come to act and she had acted.  She heaved the captain back onto his feet and leaned him against her.  Now that just left the question of what she had to do now.

The camp stretched away from her in every direction.

Laurie felt a little silly; she really had no idea what she was going to do with the unconscious captain.  She shook her head and muttered to herself “Next time I’ll think this plan through”.  She thought about how she must look to anyone who happened to be watching her, and realized that her and captain leaning against each other really needed no explanation.  Hell, if Gaston had followed him from the tent, he probably would just jump to conclusions and look away in disgust.  Could she just stay like this then?

A chill wind whistled through the mountains tops, and bit down to her bones.

Suddenly Laurie didn’t feel very safe, she shivered.  She also felt very cold, so she shivered again.  She couldn’t just leave the captain leaning against her, she decided; it might look great while they were just standing there, but deception would be seen as soon as she started moving.  The cold started Laurie thinking about the material that the tents were made out of; if she could steal a length of that then she could use as a sack to carry the captain; it will still be obvious, but not as bad as dragging unconscious body.  Laurie started looking underneath the tent’s closest to her.

The first tent contained a tank.  It was a very nice tank, but it wasn’t what she was looking for.

The second hand seemed to contain cooking supplies.  That was closer, but still wasn’t what Laurie needed.

The third tent had what she needed.

Laurie smiled to herself; she recognized finding the material she needed as a stroke of good luck.  She rubbed her hands together and grabbed a likely looking piece; it was a giant sheet that would completely envelop the captain and maybe go some way to keeping her warm as well.  She took the sheet back to the captain and bundled him in it.  Then she tried to lift him.

Laurie arms felt like they had been wrenched out of their sockets.  They captain may have been a small man but he wasn’t a light one.

Laurie felt a little bit embarrassed as she stood back up, and brushed herself off in a self-conscious way.  She tried to think of about ways of suddenly becoming twice as strong as she already was, and she found herself playing with the cube in her pocket again.  It has been the wrong time to use the cube earlier; when time has been of the essence, but perhaps now was the time for a bit of careful experimentation.

Five minutes later Laurie was walking out of the camp with a ridiculously large bag on the back

Laurie felt pleased with herself; the night hadn’t gone exactly as she planned, and there had been a few sticky moments as she went along, but so far everything has worked out all right: and she knew that the information the captain could give the Reverend would likely be key to winning the coming battle.  She smiled to herself and hummed as she walked.

There was a sound of barking and two large dogs bounded out of the darkness, they were closely followed by the man who led her into the camp, “oh, there you are” he said, “what happened to you?  Everyone just said you went out to get some feminine supplies.”  He eyed up the giant bag she was carrying, and kept his thoughts to himself.

Laurie felt like rolling her eyes, but apparently the night’s work wasn’t over just yet, and the man had been nice when she had last talked to him.  She smiled and opened her mouth to speak.

The man was in a state of considerable agitation, and he cut her off.  “Look it doesn’t matter” he said, “you have to come quickly; we just got new orders, and the entire camp is evacuating.”

Laurie was surprised by this; she couldn’t see any reason why an entrenched army would suddenly choose to evacuate.  She raised her eyebrows and asked “why?”

The man grabbed Laurie’s hand and started pulling her.  “High command ran out of patience” he said, “The entire town is going to be bombed off the face of the earth”

Laurie was horrified; she had no idea what else was going to happen, but she knew she couldn’t just run away and leave Symphony unwarned.

Laurie’s hands were shaking.  Since Laurie was also using the cube; the ground shook with her.  The man looked around in confusion, “That’s weird” he said “They shouldn’t have started yet”.

Laurie just couldn’t take it; she pulled her hand away, blurted out “Sorry!”, and started sprinting down the mountain.

*

Derek and Andrea stood out in the hall and stared at the door.

“Well” said Andrea, “If you’re not going to be taking Casper, then we should just get going now.”  She turned and started walking back towards reception.

Derek suddenly realized he’d forgotten something; he seemed to be doing that a lot nowadays.  We startled and said “Wait, we can’t leave just yet”

Andrea turned back to him with an annoyed sigh, “What is it this time?” she asked, “Have you forgotten some key piece of luggage, or maybe there’s a snack you’d like to bring with you: you know I’m really beginning to think that you really don’t want to rescue your friend.”

The rebuke stung Derek a little bit, but he brushed it off.  He waved his hand at Andrea, and said “We’ve just been kicked out of our room.  I think.  Anyway we have to get the message to my wife and daughter, or they’ll just come back home and find the entire place abandoned”

Andrea looked exasperated, “Your wife?  You mean some poor woman actually ended up marrying you?”

Derek decided to ignore the implied insult, “Yes” he said, “but if I’m not going to leave them in a state of panic then I have to let them know what’s going on”

Andrea threw her hands up and started walking away, “Where do we have to go?”  She called back over her shoulder.

Derek was startled by her sudden speed, and jogged to keep up with her, “I got rid of them for the night by giving them a ticket for Cats.”  He said

Andrea shuddered, “ugh” said the woman wearing a sequined gown, “I hate the theatre”

They walked along the main road heading towards the theatre. The roads were completely clear of people jumping off rooftops; all the stuntmen seem to already given up and were presently engaged on the third-floor.

Derek was annoyed, he bore it as long as he possibly could, but then he just couldn’t take anymore.  He turned to Andrea and said “Would you stop that?” he said this in a way that implied that it was not just a request.

Andrea looked annoyed as well, “Stop doing what?”  She asked, but the way she said it implied that she knew exactly what he was talking about, “I’m trying to stay inconspicuous, you shouldn’t be walking around in the open like that, and it’s not my fault you don’t think to take these precautions”

Derek was really missing Laurie; she was experienced enough not to make these stupid mistakes.  He threw his hands up and said “You’re drawing attention to yourself, and everyone is staring at us; would you please stop acting so inconspicuous.”

Derek was right; everyone was in fact staring at them.  To be more accurate, they were staring at Andrea; and one man even doubled back and walked by twice so that he could see the woman in a sequined gown trying to sneak through shadows.

Andrea took a long look around her, and straightened up, looking a little embarrassed.

Derek was glad he got his point across, “Thank you” he muttered.  He kept walking, and could see the theatre at the end of the street.

The theatre was a fairly recent building, built in the style of a very old building; presumably it had once looked very expensive, but now it looked very cheap; there are buildings like this in every city.

Derek looked up at the building with distaste, but he was somewhat glad it was still there; with his luck he had expected it to be blown up by the time he arrived.

Andrea stood beside him, “They’re in there?”  She said, “Well hurry up then; go in”

Derek didn’t like the way Andrea was rushing him; he had just been watching the rooftops; it was a habit he’d gotten into during his years spent on missions.  “Right, right” he muttered.  And he walked up to the ticket office

There was a man there.  It was a very tired looking man; he wore the kind of face that men wear when they work triple shifts at five jobs for 480 days year.  “Hello” he said: a little indistinctly, “can I take your order please?”

Derek thought about what it would be like to talk to this man on any kind of long-term basis, and he decided he just couldn’t take that “Has Cats finished yet?”, he asked, making sure to speak slowly and enunciate every word clearly.

The man looked at him with very glazed eyes.  “Cats?”  He asked, “We don’t serve cats here; you want the museum down the road.”

Derek decided that he was sick of the man already; it didn’t look like the man was in a position to stop him so he just walked straight into the building.

“Thank you for flying up with us” said the man; who was apparently talking to air.

The building was completely deserted; it looked as though all the theatrical activities had been finished for the night.

Derek felt kind of disappointed.  He tapped his feet, and thought about what this could mean.  It probably meant that his wife and his daughter had been on their way home, he decided, and that he must have missed them walking up.

Andrea appeared beside him, “what’s taking so long?”  She asked, “Have you lost your wife?  I don’t blame her; I’d be running too”

Derek wondered if there was any way he could get the helicopter keys off Andrea so that he wouldn’t have to talk to her for next hour or so.  But even as he rubbed his mouth he had to admit that kidnapping was an option he hadn’t considered.  His wife and daughter being kidnapped would be entirely in keeping with his kind of luck, he decided.  Derek sighed deeply; nothing could ever be easy.  “We have to go back to the dorm” he said, “I think we must’ve missed them”

Andrea sighed and shook her head at him, “I wish you could’ve worked that out before we walked to the 20 blocks just to get here” she said

The two of them walked out of the theatre, and they heard a voice out of the darkness, “Had a nice night folks?  That’s nice, I’ll be relieving you of any opera-going jewellery you may have”

Derek felt boundlessly annoyed; he was having a hell of a night so far, and he was more worried about his wife, his daughter, and Laurie that he would ever have admitted.  He resisted the urge to spin around and punch, and instead he slowly turned around, “Who in the hell are you meant to be?”

The man had been hiding in the shadows outside the theatre, he was very lanky, and greasy looking.  He was aiming a bulge under his shirt at Derek; it might be a gun, but it was far more likely that it was hand.  The man chuckled; it was like watching a corpse trying to cough, “Well that’s all very nice,” he said, “I’m just a friendly taxman, and I think you owe me some money.  Nothing personal you understand; that’s just the way it works”

Andrea looked the man over and snorted.

Derek couldn’t blame her; the man looked rather sad.  He thought about making some kind of contemptuous reply, but in the end he just turned and walked away.

The man caught his arm with the hand that he wasn’t using to hold, whenever he was holding, under his shirt.  “Now you hold on there,” he said, “Where do you think you’re going?”

Derek was annoyed.  He didn’t like the man grabbing him like that, and he decided that the insults he had intended to use the earlier were entirely in keeping with this man.  He shook his hand off and turned to face him.  “Now you look here,” he said, “I have had a very bad night so far, and I would love to take it out on you.  So this is your only opportunity to leave”

The man chuckled dryly; he seemed to have a lot more confidence than a man who looked like him should look.  He spread his arms wide and said “take it out on me?  Do you really think you can take me?”

Derek couldn’t believe the arrogance of the man.  He pointed to himself and said “I could take you”.  He pointed to Andrea and said “she could take you”.  He paused and thought for a moment and then said “my wife and daughter could take you; separately”

The man scoffed, “I would like it better if I had the two of them together, if you catch my drift, and anyway there’s no way you could possibly take me, since-”

Derek punched the man; it felt immensely satisfying.

The man went down like a sack of potatoes.

Derek felt a lot better about the world and his place in it.  He brushed his hands off, and said “Well that’s taken care of, let’s head on back”

Andrea looked troubled, “What do you think he was trying to say when you cut him off?”

Derek honestly couldn’t care less; he was just glad that the man wasn’t talking anymore.  “I honestly couldn’t care less” he said, “I’m just glad he isn’t talking anymore” he turned to start walking.

A new voice sounded out of the shadows, “I think he was trying to tell you about us” the voice said, “and now you owe us an opera tax; plus, a ‘being a violent idiot’ tax ”

Derek felt more frustrated than worried.  He glanced up towards the sky and raised his hands, “Why?”  He muttered.  Only then did he turn to face the source of the voice.

Another man had appeared out of the alleyways around the theatre; he didn’t look that much different from the first man.

