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Man on the Inside

Chapter Text

Massaru Devi rearranged the scalpels, scissors, and forceps on the surgical tray, the metal gleaming faintly in the inadequate light.  Brief streaks flitted across his graying hair and the water damaged ceiling.  He wiped down the dissecting table again, like a mother compulsively straightening the bed sheets for a house-guest.  It was the least he could do for the ones that came to him.  They probably didn’t expect a sixty year old Indian doctor to do their autopsy, but they never complained. 

The doors to the surgical theater swung open.  Two men in grey suits, their expressions as stony as the rest of the brainwashed workers on the compound, rolled in the latest sheet-covered body.  A note written in precise cursive was pinned to the sheet. 

To my Dear Dissector. 

The endearment left a cold quiver down Massaru’s back, but he kept a straight face in front of the two men, waving them forward to move the body onto the table.  They worked for Freewill, as did he in his persona.  But sometimes Massaru wondered if Retten knew where his true allegiance lay. 

The two men left as silently as they had come.   Massaru glared at the windows leading out into the hallway, imagining the welding and tweaking Retten did with his infernal machine down the hall.  He had no idea what the monstrous thing did, but Retten always delighted in sending the victims to him.

“Tell me, how did these men die?” Retten would ask, gums exposed as he smiled.  “That’s your puzzle when you’re not tending bruises and burn from the workers.” 

Every time, Massaru would give his best estimate of death, and the similarities to the bodies before.  Retten would smile all the wider, shaking his head. 

Massaru almost didn’t want to know. 

The nine story building, once a hospital, was a twisted shadow of its former self, now part of the Freewill compound.  The surgical theater was on the sixth floor, as was whatever Retten worked on, which made the floor, to Massaru, the dark heart of the beastly building. 

Surgical gloves snapped at Massaru’s wrists and he donned his mask, hiding away the lines of age around his mouth.  A flick of a switch and a portable lamp left a small puddle of light on the body.  He folded down the sheet.  The abdomen was ripped open, ribcage split near the bottom of the sternum and pushing outwards.  After opening and peeling away what was left of the skin in a butterfly cut, he saw all internal organs were present, though a few crushed or ripped, like the diaphragm and gallbladder. 

Massaru allowed himself to glance at the body’s face.  The man was on the younger side of twenty, the same as his son. 

His son… how long had it been since he saw Rama, or his wife?  A year?  More?  He had lost count of the days, keeping himself in the thrall of Freewill and Retten, losing himself in the pattern of daily isolation and stress.  Surely it was worth the separation to put that madman away.  Sometimes he saw Retten tinkering around in his lab, smiling with child-like joy that did not belong on such a face.  It confirmed his belief that some evils were born and not made. 

It did not help that Retten had an obsession with one man in particular; a whole wall of his basement office was covered in pictures of a grim-faced blond man with shadows under his eyes.  Massaru had seen them when he had tried and failed to open and copy files from the computer.  He couldn’t imagine Retten’s connection with the man, but he had a feeling that Retten’s machine was meant for him. 

Massaru gathered the remains of the shredded stomach in a tray and examined the contents, straining the bits and pieces through a cloth.  The man apparently had been allowed breakfast before being taken as a lab rat.  Bits of ground meat, clay-like globs of biscuits, and flakes of pepper.  But amongst them lay something different.  

Massaru’s mouth ran dry, an idea dawning of what Retten worked on in the room down the hall. 

With a pair of tweezers he held up the remains of a human leg- from shredded thigh to toes, barely an inch long.

*

A week later

Embossed in brushed steel and copper, an armored fist held a pair of scales on the Watch shield, looking down on the Main Tech level as if it would smite anyone for leaving a single paperclip on the floor.  Set around the rim the words “To Watch, to Weigh, and to Act for the Good of Mankind”. 

“To watch, to weigh, to wait on our asses,” muttered Cetz as he leaned back in his office chair and put his feet up on the desk, fingering the still fuzzy crew cut he had gotten two days ago.  He hadn’t gone back to his house since, sleeping in his office waiting for Watch Mission Control to take him off standby.  As Head of Watch Two, it was expected that he sit on his ass and wait for his higher ups to talk to him, but he didn’t have to like it. 

The more he looked at the shield the more he was convinced the designer was a Libra obsessed with the Zodiac.  And the more he pondered the name “The Watch”, the more he was convinced whoever came up with it was an Alan Moore fan.  A bit contrived to hide Base Two in the main floors of a public office building and the ground underneath it.  Glass paneling, concrete and pure white walls that strained Cetz’s eyes with hygienic brightness. 

Base Two of the Watch, also known as Watch Two, was quiet at seven in the morning, working on partial staff and half shifts.  Except for Doctor Rachel Samson, Head Med Tech, whose office and lab were at the end of the hall in the Med Wing.  He could hear her tinkering around the lab with Bella, the lab chimp.  Rachel lived here almost as much as he did. 

Cetz leaned further back and took off his headset, the speaker in his ear continuously feeding him checkup reports of what happened around base.  He needed quiet.  His computer, thanks to Grant, was on automatic scan and alert for communications coming in from Watch One.  Hopefully that meant Cetz could get in forty winks before doing his morning rounds. 

A red light from his computer shined through his eyelids and tinted his white office room pink. 

“Damn,” he hissed. 

He tapped the message icon on his screen.  A retrieval dossier.  Nothing he hadn’t seen before.  His fingers lazily swiped the screen, going through attached bios, trying to focus his eyes with too little coffee in his system. 

Then he saw it.  A name.  A very potent name.  He was wide awake. 

“Rachel!” he yelled towards the hallway.  “Rachel, we have a thing!”

A minute later, lab coat still on and long blonde hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, Rachel leaned on the doorframe, slouching tiredly. 

“We have an intercom.  You don’t have to yell.  And what do you mean thing?” 

Cetz turned the screen around to face her.  After a minute she had a similar reaction. 

“Shit,” she muttered.  “I’ll tell Olivia to call in the teams.  Do you want me to call Louis?” 

“No, I will.”  He put the headset back on, assuming the role Watch Head once again.  “He’s going to have to hear this from me.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s taking his newbie partner with him whether he likes it or not.” 

*

Louis Patriarch, agent of The Watch, slammed the Buick’s door while still holding the cell to his ear.  The dark circles under his grey eyes creased as he listened to Cetz explain why he had to come in on a weekend,  and who he was being forced to work with. 

“Goody-two-shoes, doe-eyed, James Bond-wannabe Will Rowe?” Louis replied, putting his seat belt on one handed.  “That’s the last thing I need and you know it.”  

“He’s your partner, Louis; you’re taking him on this one.  No exceptions.” 

“I need to hold the hand of a newbie for a search and seize?” 

“He’s not that new.  And this isn’t your average search and seize.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I’ll explain when you get to base.  And be nice.  I don‘t want to have to talk to Human Resources on your behalf again.” 

Cetz clicked off and Louis gritted his teeth, managing to not throw the cell out the window as he pulled away from the apartment complex.  

“I’ll explain later.  Nice excuse.” 

He glanced in the rear-view mirror.  His sand blond hair hung in his eyes, in desperate need of a trim.  With the way his schedule worked he was lucky to get a weekend off each month, let alone arrange time for a haircut.  And all that time was spent with Will.  Louis shuddered at the thought of dealing with him again on a Saturday morning. 

Will Rowe, his newbie partner and one of the most cheerfully oblivious people he’d met.  Persistent, like a crow pecking at his bedroom window at four in the morning, and as clingy as a burr. 

Louis needed coffee.  A lot of coffee, and damn if he didn’t know every drive through cafe and Starbucks in the city. 

At a red light Louis looked up to the gray-clouded heavens. 

Have him shot, food poisoning, anything, please. Take him out of my misery.

*

It took longer for Louis to get to Watch Two than he expected.  He blamed it on the new barista in the drive through. 

The base of Watch Two was part of a ten story office building.  However the Watch was the only one with access to the parts of the building that led down, down, down to the underground bunkers that connected to five other building in the area.  Storage of hundreds of experiments or equipment confiscated from homegrown terrorists or madmen to be reverse engineered.  The knowledge gained from the confiscated items was assimilated to modify and improve the Watch equipment and databases. 

But the scientists, agents, and researchers in the chamber of Main Tech, were the heart of Watch Two. 

The moment Louis passed through the revolving door, electric eyes were on him, cameras placed in every corner of the spacious lobby.  The cameras scanned every warm body that walked in, but unlike the suited men and women that worked from the third floor up, he knew the cameras were there and why.  From the glass doorway of the Novak Office building, to the last Watch Two checkpoint, security for Base entry took a minimum ten minutes; past the “receptionist” with her finger on the lockdown switch as he went through a badge scan, into an automated chamber for retina scan and hand prints, and a bio scan for any wires or unauthorized electrical equipment.  Down a stairway landing, past the elevator, and another body scan to the last checkpoint where guards greeted him grimly.  All strictly procedure and done with care. 

They even put what was left of his coffee through a metal detector.  Heathens.  Coffee never hurt anyone. 

Louis was pretty sure a month of this caused sterility, and any more cause insanity.  Which would explain a lot of things about his job and the people he worked with. 

Louis barely stepped off the elevator when William Rowe greeted him with a black ceramic mug of steaming coffee. 

“Good morning!” Will chimed.  The thinner agent had layered brown hair that barely touched his shoulders and an animated face stretched into a grin; like a doped up spaniel.  People that happy shouldn’t have a gun license, let alone have a gun. 

“Black, two sugars.” Will held out the mug, proud to remember how Louis took his caffeine, especially since Louis knew Will never drank coffee. 

That had been strike number one against his partner when he first met him for orientation.

“Got my own on the way.”  Louis held up his disposable cup with a cardboard ring and went to his desk amongst the others in Main Tech.  Most of the desks were unmanned, the agents already in the conference room a floor up.  On his chair rested a large plastic bag full of coffee-stained disposable cups. 

“The hell…”

Will put the mug down on Louis‘ desk.  “I collected them to prove a point.” 

“That you’re a freak that goes through my trash can?”

“The amount of waste created by your coffee addiction.  This is just from one week!  What good is saving the world when it’s covered by plastic, Styrofoam, and paper?” 

Louis took a calming sip from his cup, swallowing down the words that surfaced in his mind.  He didn’t need another encounter with Human Resources.  Damn hippie, tree-hugging, green-shoed, peace-love-smiley-shit-faced… 

Will was an eco-freak.  That was strike two. 

“Point one; I’m not the only one here that uses paper cups, so maybe you should bother someone else that gives a crap.  Point two: we’re not saving the world, Fanboy,“ said Louis with strained patience.  “And point three: I like coffee.”

“Fine, but can you drink it from something that isn’t going to a dump?”
Before Louis could answer, Rachel leaned over the walkway banister, snapping her fingers at the boys. 

“Rowe, Patriarch.  We’re waiting on you here!” 

Will gestured to the second floor conference room and let Louis go in front. 

Louis pointed back at Will.  “Leave the mug.” 

The long, white conference room was crowded with filled seats, a few empty ones up in the front, nearest to the projection screen and Cetz at the podium.  Louis stood near the side wall instead, closest to the door, the amount of people in one room stifling.  Will hovered near him.

Cetz, nodding; the two people he personally had called in had finally arrived.  He activated the projection display. 

“Good morning.  At 0600, Watch Two received a mission plan from Watch One.  A search and seize of a homegrown terrorist organization by the name of Freewill, a supposed offshoot of the Travoli Cult.”  The projector flashed a logo of a torch being struck by lightening. 

Will leaned his head towards Louis, his voice soft.  “Travoli Cult?” 

“Militant, anti-feminist, nuclear kool-aid, coming of the aliens, bastards,” explained Louis. 

“Ah.” 

Cetz continued.  “This isn’t your usual cult.  From the information available, they are involved in bio-weapons, mutilation, and human experimentation.  They have ties to other militant factions across the country.  Which means while we get first go at the compound, we will be accompanied by the FBI.” 

Half of the conference room groaned. 

“Deal with it,” said Cetz.  “As much as the FBI wants to swat this one, we get preference because of the tech, so we will extend them every courtesy.  Agents Megan Shiloh and Teegan Carry have been handling negotiations with them lately, so everything should go well.” 

The screen then showed an aerial view of an old military compound, armored trucks at every entrance along the fence. 

“This is only one of three compounds they are occupying.  Far away from any major populated area, so worrying about collateral should be at a minimum.  Their roll call consists mostly of scientists and arms technicians.  Unlike their bomb-happy predecessors, their objective is unknown, but their actions aren't.  Judging by the amount of machinery and chemicals coming into the compound, we are expecting explosives of various types and possibly high powered firearms.” 

Photos of chemical barrels and crates went across the projector.  Louis wondered how such photos managed to get out of the Freewill compound if it was so militant.

“We haven’t been able to get the names of those higher up in Freewill but we do know a few of their main scientists.”  As he mentioned the names corresponding photos flashed on the screen.  “Edward Baker, Reginald D’Cremmon, and the head of this particular base… Yanif Retten.”

Louis’ hand tightened, denting his coffee cup.  This did not go unnoticed by the rest of the room; a few heads turned to see the glower on the blonde‘s face. 

“The Feds have their swat team ready to go in after we give the word.  Our objective in this is threefold.  We go in with the tech we have and take down their alarm systems from the inside so the FBI can do their thing.  We identify their resources, and then retrieve all information we can from their databases before they can hit the kill switch to all their computers.  Any tech present in the compound dealing with our division we will sort out after Swat goes in and clears out all personnel.”  Cetz brought up another slide with the Watch Two agents in teams and division names.  “The division of teams have already been determined.  Go to your stations for further instruction and review the dossiers sent to your tablets.  Be ready to move in two hours.” 

Cetz clicked off the projector and left.  Louis slipped out the door before the mass of agents could get up from their seats. 


Will quickened his pace, following Louis. His first big mission briefing, and his skin was already tingling with the anticipation of finally using his training in the field, proving himself.  But the meeting had done something quite different to his partner.  

“How could a cult group get hands on an abandoned military compound?” Will asked. 

“They buy it, idiot,” said Louis.  “What politician would turn down that kind of money?” 

Will nodded, but kept following with growing unease.  They passed the stairway that lead to Main Tech and kept going towards the cluster of offices near Med Tech. 

“Where are we going?” asked Will.  “Our tablets are at our desks.” 

“Then go to your desk,” said Louis.  “You’ll have to catch up with me anyway.” 

Turning the corner, they found Cetz waiting outside his office, swiping his finger across his tablet, as if expecting them.  Or Louis at least.  “Problem?” 

“Retten?” said Louis, voice clipped and rough.  “You have me working a search and seize of a militant cult when Retten is involved?  And with a rookie?” 

“Your point?”  Cetz moved towards the elevators, Louis trailing behind him, and then Will following after like a line of ducks.

“He’s a sociopath,” said Louis.  “A cold, high functioning sociopath--”

“I’m not a--!” said Will, offended. 

“I’m not talking about you!  You’re just annoying.”  Louis turned back to Cetz.  “Retten is--”

“Probably using Freewill for their resources, I know,” said Cetz.  He  handed Louis his tablet.  “Your mission outline.” 

“This should be a manhunt.”  Louis immediately handed the tablet over to Will.  The rookie skimmed though the first few electronic pages, mostly diagrams and blueprints of the compound. 

The elevator opened and the pair of agents followed Cetz in as he pushed the button to take them down to Arms Tech.  Will had only been there once before during base orientation. 

“You can take that up with Watch One and Main headquarters, because this is out of my hands,” said Cetz.  “Would you look at the damn mission outline!” 

Will offered up the tablet and Louis snapped it away.  Cetz pointed out the files and picked out compound aerial view. 

“There are three main buildings in the compound, and the one holding the computer servers is the renovated hospital.  I'm not going to tell you where Retten is because you are not going on a manhunt for him.” 

The elevator doors opened and Louis kept following Cetz.  Will trailed behind, surprised at the heightened activity in Arms Tech, and waving to a few people he remembered from orientation.  They passed chambers lined with firearms that were usually locked down. Now they were open. 

“I know Retten best,” said Louis. 

“I know that,” said Cetz, with growing impatience.  “Which means you also know best how to avoid him.  You two are one of the teams to go in first.  You get in the hospital, find the server banks, and Will copies the whole thing on this.”

Cetz pointed to an open case on the armory desk that had a slim, metal lined device the size of a large paperback.  A cord and different plugs were set into the foam next to it. 

“Grant developed this to suck anything and everything off mass servers in a matter of minutes.  Just plug it in, leave it, and it will do all the work.  I had Franklin and Nate armor it up best they could, but try your best not to break it.”  Cetz closed the case and hesitantly held it out to Louis.  “Grant already calls this thing his Little Love Tap, and I don’t want to have to tell him one of his precious babies was lost in the line of fire.  Again.” 

Louis grabbed the case.  “Don’t blame me if stuff keeps getting broken during a scuffle.” 

I’m not blaming you.”  Cetz pointed around the lab.  “They are blaming you.”   

Will glanced around at the few lab techs that kept tossing frowns over their shoulder at Louis.  He leaned in.  “Is this why Reese and Beni warned me to keep my computer away from you?” 

Louis handed the case to Will.  “Shut up.” 

Cetz tapped through the tablet again, walking back through Arms Tech towards the stairs back up to Main Tech.  “After the drive is hooked up, you get to do the hard part.” 

“Take down the security fences?” asked Louis.  

“No.  The other teams will be set on that.  The two of you are on a rescue mission.” 

“Hostages?”  asked Will. 

“No.  Our man on the inside.”  Cetz handed over the tablet, showing a photo and a background file of a gray-haired Indian man with large glasses.  “Doctor Massaru Devi.  He works as the medical examiner and doctor on the compound.  He’s the one who sent out the photos of what goes on in Freewill.  Not an easy or fun job.  He works in the same building as the servers.  Find him and then get hell out of there before all hell breaks loose.” 

Will nodded.  A rescue mission.  He could do that. 

“And which building is Retten in?” asked Louis.

Cetz glared at him and stopped at the landing for Main Tech.

Louis shrugged, defensive.  “You want me to avoid him, I’m asking so I’ll steer clear.” 

“He works in the same building as Doctor Devi,” said Cetz.  Then he leaned forward like a father imparting a life lesson to a son.  “I mean it, Louis, stay away from Retten.  We’ve lost enough because of him.  If this goes south we can’t lose you too.”  

The muscles clenched in Louis’ jaw, but he nodded.  “Alright.” 

Cetz waved towards the hallway winding away from Main Tech.   “Look over your briefings.  Com Tech wants to go over the new communicators after you two suit up.” 

“Give me five minutes.”  Louis groaned, rubbing at his eyes.  “I’m going to need more coffee for that.” 

Louis tossed his cup in the nearby trash can as he walked away.  “I want those cups off my desk by the time I get back, Fanboy!” 

Will winced, running a hand through his hair as he gave back the tablet.  “So, anything I should expect for my first time officially out on the field?” 

“Stay calm,” advised Cetz.  “Nervous?” 

“A little.  I haven’t gotten much in the way of combat training since orientation, unless you count the beat-down sessions Megan and Teegan hand out.  Like yesterday.” 

Will winced at the memory.  Yesterday he had volunteered during Megan and Teegan’s weekly fighting demonstration.  They held tutorials for agents that didn’t get much field work and wanted to keep sharp.  Teegan had him as the “victim” to practice how to get out of a headlock, and Megan used him as the “bad guy” when showing how to properly clock out an opponent.  And they did not shy away from hitting below the belt.  It had been fun in some ways, and informative, but he had hurt afterwards. 

“In a real fight, fight dirty,” Teegan had said.  “If someone is trying to kill you, they won’t give a damn about your family jewels.” 

Will shifted, glad he had worn a cup for the demonstration that day.  “That hurt.” 

Cetz laughed.  “Yeah, Meg and Teeg take their tutorials seriously.”

Will chuckled before sucking in a breath between his teeth.  He didn‘t want to pry, but he had to know if it had bearing on the upcoming mission.  “Did something happen between Louis and Retten that I should know about?”

Cetz’s eyebrows raised in surprise.  “Three months with Louis and he hasn’t told you?” 

Will smiled weakly, slowly walking towards his desk.  After the fast pace Louis set following Cetz, it was good to go slow and keep his bearings.  “He doesn’t like me much.  I try, but, you know…” 

“I figured that,” said Cetz, following along.  “What do you know about Louis?”

Will shrugged.  “Just what’s available from his personnel file.  Twenty seven years old, six foot one and a half.  About hundred ninety pounds.  Joined the army right out of high school; honorable discharge after four years in the service.  From what I gathered there were some complications around it not mentioned in the file.” 

“He’d say six foot one and three quarters,” Cetz nodded.  “But go on.” 