Derek considered just walking away; reasoning that no one would be stupid enough to want to follow them.  But the world is full of stupid people; it was a fact that Derek had to deal with on a daily basis, so he shook his head and was about to give the man a stern telling off when he noticed something that stopped dead.

Other men were stepping out of the shadows behind him.  A lot of other men.  Many other men.  The word ‘army’ would not be an inadequate description.

Now Derek felt worried; he looked at the assembling men, and tried to calculate odds.  Then he took a step back.

Andrea was walking backwards as well; she backed up against Derek and whispered to him under her breath, “How many of these guys do you think you can take?”

Derek took a very close look at the crowd that was appearing.  He chewed the inside of his cheek and said “two, maybe three; if they all attacked at once.  You?”

Andrea studied the crowd as well, “probably about the same” she said, “two or three.  How many do you think there are?”

Derek was feeling more and more uncomfortable, “upwards of 30” he said.

The crowd formed a ring around them.  On one side were the men with their hungry stares, and greasy hair.  And all the other side was a busy street filled with fast moving traffic.

One of the men stepped forward, “let’s take this nice and easy” he said “why don’t we start with that ring on your hand?”

Derek looked down at his wedding ring, but he wasn’t thinking about it.  He found something very odd in that statement; Derek was more used people screaming and attacking him when they saw him, but this crowd was hanging back and asking almost politely; they were cowards; the only time they could do anything once when they were working together in a huge mob, and that gave Derek a sense of hope.  He decided to keep them talking, to see whether he could think of a way out of the situation.  “So” he said, “who do I have the luxury of addressing?”

The man started laughing.  He gestured to the other members of the mob, and they started laughing too.  “Why don’t you just give us the ring?”  He said.

Derek took another step backwards; so that his feet were resting at the very edge of the pavement.  The man who was talking was the end leader, he decided, if he could find some way of taking him out, then the rest of the mob might scatter.  Derek wished he hadn’t given his gun to his daughter to modify, and then wondered whether he could’ve ever used it against common criminals anyway.  In the end it didn’t matter; without any kind of weapon he had no hope of fighting off 30 men.  “We should run across the road” he muttered to Andrea, “we might get hit, but I’ll take my chances with the traffic before I take my chances with these people”

Andrea noted, and her body posture started flowing.

There was the screeching of breaks, and the sound of a car door being kicked open.  “Jump in, jump in, jump in!”  Said someone.

Derek was surprised, but he jumped in; when the alternative involves fighting a huge mob unarmed and single-handedly, obeying the man who gives you an exit is just a natural reaction.

There was a sound of spinning tires and the mob started to charge.  The door Derek had dived through slammed into a parked car and slammed shut.  Then they were in the traffic stream, “by didn’t expect to see you again so soon” said the driver, “I see you’ve met a pretty lady while I’ve been away”

Derek had been surprised when the first man had spoken outside the theatre, but that was nothing compared to how surprised he was now.  He jumped and turned in his seat.  “You!?  He said

The driver he had carjacked not two hours before smiled at him, “Yes” he said, “Me.  I saw you were in a little trouble I thought you might need a little help.  I hope I’m not presuming”

Derek felt like his understanding of the world was being challenged.  He shook his head and muttered “no-no-no-no” with the unspoken follow-up ‘the world doesn’t work this’

“Oh good” said the driver; who had apparently misinterpreted Derek’s comments.  “I’m glad I could help you out.  Where are we heading to?” he looked like he was enjoying himself far too much.

Derek didn’t seem able to give an answer, so Andrea leaned over the seat, “we need to get to the Easycare dorm” she said, “do you know where that is?”

The driver laughed to himself; he seemed to find this very funny.  “Oh, I know where it is” he said, “and I’ll be happy to take you there, but how do you feel about jumping out of moving vehicles?”

Andrea chuckled at this, “I have a lot of experience with that” she said.

“Is that so?”  Said the driver; looking at her with interest.

They reached the dorm in barely any time at all.  Derek and Andrea leapt out as the car rushed past.  Derek hit the ground running: then he hit the ground rolling, and finally hit the ground jumbled heap.  He looked every bit as realistic as Andrea, except that Andrea sprung right back onto her feet after she’d stopped moving.  “Well come on” said Andrea, “you don’t have to look that realistic when a film crew isn’t watching you”

More than anything Derek just wanted to get into a warm bed and forget this night had ever happened.  But getting into a nice warm bed just wasn’t on the cards.  And instead he got, grumbling, to his feet.

Andrea was already walking into reception.  Derek followed her, and found that it was completely deserted; in fact it was exactly the same way that they’d left it.

Derek suddenly remembered the idea he had had that his wife and daughter might’ve been kidnapped, and he felt very uneasy; the reception area was filled with comfortable couches, and if his wife and daughter hadn’t been able to get into their rooms, then that should’ve been the first place where they should have gone.  He rubbed his mouth again, “let’s go” he said, “they must be outside room 17”

They weren’t there either; the corridor was as deserted as it always was

Now the unease was gnawing at Derek’s stomach.  He rubbed his mouth again; this time using so much pressure that his whole face seemed to move a little bit.  On the plus side though, there was no ransom note.

“Do you want to go in and check?”  He asked Andrea

Andrea looked at him as though he were crazy, “No way” she said.

Derek didn’t want to either.  He tried to think of the next place he should go, but his mind was irritatingly blank.

“Look, could you hurry up” said Andrea

Derek’s frustration and worry turned smoothly into anger. This heart seemed to beat faster, and he spun to face Andrea.  “Look, will you just shut up!  I have put up with your nagging all night long, and it’s driving me nuts.  Now I’m trying to find my wife and daughter; who may, or may not have been kidnapped, so I would appreciate it if you could just keep quiet.  Okay?”

Andrew looked uncomfortable, but she didn’t show any of the usual signs of backing down.  “You sent your partner into a war zone, right?”  She said, “That means that every second you waste here, is one second in which someone could kill her.  So what are your priorities, Derek?”

Derek felt horribly torn.  He knew he had to go help Laurie, but he couldn’t shake off the suspicion that something terrible had happened to his wife and daughter.  He pulled at his hand and, as though trying to drag the answer out “I can’t just leave them” he said

Andrea was unimpressed, “just who is covered by ‘them ‘?” she said, “and anyway if you’re so worried about yourwife and daughter, why don’t you just pin a note to the door?”

Derek felt disjointed.  He opened his eyes and looked at Andrea, “what did you say?”  He said

“Just pin a note on the door” said Andrea, “that way you can leave, and they’ll still know what you are”

“And if they have been kidnapped?”  Said Derek

“Then you’ll have to deal with that when the ransom note comes in” said Andrea, matter-of-factly.

Derek felt like he was at his wits end.  He wanted to stay behind, but in the end he had a rescue mission that he had to mount, and he reluctantly agreed.

Five minutes later Derek felt very silly.  “I left a note pinned to the door to let you know where we were going.”  He said, “You can probably just get rid of it”

“Oh dear Derek” said Christine, “You didn’t get all worried about us, did you?”

Derek felt like an idiot.  He shook his head and decided to ignore the question, “Are you still sure about staying here?”  He said, “I have it from a reliable source of this is a horrible place”

“Oh Derek” said Christine, “that’s all the more reason for me to say; I’ll have this place running like a dream by the time you get back from your little trip”

Derek felt exasperated, and he shook his head.  “It’s a rescue mission; not a little trip and I’m still not happy about Jade coming along.

“Oh Derek; you know she wouldn’t have it any other way” said Christine, “Jade adores you, you know that.”

Derek didn’t, but he smiled and nodded anyway.

“Would you hurry up?”  Said Andrea from across the roof, “We do want to leave soon.”

Derek felt annoyed.  He turned around and said “we are having a moment here”

“Yeah, and while you’re having your moment people are dying” said Andrea, “and by the way, that tall woman should be leading this expedition; if she managed to get everyone together and get them up here while you were still scratching your arse, then she’s clearly a better leader than you”

Derrick ignored the suspicion that this was true, he walked across the roof and climbed through the door of the helicopter.

The helicopter blades started chopping at the air, and Derek looked back at the two women he was leaving behind.

“Goodbye dear” said Christine

“And good riddance” finished Andrea.

*

The attack on symphony came in three waves.

The first wave was the cruise missiles at the Reverend had been afraid of.  The cruise missiles flew fast and close to the ground, and when they hit they made a lot of noise but they didn’t do much damage.  That was okay though; the point of the cruise missiles hadn’t been to do damage; it had just been to make everyone put their heads down.

Because everyone had gone inside so they wouldn’t be hit by the smattering of cruise missiles, they didn’t see the wave of bombers that drifted over the horizon.  The bombers were fat and heavy, and if any of the townspeople had still been outside they would’ve had no trouble shooting a lot of them down.  But the townspeople weren’t outside; they were hiding, and the high explosives were dropped uncontested.

The high explosives blew holes in the roads, knocked out electricity, water and gas, and blew holes in virtually every building within the town.  But after the bombs had finished falling, there really wasn’t that much damage; certainly it would be difficult to repair, but the town of symphony still stood; it wouldn’t fall that easily.

The high explosive bombers hadn’t been the point of the raid.  Even damaging the roads; so that the emergency services couldn’t get where they needed to be wasn’t the point of the raid.  The reason the second wave of bombers had flown through was to leave holes all the buildings.  Now that all buildings had holes in them; they had a nice airflow through them.

Once a second wave had departed, and the entire town had an easy indoor-outdoor flow, it was time for the third wave to fly in.  It was time for the firebombers.

*

Laurie ran down the mountain as fast as her legs would carry her.

Laurie was still using the cube.  She was carrying the captain on her back; and every couple of steps she launched high into the air with her legs whirling, and landed heavily.

Laurie felt terrified; worse than she’d ever felt when it was her life in danger.  Her breath rasped in her throat, and she willed herself to run faster.

There was a whistling noise, and bright lights on the horizon.

Laurie’s heart seemed to stop for a moment, and time seemed to stand still.  Had she run out of time?  Was already too late?

Something fast, loud and high-pitched streaked over the landscape and smashed into the town.  It exploded with a sound like a rifle range.

Laura’s blood seemed to run cold, but she kept running; even if she was too late; she had to make sure that Emma got out.

The town was still standing

Laurie felt like laughing.  She felt a little lightheaded; she honestly expected the town to be destroyed after the dust had cleared from that strike, had the soldier overstated the bombers effectiveness?

More missiles streaked from the horizon and exploded on the town; they were loud and very threatening, and they seemed to be doing some damage; just not enough.

Laurie felt more confident; if this was all that was going to be thrown at the town; then she would have plenty of time.  The frantic sprinting turned into the even strides in a marathon runner, and her control of the cube seemed to improve as well; she wasn’t launching herself into the air with every step.

Something drifted over the horizon.

Laurie was surprised.  She jumped a little and turned her head to watch for new arrival; ignoring the steep rocky slope she was running on.

It was clearly an airplane but it wasn’t any type of airplane that Laurie had ever seen before; it didn’t so much fly as wallow through the air.  The plane was flying close to the ground, but nowhere near as close as missiles had been; it flew with its belly facing downwards, and it gave the weird impression of being about to give birth

Laurie had a sudden instinctive fear, and she started to pick up the pace.  More than anything she wanted to beat those fat, slow-moving airplanes to Symphony.