“He did odd jobs for a few years until he was picked up by the Watch and has been working here for almost three years now,” said Will.  At his desk he picked up his tablet from it‘s charging base and tabbed through to the mission briefing in the inbox.  “And he‘s had partners before me.  I’m guessing they didn‘t last long.” 

“That it?” 

“He’s cranky.”  Will reached over and picked up the plastic bag of coffee cups.  “Doesn’t like preserving the environment and has a coffee addiction.” 

“That sounds about right,” said Cetz.  He ran his finger over Will’s tablet, opening up the file on the scientists of Freewill and enlarging Yanif Retten’s photo.  Then he pulled the headset off, disconnecting himself from the updating voices of Watch Two.  “You can get a gist of who Retten is from this, but I’m going to tell you what isn’t in the file.  And don’t tell Louis I told you.” 

Will made a zip and lock motion over his mouth.  “Cross my heart and swear on my Star Wars box set.” 

“You can keep your boxed set,” said Cetz.  “Louis was right when he called Retten a sociopath.  He’s a terrorist, not for any cause, but to see the effect, to study the reaction.  Crumble a bridge and tally how many people go through the rubble.  Bomb a school and see how many parents break down.  He once called himself the scale of humanity, measuring what it took to motivate people."  

“The man is crazy, but he’s smart crazy.  Squash one organization and he’ll slip away to pop up again in another like a cockroach.  The Watch has encountered him half a dozen times and he knows we have it out for him.  But he knows about Louis in particular.” 

“Why?” asked Will. 

“Retten killed Louis’ first partner, Terry, right in front of him.” 

The bag of coffee cups in Will’s hand suddenly felt heavy, dragging his arm down until the bag bounced against this leg.  “Oh.” 

“So you can see why Louis takes hunting down Retten personally.” 

“Yeah,” said Will.  No wonder Louis took this mission so seriously. 

“I’d hate to put this on you,” said Cetz, putting his headset back on.  “But keep him focused during the mission.” 

Will saw Louis walk through the Main Tech entrance, another paper cup of coffee in hand, rubbing at the dark circles under his eyes. 

“Got it,” Will said. 

*

The armory division suited Louis and Will in their gear; sleek, black, and containing small surprises in little compartments and pockets in their jackets. 

Will kept grinning like a teenager finally being able to play Bond, and Louis kept frowning.  He double checked his ammo before patting his shoulder holster down.  Rubber bullets in one pocket, real bullets in the other.  He preferred to use the real bullets if needed. 

Cetz showed up again as they got the run through from Com Tech for the new two-way communicators that fit in their ears like small ear buds.  SkySprechts; a new German model commissioned by the Watch, and hopefully more resilient than the last ones Louis had managed to break.  Louis and Will would have the main models while Cetz had the third model attached to his headset and kept their com signatures on his computer to track and guide them through the base.  They got new communicators since they would be first into the base and the Watch didn’t know what kind of interception Freewill had when it came to communicators. 

It was either SkySprechts or complete radio silence until the FBI came in. 

“They have both a microphone and speaker to keep the two of you in touch,” explained Cetz.  “And if you turn this dial it will expand your hearing range up to 50 feet.”

“Very Bond,” said Will with a smile as he put in the ear buds.  As serious as the mission would be, he couldn’t help but be fascinated by the gadgets the Watch provided.  “Testing, testing, one two three.”

“You’re not warming up for a concert, Will,” said Louis, adjusting the piece that wrapped around the shell of his ear.  “And for God’s sake don’t start humming the Mission Impossible theme again.  They’ll hear you coming from a mile away.”

“They can smell you coming from a mile away thanks to the coffee on your breath.”  Will smiled and held out a small mint tin.  “Mint?” 

Louis growled and walked towards the underground garage.

The teams went through blueprints and maps, memorizing where they needed to be and when.  By ten a.m. they were in the back of a van and on the move.  On the way, Louis sipped another paper cup of coffee, glaring at Will, daring him to say anything. 

Chapter Text

Two p.m.

Wire cutters took care of the fence that separated the compound of Freewill from the Watch. The section they cut into was on the lee side of a scraggly tree. Good enough for cover.

Squatting in the dry brush, Will thought it odd that a Xenophobic cult would have a metal fence but not keep it electrified. Perhaps it had been, but keeping the electricity going became secondary to whatever was being built inside the compound. Or maybe the members of Freewill were confident that their deadlocks and motion sensors would keep them safe.

Three teams of two were set up: Will and Louis to go in and secure the data from the servers, Megan and Teegan to disable the alarms, and two FBI agents to cover them until they reached the hospital building.

Will double checked that his gun was loaded with the rubber bullets. Next to him, Louis tightened the straps on his chest plating.

“Home, this is Two A, you copy?” said Louis, his voice echoing in Will’s ear through the SkySprecht. Even from a yard away, Will could smell Louis’ coffee breath.

“Loud and clear, team two,” said Cetz. “Be careful in there.”

Will eyed the distance between the fence and the first building in the compound. It was cloudy, but there was plenty of sunlight around. “We couldn’t have done this at night?”

“According to our source inside, this is the best time to go in.” Louis huffed, his jaw clenching. “You want us to make it easier on your first time, Fanboy? The sun don’t revolve around you.”

Will didn’t respond, but he could tell Louis didn’t like the idea of creeping into the compound in broad daylight either.

Weight sensors buried under the grounds of the compound played like a cruel game of Minesweeper. While Watch Two didn’t have a map of the sensors, they did carry a Thumper, a device almost the same size and shape as a vacuum cleaner, but far more powerful.

The support team dug a small pit wide enough to fit a floor waxer and two feet deep. In it they lowered the Thumper, the wide base fitting snugly against the edge of the hole that faced the gap in the fence and the ground beyond.

The team flipped the switch and a paralyzing electrical field was sent through the ground to the buried sensors. Once the Thumper was on, all of the ground sensors in its range were disabled. Infiltration technology at it’s finest, even if it only lasted four minutes.

Will still thought the whole idea of the Thumper came from someone that had been a devotee of Frank Herbert and wanted something to keep away spice worms. He decided not to share this thought with Louis. Louis probably didn’t even know Dune.

At the signal, the teams slipped through the fence and approached the first of the three buildings a quarter mile away, the hospital. They kept low and fast, pelting across the dead grass. At one pointed Will risked looking at his watch to seem how many more seconds they had left to reach the concrete.

Louis smacked his shoulder. “Don’t think about it, keep moving.”

Will obeyed until the team flattened themselves against the cold concrete sides of the hospital. The two FBI agents kept their heads up, looking out for any of the Freewill members. Megan swiped a hack card through the lock on the side entrance, opening it for Will and Louis.

Once Will and Louis slipped in, Megan, Teegan, and the two agents left for the building containing the security system for the compound. The boys were on their own.

Will didn’t know he had been holding his breath until they were inside. He let it out in an open-mouthed exhale that stretched down to his toes. So far, so good.

The empty and dimly lit lobby showed a tile floor scuffed and dirty from overuse and under-care. The walls smelled of ammonia and rubber with faded marks from boards and posters pocking the medicine green drywall. It was hard to look under the grime and see the hospital it once was.

Will tried to imagine nurses in scrubs walking down the hallways with clipboards and blankets, people dazed but healing as they were carted about in their wheelchairs. This wasn’t a place of healing anymore.

The computer servers were located on the eighth floor according to their briefing, but all the elevators had cameras in them. The best way to go up was via stairs. Eight flights of stairs.

Will was damn lucky he kept up on his cardio.

Louis held his gun out and in front as they passed down the hall. The stairwells were located near the back end of the hospital. And they had to pass a lot of rooms with open doors to get to them. Will glanced in each room, checking all four corners with his gun drawn as he passed by.

The stripped rooms, from the electrical fixtures to the window shades, allowed the sun to bleach the walls to bone. With each room they passed, Louis’ face drew darker and darker with unease until there was little left of his grey eyes except for the circles under them.

Louis and Will froze.

Was that singing?

As Will and Louis crept closer towards the stairwell the sound got louder. They peeked their heads around the bend. Across the stairwell was a sunroom, full of people in grey jumpsuits facing away from the doorway, singing in unison. The song was beautiful, lifting and rolling against the peeling walls like it was born in a cathedral but stuck in a cage.

According to the overview file, Freewill members took to “prayer” once a day, taking shifts so all could attend when available. The two o’clock prayer time must be the most popular one, and the reason there were so few people about.

“Sounds nice,” Will said quietly.

Louis’ eyes rolled. “You wanna join the choir?”

“I didn’t say that.” Will grimaced. So much for keeping a lively attitude.

They entered the stairwell.

As they climbed the stairs, Will checked each window slit on the floor landings. Each floor was just as sparse as the first one, but the light dimmed with each flight up, as if the windows were being purposefully blocked. No light, and not even a camera in the stairwell.

Except for the sixth floor with the only hallway that still looked like a hospital. Filled with equipment, a pair of gurneys by the elevator foyer, scanning equipment and wheelchairs folded up against the walls.

In the eighth floor, Louis took the left side of the hallway while Will took the right; backs braced against the walls as they peeked through the window slits on doors. The hallway had minimal lighting. Bundles of wires went from doorway to doorway like nerves. Every room was connected with wires, blinking lights coming from each one. The whole floor must have been a giant server.

Two men, both in gray suits, sat at a repurposed check-in desk across the elevator foyer. One with slicked back blond hair was engrossed in a thick paperback while the other kept his eyes on a monitor, chin supported in his hand. For anti-government, cult security, it was pretty laid back. And lacking in wardrobe variety.

Louis nodded over to the room with the most wires coming out of it. The more wires, the more ports for them to connect Grant’s Little Love Tap. Will nodded back. They inched back to the room, Will going in first with Louis following until they reached the back wall, far away from anyone who might peek in.

Dozens of shelves full of servers lined the room like an overstuffed library of blinking LED lights. Hundreds of tiny fans whirred in their sleek machines, humming and warming the room like a bee hive. Will and Louis stood staring at the whole server system of Freewill, and Will couldn’t help but feel a cold clench in his belly. He kept his eyes on the doorway, gun at the ready.

“I feel like we just walked into Cloud City,” said Will.

“What?” said Louis.

“Cloud City. The heroes of Star Wars walk into a place they think is safe and it ends up being a trap.”

“First you complain that the mission is too hard, now you think it’s too easy,” said Louis, switching on one of the screens in the back. “Make up your mind and get to work, wookie.”

“If I’m Chewbacca then you’re Leia.” Will muttered, pushing his hair back away from his face.

“Not a fuckin’ princess, Fanboy.”

Louis kept watch of the doorway, posture straight and grounded like a rock. If Will had to be honest, Louis would do better with the role of Han Solo even if his coloring was more Luke Skywalker; golden and tan but tempered with a cynical blaster at his side.

Will pulled up his jacket and unclipped Grant’s device from the carrier that had been strapped to the small of his back. The computer servers weren’t as complicated as he’d feared and he was able to hook up the Love Tap with a USB cable. A light bar on the side of the device’s reinforced shell glowed green. The fans in the servers whirred faster, the lights blinking.

Five minutes later, the Love Tap was still glowing green. Cetz had said the device could copy the servers in minutes, but Will doubted it would work that fast on a whole floor full of daisy chained machines.

“Are you sure that thing is even working?” hissed Louis, taking his eyes off the doorway for a moment.

“Its plugged in. The light is on,” said Will. “And you haven’t touched it, so it isn’t broken yet.”

“Shut up,” said Louis. “Team two to home. The Little Love Tap is taking longer than we thought. What’s Team One’s status?”

“Team one isn‘t in position yet,” said Cetz over the SkySprecht. “Hang tight, inform me once you’re done.”

“Got it,” said Louis. He checked his watch, the lines around his mouth digging deeper with a grimace.

Will frowned. If it took much longer for them to copy the servers, Freewill’s prayer time would end and the building would be buzzing with people again. On top of that, Meg and Teeg couldn’t deactivate the compound’s alarm system and herald in the FBI team until they were sure the information in the servers was safe.

“Let’s hope they’re doing a long Latin prayer,” said Will.

“I don’t think they’re Catholic, Fanboy,” said Louis. He gestured back to the Love Tap. “That thing better hurry the hell up or I‘m gonna shoot it.”

“Threatening it won’t work.”

Louis froze at the sound of footsteps in the hallway. He flattened himself against a server shelf facing away from the doorway and moved his finger from the trigger guard to the trigger.

Will’s teeth dug into his lower lip as he willed the light on the Love Tap to glow red.

Will’s spine felt like an elevator shaft and the lift was plummeting to crash at the bottom. He loved his job, the adventure, feeling like James Bond. But the fear of death or screwing up he could live without.

The footsteps clacked with thick soled boots, paused at the door, and then walked past. Will let out a breath.

Over the speakers in the building, a chime sounded. The two o’clock prayer service was over. Will and Louis were out of time.

The light on the Love Tap flashed red.

“About damn time,” hissed Louis.

Will unplugged the device from the server port, closed the protective shell, and started to strap it on his back when a thought hit him. If the guards found them with the Love Tap, which was likely at this point, they would probably confiscate or destroy it. But if it was hidden then the FBI’s strike team could retrieve it afterwards no matter what happened to him or Louis.

The elevator bell dinged. More people to man the floor.

Will glanced around, and then glanced up. Ceiling tiles, water damaged and old; in other words, perfect. He climbed one of the server shelves like a ladder, gun still in his hand, and shoved the Love Tap beyond the tiles, out of sight, out of mind. He dropped back down to the ground, dust drifting down after him. Obviously, Freewill didn’t believe in deep cleaning their office space.

“What the hell?” said Louis.

“Just in case,” said Will. “Expect the worst, hope for the best.”

Louis rolled his eyes. “Home, we got the servers copied and stowed away on location, but it’s getting crowded up here. Where’s our diversion?”

“Team One ran into some complications,” said Cetz. “Sit tight.”

Sitting tight wasn’t going to help them stay unnoticed from the guards if they took a closer look at their servers. And it wouldn’t help them find Doctor Devi when the FBI came in.

“Fine. Sitting,” said Louis. “I hate sitting.”

Louis’ trigger finger went back to lining up against the barrel, but Will could see how tense he was. Louis wanted to shoot something, and Will could guess who. Retten.

The elevator bell dinged again. Will flattened himself against a server shelf, same as Louis. Neither of them noticed the small whirr and click of a motor.

Louis flinched like a bug had bit him, hand slapping to his neck. His eyes widened in slow growing shock. “Sh…”

“What?” said Will.

Louis’ legs wobbled and he went to his knees, mouth open wide, gasping as his eyes dilated and limbs went numb.

“Shit!” Will grabbed Louis under his arms, but his partner became dead weight until he lay on the dirty linoleum floor. “Louis? Yeah, you would do this right now.”

Will checked Louis’ pulse, and his fingers encountered a small, yellow feathered dart sticking out of the blond’s neck.

“Home, Two A is down. We need back--” Another whirr and a click from above, and Will felt a cold pinch on the back of his neck. He looked up and saw a small black box on the ceiling with holes in it that flashed small blue lights. “-uck.”

The numbness started at Will’s fingers, the gun falling from his hands as his feet turned to clay, dragging him down to the earth. As he hit the floor he saw the silhouette of the guard that had been at the desk with the paperback, his toe tapping back and forth like a jig.

“Team Two?” called Cetz. “Team Two, what’s going on?”

Will blacked out.

Chapter Text

In dazed flashes, where he couldn’t tell minutes from hours, Will felt his arms in a stronghold as he was dragged through the wire crossed hallway. He thought he heard the ding of the elevator. Breath came slow, like sucking pudding through a straw. Opening his eyes, sight fuzzy, he saw discarded trolleys of medical equipment lining a hall. The sixth floor.

Down the hall he could hear Louis slurring profanities to those that dragged him to a closed door. The door opened to a room buzzing with light, metal, and a person Will couldn’t see clearly. But Louis could, and his slurring launched into a rage filled scream as he was dragged towards the room.

What torture did their captors have planned?

Will’s hand twitched as if struck by an electric wire. His arm jerked, weak but almost moving in the direction he wanted. The men pushed him against the wall hard enough to make the closest door creak. His legs were still weak, but gravity sealed him to the chipped paint. Thick hands unclipped his holster and riffled through his pockets, dropping all his equipment to his feet, from the metal bullets to his mint tin.

Breathing became easier, the feeling coming back in his fingertips. Whatever had knocked him out wore off quickly. His knees held, legs straightened. He had a chance. Elbow jab to the left, knee to the right…

One of the men stabbed a needle into Will’s leg while the other stuck one into his hip. The numbness spread again, slipping him back into black.

*

Massaru trudged up the stairs with little energy. He wanted his lab coat. The white cloth was his one barrier from being just another gray suit in a machine. The thumb drive in the hip pocket of his jumpsuit burned at his mind, urging him to touch it, reassure himself it was still there. Last night he had finally managed to copy the files from Retten’s computer. He dare not lose it.

At the sixth floor landing he stopped short. Through the window slit he saw a brown haired man, unsteady on his feet, being stripped of his possessions by two gray-suited guards. Amongst the possessions was a gun, which wasn’t unusual to see on the compound. But the shield impressed upon the leather of the shoulder holster was familiar; a pair of scales held by a mailed fist.

The Watch seal.

The raid was happening now. And the men sent here were caught.

Massaru stood stock still as the long haired agent was dragged like a threadbare doll into the surgical theater. He had no idea what Retten expected him to do with a live body. The men left via elevator. Massaru crept to the theater doors. The long haired man was bound to a gurney and dead to the world but not ready for the scalpel.
The lights flickered, floor vibrating as the electricity was sucked to the room down the hall where Retten tinkered. The last time the lights flickered, Massaru had gotten a corpse with a surprise inside.

Massaru wanted to go home, back to his wife, back to his son. He didn’t want to risk his life on the very day he was supposed to find freedom. But he couldn’t bare the thought of another person as Retten’s toy. Not today.

Massaru padded down to the lab door. On the ground he saw a second set of equipment with the Watch seal, this pile smaller than the first. Another agent caught. He picked up the gun and took the safety off. The lights in the hallway flickered again, a few seconds of darkness that reminded Massaru of the blackouts back in Dubai. Only this was caused by an over-hungry machine.

A powdery mint pellet crunched under his foot. A mint tin lay on the ground, and the thumb drive still burned in Massaru’s pocket. It would have to do.

Massaru kicked open the door to Retten’s lab. In that moment he didn‘t feel like a hero. He felt scared.

*

Will awoke, head stuffed with itchy wool and limbs heavy. He took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of stagnant rubbing alcohol and gagging. Green tile climbed up the walls, dingy and worn like basket of mold. He was still in the hospital building on the Freewill compound. He couldn’t move, strapped to a cold gurney by the wrists, ankles, and chest.

A wire brace kept his mouth open, digging into his gums and drying his tongue. It was like getting braces all over again, except this was far more terrifying. Heart pounding, breath harsh.

Louis wasn’t with him.

A lab coat fluttered to his left. He wasn’t alone.

Shit.

Aside from the hum of the overhead light, and his own panicked breathing, Will couldn’t hear anything. No Louis screaming at the top of his lungs like he had been before. Which meant either Louis was drugged too or…

Will didn’t want to think about it.

Will coughed, the sound louder than he expected in the tile room. His jaw felt numb, a pinching ache at the hinge as if he’d been shot with a dozen needles of Novocain.

A too warm hand tilted his face back up and sprayed a fine mist down his throat with a spray bottle.

“Swallow, buddy. You’re not getting a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.”

The voice had a nasal pitch, but dipped to a low rumble that made the hair on the back of Will’s neck stand up. It took a moment to recognize the man standing over him. Will jerked against the straps.

Yanif Retten. The photo in the file had been of a dark haired man, with a sharp nose, flared nostrils, and even sharper blue eyes. His nose and eyes crinkled with a grin, a little too much gum showing.

Retten in person moved like a man balancing a broomstick on the tip of his finger. In one moment quick and frantic; setting down the spray bottle, grabbing a syringe, and then slow and measured to regain balance; lifting Will’s shirt, stabbing the needle into his stomach, and then pressing the plunger with long, slim fingers.

And he stood over Will. Smiling. Silent.

Will groaned, a pool of numbness filling his belly.

Holy fuck, I’m in a torture scene with a villain that doesn’t monologue.

Will gripped the cuff of his jacket as the long needle slowly withdrew. He felt something hard against his palm.

The Watch issued razor wires sewn into the lining of his jacket just for the occasion of being tied up or strapped down. And he had totally forgotten them. He could hear Louis taunting him now.

Way to stay on top of the trope, Fanboy.

At least he could wish he was hearing Louis and not the dead silence from the hallway.

Will furrowed his fingers into the cuff until the sharp half moon of metal bit into his cuticle. At the base of the razor wire was a ring he slipped onto his middle finger. He sawed away at the strap closest to his body, keeping his actions out of view.