But in aircraft terms ‘slow’ is very, very relative.  The planes bobbed their lazy way forward, and easily outpaced Laurie.

Laurie knew in the depths of her heart that the planes meant trouble.  She tried to start sprinting again; but she was getting tired, and the cube kept interrupting her feet as they went towards the ground, so that she was permanently stumbling.

The planes drifted on to Symphony in perfect formation, and they started to drop their bombs.  There was a horrible noise.  The noise was like the cruise missiles had been, but it was much, much louder.

Half way up the mountain Laurie stumbled.  She hit the ground and rolled several times before hitting a rock and stopping in a painful heap.  She covered her head and tried to block out the horrible noise.

The sound went on and on, and the ground shook to its rhythm.  Then, suddenly, it stopped.

Laurie had about half a second to be glad that noise had stopped before she remembered that she had something she had to do.  She clawed her way back to her feet; ignoring the pain in the back, and started running again.  She was hoping that there was still something left of the town to save.

This time it took longer for dust to clear, but when it finally did the town was a mess.  There wasn’t a single building that didn’t look like a ruin, and even from her position up on the mountain Laurie could hear the moaning of the injured.

Laurie was running out of breath, and white fuzzy patches were swimming in front of her eyes.  She couldn’t help blaming herself as she ran; ‘if I had just been a little bit quicker’, ‘if I had just run faster’.  But Laurie kept running; if people were moaning that it meant that people were still alive.  Even though her breath caught in her throat Laurie offered a quick prayer, ‘I’ll settle for getting Emma out’ she prayed.

Another set of bombers wallowed their way over the horizon.

Laurie couldn’t believe it; the town was already destroyed; what more could they possibly want?  Stress started to get to Laurie; she went to jump off a small ledge and ended up soaring 10 feet into the air.

Laurie managed to land on her feet, but then she stumbled and fell again; rolling another hundred meters down the loose shale, before coming to a stop with cuts all over her arms.  The bag containing the captain came to a stop several meters away from her.

Laurie realized how pointless it was to keep carrying him around; any information he could give now simply wouldn’t be worth the way he was slowing her down.  For that matter Laurie didn’t even know if the captain was still alive inside the bag; given the way she’d been falling, he would be very bruised as least.  Laurie got back up and started running again

While she had been falling, the bombers had almost made it to Symphony, but now that she wasn’t trying to carry the captain, and thus wasn’t having to use the cube, Laurie was able to run a lot faster.  She covered the remaining distance between her and the town quite quickly, and she was entering the outskirts when the first bombs fell.

Laurie felt a weird sense of lightheaded joy; she had made it to the town, even if it turned out she was too late.  She watched the bombs fall from a second set of bombers with fear and disgust, but she didn’t bother taking cover, even as one of them flew overhead.

The bombs fell, and they weren’t the same ones the other planes had been using.  Laurie was knocked on her back by the sudden blast of heat.

Laurie was suddenly unsure and scared.  Seeing the bombs explode into flames was like being bitten by a friendly dog.  The first bombs hadn’t been pleasant, but they had given Laurie a sense that she knew what was coming, and having something completely different happen was an unpleasant experience.  She got back to her feet and looked at the warehouse.

There was no way the enemy could’ve identified the warehouse as the new HQ for symphony; the weapon hadn’t been fired yet, and the Reverend had been very careful about ordering people not to hang around.  In spite of this one of the bombs had struck the warehouse, and the roof was totally ablaze.

Laurie felt a horrible sense of loss; after everything they had all worked for, it was going to end like this.  Tears stung her eyes, but she started to run again; all the injured people were inside; and that meant that Emma was inside.

The roof of the warehouse must’ve had a hole in it, because as the planes drifted away one last bomb dropped directly into the building.  There was a huge flash and fire billowed out of all the broken windows.

There was a horrible feeling in Laurie.  The heat from the explosion seemed to burn her face, and she stopped for a moment.  The part of Laurie that stayed rational even in the face of disaster advised that no one in the main part of the warehouse could possibly be alive; it didn’t give great odds for anyone in the medical area of the warehouse to be alive either, especially since those people would have been weak to start with.  But Laurie was not a person who could’ve just walked away then; if there was even the slightest possibility that Emma could still be alive then Laurie had to try.  She started running.

The warehouse was really being engulfed, and Laurie could barely make any progress, it was just too hot, too painful.  “Don’t you dare quit” Laurie snarled to herself.  She lifted her shirt up so that it covered her nose and mouth and marched into the inferno.

It blazed like a furnace inside, but the fire was just getting started, and the air wasn’t full of smoke yet.  The strategy table in the middle of the room had been blown all over the floor, and for a horrible moment Laurie thought the Reverend had been as well, but then she saw it was someone else, and through her nausea she felt a level of relief she felt very guilty about.

Laurie knew she didn’t have much time, she reckoned on a minute or so and before the fire drew all of the oxygen out of the air and replaced it with poisonous chemicals.  She gritted her teeth and marched towards the medical area, ignoring the heat as it singed at her.

There was a small child near the entrance off the medical area; he looked like he’d been blasted there from across the room, he was curled in the foetal position, and totally still.

Despite her attempt to stay cold, Laurie felt tears welling up in her eyes; somehow it was always harder with children.  There was no time to stop and mourn.  Laurie knew that if she did that she would be joining him.  She kept on walking, but couldn’t resist turning and looking as she went passed.

It wasn’t a child, it was the Reverend; the heat had shrivelled him to a fraction of his former size.

Laurie felt sick.  She wanted to turn and, well she didn’t know what she wanted to do, say goodbye maybe?  But she also wanted to be nowhere near the horrible shrivelled thing with the staring eyes.  In the end her practicality won out; she had to keep moving.

The medical wing looked damaged, but it wasn’t on fire, and it looked much better than any other part of the warehouse had.

Laurie felt relieved; maybe even in the face of everything that had gone wrong today, something could still go right.  She looked around for Emma’s bed.

Emma’s bed was where Laurie at had seen it last.  It was towards the end of the room and Emma was lying in it completely still.

Laurie felt uneasy; she had visited Emma before leaving, and she’d been sitting up in bed. ‘It’s possible she’s just unconscious’ thought Laurie,’ this must’ve been stressful for everybody’.  She ran across the room as though her life depended on it, which to be totally fair it probably did.

Emma’s eyes were closed this time, and this time Laurie made sure she took a pulse.

There wasn’t a pulse; not even a faint one

Laurie just couldn’t take it; after everything she’d been through, that both of them had been through, it was all over now.  Laurie felt tears rolling down her cheeks, and she started to sob.

Then she stopped sobbing, because she couldn’t draw breath for it anymore.

The world started to swim in front of her eyes. ‘You idiot!’ She screamed at herself as everything went black, ‘you took too long!’

*

‘No!’  Laurie bellowed at herself inside the mind, ‘get up, get moving; you don’t want to burn!’

Laurie tried to push herself up, but as she got higher it got harder to breathe, and she dropped back to her feet

‘No!’  Came the voice again,’ you can’t breathe the air; you have to stay low’

Laurie felt nothing but the driving urge to survive.  She clawed at the ground and pulled herself forward.

The entire warehouse was ablaze; Laurie crawled towards the door of the medical wing, but the fire had taken hold there, and she couldn’t make any progress.

Laurie felt trapped; they hadn’t been another way house of the medical area.  She felt despair welling up inside her, but she forced it down; if she was going to die then it wouldn’t be because she just given up.  She started crawling back the way she came; away from the fire.

At the end of the wing there was nothing but a brick wall.

Fear drove Laurie; she was trapped like a rat, but she wasn’t going to die like one.  She started kicking the wall frantically; as best as she could when she couldn’t stand up.

The wall shuddered, and shook, but it didn’t fall, and the fire started to spread into the medical wing.

Laurie could feel the heat of the flames licking at her back, and adrenaline surged into her; forcing her tired muscles to give one last bolt of strength.  Laurie kicked the wall as hard as she could.

The wall shook like a cloth and the entire thing caved in.

With a sudden access to free air the fire began to accelerate towards Laurie

Laurie was terrified, but she had hope, and that was enough.  She dragged herself through the hole she’d just made, and pulled herself onto the grass outside.

The entire town was ablaze.  There were the sounds of screaming people, but not nearly as many as there had been before.  Powerful winds gusted all over the place and spread the flames wider.

Laurie knew she had to leave; the warehouse had been on the outskirts, so she still had the option, she took a shuddering breath of the mostly clean air and tried to pull herself back to her feet, ‘I don’t want to burn’ she thought.

Despite her shaking muscles, Laurie managed to get upright, but then she fell; one of her legs had been under the wall when it collapsed, and now it was bent at an odd angle.

Laurie didn’t even feel the pain, she didn’t feel the sense of loss, or the sense of fear, all she knew was that she had to move.  She clawed at the ground in front her and pushed herself forward with her one good leg.

There was an old man on the road outside the warehouse, or at least the remains of an old man; it looked like one of the cruise missiles had hit him, and that would make him one of the lucky ones.  He was scattered quite a long way around the road.  His stick wasn’t too far from Laurie.

Laurie wished she’d been quick enough to grab some medical supplies from the medical area.  But it was far too late for that now, and the no matter how much Laurie wanted to splint her broken leg, there was no way she was going back to the warehouse.  She grabbed the man’s stick and used it to lift herself up.

Laurie’s arms shook as she tried to hold her own body weight, and her broken leg flapped uselessly around, but Laurie’s arms held, and the leg would heal eventually.

Laurie suddenly realized she’d been a fool; the cube would easily have broken her out of that warehouse.  If she had thought to use the cube then she wouldn’t have a broken leg now.  Laurie eyed up the distance she had to travel before she reached the edge of town.

The fire was spreading all throughout the town, and even if Laurie hadn’t had a broken leg it still would have been a long way to go.

Laurie was beginning to feel she only had one option.  She gritted her teeth and took the cube out of her pocket, she still wasn’t sure she could control it, but she didn’t think that she could get out of the town before the fire engulfed her, and the cube seemed to be her only hope.  Laurie remembered the feeling she’d had when she’d used the cube to increase her own strength. She let the energy flow into the body and then tried to force it out behind her.

Nothing happened.

Laurie was angry.  She could feel the energy welling up inside her, but she couldn’t seem to direct it out; it was like there was a dam blocking it.  Laurie focused, putting more and more pressure behind the cube’s energy.

There was a huge explosion, and Laurie was propelled into the air.

Now Laurie felt pain.  As she travelled into the cooler air above Symphony her leg flapped around and grinded.  But Laurie welcomed the pain; she had survived; at least for now, and the pain was a reminder of that.

The ground started to accelerate towards Laurie

Laurie felt sudden fear; after all she been through, it would be just awful if she were to die in such a silly way.  She focused energy behind the cube; pushing past the dam.

She rocketed into the air again.

Laurie felt a crazy joy; everyone was dead, the mission had failed, and everything had gone horribly wrong, but she was flying, she was leaving.

There was a helicopter flying towards Symphony.

Laurie felt angry; after all they’d done they had the arrogance to return? Laurie smiled grimly to herself; she finally had the means to strike back.  She focused her energy in a different direction so that she was rocketing towards the helicopter.

Energy sharpened in front of Laurie’s head; she turned into a giant orange javelin.

Laurie didn’t know how the cubes worked; she didn’t even know if she could survive what she was planning.  But whether or not she survived, the helicopter would be sure to be destroyed, and right now that was plenty for her.

Through the orange wall in front of her eyes, Laurie saw someone hang out of the helicopter and wave frantically to her.

It was Derek.

*

A slowly rotating tornado of fire stretched up into the sky.  At its base, presumably, was SymphonyWas Symphony.

Derek watched the tornado, as it lit up the night sky.  He felt awful,’ Jesus’ he thought,’ I sent Laurie into that’

Laurie’s leg was being splinted by Beatrice, and the Twins were somehow managing to keep the helicopter stable by themselves.  Laurie was sobbing.

Derek felt responsible, and it made him feel terrible, but he had a question he needed to know the answer to, “What happened to Emma?”  He asked.

Laurie shook her head and looked away; it was the clearest answer he could’ve gotten.

Beatrice looked up.

Derek was afraid that Beatrice was going to take her long deserved revenge, but then Beatrice just looked down again and kept working on the splint.  Derek breathed a sigh of relief, and turned back to Laurie; “Beatrice got the man to talk” he said “we have a location of a marshalling ground the flying men used; we will be checking that out, but I think the important thing right now is that we get back home to recuperate.

Laurie nodded tearfully; the poor kid looked broken.

Beatrice finished her splint and stood up.  She walked to the door of the helicopter, and before anyone could stop her she had jumped out

Derek was shocked.  He ran to the door with his hand out, but he was far too slow; Beatrice was already gone.  Derek couldn’t see where she had landed, but he was certain she had.  He yelled after her; “How we meant to get back without a helicopter pilot?”

“Oh we’re helicopter pilots” said the Twins, “daddy taught us”

Derek Looked at the fire tornado again, and wondered if he deserved what he had got.

*

Laurie stared out the window as helicopters travelled back towards the city.  She was staring out of the window partly because her splint didn’t allow her to take any other position, and partly because she didn’t want to meet anyone’s eyes.

Laurie felt lost and guiltier than she had ever felt in her life; she didn’t dare to look away from the landscape in case she started sobbing again.  Laurie blamed herself for what had happened to Emma.

The twins were the managing the controls of the helicopter between them, and chatting like they always did.  Derek was sitting in his seat, and he looked like he was brooding; Jade was sitting next to him, and imitating his pose.

Laurie’s guilt ran its course and segued nicely into anger.  She rubbed her eyes and he decided that Derek had been right at the start; this was a job that their office shouldn’t have got involved in; the stakes were too high.

The command structure overseeing a semi-secret quasi-government organization tends to be unclear and mired in red tape.  Laurie had no way of knowing how the order to investigate the retained demon had come to her, but she was forming the opinion that it should have gone to someone else; preferably someone heavily armed and dangerous.

Laurie reached into her pocket to find her gun, but of course it wasn’t there.  She pulled out the cube and held it tightly between her fingers; the cube had given her a lot of power there for a moment, and she knew she could use it again.  She twisted her seat so that she could see that the way she had come.

They had already gone too far, and the fire that used to be Symphony was long out of sight.  But the sky still flickered, and there was a patch on the mountains that just seemed a bit too light.

Laurie’s anger ran its course and segued nicely into cold determination.  She rolled the cube back in her hands so that she was holding it in a closed fist.  Laurie was determined that she would find some way of making good on everything that was owed to her

The sky suddenly seemed to grow bumpy, and Laurie registered for the first time the weird shapes that her mind had dismissed.  There were helicopters surrounding them.

A crazy kind of joy overcame Laurie.  She still didn’t know how the cubes worked, and she still wasn’t 100% sure that she could control them, but she prayed for one of the helicopters get closer; a desire had sprung up in Laurie’s heart to see her enemies burn.

The helicopters behind them were travelling far too slowly; they were dropping behind and becoming little dots in the rear-view mirror.  But the ones in front of the helicopter were approaching them at high speed.

Laurie watched the approaching helicopters and tried to imagine what it would look like if they were all slammed together like dominoes.  Laurie grinned; it would be beautiful.

*

Derek wasn’t happy to see the helicopters; it had been going so well; they had managed to extract Laurie, and no one had started shooting at them.  He shook his head, hissed, and walked towards the front of the helicopter.

The twins were there; playing around with the helicopters controls and making the process of flying one of look insultingly easy.

Derek made a mental note to meet the twins’ father at some point in the future; and any man who could make people like the twins hold still long enough to learn a valuable skill would probably be worth meeting, but right now Derek had more important things on his mind.  He eyed up the approaching helicopters and said, “Can we go round them?”

The twins seemed completely oblivious to the danger they might be in; they smiled at Derek and one of them replied, “That’s what we’re going to have to do; we don’t have any missiles, we think you should really get that fixed next time get this serviced”

Derek felt that if weird stuffy mind feeling he got when he talked to the twins for too long.  He rubbed his temples and decided to ignore what they had just said, “Are they going to shoot us down?”  He asked; it seemed important to stick to the relevant questions.

The twins shrugged “I dunno” they each said, “it depends how good their radar targeting systems are; if they’re decent they’ll be able to swat us outs of the air before we get anywhere near them”.

Derek felt frustrated and annoyed; he couldn’t believe the twins were taking it this calmly. He gritted his teeth to stop himself from yelling at them, “What can we do to avoid being turned into a fireball?”  He asked; it took immense self control to stop himself from adding ‘you morons’ to the end of that sentence

The twins deliberated with each other, and then eventually they said, “They can probably dive better than we can, but if we hugged the ground then they might have some trouble with targeting.”

Derek wondered why they hadn’t just said that earlier.  He lost his patience, threw his hands up, and yelled “Do that then!”

“Okey-dokey” said the twins cheerfully and the twin on the left pushed down with all her strength on something that looked like a giant handbrake.

Derek instantly regretted his order; he wedged himself into the ceiling where he’d been thrown and muttered a mix of prayers and obscenities.  “Isn’t this going to make us crash?”  He said

One of the twins looked concerned, “oh, I hope not; America’s next top model is on tonight.”

The other twin looked up in disgust, “Ugh” she said, “I can’t leave you like that show.”  And with that she yanked up on the giant hand brake again.

Jade drifted by Derek doing graceful somersaults, and he was able to grab her just-in-time.  The gravity returned and everything slammed back to the floor.

Derek was fuming, but he was fuming silently; he had just noticed that he could see trees outside his window, and as much as he wanted to he didn’t think he could get away with yelling at his pilots right now.

The helicopter weaved left and right dodging between tree trunks and startled animals.  Everything was going rather well; right up to the point when a huge explosion to the side of the helicopter sent the thing shaking and almost slammed it into the ground; they were only saved by the fact that the helicopter had been flying next to a cliff.

Now Derek was worried.  He stuck his head back up and yelled “Are we confusing their targeting systems?”

One of the twins looked back and said, “No; they’re missing by too far for that; they’re trying to disturb the air and force us to land”

Derek had a number of things to say to that, but his thoughts were diverted by something that suddenly seemed far more important, “Where are we?” they’re really shouldn’t have been any trees this side of the city.

The twins didn’t seem willing to look away from the windscreen now.  One of them yelled back over their shoulder, “It’s the city’s nature preserve” she said

Derek nodded his head in numb wonderment, “City that has everything” he muttered; resolving to pick up a guidebook if he survived this.

Then there was a huge explosion and the helicopter tumbled and started to shatter on the road.

It came to a stop against a lamppost; forcing a motorist to swerve in order to avoid it.

Derek climbed out of the helicopter and looked around.  His ears were ringing, and he was in pain, but he was alive, and he was glad.

“Wow” said the driver as he got out of his car, “looks like you have a much more fun job than I do, so I’ve only got two questions for you; what is it you do, and are you recruiting?  On second thought, forget the first question”

*

Laurie felt like something bigger than herself was driving her movements.  She jumped out of the ruined helicopter and crouched on top of it; sniffing the air like an animal.

The helicopters were closing on the city; they were picking their way between the skyscrapers and homing in on the wreck.

Laurie didn’t wait.  There was nothing in the whole world that could’ve stopped her then.  She took the cube out of her pockets and poured her energy behind it.  Laurie was blasted high into the air.

Buildings streamed past her at high speed.  Laurie didn’t care.  She saw the rooftop of the plaza hotel, and went to land on it.

The rooftop was completely deserted.

Laurie didn’t trust it, and she took a suspicious look around.  She considered calling Herbert to see whether she could finish this whole ridiculous thing off once and for all, but she didn’t know what question she could ask, and anyway the cold spot on her ring finger still burned at her.  Laurie turned and took a careful look at the helicopters.

The helicopters were still sneaking their way around; one passed directly in front of the Plaza Hotel.  Laurie could look almost straight ahead and see the pilot sitting there.

Laurie’s heart soared.  She felt a grin spread across her face as she fingered the cube in her pocket; it had been so easy to fly just then; it would be hardly difficult to do the same thing again.  She aimed her thoughts at the helicopter and poured her energy behind herself.

A wave of orange energy blasted away from Laurie; it rolled away from her into the sky and struck the helicopter with a dull ringing noise.

The helicopter was launched sideways.  For a moment it looked as though it was shuddering in the air; like a mosquito caught in a spider’s web, but whatever the pilot was trying to do, it wasn’t enough.  The helicopter slammed into the skyscraper next to it with a wave of metal and a billowing fireball.

Laurie watched the fireball with dry eyes; she didn’t know whether or not they had been anyone in the building; it was, after all, late, but she found that she didn’t really care either way.

With all the inevitability of a rock slide Laurie turned and aimed her thoughts at another helicopter.

The helicopters were scattering; trying to get away from the thing that had downed their friend, but they just weren’t fast enough.

*

Derek realized he was starting to grow fond of the driver; he was always there when he was needed.  He grabbed the twins as they climbed out and said to the driver, “take these two girls to the Easycare dorm.  I think the city is about to be attacked, and we’re going to need all the help we can get.”  Then he said to the twins,”We’re going to need Casper’s help, hammer on the door until he sees sense”

The twins looked a little bit dazed, but they nodded at him, and walked to the driver’s car.

Derek was glad; he didn’t know how many forces were going to be thrown against them, but he suspected that the helicopters that were already here alone would be plenty to take them on.  Derek poked his head inside the wreckage of the helicopter and said “come on Jade, Laurie, we have to get moving”

Jade climbed out of the wreckage and shrugged her shoulders

Derek suddenly felt worried; Laurie couldn’t possibly move that fast with a broken leg, even if it had been splinted.  He swallowed and looked back inside the helicopter.

The helicopter was empty; Laurie was nowhere to be found.

That made Derek even more uneasy; he had seen the state that Laurie had been in, and he didn’t trust her not to go nuts.  Derek attempted a nervous smile, ‘at least she doesn’t have a weapon’ he thought.

A huge mass of orange light rolled away from the roof of the Plaza Hotel and slammed into a helicopter like a blunt instrument.

Derek felt like the gods in charge of his fate were pointing their fingers at him and laughing.  He scratched his ear and thought, ‘Oh right, the cube’.