Retten was more focused on Will’s open mouth. He took the bound agent’s jaw in one hand and shoved something dry and lumpy to the back of Will‘s throat. “Swallow this, please.”

Like hell he was. Will gagged, a sick, sticky sound. The wire brace cut into his gums, his mouth wanting to bite down on those fingers. Instead he funneled his fear and frustration on the strap, wearing and fraying it.

Retten clicked his tongue, removed his hand, and with a tap collapsed the metal brace. The moment it left Will’s mouth, Retten shoved his jaw shut. Gravity moved the lump down to dangle right above his throat.

“This would be a lot easier if you would just swallow,” said Retten, staring him. His eyes wavered as if thinking “why not let the broomstick fall?” With his other hand, he pinched Will’s nostril’s shut. Either Will swallowed whatever the hell Retten stuck in his mouth, or he’d suffocate.

*

Two stories up, the two men assigned to baby-sit the servers jumped at the infiltration alarm. They grabbed the duffels stored under the desk, lifted the cover to a red button on the side of the desk, pressed it, and then ran down the stairwell. A window on the desk computer flashed at 20 seconds, counting down.

*

The alarm sounded like a tire squeal and school bell rolled into one grating noise. The peace spread by the choir crumbled away. The gates had finally come down. Freewill was compromised.

Retten raised his head at the sound of doors slamming in the hallway. His fingers dug deeper into Will’s cheeks.

The strap at Will’s wrist snapped.

*

The timer flashed to zero. The charges set in every server room, wired together in a daisy chain of destruction, fired off. Searing heat filled the chambers, busting the doors off their hinges and shaking the support beams all the way down the building.

*

Will clawed the razor at the hand over his face, leaving a slick red stripe over Retten’s knuckles and wrist.

Retten jumped back, surprised. “Damn!”

Will gagged, fumbling at the strap around his other hand, trying to get free.

The weight in Retten’s eyes dropped. He grabbed the edge of the gurney, braced the bottom with his foot, and tipped it, and Will, over onto the ground.

The impact was enough to send the lump burning down Will’s throat. And it hurt.

The straps released. Will tumbled to the tile floor. Gasping, groaning, he clawed at his chest as the lump moved, inch by burning inch down to his stomach. Will coughed, tasting blood.

Holy shit what did he put in me? A razor?

Will didn’t get time to ponder as Retten ran out of the door, saluting with his injured hand.

“I suggest you rest.”

“I’ll rest when I’m dead.” It was a cliché line, but hell if it didn’t fit.

Will got to his feet, knees still weak, picked up the broken end of an IV pole, and followed after Retten. He glanced to the left, the right, and then followed the flutter of a white lab coat to the end of the hall.

It was like chasing after a ghost. Will’s vision blurred at the edges, like the fumes off gasoline. He focused on the tiny drops of blood trailed before him. His shoulder kept bumping against the walls. Whatever Retten injected him with was messing with his center of gravity. He stumbled into the swinging door of the room Retten disappeared into.

The familiar smell hit him first. A too sweet rot, like ham set out in the sun too long, with an undertone of copper and putrefaction. A morgue; green tiled like the surgical theater.

The cold hit him next. The temperature was set lower then the rest of the building, but it wasn’t cold enough to stave decomposition. The chill leached into Will’s skin, making his head spin and skin clammy with a cold sweat. Two rows of gurneys laid with stained, sheet-covered bodies were parked in the room, like beds in an orphanage.

Will recoiled, stumbling back into a wall as he doubled over.

He knew this smell. He thought he had left it behind with the tilled soil of empty mass graves. Shit, he shouldn’t remember this now. But it was hard to keep the memories away when every gasp drew more of the foul air into his lungs. Damn scent memory.

Will managed to look up. Retten was nowhere in the room. The blood trail pointed to an escape route, a disposal chute in a corner. Retten was long gone.

Will slammed the IV pole against the ground in frustration. A tile chipped and skittered against a gurney wheel. He lurched out of the room, keeping his ears and eyes out for anyone else, but the hallway remained empty, the alarm screeching a metronome.

As the smell dissipated, Will regained his bearings. He stood straighter despite the ache in his throat and in his head. His gear lay in a mess on the floor. Gun, check. Knives, check. Mint tin, check. Holster, check. SkySprecht…

Will pressed the com to his ear until it ached. “Home, do you hear me?”

There was dead air for three seconds. Will scanned the hallway, sliding a magazine into his gun. Real bullets this time. He could hear the elevator cars going up and down their shafts, but none stopped at his floor. Not a soul in sight. Just him alone.

“Home?” His voice broke, the soreness of his throat making him cough.

Will got to his feet and inched towards the door he last saw Louis go through. Would he find Louis? Or a body?

The com squeaked in his ear, like a radio adjusting to a new frequency.

“Two B?”

Will sighed, relieved. “Two B here. I’m on the sixth floor of the hospital. I’m armed. What’s going on?”

“Team One was delayed in getting the fences down,” said Cetz. “I patched your location through. They’re on their way.”

Gunfire echoed from the stairwell and Will pressed himself closer to the wall.

“Has Two A called in?” asked Will.

“No,” said Cetz, hesitant. “I have no reading on him through the coms.”

“Shit.” The word hissed through Will’s teeth like steam. He was supposed to keep and eye on Louis. First mission in the field and he’d screwed up.

“What happened?” asked Cetz.

“Me and Louis got darted, drugged, separated, and taken captive. I got free when the alarm went off. Retten got away.”

“Ret-? Oh shit.”

“Yeah. I’m checking the rest of the floor now.” God willing he would find Louis. Will pushed with his shoulder through the door, swinging it wide as he lead with the gun.

Metal and bright light greeted him. It was as if all light in the compound had been drawn here through the wires and pipes sticking out of the walls like veins. The whole room, little bigger than the morgue, was a machine. A mess of mirrors, motors, motherboards, and buttons; the end result of the Phantom of the Opera chandelier breeding with a space shuttle. The metal panels were smashed, edges burnt and torn like pillows. Exposed wires congregated to a metal protrusion from the ceiling, pointing like a wasp’s sting towards a slab of a table.

Laying beside the table, pinned down by a fallen metal panel, was a dark skinned man with gray hair in a gray jumpsuit that was slowly turning red.

Wary, Will approached, gun leading the way. A Watch issued gun lay near the table. Louis’ gun. Will kicked it away. The man shuddered, groaning, hands pushing at the panel as the edge dug into his side. The man struggled harder until Will stepped into his line of sight.

It was Doctor Massaru Devi.

Will holstered the gun and went to his knee next to the wounded man. “Home, I need a medic on the sixth floor of the hospital. We got a wounded man here.”

“Two A?”

“No, our retrieval target.”

Will wedged his hands under the panel and with a raspy groan shifted it off the wounded man. The blood had spread halfway down the man’s jumpsuit. A ten inch long rip in flesh went from the side of Doctor Devi’s ribs to the middle of his belly. A few broken ribs at least. And losing blood fast. The doctor shivered, curling in on himself like a drying leaf.

Will shoved a piece of the broken machinery under Devi’s legs, covering it with his jacket. “Doctor Devi? Can you hear me? You’re gonna be fine. I’m with the Watch. We’re gonna get you out of here. Do you understand?”

Devi’s eyes fluttered, trying to focus. A gash at his temple trickled red down to his collar. But he nodded.

“Good.” Will hesitated with his next question. “Doctor Devi, did you see the agent I came in with. Blond, loud, smells like coffee?”

Devi mumbled something almost too soft for Will to hear, but it didn’t sound like English.

“What?” said Will.

“The… man in the wall pictures…” said Devi, his voice was faint a lilting with his accent. His breath dragged through his lips, rattling in his broken chest. “Dragged him to the machine.”

Will nodded. “Yes, they brought him in here. What happened to him?”

Devi focused on his face for a moment. Then his eyes went wide in recognition. He clutched at Will’s shoulder in a moment of clarity. “You were the man in the other room.”

“Yeah,” said Will. “But I’m fine. Mostly. What happened to my partner? Is he alive?”

“He…” Devi’s hand slipped down Will’s chest, pressing at the base of his sternum. His fingers pinched in, and then his arm flopped dead onto his bloody side. The doctor passed out.

“No, not now!” Will slapped Devi’s face lightly. He felt bad questioning a wounded man, but for all he knew Louis was in worse condition. “C’mon, wake up.”

Will needed bandages. No luck finding such thing in this room, so he want back to the surgical theater. He rummaged through the cupboards and drawers. Aside from a pair of used needles and a packet of sterile scalpels, he found nothing of use in the room. Not even a first aid kit. What kind of hospital didn’t have an adhesive bandage?

A door slammed in the hall, echoing down like a bullet. Will got to his feet, gun at the ready, finger on the trigger.

A female voice, curt and rough, called out. “Two B?”

Megan and Teegan. Thank God.

“Here!”

The two women were a windblown cavalry; Megan suffered a few sooty burns on her arm while Teegan held an impressively large rifle that was not Watch issued. Will led them to Doctor Devi and they took over. Instead of foraging for bandages, they jimmied a few sanitary napkins from the dispensary machine in the virtually untouched ladies room down the hall. The napkins worked in a pinch.

Will stayed by Doctor Devi’s side as Megan and Teegan kept a lookout. Through the thick walls he could hear the beating of helicopter propellers and gunfire of a few stragglers. He kept his head down near Devi, hoping the man would wake up and tell him where his partner was.

*

Doctor Devi was airlifted back to Watch Two for medical treatment. He hadn‘t regained consciousness during Will’s vigil at his side.

Someone amongst the FBI’s team had the decency to turn the alarm off so it wasn’t blaring in everyone’s ear.

Once Devi was gone, Cetz insisted Will retrieve the Love Tap. Megan accompanied him, silent and understanding as they went up the stairs. The elevators had been disabled, deemed unsafe after the explosion. The door to the eighth floor had been blown off it’s hinges, black scorching on the doorframe.

Will felt like Bilbo going into the former home of Smaug, little and powerless. And without benefit of a ring. Megan handed him a faceguard against the fumes of melted plastic and scorched metal.

Megan took up the fire extinguisher that hung in the stairwell. The server rooms, once beeping and whirring with electronics, were now chambers of sooty slag. Megan shot at errant flames like a sniper at a carnival booth. Any chance of retrieving data from them was gone. They only had the Love Tap.

Luckily, Will found it buried under fallen, flaming ceiling tiles. He shoved the case-bound device with his foot as Megan doused the fire. The casing nearly burned Will’s fingers, but it was intact.

While checking the rooms for any surviving servers, Will found a single uncovered window. The gray-clad members of Freewill had been rounded up on the grounds, kneeling with their hands laced behind their heads. Will could only hope they had caught them all.

“Come on down with the Love Tap and we can get you scanned before coming back to base,” said Cetz over the SkySprecht.

“I’m going back to the sixth floor,” said Will. His feet were already directed towards the stairwell.

“I’ve already informed the teams of…”

“I’m staying,” said Will, putting as much grit and stubbornness in his voice as he dared to a superior. The lingering soreness of his throat must have helped, Cetz capitulated.

“Okay, but stay with Team One while you’re there.”

“Got it,” said Will, thankful.

Back on the sixth floor, Teegan was talking with the FBI and Watch crew sent to sweep the floor of tech.

“…for one of our agents. He’s blonde, slightly tan, yay high…” said Teegan, gesturing above her head.

“Six foot one and three quarters.” Will strode past her and the crew and began his own sweep; checking the rooms one by one, opening drawers and cupboards. Searching. Megan followed him.

“Will, you don’t need to be here,” said Megan, hefting the used fire-extinguisher onto a counter. “You look real beat. Maybe you should go to the Med van?”

“I could hear him screaming,” said Will, slamming the musty cupboard shut. “He was right there.”

“Nothing you could have done when drugged,” said Megan. “Let’s search the next room, eh? I don’t think they could fit Louis into that small of a cupboard.”

Megan and Teegan gave Will space as he pulled the rooms apart, bit by bit. Megan stayed with him, lingering right outside his personal space. Each room they cleared made Will’s gut drop just a little bit more. Once they vacated a room, Tech crews came in like vultures.

Will didn’t want to think of Louis as a statistic, not on his first field mission. Not on his watch. It made his stomach cramp just by thinking of it.

Outside the machine lined room he found Louis’ gear, all accounted for except for one knife and the SkySprecht. He added the gun from the machine room to the gear. Will would keep it until they got to a Watch van.

The morgue was a different story. Will hung back at the door while Megan and Teegan checked the bodies and drawers. He didn’t want to lift a sheet and find Louis’ face under it. And he didn’t want to associate Louis with that smell.

Corpses don’t give a crap about your sensitive nose, Fanboy.

Will lingered next to the door as Megan and Teegan turned down the sheets. They uncovered the bodies with respect, but the smell still twisted their faces. Most of the bodies were mottled like badly tie-dyed shirts, dead for too long to be a recent death. None of them were Louis. They had ragged lines stitched up their middles, as if their bellies had been ripped open.

Had Retten caused these men to die?

“Will?” Megan put a hand on his shoulder. “You okay?”
Will rubbed at his chest, feeling a sore weight in his stomach. “I need to see Med Tech.”

Chapter Text

It had taken an hour and a half for Will to go from feeling like a super spy, to feeling like shit.

Once the signal went out that the compound was all clear, the codenames were dropped in favor of last names, or familiar first names. Most of the agents that saw Will during the walk to the Med van looked at him in sympathy and used his first name. Trying to be comforting, Will supposed.

In the Med van Will had been scanned, screened, and cleaned up by the medical team that handled him with the gentleness of school nurses. They took his clothes, gave them to Security Tech for screening, and then had him change into drawstring pants and a t-shirt that billowed around him like a sail. The moment he got ice for his bruises he was handed over to the Security van. Security Tech had been more hands on then Med Tech. He had been poked, prodded, and passed over with security wands with the same invasiveness of an airport security checkpoint. He nearly demanded dinner and a movie when the scanning wand took a second trip below the drawstring.

“I guarantee you, I’m not keeping an explosive in there.

“Just checking,” said the Tech.

Megan, silent and supportive, stayed with Will until he sat in front of the mobile communication screen in the back of the transport van. A moment of rest while the other agents kept busy.

The FBI had the members of Freewill sent away, shackled and in long black vans. According to the staff roster there were twelve men missing from the compound, Yanif Retten included. The Feds would continue their search in the surrounding area for them. Meanwhile, Megan and Teegan would stay to act as mediators as the Watch and Feds argued over who got to keep what from the compound. The machine room had been cornered off for Watch Two, teams taking it apart piece by piece to be shipped back to base.

Will did not envy the work left to do at the compound. But he dreaded facing Cetz for his final report, even if a screen separated them.

“I need to get back to Teegan,” said Megan. She handed over his jacket, something to keep him company while he waited. “You going to be okay?”

Will nodded, right arm braced over his aching stomach. “I’ll be fine.”

“We’ll send for you if we find anything.” With that Megan left.

Will took off the SkySprecht. Cetz hadn’t said a word to him since he dropped off the Love Tap. He didn’t know if his boss was disappointed, or angry that Louis was gone. And now Will sat in a dark van, just him and his own worry, cloistered away from the white expanse of sky on the compound.

Better to get it over with. He tapped the screen on and typed in his security code that he had memorized by the second day of orientation. All twenty-six digits of it. Will sat, slumped, his fingers rubbing at the ripped lining in his jacket sleeve while he waited for Cetz to pick up. He swallowed thickly. After the Med and Security scan, he’d been warned to not consume any liquids until the final report, just in case whatever Retten had made him swallow reacted badly to it.

He didn’t want to think about any device that would “react” to anything he drank.

The screen flicked on. Cetz sat at one side of his desk, hands folded with a tablet at his elbow He didn’t have the headset on, keeping his attention to Will alone. Doctor Rachel Sampson sat at Cetz’s right hand, the advocate for angels and devils.

“Report,” said Cetz.

Will lined out what happened to him and Louis from their run through the gate, up through his escape from Retten and finding Doctor Devi. After reporting to Med Tech and Security Tech, he had the events laid out in his head like a bad thriller novel. He spoke clinically, keeping himself separated from the events described. Telling of how he had woken up on a gurney with a hand down his throat hadn’t been fun. He could see Rachel grimace as he described the procedure.

“I found the needles he used on me and handed them over to Med Tech when I came down to get checked out,” said Will. “Do you know what they contained?”

Rachel nodded, flicking open a report on her tablet. “Anti-emetics and painkillers. Whatever he was trying to do, he didn’t want you to vomit.”

“And what exactly did he not want me to throw up?” Will’s voice bit out the words. He pressed his fingers into the hollow below his sternum, as if eager to penetrate flesh and excise the fear that pooled in his belly. He kept seeing the corpses in the morgue with the ragged stitches going up their middle. “Security Tech didn’t give me any answers except that they doubted it was a bomb. Med Tech could only say they detected small traces of metal. To be honest, I’m freaking out here.”

“You’ll be fine,” said Rachel, voice earnest and soothing. The only time Will had ever heard her put on a bedside manner. “The Med Techs there are only equipped with BT-4s. I can have the BT-10 on standby when you come in.” Rachel turned to Cetz. “How soon can we have Rowe airlifted back to base?”

Cetz shook his head. “He can’t come back.”

“Why not?” asked Rachel.

“Good question,” said Will, worry making him pull at his ripped sleeve. “Why not?”

“This is why.” Cetz tapped his tablet and turned it towards Rachel. “Will, did Security Tech say anything when they scanned you?”

“Aside from turn your head and cough?” Will shrugged. “Nothing. They told me to wait here until I talked to you.”

“I was afraid of that. Security detected a transmission when they were scanning you. They determined it was a tracking device.”

“A tracking device?” said Will. His spine straightened like beads on a taunt string and he sat himself near the edge of the small seat. “Like track humpback whales as they migrate kind of device?”

“That’s right,” said Cetz. “And it’s not in your clothes. Protocol says you can’t come back to base until it’s been removed.”

Will swallowed again, wishing he could at least get a bottle of water, damned the regulation. “So I have to wait until I can get a date with a scalpel?”

“Or let it pass naturally,” said Rachel, setting aside the tablet. “The signal could be coming from whatever you swallowed. Either way, I can send out the compact BT-8 in a van and we can get this sorted. No worries.”

Will grimaced, looking at Rachel on the screen as if she was a magician that just told an audience he could make them disappear.

“Promise,” said Rachel. And there was that earnest tone again. “Once we’re done here I’ll get working on that van to bring you back.”

Will nodded his arm pressing harder on his middle. “Okay.”

Cetz nodded. “Good. Now continue where you left off. I had sent you to get the Love Tap.”

“Once I passed it over to Comp Tech, I joined Agents Shiloh and Carry to search for Agent Patriarch. As of now, we haven’t seen any sign of him.” Will feared Louis had become a rare statistic he had ignored in the orientation packet. He didn’t want to believe Louis dead. Not now… not after being such a bastard. Will held out the silent SkySprecht in his palm. “And I haven’t heard him on this either.”

“Neither have I,” said Cetz. “Ever since the blackout on the compound I haven’t been able to track his com signature. All I’m getting on the screen is your location in the van.”

“I didn’t notice a black out.” How much time had he lost being strapped onto that gurney?

“If the timetable is correct, then you were probably knocked out at the time,” said Rachel.

“The blackout ended up being a blessing,” said Cetz. “If the electricity hadn’t gone out, Agents Shiloh and Carry wouldn’t have gotten to the fence switch.”

“Good for them,” said Will. “But what about Louis?”

“Patriarch might not have the com on him,” said Rachel comfortingly. “It might have been turned off or it got damaged.”

“Tech Nakai assured us they would still work a mile under the ocean and a mile beyond the stratosphere,” said Cetz, playing the devil’s advocate this time. He kept spinning the stylus to the tablet around his thumb, playing with gravity as his mind played with worse case scenarios. “They have a three year battery life with a warranty, and it would take a 400 mile per hour crash to take one of these out of commission.”

“And yet you still didn‘t want him carrying the Love Tap with the crash-proof, water-proof, fire-proof casing,” interjected Will, still clinging to hope.

“Point taken,” said Cetz. “I’ll have one of the transport vans take you to safe house G. It’s close enough to us that if things change you can be moved quickly. Agent Reese Carmichael will meet you there. Until we can get the tracker out, you‘ll have to stay away from base.”

Reese was a familiar face in Watch Two. It would be good to see him and talk, but Will didn’t want to sit idle when he could be doing something productive.

“Do I have to go to a safe house?” said Will. “I can stay here, keep looking for Patriarch. No one knows his coffee breath better than me. It‘s not like I‘m any more useful-”

Cetz cut Will off. “Agent Rowe, you don’t have to do anything right now. You copied the servers, you got Doctor Devi out of there. You did everything you were supposed to do. You did everything you could do. Retten getting the drop on the two of you isn’t your fault. Louis isn’t your fault. For all we know, he might not be there anymore.”