Derek thought; Laurie was potentially the most dangerous person in the city today, but she still was nominally on the same side as Derek, and would probably limit her attacks to the helicopters, and anything that might follow them.  Derek decided not to make any attempt at stopping her.

As he dragged Jade into an alleyway he was guiltily aware that the fact he was still blaming himself for giving Laurie the mission had influenced his decision, that and the fact that he couldn’t see any possible way of interrupting her bloodlust.

They sheltered behind a dumpster and listened to the sound of rotor blades.

Derek could feel his heart beating faster, and he knew it was time for action.  There was something he had to do first though, “Jade” he said, “I need to go do something now, and I may be gone for a while, I need you to promise me that you will stay safe”

Jade nodded at him, “I promise” she said in a small voice.

Derek was glad; even if he couldn’t lead a team properly he could at least keep his daughter safe.

“Daddy?” said Jade, “is it time to start fighting the bad people?”

Derek couldn’t deny it, and he was too busy counting the helicopters to wonder if he should deny it.  “Yes” he said.

“Good” said Jade.  She pulled out of what was unmistakably the gun that Derek had given her to modify.

She pointed the gun up, and before Derek could stop her she had pulled the trigger.

There was a crackling sound in the air, and the roots of the hairs on the back of Derek’s neck felt greasy.

A helicopter that had been roughly overhead juddered and crashed into the financial district.

Derek was shocked.  He turned and faced his daughter; unable to form words.

“Daddy?”  Asked Jade.

“Yes?” murmured Derek.

His daughter clicked the gun, and threw a spare one to Derek.  “Let’s kick some ass” she said.

*

Bullets were flying and the city was being systematically destroyed.

Emergency sirens sounded in every corner.  And there wasn’t a single house light in the city that wasn’t on.

Blurry eyed and privately terrified the police were helping everyone in the central city to evacuate; there wasn’t anything else that could be done.

It was a small mercy that the attack had come at night, for it meant that the skyscrapers being destroyed had mostly been emptied for the day. There were still many people inside the central city though, and not all of them would be getting out tonight.

There were some strange patterns going on.  Something was firing bolts of neon orange light at the helicopters.  Most of the shots were going wild, but occasionally one of them would connect and the helicopter would tumble out of the air; sometimes they recovered, and sometimes they didn’t.  The helicopters were making fast circles around the remaining skyscrapers, and that seemed to be making them very difficult to hit; occasionally one of them shot a missile, a skyscraper would blow up, a bolt of orange light would fly to a new skyscraper, and the whole process would repeat.

The neon orange lights scared people more than the helicopters did; helicopters were understandable even if they weren’t entirely pleasant; the orange light was new and horrible.  Some hysterical people yelled out about monsters and devils.  The more rational people yelled out about demons, but this didn’t make people feel any better; only one man in 200 within that crowd could have told them the first thing about demons; putting a name to something immediately makes it less scary, but in this case simply having a name wasn’t enough.

Everyone was so hung up about the orange light that barely anyone noticed that the helicopters were concentrating on fire on a small alleyway in a part of the city where there was virtually nothing important.  Since no one noticed the helicopters, they also failed to notice that the helicopters there were dropping out of the sky so quickly that it looked like heavy, expensive rain.

Another skyscraper blew up, and people were screaming, at first glance it looked like the helicopters were winning, and certainly they seemed to be doing the most damage to the city, but they were dropping like giant mechanical flies, and somehow the helicopters actually looked relieved when lights started to glimmer on the horizon.

*

Laurie felt like laughing, and she did so; long, and loud, and maniacally, she wheeled her hands around and threw another bolt of the neon orange light at one of the helicopters,

This bolt connected.  The helicopter spun madly as it travelled towards the ground, but at the last possible moment it managed to level itself off again.

Laurie clucked her tongue, but she wasn’t annoyed; she actually felt joyful. ‘Pity’ she thought.

There were lights glimmering on the horizon; they reminded Laurie of what the mirrors had looked like back in Symphony.

Laurie was glad to see them.  She swivelled and faced the incoming lights with her hands spread; as though she intended to catch them.  She was almost certain that these were the Mckingle men again, and she was looking forward to taking revenge on them as well.  Laurie had never before appreciated how good it felt to even the score cosmically, and she thought of Emma as she launched herself into the air and went to challenge the much larger host.

*

Derek saw the lights coming for them, and he was afraid; Derek was not a fool, tactically, and he knew the likely effect that the hyper mobile, hyper powerful flying men would have on the situation here.  He turned in the rough direction of the Easycare dorm, but there was no reassuring yellow light.  Derek turned to Jade and said, “We have to get to better cover; we’re too exposed here”

Jason nodded and pointed in the direction of a nearby office building, “There, daddy” she said, “we can shoot at them from the helipad”

Derek looked at the building, and noticed the curious way the helipad was assembled, and he was impressed by his daughter’s tactical sense.  “That’s good” he said, “We have to move”

They kept close to the wall and moved fast; many of the helicopters had been shot down, but the air was a long way from empty.

Derek’s heart was pounding in his temples, but he was excited; like he’d been when he first joined the office.  He kept firing his new gun into the air as he ran; it hardly seemed to matter if he aimed it, and it felt cathartic to see the helicopters go down so easily.  Derek wondered if the new gun design could be made standard issue for the office; he didn’t think they were likely to run into any more helicopters on any missions in the future, but just holding the gun seemed to make him feel better; hell, he was even thinking about the possibility of there being future missions.

*

Flys have a supremely fast reaction time; if you have ever tried to grab one with your bare hands then you know this.  It is quite an education to watch two flies fighting; they fly tight spirals around each other like demented Catherine wheels; each of them trying to use their reaction time to get behind their opponent.

The fight between the bright orange light and the new lights worked on a much slower timescale than a fly battle.  In some ways though the battle of the lights was more impressive; for one thing flies don’t normally have the ability to fire energy beams.

*

Laurie fell back to Earth.

Laurie was tired and broken, but she didn’t mind; she had managed to take down a few of the Mckingle men.  Laurie smiled at the sky as the cool wind gently brushed past her face; she had said her piece, and she felt like she had evened the score for Emma, and if it ended now; Laurie felt so peaceful that it didn’t seem to matter.

“Catch her” said a rapidly approaching voice.

Someone swung at her on a line of rubber hose, and Laurie found herself being lowered gently to the ground.

“Oh dear, Laurie” said Christine, “I do wish you wouldn’t get yourself in trouble like that”

Laurie smiled at Christine; her voice sounded like it was coming from a long way off.

The other lights in the sky were closing on them.

Laurie didn’t mind; somehow the whole issue seemed to belong to someone else.

Christine stroked Laurie’s face and said, “You just rest dear; we’ll take care of these guys.”

Christine stood up and looked at the sky.  There were a lot of people standing behind her; some wore wigs and flamboyant outfits, others dressed like showmen, and hung off ledges.

Everyone watched the lights as they got closer; and some looked a little bit scared, and some looked a little bit excited, but they all looked incredibly determined.

*

There are many perfectly valid reasons not to evacuate once the alarm has sounded; curiosity, stupidity, a desire to sell footage to the news stations.  Regardless of the reasons there were people who stayed behind in the central city while everyone else was evacuated; some people didn’t do it voluntarily, some people just got left behind, but whatever the reason there were some people who saw the stuntmen and the third floor partygoers launching themselves at the flying men.

Those people who were watching saw things that they swore they would never repeat, and things they had no way of describing, but what struck them most was the bravery that the two groups showed while working together, and the fact that they were losing anyway.

*

Derek was pinned down, and he was losing; badly.

The guns Jade had designed were working, but the flying men were too fast.  They were still scoring hits, and the men were still dropping out of the sky, but there were far too many men, and not nearly enough hits.

Derek felt trapped, and he felt truly frightened; because the tactical part of his mind was telling him that there was no way he was going to stay alive.

His daughter was standing next to him; had she been about a meter taller they would’ve been fighting back to back.

Derek was suddenly glad; he had just realized the words he wanted to tell his daughter. “Jade” he said, his voice shaking a little, “It was a pleasure to fight alongside you, and I’m very proud of you”

There was silence, and then Jane said, “Thank you, daddy”

There was a blast of neon purple light, and the wall that had been sheltering them shattered into stone chip.  The flying men converged on them from every side.

Derek knew it was over, but the crazy determined part of him kept him pulling the trigger until the last second, and the crazy hopeful part of him; the part that often seemed to speak with Laurie’s voice, made him yell out at the last possible moment “Casper, help me!”

*

Casper did.

*

Derek watched with dull amazement as the flying men dropped out of the sky.  There were already police officer officers running towards some of them, and the frightened men weren’t putting up any resistance.

Derek looked over the city as the night sky faded from neon yellow to its normal black.  It was harder to see now that the light had faded, but it was clear to him that a lot of the city lay in ruins.  Derek hugged Jade to him, sighed, and thought,’ maybe with all these people they’re arresting, it might not be my name in the papers tomorrow’.

*

Laurie returned to consciousness slowly.

Laurie felt peaceful, and calmer than she had a very long time.  She lay in bed with her eyes closed and listened to the sound of birdsong outside.

The room she was in was silent; somewhere in the distance was the soft murmur of voices, but otherwise Laurie was completely alone.

Laurie liked the solitude; it gave the time to just lay still and think about how lucky she was to be alive.  But nothing was ever achieved by people who stayed in bed all day, and Laurie lifted herself out.

Whoever had put her to bed had left Laurie’s sunglasses of the bedside cabinet, Laurie put them one, opened her eyes, and looked around the room.

The room was not one Laurie recognized; although it did seem somewhat familiar.  It had soft furnishings, and a window that let soft light fill the room, even through the curtains.

Laurie liked this room; it was soft and comforting; it was like a womb.  Laurie stretched and stood up straighter

Someone had washed and folded Laurie’s clothes; they were sitting on a chair next to the bed.

Laurie felt like the clothes he had belonged to another person.  She picked up a shirt and looked at it critically.

The shirt had once been very stylish; high fashion in the right streets, but it had been through hell in the last week, and no longer even looked like something fit for humans to wear.  The shirt was a mass of tears, holes, and other assorted problems.

Laurie felt a weird sense of pride; she had been through everything that the shirt had been through; and more actually; and she was not only still alive, but she felt better than she had in a long time.

There were no mirrors in the room, so Laurie just smiled at the wall as she pulled on her clothes.  Laurie didn’t mind the damage; the battle-scarred look is fashionable in the right streets as well; it’s just a matter of carefully selecting the right streets.

The soft murmur of voices was continuing in the next room, Laurie thought she heard her name once or twice.

Laurie felt a little bit left out; if people were going to be talking about her behind her back, then she wanted to be in on it.  She walked towards the door.

The door was a perfectly normal door; it was made of wood, had a handle, and it didn’t really have any other distinguishing features.  Nevertheless, Laurie paused in front of it with her hand hovering in front of the knob.

It wasn’t that Laurie was scared exactly, or even uneasy, but she still remembered what it had been like to find the bodies of the Reverend and Emma; even if the memory seemed to lack urgency now.  For one very tempting moment Laurie stepped back, and thought about just staying in the room forever; where the world was peaceful and quiet and nothing could hurt her.