Will slouched back on the uncomfortable fold out seat, relenting. Mission accomplished, but the victory was sour. Being sent to a safe house sounded like punishment to him. He curled around the jacket he held to his chest, the back of the van seeming smaller than it had been before.

“What about Doctor Devi?” said Will. “Last I talked to him it sounded like he knew where… agent Patriarch was. Has he said anything since he’s been back at base?”

“He’s still in surgery,” said Rachel. “His odds look promising, but he won’t be talking for a while. If the painkillers don’t keep him down, then the head trauma will.”

“We’ll find him. I’m going to try and reboot the system the Sprechts work on. Hopefully that will help us find the location of the second com.” Cetz acquiesced to Will’s pleading face. “You can keep it on. Keep an ear out for him. Check a cell phone out of the van and call me if you hear anything.”

Will could accept that. It was something for him to focus on at least. “Got it.”

“Good. Not get some rest, hydrate. I want you back in one piece.”

The screen blinked off. Will cracked the door open, needed light even if it was a cloud-bleached sky.

*

Cetz turned to Rachel once the screen was off. “Last time I heard you talk that nice was after Barley Circle.”

“I don’t always expect the worst.” Rachel put down her tablet and rubbed at her eyes. “It’s called bedside manner for a reason, calming patients while they are going stir crazy in their beds. And Rowe will definitely go stir crazy waiting around in a safe house.”

“Well, sooner you can get that van out and see where that tracker is, the sooner we can have Rowe back here where we can keep and eye on him.” Cetz reached for his headset laying in the charging cradle. “Did you get anything of use from Doctor Devi before they took him into surgery?”

Rachel’s tablet beeped, and incoming file. She ignored it. “What little he spoke in English I could barely understand. What little I got I hope isn’t true.”

“What did he say?”

“Something about picking up tiny fingers and tiny legs.”

Cetz’s face drew back in horror. “Children?”

Rachel shook her head. “He didn’t mention children or anything close to that. There was no one on the Freewill roster younger than eighteen, and no women that could get pregnant. I don’t think that’s what he was talking about.”

“With Retten, I’m not so sure.” Cetz picked up his headset. Megan and Teegan were waiting to confer with him about the findings on the compound. And then he had to talk to Nakai in Communication Tech to figure out how to reboot the com system. “Whatever he was planning, lets hope we stopped it.”

*

Will wanted nothing more than to scour every inch of the compound to find out what happened to Louis. Not knowing would eat at him, taking him down like an acid pill from the inside out. But he felt so damn tired. The adrenaline crash and bruises dragged him down until he sat on the grass outside the van, breathing in the smoke tinged air.

The Tech with Security brought him a small duffle. “Your clothes have been cleared. According to the doctors, you’re okay to drink and eat what you want.”

He handed Will a bottle of water and left.

Will sighed in relief, cracking the seal on the plastic cap that he promised would go to a recycle bin. Something to wash away the coppery taste. But, when the plastic hit his lips he hesitated. For all he knew the thing he swallowed was activated by water to swell up like a balloon. He took a small, hesitant sip, highly aware of his body as it cooled it’s way down his throat; alert for any twinge or pressure.

Nothing.

Yet.

He wasn’t used to being this pessimistic. Maybe Louis was… had… rubbed off on him.

Louis hadn’t been the best person to work with. Hell, there had been some days it was hard to keep on a smile while the coffee addicted blond threw dozens of paper cups in the trash bin. But Will knew better. He had already seen a kind man underneath the acidic exterior. Except now he might not have a chance to tell Louis about it.

Will threw the jacket over his shoulders, warding off the slight breeze. His stomach still ached. The last thing Will had eaten was a power-bar on the trip up to the compound. His thermos of tea was long gone. The water wasn’t doing much. He should be hungry, but his appetite waned at the thought of Retten’s experiment.

Cetz was right. There was nothing else he could do for Louis but keep an ear out and hope for an answer, whether it be good or bad. He changed back into his clothes. A field agent directed him to the van assigned to take him back to the city. Right now, he had to focus on himself.

And not panic.

Yeah fucking right. Will took another swallow of water. If years of good, and bad, science fiction effects have taught him anything it was that strange things in people’s stomachs always ended up messy.

Will burped, making the soreness of his throat more pronounced. Swallowing, he grimaced, puzzled at the bitter aftertaste of coffee.

*

In the dark Agents Megan Shiloh and Teegan Carry parried their bodies around the dingy mounds of boxes and old hospital equipment. Glass from the blown light fixtures crunched under their feet. The basement was damn near inhospitable to anything bigger than a mouse, but they had still found a small office area down there that had been frequently used. A computer tower lay shattered in it’s casing on the floor, the dust not yet dulling it. On the dust free desk lay remnants of paper with perfect cursive handwriting with seemingly random dates on them. The script was distinctive enough to tell Cetz this was Retten’s area.

Teegan moved the tablet in front of her, making sure Cetz on the other side could see what she saw. “Are you getting this?”

“Yeah,” said Cetz. “Our own Blair Witch Project.”

“That’s not all. Meg, the light?”

Teegan stepped back, making sure the tablet got full view of the wall as Megan aimed the flashlight. Hundreds of inkjet printed photos hung on the wall like loose scales on a dead fish. Louis featured in every one; picking up coffee, taking a morning run, waiting in line for a carwash. The expansive wall had been transformed into a haphazard shrine.

Megan and Teegan heard the breath knocked out of their boss’ lungs. It hadn’t been a picnic for them to see a fellow agent singled out in such a way either.

“Oh, shit,” said Cetz, the swear barely louder than a prayer.

“I’d say it’s worse than we thought,” said Megan.

“The Feds do not get their hands on this or the machine room,” ordered Cetz. “Understand? You document this thing and bring back every scrap. We work this thing over until it bleeds.”

“Will do.”

At this point, finding Louis’ corpse might be the best alternative.

Chapter Text

Will spent the ride back to the city limits writing report notes on a spare notepad. He’d have to put the mission to paper eventually, file it away digitally and in triplicate. Writing while in a moving car made his head ache but it was a way to decompress. Still, doodles of chest-bursting creatures lurked in the margins of the paper. It was either that or thinking of raggedly sewn up corpses.

While there were no windows in the back of the van, Will could still hear the late afternoon city traffic. The van slowed, turned a corner, crawled for a minute, and then stopped.

The van door swung open.

Reese stood on the sidewalk, folding away the foil wrapper to a caramel chew. He was a tall, spindly man; hair like the end of a lit matchstick and dressed in a black suit, black tie, white shirt. He was the dubiously recruited safecracker and locksmith of Watch Two. And, for the foreseeable future, Will’s only friend until he got back to base.

He held out a long fingered hand to help Will step down and get his bag. “Good to see you back in one piece.”

“Good to be in one piece,” said Will, looking around skeptically.

The van had stopped in front of a row of apartments that backed against a parking garage. Once Will had shut the back door, the van sped away into traffic. Trash and neon graffiti lurked around chain link fences.

Reese patted Will’s shoulder and hefted his bag up. “Let us get inside, shall we?”

Will nodded, frowning. Usually, by now, Reese would have been begging him for loose change to buy a candy bar from the vending machine. Though Will was certain the redhead could afford his sugar cravings on his own. Or at least pick the locks on the machines to get free food.

“How much did Cetz tell you?” asked Will.

Reese’s mouth curled in a sympathetic smile. “Enough that dinner and dessert is on me.”

Will sighed and followed Reese towards the apartment complex, the fire escapes rusting on it’s side like dead skin flaking off. Food was the last thing on his mind. The drive back might have calmed his nerves, but something cold and heavy still sat in his stomach. “I’m not really hungry.”

“Food helps,” said Reese.

Will hummed. At six feet and five inches, he had seen what Reese could do to a large meal, like a forest fire going through kindling, but with much better table manners.

Reese held the door open for him. “I hope you need cardio today. Our esteemed boss is too cheap to spring for a place with elevators.”

“Oh, joy.”

*

Tech Jonathan Nakai’s workspace smelled of melting solder, burnt plastic, and cloves. Speakers, wires, and boards were shoved in plastic baskets, like tidy nests on their shelves around him. Nakai crossed his arms over a belly that had been spared Megan and Teegan’s physical training classes.

Cetz handed over his tablet, the dot on the screen blinking at Agent Rowe’s location. “See for yourself. Only one SkySprecht pinging back.”

Nakai tapped at the screed, incredulous. After a moment the lines on his face dug ditches around a frown. “I know its Louis is as competent as a dog crap at technology, but not even he can mess with Sprecht frequencies.”

“What about something that can cause a blackout?” Cetz suggested.

Nakai shrugged. “An electrical storm, maybe? Or a directed radio spike? If that happened then the Sprecht’s could realign their signals after a few minutes. Only thing I can think of that can knock one completely off is an Electromagnetic Pulse. But then they’d both be fried to hell.”

“Can we reboot the SkySprechts remotely?”

“The old turn-off-turn-on routine? You can try.” Nakai gestured to the charging dock for the communicators plugged into his computer, and empty cradle. He plugged the tabler into the computer and downloaded a code that popped up into the SkySprecht program. “Can’t guarantee they’ll sync up to your headset again. It would be easier if they were here.”

Cetz made a placating gesture with his hands. “I’m okay with that as long as I can get a location.”

A location didn’t necessarily mean Louis was alive. It didn’t even mean Louis was in the area, but if Retten had taken the Sprecht, or Louis, with him, then it was a damn good place to start a manhunt. Cetz would take what he could get. And he dearly wanted to hunt Retten down.

“Good luck with that.” Nakai handed back the tablet and then turned back towards his desk. The light solder iron blinked, ready to melt and mend. “If you need me you know where I am.”

Cetz nodded and strode back out into the hallway and up two flights of stairs back to the main level of Watch Two. Truckloads of Freewill’s equipment had been brought into the base. Cetz didn’t know how much fast-talk Megan and Teegan had done with the FBI to get the equipment back so quickly. But bless them that they had. Broken pieces of the Machine Room Will had described were being wheeled in on carts from the loading garage to one of Rachel’s labs. A duck line of smoky plastic, metal, and wires.

Aside from the SkySprechts, the only machines he was interested in were the Love Tap, brought back in a foam lined suitcase, and the broken computer tower that belonged to Retten.

Cetz climbed the stairs from the main room to his bleak and bright office.

I really need a plant in here, he thought. Mental chatter to disconnect his mind from the job for a moment. Something to break up the endless white. Better yet, a paint job. Maybe blue. Or a mural done in bottle caps, that seems to be popular.

Once settled at the chair, Cetz brought up the SkySprecht program on his tablet and hit the code for a restart.

*

“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” said Reese as they climbed the third flight of stair. “You know, one time I thought I had lost Beni.”

Will, sullen and slow, looked up at attention. He knew Beni and Reese fairly well, this was news to him. “You did?”

“Yes,” said Reese. He took a pause at the next landing. “Our first mission in the field, unsupervised. We were in a bad spot and had to run. Five minutes into the run I looked back and she was gone. I nearly panicked and went back.”

“What happened to her?”

Reese shrugged. “Turned out she had found a skateboard and sped away faster than I could run when I wasn’t looking. I found her waiting at the car.”

Will huffed, a small bit of laugher. If anyone could outrun Reese’s long legs, it would be Benita Chang with a set of wheels.

At his ear, the SkySprecht whined, piercing, making Will wince. “Jeeze.”

“Problem?”

“Nah,” said Will after a moment. For a moment he thought Louis might be coming back on line. Then he remembered Cetz’s promised to try and find Louis’ Sprecht.

“Good.” Reese opened the landing door. The hallway was beigh with a thin red carpet. They went to door 3G and Reese patted his pockets.

“Loose the key?” asked Will.

“No, I don’t believe I took it with me,” said Reese, pondering. His hands went to his jacket’s inner pocket and his lock-pick set. He grinned. “No worries though. There’s an extra inside.”

Anything with a combination or keyhole might as well be an open door with Reese around, all it took was his pick set and the stethoscope he took with him everywhere. He was also the perfect person to “unlock” the apartment and retrieve the key from inside.

Will kept an eye out as Reese slid the torsion wrench in first, then the slim pick. Picking locks was a talent Will had been trying to learn from the taller agent, but it took a more deft hand then he possessed. He had better success with Beni teaching him how to boost cars.

*

Louis shot awake with a yelp, a piercing whine at his ear. He breathed hard, his throat scratchy, the air acidic and smelling like bile. His whole body ached, like a ran PT from dawn ‘til dusk without a rest kind of ache. And his left shoulder hurt like a bitch, as if someone had tried to pull his arm out of its socket.

He opened his eyes to darkness, not enough light to see his hand in front of his face. Wet, hot, dark. He tried sitting up, the ground beneath him yielding into a curve that cradled his body in a puddle.

Patting at his clothing, his hands splat against cloth. He was covered in a thin slime, hot and slick. Everywhere was wet, from his clothes to the ground he lay on which felt like a rippled rubber sheet covering a waterlogged foam mattress. And it was hot, humid, like a sauna but without the relaxation.

Where the hell was he?

Then he remembered. The compound, being shot with a tranquilizer and separated from Will. The bright metal room. The men holding him down on a metal table, an injection, a light… and Retten’s pleased smile as he opened Louis’ eyelids and dropped liquid into them. He had cursed up a storm as the injection tried to pull him under again. And then a bright light, nearly blinding. Maybe he was blind? That would explain the darkness.

The only other thing he remembered was a tight, wet chute that crushed the life out of him.

Louis shivered, the wet canvas of his jacket pulled tight against his shoulders. It had been like bring buried alive. His chest heaved with heavy breath. He could feel the earthen walls of a grave pushing in from the blind dark, caving in, choking and crushing him with stone, water, and dirt.

*

“Come on…” Cetz let out an impatient breath as the reload bar on the screen took its sweet time. He had taken off the headset, not wanting to risk his ears again. One screech to the eardrums was enough.

“Please, dear God, let this thing work.”

*

 

Deep breath, deep breath. Don’t pass out. You pass out you’re dead. But Louis couldn’t stop his ribs from heaving anymore than he could stop his heart from beating. He expected the slow, over-oxygenated blackout of hyperventilation, but it never came. Still there, not dreaming. Trapped.

On the edge of panic he stopped and listened. A thumping pounded through the chamber, loud and unyielding. The walls and ground beneath him had an iambic pulse, like he was seated in the base of someone’s car stereo, powerful enough to vibrate through his body. From below seeped a churning noise.

All around him the chamber moved. The rubbery ribbed walls constricting in waves, coming ever closer. Closer. Tightening around him until they could crush him into a pulp.

He lost it in a foxhole back in the dessert, he’d lose it here. He’d panic, he’d be useless. He’d be dead.

Louis clawed at the ground, fingers slipping between the squishy ripples. His voice creaked, worn away like a rock in a sandstorm.

“Someone… someone, please? Oh God, please help.”

He would die here, he knew it. The walls would crowd in until he was buried. He’d be buried alive.

No. No, could get out, he told himself. If he got in, then somehow he could get out. Louis got to his hands and knees. If he could crawl he could move, and that was better than nothing.

Will. Where was Will? Fanboy could find him; he always did at the Watch, creeping up on him with fresh mugs of coffee. Some sort of geek-boy sonar. Where was he?

Was Will in here too?

Louis pressed his hand out to the curving wall, pushing, searching and he crawled around finding more wetness and ripples. The ground beneath him bucked and growled, laying him flat on his belly with a splat. He got to his hands and knees again. He had to focus. Focus and find where he was, simple as that.

The SkySprecht at his ear whined again, rising in pitch until he felt his head was in a vice. His teeth grit together as he curled into a ball. He couldn’t take it. He was alone. No one would find him. He’d be lost and forgotten.

Trapped in a place that moved with the intent to crush him, Louis screamed.

*

 

Reese opened the door, revealing a sparsely furnished kitchenette and a dusty couch in the main room. “Home sweet… well, home anyway.”

Will entered, his dragging feet stumbling on the threshold. He glanced around, focusing on a bookshelf that had a full shelf of fiction to distract him. It would do for now.

The whine from the SkySprecht buzzed his ear. If it was going to keep doing that he was tempted to take it off, Louis or not.

An agonized scream bleating right after the whine made Will jump, curdling his blood and making his aching stomach turn flip flips.

Reese went for the gun in his shoulder holster. “Son of a crap! What?”

“Shh!” hissed Will. The scream in his ear faded bubbled down to a stifled groan. It could only be one person. “Louis? Louis is that you?”

Please be him, and please don’t be yelling from torture.

Reese’s back went stiff, alert. He closed the door behind them and then stood silent at Will’s side, phone out, ready to dial for backup.

“Louis, can you hear me?”

The groans lessened enough for Will to make out a loud throbbing in the background. “Will?”

“Yes!” Will’s breath left his lungs in an ecstatic puff, full of hope. Reese waved his cell and mouthed “calling Cetz.” Will nodded. Slumping against the apartment wall, he smiled. “Yes, it’s me. Are you okay?”

“N-no. I’m trapped. I can’t see,” Louis, usually curt and just short of growling at him, whimpered. “Get me out of here, please.”

The worry came back to chew at the base of Will’s spine. Louis had just said “please”. To him, the Fanboy. His partner was not okay.

Chapter Text

“You’ll be fine.” Will sagged into the dusty couch, a puff of dust rising in a thin cloud. He needed to sit still for a minute. His insides were twisted up in so many knots he felt he might turn inside out, but he smiled. Louis was alive. Thank God, hallelujah, his partner was alive.

“I got you on the com,” he said trying to be reassuring. “That’s good. Cetz will find out where you are. No problem.”

Reese paced over by the kitchenette, talking to Cetz, his face pinching slowly inwards. “Yes, he can hear him. No, I haven’t asked... What signal?”

Louis’ harsh whimper scratched over the SkySprecht. “I don’t want to be here. It’s too small. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe!”

What if Louis was stuck in a trash compactor or some sort of torture device of Retten’s making? thought Will.

Louis was alive, but he might not be alive for long. Will bowed his back until his head was almost at the same level as his knees. He didn’t want to imagine what hell Retten was putting Louis through.

Will dug his fingers into his scalp, pulling on his hair. He needed to keep calm, for his partner‘s sake, if not his own. Repeating Louis’ name didn‘t seem to be getting his partner‘s attention. “Louis, listen to me. You need to calm down.”

“Fuck calm! It’s too small, too small, too tight… I think they buried me.” A swallow and a gasp. The terror in Louis‘ words tried to infect Will like smoke but he pushed it away to listen.

“Someone shoved me down a tight chute, nearly crushed me,” said Louis. “But here it’s worse. The walls move. It’s too dark. Either dark or I’m blind. I can’t see it. But I can feel them. I can hear the walls pounding like a drum. It’s getting tighter. It‘s getting louder.”

Buried. Could Retten be so cruel as to bury a man alive? Considering he had shoved something down Will’s throat and had a room full of bodies back at the Freewill base, probably.

“Louis, can you reach out and touch the walls?” asked Will. He glanced up at Reese. Reese shrugged and motioned Will to keep talking. “Maybe you can feel for a door or a lid.”

“I’m not in a box,” snapped Louis, the annoyance in his voice slowly pulled him away from the high pitch of fear. “It’s too damn wet for me to feel anything. I‘m in a giant slip-n-slide coated with slime.”

Will sat up a bit, wrapping his arms around his middle. “Wet?”

“Yes!” Louis spat out, getting back to his usual rage. “Wet, and tight, and moving! And smells terrible! And it’s freaking hot like a sauna. Need any other adjectives, Mister English”

“Louis, calm down,” said Will. He took a deep breath. “Breathe in, and-”

“Fuck breathing! I need space! I need air! I can‘t breathe without air. It’s too small in here. I swear the walls keep moving in, and any moment they’re going to crush me to a fucking pulp. Just get me out of here!”

Will blinked, brow furrowed. Why would Louis be so worried about being buried or walls moving in unless... “Are you claustrophobic?”

“Shut up!”

That’s a yes. Will sucked in his lips. He wasn’t getting anywhere with Louis right now. At least he was alive. For now.

Reese handed Will his cell phone. “Cetz needs to talk to you.”

***

“Cetz?“

“Here.” Cetz rubbed at his shorn hair.

“Did the reboot work?” asked Will.

“Not like I’d hoped.” Cetz enlarged the map on his tablet, focusing on the blinking dot. “I still have your location at the safe house, but the reboot knocked my headset out of the loop. I can’t hear you or Patriarch. Are you sure it’s him? I wouldn’t put it past Retten to use voice cloning software.”

“Pretty sure,” said Will. “He hasn’t demanded coffee yet, but it’s his same grumpy attitude. And…” Will paused on the line as if listening to something else. “Well, now he wants coffee. Are you going to reboot the system again?”