A big part of growing up is accepting that if you strive to live completely risk-free life then eventually your life will stop moving.  Laurie made her decision, and accepted the responsibilities.  She opened the door and left the womb.

*

Derek had been eating breakfast, and fielding questions from the Twins when Laurie walked into the small kitchen.

Derek looked up; he was glad to see that Laurie was alright, but he was still a little worried about her.  He smiled at her and said, “Sleep well?”

Laurie smiled back at him; she looked as cheerful as she’d been on the first day he had met her, but she also looked older, and maybe a little bit wiser.  “Better than I have had in a long time” she said, “Where are we?”

Darren was glad to see that Laurie was getting straight down to business; it seemed to bode well for her.  “Christine brought you back,” he said, “She’s basically taken over the running of the dorm now.”

Laurie nodded along politely, “That’s nice,” she said, “but she didn’t really answer my question; where are we?”

Derek felt awkward; he had been kind of hoping that Laurie would be satisfied with the short answer he had given.  He doodled little circles on the tabletop with his finger, and said “we’re in a spare room on the third floor.  Christine brought you here to recuperate”

Just as Derek had predicted Laurie looked very uncertain; as though she were standing on a log that was floating in a crocodile infested river, and she had only just realized that the log she was standing on was actually a crocodile, and she was hoping that it wouldn’t notice; Derek had heard that the third floor had evicted her, he wanted to reassure her, but he really didn’t know whether anyone’s views towards her had changed; they may have just rescued because Christine had insisted.

Laurie opened her mouth, but she was fortunately saved from having to find something to say by the fact that the door opened at that moment.

Christine drifted into the room.

Derek felt a weird mix of emotions.  On one hand the fact that his wife had managed to organize the inhabitants of the dorm into a coherent fighting force earned her more respect from Derek then he had had for her since, well, ever.  On the other hand there was the fact that she was really drifting around, and floating around, and all those other things people do when they seem to radiate an air off general foolishness.  Derek wasn’t really sure how he should react, so he smiled at her and nodded.

“Come along, dears” said Christine, “you really must hurry up or you’ll be late.  Oh dear, Laurie; is that what you wearing?  Oh well, I suppose you’ll still young enough to be able to pull off the ‘battle scarred’ look.”

Derek felt like he had missed something somewhere.  He gapped a few times and then said, “Hold on, hold on, what are we going to be late to?”

Christine gave him a look.  There was tolerance it that look, and a certain amount of pity.  “Oh dear, Derek, it’s Saturday, remember?  The picnic?”

Derek couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing; the idea of a company picnic had been a little ridiculous when they had had 10 employees, at a stretch, and to go ahead with it now seemed patently idiotic to him.  Derek counted on his fingers, muttering silently as he went along. “Chief, Leonard, Tony, Wellsford, Emma- dead; they won’t be attending.  Beatrice – AWOL; it’s not likely she’ll show up.  Casper and Herbert probably didn’t count to begin with.”

Derrick raised his voice to announce his findings, “of the entire company, Laurie and I are the only agents still hanging around; any company picnic is going to be a very small one”

This didn’t seem to make much impact on Christine.  She shook her head and pointed around her, “oh Derek” she said, “it will hardly be like that; I’ll be coming along, and Jade, and would you girls like to come too?”  She asked the Twins.

The Twins seemed quite excited; it seemed they quite liked the idea of a picnic.

Derek opened his mouth again; he had every intention of continuing arguing.

“I think it sounds like a good idea” said Laurie.

Derek’s train of thought derailed and hit the replacement train.  His jaw snapped shut again, and he tried to fit this new piece of information into his view of what was going on.  “Why?”  He asked

“If anyone from the office is still alive, the picnic would be a natural place for them to go they want to make contact with us.”

Derek didn’t think this was a real possibility, and he opened his mouth to say so.

“Yes, yes” said Laurie, “but what if they are still alive? It could be that Tony and Wellsford weren’t back from their mission when the building was destroyed, or maybe Lenard and Chief were out running errands at the time, if they had no way to contact anyone else, the picnic Leonard set up would make a great rendezvous point.”

Derek didn’t like it, but he had to admit he could see the logic.  He could also appreciate the fact that what Laurie was asking him to do was cut into his recuperation time to go and sit in a field somewhere and compete with adventurous birds for his food scraps.  “I’m still not totally convinced” he said; which was understating the matter a bit

“Come on, Derek” said Laurie, I think this is exactly what we all need; we’ve spent the last week in a state of constant warfare; it would be nice to have a little fun for once.

Derek really didn’t think that a picnic counted as fun, “I’m not going” he insisted

“Well that’s all right,” said Laurie, “but we’re all going”

Derek was glad they were coming to an agreement.  He smiled and said, “Agreed; you can go and I’ll say here”

In the end they all went, with Derek carrying the drinks.

*

Derek had dealt with his disappointment about being overruled about the picnic by suggesting that it should be held in the rugged wilderness they had flown through while trying to avoid being blown to pieces by the helicopters.  When it had been pointed out to him that the location of the picnic had been set by Leonard almost a week ago he sulked and didn’t say anything for the entire ride over.

The location Leonard had chosen was a pleasant park in the middle of the city.  It had a rolling green hills, a peaceful waterfall, and, most importantly, no one with guns trying to shoot them.

Laurie loved the scenery, as she said as much to Derek.

Derek looked around and grunted.  Then he found the shade of a tree and lay down to go to sleep.

“Poor guy” she muttered; mostly in sarcasm, and entirely to herself. “He’s had a stressful day”

“Ha!  You want stressful?!  You should see what my week’s been like!”  Said someone standing far too closely.

Everyone was shocked, but has no one was quite as shocked as Laurie was.

Derek sprang out of the shade of the tree, and reached for his gun.

Laurie gaped at the figure, “Leonard?”  She said.

It was unmistakably Leonard; his hair was a mess, his suit was torn in odd places, and has arms seemed to have a hard line of muscle that hadn’t been there before, but it was unmistakably him; there’s just no way to disguise that kind of boundless arrogance.  “Hey who brought the chicken?!”  Said Leonard, “I’m starving!”

Laurie felt like something truly odd was going on, and she wasn’t part of it.  She took a step back; reaching for the cube; the parts of her mind concerned with tactics and strategy screaming that it had to be a trick.  “What are you doing here?  We thought you were dead.”

Leonard laughed, “Ha!  Yeah me too!  Hey you have chips!”  They did indeed have chips, and Leonard sat down next to the bag the Twins had opened.

Laurie felt like yelling; she wanted answers, and none were forthcoming.  She carefully unclenched her fists and asked, “How did you survive?”

“Well as we discovered, he’s a lot tougher than he looks” said another familiar voice.

Laurie felt joy; mixed with confusion.  She spun around, “Wellsford?”  She said

“Wellsford?” said Derek disbelievingly.

It was Wellsford.  He wore the type of Kevlar breastplate that SWAT teams wear, and he somehow seemed a lot taller and older than he’d been when they had last seen him, but it was unmistakably him.  “You know I almost didn’t believe you fellows would come” said Wellsford, “well done Laurie; I suspect it was you that managed to convince Derek.”

Laurie’s shock was wearing off, and underneath it there was an undercurrent of relief and happiness, but there was something gnawing at her mind that she had to know the answer to.

Derek seemed to be thinking along similar lines to her.  “Where is Tony?”  He asked.

“I’m sorry I’m late” said Tony, “I thought you might be down at the waterfall”

Laurie spun around, but not nearly as fast as Derek did.

Tony walked uphill towards them smiling like a tired grandfather.  He wore the same riot gear as Wellsford, though in his case he didn’t look appreciably older while wearing at.  “I’m glad to see that you’re still alive” he said, “given all the fuss in the papers I was afraid someone had gotten to you. Those are some excellent disguises by the way, but you still stand the same.”

Laurie felt incredible joy; it was like waking up in the morning to find a present under the tree that was shaped suspiciously like a pony.  She ran at Tony, and then pulled short; wondering whether it was appropriate to hug a work colleague.

Derek apparently didn’t think so.  He pushed his way past Laurie and punched Tony on the shoulder hard enough to send him staggering backwards; the macho male equivalent of flying tackle hug.  “I thought you were dead” he said, “What happened?”

Tony opened his mouth to replied, but Wellsford cut him off.  “My partner is too polite to say so” he said, “but we were gang pressed into helping a collection of old people move back into their homes, and we only just made it here in time; once you consider that we were already tired after everything that’s happened this week, I trust you wouldn’t be offended if I suggested that we discussed this while eating.”  He was already pouring drinks.

Laurie felt a tiny touch of disappointment; but she completely understood Wellford’s views; by the looks of it all three of them had been through things far worse than moving sofas.  “Lunch and a story;” she said, “Sounds a good combination”

*

In fact it was Laurie and Derek who told their stories first; the other three were clearly very hungry and immediately began eating after they sat down.  For a long time there was nothing but the sounds of Laurie and Derek’s voices, counterpointed by the sound of munching.

“Oh” said Tony, eventually “I wondered if someone had charged the barricade; we had a camera setup to keep a general watch, but it had some problems and we couldn’t see things very clearly, well done for getting through that, Laurie” he sat up, and wiped his mouth, “I don’t mean to interrupt,” he said, “but it seems to me that team three plays a substantial role in both of your stories, where are they now?”

Derek felt awkward; it had a lot of respect for Tony, and he really didn’t want to admit how huge a stuff up he had made of his time as de facto leader.  He glanced at Laurie and said, “Beatrice went AWOL after we picked Laurie up; you haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet.”

Tony nodded, “I’ve never known Beatrice to go AWOL before,” he said, “but she always has a good reason for everything she does; I’m sure she’ll be back eventually, but where is Emma?  The way you describe it sounds like she and Laurie should have been fighting back to back against Captain Rollin’s troops.”

Derek still felt very awkward; he knew he’d have to tell the truth eventually, but he just didn’t want it to be now.  He scratched the corner of his mouth and said, “I don’t remember telling you about Captain Rollin”

Tony raised his eyebrows, “I’m impressed you know his name.  We tried to set up an operation in order to kidnap him, but we didn’t manage to pull it off; there was always this one soldier who kept getting in the way; but I’ll tell you about that in a moment; for now, where’s Emma?”

Derek knew he had reached a point where he couldn’t keep the truth any longer.  He turned to suggest that Laurie should finish her part of the story, but then he saw that she was staring fixedly at the ground; in a direction that prevented any of them from seeing her eyes.

Tony noticed it as well, “Oh” he said, “I am sorry.  Didn’t she survive the crash?”

Laura shook her head, and then she jerked her head up to qualify, “No, I mean she survived, yes, but…”  And Laurie went on with the story.

When she reached the bit about finding Emma; dead in her bed, Derek looked away; she never should’ve been there; it had just been a mildly important mission that would get Laurie and Emma away from Captain Swift; Emma should’ve turned around at the first sign of resistance.  Derek  bit his tongue as the story went on; she wouldn’t have been there at all if he hadn’t wanted to get rid of them for a few days.

There was silence after Laurie had finished her story.

Derek hated the way the silence dragged on; it seemed like a judgment of his ability.  He dug his fingers into the earth and hoped that someone would break the silence soon.

“I remember when they first brought her in” said Tony, softly, “the office was basically her whole life.”  He paused for a moment and then went on, “we should recover her body; if it isn’t already cremated; she was one of us, and she deserves a proper funeral.”  He paused for thought again, “I bet that’s why Beatrice went AWOL”

There was another long silence.

Suddenly Tony stood energetically to his feet, “suddenly I really want to get back to the mission;” he said “would it be alright if you heard our story on the way?”

Derek was surprised by Tony’s abruptness.  He got to his feet as well and said, “On our way to where? We found the location of a marshalling ground that the flying men used, is that where you want to go?”

Wellsford got up as well.  “I’m afraid we’ve already been there” he said, “and it was completely gutted.  Just this morning we had a very lucky break through and we discovered the location off the power source for the cubes; we were about to head out, but then Lenard started talking about the picnic, and we realized that it would be a good idea to contact you, if you remained alive, and get your help”

Derek was annoyed that Wellsford had answered this question.  An easy retort formed on his tongue, but he bit it back; there was something different about Wellsford now, and Derek didn’t think it was a good idea to insult him.  He suddenly realized that he’d never noticed it before, but Wellsford was at least as tall as Tony was when they both stood up.  “How are we going to get there?” he asked, “we’ve wrecked all vehicles”

Tony smiled and, and said, “We stole something interesting from a top secret workshop; I think you will enjoy it.”  And with that he indicated over his shoulder and started walking.

Wellsford fell into step behind him, and Laurie readily joined the procession.  Leonard jogged quickly after Tony and Wellsford, and, still chatting with him, the twins followed.  Christine joined the general flow of people, and took Jade along with her.

That just left Derek.

Derek stayed where he was; he wasn’t sure he liked this new abrupt Tony, and anyway he had kind of hoped that he would be able to use this day to recuperate; after all the dust had barely settled from the city destroying battle they had been involved in yesterday.  “Stuff that for a lark” muttered Derek.  Then he started walking as well; it’s not like there was anything else on his to-do list today.

*

The ground effect device flew across the desert like a bird; a very large bird; that’s made of metal; and flies by way of two giant propellers.

Laurie found she really liked the ground effect device.  She wedged itself up against one off the supporting walls and stuck her head out the top.

The wind blew her hair back: and stung her eyes; in a good way.

Laurie climbed back down; bubbling with joy.  She suddenly felt something odd and talked to Tony, “you never told us how you got out off the office” she said

Derek had been sitting at a plastic table and rubbing his temples.  He looked up when Laurie said this with interest as well

Tony looked at her kindly, “Well Wellsford and I got out off and because we weren’t inside when the building exploded” he said, “we had just gotten back from our mission when the explosion happened; we were literally just turning into the street.  I called a few old friends in the police department, and we went searching through the ruins as soon as the fire had been put out; we were trying to dig the cube back up, but we found Lenard instead; in the end it was a good trade, I think”

Laurie could see an omission here, and suddenly she felt unsure, “you didn’t find Chief then?  So does that mean that Chief is-?”

Tony looked upset, “I’m very sorry I gave you that impression, Laurie” he said, “we didn’t find Chief, but we didn’t find his body either; I was kind of hoping that he would show up at that picnic, but it was already late when you guys showed up.”  He waved his hands around as though trying to hold on to an elusive thought, “you’re probably best off to think of him in the same way you think off Beatrice, and just expect him to show up at some point in the future.”

Laurie didn’t feel any better; she was absolutely certain that Chief wouldn’t have been outside the building when it exploded; he never seemed to leave the building.  “What if you just didn’t find his body?”  She asked, “You can’t have had time to search the entire rubble”

Tony chuckled, and his eyes twinkled,” It was a bit before your time, Laurie,” he said, “but Chief used to be my partner before he got promoted, and I assure you, he survived that explosion”.  He glanced back at the screen he was standing over, and said, “This is close enough Wellsford; put us down here.”

The rhythmic thudding off the propellers slowed down and faded away, and the ground effect device slowly drifted to a stop.

Laurie hopped out of the device and looked around with curiosity.

Boundless and bare, the barren sand stretched away from her.

Laurie felt disappointed; she had been expecting a much more impressive reveal.  She pulled a face and asked, “Where is it? Underground?”

“It’s some way in that direction” said Tony; jumping out after her and pointing in the vague direction off the horizon; I wanted to stop the ground effect device somewhere away from it; we’ll try sneaking in first.”  He looked back over his shoulder and then said, “Listen Laurie, I was hoping I could sound you out about your friends in there.  I’m sure they’re very loyal, but we don’t know the first thing about the guy we’re about to go and attack, and we’re likely to expose ourselves to a lot of danger, so what I really need to know from you, is can those two girls in there handle themselves in a fight .

Laurie found herself in an odd position.  She looked away for a moment and thought.  Her loyalty as a friend was telling her to back the Twins up, and swear blind that they were 100% competent in any kind of combat situation.  The more rational side of Laurie was warning her that if she gave bad information to Tony and the Twins were injured because of it then it would be her fault.  In the end it was the threat of guilt that selected Laurie’s answer for her.  “They are the best makeup artists I have ever met,” said Laurie, “but I wouldn’t trust him to handle a kitchen knife”

Tony nodded solemnly, “that’s the impression I got” he said, “Before we head off you should tell them to wait in the ground effect device”

Laurie agreed, and she stepped back into the ground effect device, and only then did it occur to her that simply telling the Twins to stay put was a terrible idea for keeping them still.  Laurie was suddenly nervous, it had just occurred to her that they were about to walk into a probable fire fight, and if the Twins were injured because of her, she didn’t think she’d be able to forgive herself; she should have just let them at the park, but it was too late for that now.

Derek was in the ground effect device as well, he was talking to his wife and daughter; trying to convince them to stay out of harm’s way.  He was having no trouble convincing his wife, but his daughter seemed to be refusing, and it looked like Derek was on the verge of relenting.

Laurie was surprised; in the time that she’d known him, Derek had never struck her as the kind of person that would willingly see his daughter on a battlefield.  An idea occurred to Laurie; if Christine had really managed to unite the dorm through sheer force of will, then she probably had some extremely valuable skills to pass on.  Then you had the twins; they were clearly intelligent; they had managed to learn how to fly a helicopter, and that certainly isn’t a minor skill.  Laurie smiled to herself; she had thought of a way to kill two birds with one stone.

*

The source off the demon energy that the cubes used turned out to be a small and unremarkable bunker half buried in the desert.  Laurie’s stared at it and looked disappointed.

Derek was worried; whoever the bunker belonged to had seen fit to paint the bunker in desert camouflage; that meant that they had known that people might want to come after them, and they had taken precautions.  Derek crouched down a little; so that most off his body was hidden behind the sand dune, and watched the bunker as though he expected it to explode; which he didn’t think was an unreasonable possibility.

It suddenly occurred to Derek that even if their mission went perfectly; they caught the man behind all this; subdued him nonlethally, and completed every other aspect of their mission without breaking anything; then they would still have to deal with 20 people who no doubt had been tortured nonstop for the last several weeks.  It suddenly occurred to Derek that he was unlikely to like this mission.

“Let’s go” said Tony.

They spread out; trying to keep each other in their line of sight, while also keeping their guns covering any possible angle that an attack could come from.  The problem with this was that Jade was the only one of them that was carrying more than one gun; everyone else had to deal with the fact that in an open desert an attack can come from any point of a 360° circle.

They reached the door.

Somehow Laurie and Derek had ended up in front of the group.

Derek didn’t like the door.  He didn’t like the door one bit, and that was mostly because he wasn’t on the other side off it.  He rested his hand on the door and got some sense of its thickness and strength, and he shook his head.  “You’re going to have to use the cube” he said.

Laurie was distracted.  “What?” she said as she opened the door.

Derek could’ve kicked himself; or rather he couldn’t have since he was getting on in years and his legs didn’t work quite as well as they used to, but he definitely wanted to kick himself.  Derek’s general views of humanity were completely justified; what kind of man would buy property way out in the desert, go out of his way to make it incredibly defensible, and then ruin the whole effect by forgetting to lock his door? An idiot; Derek decided, only an idiot.  He pushed past Laurie and marched down the stairs that the door opened on to; he knew it wasn’t very smart to leave the rest of the group behind, but he felt in some way that he had a personal score to settle with the man inside for doing something as stupid as leaving the door open for the people who wanted to attack him.

What if it was a trap?

Derek was suddenly unsure.  He stopped on the steps and thought.  There was certain elegance to the idea; if you’re laying a trap for someone then it’s a good idea for your opponent to think that you are too much off a moron to set a trap.  The open door could have easily been a mechanism to grant Derek entry, and lower his guard.  Derek stood totally still and raised his hands into the guard position.

The rest of the group started to pile up behind him.  “What’s going on, Derek?” asked Laurie.

Derek still felt uneasy, but at the moment was passing.  He shook his head and said, “No, nothing, just felt a bit weird there for a moment” he started walking again.

There were pods in the room below.  They looked like sensory deprivation chambers, and they were made out of the same material the cubes had been made out of.  The room was cluttered; it was the kind off clutter that you get to when you ask an expert to build an extremely complicated piece of equipment in an extremely confined space, and then ask him to modify it so that people can walk around inside it.

Wires ran along every single surface and dangled from every part of the ceiling that didn’t have a cube attached to it.  At the centre of the room there was a raised ceiling, and filling the space under the raised ceiling was the largest cube that Derek had seen so far; it was mounted on top of a thick brass pole and it seemed to be attached to every single pod and cube by so many wires that it looked like it had been attacked by some sort of hyperactive spider with copper spinets.

Derek looked around in awe; the cluttered mess was one of the most impressive things he had ever seen.  Then he realized that the pods probably contained the people who were being tortured for the retained demon, and suddenly he didn’t feel so comfortable anymore.  He signalled to the people behind him and kept walking.

Pressed hard up against the clutter there was a bank of computer screens.  Silhouetted against the screens was the figure of a man.

Derek suddenly felt his heart beating faster, and he crouched down; this had to be the man; the one behind everything that had happened.  He signalled again to the people behind him, and moved into a better position to shoot.  He was trying to shake off the weird sense of déjà vu that he felt when he saw the figure.

The others spread out noiselessly behind him.  Tony took up at an expert position that made him seem to blend into the wires around him, and surprisingly Wellsford did the same.  Laurie hung back and took up position that allowed her to cover the entire room with one sweep of her gun.  Jade stood beside Derek; since crouching would be a bit redundant, and all manner of strange and exotic weaponry started to appear in her hands.

The man stood up, and turned to face the room; maybe he had heard something, and maybe that didn’t matter.

Derek was stunned; he had seen the man before.  He fought to keep himself still, and he wasn’t sure he was successful.  He raked his brain; trying to work out where he had seen the man before.

The man took a long hard look around the room.  “Hello?”  He said, “Arron is that you?”

Derek felt himself stiffen; was there another man in the room?  He tried to move his eyes slowly enough that the movement wouldn’t be noticeable to anyone who was watching.

The rest of the room was deserted; and no one answered the man’s question.

The man kept his eyes slowly moving around the room, and reached across to his opposite hip.

“Now!”  Screamed Tony.