“Only as a last resort. I talked with Tech Nakai. Another reboot might lose your signals entirely.” Cetz wasn’t about to roll the dice in hope of getting a yahtzee. He was terrible at dice games.

“What do you want me to do in the meanwhile?”

“Sit tight. Keep talking to him; see if he can point out anything about his location. Smells, sounds, any details could help.”

“I’ll try. Right now he sounds real scared.” Will paused again. “Yes, you are scared! And Cetz has a damn right to know!”

If Louis was arguing with Will he couldn’t be that bad off, thought Cetz.

Rachel knocked at the doorway, tablet in hand and tapping her toe in expectation.

“Rowe, I’ll be back with you in a minute.” Cetz put his hand over the mouthpiece but still heard the murmur of Will’s one sided argument. He focused on Rachel. “Yeah?”

“Doctor Massaru is out of surgery and in recovery.” Rachel slipped out of the doorway and sat at the couch. She gestured to his headset. “Louis?”

“Possibly.”

***

Will had taken to pacing from the kitchenette to the near bare bookcase while he waited for Cetz to get back to him on the phone. Reese had taken his space on the couch after he’d beaten it free of dust. Will hung his head as Louis kept complaining in his ear.

“It’s hot. I still can’t see shit. What’s taking so long? I’d kill for a coffee.”

It was hard to help when all he heard was complaints.

“I’d kill for you to stop talking about coffee,” said Will.

Business as usual, really.

“Is there a problem back at the base?” asked Reese, curling his limbs like a patient spider.

“I’m on hold,” said Will. “Cetz isn’t sure what I’m hearing is Louis. And Louis isn’t helping.”

“How the hell can I help when I’m stuck here?” said Louis, his voice seething like smog. “Fanciest shit in the world stuck in our ears, but it still breaks down when you need it. Stupid SkySprechts.”

Will tilted his head back to the water stained ceiling, asking what he had done to deserve such ire.

“How can I hear you when Cetz can’t?” asked Will, frustrated. Then doubt took hold. “Unless I’ve suffered some sort of psychosomatic lapse and I’m hearing imaginary voices in my head.”

Reese nodded. “I could see that.”

“I’m not a nervous breakdown,” said Louis.

“Or maybe Retten’s injected me with something that allows me to hear the dead and you’re just a ghost.”

“Fanboy, you need to shut up.”

“I can see Louis coming back as a spiteful ghost,” said Reese.

Will stopped and glared at Reese. “Not helping.”

Reese shrugged. “It’s a little awkward listening to one side of a conversation. Cetz wanted you to get details where Louis was. What do you have so far?”

Will parroted back what Louis had told him, the lack of light, the heat, the smell, and continuous pounding noise that he could still hear in the background of the Skysprecht. Louis added in what he could, mentioning the couple inches of foul water and the smell of vomit in the humid air.

“Even with no doors or solid walls, wherever Louis is there must be an entrance or an exit,” said Reese. His fingertips rubbed together, as if trying to create enough friction to start a fire.

“Louis called it a giant slip-n-slide bag coated in slime,” said Will. “And that the walls were moving.”

“Are the walls moving all the time, in a rhythm, or are they inconsistent?” queried Reese.

Louis answered before Will could ask. “They are always moving, but not consistent. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but always moving. The only constant is the thumping noise. And it’s too damn loud. Driving me crazy.”

Will said the same back to Reese.

“It sounds like he’s being suspended in a giant bag or hammock,” said Reese.

“He mentioned a tight chute earlier…” said Will. “Wait, the trash drop in the morgue!”

“The morgue?” asked Reese.

“There was a room down the hall where I was kept, full of corpses. I followed Retten there and he escaped through a disposal chute. He might have taken Louis the same way.”

“Gross, but that’s something at least,” said Reese. “That pounding noise could be a semi truck on a road or a train. If it’s moving then Cetz will figure out a way to track it.”

Cetz was back online a few minutes later Will outlined what he and Reese could figure out from Louis’ details. Reese went into the back room to talk with his own partner over the phone.

“I’ll coordinate with Meg and Teegan to get a bolo out on any large vans or semis coming from the area of the compound,” said Cetz. “If Louis notices anything else you call me.”

“I will.”

“Yes you are.” Cetz clicked off.

Will rolled his eyes. “Yeah, never heard that one.”

***

Either Louis’s vision was slowly improving, or his mind was using his other senses to fill in what he should be seeing. The walls looked pinkish and porous, every inch covered in thick wrinkles he could sink his hands into like a rumpled bed sheet. It looked bigger than he had imagined it during his panic attack.

And hadn’t that been a great way to introduce his partner to his insecurities; crying like a baby.

The terror he had felt upon waking was slowly ebbing away every minute he talked to someone, even though it was Will. He managed to blank out the throbbing background noises and concentrate on breathing.

“How’re you feeling?” asked Will once Cetz hung up.

“Like crap,” said Louis. “I could really use a coffee right now.”

“Yeah,” said Will. “I know the feeling. Not the coffee bit, but the crap bit.”

Louis snorted, he doubted Will felt as bad as he did right now. He laid down on a slightly elevated part of the strange chamber.

“What happened in the compound? All I remember is being knocked out in the server room and then waking up and seeing Retten. What happened with our target?”

The chamber dropped for a second, making Louis grasp for a handhold as he slid down the chamber’s soft sides. He gritted his teeth against another panic attack.

Will talked on as if the world hadn’t just shifted around him.

“I remember that, you were screaming right before they knocked me out again.” Will took a breath. “The Love Tap worked and survived, which is good because all the servers got blown to hell. I found Doctor Devi in the metal room you had been dragged into. There wasn’t much of that room left and whatever had happened in there injured him pretty badly. Devi got airlifted back to base and last I heard he was stable but unconscious. Which sucks like a black hole because I’m sure he knows where you are.”

“What about Retten?” asked Louis.

The com was silent for a moment. “He got away.”

Louis kicked out at the soft wall closest to him. “Are you kidding me?! The compound was surrounded by the Watch and the fucking FBI and he still got away?”

“At least we’re alive.”

“Yeah, right.” Louis sneered. “The world has no clue where the hell I am and I might die in the next couple of minutes, but you being alive is one hell of a consolation prize.”

Will was silent for a beat before returning Louis’ sarcasm with a tone that bit like fire.

“You know, I’m glad you were worried about me as much as I was worried about you. Because when I woke up I was strapped to a table and Retten was literally shoving something down my throat. I was half drugged when I tried to chase him down and I ended up walking into a room full of cold dead corpses, any of which could have been you. I thought you were dead, Devi looked close to death when I found him, and to top it off I have a tracker stuck somewhere in me so according to protocol I can’t go back to base.”

Will’s voice grew louder with panic and anger, warming to a burn.

“So now I’m stuck here in a safe house until Watch Two can get a van over here with a BT and a scalpel and I’m scared to death that any minute now whatever Retten made me swallow is going to bust out of my stomach like a xenomorph from the first Alien movie because I swear I can feel it moving.

Will choked back a whimper.

“So yes,” said Will, with a little more control in his voice. “I’m damn grateful that we’re alive.”

Louis stayed silent. Both of them were plagued with fears; Will’s from within, and Louis’ from without.

*

Will looked up from where he sat on the couch, hunched over and hands clenched in a tight fist, to see Reese stock still in the doorway, eyes wide.

Will sighed. “How much did you hear?”

“More than what Cetz had told me.” Reese put his cell phone away in his black suit jacket. “Beni is on her way with the van and happy to finally get out from behind a desk.”

Will smiled, dredging up some good humor. “That’s good.”

Reese took a step closer, brow furrowed as if he was about to ask something really hard, but then stepped back. “There isn’t much I could say to fix things, is there?”

“Not unless you suddenly have a background in surgical medicine.”

“No. I crack locks, not people. Still…” Reese side stepped over to the kitchenette‘s refrigerator. “Bad times are always a good time for a cup of… nothing.”

The fridge was empty. Checking the freezer he found it empty as well. Will nearly laughed at the forlorn look on Reese’s face. The tall ginger couldn’t go long without food or sugar.

“I keep forgetting Watch Two’s budget is two dimes short of a dollar,” said Reese apologetically. He opened a cupboard to a few plates and dust. “Not even a snack cake.”

Will hummed. Enough money for communicators that went on the fritz, but not enough for Little Debbie. “That’s alright; I don’t have much of an appetite right now.”

“There’s a small shop next door. If you’re okay with being alone for a bit I can pick up something in a jiffy. Maybe some tea?”

It was hard to say no to tea, though his stomach still ached. Will hadn’t eaten since the morning drive. His blood sugar was probably taking a nose dive if his mood was any indicator. He might not want food, but he needed it.

“Something small?”

Reese nodded and tossed a keychain with a red button to Will. A panic button to alert Reese if anything happened while he was away. Better safe than sorry, Will supposed. Reese hooked the partnered panic button to the key for the apartment.

Reese was halfway out the door when he paused and looked thoughtfully at the younger agent. “Will?”

“Hm?”

“You’ve been with Louis for about three months. You know what he’s like. Have you ever thought of requesting a new partner?”

Will sucked his bottom lip, wondering if Louis could hear what Reese was asking. “Not really.”

“Why not? I know you’re worried about him now, but his other partners would have called it a relief.”

Will smiled halfheartedly. “Thick skin I guess. It’s a bitch to tan though.”

“Well, thank you for sticking around; Beni and I actually like you.”

“Don’t you still owe me twenty bucks for that soda run last week?”

Reese frowned, his faint freckles scrunched on his nose. “I take it back. You can leave.”

Will laughed as Reese closed the door. He felt better already. He surveyed the single shelf of books by the window. Most of the titles were bestsellers from four or five years ago.

“Thick skin? More like thick head,” muttered Louis over the com.

Well, that answers whether he can hear other people.

“I’m patient,” said Will.

“And I’m at the end of my rope. For three months its been Star Wars this Lord of the Rings that. Recycle, recycle, recycle and enough tea to drown Boston.”

“You’re very welcome.” Will took out a dog-eared paperback with a folding fan on the cover.

Louis groaned. “I need coffee.”

“Cold turkey.”

“Shut up.”

Will slid the keychain off his finger and put it in his jacket pocket, the metal clinking next to his mint tin. Taking a moment his sniffed at his collar.

“Phew!”

Running around in basic black and a padded leather jacket, had him smelling like fermenting Frito chips. His shoulder holsters bordered a wet patch under his arms and the back of his shirt clung to his shoulder blades. Will shrugged off the jacket and laid it beside him. He hoped the incoming van had a change of clothes.

*

Cetz would not stop moving. As long as he had his headset on and his tablet in hand he could coordinate, and worry, anywhere. Megan and Teegan kept him updated with their search for Louis and Retten and he got constant reports security describing what the next van was bringing in. He walked a path around Med Tech and the labs, past Surveillance, around the walkway above Main Tech, and then down towards Comp Tech where he passed cubical after cubical of people at desks, taking apart the computers and servers confiscated from the Freewill compound and hooking up the dead things to screens. There wasn’t much left of them aside from slag.

Grant, Head Comp Tech, called Cetz over when he passed by his office doorway for the third time.

“Find something?” asked Cetz.

Grant licked his lips, stained from a blue raspberry slushie, and nodded. He waved Cetz into his office where every cord was labeled and every tool had an outlined hook on the far wall next to the constantly rotating set of steps that kept a slinky moving.

“A few somethings.” Grant gestured to a dissected computer tower on his desk, the insides held in a metal cradle and wired up to a spare monitor. Cetz recognized it from the video Megan and Teegan made of Retten’s lab.

“First off, this thing is second hand,” said Grant, pushing back his dreads with rubber gloved hands. “Don’t know if Freewill gave it to Retten or he bought it from Goodwill, but it’s just one generation away from having a floppy disk drive.”

“Is that a good or bad thing?” asked Cetz.

“Both.” Grant gestured to a phone line port in the back of the empty tower shell. “It’s old and reformatted, badly. So a few viruses were still key-logging what he was doing for the last couple of days before he set it to wipe the hard drive clean. In a previous life it was hooked up to the internet but Retten never used it. He didn’t even hooked it up to Freewill’s server systems.”

“So whatever he was using to communicate to other contacts, it wasn’t this.” Cetz rocked back on his heels. A dead end. “What did he use it for?”

“Would you believe a diary?”

“Really?”

“Yep.” Grant sat down and tapped the attached screen. “He made an entry at least once a day, numbering them from 001 to the latest 402. The de-logger is still trying to sift the sand, and we’re not going to get everything, but it’s mostly notes on a “special project” and snide comments about his employers.”

“So we at least have a timetable for how long he was with Freewill,” said Cetz. And hopefully, some idea of what he wanted to do to Louis, or how to find him.

“But we’re missing entries 378 to 391,” said Grant.

Cetz leaned in closer to the screen. “Could he have mislabeled them to throw us off?”

“Nope.”

“They can’t be retrieved?”

“Nope. According to the key-logger he wiped those files yesterday.”

“Yesterday?” Cetz stood straight, his mind condensing all the information that had leaked into his head over the last twelve hours. “He knew we were coming.”

*

If he closed his eyes and tried thinking soothing thoughts, of which he had very few, Louis could imagine he was in a very cheap sauna, lying on a wet blanket. The constant questions broke the illusion.

“How are you doing?” asked Will.

“You know how you asked me that question five minutes ago?” snapped Louis. “No new information has come in during that time.”

Louis winced at the residual static in his ear as Will huffed and went back to silence. Will was reading a book if the sound of flipping pages was anything to go by. Reese hadn’t returned yet.

Louis silently fumed at the fact Reese had used his stomach as an excuse to leave a newbie alone in a safe house. If Will was being tracked heaven knew he needed all the help he could get.

And I’m not bitter about Reese leaving for food because Fanboy gets to have tea and I have nothing, he told himself. I’m just alone in a chamber being driving crazy by static and a thumping noise, and no coffee. Not bitter at all.

Louis had adjusted his SkySprechts to the extended hearing setting to hopefully give him a better idea of where he was, but it wasn’t doing much good. It had made Will’s voice louder and the pounding around him deeper. The panic that had hit him the moment he awoke lurked in the corner of his mind, ready to send him spinning into fear. He couldn’t take the sounds for much longer.

Louis sat up. “Fanboy, I’m going take out the Sprecht for a few minutes, my ear need a break.”

Before his partner could protest, Louis unhooked the bud from the shell of his ear and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. He didn’t want to test the waterproof guaranteed. He sat still, for the first time really hearing his prison without the influence of panic. The rhythmic thumping, more like a vibration, had gotten softer and slower. A soft whooshing sound that reminded him of the ocean echoed above him.

That was a little better. But questions remained. What was outside the chamber?

An ocean cave? That would explain the nasty water and the noise. But the eerily familiar thumping?

He leaned back against the pliant walls, digging his heels in and pushing his shoulders into the wall as he stretched his back. He hissed as he pulled at his shoulder. It still ached from Retten’s goon’s holding him back from clawing the madman’s eyes out.

***

Just as Will was getting into the mood of a very dry fiction novel, the “thing” moved again. Will sucked in a breath and pushed his hand against his stomach.

I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay, thought Will frantically. It was becoming harder and harder to convince himself he was okay when he couldn’t talk to anyone. It’s probably just hunger pains.

Will fetched the panic button from the jacket lying next to him and slid the key ring onto his finger. His own Precious to comfort him that Reese was just a click away.

But he was thirsty now.

Rather than wait for Reese and his promised tea, Will put the book down and went to the kitchenette. A drink of water would help. He tested the faucet and the water came out clean. Good enough. He searched the cabinets for a glass, humming to himself.

***

Louis searched his memory for things that sounded like the thumping noise. Could it be construction? The pounding of a jackhammer or some other equipment? No, he was on the move, that much was certain. Perhaps he was suspended in the back of a semi like Reese suggested. That would explain the shifting and the noise. But that didn’t explain why the walls kept moving.

Louis took a deep breath of the hot, wet air. He grew up in warm climates and thrived in the sun, but even he felt a bit uncomfortable with the humidity.

Suddenly the chamber shifted forward, making him pitch headfirst into the puddle he had been trying to avoid. As he sat back up and spat out the bitterly foul water, he heard a moaning vibration from above, almost like someone humming.

It was the theme to Top Gun.

“No,” he whispered. Despite the heat he felt a cold dread come over him. “Not possible.”

As the walls around him convulsed and contracted, Louis’ panic came back, this time with an answer that he prayed was wrong.

The smell, the wet, the flexible walls, Will having something shoved down his throat, and himself being crushed down a tight chute...

He put the SkySprecht back in, turning down the volume.

“Will?”

“Yeah?”

The voice from the com echoed in his surroundings. He still could be wrong. The sounds could be a fluke.

“You remember that scene in “Empire Strikes Back” when the Millennium Falcon was in that asteroid snake-thing?”

The com was silent except for the brief sound of a faucet. Louis got to his knees, trying to keep his balance on the squishy ground. He could test this. He unclasped his belt and slid the leather out of the pant loops. It had a heavy black metal buckle with a beveled edge. Watch issued.

“Will…?”

“Um, yeah, I know that scene,” said Will, sounding puzzled.

Please let me be wrong.

Louis looped the belt in one hand, spun it over his head like a lasso, and then let the metal end fly towards the rippled wall.

*

“Hk!”

Will hunched over the linoleum kitchenette counter, dropping the glass of water and clutching at his stomach. This wasn’t a pang of hunger. The “thing” had more than moved that time. It felt as if it had poked a knitting needle below his left ribs from the inside.

Will panted. All his fears that the thing he swallowed being something malicious came back to make his hands shake. He held up the panic button, ready to call for Reese to get his ginger butt back to the apartment faster, when the com crackled.

Louis shrieked in his ear. “This is no cave!”

“What?!” Will snapped.

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” yelled Louis. “I’m stuck inside your gut!”

Will looked down at his middle where the pain was slowly subsiding. He felt a flutter from inside and he jerked his hand away as if he’d touched a red coal. And then it hit him, making him lightheaded and rubber kneed.

Will’s hand clamped over his mouth, keeping in a scream of horror that slithered through his veins like ice. His body jerked away from the counter, as if trying to escape itself and he slipped on the wet tile.

As he fell back amongst the broken glass, his hand hit the panic button against the floor.

Chapter Text

Will shook on the kitchenette floor, curling slowly into fetal position. Shards of glass glistened in the puddle at his feet and stuck to his damp jeans like leeches. His hands were pressed tight against his mouth, as if trying to keep his sanity in when all it really did was keep him from screaming out loud.

 

No, no, no, no, no…

 

And he could hear Louis screaming. “Fanboy!”

 

Oh God this isn’t possible. This is worse than having a robot monster inside me.

 

“Will! Get a grip!”

 

Will felt a kick from the inside and a high pitched squeak escaped from his clamped mouth. His pulse skyrocketed and blotches of black crept into his vision. He felt ill.

 

Louis is inside me. Retten put Louis down my throat and now he’s literally inside me. Inside my stomach, with the tea from this morning and… acids. Enzymes. Acid.

 

“Take a breath and slow your heart down, I’m about to go deaf in here!”

 

Suddenly all the gory special effects from decades of horror films involving someone being dissolved or eaten came to mind. He used to laugh at how badly done some scenes had been. Clothing and flesh had melted away from screaming faces until bloody flesh bobbed like bits of beef in red stew. He could feel his heart pound right next to Louis’ own flailing. His partner could be dying inside him.

 

Oh Christ…

 

He was going to be sick.

 

Sick…

 

He had to be sick!

 

Will hauled himself to his knees, leaned forward with one arm braced against the tile, and shoved his fingers to the back of his mouth.

 

*

 

Louis stumbled as the stomach shifted again and he landed against a rippled wall, feeling a fast throb that echoed the pounding in his ears. The walls heaved and contracted with a sickening retching sound from above. He was pitched from side to side, cursing as he repeatedly fell on his injured shoulder.

 

“What the hell are you doing?!” he screamed.

 

The heaves were interrupted by a bought of wet coughing that shook the chamber, sniffling, and then a deep swallow from above.

 

“You’re dying in there,” rasped Will.

 

“What?” snapped Louis. The movement slowed to a rocking motion.

 

“I don’t know how you’re even alive now! You’ve been in there with acids and no air for hours.”

 

Louis stiffened, raising his hand covered in a thin layer of slime and tried too rub it off, expecting to see his skin eaten away. The skin remained intact.

 

“Well I’m not dying that way,” said Louis, relieved. “And if you’re so worried why don’t you puke me up?”

 

“I just tried, I can’t! I… shit. The shots. Retten dosed me up with a bunch of anti-emetics… he made sure I couldn’t just vomit you back up. That sick son of a bitch!”

 

“Welcome to my world of loathing,” said Louis. Over the SkySprecht he could hear Will… whimpering? Was he crying? “You’re not choking up on me now are you?”

 

*

 

Will kicked out at the kitchen island in frustration, glass fragments crunching into his shoe heel. Of course he was crying, he had just shoved his fingers down his throat to trigger a normally sensitive gag reflex. There was nothing wrong with a man crying. And if anyone had the right to cry it was him. His life had just taken a nosedive down into a black hole with Alice in the sidecar. He was one move between either freaking out and then passing out from shock, or yelling and beating his fists into a wall in fury until life made sense.

 

The bad guys had gotten their hands on some sort of shrink ray, and the Watch had a pair of dodgy communicators. How the hell is that fair?

 

Rocking back and forth, Will braced his crossed arms against his middle. He could still feel Louis moving.

 

“How would you feel if you suddenly found out another person was trapped inside your body!?” Will shrieked, inching closer towards the freak out and pass out option.

 

“How would you feel being the one trapped inside someone’s body?” Louis yelled back.

 

Will panted, lost. “Good point.”

 

The apartment door creaked open slowly. Silent as a gas leak, Reese inched in with gun drawn and shoulders braced. Then he saw Will on the floor of the kitchenette with a face pale as a ghost.

 

“Will?” asked Reese barely above a whisper. He motioned the gun to the other doorway. “All clear?”

 

Will looked up, startled, and then looked around and noticed the tiny flashing light on the panic button. He grimaced in frustration. “Sh- yeah, clear.”

 

Reese nodded and holstered the gun under his well tailored suit jacket. He gave Will a hand up, careful of the water and broken glass. “Your panic button went off so I dropped everything and ran up here. Are you alright?”

 

Will smothered a self-deprecating laugh. “Nope, not okay. Call Cetz. Tell him I know where Louis is.”

 

*

Cetz had collapsed in a plush couch that sat just outside Grant’s office. He had one hand on the tablet, swiping between tabs and incoming messages and updates, and the other on his headset to toggle between conversations. Agents going from hall to hall gave him a wide berth, knowing better than to bother him when his face was in that particular expression of “do not bother me unless extremely important”. In essence, he had made the couch his new office because he didn’t want to wait behind his desk.

 

Every few minutes he would swipe back to the SkySprecht map, hoping to see a second blue dot flickering on the screen. He could use some good news right now.

 

Grant stuck his head out of his door, dreadlocks swinging. “Update, capitan. Files 378 to 390 were downloaded to an external drive an hour before everything was deleted from the computer.”

 

“So those files were important enough that Retten wanted a backup,” said Cetz. “Can you get anything about those files?”

 

“I can give you the dates they were made and modified. That’s it.”

 

“How about the Little Love Tap?”

 

“My Techs are ripping through that data like a pack of wolves, but they haven’t found anything pertaining to Retten’s personal experiments yet. I’ll keep you posted.”

 

Cetz nodded and checked the SkySprecht tab again, staring at the same damn blinking light.

 

His headset beeped, incoming from agents Meg and Teegan.

 

“Update,” said Cetz, opening a notepad to jot down anything specific with his stylus.

 

“It looks like there was an underground parking lot that let out a ways away from the compound,” said Teegan, talking loudly over the sound of motors in the background. “We’re thinking Retten and the ten missing members left from there while we were distracted. As for semi-trucks there haven’t been any seen coming from this direction to any of the major towns. As for trains the closest track is five miles away in the opposite direction of the parking lot exit.”

 

“No luck there then.” Cetz rolled the stylus in his hand, the pressure from his fingers making the rubber grip squeak. He had never broken a Watch issued stylus before, but he was getting close.

 

“Meg and I are going to hitch a ride back with the feds and help with wrap up. We should be back at base by midnight at the latest.”

 

“Got it. Call in when you get there.” Another dead end.

 

If the next person to call had nothing to help then he would have to visit the gun range very soon. Better that then to yell in the middle of the hall.

 

Another call beeped in, this one from agent Reese. Cetz tabbed back over to the SkySprecht map, the dot still blinking in the same place. It had better be damn important, and not another complaint that the vending machine was out of Reese’s favorite candy bar.

 

“Status,” Cetz snapped.

 

“Will says he knows where Louis is.”

 

“Oh halleluiah! Put him on.” Cetz heard Reese hand over the phone, and then a door closing. “Will, give me some good news.”

 

Will gave him the news. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t even coherently sane.

 

Cetz rose from the comfy couch, his eyes glazed over in dread as he went back to his confining office. He needed privacy. He would have to call in psychologists, therapists, some sort of shrink because what he was hearing couldn’t possibly be true.

 

When he got back to his office he closed the door and turned the latch.

 

“He’s where?”

 

Chapter Text

Will scrunched his eyes shut and let his head drop against the counter in defeat.  The thump sounded hollow in the empty kitchen.  He had the SkySprecht tucked against one ear and Reese’s Watch issued cell phone by the other.  At first he had been frantic and on the edge of panic.  But the longer he talked to Cetz, and actually heard what he was saying, the more the fear simmered and caramelized into embarrassment.  It felt awkward just thinking the words and he had to say it out loud.

 

He really hoped Reese had actually left to fetch the bag of groceries he had dropped when the panic button had gone off, and wasn’t listening in on the other side of the door.

 

“Louis is inside my stomach.”

 

Worse, it was true.  Thankfully he didn’t have to look Cetz in the face while saying it. 

 

Cetz sounded very patient and patronizing.  “Louis… is inside your stomach?” 

 

“…Yes.”  And to top it off, no one was going to believe him.  He wouldn’t believe it either if it wasn’t for the wriggling he felt inside his body like a bunch of goldfish.  One goldfish.  One pissed off blond goldfish.  With something sharp. 

 

This is turning into a badly done remake of Innerspace and I’m fecking Martin Short.

 

Cetz started in again, as if talking to a child that awoke from a silly nightmare.  “You’re telling me that somehow Retten shrunk down Louis with the machine we found in his lab, shoved his tiny body down your throat while you were tied down, and now Louis, all six-foot one and half of Louis, is inside your stomach?” 

 

“Six foot one and three quarters, damn it!” snapped Louis through the Skysprecht. 

 

“Who gives a damn about a quarter of an inch?” Will hit his fist against the cheap Formica counter.  “You could fit inside a dice box right now.” 

 

“…Will?” said Cetz. 

 

And it didn’t help that Will had to juggle a second conversation at the same time.

 

Will sat up and prayed for patience as he pleaded his sanity.  “I know it sounds like I’m crazy, but it’s true.   His surroundings move when I move. He can hear me talk with his SkySprecht off.  I can feel him when he moves.  It fits!  I don’t want it to fit, but it does.  And I don’t know what to do right now because this is really happening, and no one believes me except Louis.”

 

“Will, I know you are worried about him,” said Cetz in the same calming, disbelieving tone.  “I promise you we will find him; Meg and Teeg are on it.  But this kind of self consolation is not healthy.” 

 

Louis spoke up again.  “The fuckin’ truth ain’t healthy either!” 

 

An idea came to Will out of the heat of frustration.  “Louis, can you hear Cetz?” 

 

“A bit now that I’m listening for him.  Why?” 

 

Will unhooked the SkySprecht from his ear and twisted the ear-bud until the little mesh speaker turned 45 degrees.  Then he switched the cell phone to the ear with the SkySprecht. 

 

“How about now?” 

 

“I don’t know, is Cetz even speaking?”  Louis’ voice was tinny with the ear-bud twisted away from Will’s inner ear, but it had done the trick. 

 

“Louis?” said Cetz.  “Is that you?” 

 

“Yes, it’s me!  Can you hear me now?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

Will interrupted.  “Can you two can hear each other well enough to hold a conversation?” 

 

“Yeah,” said Louis. 

 

“Yes,” said Cetz. 

 

“Good.”  Will put the cell phone on speaker, took the SkySprecht out of his ear, upped the volume with his fingernail on the tiny dial, and then put them both on the kitchen counter, the comm on top of the phone’s screen.  “Then you two can work this out.”

 

Will hunched over on the hard stool and glared at the phone with his arms crossed tight over his middle.  If he sat still enough he could feel the minute weight of movement under his flesh.  It set his nerves on edge.  Will was tired, emotionally, mentally, physically, and gastronomically.  Louis could kick all he wanted (and it felt like he was), Will was washing his hands of convincing Cetz he wasn’t going mad. 

 

He wanted a hot cup of ginger tea and a nap. 

 

Reese knocked on the door to the apartment before unlocking it and poking his head inside.  “Pardon me, but may I come in yet?” 

 

“Yeah, sorry.”  Will smiled sheepishly and gestured to the cell phone and comm having a barely comprehensible argument.  “Needed a little privacy.  I don’t think Louis would like the world knowing where he is.” 

 

“Understood.”  Reese nodded and held up a thin plastic bag.  “I managed to find us dinner, dessert, and your tea.  They didn’t suffer any damage from the drop, thankfully.  Two flights of stairs are hard enough on me, let alone a package of doughnuts.” 

 

From the bag came two prepackaged chicken salad sandwiches, six mini chocolate donuts, and “tea” that Reese handed over proudly.  It was a bottle of ice tea; syrupy sweet and frosty cold. 

 

Will accepted it anyway with thanks.  At least Reese tried.  There was even a picture of a tea leaf on the label. 

 

Reese ignored the tinny chittering between the cell phone and SkySprecht and set out napkins.  Cheap fare they may have for a meal, but that was no excuse for bad manners.  He cracked his own bottle of some off brand energy drink, letting the carbonation hiss. 

 

Will peeled away the cellophane on his sandwich; the smell of cold and salt preservation hit him and made his mouth water.  It had been a long time since that power bar on the way up to the Freewill compound.  Gas station food looked like gourmet lembas to him. 

 

The voices echoing from the SkySprecht and phone heightened, and Will felt a violent shove from inside that made his back straighten. 

 

If he ate, that food was going to end up in the same place as Louis. 

 

Will put down the sandwich. 

 

“You really should eat,” said Reese between bites.  One half of the sandwich was already gone and not a crumb spilt on his tie.  “You know where he is now.  That must be a relief.” 

 

“In a way,” said Will.  He changed the subject as he folded over the cellophane into a little tube.  “How’s Beni?  Her leg still giving her problems?  I haven’t seen her around Main Tech in a while.” 

 

Benita “Beni” Chang was Reese’s partner.  They rolled into Watch assignments like a matched set of trouble.  Reese, the safecracker and thief; Beni the getaway driver, also thief.  If they had known each other before being picked up by the Watch they might have never gotten caught. 

 

Caught in what, Will never knew.  He had never asked.  He had been too busy asking Reese “do it again, I almost got it” after the redhead stole his Trek watch and Will wanted to know how.  In fact the last time Will had seen Beni she had been teaching him how to unlock a car with a slimjim.

 

“Oh no, she has been up and running for a week now.  And in rollerblades, no less.”  Reese took a sip of his drink, gaining a second wind.  “She’s just been busy in the Garage with Auto Tech.  Never seen a person so excited over new tires.  She would have come with me but she was assigned to work one of the Tech desks for today.  Safe to say, she was not happy.  She’ll get out of it somehow.” 

 

Will nodded absently, half listening to the chatter on the phone while fiddling with the cap to his ice tea. 

 

Reese was two bites away from finishing his sandwich.  He paused and glanced down at his brushed gold wristwatch.  “They must have a lot of evidence to log if they’re taking this long to send a van.” 

 

“They’ll come when they come.”  Will heard the chatter die away into a single repeated bleat from the SkySprecht, and a kick from inside.  Louis calling his name.  Will picked up the communicator, straightened it and fitted it back in his ear.  The cell phone was already off, Cetz had hung up. 

 

“Hey, what did Cetz say?” asked Will. 

 

“CETZ SAID--”

 

“Gah!”  Will swatted the eardrum-piercing SkySprecht off his ear.  He had forgotten to turn down the volume. 

 

“Dare I ask what the Cetz said?” said Reese with a smirk. 

 

“No, you dare not.  And keep your hands off my sandwich.”  Will fumbled with the volume control, at one point confusing it with the dial for long range hearing.  He let it be.  He could deal with the ambient noise of the occasional cars and the wind rattling the fire escape.  “Okay, Louis say again?” 

 

“He wants us to cool our jets here until the van comes with a BT-8 to confirm,” snarled Louis.

 

“He didn’t believe it?”

 

“Would you believe it?”  Louis paused.  “Apparently the van is on its way.  The scan should prove it.” 

 

At that moment Will’s stomach let out a long deep growl that had him curling his arm across his middle and cheeks blazing red. 

 

“What the hell was that?!” yelled Louis. 

 

“I told you,” said Reese.  “You should be eating, tiger.” 

 

“Shut up!” said Will miserably, and then turned his head to hiss into the SkySprecht.  “I’m hungry.  I’ve been hungry since I left the Freewill compound.  Do you see anything else around you?  Reese brought me some food.”

 

“Yes I did,” said Reese.  “And if you don’t eat it I will.  Waste not, want not.” 

 

“You’re going to eat with me in here?” said Louis. 

 

Will grimaced as he felt a very distinct shove from inside.  “I can’t get you out, I tried that already.  And I’m hungry.” 

 

“Don’t you dare take a bite with me in here, Fanboy.  I am not going to swim around in vomit for this.” 

 

Will swatted at Reese’s hand as he tried to drag over the napkin holding Will’s sandwich.  “It won’t be that much.” 

 

“Don’t or I’ll--” 

 

Another growl echoed in Will’s ears, from without and a loud squelch within. 

 

Wavering between hunger, frustration, and honest to goodness embarrassment, Will grabbed a sandwich half, a blob of chicken and celery dropping onto the counter, and stuffed a third of it in his mouth. 

 

“Feel better?” asked Reese, edging into the mini doughnuts. 

 

Will muttered negatively around his mouthful, dreading when he would have to swallow.  Louis was already cursing in his ear.  He didn’t know what his partner was hearing, but it couldn’t be good.  He lingered, chewing, wondering if he should spit it out. 

 

Like a bandage.  Just rip it off. 

 

He swallowed hard. 

 

Two seconds later… 

 

***

 

Louis jumped out of the way of a thick grey mound of mush from falling on him. 

 

“You sick jerk!”  Louis kicked out at the wall under him as it rippled and shifted.  “I’m gonna get you back for this, Fanboy.  See if I don’t.” 

 

As if the dark, the wet heat, and the close quarters weren’t bad enough, now he had to sit ankle deep in chime.  And it didn’t matter if he moved to higher ground because the walls kept trying to shove him forward.  Practically an uphill battle where the hill kept moving. 

 

And as much as he hated Will at that moment, he was cursing out someone else entirely under his breath. 

 

“I will kill Retten.  I will kill him slow and painfully.”  He hissed through his mouth as another chunk of chewed whatever slid down the rippling walls.  “Have me swallowed by my partner.  He could have put me in a bird cage, ripped me apart with his hands, stuck me in a blender or dissected me.  But no… cannibalism, that’s the way to go.”

 

Will gave a pained sigh on the other side of the SkySprecht.  “Please don’t say cannibalism.  I’m not a titan.” 

 

“The hell do you mean by a titan?”  At least if Will was talking, he wasn’t eating. 

 

“It’s from an anime called Attack—“ 

 

“Nope, nope, stop right there.”  Louis kicked out again.  “I don’t want to know, Fanboy.  Keep your fandom to yourself.” 

 

The walls kept moving and he kept cursing, trying to find handholds to climb up and away from the growing puddle.  Clear slime exuded from the walls, making it slicker.  Pale blobs slid down the furrows, one with a chunk of chicken as big as his head. 

 

You need to chew more, Fanboy.

 

Louis never realized just how nasty a person’s insides could be. 

 

He took a deep breath, trying to concentrate on the vibrating heartbeat above him rather than the squish and squelch of Will’s innards.  The attempt to calm himself backfired as the fumes from the chime hit his nose.  He coughed until his face was red and stomach ached. 

 

“That smell.  That’s just foul.  Like meat and mayo that’s been out in the sun for too long.”  The back of his gorge rose.  “I’m gonna puke.”

 

“Oh, god.  Please don’t,” said Will, alarmed. 

 

“It’s not gonna make much of a difference in here, trust me.” 

 

Louis dry heaved.  Nothing came up, but his gut hurt enough from the spasms.  And the sound of his distress had an effect on Will. 

 

“Oh, Jesus, Louis.  While I’m eating?” 

 

Because you’re eating, dumbass.”  Louis bent over again as his stomach tried to turn itself inside out. 

 

***

 

Will had managed one sandwich half when he threw his hands up and pushed away the sandwich.  Reese glanced at the food, then up to Will who looked a little green around the gills, and pained.  What on earth was Louis torturing his partner with? 

 

“May I…?” 

 

“Go ahead,” said Will.  “I can’t eat anymore.” 

 

“Doughnuts too?” 

 

“Yep.” 

 

Reese would feel bad about eating Will’s share of dessert, but he really liked doughnuts. 

Chapter Text

Louis uncurled and spat the taste of bile from his mouth.  “I hate you so much right now.” 

 

Will did not respond, either in shame or spite. 

 

The spit didn’t make much difference to his surroundings, bile and chime freaking everywhere.  And his abdomen ached.  Dry heaves sucked.  He moved back from the growing puddle of foul smelling food-sludge, giving a good hard kick to the wet walls as he did.  He felt, as well as heard, Will wince.  Good.  Damn fanboy deserved it. 

 

He sat on what could crudely be considered high ground, bracing himself from sliding by digging his boot heels into a ripple.  Idle chatter and ambient sounds echoed through the SkySprecht in his ear.  He was tempted to take it off for relative peace and quit.  Whatever Will had done to his SkySprecht managed to screw something up with Louis’ reception.  Hearing the rattle of trucks going by and old plumbing was not soothing. 

 

Not like I want to talk to them anyway. 

 

Louis took another glance around his prison.  He could dimly see the sluggishly bleeding red welt in the wall’s flesh.  The belt buckle was designed to do damage, he hadn’t realized how much.  There was no chance of him being buried alive here; that was a comfort at least.  But the isolation was just as heavy a weight as grave dirt.  He was as close as could be to another person, and yet he felt alone.  It gave him time to ponder just how much of a sick madman Yanif Retten was. 

 

Retten had managed to make real possibly the worst form of death imaginable, digestion.  Except he wasn’t dying.  Not yet anyway.  He felt his hands again, waiting for sign of a sting, or ache of dissolving skin.  Nothing.  Still intact.  His shoulder felt like someone had tried to take his arm out of its socket, and his neck hurt.  So if he wasn’t dying miserably, what was Retten’s endgame? 

 

If Retten really wanted me to panic he would have left me a flashlight so I could better find out where I was.  Or simply tell me before I got knocked out and he… did whatever science-shit-voodoo caused this.  Louis tucked a knee to his chest and braced his arm around it.  Something hard and slim pressed against his arm.  Wait a minute. 

 

Louis pulled out the black carbon knife he kept in his boot sheath.  Retten’s gray-suited cronies took his gun, his jacket, and his damn dignity, but they missed the boot knife?  Either they weren’t very thorough in their body search…

 

Or it was left there on purpose, so I could cut my way out.  

 

And likely kill Will in the process.  Louis gripped the warm metal handle and pressed his forehead to his fist.  A cold, damning dread trickled down his back.  His breath went deep but fast.  He could barely hear the heartbeat around him because his own was so loud. 

 

Fucking damn.  Had Louis known of the knife before realizing where he was, and who he was inside of, he might have done just that. 

 

Did Retten expect him to kill Will anyway to be free?  Louis couldn’t remember much about going down Will’s throat except that it had been tight enough to suffocate.  He couldn’t imagine climbing out of it, if that was even possible.  For all he knew he was too big to throw up. 

 

And Retten had left him the chance to be away from the heat, the humidity, the sudden movements, the masticated chicken salad; all he had to do was cut through stomach walls, muscle, and skin.

 

Retten liked measuring people by what choices they make.  And he put that choice in front of Louis.  Because if everything went to hell in a foxhole and Will was killed, he just might have to cut his way out of his own partner’s corpse. 

 

Louis gripped the handle, his knuckles white, and then he shook his head and put the knife away. 

 

He can fuck off.  I won’t have Will’s blood on my hands too. 

 

***

 

Rachel tabbed through Doctor Massaru Devi’s chart.  Massaru lay on a recovery bed hooked up to an IV and a respirator mask.  He looked worn through, like a hole-riddled sock.  But he was stable, the bleeding had stopped and he would recover as long as nothing else drastic happened to him. 

 

Waking him up when he was still in recovery could be considered drastic.  And yet Cetz and she needed Massaru to say what he knew about Louis.  And Retten if they were lucky.  Unfortunately, there were only so many things you could do to make an unconscious man un-unconscious. 

 

“Rachel!” 

 

Cetz yelling down the hall didn’t work either. Rachel poked her head out the door. 

 

“You have a headset,” snapped Rachel, catching Cetz’s attention just as he was turning a corner in the hallway.  “It’s blue-toothed right into my tablet so you can talk to me.”

 

“Yelling still works fine.”  Cetz walked up to the doorway, impatience surrounding him like electricity from a carpet.  He glanced inside.  “How is he?” 

 

“The same.”  Rachel shrugged.  “I want him to wake up and talk to us as much as you do, but if we try medically bringing him out of sleep he could get worse.”

 

“So we have to wait until the meds wear off?” 

 

“Yeah.  Do no harm.  At least while I can manage it.  If we are lucky he ”  Rachel waved him in, closing the door behind them.  Just the two of them and one unconscious Indian doctor.  She took her bedside seat back and let Cetz take the one in the corner.  “You look ready to run yourself into the ground again.  Or put holes through a lot of targets.” 

 

“Both.”  Cetz loosened the headset to rest on his neck and scraped his short nails on the armrests.  “I could use a pot of industrial strength coffee right about now.  It’s only 6:30, and I can already tell this is going to be an all-nighter.” 

 

“There’s a container of instant in the break room,” offered Rachel.  She put her tablet away.  “Heard anything good from Megan and Teegan?” 

 

“They said they would come back to base after they close up with the feds,” said Cetz.  “But I think it would be better if they stayed on the search.  We know Louis is alive, but according to them we have ten loose ends running around, probably armed.  And Will still has a tracker on him.  I’m worried they or Retten are using it.” 

 

“Beni should be at the safe house soon with the van,” said Rachel.  While three agents against ten fanatics might be unfair, she had faith in Beni’s abilities with anything on wheels.  “And Reese is with him.” 

 

“But I still got a bad feeling.  Things aren’t adding up right.  And with men on the loose Watch One’s panties might get in a twist and try to pull rank on us.” 

 

Rachel bristled.  “What would they do?” 

 

“Put Watch Two on lockdown.” 

 

The hair on the back of Rachel’s neck stood up.  “It’s our case, our people.  If they’re worried about security then they should pony up the resources to get the job done, not put us behind a wall for a safety!” 

 

“Not according to Martin Zachs,” said Cetz. 

 

Rachel huffed at mention of the name.  Martin Zachs was Head of the Watch Security Division.  Though he worked out of Watch One, he held codes and authority with all bases.  He was, for all intents and purposes, the Watch Gatekeeper.  And protocol tightwad. 

 

“Please tell me you’ve talked to Watch One about keeping him off our toes.”

 

“I have a teleconference with him in ten minutes,” assured Cetz. 

 

“Good,” said Rachel.  They sat in companionable silence, listening to the rhythmic bleat of the machines monitoring Massaru’s condition.  “Anything else I can help with, aside from being a sounding board?” 

 

Cetz gave her a guilty look, nails scrapping harder on the arm rests.  Rachel smacked his hands away. 

 

“Stop that or you’re footing the IKEA bill.  I am your sounding board last I checked.  What is it?”

 

Cetz hesitated, which was rare, but cadenced his voice to sound offhand.  “What’s the possibility of a person, say Louis, being shrunk down to the size of an action figure, being swallowed, say by Will, and then surviving in his stomach?”

 

Rachel gave him a look, like he was asking her to thread milk through a needle.  “How long do you have for me to tell you all the ways that idea is insane?” 

 

“I thought so.” 

 

“Seriously?  What the hell?” 

 

“I was just asking.” 

 

“First, people don’t just shrink, that’s science fiction from kid’s shows. 
Astronauts and amputation notwithstanding, people don’t just loose a couple inches, let alone a couple feet.” 

 

“I know.” 

 

“Not to mention functioning as a person shrunk down to… what, five inches?” 

 

“More like three.” 

 

“Whatever.”  Rachel’s incredulous mind was on a roll, and her mouth was keeping up spectacularly.  “If we are talking the condensation of molecules, which is damn near impossible without the whole atom going bonkers, that’s about two hundred and twenty pounds of pressure standing in the space of a nickel.  You can’t change mass.  If someone did swallow that they’d be dead or dying because it would rip their esophagus to shreds and their entire gastrointestinal system would have a hole through it.  Like a slow bullet.” 

 

“That I did not know.” 

 

“And if someone was shrunk with a proper weight ratio then parts of their mass would be displaced and gone.  You’d have a tiny person with brain of a hamster.” 

 

“Also, did not know that.”  Cetz looked a little horrified at what he had unleashed questioning Rachel about “science”. 

 

“Let’s say this “mini-hamster Louis” did make it down into a human stomach.  If the acids and enzymes didn’t eat away at his body first then the lack of proper oxygen would suffocate him in minutes.  Not to mention the “air” he would be breathing would carry vapors of the same acids and enzymes meant to break him down.  The scar tissue on his lungs alone-” 

 

“Okay!  Right, yeah.  Yeah.  That was stupid.  Forget I asked.” 

 

“Oh, I’m not going to forget that anytime soon,” said Rachel.  “What brought that on?” 

 

“I just got off the com with Will and Louis.”  Cetz raised his hands, forestalling more of her questions.  “Yes, I managed to talk to him.  No, his SkySprecht still isn’t working with the system.  I don’t think things are looking good for either of them.” 

 

“I still see no connection to what you asked, but now I’m not sure I want to know.  Are they in more danger than we thought?” 

 

“Possibly, but it’s more the psychological damage or manipulation I’m worried about.”  He looked back towards Massaru.  “We need to know where Louis really is.” 

 

Rachel gestured to the prone man in the bed.  “If I could wave my hand and say “Abracadabra” to wake him up, I would.”

 

The man on the bed groaned faintly.

 

Rachel pulled her hand back, eyes wide.  “Dang, I’m good.”

 

Cetz jumped up to the bedside, hovering over the injured man.  “Doctor Devi?  Massaru Devi, can you hear me?” 

 

Massaru’s eyes cracked open for a moment before squeezing tight against the light like clams.  Rachel checked over the monitors and pushed Cetz to the side.  She patted at Massaru’s hand until he was settled enough to open his eyes again. 

 

“Doctor Devi, how is your pain level, one to ten?” 

 

“S-sev- no.  Six.”  Through the mask his voice cracked between being parched or pinched with pain.  He was probably feeling an eight but being brave about it.  Hard to be brave with one’s torso stitched up. 

 

“Follow my finger with your eyes, don’t move your head.”  

 

Rachel went through the basics as Cetz tapped his hands impatiently on the bedside rail.  She was tempted to smack him again, he could wait.  Massaru’s eyes lazily followed her finger, but drifted to the side more than she liked.  His left pupil contracted slower than the right when she shined her penlight into them.  Massaru groaned again.  He would need more pain meds. 

 

Cetz honed back in when Rachel nodded to him.  “Doctor Devi, do you know where you are?” 

 

“Hos-pital?” 

 

“Watch Base Two medical bay.  Can you talk about the Freewill compound?” 

 

“Free…will.”  Massaru’s words slurred, tired and worn.  “Retten’s lab.  Fire.” 

 

Cetz nodded.  “We found his lab.  We can’t find one of our agents.  Louis Patriarch; male, tall, blond.  Did you see him?” 

 

The heart monitor gave a warning bleat as Massaru heart rate quickened.  Rachel grabbed his shoulders as he tried to get up. 

 

“Brown hair,” Massaru gasped.  “W-William.  Where is he?” 

 

“He’s off base at a safe house,” said Cetz. 

 

Half drugged and wounded, the Indian doctor was stronger than he looked.  A drop of red spread through his thin gown.  Good God he was ripping his damn stitches. 

 

“Doctor Devi I need you to stay down!”  Rachel swatted at the nurse station button.  She glared at Cetz.  “Hold him!”

 

Cetz pinned Massaru down despite the desperate thrashing.  The IV line caught on the rail and was dragged out with a trickle of red and fluids.  Rachel took a sedative from the side cabinet and took the cap off the needle.  The door opened and two nurses entered honing in on the beeps and the patient like efficient bees. 

 

“No!  No!”  whimpered Massaru.  The red splotch on his side grew as two more pairs of hands held him still.  “How long has it been?  He won’t last long inside.  They never do!  I can prove it.  They need help!  Where is he?” 

 

One of the nurses pulled up Massaru’s gown.  A trail of blood streaked down across his hip, right where Rachel plunged the needle. 

 

Cetz hovered back over Massaru, practically climbing over the nurses to get into his line of sight.  “Doctor Devi, where is Louis Patriarch?” 

 

Massaru’s eyes went droopy, his words slurring to match.  “Inside w… wi…” 

 

Massaru collapsed on the bed, sweaty, pale, and spent.  The nurses reattached the IV line and reassessed his stitches.  Rachel dragged a wide eyed Cetz away from the bed.  He looked like he had just heard Bad News, the kind that makes one question what the hell was hell if not here.  She rarely saw her boss look like that. 

 

“You want to tell me what that was about?” she whispered. 

 

The Head of Watch Two set his jaw and put his headset back on.  “We’ll find out when we get those scans back from the van BT.  I have to talk to Watch One.  Keep me posted on Doctor Devi.” 

 

Cetz left, and though Rachel want to yell down the hall at him, she didn’t.  Instead she waved her hand towards the ground, wishing for Retten’s dead body.  “Abracadabra?” 

 

No such luck.

 

Worth a shot.

Chapter Text

Will winced as a car breaks squealed outside of the apartment building.  Upstairs a couple yelled about, or possibly at, the television.  Downstairs an older voice cooed to a pet.  He hoped it was a pet or else someone really liked the name “Mr. Snuggleballs”.  He didn’t know how ramped up the extended hearing was on his SkySprecht, but he was afraid to adjust the settings to only make it worse.  

 

Reese kept himself occupied after demolishing his half of lunch and then some.  He had shut their extra napkins in empty kitchen drawers to “make it look more like a home than a hole”.  In the process he had unearthed scraps of food labels and wrappers in cupboard corners, and had made it his mission to clean them out. 

 

Will took tiny sips from the overly sweet bottle of ice tea.  Louis had stopped arguing with him, and the movements from inside had died down.  A relief and a worry. 

 

“Louis, you okay?” 

 

“I’ll be fine,” huffed Louis through the Sprecht.  “If anything changes I’m pretty sure you’ll be the first to know, fanboy.” 

 

“Just asking.  I’d imagine it’s pretty… squishy in there.” 

 

Reese turned from his deeper examination of the cupboards, a bewildered look in his face and a twist tie in hand.  Will privately chastised himself for letting that little bit of info out. 

 

“There is not enough coffee in the world to make this situation okay.  I deserve a damn Keurig in the office.  A personal fucking barista.”

 

“Wait a minute, how long have I been bringing you coffee in the morning like an obedient red shirt?” Will plunked down the bottle of tea. 

 

Reese smiled and went back to his cleaning project. 

 

“Not the same thing as a barista,” replied Louis.  “I had a damn good barista until she up and quit two days ago.  Always knew my order-“

 

“Black, two sugars,” said Will. 

 

“Greeted me with a smile.” 

 

“I smile every morning!” 

 

Didn’t pry into my business.” 

 

“I’m your partner.  It’s our business.”  Will took another small sip of tea, tempted to take a much larger gulp.  Drown out the complaints.  “Go ahead and find another favorite barista.  As long as you use recyclable or reusable cups for your coffee, I’m cool with it.” 

 

“Hippy.” 

 

Will blew out a breath and then his nose crinkled.  He exhaled onto his palm and sniffed.    He flinched back.  That was rank.  Bad breath on top of body odor.  Will combed his hand through his hair, fingers catching on a few knots in the back.  Not quite greasy but he wouldn’t mind a shower. 

 

Another set of squealing brakes echoed in the SkySprecht.

 

Will pulled his reliable mint tin out of his jacket pocket and blindly took out a powdery pellet.  The crunch of peppermint between his molars banished the ice tea aftertaste and chicken salad sandwich funk.  Mostly.  It might take two mints and a few dates with a brush to cleanse his tongue. 

 

He faintly remembered a coffee aftertaste earlier at the FreeWill compound.  After he had swallowed Louis.  He should have known Louis would taste like coffee; that addict. 

 

Will offered the tin in Reese’s direction.  “Mint?” 

 

“Thank you.”  Reese stretched his long arm towards then tin, but then paused, drawing his fingers back.  “What is that?”  

 

Will tilted the tin back.  A small white thumb drive was nestled amongst the mints like a snake egg in a chicken nest.  “I have no idea.” 

 

Louis jolted to attention.  “What’s going on?”

 

“There is a portable storage drive in my mint tin,” explained Will as he picked it out of his mints.  It looked bulkier than modern thumb drives, with a hole through one end for it to be attached to a necklace or key ring.  “At least I hope it is.” 

 

“Could that be the tracker?” asked Reese.  “We could ditch it and get you back to base if so.”  

 

Will shook his head.  “No, when security scanned me they said the tracker was embedded somewhere in my flesh.  They had me strip down.  They must have thought this was mine.”   

 

“Well, I’d hate to sound like the luggage check-in at the airport,” said Reese.  “But have you had that tin in you possession at all times? 

 

“No.  Those gray guys in the compound, the ones that caught me and Louis, they stripped me of my gear in the hallway.  Someone in the compound must have put it there between the second time they knocked me out and when I picked it back up.”   

 

“Who?”

 

Will got up from the table, shaking his hands out as if they were wet, trying to jog his brain.  “Um… Retten, one of the compounds guards… Massaru Devi.  He was there too.  He--”

 

Then Will remembered the doctor’s wide, panicked eyes, and his blood stained hands pawing at his shirt. 

 

“He knew.  Holy shit, he knew exactly what happened to Louis!” 

 

“What?” asked Reese. 

 

“Fanboy,” warned Louis with a shove.  “Wait.” 

 

“I found Massaru in the lab room next to Louis’ gun.  He must have tried to use it to save Louis.”  Will ignored the low thudding sound coming through on the SkySprecht.  Probably Louis.

 

“Hey, Will!”

 

“You think he tried hiding whatever information is on that drive in case he was caught?” asked Reese. 

 

“Exactly,” said Will.  He shook his head, hearing clanging.  “He was Princess Leia, and I was Artoo.”

 

Louis shouted, making the SkySprecht blare.  “William!” 

 

“What?!” snapped Will. 

 

Reese held up his hands and backed away, wise enough not to interfere in a one sided shouting match. 

 

“Listen to the damn Sprecht!” said Louis.  “We’ve got company!  Burn!” 

 

It was then Will recognized the metallic clatter echoing from the expanded hearing function on his SkySprecht.  The sound of booted feet on the rusty fire escape.  And another set of boots in the apartment hallway.  The tracker was still working and their “safe-house” was useless. 

 

“Burn.”  He and Reese bolted to the back end of the apartment, leaving the half sipped bottle of ice tea, and a small pile of food wrappers. 

 

Three seconds later the windows in the living room were smashed in, adding to the apartment’s unfortunate run of broken glass. Six men, grey-suited and hair slicked back entered the living room like a pack of quiet mice carrying plague fleas.  The tallest one, with a crooked smile and platinum blond hair, held up a small screen with a blue grid. 

 

The leader gestured to the back hallway of the apartment, leading to the bedroom and closet.  The men flanked out, guns in hand, checking nook, and cranny.  The only movement was the slight swing of the garbage chute.  Large enough for a body. 

 

“Not here,” said the leader, consulting the screen.  “They went down.  Basement level.” 

 

His second, a short, thick muscled man with peppery hair and sun-pocked skin waved the others to order.  “You two, take the chute.  You two, take the stairs.  Rest of you, follow me.” 

 

They spread to their orders, leaving broken glass and the bottle of iced tea untouched. 

Chapter Text

Louis could feel the moment Will started to run. He crouched low to the bottom of the chamber. He expected the side-to-side shaking and the sloshing slime. The thundering heartbeat and fast “woosh” on the nearby lungs was a given.

He didn’t expect the feeling of weightlessness that pulled him off the wet stomach floor and smacked him against the ceiling. Thinned chime followed, splattering around like a pool of paint on a bass speaker. Just as he grappled at his new definition of “up”, gravity turned again, and he landed hard in the chime. He bounced, knocked back and forth, scrabbling to find purchase, a place to stay still, as the fleshy furrows slipped between his fingers.

Another bounce off a wall, a skip in the puddle and a hard landing on his bad shoulder later, and the disgust at being covered in the very stuff he had been avoiding turned into rage.

He felt like a bottle of soda being shaken up.

***

 

Will had taken the chute first, the small but very vocal inner nerd crying out “into the garbage chute, fanboy!” as he braced himself for the drop. Three air “mattresses” staked one on top of the other softened the fall, but his teeth hit each other hard, making his jaw ache. He scrambled off the mattresses in the abandoned collection chamber, stomach churning with butterflies, as Reese made his landing and bounced right into his Will’s knees. They went down, banging against the door that led out into the underground parking garage.

Reese got up and dusted off his suit, surprised at a dot of red on the immaculate shirt. He hissed as he touched a swollen, bleeding lip, bitten during the hard landing. Better that than his tongue, guessed Will.

“Are they going to follow us?” asked Will, hoping Louis could hear something in the SkySprechts Will could not.

“Let’s not stay to find out.” Reese yanked the door open, a slight breeze smelling of stale urine and gasoline wafting in. The creek of the dry hinges made the SkySprecht in Will’s ear yowl.

The parking garage was sizeable, built to offer parking to the two apartments beside it, but was rarely used and in poor condition. The parking lines were either faded or filled in with industrious weeds. Slashes of brightly colored graffiti acted like bandages over cracks in the concrete. The few cars in residence were tinged with rust.

Reese slammed the door after them, looking desperately at the lack of lock to stall any followers. Will shook his head and gestured towards the door to the stairwell. No use blocking it if the stairs were still usable. Reese slipped a slim looking tool from inside his jacket and jammed it behind the door handle anyway.

The two of them stayed along the wall, sprinting for the exit. The garage was dimly lit, making the car exit seem bright even thought daylight was waning. Will had his gun, the grip moist with sweat, in hand. His right shoulder crooked up towards his ear as he tried to filter through the incoming ambient noise for boot steps. Reese had his gun in one hand and his cell phone in the other. He thumbed one of the buttons to speaker.

“Beni, how close are you?” asked Reese.

“Three blocks,” said a female voice, the tone slightly clipped. “Got traffic.”

“We burned,” said Reese. “We’re in the parking garage behind the apartment. The exit isn’t far. Meet us outside.”

Will spun around hearing the damning drum of boots on stairs though the SkySprecht. He thumbed the safety off the gun. “They’re following.”

Reese, still looking ahead, grabbed the shoulder of Will’s jacket and threw the two of them behind a badly painted Hundai. Will had been so focused on behind, he hadn’t seen the four men ahead. Bullets popped through the air, the cracking sound echoing off the concrete like it expected an avalanche as applause. The sheltering car had its windows shattered and metal body riddled with bullet after bullet. Reese compacted his lanky body as well as he could behind the front tire, sneering as he looked at a small rip in the suit jacket.

“Badly dressed barbarians,” he hissed as another shot took out another part of the car window. Glass rained down on him like cheap diamonds into a fire.

Will winced as the amplified hearing through the SkySprecht pierced through his head as efficiently as a bullet. He could smell the acrid gunpowder in the air. “Shooting in public daylight without silencers. I agree.”

For a moment, as if the gray suited men heard them, the firing stopped. Guns clicked as empty magazines dropped.

A slow rolling sensation ran through Will’s belly making his eyes widen and breath hitch. He hadn’t heard a word from Louis since going down the chute. Was he alright? Still alive?

“Louis?” he whispered.

The SkySprecht cracked. “Wh-”

The rest of the reply was lost to the sound of more bullets pocking the car. Will snarled and fell to the ground, looking under the suspension. Less than eight yards away were four pairs of feet. Laying on his side, Will pressed his arms forward, lining up the dots along the barrel and squeezed off the trigger five times. He wasn’t a crack shot, but the sparks at the gray men’s feet sent a clear enough message.

Dance, fuckers!

The men yelped, one of them hit in the ankle. Will scrambled back into a crouching position as the gray suits fired again. If nothing else, they might run out of ammo.

Reese grinned. “Good shot.”

“Louis?” Will asked again. All he was picking up on the SkySprecht was the rapid, echoed beat of his own heart. “Louis can you say that again?”

It took a moment before he got a heated response.

“What the hell are you doing out there you freaking idiot! I feel like a piece of chicken in a bag of shake-n-bake!”

“Good, you’re alright.”

A deep authoritative voice yelled from across the park garage. “Stop firing!”

The air froze, a relief to Will’s ears. Help already?

“We’re supposed to retrieve, not kill!”

So much for backup.

“The bullets are rubber, sir.”

“Oh that makes me feel so much better,” muttered Will.

“What about the one in the suit?” said another gray suit.

“Him you can kill.”

“Rude,” muttered Reese. He motioned his head to their left. “Run to the pillar?”

Will nodded. “On three. One, two-”

“Freeze!”

Will’s head spun around to see two gray men with guns pointed at them. The stairs, Will realized. They had forgotten the damn stairs. His mouth went dry and body clammy as he stared down the muzzle of the gun. Rubber bullets at such a close range still did damage; if shot in the right place, permanent damage. He remembered the class Megan and Teegan gave on “non-lethal” firearms vividly.

“Stand up!”

Will and Reese slowly got to their feet, lifting their hands above their heads and letting their guns dangle like oversized rings from their trigger fingers. Reese licked at his still bleeding lip. His eyes darted left and right, looking for an out.

Louis pushed again. “Shit, fanboy, please tell me we are not bent over a barrel right now?”

Will swallowed hard. “Some chase, eh guys?”

One of the gray men jerked his gun closer. “Shut up.”

Sweat beaded into rivers down Will’s heated neck, his longer hair sticking to his skin. They were after him, not Reese. And they didn’t give a shit about collateral damage. Will would be willing to go quietly if it meant Reese could leave unharmed. And with his SkySprecht actually working, Cetz could track where they took him.

But what about the external drive? That had to go back to Watch Two. Perhaps he could take his jacket off and leave it as a sign of “good faith”, bullshit, and Reese could get the mint tin.

“This can’t be happening,” muttered Louis. “Can’t be happening. You need to get out of this, fanboy.”

What would happen to Louis if he went with them?

“Drop your weapons.”

A high pitched whaling sound came from Reese’s hip. The redhead’s eyes were wide, not from being caught, but from what he was hearing over the cell phone still on speaker in his jacket pocket. To Will’s slightly extended hearing it sounding like “fuck” over and over. A roar came from the sunlit entrance to the garage.

“Goose!” cried Reese.

Will and Reese dove towards the concrete pillar to their right as a matt metal van with dark tinted windshields sped into the garage. It clipped the four men that had turned the Hundai into a hailstorm model, and then curved around to face the two that had Will and Reese pinned. The men stood fast, shooting at the van. Unlike the Hundai, the van’s armored plating and thick windshield shrugged off the bullets like water droplets off a terminator-duck. Its motor revved as the van sped up.

It was a game of chicken the two men would never win, because the driver behind the wheel wanted to hit them.

The two gray suited men darted out of the way at the last moment.

Rubber squealed as the van fishtailed to a stop between the agents and their assailants. The door slid open. In the elevated driver’s seat sat the petite Agent Benita Chang, two fresh streaks of blue and pink in her hair, and face twisted in an angry grin.

“Move it, losers!”

Will and Reese dashed into the van, squeezed on the floor between the door and a bulky, coffin sized BT-8. The door slid automatically behind them, sealing off the sound of gun being brought back up. Swivel to the left, little bump to the right, probably a gray suit that deserved it, and Beni had the van and its cargo out onto the street. Watch Two, plus three. Gray suits, minus four.

Chapter Text

 

The Watch van zipped through the cracked backstreet leading away from the parking garage. It bounced as Beni curb checked a corner and made for the main roads. While Reese wisely latched onto the back of the driver's seat like a suction cup ornament, Will didn't. A swing to the left and momentum jammed Will against the locked door.

An angry yelp came over Will's SkySprecht.

A jerk to the right and Will banged his chest against the bottom of the well strapped down BT-8. He grabbed the handle of the BT's coffin-like lid and lifted himself up to his knees, bracing himself for whatever the van would do under Beni's direction.

Will hissed, his torso curling over a piercing ache in his middle. "Louis, what are you doing?"

He felt a small kick and heard Louis spit. "I'm not doing anything. You are jumping around without any warning and I-" The van tilted again, Will feeling a sliding ache. "I end up bouncing back and forth like a marble in a rubble bucket full of puke!"

At the front of the van Reese had managed to stay in a stable kneeling position. For the moment the van was steady. Beni, one fingerless-gloved hand on the wheel and the other on the console, kept her eyes on the road and her mirrors. The dash blinked with smaller screens and lit up buttons that Will was sure didn't change the radio.

Reese rested his forehead on the back of Beni's seat. “Beni, have I ever told you how much I love you and your lead feet?”

"All the time," said Beni. "Which makes me worry that you are developing a foot fetish."

"You shall have odes written to your soles. You saved our asses.”

“What little of your ass there is to save,” she countered with a half smile.

Will kept his head down, feeling envious of their easy banter. Theirs was a partnership grown from long hours, too much sugar, and common humor. Beni ran in, tires squealing, to get her partner back, and he knew Reese would do no less for her.

He had no idea if Louis would do the same for him. He wiped the sweat off his forehead, smelling gunpowder on his fingers.

"Are they following us?" asked Will, breathless, still clutching the BT.

"I don't know who "they" are," said Beni. "But once we make it to a busier street it'll be harder for them to catch up."

Reese lifted up a ragged black sleeve. "They are leftover Freewill arse wipes that ripped my cuff." He turned back to Will. "But getting ahead isn't much help if they have you tagged."

"Speaking of that, the wiz-kids in Engineering Tech left this." Beni's hand tapped upwards to the ceiling where a coiled device the size of a pie plate was haphazardly kept in place with zip ties and duct tape. A handful of wires grew off into the body of the van like an overgrown vine. Her finger tipped a switch and a small light flickered on the device, emitting a barely perceivable to the ear hum.

"Is that an... E.S.S.?" asked Will bewildered. "A portable one?"

"Yep," said Beni.

"I didn't think Grant could make them that small."

An Electronic Signal Scrambler, E.S.S. for short, was a device built into the parameter of the Watch Two's base. When Will received the orientation tour he was introduced to one of the devices near the cold storage. Grant, usually quiet and isolated in his office, had been doing maintenance on the E.S.S. and introduced it with pride. It had been the size of a semi-truck tire, spiraling in on itself like the spawn of a snail shell and an Ouroboros. When activated, the linked devices could set up a shield around the base that would scramble any outgoing, or incoming communication signals. Usually, they were only turned on in the case of a lockdown. Trackers, cell phones, walkie talkies, and wi-fi were made useless. Watch Two's contact during such lockdowns was either direct line to Watch One, or Watch Mission Control.

It was still up in the air of an E.S.S. could counter the signal of a SkySprecht; it hadn't been tested yet. But, for Will, the E.S.S. was the miracle that would cut off the signal emitting from the tracker embedded in his body.

"Why didn't they do this before?" asked Will.

"Watch didn't really have a reason to before, man."

Will relaxed, slumping against the side of the BT. "So we're okay."

He felt a slow slide from the inside that made his belly clench. Louis drawled out, "oh thank God."

"Not yet," said Beni. "This van has good batteries, but it can't run the BT-8 and an E.S.S. at the same time."

"So what do we do?"

Reese tapped his fingers on the bare metal of the van floor, working logistics in his head. "We get some distance from our pursuers whilst under the E.S.S.. Once far enough away we turn the E.S.S. off and get you scanned. Hopefully it won't take too long and we can have the E.S.S. back on before anyone is the wiser."

"Then what?" asked Will.

"I try not to plan too far ahead," said Reese. "Makes me less disappointed."

"Oh good," said Louis. "Reese can speak fortune cookie."

Will pursed his lips and let his head sink back in frustration.

"Problem?" asked Reese.

Will waved a hand to the SkySprecht.

"Louis?" asked Reese.

"Louis?" said Beni over her shoulder. "I thought he went missing?"

Will's lips gapped like a fish struggling with telling the truth without saying too much. "I... not quite. Missing, but not... lost? I can still hear him."

She huffed. “What’s eating Louis now?”

“What’s eating me?!” screeched Louis. “I’ll tell you who—”

Will cringed and cupped his ear as his partner went off on a tirade. He could feel him thrashing around inside like a child in a temper tantrum.

And he’s supposed to be the more mature one, he thought.

The matte metal van melted into the beginnings of rush hour traffic like a cube of mercury into a warm palm. After half an hour, and eyes watching the rearview mirrors like hawks, Reese opened the lid of the BT-8 and ushered Will to lay in it.

Louis was oddly quiet except for slightly rougher breathing.

The BT-8 looked much like a tanning bed, clear paneling with pulse emitting tubs beneath and tracks for the scanning wands. Unlike a BT-4, a BT-8 was strong enough to go through clothing and metal, and able to pick apart the very fibers of muscle and veins that made up the human body.

Will lay down and shifted his shoulders, trying to get comfortable. The bruises and aches acquired over the last few hours felt worse the more still he was. Reese seemed to sense his discomfort.

"Just a quick scan and I'll have you out of the oven quicker than Pilsbury cinnamon rolls."

"Comparing this to an oven doesn't help."

Reese shrugged. "At least I tried."

Reese lowered the lid and locked it in position with two heavy clicks that made the hair on the back of Will's neck stand up. In the semi-darkness the BT felt like a cross between a coffin and a copy machine. The air warmed quickly, smelling of sweat and Will's own breath. Will swallowed hard, balling a fist over his stomach.

"Louis, you okay in there?"

The voice came out harsh and hushed. "... I hate BTs."

Will stared up into the lid no more than a foot away from his face. "I'm beginning to see why."

Laying still as could be, body aching, Will suddenly wondered what Reese would see when the machine scanned his stomach.

***

"Alright..." Reese muttered quietly. Reese glanced over the operation panel, fingers ghosting over the buttons he dare not yet touch. "Where is that cheat sheet?"

He had not been quiet enough for Beni.

"You couldn't have read it over before you put Will in there?"

"A flaw in not thinking ahead far enough, I'll admit. Aha!" Reese snagged up the small booklet on the side of the operating panel. He skimmed through the instructions that Rachel had parsed down into small words so an elementary student could understand what they were doing. Reese and his many years of private school felt a little insulted.

According to the instructions, a basic scan in the best conditions would take a minimum of eight minutes. He hoped the van's battery would last that long.

"Saint Michael of us miscreants, please don't make this day more interesting than it already has been," prayed Reese. He switched off the E.S.S. and turned on the BT with a deep hum that vibrated through the van's metal framework.

***

Will jerked as the BT came to life. The tubes softly glowed and hummed around him, tiny motors readying the scanning wands at his feet and his head. Inside, Louis twisted about in a panic. His fingers clenched over his shirt.

"Stay still," he whispered to himself as much as Louis. He squeezed his eyes shut, dredging up patience and calm as if it would help.

So, this is what it felt like to be swallowed by a machine.

It will be over soon, thought Will.

***

Beni kept her eyes on the road, her foot steady on the pedal as she kept up with the slightly slower, but still moving traffic. Whatever happened in the back didn't matter jack shit if the van didn't keep moving. She glided the van to the far right to take a merging exit. In a chase she imagined the car as a blood cell and the roads veins and arteries. As long as the car kept moving with traffic, they were fine. Do anything to stop, flat tire, run out of gas, and they were a dead cell.

Another lane change, passing a teen texting on their phone while driving. Idiot. Possibly a dead cell in-potentia.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a navy blue utility van with heavily tinted windshields weave into the same lane two cars behind her. Bad ju-ju.

"Reese, how much longer?" she called back.

Reese stood hunched over the BT, too tall to stand straight. "Four minutes until hot cross buns."

Beni changed lanes again, making Reese grasp at an "oh-shit" handle on the ceiling. The navy van followed. "We might not have four minutes."

She sped up and eased over another lane, making for the next exit, anything with faster traffic.

That's when a second van swerved onto the road in front of her. In her left rear view she could see a third car creeping up to box her in. All the car in front of her had to do was come to a sudden stop or slow down and her van would crash into it. If she tried to back off and slow down, the van behind would shove her forward and back into the box. A swoop and squat.

A stopped cell was a dead cell.

Beni wasn't going to stop. She flipped the cover off a button on the dash that read "Nox" and adjusted her grip on the wheel.

"Hang on! We're gonna be playing rough!"

"How rough?" asked Reese, the pitch of his voice climbing.

Beni wrenched the wheel to the left, punching the van against the navy blue car. Metal screeched and horns blared behind them as the van took the impact. The tires on the navy blue car skidded. leaving hot black streaks of rubber, but couldn't hold the road as Beni drove the van through the gap in the box and punched the Nox button. The engine, already galloping fast as a heard of hard hearts, revved and tugged the van faster.

"Pretty rough," said Beni.

Chapter Text

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a navy blue utility van with heavily tinted windshields weave into the same lane two cars behind her. Bad ju-ju.

"Reese, how much longer?" she called back.

Reese stood hunched over the BT, too tall to stand straight. "Four minutes until hot cross buns."

Beni changed lanes again, making Reese grasp at an "oh-shit" handle on the ceiling. The navy van followed. "We might not have four minutes."

She sped up and eased over another lane, making for the next exit, anything with faster traffic.

That's when a second van swerved onto the road in front of her. In her left rear view she could see a third car creeping up to box her in. All the car in front of her had to do was come to a sudden stop or slow down and her van would crash into it. If she tried to back off and slow down, the van behind would shove her forward and back into the box. A swoop and squat.

A stopped cell was a dead cell.

Beni wasn't going to stop. She flipped the cover off a button on the dash that read "Nox" and adjusted her grip on the wheel.

"Hang on! We're gonna be playing rough!"

"How rough?" asked Reese, the pitch of his voice climbing.

Beni wrenched the wheel to the left, punching the van against the navy blue car. Metal screeched and horns blared behind them as the van took the impact.

"Pretty rough," said Beni.

***

While the BT was strapped solidly to the Watch van, Will was not. Will's shoulder smacked against the fiberglass that kept him suspended over the scanning wands.

"What the-!"

Momentum rocked Will to the other side of the BT, shaking him like a Christmas present. His heart rate skyrocketed while the scanning wands purred.

There is a reason action figures are in blister packs!

"Reese?!" he yelled. "What's going on?"

***

The tires on the navy blue car skidded, leaving hot black streaks, but they couldn't hold the road. Axels creaked and bent, leaving the car straddling lanes. A dead cell. One out of three. Beni drove the van through the gap in the box and punched the Nox button. The engine, already galloping fast, revved and tugged the van faster.

"Playing rough" to Reese meant gripping the "oh-shit" handle on the ceiling for dear life and cursing angels and saints under his breath. He heard a muffled yell.

"We have encountered some slight turbulence," yelled Reese through the BT lid. His long legs skittered from one side of the van floor to the other. "Please keep your tray tables in their upright positions and-Judas' taint!"

The van bounced over a curb.

***

In the BT, Will's body bounced up, his temple cracking against the lid.

"Fuck!" he hissed, curling as far into his side as he could. His hand came back bloody.

Will braced his elbows against the fiberglass, hoping to keep himself centered. He heard vibrant cursing from the SkySprect as he felt a heavy flutter from within. He'd hate to think of what Louis was going through.

***

"What the fuck!?" Louis sloshed from one side of the slick chamber to the other. His hands flailed, fingers trying to catch something with more substance than mucus slicked folds of stomach lining.

He hated BTs. He hated Will. He hated Will's insides. He hated-

A bounce made Louis airborne for half a second before smacking him back down on wrinkled membrane.

He hated gravity!

***

Beni hated when ball cap wearing frat boys with sports cars bought with their daddy's trust fund money tried to cut in front of her. She swerved the Watch van to the right as a warning, missing the sport's car's obnoxious orange paint job. She had worse assholes to outrun and she couldn't do it behind someone's purchased manifestation of their dick. The frat boy flipped her off, yelling something foul that didn't make it through bulletproof windows.

She flipped him off in turn. "Use a turn signal, asshole!"

Her wheels left the sports car in the dust. The engine settled to a furious purr, wheels eating concrete. One of the three navy blue vans were still behind her and closing. Horns beeped as she took the far left lane of the highway to go around a small cluster of SUVs.

"Blessed Vegans of Hell, that was vulgar," muttered Reese, still clutching the handle above him and letting his body swing like a New York commuter on a subway.

"You back talking my driving?"

"No, commenting on the color of the other fellow's car."

Traffic up ahead looked crowded. Moving, but slower than she liked. Comatose slow. If she were far in the front and the two navy blue vans were stuck in the back with no way to go around there wouldn't be a problem. But she could only see one behind her.

"Where is that other van?" she hissed to the wheel.

As if calling the devil, the cars in front of her parted with annoyed honks. The navy blue van had slowed, creeping back towards her. It cracked open the back door. A grey suited asshole dumped a plastic bin of shiny angular things out onto the highway. Caltrops; pyramid shaped metal spikes meant to puncture tires and bring down anything on wheels.

"Are those spikes?" yelled Reese.

"You're backseat driving again." Beni just snorted and ran over them. She could feel the spikes dig into the tires and bounce against the undercarriage. Poor baby. The Watch van kept going.

"The tires...?" Reese said in breathless horror.

"Are fine," said Beni, wincing as she glanced at the side view mirror and saw the cars behind her strike the caltrops and fishtail as their wheels popped. The second navy blue van had swerved to avoid the spikes, but had nicked it's left front tire. It slowed, the van dipping forward and being hit by another victim of the spikes. Another dead cell. Karma dishing out some good shit today.

"Remember those new tires I was talking about?" Beni continued.

"Faintly."

"They can't be deflated because they ain't got air tubes. So next time you think I'm geeking out too much over new tires, you can shush." If the cops hadn't been called yet because of an altercation on the highway, they would be soon. Cars with shredded tires stalled on highways tended to do that. She glanced back at the still glowing BT. "How much longer until Will is done?"

Reese leaned over to the machine's small screen, afraid to let go of the handle. "Two more minutes."

Beni huffed. "Do we really need him scanned?"

"Be a bit of a shame if we stopped now and then had to start over again."

The navy blue van ahead opened the back door wider, the end of a rifle poking out. Literally bringing out the big guns.

Reese paled. "The windows bulletproof, correct?"

"You better pray they stay that way for the next two minutes." Beni swerved the van again as the shots rang out.

***

Will braced his arms and legs against the sides of the BT's chamber, breath coming in pants. He squeezed his eyes shut as the bright scanning wand passed over his face again. Blood crusted in the hollow of his temple. Gravity pulled his feet down to the base of the BT. He didn't think he could take two more minutes of this.

Louis was right. BTs sucked.

Will hissed with a hand over his middle. There was a sharp ache, like something had poked him again with a hot needle, but slowly growing hotter. If he had been capable of feeling nauseous, he would have thrown up a dozen times over.

Louis also sucked.

***

Louis, after sliding from side to side and wrenching his already injured shoulder, finally gripped something in the slippery furrows his fingers could catch on. He dug his hand deep and managed to stay put for the next couple of turns until the smell hit him. Coppery blood. He had stuck his hand into the welt he had created with his belt earlier.

"Shit." But he kept his grip. He would apologize later. Face to face.

He hoped there would be a later.

***

With the men in the navy blue van so focused on keeping their vehicle steady so their men could shoot straight, they missed a large gap in traffic to their right. Beni pushed the pedal to the floor and went around the van before it could think to side swipe her. In her side view mirror, she could see the tiny pinpricks of flashing blue and red lights.

With a small beep, the BT-8's screen powered down, scan done.

"Hallelujah!" Reese shoved the plug for the E.S.S. back in. "Alright, what good is this if they can still see us?"

"We make them not see us."

Will banged on the inside of the BT lid. "Let me out!"

"You might be safer in there, at the moment!" yelled Reese.

"I beg to differ!"

Ahead she could see an interstate overpass that cut over the highway, the sun cutting it's shadow thick like construction paper. Two lanes going straight, one lane to the right for merging onto the interstate going East or further for West. And one little left turn lane heavily shadowed and available for a quick U-turn if you were clever and lucky.

You didn't need a heap of luck if the car you drove was damn near magic, but a smear of it didn't hurt. She slid to the far left lane and measured her speed to a gap on the opposite side of oncoming traffic. The van sped past the traffic light and into shadow.

"Sharp turn!" she warned her passengers.

Reese hooked both of his hands onto the "oh-shit" handle. Will faintly whimpered from the inside of the quiet BT. Beni tapped a button on the dashboard before twisting the steering wheel.

In any other van such a sharp U-turn would have tipped over the vehicle, but with the dead weight of the BT on the left side of the Watch van, they remained steady. Once they merged into the traffic, Beni eased off the gas, meandering in the shadow for second as the button she pushed did its job.

The micro filaments woven through the shell of the Watch van darkened, the matte finish brightening to a shine, colors saturating into the grey. The optical illusion of seams and screws were painted with gradients and shading. When the van exited the shadow of the bridge instead of a pocked matte grey van, there was a food truck in swaths of bone white, goldenrod, and blue decals declaring "Nita's Best Waffles!"

Beni had loved programming that Chameleon circuit. And in her opinion she did make the best waffles.

The navy blue van sped past none the wiser. Flashing blue and red lights crept closer to it. Dead blood cells meet white blood cells.