Derek’s body seemed to explode.  He took a huge gasp of air as he leapt to his feet and whipped his gun around.  In the last moment before pulling the trigger, it occurred to Derek that leaping to his feet had probably been a stupid idea, but then he hadn’t really been trained for fire fights, so if anyone started asking questions then at least they could put the word ‘inexperience’ on his tombstone.

*

Laurie hadn’t jumped up when Tony had called out.  Partly because she could see the benefits of staying hidden and partly because she wasn’t sure she could use the cube with enough accuracy to avoid hitting any one of the four people in front of her.  Because she had stayed put she was in the best possible position to watch what happened next.

Derek leapt to his feet, and Jade dived forward, Laurie thought they both looked very heroic.  They both fired something that made the air ripple around them. Wellsford kept low to the ground as he fired, and Tony didn’t seem to move at all.  They fired something made of metal that was attached to their guns by long pieces of wire.  Laurie thought that they looked disturbingly competent.

The man looked shocked.  Without changing his facial expression even a little bit, he whipped his hand away from his hip and summoned a wall of neon gold light.

The metal things fired by Tony and Wellsford clipped harmlessly off the wall.  The moving heat hazes fired by Derek and Jade slammed into the wall with dull thudding noises.  The wall wobbled like a sheet of tin, but it held.

There was silence.

The man behind the wall glanced around him and stood up, smiling.  “Ah” he said, “Tony, I see you now, I was wondering whether I could expect a visit from you.”  He took another calm look around the room and went on, “and I do believe that’s Derek over there, I almost didn’t recognize you; you really have aged terribly.”  He smiled genteelly, but he didn’t lower his wall, “to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”

Laurie was very surprised, but she made sure to stay still, and think about what this new development meant.  Laurie took her mind off the question of just who the man was for the time being, and instead just focused on the fact that he apparently hadn’t noticed her.  The wall wasn’t a sphere; if she could just find a way to get behind him…

Tony slowly stood up out off his hiding place.  He looked like he was trying to keep his rage in check; Laurie had never thought of Tony as having rage.  He locked eyes with the man and said, “Emma’s dead, Bernard”

Bernard gave an unconcerned shrug.

Tony narrowed his eyes.  “Doesn’t that concern you?” he asked.

Bernard shrugged again and replied, “She was living on borrowed time anyway; frankly I’m surprised she survived as long as she did.”

Laurie was angry; how dare he talk about Emma like that?  For one crazy moment she seriously considered bursting out of her hiding place to yell at the man, but then she saw the look on Tony’s face and she decided it would be smarter to stay put.

Tony talked in low and dangerous tones.  “Emma idolized you” he said, “she thought of you as her father”

Bernard waved his hand around airily, but if his body language was loose and unfocused, his eyes were anything but, “perfectly understandable,” said Bernard, “after all I did save her from dying in the snow, but in the end I was always just her boss; wherever her real father was-”

“THAT DOESN’T MATTER!”  Screamed Tony; finally losing his cool.

Laurie was shocked again; she had never even heard Tony raise his voice before.  She knew she had to move, and she took advantage of Bernard’s momentary distraction to slip behind a different pillar of cubes.

“You let her think that you were dead!”  Tony went on, “why did you attack the Timetablers?  And why us; why the office?  You were one of us once; you led us once!”

Bernard smiled, “Ah, now there’s that famous temper; I didn’t think you would have grown out of it.  You know I’m not surprised it was Chief that got the position after I left.”

Tony gritted his teeth at the rebuke and growled, “Why.  Did. You.  Do.  It?”

Bernard smiled wider, and his eyes flashed; it was clear he liked the idea of being able to explain his thought processes to someone else.  He spread his arms dramatically, and for a split second he closed his eyes.

Laurie was glad for the help that Tony was giving her; she took advantage of the short pause to dart further around the room.  She could see a clear path now to Bernard’s back, now she just needed a way to get a little bit closer.

“I must have been the worst leader the Timetablers had ever had” said Bernard, “and that’s understandable; I was a demon hunter; not a Timetabler, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was doing.  My staff eventually learned to work around me, and that gave me a lot of time for thinking.  This whole world is run by secret government agencies, but it’s idiotic, there’s no oversight, none of them really know each other, no one knows the procedures, or even if there are procedures, and in general the whole mess is so chaotic and confused that they put a demon hunter in charge of making the trains run on time.”  His voice reached a fever pitch, and it was clear that he had reached the point of his rant, “now can you look me in the eye, Tony, and tell me that the world wouldn’t be better if we got rid of them all?”

Laurie felt a sudden thrill of the hunt, and she launched herself at Bernard; she wasn’t sure that she had managed to get close enough, but she was sure that this was the right time to attack.

Bernard spun around in shock.  His wall wavered, and suddenly everyone was moving.

Bernard clapped his hands.

Laurie landed on the grass and rolled away giggling; she had almost caught the rabbit this time; she would catch up with it someday.

She rolled into a sitting position, and looked up at the University.  The university was a beautiful thing; filled with people streaming in to learn all the mysteries of the universe; when they left they would be responsible for their own lives, and Laurie thought it was wonderful that they were given the chance to prepare.

Laurie rolled back again and lay down to feel the heat of the sun.  Humans were strong, and life was good.

Laurie listened to the sounds of crickets, and drifted off to sleep.

*

Derek looked up at the University.  It was a beautiful place; filled with people learning how the world worked so that they could take responsibility for their own lives.

Derek smiled, but then he stopped; there was something wrong with that statement.

Derek looked around him.  All of the people were walking around; making important decisions with each other and determining how best to guide their lives for the greatest prosperity to all.

Except it wouldn’t work that way.

There were lots of jobs that people didn’t want to be involved in; jobs that were unpleasant, boring, or actually dangerous.  There was for instance the job of keeping Cthulhu from rising from the sea; that wasn’t a job that people would want to do; that wasn’t even a job that people would want to know about.  Wasn’t there the department of Lovecraftian affairs to deal with that?

Derek looked around. Shouldn’t there be a lot more semi-secret quasi-government agencies around?

Suddenly Derek had a headache, he closed his eyes and held his head, and that’s when the pictures started.

People running in the street.

Trucks driving with soldiers hanging out the windows.

Fires.

Explosions

Demons

Derek opened his eyes, and then he opened them again.

Bernard was there, and Derek was glad.  He smiled and pulled out the gun that Jade had designed for him.

The heat haze slammed into Bernard, and crackled off him without doing any damage.

Derek was surprised; he had really expected that to work.  He looked around and tried to think of a way of getting past Bernard’s powers.

The answer hit Derek like a ton of bricks, and he looked at the giant brass spire in the middle of the room.

*

Laurie opened her eyes.  She felt muzzy, and she seemed to be having some trouble keeping upright.

Bernard was still standing when she had last seen him; apparently she hadn’t managed to get to him.

Laurie was a little bit disappointed that she hadn’t managed to get to him on her first try, but it was alright; because now she had a second chance.  She pulled the cube out and focused her thoughts at Bernard.

Nothing happened; nothing at all.

Laurie looked down at the cube in horror; she couldn’t understand what had gone wrong; it had always worked before.

She looked around and saw something surprising; Derek was in the centre of the room and was fighting with a thick cable that looked like it had once ran to the cube in the centre of the room.  The cable whipped in around like a high pressure hose pipe that someone had cut; huge sprays of prismatic energy filled the air and writhed like snakes.

Laurie understood; Derek had cut the wires away from the cube, and that meant that Bernard was now just a rather skinny old man.

Bernard seemed to be having some trouble recovering from whatever had happened to him, and everyone else seemed to be having some difficulty as well; Laurie was the only person who was active in the room.

Laurie smiled; it was like playing on a minigolf course where you were allowed to put your ball down within an inch of the hole.  She pointed her gun at Bernard and aimed for the glowing spot on his arm; Bernard’s cube must have been different to the other cubes since it still seemed to be fizzing with neon gold light even when Laurie’s cube was completely inert.  “Bernard” said Laurie “I’ve got one bullet in my clip just for you” and with that she pulled the trigger.

Bernard threw himself to one side, and in the containment crystal shattered harmlessly on the wall.

Laurie was horrified; she had been carrying around the gun for so long that it had just seemed like that last crystal had been made for Bernard.  She stared at Bernard with her mouth gaping and her gun held loosely in her hand.

Bernard saw the look on her face and started to laugh, “Oh dear,” he said, “How long have you been carrying that around for? Did I ruin your little story?”

Laurie numbly pulled the trigger again; as though trying to squeeze the lost drop out of a bottle that it is, in fact, empty.

The gun blazed, and Bernard fell to the floor; shards of blue glass sticking into the gold patch on his arm and drawing the neon gold light into itself.

“Oh” said Laurie, feeling very peculiar, “one in the clip, and one in the barrel”

*

It was later; things had happened.

Derek had finally gotten a chance to meet the Twins father; their meeting had been somewhat soured by the revelation that the Twins father worked for the Secret Department of public information, and had been directly responsible for both Derek and Laurie being tried by media.  The story of how Derek got him to reverse the tack they had been following and portray the two of them as heroes is a story in itself, but is far too long to do justice here.

Re-integrating twenty mentally scarred people into society was not a trivial task either, but this didn’t matter to Derek much; it was a job for Leonard and his friends, and Derek was quite glad to see him at least slightly overworked.

There had been the usual public uproar against semi-secret quasi-government organizations when the full extent of the damage to the central city became apparent, but the Department of Lovecraftian affairs had revealed a few choice pieces of information, and that brought the general public tone back to thankfulness for their blissful ignorance.  Derek didn’t care about this either; he was a demon hunter, not a city planner.

Derek wasn’t even concerned with the changes to the office.  The huge government grant to repair the destroyed buildings had included the office in the financial district, and the office was already up and running again; the driver had in fact joined them after they had gotten back; his name was John, and he and Beatrice were apparently off somewhere chasing down an old soldier’s demon.  In the mean time Chief had flown back in with a prefab building dangling underneath a helicopter with four rotors; Casper had been set up inside it apparently, but Derek hadn’t had any inclination to go and see.

Derek only had eyes for the fireworks display he was watching, and for the wife and daughter he was watching it with, and for the first time in a very long time Derek felt truly happy.

*

Laurie felt different somehow; she felt; it wasn’t exactly toughness, but she felt stronger somehow; more well rounded.

She walked up the mountain in the failing light; enjoying the burn in her legs as she did so.

It took her a little time to get the floor opened in the mountain hut, but after she had done so she took a moment to look almost reverently as its contents.

Laurie felt a sense of connection to the objects that hadn’t been there before; she was a demon hunter; part of a long tradition.  The objects in the hole were a catalogue of the organization’s history, and now she was in a position to add to it.

Laurie carefully put into the hole an oddly coloured cube and a shrunken human arm.  She smiled as she put them in; she really didn’t know what the future generations were going to make of them.

The cube and the arm sat in the hole completely inert. Laurie grinned to herself; after they had tied Bernard up she had spent almost half an hour watching the prismatic spray from the cable, and she now knew that she would have been able to see if the cubes were active.

Laurie turned on her heel and looked at the setting sun; running her thumb over her grandmother’s ring and ignoring the pain in the eyes.  She took a deep breath through her nose and started to hum to herself.

It was a song about Laurie; the demon hunter.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: