With a fortifying breath she called to Kennex from her office doorway. “John,” she said simply, cocking her head to indicate her office.
“What did you do this time, Kennex? Destroy more MXs?” Detective Richard Paul sneered.
John rolled his eyes as he stood. “Only yours, Richard. Closest I can get to the real thing. Back in a minute, D,” he added to his partner.
“Close the door, John,” Maldonado said mildly, when he entered.
Doing as she asked, John gave his captain a wary look as he sat. “I know that tone.”
Maldonado gave him a small smile and turned on the privacy settings for her office, clouding out the windows and effectively soundproofing the room. She pursed her lips, preparing to cross a line she’d hoped she’d never have to cross.
“Sandra,” John urged gently. He’d known Sandra for years, even before he’d joined the P.D. She’d been a friend of his uncle’s, and one of the two people alive who knew his secret and why he’d taken his adoptive father’s name when he joined the force. He had no doubt she’d been instrumental in his quick rise to detective.
“I need you to go after Vaughn.”
John looked at her curiously. Going after Vaughn wasn’t worth Maldonado’s hesitance. The answer hit him a nano-second later. “Over the wall,” he filled in the piece of the puzzle she’d left out.
Her mouth tightened into a thin line. “Intel’s solid.”
John huffed out a breath, all his snark and cynical energy seemed to drain from him. Over the Wall was someplace he’d never wanted to be again.
“John, I won’t order you.”
“Yeah,” he sighed, “but there’s not exactly a long list of people qualified to be over there.” He rubbed his thigh subconsciously. He should’ve bled out when he lost his leg. He should never have survived the brain injury from the explosion. He should never have come out of the resulting coma. But he had survived it all and was now being asked to go face the very thing that had made those miracles possible. C24s. Over the Wall they were the personification of the worst in humanity. On this side of the Wall it was the embodiment of one cynical cop with anger management issues.
“Yeah,” Maldonado agreed quietly.
“When do I leave?” John asked. Going after InSyndicate was one thing, going after Vaughn’s XRNs fell into the same category, but going after Vaughn- that was personal. The man had swept in with his ‘fatherly’ attentions and then betrayed them, turning Dorian’s world on end. One thing John did not take lightly was hurting his friends, especially if that friend was Dorian. The DRN had wormed his way under John’s defenses and while John fought letting Dorian know, he was man enough to admit he cared about the android.
Sandra gave John a small heartfelt smile. “You and Dorian need to go see Rudy. He’s been working on some power source modifications for the two of you.”
“No, way, Sandra. Dorian isn’t coming.”
“I’m not sending you out there alone. It’s Dorian or an MX,” she stated firmly.
John knew the tone well enough to know she wouldn’t budge. “Fine, but you have to ask him, not order him.”
“All right. Send him in; you get down to Rudy.”
John gave her an accepting nod and went to get his partner.
“Rudy,” John greeted the tech cheerfully as he entered Rudy’s lab- it was the kind of lab that any mad scientist would be proud of, all tubes and wires and transistors and miscellaneous bits of robotics strewn in an order only Rudy would understand. “What do you have for me?”
“You’re going then?”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“Will Dorian be joining us?”
“He’s talking to Maldonado.”
“But he is coming with you?” Rudy flinched minutely at his choice of words. “Not ‘coming’ coming. But coming- going-”
“Rudy,” John interrupted. “The modifications?” he asked, attempting to get the conversation back on track.
“Oh, yes.” He rounded the workbench he’d been tinkering on, ducking down and disappearing behind another. “I’ve been working on this since the blackouts,” came Rudy’s disembodied voice. “It should hold a substantial enough charge to top off Dorian’s power supply once I finish his solar upgrades,” he explained, popping back up with a small device “and your leg.” He nodded at the appendage in question. “About that. I’ve got some modifications I’d like to make.”
“What kind of modifications?” John asked hesitantly.
“The calibration alert,” Rudy explained, “I doubt you want it going off over there. I should be able to tune it into Dorian’s sensors- you won’t get the audio, but you already know when it happens,” he said rather apologetically, knowing the trouble John had with his prosthetic.
John shifted his weight subconsciously.
Doing his best to ignore John’s discomfort, Rudy gestured to John’s leg. “I can do the adjustments now.”
Sighing, John rubbed his eyes. He didn’t like thinking about his leg. He didn’t like thinking about people seeing him without it either.
“Or later. Later’s fine,” Rudy amended nervously. He knew John would never lash out at him, but Rudy also knew the frustration and anger John felt. John might not know it, but Rudy had been there all through his coma. Hell, he was the one who’d doctored John’s blood samples, extracting any traces of the C24 chromosome. John had done his stint as a guinea pig before the C24s escaped; Rudy wasn’t going to let it happen again.
John closed his eyes and let out a tired huff before opening them and telling his friend, “No, it’s all right. Let’s get this over with.”
Rudy’s smile bordered on manic as he quickly grabbed one of his scattered rolling chairs for John to sit in while he worked on John’s leg.
Once Rudy had the prosthetic all his attention and nervous energy was powered into his modifications and John’s presence faded into the background.
John turned his attention to the small box Rudy had produced moments earlier, it was about the same size as a two-slice toaster- the irony was not lost on John. He scooted the chair over to Rudy’s desk and began idly, and futilely, trying to make sense of Rudy’s notes laying haphazardly over the desktop.
A moment later Dorian showed up, the circuits in his face flashing at an alarming rate and in an equally alarming array of colours. “John.” He marched over to his partner in a way that might have been disturbing if John didn’t know Dorian so well. “You are not doing this,” he stated calmly, dangerously.
“Does that mean you’re not coming with me?” John asked, ignoring Dorian’s tone.
“Yes, John, because you’re not going either.”
“D, I’m going.”
“Of all the pigheaded, ridiculous…”
Dorian paced in front of John, agitated in a way John had never seen him, even on that memorable low-charge day.
“Do you have any idea what you’re agreeing to?” Dorian asked once his pacing stopped.
John merely gave Dorian a sardonic look.
Deflating, Dorian spoke softly, “Why? Why you?”
That was the ten-million dollar question, wasn’t it? And one that John wouldn’t- couldn’t answer here. While the myriad cameras and drones throughout the city made it safer, it didn’t lend to secrets, especially in a place like this. Rudy’s lab, while doubling as his home, was still subject to monitoring at least during work hours and when members of the department were there. “Not here, Dorian,” John said emphatically. Taking Dorian’s arm he pulled him closer, until Dorian was almost in his lap and whispered, “You gotta trust me, D. I promise, I’ll tell you everything once we’re on the other side.”
Dorian wanted to scream, ‘No,’ and force the answers out of his infuriating human. But John was his friend and he did have Dorian’s complete, unwavering trust, so he grudgingly nodded. “I’m gonna hold you to that, man,” he said dropping the subject and focusing on the adjustments Rudy was making to John’s leg.
“Okay, that’s it. Now we just need to wait for Dorian,” Rudy said a few minutes later, finally looking up from his work. “…who’s already here,” he added in surprise. “When did you get here?”
Dorian chuckled, while John rolled his eyes. “About twenty minutes ago,” Dorian answered.
“Oh.” Rudy’s brow quickly moved from curious to confused to surprised. “Well, have a seat,” He nodded toward the gurney-like table near his desk. “I will be right,” Rudy’s words slowed as he tinkered with something on the workbench, “with you.” He took a couple steps away from the bench and whatever had grabbed his attention. “Oh.” His whole body seemed to bounce; he held up a finger, and went back to where he’d been working, to grab John’s leg. Coming up to John and Dorian, Rudy cast his eyes around his cluttered workspace then offered John his leg, instructing, “Hold that. I just need…” He paused at a table. “Yes, this. And ah,” he tried to reach around John to his main computer terminal. “Can I just…” he gestured at his computer.
John rolled his eyes to cover his amusement and pushed off from the desk to make room for Rudy.
“Thank you,” Rudy said absently, already focused on his work on Dorian. He moved over to the android. “Sorry about this,” he told him sincerely. Rudy loved his machines and his tech, but Dorian was more than that- Dorian felt and thought independently, he was more than circuits and programming. Part of Rudy hated having to treat Dorian as a piece of tech; the other part of him loved being privy to what made Dorian Dorian, what gave him life. “All right,” Rudy said, fingers flying as he set up Dorian’s programs. “Don’t freak out, I’m taking you off the network… now.”
The tell-tale blue lights that flashed through Dorian’s face when he accessed the police database faded to nothing, replaced by the red-orange and yellow lights that usually accompanied searching his personal and public databases.
“Uploading new subroutines,” Rudy explained with a few strokes of his monitor. “That will take a while.” He walked around to Dorian’s other side. “I need to remove your chest plate to complete the solar upgrade,” he told Dorian, wanting to give him a chance to ask John to leave. Rudy felt that baring Dorian’s inner workings was rather like walking in on someone in the shower, only Dorian didn’t have the option to pull a towel over himself. And Dorian may be an android, but he still had a right to his privacy.
“Get on with it, Rudy,” John prodded.
“It’s okay, Rudy. Under all that surly snark there’s more surly snark, but he really loves us,” Dorian told him as he stripped to the waist.
Rudy gave a nervous chuckle and set about removing Dorian’s chest plate.
“What is that?” John asked, using his artificial leg to hook onto the table and pull himself closer to see what Rudy was doing to his friend.
“This? This is a nano-strand. It may feel a little odd,” he told Dorian. “It acts like the old malware tech. But it’s not, it’s not dangerous. Once the strand gets into your system it will latch onto your tactile sensors and spread throughout your skin, effectively turning the entire surface of your body into a solar collector. Obviously, the more skin is exposed, the better the charge. Not that I’m saying you should go around naked. Not that you can’t if you want. It’s a free country after all. Just it’s not necessary.”
It didn’t take nearly as long as John had expected for Dorian’s upgrades to complete.
“All right, solar capabilities will go on-line next time you’re in the sun,” Rudy informed them. He turned to John, “May I,” he said, reaching out for John’s leg. “Just need to check the interface calibration.” He toyed with a couple circuits then asked Dorian, “You feel that?”
Dorian’s face lit up soft yellow and pale red for a moment. “Yes,” he said and looked at John. “You didn’t finish charging it this morning; its self-calibration is off, too.” Dorian’s face did its red light show again. “Try that, John.”
John grumbled about androids and talking to his bed, but he took the leg and carefully set about the simple sequence of movements that would secure it to his thigh. He had to admit, whatever Dorian did instantly made him more comfortable.
“Good?” Rudy asked, hopefully.
John gave his leg a couple experimental bends and turns. “Not bad, Rudy, not bad at all. Dorian?”
Dorian nodded. “The calibration interface seems to be working perfectly.”
Rudy practically beamed. “Good, good.” He whipped around to his desk for another tool. “Now, gentlemen, I have to remove your locator chips. Once that’s done you’ll be ready for your adventures, as ready as I can make you.”
“Sounds like I have good timing,” a female voice came from the entrance to Rudy’s lab.
“Captain,” Dorian greeted instantly, a slight edge of harshness underlying his normally kind, warm tone.
“Dorian. John.” Captain Maldonado smiled sweetly at their resident mad scientist. “Rudy.” Sandra leaned gingerly against one of the cluttered workbenches. “How’s it going? You two going to be ready for this?”
John turned to Maldonado, spreading his arms as if offering himself up for inspection. “When have I not been ready?”
Maldonado sighed in indulgent exasperation. “John…”
She couldn’t help it; she chuckled and shook her head. “I’m assuming you want to get some things from your place before you go.”
“Thought I’d do that as soon as Dr. Jekyll here was finished with me.”
“Hmm?” Rudy said distractedly.
“Can I get out of here?” John clarified.
“I was going to go over the remote charger with you,” Rudy began before looking at John standing in the too casual way he did so often when Rudy started talking tech. Swallowing quickly, Rudy amended his statement, “Which you’d probably ignore anyway, so why don’t I just take it with Dorian.”
John smiled and slapped Rudy on the back. “And that, my friend, is why you’re a genius.”
When John got back to Rudy’s a couple of hours later, it was to see Rudy animatedly expounding on a table of miscellanea and tech.
“What’s this, Rudy, teaching the old fashioned way?”
“Rudy was merely reacquainting me with some of our supplies,” Dorian explained.
“Yes. Regardless of what the higher ups would have you believe, newer tech isn’t necessarily better tech.” Rudy smiled at Dorian. “Case in point.”
“How about you wrap up the history lesson? D and I have a date with a wall.”
Rudy gave a small grunt of displeasure. Even knowing John’s history, he wasn’t happy about John and Dorian being cut off on the other side of the Wall.
John squeezed Rudy’s shoulder reassuringly. “I promise I’ll bring Dorian back in one piece.”
Rudy stopped what he was doing and looked shrewdly at John. “He’s not the only one I’m worried about.”
Giving Rudy a wry smile, John added, “I’ll bring myself back, too.”
“Yes,” Rudy agreed as he began loading up the items from the table into a pack. “Some of us spent too much time making sure you were safe this long.”
Dorian watched the exchange between the two men curiously, the hidden undertones not escaping him. He wanted to question them about it, but he had a feeling whatever it was related to why it was John going over the Wall, and he’d promised John he’d let him explain once they were no longer in the city.
“All right,” Rudy exhaled in a way that on anyone else would’ve seemed overdramatic, but on Rudy was just Rudy, then offered the pack to Dorian. “That’s everything I could think of that might possibly help.”
“Oh!” Rudy held up a halting finger. “Can’t forget that,” he said scrambling over to get the solar unit.
John rolled his eyes.
Bringing the unit to Dorian, “Remember, three hours for it to fully charge,” Rudy told both of them. Stepping back he sighed. “That’s as ready as I can make you.”
“You ready, D?”
“Are you ready, John?”
“As I’ll ever be,” he replied, showing the first hint of hesitation he’d had all day.
“I’m not,” Rudy offered.
“Don’t worry; we’ll be back before you know it.”
Rudy snorted, he’d known John too long to accept his flippancy at face value.
“Come on, Dorian, Captain’s waiting for us. Rudy, thanks for everything,” John spoke the last part softly, hoping the tech would understand its full meaning. He owed Rudy as much if not more than he owed Sandra and he wanted Rudy to know how much it meant to him.
Rudy gave a small smile and a nod. As Dorian passed him, Rudy grabbed his arm. “Take care of him.”
“I will,” Dorian promised solemnly.
“Good luck,” Rudy called after them as they left the sanctity of his lab.
This part of the city barely resembled the city of six years ago. Where once gleaming buildings teeming with people had stood, now were only dark and desolate ruins. The streets- what was left of them- were covered in dirt, leaves, and the garbage left in the wake of the death of a thriving metropolis. The steadiest buildings were dilapidated and decaying. Others were burnt out shells, barely standing- the ones that were still standing.
“John, we’re over the Wall,” Dorian stated after they’d put a few blocks between them and their entry point.
“Yeah, that’s generally what happens when you go from one side to the other,” John quipped, avoiding the real subject.
“John,” Dorian stopped in his tracks, “you promised,” he said quietly.
John huffed, but he stopped. He didn’t look at Dorian as he spoke. “Let’s find a place to hole up for the night and I’ll tell you.”
Dorian seemed to be mollified as he began to scan the surrounding area for any structure suitable for the night.
“About one hundred yards due east there’s a small building; its structure should be sound enough to fit our needs tonight.”
Nodding, John spread out an entreating arm. “Lead on, MacDuff.”
“You do know it’s ‘Lay on, MacDuff’?” Dorian snarked as he set out along the dilapidated street.
“Yeah, yeah. Everyone’s a critic.”
The building was almost more of a skeleton, but four walls and a roof was nothing to sneeze at over here. It was perfect for their needs. Once they were settled- Dorian topping off his charge and casting deliberate looks at John’s leg, while John ignored the meaning-laden glances, tucking in to an MRE claiming to be roast beef and potatoes- Dorian decided John had stalled long enough.
“John,” he said simply.
He sighed and set down his meal. “Right. What do your databases tell you about what’s out here?”
Dorian’s face danced yellow for a moment as he searched his internal databases. “Six years ago the creatures known as C24s first appeared in Nevada. By the time the government realized what was going on they’d spread through most of the South West. The first Wall was built, cutting off over half of California, Nevada at Carson City, a quarter of Utah, and over seventy-five percent of Arizona. Exemplars of the infected were sent to the CDC in Atlanta, geneticists in Philadelphia, and to labs here. Atlanta was the only lab to keep it contained. Philadelphia was completely destroyed; the entire city cordoned off by its own Wall. We fared only slightly better losing just over half the city.”
John nodded as Dorian spoke, knowing what the history books told people about the incursion.
Pale green and purple lights flickered across Dorian’s face. “It seems some of the details have been sealed. There are unsubstantiated reports that the C24s came from a UAC research lab on Olduvai, but as the ‘Ark’ was presumably destroyed there’s no way to confirm it.”
“The ‘Ark’ was destroyed, along with the facilities surrounding it. They came out of nowhere. Somehow they escaped. I still don’t know how; they’re not more than beasts once they turn.”
“Dorian, what I’m about to tell you is something only Sandra and Rudy know. It can’t ever find its way into any records, any databases. You got me?”
“Of course, John,” Dorian readily agreed. He’d seen John in all manner of moods from his default cynical and angry to happy and relaxed. He thought he’d seen John scared, but he’d never seen John this shaken.
“Six years ago, I was a member of a Marine RRTS special ops team. There was a situation on Olduvai; the place was in lockdown.” John leaned against the wall, food forgotten. “Eighty-seven employees and their families… We were sent in for a rescue mission and to secure the labs. Only two of us made it out. Me and my sister. Sam didn’t survive the attack on the holding facility when they escaped.”
“But you did,” Dorian stated plainly.
“Yeah.” John let his eyes fall shut and his head fall back hard against the fragmented stone wall.
John was quiet for so long Dorian began to worry and scooted closer to his friend. “John?”
“You want to know why I’m here, over the Wall? I’m one of them.”
Dorian’s brow furrowed. “I don’t understand.”
“The twenty-fourth chromosome, I have it. I almost died down there, but Sam… she was so sure. It saved my life- more than once.”
“John, there’s no record-”
“Rudy erased most of it- everything that had our names after we got out. As far as the world is concerned Sam and I died at Olduvai. Sandra helped get me on the force under my uncle’s name. He adopted me and Sam after our parents were killed.” John laughed bitterly. “Olduvai took them, too.”
Dorian looked at him curiously. This was more than John had ever shared about himself before, and while it helped Dorian understand John more, it left him with even more questions. “Your parents died at Olduvai?” he prompted.
“They were archaeologists. Part of the dig site collapsed. Sam and I were seven when Uncle Edward took us in; he adopted us a year later. He was amazing. He never once treated us as anything but his own; as far as he was concerned we were his, but he never tried to make us forget- we kept our parents’ name and even though we called him ‘Dad’ he never forced the issue. He was a great father, a great man. He understood when I joined the Marines instead of going with Sam to university. I was on a mission when he died.” John shook his head. “Sometimes, D, I think my family is cursed.”
“Come on, man. Look at you. You’re not cursed, you’re blessed.”
“Hmph,” John snorted. “Whatever. Does that answer your question?”
Dorian nodded, processing everything he’d just learnt. It explained a lot about John to Dorian’s mind.
Hoping the conversation was over, John tucked his hands into his jacket sleeves and wrapped them around himself, settling back against the wall to at least feign sleep, though he knew Dorian would know the difference.
“You’re not like them,” Dorian said suddenly. “You remember when I asked Vaughn what he did differently when he made Danica? He said ‘nothing’ and do you remember what you told me?”
“Dorian,” John began to slowly shake his head.
“No, John,” Dorian interrupted before John could argue. “You told me I was nothing like her and never could be. That just because we shared circuitry it didn’t mean I was like her.” Dorian scooted over until he could knock John’s leg with his own. “Just because you share some part of their DNA doesn’t mean you’re like them.”
John made a small depreciating grunt and closed his eyes. After a few minutes of shared silence, John cracked an eye open to look at his partner. “Dorian, thanks.”
The soft smile on Dorian’s face was serene and honest. “Anytime, John.”
“John,” Dorian whispered urgently.
John’s eyes shot open. “Where?” he asked instantly, wincing at a twinge in his leg.
“Sorry,” Dorian apologized. “It needed to be charged. I didn’t think you’d want me to take it off,” he explained as he finished removing the charging electrodes from John’s leg.
John grunted. He wanted to get angry or at the very least indignant, but he knew Dorian was right and out here in this desolate place there was no way he’d willingly impair himself like that. He supposed he could manage some indignance over Dorian molesting his leg while John slept, but Dorian was just caring for him and for some reason- it being Dorian- he didn’t mind so much.
“Other end of the block,” Dorian answered John’s earlier question.
“All right,” John said, shaking out of his introspective thoughts, getting to his feet and checking his side arm and the assault weapon he slung over his back. “Let’s go.”
“John, not to be presumptuous, but shouldn’t we be heading away from them?” Dorian asked when John left in the direction of the disturbance.
“We’re going to have to engage them at some point,” John spoke softly. “If it’s C24s it will be good to get rid of them; if it’s InSyndicate we can probably gather intel, maybe get a line on their base and Vaughn.”
“Fine, but shouldn’t we at least get an accurate bearing on our surroundings? Nobody has officially been on this side of the Wall in years. There’s no guarantee my maps are accurate.”
Crouching behind a large transformer box, John gave Dorian a look that was part snark and part friendly exasperation. “Anyone ever tell you, you sound like a nagging wife?” He made a yapping motion with his hand to emphasize the point.
Dorian rolled his eyes. “Maybe that’s what you need.”
John snorted. “I’ve got you, don’t I.”
A scraping sound interrupted their banter. Dorian dropping to a crouch beside John. “C24s,” they said at the same time.
“You sure you want to take them on?” Dorian asked John, a hint of sarcasm edging into his voice.
“No,” John answered honestly. “But I’d rather face them on our terms than theirs.”
“Dorian,” John whisper-called to his partner as Dorian peeled off to the left. “What the… Where are you going?” John hissed.
Stopping at one of the taller buildings close by, Dorian pointed up. “To get a better view,” he explained simply and began to scale his selected building with no more difficulty than a spider crawls its web.
“Damn-it,” John spat at himself for not thinking of that, his vehemence directed at the reminder of the years he’d lost and the six spent pretending to be ‘normal.’ Shaking his head, he looked up at the building closest to where he was crouched. It’d do. He readjusted his gun and quickly scaled the building with admittedly less elegance than his partner.
Once John was high enough, Dorian silently directed his gaze to the two C24s trudging their way. He was momentarily surprised when he saw John’s attention already focused on the group. It only took a second for him to realize John’s enhanced attributes went further than simply the physical.
Raising his weapon, John set himself as comfortably as he could, bracing on a ledge between two gargoyles and took aim.
“John!” Dorian rasped.
Instantly, John’s finger let go of the trigger and he looked at Dorian who inclined his head and pointed to the right of the approaching C24s.
A group of five people in black military gear were splitting up to surround the beasts. InSyndicate, it had to be. No one else would be crazy enough to be out here or be so organized.
John took aim again in case the group succumbed to the creatures- doubtful, but John knew from experience not to put too much faith in probabilities. “What the Hell?” John muttered as he watched the scene through the gun’s scope.
A few yards away from the C24s, the men opened fire- with tranquilizers. The creatures fell to the ground as the tranqs worked their magic. One of the men approached, looking over the creatures. Apparently satisfied, he signaled his men closer. As they neared, two of the men took heavy chains from their packs.
John watched in something akin to horror as they wrapped the C24s in chains and prepared them to be moved, alive. A lead weight plummeted in John’s stomach and bile rose in his throat. InSyndicate couldn’t be doing what it looked like.
“John,” Dorian whispered, suddenly right next to him.
John’s head snapped to Dorian. “You can track them,” was his only outward reaction to his partner’s sudden and stealthy appearance.
“We need to secure a base camp first,” Dorian said by way of answer.
Exhaling, John let his head fall to his gun. “You’re right. Neither of us will be any good without Rudy’s charger; need to make sure it’s safe if nothing else.”
Adjusting his footing on the ledge, Dorian gripped John’s shoulder. “We’ll get them, John.”
The faith in Dorian’s voice made John smile. “Have you always been this glass half full kinda person?”
“Yes, John, and you’ve always been a cynical bastard.”
“Toaster,” John snarked back.
Dorian smiled at the feigned insult, taking it for the endearment it actually was. “Let’s get back.”
“Yeah,” John said and slung the gun across his back.
They found their makeshift camp as they left it, but John watched Dorian’s face glitter with red and orange as he ran a quick scan of their equipment to ensure no unwelcome guests had stumbled upon their equipment and decided to hide any trackers or other, nastier, surprises. Once Dorian was sure everything was clear, they packed up what little needed packing and headed out.
They walked in relative silence for several blocks, exploring and dismissing buildings as they went. It was dusk by the time they had located an old office building, not anything as towering as its neighbours, but still tall in its own right. More importantly it was stable and easily defensible with multiple avenues of escape, if it came to that. They settled in on the fifteenth floor, where cubicles and offices intermingled, giving a semi-natural obstacle course that, at the least, would alert them to any unwanted guests.
“You should get some sleep. I can finish setting us up,” Dorian told John. He had been surreptitiously monitoring John’s vitals, and even without that knew his friend was still drained from the last couple of days; so much buried history so suddenly brought to the surface would try anyone, even a man as remarkable as John.
“I’m fine, D,” John assured.
“You may be ‘fine’ by some loose definition of the term, but your vitals indicate you need rest, and there’s no reason for you not to sleep while you have the chance.”
John rolled his eyes and made an angry sound in his throat. “How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?”
Dorian wasn’t going to be cowed. “To be fair, you’ve only ever forbidden me from scanning your testicles.”
The smartass remark earned Dorian a wad of paper to the face.
“Glad that’s settled,” Dorian quipped, turning his attention to their belongings.
Grudgingly, John had to admit Dorian had a point. Tomorrow and however many days it took them to find Vaughn were going to be tiring in their own right and the Marine in him knew the value of sleeping when and where you got the chance. With that in mind he rolled up his jacket, set his guns within reach, and settled down to sleep.
That night as John slept fitfully, pants leg rucked up to the knee so the electrodes could be attached allowing his leg to charge, Dorian watched over him and ran through every file and hint of information about Olduvai, from the original dig to the Ark’s destruction, that he could access. Dorian wanted to understand John. John was his closest friend, his partner, the one he’d die for unconditionally. And as the last two days had shown there was so much more to John than the bitter man he let the world see. Thankfully, Captain Maldonado had seen to it that Dorian had all the files regarding Olduvai downloaded into his internal database before they left. Dorian had of course reviewed the files when they had reached his system, but now he was looking for different information- he was looking for John.
An hour later, Dorian had gone through every file in all his databases about Olduvai or John and he’d come to the conclusion that John was nothing short of a miracle. The cave in that killed his parents almost claimed John and his twin sister Samantha as well. John’s military record was impressive, only a handful of his missions with the RRTS were declassified even to Dorian, but what there was told of a talented, brave, intelligent man. Even before being exposed to chromosome-24, John had survived more than any one person- even a Marine- should’ve. It was no wonder John was so cynical and abrasive, that the walls he had built up around himself were so thick, that he had such glaring anger management issues. Life had put John up for blow after blow since he was a child. Dorian took a moment to marvel at the person who was John Kennex.
Next to him, John began to toss and turn restlessly in his sleep, making a pained noise- soft, but unmistakable. Carefully Dorian moved his hand on John’s shoulder, ready to shake him awake, but before he could, John’s hand shot up and covered his. If Dorian had been human John’s grip would have been painful, but he wasn’t, so Dorian simply rested their joined hands over John’s chest. The man’s turbulent sleep calmed quickly after that. Something Dorian filed away for later. Right now he was simply grateful that John no longer seemed in distress.
John woke to the tantalizing smell of fresh coffee teasing his nose. Blinking groggily, he pushed himself up from the slouch he’d slid into while he slept.
“Morning, John,” Dorian said mildly, holding out a cup of hot coffee to him.
John took the cup grudgingly, sighing as the perfectly heated liquid warmed him. “Thanks.” He took another gulp, and furrowed his brow. “D, where’d we get coffee?”
Dorian chuckled. “I made sure Rudy put some in my pack, the rest-” he held up his index finger.
Snickering, John sipped at his coffee, muttering, “Coffee warmer,” into the cup.
Dorian smiled as he set about concealing their equipment before they headed out to recon the area properly.
The coffee was doing its job, warming and waking John fully. He unhooked the charger from his leg, flexing a couple times testing it out, before crossing his legs Indian style. Searching his jacket pockets, he pulled out an old fashioned laminated paper map. It wasn’t much, but it served their needs, giving them the last known lay of the segregated part of the city. “D, check my bearings,” he said holding a marker above the map.
Dorian squat down across from John and looked over the map. “We crossed over, here, and encountered InSyndicate here,” he said pointing to a spot out a few inches from where they’d crossed the Wall. “Which means that, yes, this is our current location,” he continued, tapping beneath where John held the marker.
“And when we saw InSyndicate they were headed south. We covered this area yesterday,” John swept his fingers or the northernmost tip of the map. “We should aim to work out to here,” he sliced a swath across the map at the point where they’d seen the InSyndicate patrol.
Dorian nodded, trusting to let John’s military training guide them.
Folding the map and sticking it in his pocket, John finished off his coffee, letting Dorian take the mug as he stood, checking his sidearm and gun. “Everything secure?” John asked Dorian.
Following suit, Dorian stood, casting a critical eye around the room, verifying that everything had been suitably concealed. “Our gear is safely stored and I set up the solar unit on the roof.”
John nodded once. Shouldering his weapon, he surprised Dorian by heading up the emergency staircase instead of down.
Dorian found John peering expertly around the detritus on the roof.
“Nice work, D,” John said, returning to the stairwell.
“Thank you,” Dorian answered absently, more concerned with John’s lack of snark. At any other time, John would’ve made a comment along the lines of how it was supposed to be hidden, not missing. It sent a small fission of fear through him. Dorian was accustomed to some small, and sometimes not so small, part of him tracking and being aware of John- more so since the Simon Lynch incident that resulted in a bomb strapped to his partner’s neck. He still felt guilty for that. If he hadn’t been acting so emotional because of his low-charge he would have been there with John instead of left to ‘hug it out’ with Paul. It didn’t matter how much John insisted that it wasn’t his fault and that Dorian had saved his life or that if anyone other than Lynch held any blame it was Detective Paul for not giving Dorian priority charging status. Since then Dorian found himself paying even more attention to his human; John’s nuances and moods becoming clearer and easier to identify, which was why their current state of affairs was throwing Dorian off. John, his John, was cynical and snarky and outspoken and, some would go so far as to say, obnoxious. The John he was with now was still and focused, suspicious and calculating. Logically, Dorian knew he was only seeing the difference between John the cop and John the Marine; still the transformation from one to the other was unnerving. It made Dorian wonder which was closer to the real John.
Without another word, John headed down the stairs and out into the city streets.
Slinging a pack with their essentials onto his back, Dorian hurried after him.
The sun was high in the sky, only about half the buildings they’d set to explore for the day cleared, when Dorian declared to John, “You should eat.”
“Not hungry and no time.”
“John, coffee is not a food.”
John replied with a grunted half-sneer.
“At least take a food bar,” Dorian all but ordered.
John stopped in his methodical prowl. He knew Dorian was just trying to take care of him and more annoyingly, John knew he was right. Turning to face Dorian, he sighed. “You’re right.”
Dorian simply smiled softly and handed John one of the grainy nutrition bars.
John sat down with his back against a nearby wall. He made a face as he bit into the bar. He looked at it thoughtfully for a moment and took another bite. “You’d think with all the advancements in tech, someone, somewhere would’ve figured out how to make these things taste less like sawdust and cardboard.
“That says less about the food bar and more about your eating habits,” Dorian countered sardonically.
The crumpled wrapper pinged against Dorian’s forehead.
“Nice, John. And all this time I questioned your maturity.”
John snickered, but smiled for the first time since they’d started this venture.
That simple act relaxed Dorian incredibly, even though he knew his respite would be short-lived, and he filed the image away with the others to examine later.
Finishing off the grainy snack, John looked pointedly at Dorian. “Happy, mother?”
“Ecstatic,” Dorian deadpanned.
“Great- can we please get on with this?”
Dorian didn’t answer; he was saving his energy for when he had to make John listen. Right now, John’s vitals were still within normal ranges, but if they continued at the current pace, Dorian estimated he would have two days at the outside before fatigue set in.
They’d made it within a block of John’s target location when darkness began to fall. Clearing building after building was a time consuming process, but their mission would be pointless if they let either InSyndicate or the C24s get the upper hand on them.
“John,” Dorian called for the third time.
“What?” John hissed in reply
“We should head back to camp.”
John looked up at the sky and their surroundings. “We’ve still got time to clear the last of this street.”
“Time we should spend getting back to the building.”
“John, we don’t know what’s out here and I’d rather not find out in the dark. Besides, I know your leg has been going out on you for the past hour. It needs to charge and recalibrate.”
John virtually growled. It wasn’t hard enough his damnable leg was acting up, but now his mother hen of a partner knew as soon as he did. He wanted to curse Rudy. Curse Dorian. Curse Anna. And curse himself for all of it. A sharp twinge of pain shot up from his leg causing him to reach out and brace himself on a nearby lamp post, which only made him want to curse the fact that Dorian was right as usual. “Fine,” he ground out through clenched teeth, trying to bite back the pain.
“John,” Dorian said softly, placing a hand on John’s shoulder. “Let’s head back, recharge ourselves, literally,” he added the last in an attempt to drain some of John’s tension, “and get something other than woodchips in you.”
John smirked and Dorian felt John’s shoulders relax under his hand.
“Yeah.” John straightened from the pole he was still leaning against and gently shook off Dorian’s hand. “Don’t suppose you have any noodles stashed back there?” John asked cheekily.
“The coffee’s not good enough?” Dorian returned, practically beaming internally at the return of John’s snark, however temporary it might prove to be.
Shaking his head and chuckling, John took a moment to catch his breath before heading back toward their camp.
By the time they reached the building, John was exhausted, and his leg was sending him warning jolts with every step. Dorian had caught him more than once in the last fifteen minutes. In the end, John had given in and let Dorian wrap an arm around his waist for the trek up the stairs to their floor.
Dorian led John to where he’d settled in the night before and helped him sit down. “Stay,” Dorian ordered.
“I’m not a dog, D.”
Dorian snickered softly. “No, John, you’re not, but you do act like an errant child, so stay.”
“Woof,” he answered.
Rolling his eyes, Dorian shrugged out of his pack and disappeared back into the stairwell.
“Errant child,” John muttered, throwing a stray lump of something that may have once been an eraser at the far wall in annoyance. Just then his leg gave him another sharp twinge. He grunted as he rubbed against his thigh where flesh met prosthetic and debated taking the damn thing off while it charged. He was so focused on the pain that he didn’t notice Dorian’s return until a dark skinned hand covered his, pulling it away from his leg.
“You should take it off and let it charge,” Dorian said gently.
“What am I supposed to do if someone shows up- or those things?”
Dorian smiled. “I’ll take a partially functioning John Kennex over a fully functioning human any day.”
“Asshole,” John said with a soft laugh, recognizing the words he’d once said about Dorian.
“Come on, John, take it off.”
Reluctantly, John closed his eyes and nodded. He reached out a hand for Dorian to help him up.
While John was taking care of his boots and pants, Dorian went about laying out a blanket and setting up the charger.
“Are we having a picnic?” John quipped at the spread.
“Yes, John. Now, sit down and take your leg off,” he ordered.
John snorted, but lowered himself on the blanket none-the-less and disengaged the prosthetic limb- the skin where prosthetic met flesh was puffy and a violent pink.
“John,” Dorian said on a sharply sucked in breath.
“It’s nothing, D.” He passed his leg off to Dorian. “Hand me my pack?”
Dorian grabbed John’s pack and handed it over. “It’s not nothing, John, especially not here.”
John grunted and rummaged through his pack for the ointment he used on his leg. “Gotcha,” he declared victoriously just before something hit him in the face. “What the Hell, Dorian?”
“Clean yourself up before you do that,” Dorian explained, pointing at the hygienic washing packet he’d tossed to John. “Besides, you’re rank.”
Turning the packet over in his hands, “So sorry, I forgot my spa membership when we left. Not all of us are self-cleaning,” he countered wryly.
Rolling his eyes- their startling blue making the gesture seem all the more dramatic- “I’ll be right back,” he said, leaving John to it as he disappeared once again.
John looked at the packet and grudgingly admitted he did need to take a layer or two of grime off. Once he’d finished his military issue bath and treated his inflamed leg, John had to admit he felt better. Not that he’d tell Dorian that- the damned DRN was smug enough. Leaning back into the rudimentary pallet Dorian had thrown together, John let his eyes drift shut.
He must’ve dozed off because his sleep muddled mind told him he smelled noodles with soy sauce and chili sauce. The rumble in John’s stomach, however, was all too real. He pried his eyes open only to jump when Dorian’s improbably blue eyes danced in front of his. “Christ, D. Gonna get you a bell,” he muttered.
“Is that any way to talk to someone bringing you food?” Dorian asked as seriously as he could with the twinkle in his eyes.
“Depends. Is it more cardboard?”
Dorian held up a camping plate and a pair of chopsticks. “Does it look like cardboard and sawdust?”
John snatched up the chopsticks and the plate, inhaling the completely real smell of noodles. “Dorian, I take it all back,” he said around a mouthful of food.
The DRN smiled warmly and thought he could get used to taking care of John- it made him happy, content. Being a cop was what he was meant to do, what he loved, but despite being in a ruined building on the wrong side of the Wall, there was something homey about the situation, like it was filling a part of himself he didn’t know was empty.
“What is it?” John asked, noticing the odd play of lights under Dorian’s skin.
“Hmm? What’s what, John?”
John made a swirly motion in the air with his chopsticks. “Disco lights,” he explained.
“Oh. It was nothing,” Dorian assured him, even though he had no idea why his processors would’ve been active.
John looked at Dorian critically, shrugged, saying, “Whatever you say, man,” and going back to his noodles.
He finished the meal quickly, handing off the plate to Dorian, and closing his eyes as a wave of weariness hit him.
“You should sleep; you’re exhausted.”
“Hmph,” John replied, ignoring Dorian’s words in favour of looking over their map.
Shaking his head, Dorian disappeared once again.
When he returned, John was asleep, using his shoulder for a pillow, map lying open in his lap. “John,” Dorian whispered gently, not wanting to wake his human fully. Dorian had to bite back a chuckle when John snuffled against the feeble padding of his jacket-clad shoulder. “Come on, John, slide down for me,” he spoke in that same soft tone as he manhandled him until John was lying on the floor, a spare blanket under his head. Settling himself close to John, Dorian connected himself to their charger and began his night’s vigil. He knew from the night before that being here, facing these memories, was taking its toll on John’s subconscious. Dorian only wished he could do more to comfort him, especially when John began to fidget and toss in his sleep. A warm flush filled him when John’s hand reached out in search of contact and came to rest on Dorian’s leg and his ragged sleep eased into something more relaxed.
John’s hand was still there when he woke up.
If John noticed, he didn’t react, just pushed himself to a sitting position with a grunted, “Coffee.”
“Good morning to you, too, John.”
“It’ll be a good morning once I have coffee,” John replied sardonically.
“Good morning, Dorian. How was your night?” Dorian’s voice dripped with sarcasm and no small amount of affection. Getting up, Dorian handed John his leg, and answered his own questions. “Just fine, John, thank you for asking. Did you sleep well?” he sincerely asked.
John grunted again, but took a moment to think about it. “Pretty good, all things considered,” he said, surprised by the truth of his answer.
Dorian indulged in a small half smile, letting himself believe he’d played a part in John’s more restful sleep, as he went about making John’s coffee.
As John fastened his leg and got dressed, his traitorous mind drifted to how he’d woken up with his hand wrapped around Dorian’s thigh. It wasn’t the first time he’d thought about how much comfort the DRN gave him; more comfort than he’d felt in decades. But he sure as Hell didn’t want to think about what that might mean. He settled for being grateful Dorian hadn’t said anything.
Once John had some coffee in his system and Dorian had secured their camp once again, they headed out to work more of the grid John had laid out.
Unlike the unrewarding day before, John and Dorian had already encountered three sets of C24s and found traces of purely human patrols by the time Dorian forced another of those horrible nutrition bars down John’s throat. And Dorian was slowly adjusting to John’s twisting personality. The Marine John was growing on him; he could see just enough of his John in turns to take the edge off. Dorian’s full attention was snapped from his thoughts when the object of his reverie suddenly froze.
John’s head whipped to the left, his body a study in intensity.
“John?” Dorian whispered.
A hand rose, begging Dorian’s silence, then gestured forward.
Instantly, Dorian followed John’s gaze.
Some five blocks away, barely visible even to Dorian’s eyes, was another patrol. It would’ve been foolish to take them for anything but InSyndicate.
Dorian didn’t need John’s fingers beckoning him forward to know they were going to follow the patrol. Hopefully, they would lead them to InSyndicate’s headquarters.
They kept the patrol just on the edge of John’s vision, while Dorian kept watch for stray scouts. They had trailed them to the other end of the city when John heard it- the same grunts, groans, and growls that haunted his dreams as much as the raid, and the patrol seemed to be headed straight for them. “Do you hear that?”
Dorian nodded as the sounds drifted to his ears.
“I don’t like it,” John stated plainly. “Why would they be headed toward them- they have to hear them?” As soon as the words left his mouth a horrifying thought hit him. “You don’t think that they’re-”
“-holding them,” Dorian’s finished, having had the same thought. “Given what we witnessed the other day it’s a disturbing possibility.”
John fell back against the hard brick wall beside them and closed his eyes. This couldn’t be happening. Facing those things in twos and threes was terrifying enough even with John’s enhanced abilities. If InSyndicate was corralling them they could have a veritable army of C24s.
Hazel-green eyes shot open looking for Dorian. “Those processors Vaughn stole, what exactly are they for?”
“They’re state-of-the-art programming matrices, designed for any variety of AI applications.”
“What about cybergenetic applications?” he asked, voice and body thrumming with tension.
Dorian took a moment to process John’s question- yellow-orange lights flickering over his face as he did so. “John, you can’t be suggesting they’re attempting biological integration.”
“Why not? They were doing animal testing just a few years ago.”
“And it was outlawed almost as soon as it started,” Dorian countered.
John rolled his eyes sarcastically. “Like that ever stopped people. You know as well as I do there are plenty of underground and black market researchers who wouldn’t hesitate to keep up the work.”
“Fine, but what would be the point?”
“Think about it. If they could implant one of those in a cop or a politician, they’d have access to anything they could want.” John sighed and leaned his head back against the bricks. “But that’s not what really worries me. What if they successfully implanted them in those monsters?” he explained.
“Shit,” Dorian spat.
John’s head shot up and he stared at Dorian.
John blinked back his shock. “I’ve never heard you cuss before.”
Dorian rolled his eyes. “Just because I choose not to use that part of my colloquialism routine, doesn’t mean I can’t when the situation deserves it.”
He couldn’t help it; John started laughing. “You can flash me your junk in the car, but you choose when to cuss. D, man, I love you.”
A smile twitched on Dorian’s face at John’s open amusement.
John’s laughter was broken by a twinge of pain- his leg protesting the exertions he was putting it through.
“We should head back. If they are capturing C24s for whatever reason, we’d be better off facing them fresh.”
Groaning at Dorian’s words, John reluctantly admitted their truth. “Yeah, you’re right,” he agreed, pushing off the wall. He didn’t need to look at his friend to know he had a smug look on his face. “Don’t,” John said pointedly, “let that go to your head.”
“Wouldn’t think of it,” Dorian said behind a chuckle.
“Toaster,” John muttered affectionately under his breath.
“I love you, too, John.” If Dorian’s teasing words held more than a kernel of truth, so be it; he doubted John would even know.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” John snickered.
They were about halfway back to their building when a noise brought them both up short.
“Get down,” Dorian called even as he moved to shield John from the incoming projectile. The large tranquillizer made a heavy thud and crunch as it slammed into Dorian’s shoulder hard enough to knock him off his footing.
John had fallen into a crouch, already targeting their attacker. “D!” The ringing sound of two shots going off in quick succession pierced the air, echoing off empty buildings and empty streets.
“I’m fine,” Dorian replied, taking position in front and slightly to the left of John, and scanning the area for other assailants.
“Anything?” John asked.
Dorian shook his head slowly. “I’m not picking anything up.”
“How’s your shoulder?”
Craning his neck to assess the damage, Dorian declared, “Superficial mostly. Nothing vital has been damaged. I’ll be fine.”
While Dorian was busy giving his assessment, John was making his own. He didn’t like the one and a half inch hole in the back of Dorian’s jacket or the way the fabric seemed to be rapidly darkening with Dorian’s vital fluids. “Dorian.” John’s reproachful tone said more than the word.
“I’m fine, John. We can make the necessary repairs when we get back to camp,” Dorian assured his concerned human. “Right now, we need to examine the shooter.”
“Shit,” John cursed softly. “Come on.” He rose carefully, mindful of danger and his twinging leg. ‘Two cops from the scrapheap,’ he heard Paul’s voice echo inside his head and John smirked at how true that felt at the moment.
“John?” Dorian asked, obviously concerned.
John shook him off, adjusting the strap of his weapon.
As they neared the body, a hollow voice called, “Keith. Keith, come in.”
“Damn-it,” John hissed. He knew the drill- if the dead man had a radio, odds were he had reported in before he took his shot. Unfortunately, there was no way of knowing exactly what he’d called in. John readied his weapon, sighting down the barrel, scanning the area for other hostiles as he swiftly made his way to the body, Dorian at his side. They quickly divested the man of his weapons and radio.
Dorian checked the device for trackers and disabled its outgoing signal. “We should leave before they come looking for him.”
“You read my mind, D.” John tossed the dead man’s gun over his shoulder, making sure it didn’t interfere with his own weapons.
“John,” Dorian said tensely, eyes fixed on a point in the distance, more importantly in the direction of their camp.
“I see them. Looks like we’re taking the long way home.” John quickly took inventory of his mental map- their camp was to the northeast, the C24s and the patrol they’d been following were southwest of them, the dead man’s patrol was coming at them from the south, that meant the only clear path was to head northwest. John took a deep breath. “Over here.” John gestured with his gun.
A few dozen yards away they took refuge behind the remnants of a large statue, and waited for the patrol to reach their comrade’s body. It was close enough to overhear their conversation.
“Keith’s down.” They heard a male voice say.
“C24?” came from the radio they’d taken from the body.
“Negative. Two gunshots. Someone’s out here.”
“Have Maria and Roger bring the body back. You and Christopher find them,” the disembodied voice ordered.
“Don, his weapon and comm are missing.”
“Damn-it, Harry, didn’t you think that was worth telling me first! Switch to channel beta.”
“Yes, sir. Asshole,” he muttered once he’d closed the transmission. “You heard the man, take Keith’s body back.”
Two “Yes, sir”s followed the order.
John and Dorian watched as two of them picked up the body and headed off to the south. The remaining two- Harry and Christopher- began examining the area surrounding the body.
The original Wall had gone up almost overnight, bisecting the city in an effort to protect the citizens they could; so many hadn’t escaped sections of the city overrun by the monsters the geneticists playing God had let loose. So many people dead. John had stayed over the Wall as long as he could, leading uninfected survivours out through streets and tunnels, watching the city grow more and more decrepit trip after trip, until Maldonado had stopped him, reminding John that as much as he tried, he couldn’t save everyone.
John had to shake himself out of the memories. “This way,” John said, recognizing the area where one of the large drainage tunnels ran under the city. Wordlessly, John led them to a secluded alley. A rusty metal door hung by a single hinge about halfway down the alley. With practiced ease, John slid around the door and into the building.
“John, this building is not structurally sound, we shouldn’t remain here any longer than absolutely necessary,” Dorian informed John when he joined him inside.
Jon snickered and moved further into the building. “The structure doesn’t need to be sound, just the foundation.”
Dorian looked at John with his ‘my human is insane, but I’ll still follow where he leads’ look, the one that was part incredulousness, part exasperation, and part barely masked affection.
John didn’t see fit to explain further, simply picking his way confidently through the debris. He stopped at what was obviously an elevator shaft. Giving the shaft a military once over, instinctively calling, “Clear,” after, he secured his weapon over his shoulder and swung himself into the shaft.
“John?” Dorian asked, following him never-the-less.
“Shh,” John hissed and began climbing down to the wrecked elevator car below them. Again, he cleared the car before lowering himself down.
Dorian did his own scan, checking for heat and life signs and trying to ignore his misgivings about the situation. “I’m not picking up any life signs,” he informed John.
“Good. This way.” He led them through the basement passageways to the boiler room. He looked around, quickly refamiliarizing himself with the layout.
“What’re we doing down here?”
“Getting away from those two idiots out there. It should be right over here,” John said gesturing with his gun.
They rounded the large boiler unit to find a good sized drainage grate.
“Of course, the drainage tunnels.” Dorian nodded as his disco lights flashed along his face searching for any schematics of the tunnels.
Pulling up the grate, John climbed down into the access tunnel, Dorian following.
They wound their way through the underground pathways toward their building.
John was hunched over a plate of a noodles, his mind playing out scenario after scenario based on what they’d learnt and John didn’t like any of them.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Dorian said. He was sitting at the desk across from John and looking much better now that his circuitry and fluids weren’t poking out of his skin and soaking through his clothes.
Arching an eyebrow, John snickered, surprisingly good-natured. “You do, do you?”
“Yep. You’re thinking about those C24s and what Vaughn and InSyndicate want with them. Or if it’s even Vaughn who wants them.”
Chewing and swallowing his mouthful of noodles, John looked at Dorian through half closed and thoroughly unimpressed eyes. “Not exactly a stab in the dark.”
“What I don’t get is why take the Synthetic Souls if he was just going to try his hand at biogenetics.”
“I think you’re thinking too small, John. Dr. Vaughn stole over six hundred processors. He would only need a fraction of them to create enough XRNs for a successful assault on the city.”
“Thanks, D. I was trying not to think about that.” John sighed and set the bowl aside. “You really think that’s a possibility?” John asked, more rhetorical than inquisitive. He knew InSyndicate and what they were capable of, so he had the answers.
Dorian didn’t speak for a moment, and when he did it was to ask about their next move. “Where do we go from here?”
John leaned back in the chair he’d liberated from one of the offices. “The way I see it we either focus our search to the South and hope to find their base there, or we head toward the area where they seemed to be holding the C24s- maybe find out exactly what they’re up to and how royally screwed we really are.”
“Ever the optimist.”
“Realism isn’t the same thing as pessimism.”
“No, it’s not,” Dorian agreed, “and you’ve got pessimism down to a science.” He had the audacity to smirk almost cheekily when he spoke.
John tipped his head back, staring at the ceiling. He stayed like that for a few moments. When he straightened, he rubbed his head in his hands and let out a determined huff of air. “We need to know what they’re up to. Realistically,” he drew out the word making it sound just as sarcastic and thoughtful as he meant it, “that only leaves us one real option.”
“Then you need to make sure your leg is fully charged.”
“Yes, mother. Do you want to pack my lunch and remind me to take my scarf and gloves, too?”
“I already pack your lunch,” Dorian replied cockily.
John rolled his eyes and his pants leg up. “I’m not taking it off with those goons looking for us.”
“Fine? What, no lectures or fighting me on this?”
“John, I know this will come as a shock, but you do make valid points from time to time,” he teased as he set up the charger. “Go lie down.”
John grumbled, but did as Dorian asked.
The amount of time between Dorian hooking up John’s leg and the time John fell asleep was unnervingly short. John might be superhuman, but the world still weighed on him, possibly even more because of his enhanced genetics.
Dorian did his best to make sure John was comfortable and stayed at his side through the night, a gentle hand on John’s thigh seeming to keep the worst of John’s anxiety at bay.
“We should pack up, be ready to get out of here,” John said, calmly drinking his coffee and looking over his map for the thousandth time.
“You know something I don’t?” Dorian asked.
John shook his head. “Call it intuition.”
Nodding, Dorian began to gather their essential supplies. “Nice to see you’re finally accepting your feminine side.”
With a derisive grunt, John drained his coffee as he collected his gear. “They’re looking for us; it’s only a matter of time before they find this place and I’d rather not lose half our supplies when they do,” John clarified.
Within the hour they were well on their way back to the southwestern edge of the city.
Dorian watched with a now familiar sense of trepidation as John transformed with every step closer to their goal into John the Marine- the John who would get them through this.
John dropped to a crouch as noises hit his ears. Gesturing up, John made his way to a tall office building on the next block and began to scale it, Dorian on his heels. Once atop the building they had a clear view of the source of the sound. A wall, almost as high as the wall that bisected the city, lay four blocks ahead. John recognized the smooth granite that had once cordoned off the city’s zoo. His eyes travelled the length of the wall, noting where the wide barred gates had once stood, there was now only more stone and a small access door. He had to admit it was incredibly resourceful of InSyndicate- an enclosed area that wouldn’t stand out to any overhead surveillance and held its own established and tested paddocks, and if memory served, labs and veterinary offices lined the southern and western walls in deep cement bunkers- perfect for Vaughn’s type of work. Two men dressed in the black combat gear InSyndicate favoured appeared to be pacing along a section of the wall, presumably a safety measure for what was behind it. John and Dorian took their time in the relative safety of their perch watching the guards’ movements.
“Are you sure we want to do this?” Dorian asked, knowing full well the answer.
“No, but we have to,” John shrugged almost carelessly. “Check me on this, D, there’s five minutes between rounds, should be enough time for us to cross over if we use that second buttress.”
“No point hanging around then. Is this place stable enough to take the stairs?” he asked Dorian, looking toward the building’s roof access.
Lights ran over Dorian’s cheek before he gave an affirmative nod, and the two took the more conventional way back to street level.
“John, do you want to let me in on the plan? Do we even have a plan?”
John rolled his eyes and snickered. “First, we need to get over that wall and see what we’re dealing with, scout the perimeter and hopefully we can locate whatever they’re using as a lab.”
“And if we can’t?”
“Then we finish the sweep and find a place to hole up for the night. Take the south section tomorrow,” John stated simply.
Dorian nodded once again. As plans went it was incredibly simplistic, but John was right about finding out what was waiting for them before focusing their course of action.
Weaving their way carefully toward the vulnerable area of the wall, John let part of his mind wander to what might await them once they scaled the wall. If they were lucky, whatever creatures or experiments InSyndicate was playing with would be secured in the numerous paddocks and not running loose on the grounds. If they were truly unlucky and InSyndicate fell prey to the hubris that had destroyed Philadelphia and lost them half their city, they could be facing dozens of those things. The thought was far from comforting.
When they reached the building across from their chosen point of entry, John held his hand up in a fist telling Dorian to stop. They watched the sentries exchange a few words before continuing their patrols. Counting carefully to ten, John gave the signal to go.
A few seconds later they were on the zoo grounds. It felt strange to be in such an open area in the midst of the city. When the Wall had gone up, all free space in the city was taken up by new buildings- homes and offices to house all those dispossessed. There were a few places on the south edge of the city along the waterfront that held immaculately kept park-like areas, but nothing like this. Only a handful of years ago the zoo had been one of the most famous in the country; their work on and quality of habitat reproduction was unparalleled and world renowned. Now those habitats were overrun by the very flora that had given them their fame.
With a shake of his head, John indicated they should follow the wall to the north.
The enclosures closest to the wall were empty, save for the remnants of their former inhabitants, but the sounds, grunts, growls, and scrapes of things trapped in cages further in let them know without doubt what awaited them.
In near silence John and Dorian crept toward the first of the occupied enclosures The two C24s they’d seen InSyndicate capture when they first arrived snarled at them, their unnatural eyes almost glowing as they approached.
“Should we take care of them?” Dorian whispered.
“I’d like nothing better,” John growled softly, “but I’d rather keep our presence under wraps for now. I don’t want us having to run into this mess blind if InSyndicate realizes we’re here.” John was about to move forward when he felt a warning hand grip his shoulder. He looked back in silent question.
“Cameras,” Dorian said.
“Damn,” John snapped. “Don’t suppose there’s a way for you to block the signal?”
Dorian’s face lit up with dark blue, almost purple, lights. “Got it. I can block it, but knocking out all their cameras would most likely bring someone looking.”
“What about blocking the individual feeds as we pass? Or, your internal recorder’s still operable isn’t it?”
Dorian smiled, nodding his head. “Of course. Record part of the feed and loop it back long enough for us to get out of range.”
A tap on his shoulder told John when it was safe to move.
They repeated the process as every paddock came into view. Thankfully most of the enclosures seemed to be overgrown but empty. Almost three hours had passed before they discovered anything truly useful. They’d gone from nothing but iron bars and unkempt flora to cameras every thirty yards and cages of anywhere from two to five C24s all in different stages of agitation and, for lack of a better word, health.
Dorian stopped in front of one of the paddocks and scanned the occupants. “John, these creatures show signs of medical tampering.”
“No, something much more rudimentary, and even taking into account the accelerated healing, the implants are at least three months old.”
“That means at least a month before Vaughn escaped.”
“I hate to say it, but it looks like we were right- they’re trying to control them.”
“Damnit!” The word was spoken quietly, but with all the vehemence of a yell.
Dorian could only begin to imagine what John was going through and even that made him ache.
“We should keep moving,” John said, coolly detached in a way that made Dorian shiver.
Dorian could feel the tension in John’s body- the way his hands on his weapon changed as John went through phases of white-knuckled grip and forcibly relaxed calm, fingers never leaving the trigger- only to culminate in a spectacular absence of explosion when John stopped, locking eyes with a caged C24. The creature and its cellmates were calmer than those around them.
A quick scan told Dorian what he’d suspected and both he and John dreaded- these C24s had been modified with the processors Vaughn had stolen. There was a knowledge behind their mutated eyes and disfigured bodies.
“I know,” John answered softly through a locked jaw and raw anger and fear. “We need to finish our sweep. Find out how many there are. Then we can look for their lab.”
Dorian laid a silent hand on John’s shoulder, squeezing gently, hoping to instill some small reassurance and strength. John had more inner strength than most, but Dorian knew the man needed support and family, too- even if the stubborn ass wouldn’t admit it.
To Dorian’s surprise John didn’t instantly shake him off- he wasn’t sure whether to be comforted or concerned by John’s reaction. He didn’t have much time to consider it; John moved away down the path a new determination radiating off of him.
By mid-afternoon they’d reached the end of the small peninsula the zoo occupied and had counted over one hundred C24s in captivity. At least one-third of those showed the increased cognizance that seemed to come with the insertion of Vaughn’s stolen processors, though the creatures in the outlying areas nearest what used to be the waterfront were obviously less successful attempts at implanting the chips. They were sluggish and almost childlike in their awkwardness.
“Interesting. These C24s seem to be suffering from some sort of hardware rejection. The brain matter surrounding the implant is necrotic, and judging by these others the necrosis is spreading.”
John’s brow furrowed. “They’re on their way to being brain dead as well as mindless monsters,” John said, the question evident in his voice if not his phrasing.
“After a fashion. The disturbing question is whether or not the processors are connected successfully enough into the cortex to support the neural network for the rest of the body even without biological brain function.”
John slouched back against a nearby trash can. “You’re telling me they could become remote controlled zombies. That’s just what we need.”
“I wouldn’t exactly say ‘zombies’, but for lack of a better word- yes.”
“If it’s any consolation, it’s not going to work. The amount of decay combined with the existing mutation will destroy what little neurological connection and subsequent brain function they have.”
“That’s something at least.” John offered up an incredulous and sarcastic look to match his words as he pushed off from his slouch. “We should start in on the bunkers, see what we can find.”
“The bunkers on the southern side showed the most signs of possible use.”
“Good. Then we’ll start on the western wall, we need to find a camp for the night and that’s our best bet.”
Dorian once again found himself torn, not sure whether to feel concern or pride over John’s statement- John was being sensible. It was a unique experience and Dorian couldn’t help but run a quick scan of his partner to ensure he wasn’t attempting to mask some injury. He registered slightly elevated endorphins and heart rate, but nothing that was out of sync with their current situation.
The bunkers and connecting corridors that dotted the zoo’s western edge turned out to be little more than bleak boxes of rooms, occasionally large indoor paddocks where certain animals were kept at night or feeding time, or rooms that had once served as veterinary offices. Most were empty and void of any trace of their previous calling. It was in one of these barren rooms they set up for the night. Vines and roots had grown around the main entrance to the bunker affording both some extra cover and a place to conceal Rudy’s charger.
By the time they’d settled, John’s leg was once again protesting the workout he’d given it. Thankfully, Dorian spared him his usual lecture about the care and feeding of the prosthetic even though John rubbed at the appendage irritably. “How much juice you think that thing has?” John asked with a quick head jerk toward the charger.
“Rudy said it should be fully charged in three hours. It had close to a third of a charge when we left this morning and got about an hour to charge before sundown, so it’s close enough to full.”
John nodded in understanding as he slid his pants down far enough to release the connection of synthetic to flesh.
Without a word Dorian fished out John’s ointment and brought it and a suspicious looking MRE to him. “Sorry it’s not noodles.”
“It’s not cardboard and sawdust either,” John quipped, earning himself one of Dorian’s playful smiles. John set the meal aside and reach for his ointment, only to be stopped by a strong, dark hand.
“Eat,” Dorian said.
John’s eyes softened and a smile toyed on his lips. Always a self-sufficient person, he wasn’t used to someone taking care of him, he was and he resented people insinuating he needed help with anything- a mindset that had only increased with the loss of his leg. Yet somehow with Dorian it was different; he didn’t feel pitied or coddled. Releasing the jar, he retrieved the tray of food and leaned back against the wall, letting Dorian treat his leg.
Sitting on the ground next to his friend, Dorian began to gently rub the ointment into the inflamed skin of John’s thigh. A small thrill ran through him knowing John trusted him this much.
Soon John’s eyes were drifting closed, meal half eaten and forgotten- the warm feel of Dorian’s skillful hands relaxing sore, tense flesh and calming jangled and tangled nerves.
“John?” Dorian called in a voice barely above a whisper. He smiled at the small noise he got in response. “Sleep.” Dorian pulled out a blanket and laid it over his sleeping human.
John was jolted awake by the tones of a bleating, blaring siren, his hand instinctively reaching for his weapon. “What’s going on?” he asked as Dorian’s face lined with light.
“One of the C24s escaped while they were moving it.”
John paused in his efforts to reattach his leg and raised an inquisitive eyebrow at his partner.
Dorian smiled conspiratorially. “I’ve been scanning the frequencies of the radio we took off that shooter. I started picking up transmissions a few minutes ago.”
“Which would explain why everything’s ready to go except me,” he snarked sarcastically.
Dorian offered John something almost the reverse of an eye roll that told him in no uncertain terms he was not impressed by John’s indignation.
John huffed, shaking his head as he started zipping his pants. “Any chance of going out the front door?’
“There are six patrols searching the park.”
“So, no.” John flexed his leg a few times, testing it out of habit. “You have the schematics of this place?”
This time Dorian did roll his eyes.
“Lemme guess, you scoped it out while I was asleep.”
“No, John. But I do have the plans in my database.”
“Close enough.” John shouldered his weapon, checking his sidearm, and jerked his head toward the back of the bunker, asking, “Is there a way out?”
“The back passage only connects between these buildings. Nothing that will take us past the wall,” Dorian informed him.
“Good enough,” John said with a slight shake of his head, taking off down the passage.
The pathways were relatively easy to navigate, each bunker fitting into one of three basic layouts depending on its original function. They passed unnoticed through the forgotten halls until they reached the final building nearest the park’s wall.
In the main entrance room, John made his way to the opening, prepared to scan the immediate area for any sign of InSyndicate or C24s, only to be pulled back by his shoulder by a disapproving android.
Ignoring John’s glare in favour of imparting his own chastizing gaze, Dorian reminded him, “Taking these kinds of risks is my job.”
John rolled his eyes. “Fine, but you get shot again and it’s your own damn fault.”
Smiling, Dorian easily translated the John-speak. “Love you, too, John,” he quipped just before he ducked out to check their surroundings.
Dorian returned almost instantly. “You want the good news or the bad news?’
John gave his partner a derisive look from under his eyelashes.
Dorian just snickered. “Well, the immediate area is clear, but they have men placed every forty feet along the wall.”
“Damn-it,” John swore softly, eyes casting down to stare at nothing as he tried to think. “What about the tunnels?”
Dorian’s face lit up briefly before he answered. “Yes, but we’ll have to go back two buildings. You should know, John, they’ve started searching the bunkers. We’ll need to move fast if we don’t want to run into them.”
Standing, John looked at his partner with incredulous annoyance. “You didn’t think that was something I needed to know?” he asked sarcastically.
“They weren’t encroaching on our location and I saw no reason to add further stress to our situation,” Dorian explained simply.
John closed his eyes and shook his head. Only Dorian would think like that and worse- John could admit it to himself- Dorian was probably right. There was nothing they could do about it and as long as they stayed ahead of InSyndicate’s men and they weren’t actively following them then it wasn’t a priority, especially since Dorian could monitor the patrols’ locations. John gave a frustrated huff. “Let’s go.”
As they came to the corridor that connected the second and third bunker, Dorian whispered John’s name, “John.”
“Where’s the tunnel?” John asked in equally quiet tones.
“Storage room on the left just ahead. But John, InSyndicate’s just entered the building. I estimate we have less than three minutes before they reach the storage room and less than two before they’ll be close enough to see us.”
“Then why are we talking; we need to move.”
Dorian followed John’s swift precise movements the few yards down the hallway.
“Damn-it,” John swore softly seeing the card lock on the door. “D? You got this?”
Lights were already spattering Dorian’s face; a few seconds later the door made a soft click as the locking mechanism released.
John wasted no time sliding the door open carefully, hoping the hinges wouldn’t alert their unwanted company. Their voices were already filtering to them and getting progressively closer.
Miraculously, the door opened with ease and they were able to slip through in silence.
The storage room was little more than a janitor’s closet and the drainage grate barely wide enough for an average size grown man. John felt like a bit of a contortionist as he wriggled through the opening. Dorian on the other hand, slid down as if he was made to.
Unlike other parts of the city, the tunnels here still held a few murky inches of stagnant water, the watershed exits having been sealed and collapsed in when the Wall went up. John tried not to think about what he was trudging through- he’d been hip deep in worse. He stopped as they approached a large junction.
“Keep going forward, it should be a straight shot out of the park,” Dorian supplied helpfully.
John nodded absently as he focused on the tunnel bending off to the right. “What about the bunkers along the southern wall?”
“What about them?”
“Well, these tunnels should lead us to them, and presumably all of InSyndicate’s forces will be concentrated along the wall and the bunker entrances. It might be our best chance to check out those rooms.”
Dorian seemed to consider John’s words. “It’s a big risk.”
“D, being on this side of the Wall is a huge risk,” John shot back sarcastically.
Giving John a classic ‘bitch please’ face, Dorian continued, “As I was saying, it is a risk, but as much as it pains me to say this, I think you might be right. Their guard will be down and it is our best chance to move freely through those rooms.”
John nodded once. “Let’s move out.”
They exited the tunnels in a corresponding storage room in the southern bunker.
“John, I’m picking up electrical readings to the southwest.”
“Anything we need to worry about?”
“Other than runaway genetic mutants with homicidal tendencies and militant terrorists who probably want to kill you? No, nothing, special.”
“Gee, thanks for the reminder.”
“Anytime, man,” Dorian smiled and slapped John on the back.
With a roll of his eyes and a shake of his head John mumbled something about snarky androids with a death wish.
Readjusting his gun, John gingerly opened the door. Light flooded the small room, the corridor illuminated by harsh utilitarian lights.
“Well, I guess that answers whether or not they’re using these bunkers. Come on,” John said, heading into the main part of the bunker.
Boxes and crates were stacked and ordered along the walls. Everything from food products to computer components and mechanical parts and then some were represented. “Hey, D? Tell me this stuff isn’t as bad as I think it is,” he said, standing in front of a stack of what appeared to be enough robotics to create a small army.
Dorian stopped at John’s side, scanning the crates.
Dorian’s silence told John all he needed to know- a chill ran through him at the thought of so many potential XRNs just waiting to be assembled and unleashed on the city. “We’re going to have to destroy all this before we leave.”
Backing up, Dorian tried to push the images of all those lives that could’ve been away. Logically he knew these were just parts, nothing more than plastic, wires, and metal- none of the things that gave them any sort of true life. Just as he knew if these parts were ever given that ‘life’ it would be as XRNs. And that couldn’t be allowed to happen- too many human lives would be at risk.
“You okay, D?” John asked softly.
“Yeah, fine,” Dorian replied, turning away. “We should go.”
“Yeah,” John agreed absently, more than a little concerned about his friend. “Any word from the voices in the sky?”
Dorian shook his head. “They’re all still focused on the search.”
“Good. Let’s get a move on before they think better of it and come back.”
The next bunker was much the same except instead of parts and supplies there were crates of weapons and ammunition. Looking over the boxes, John noted, “There’s enough firepower here to arm a small army.”
John let out a low whistle when he opened the lid of a nearby crate- grenades, high quality, military issue ones. He quickly pocketed several before closing the box. “Might come in handy,” he said at Dorian’s furrowed brow. “Anything we need to stock up on?”
“Rudy’s supplies will hold us.”
John gave a quick nod. “Let’s see what’s next on the menu.”
As they approached the next bunker section, Dorian quietly informed John, “This is where the electrical signal is coming from.”
“Can you tell if anyone’s in there?”
“It looks clear, but we should be careful, there’s no way of knowing what’s taking so much power.”
“Gee, and I thought all this time we were being reckless,” John snarked, even as he took extra care approaching the room’s entrance. “Jesus,” John breathed out slowly.
Next to him Dorian’s entire body began to flash a myriad of colours.
“D? Dorian!” John placed a gentle hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You okay?”
Dorian shook himself slightly, colours still tracing his face, and shrugged off John’s hand. Almost reverently he began walking along the rows of work stations- the bits and pieces of what made him ‘him’ spread out like a last supper. It should’ve reminded him of Rudy’s, but it didn’t. This place was clinical and just wrong. Much as he would deny it, Rudy’s felt like a home- it wasn’t just a lab, a place to repair broken androids; it was a place where someone tinkered with the things they loved, where he created life.
“Dorian, these what I think they are?” John’s voice broke the weighty silence.
Dorian’s head snapped up and he moved to John’s side. “The ZNA processors.” He scanned the container quickly. “Forty-three of them are missing,” he informed John.
“And how many of those things out there had them implanted?”
“Thirty-seven,” Dorian reminded him easily.
“So six unaccounted for. Damn-it,” John swore.
“Let’s keep looking, see if we can find anything useful to tell us what their plans are.”
No sooner had the words left John’s mouth than Dorian was making a beeline for one of the far work stations. He picked up a sheaf of papers and began scanning them- reading them and storing the images in his memory banks.
“You got something?”
“The outlines of Dr. Vaughn’s plans for integrating the processors and,” he held out a handful of sheets that looked like so much jibberish to John, “his research notes.”
John didn’t have to be a robotics engineer or bio-geneticist to understand the value of Dorian’s find. “How bad is it?”
“According to this, my assessment of the deterioration of the implanted C24s was correct. Also, three of them have already died. Unfortunately, he seems very close to perfecting the process. These notes indicate his last three subjects are showing signs of higher cognizance and little deterioration.”
“Great. So the good news is three of the processors have been destroyed, the bad news is there’s three souped-up monsters out there they have control over,” John summed up in his typical sarcastic fashion.
Dorian absently nodded, his main focus still on the files he was scanning, while John milled about the tables and work stations.
“Dorian,” John called softly. “I think you’ll want to see this,” he said, pushing a box away from his find. Crouching down, he pulled out a medium sized clear plastic case.
“The Souls,” Dorian’s voice was almost reverent. “We have to take them back with us.”
“D, I don’t know if we can.”
“Please, John. They might not be alive in any conventional sense, but they are souls. They’re my family.”
John sighed. “You and those Synthetic Souls aren’t the same. Vaughn saw to that when he tried to modify them and created Danika.”
“He said he didn’t do anything different,” Dorian countered.
“He also said he wanted to stop Danika, then tried to get us killed and is responsible for over forty deaths- innocent people in the wrong place, at the wrong time. You can’t take anything he told you at face value.”
Dorian looked at the case containing hundreds of Synthetic Souls. “I’d still like to try.”
With a slow shake of his head, John placed a reassuring hand on the back of Dorian’s shoulder before turning away to continue his exploration of the room- mostly parts, diagrams, and circuitry he had no hope of understanding.
A barely audible scraping noise caused John’s head to snap up. “D, I thought you said there weren’t any life signs in here,” he whispered too quietly for the average person to hear at that distance.
Dorian’s face lit up on veins of light as he once again joined his partner. “There weren’t. There still aren’t,” he added in confusion.
John adjusted his gun and pointed it toward the sound when it repeated. “That doesn’t sound like we’re alone.”
Dorian beat John to the section of the wall the sound was coming from. He placed his hand on the wall, more streaks of light running over his skin from his hand to his face. “There’s something here, but something’s interfering with my sensors.”
“There’s got to be a way to get in there.”
Dorian was already trailing along the wall, his body virtually glowing with the amount of energy he was using. “Here,” he said, stopping in front of a cart piled with incongruous parts and materials.
“You got something?”
“There’s a seam here. It could be a doorway.” He moved the cart hastily to run his hand along the section of wall. His hand sparkled as a hidden keypad flickered under his palm.
A moment later the doorway slid inward to reveal a secondary room.
John took point as the entered. Inside they found a row of five cells set into the back wall. The first two were empty, the third and fourth held C24s. “Good God,” John said in hushed tones as all too knowing and unnaturally golden eyes stared out at him from behind heavy reinforced Plexiglas and heavy iron bars.
“John.” Dorian stood in front of the fifth cell, head turned toward John so he could judge his response. “I think I know where the C24 they’re looking for came from.”
“You gotta be kidding me.” John’s voice was equal parts disbelief and resignation. Of course it would be one of these C24s that was loose on the grounds. What could happen if it escaped the zoo confines didn’t bear thinking about. With a sigh and a shake of his head, John ignored the snuffling and yellow gazes of the two creatures and joined Dorian where he was going through more of Vaughn’s notes. “Anything useful?”
“It seems these three were his most successful attempts to date. This one,” Dorian indicated the conspicuously empty fifth cell, “was not only accepting the implant, but obeying the base signals sent through the processors. It says here they were about to run a compatibility test to see if it could respond appropriately to multiple and more complex tasks. That’s the last notation- made approximately six hours ago.”
John let out a sound somewhere between a sigh and a huff. “We can’t risk that thing getting out, there’s no telling what it could do if it got to the Wall.”
“There’s no reason to assume the creature would be that aware,” Dorian pointed out.
John looked at him sidelong from under heavy eyelids. “Do you really wanna take that chance?”
“We can’t just leave this lab. It’s half our mission.”
“Dorian, sometimes mission parameters change.” He began to brush roughly past his friend, hesitating, he paused to grip Dorian’s shoulder. “We’ll come back,” he promised.
Dorian nodded slowly. “Thanks, man.”
“Now, come on, we’ve got a mutant to track.”
The sunlight was a stark contrast to the sterile lights illuminating the workroom and it took John’s eyes a moment to adjust.
“How do you want to do this?” Dorian asked scanning the area.
“Well, between the two of us we’ve got the best chance of locating this thing. You’ve still got their channel?”
“Yes, though they’ve been disturbingly silent.”
John shook his head dismissively. “They’re probably maintaining radio silence.”
“Mmm,” Dorian acknowledged.
“All right, we do this just like yesterday; we work up from the far wall, maybe we can herd it back toward InSyndicate and keep our cover a little longer. You got the cameras?”
Dorian just rolled his eyes in answer. They hadn’t gone far when a thought occurred to Dorian. “It’s odd they can’t track its processor.”
“I was wondering that myself.”
“I suppose it’s possible something in the process renders it inert.”
John considered Dorian’s words. “Could be why those animals were still locked up in Vaughn’s hidden lab.”
Dorian nodded thoughtfully. “It could also explain their inability to control this one and simply program it to return.”
Both men were thoughtful as they continued their search.
“Tell me more about these processors. They can’t be your standard CPUs.”
Lights flashed softly over Dorian’s skin as he accessed the designs and specs for the processors. “They are state of the art, designed to be more intuitive- not independently ‘thinking,’ but they are designed for higher functioning androids, ones that can be more responsive to input.”
“Like you?” John asked, brow furrowing.
“No, it’s a step closer. Some of the base coding and subroutines are similar, but nothing as advanced as the Synthetic Soul,” Dorian explained.
“Great. So these things can think beyond killing everything in sight,” John huffed out.
The soft crack of a twig drew their attention to the south and killed whatever conversation may have been left.
With silent nods, they changed their path to investigate the sound. As they approached, they were met by a strangled scream.
“Shit!” John cursed softly, taking off at a run. Whoever was under attack may be part of InSyndicate, but they were still people and it wasn’t in his nature or Dorian’s to standby when someone was in trouble.
They arrived just in time to hear the sickening crack of bones snapping and flesh ripping, followed by the tell-tale thud of a body hitting the ground, and see the remaining two members of the patrol back away from the carnage of their fallen comrade.
“So much for keeping our cover,” John muttered as he took aim and let off two rounds at the creature.
It howled and glared at John before disappearing into the growth around them.
“Go check on those two,” John instructed Dorian. “And Dorian, don’t turn your back on either of them if you even think they might be infected.”
Instead of the eye roll Dorian would’ve normally given at such an obvious statement, he gave a curt nod before parting ways- John going after the creature while Dorian checked on the two remaining men.
Faster than ‘strictly’ humanly possible, John gained ground on the C24. The cement pathways, even overgrown as they were, didn’t make the best surface for tracking, but John’s acute sight and hearing made the trail easier to follow. Soon they were in the heart of the zoo. The paddocks of C24s erupting into a cacophony of grunts and growls, bars shaking and groaning under the violent pressure of incensed C24s. John knew it was only a matter of time before the walls of their prisons gave way and there would be God only knew how many of those things running loose. But John couldn’t focus on that right now. He had a full-fledged cognizant monster to deal with, the others would have to wait.
In the centre of the zoo there was a small park, once immaculately kept with lush rows of veronica, phlox, hibiscus, and other lively garden plants, beaches, tables, and a small sandbox. Now the colourful flora had run rampant, reminding John of nothing so much as a scene from an old film he’d seen as a child with a wild brightly-coloured field of poppies.
Only at the far edge of this field was an angry once human monster, its features distorted to the point that calling it bipedal was as close to recognizably human as it got. Its body was all swollen and disproportionate muscles and limbs, hands like clawed meathooks. Its unnaturally human eyes bore into John, a warning and a challenge.
Steadily, John took aim, but resisted the urge to fire, knowing that at this distance the C24 would most likely be able to dodge the projectile. Instead, he made his way closer, using the scattering of trees and overgrown bushes as nominal cover. He kept his eyes on the C24- it stood still, body flexing with each breath, watching and waiting as John neared. John knew that dance too well.
As soon as John was in range, the creature surged forward, knocking John to the ground. John rolled with the movement, coming up in a crouch at eye level with his opponent. It opened its elongated maw and roared into John’s face.
The snarl John let out in return was almost inhuman in its primal vehemence.
The creature lunged and John ducked out of its grasp, pulling his gun up to shoot. A swift and painful strike from one of those bulky arms knocked the gun from John’s arms with a resounding snap-crunch as bone was crushed. John barely had time to take stock before the C24 lashed out again, claw aiming for John’s injured arm.
His near instant healing allowed John to be able to raise his arms unhindered in a cross, blocking the creature’s strike and catching it off guard. With grace and speed, John gripped the arm and twisted, flipping the C24 onto its back. It roared in frustration as John expertly wrenched its arm out of the socket, giving it a kick to the head while he grappled for his gun.
The creature twisted, pulling its long arm out of John’s grasp. Just as it rolled to its feet, a dot of red erupted on its forehead. John squeezed off another shot, hitting squarely in the creature’s eye. It crumpled to the ground, landing heavily on John’s synthetic leg. He kicked the creature’s dead weight off him with his good leg. Shots of pain from his trapped leg stabbed like electric daggers into his flesh. Groaning, he stood. Giving one final shot where he judged the C24’s heart to be, John began the journey back to Dorian and their captives.
“John!” Dorian rushed to his partner’s side, throwing John’s arm over his shoulders and helping him back to the two men Dorian had secured to a nearby railing. “You need to let me check that,” he said, indicating John’s leg.
John gritted his teeth against the pain. “We deal with them first,” John declared, but otherwise made no argument. “How are our friends?”
“I had to set one of their arms and his leg. He has two broken ribs, as well, but nothing life-threatening. He’s currently unconscious. The other one is just bruised and scared.”
“Good. Get any information from them?”
“I was waiting for you,” Dorian answered.
That got one arching eyebrow from John- he knew Dorian wasn’t exactly a fan of his interview techniques, especially where InSyndicate was concerned. Despite his leg’s protestations, John crouched down in front of their captives. “Where’s Vaughn?” he asked calmly, his hazel eyes hardened more than his voice ever could be.
The question seemed to startle their conscious prisoner.
“Vaughn. Where is he?” he asked again, voice harder and more menacing than before.
John’s question was met with stubborn silence.
“No?” Forcing himself not to wince, John stood. “Get them up,” he instructed Dorian. “He can carry his friend.”
Once they were up and around, John led the way toward the nearest occupied enclosure, biting back the pain stabbing in his leg and channeling it into his anger and the task at hand. He stopped just out of the largest C24’s reach. Looking back to the other men, “Take him,” he said to Dorian, indicating their still unconscious companion.
As soon as the other captive was unencumbered, John grabbed him by the neck and pulled him next to him in front of the cage. “Now, we’re going to start easy- what’s your name?”
The man watched the creatures’ grabbing claws and quickly decided divulging their names wasn’t such a bad idea. “Alan. And that’s Sean,” he said on ragged breaths.
“There, that wasn’t so hard was it?” John tugged Alan away from the cage. “Ready for question two?” He didn’t wait for an answer, not that it would’ve mattered. “Where is Dr. Nigel Vaughn?”
Alan looked from John to the snarling C24s.
John dragged Alan by the scruff of his neck to stand just too close to the bars. “Vaughn,” he said in an eerily calm tone.
The largest C24 huffed and snarled against the bars, then lashed out at Alan- its deadly tongue shooting out as its claws grasped for its prey.
John’s speed and strength allowed him to yank Alan out of the creature’s reach and grab hold of the disembodied tongue before it did any damage.
Alan stared at John and the still writhing tongue in his hand. “H-how?” he stuttered out.
“How doesn’t matter- if I can do it again… now, that’s a good question.” He dropped the tongue and stomped on it. “I’ll make you a deal, Alan, you answer my questions and you won’t have to find out the answer to yours.”
Alan gulped, obviously scared, but still stubbornly silent.
“Have it your way,” John told him as he dragged him back toward the cage.
Struggling fruitlessly against John’s superior strength, Alan caved. “All right! All right!”
John jerked Alan out of the creature’s reach, glaring at him impatiently.
“When he’s not in the lab complex he’s at the compound.”
“Which is where, exactly?” John demanded.
“South. The old warehouse district.”
Alan shook his head in self-disgust at giving up the information. “The main complex is below the Mercer Industries building over by 68th.”
“Thank you,” John said, dripping disdain as he threw Alan down at Dorian’s feet. Then he turned his attention to the C24s, dispatching them quickly with twin shots to the head.
As John turned back to Dorian and their captives, the injured man- Sean, John recalled- groaned, returning to consciousness.
“Glad you could join us. Just in time, too.” John’s smile was just this side of manic with a side of menace and completely unnerving. “D, get the lock.”
Tell-tale lights flashed on Dorian’s face as he cracked the lock.
“Up,” John ordered.
Alan stood and helped Sean to his feet.
Gesturing toward the now open door with his weapon, John watched the pair hobble to the opening. “Welcome to your new home.”
Alan and Sean looked nervously at the other occupants, they may have been dead, but InSyndicate knew better than most what those things were capable of.
“Get in,” John urged none too gently.
Reluctantly the men climbed in- the door closing behind them with a disturbing clunk and click as the lock snapped into place and Dorian crushed the lock without a thought.
“You can’t just leave us here,” Sean protested.
“In fact we can,” Dorian said. “In here, you will be safe from your escaped C24s and the shots and your lack of communication will insure your comrades will come looking for you.”
John dug around one of their packs and pulled out a bottle of water, tossing it to the men through the bars. “Enjoy your stay,” he said in parting.
Once they were out of sight and earshot, John collapsed. Half an hour of fighting back the pain and weakness in his leg had taken its toll.
Dorian was on his knees next to John in an instant.
“How bad is it?” John asked breathlessly.
“I can handle the repairs, but we need to get you somewhere safe; it may take awhile.”
“Vaughn’s lab.” John winced as he spoke. “The tunnels underneath it. Doubt they’ll look there- for awhile anyway.”
Dorian considered it for a moment. It was close, not exactly defendable, but InSyndicate could only come at them from one direction; it also held the bonus that if Dorian needed anything to repair John’s leg it would be easily accessible. Though he didn’t think he’d need anything more than what Rudy had sent with them. “All right,” Dorian agreed.
“Okay,” John said as he tried to lever himself up.
Dorian grabbed John’s arm and helped him stand, taking most of John’s weight without giving him the option of pushing him off.
It took them another forty minutes to get back to the bunkers. They entered through Vaughn’s lab, where Dorian picked up a couple tools that would make his work easier and therefore faster.
Rocks and rubble blocked off the far end of the tunnel. Here and there larger fragments lay on the ground, giving John and Dorian places to sit and work away from the stagnant muck on the tunnel floor.
John winced, easing himself down onto a cement slab, mindful of the mangled rebars sticking out of it. Rubbing his thigh, he looked at Dorian with bitter resignation as he asked, “You’re gonna make me take it off, aren’t you?”
“It’ll be easier,” Dorian said apologetically. “It’ll hurt less.”
John snorted, but began unbuttoning his pants.
Soon Dorian had John’s leg laid out with the service panel open, intently repairing and rerouting the damaged circuits.
Dorian stopped his work, face lighting up in pale greens.
“Problem?” John asked.
“They found the dead C24.”
“Anything about us?”
“Then we’ve still got a little time. How much longer?” John asked with a nod toward his leg.
“Almost finished with the repairs, but it will need to charge.”
“We can charge it tonight,” John insisted.
“No, we can’t,” Dorian countered. “As it is you wouldn’t even make it back to the access point. Your leg needs to charge, John.”
John sighed, grudgingly accepting Dorian’s assessment. “How long will that take?”
“Assuming we don’t run into any more trouble- half hour should get us out of the zoo grounds, though it really needs longer.”
“How much longer?” John asked, his annoyance with the situation- his damned useless leg, InSyndicate, Vaughn, and the C24s- showing through.
“John,” Dorian said in a tone he knew from experience would soothe him.
Exhaling slowly, John offered Dorian a small smirk in thanks. “I want us to get out of here, get Vaughn, and get home. Now we know where Vaughn, and InSyndicate’s base, is, but soon enough they’re going to find those two idiots and they’ll spill their guts to their friends, who will put the base on high alert. We’ve got a small window to get this done. If we can get me mobile again that is.”
Dorian furrowed his brow at John. “You have a plan.”
“Part of one.”
“You planning on sharing?”
“You finish my leg, set the damn thing charging then go back up to the armoury, get some of those explosives, place them in the supply room and the armoury and Vaughn’s lab- after you grab the Synthetic Souls. Hopefully, InSyndicate will put their forces into dealing with the explosions. We hotfoot it to where Alan said their base was, find Vaughn and get out.”
“Finding their base even with our current information might not be that easy, let alone finding Vaughn.”
“This would be why it’s only part of a plan,” John answered sarcastically.
“It’s a good plan,” Dorian agreed as he closed up John’s leg and hooked it up to the charger- frowning slightly at how low its charge was. “At the least it will make it easier to get out of the park. If you’re right, we may even be able to breach the base perimeter.”
“Then we just have to find Vaughn.”
Dorian seemed to ignore John’s words, giving a dismissive nod, while all his attention was focused on the little black box set up on John’s leg.
“Everything okay over there? Jon asked with a furrowed brow, an uneasy feeling developing in his stomach as he watched his partner’s expression.
“It’s fine, John. It’s just this will deplete the last of the charger. We need to find a place to let it charge.”
Dorian didn’t need to say more than that for John to hear the ‘or else we’re screwed’ that hung in the air. “Let’s just hope we get lucky, then.” John pulled out his map, searching for the location Alan had given them. “Here,” he pointed to a set of buildings in the center of the city’s southern peninsula. “This whole area,” he indicated a large industrial park, “is Mercer Industries and this is the main building. If Alan was telling the truth, that’s where we’ll find InSyndicate.”
“We should be able to make it there in no more than three hours.” Dorian hesitated a moment before he spoke. “We should travel above ground as much as possible.”
John arched an eyebrow in question.
“I believe I can rig the charger to my pack so that it can get at least a partial charge as we go.”
“What was that?” John asked when barely visible green-blue lights flitted along Dorian’s cheek. He’d grown accustomed to most of Dorian’s disco lights and what they meant, but this one he couldn’t place.
Dorian smiled. “The ten minute warning on your leg. Here, hold this,” he said, unceremoniously dropping his pack in John’s lap.
Faster than even John’s acute eyes could follow, Dorian twisted, pulled, and snapped the top of the pack until there was a near perfect cradle just the size for their mad scientist’s solar charger. “We just have to hope they don’t start shooting at us.” Dorian smirked.
John rolled his eyes. “First- I was hoping to avoid that regardless. Second,” he shoved the pack back into Dorian’s arms with an almost playful scowl, “Murphy’s Law, D- look it up.”
Dorian rolled his eyes dramatically. “You’ll be ready to go when I get back?”
This time there was nothing playful about the scowl John gave Dorian. “I’m ready now except for one little problem.” He looked pointedly at his thigh.
“Drama queen,” Dorian shot over his shoulder as he headed off down the tunnel to complete his explosive objective.
John’s, “Asshole!” followed Dorian a few feet into the tunnel, and the android laughed and shook his head, smiling.
Dorian returned fifteen minutes later- an awkward, boxy bag slung over his shoulder.
“The conquering hero returns,” John snarked in greeting.
“I’m going to remember you said that,” Dorian volleyed back.
John snorted. “All hail the conquering toaster.” The sarcasm drippied from his words like honey.
“Hey, be nice to the man with your leg,” Dorian countered with a smirk, even as he brought the appendage to John. Handing off the leg, he told John, “We’ve got twenty-three minutes before the first device goes off.”
While John situated his prosthetic and his clothes, Dorian packed up the charger in its makeshift case.
“Ready?” John asked rather unnecessarily.
Rolling his eyes, John stood, checked his weapons, and started down the tunnel.
They’d just reached the juncture that would take them out from under the bunkers and into the park itself, when a resounding explosion rocked the tunnel walls. It was followed by a cascade of subsequent explosions.
Before John knew what was happening, Dorian tackled him and flung them both several yards down the connecting passage just as the earth shook in a way he hadn’t felt since he was seven, watching his world quite literally collapse around him.
John flailed- he had to get away, he’d promised himself long ago he wouldn’t be buried alive again. Hell, he wouldn’t even be buried dead if he had any say.
“John!” Two hands wrapped firmly but gently around John’s wrists, pinning him to the ground at the same time the heavy weight shifted off him. “John. John, it’s okay. You’re safe,” Dorian soothed as best he could. “You’re safe, John.”
John slowly calmed as he recognized Dorian’s voice and the gratifying absence of crushing weight on him.
“You okay, man?” Dorian did his best to modulate his voice to hide the fear he felt for his friend.
Sitting up, John rubbed the base of his skull. “Yeah, I’m fine. You?”
“Nothing a few minutes with Rudy won’t cure.” Dorian reached out a hand to help John up.
“At least they won’t be following us from here,” John quipped, inspecting the damage to the now sealed off tunnel.
“John,” Dorian’s voice was unnervingly serious, “we have a problem.”
John turned to see Dorian examining Rudy’s charger, at least that’s what he thought the mangled and sparking scrap of metal was. “Shit.”
Dorian gave John an apologetic look.
John raised a hand, forestalling anything Dorian might be about to say. “It’s not your fault. We just need to get Vaughn and get out of here before either of us are down for the count.” He waited for Dorian’s nod. “Good. Now what’s the fastest way out of here.”
“The tunnels or the park?” Dorian asked as he accessed the drainage maps again.
“The park,” John clarified, “easier to avoid those bullets you were talking about.”
“There’s an exit a few hundred yards up ahead. It puts us about fifty feet from the wall.”
“All right, let’s get you out in the daylight.”
Within minutes they were back out in the open. A quick survey by both of them determined the sentries had indeed been called back, presumably to help with the explosions. It made reaching the relative safety of the city buildings refreshingly simple.
They moved swiftly through the city streets toward the industrial area that housed the Mercer buildings, stopping a few buildings shy of them to get the lay of the land.
What they saw was disturbing. The complex was dead. Completely dead. Where they would’ve expected at least minimal guards, there was no one and no sign that anyone had been there recently.
“You think he was lying?” Dorian asked.
John shook his head adamantly. “No. You don’t lie when you’re that scared.”
Dorian nodded in agreement.
John closed his eyes for a minute, replaying what Alan had told him. His eyes snapped open. “He said ‘beneath.’ Is there a basement?”
Dorian got the blank, faraway look he sometimes got when he was searching and analyzing information, while yellow sparked under his skin. “Yes, a rather extensive one- it appears to span the entire complex.”
“Looks like we weren’t the only ones to think underground was the way to go. Okay,” John exhaled. “Access points?”
“There’s elevator or stairwell access in each building, but we have to assume they’re being monitored.”
“Of course, they are.” John exhaled heavily and rubbed his temples with one hand. “Okay, what’s going to run your engines harder- trying to intercept the sensor feeds or going underground?”
“Either way we’ll be underground, John, just a matter of when, and I honestly don’t see there being much difference in the power drain on my systems,” Dorian explained.
Nodding his head slowly, John weighed their limited options. “Right, we take the tunnels. We’ll double back a few blocks before we go down. They’re more likely to have alarm sensors on the ones closest to the complex.”
“Agreed.” Dorian’s lights barely flashed before he said, “The corner of 61st and Lagoona. We should be able to access through the diner there.”
John gave a quick nod and began backtracking the relatively short distance.
“Can you draw me a map of the tunnels?” John asked when they reached the diner.
“Not a problem.” Dorian snatched a napkin and pencil from the diner counter and quickly sketched out a near perfect diagram, passing the finished product over to John.
As soon as they hit the tunnels, they knew they were on the right track; not only were the passageways clear and obviously well-used, but small lights lined the walls every fifteen to twenty feet.
“Definitely on the right track,” John whispered. He looked down as his napkin-map and cocked his head slightly. “How the Hell are we supposed to find him in this mess in less than a day?” John growled softly.
“We’ve come this far, John.”
John looked at the man at his side. Dorian’s electric blue eyes radiated faith and belief and John sucked in a breath. If Dorian believed they could do this, then he’d believe it as well, and Dorian was right, they’d come this far. He squeezed Dorian’s shoulder. “Thanks, man.”
Dorian practically beamed. “Anytime, John.”
“Any chance you can hack into their system? Maybe find out where their people are located?” John asked as they worked their way down the tunnel.
“Not from here, but if we can find any sort of data cable-works I should be able to access anything on their mainframe.”
They walked on past two small junctions and there were still no signs of people despite the growing frequency of the lights illuminating tunnels.
A few more yards and Dorian grabbed John’s arm abruptly. He pointed up and left when John’s brow furrowed at him.
There, just a few yards ahead of them, was a small black box. “That’s it?” John whispered.
“That’s it,” Dorian agreed with a smile. He went up to the box and pried off the lid. It took mere moments for Dorian to access the complex’s database, dark green and pink lights chasing each other across his skin as he searched for any information on Vaughn- his location and his experiments. “Got him. Vaughn’s in the easternmost building.”
“Minimal. As we suspected most of their forces have been called out to the bunkers,” Dorian confirmed.
“Let’s go get the bastard.” John adjusted his gun and took point as they wound their way along the outskirts of the complex.
“Here.” Dorian stopped them at a three way intersection. “Down there,” he indicated the turnoff, “this access point should put us right in the middle of Vaughn’s building.”
Once again the tunnel’s lighting turned sparse, but thankfully their goal was only a handful of yards into the passage and soon enough they were emerging into a sterile grey room lined with boxes.
Sound filtered through the open door causing John and Dorian to flatten themselves against a row of boxes. They watched as a very disinterested, uniformed man passed by and on down the corridor.
Silently, John came up behind the man and tapped him on the shoulder. When the man turned around, John gave him a bright smile. “Hi,” he said just before hitting him. The man fell like the proverbial sack of potatoes.
After John dragged him back to the storeroom, Dorian relieved him of his weapons and radio, while John tied his arms and legs and gagged him. With what was probably more care than the unconscious man deserved, they lowered him down into the tunnel.
He gave Dorian a nod and they entered the hallway. They found little resistance- two more guards, one turning down a connecting corridor without noticing them, the other currently residing in a supply closet- until they reached the hall Vaughn was on. Several doors littered the hallway, most seeming generic enough, but three were adorned with secure electronic locks. It was outside these that four guards milled about. John and Dorian stopped at the corner, both letting the men’s conversation drift to them.
“I don’t get it,” one of them said- he was young and wiry and John thought he could still see the water behind his ears.
“What’s there to get, Mark? There’s been an emergency at the lab, all hands on deck. We’re back-up, so we back them up, whatever that entails. Right now, that means we take over guarding the doctor and the lab here.”
“We should be out there,” Mark argued. “What’s so important with this damn scientist anyway?”
The man who was obviously the leader, or at least the senior thug, slammed Mark into the wall. “We should be here, guarding the man who could turn the tide of this war.”
Mark shook the other man off, rolling his shoulders in some small act of defiance. “Fine. I still think we’d be more useful out there.”
“You don’t need to think- just do.”
Hearing those words made John’s jaw clench. In this place the memories of Olduvai were stark and fresh, and he could hear those words coming out of Sarge’s mouth and the cold dread he’d felt then returned as the similarity of the situation resonated in him. At least this time he knew who was the enemy and who he could trust, and Sam’s life wasn’t on the line- just the fate of the city, and who knew how much further InSyndicate planned to spread its reach.
“John? Are you okay?” Dorian asked when his sensors started pinging their warning that John’s blood pressure and adrenaline levels suddenly shot up.
John gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes closed. “I’m fine, D, just really want to kill that bastard. Don’t worry,” he said, giving Dorian a roll of his eyes and a half put upon look, “I’ve got more control than that.”
“If you say so.”
John scoffed and turned his attention back to the guards. “What do you think, simple divide and conquer?” John snickered. “Give Mark something to do.”
Dorian chuckled quietly. “I have just the thing.”
Positioning themselves further back down the hallway, John gave Dorian the go-ahead.
Pale, almost white streaks of lightning flickered along Dorian’s cheek as the clear sound of two pairs of running feet echoed down the corridor. It was almost a whisper when it reached John’s ears, but it was clear enough.
“Fred, Arri, go check that out. We’re supposed to be the only ones in this part of the building, so be careful.”
The order was met with twin, “Yes, sir”s, as the two men separated from the others.
John and Dorian shared a nod as they waited for the men to get close enough to attack.
With quick, expert moves, John and Dorian took the two men down.
“Two down, two to go.”
Crouching against the wall at the corner, John peered out quickly to see what the remaining guards were doing.
“Okay. Still oblivious,” John reported.
John nodded. “If we can split them up it’ll be easier.”
“What did you have in mind?” Dorian asked.
“A visual aid.” He smirked. “Cross the hall,” he explained simply.
Dorian looked at John as if he was insane- well, more so than usual.
Sighing, John quickly mapped out his plan. “They see someone or something crossing to the far side of the hallway, at least one of them will come check it out, especially since they will have lost contact with the other two idiots. If they both come, we have them on either side. If it’s only one of them, then he’ll be distracted on your side of the hallway and I can rush whichever stays behind.”
“Two good plans in one day- I’m impressed,” Dorian snarked.
“Gee, I impressed my toaster- my life is now complete.”
Dorian just beamed and slapped John on the shoulder. Just before he made his move, Dorian shot back at John, “Go get ‘em, ‘White Cheetah’.” Luckily for him, Dorian was crossing the hall before John could respond.
“Did you see that?” their leader asked. “Fred? Arri? You have anything?” he said into his radio. “Fred? Arri? Come in.”
“Calm down, Rick, they’re probably just off giving each other handjobs or something.”
“Shut up,” Rick growled back. “There’s someone here.”
“Then let’s go,” Mark said, voice full of overexuberance.
Rick pushed Mark back with the length of his gun across the younger man’s chest. “I’ll go. You will stay here and look out for Vaughn. We’re not leaving the doc undefended.”
Mark seethed, though he backed down.
“Good. If you don’t hear from me in five minutes call for reinforcements.
“Yes, sir,” Mark acknowledged, more out of training than respect.
“Here he comes. Ready?” John checked with his partner in an almost silent whisper.
“Of course,” Dorian huffed as if it was the ten-thousandth time John had asked him- the actual number was in the low single digits. “I’m rushing the idiot down the hall, right?” he asked with his most innocent quizzical look.
John glared. “Asshole,” he groused, although the soft twinkle in his eyes and hint of laughter spoke louder than his glare or his words.
It worked beautifully. Dorian had Rick out and cuffed before he could make a sound. John’s target fell seconds later, taken completely off guard by the rush that was John Kennex.
Dorian might’ve teased John about his reported high school football nickname, but he had to admit that seeing John move, he totally deserved the moniker now. “Nice going,” he said, when he joined John, adding, “cheetah,” with a smirk.
John’s responding eye roll was mitigated by his bemused smile. “Just open the door.”
“Whatever you say, John.” Dorian placed his palm on the keypad, veins lighting up along his hand. With barely a sound the door clicked open.
“God damn-it, don’t you people know how to knock?” the room’s single occupant snapped. Nigel Vaughn was average height, round faced, and his snowy white hair gave him the appearance of someone who should be working as a Santa Claus, rather than hunched over a workbench with enough electronics to make Rudy swoon. “I’m in the middle of something here,” he said slamming his palms on the table. “What do you people want?” he demanded, finally turning toward his guests. The colour drained from his face when he saw John and Dorian standing in the doorway. “Oh…”
“As welcomes go, I’ve had colder,” John quipped. “Step away from the table.” John made an ‘over there’ motion with his gun for emphasis. “D, take care of the research.”
Dorian just nodded; he was feeling anger and betrayal in such strength it scared him. The only time his emotions ran this high was when John was involved and those emotions were anything but negative.
“I don’t suppose apologizing will have any sway with either of you,” Vaughn asked with an innocence that made John’s blood boil.
Before he’d realized it, John had Vaughn slammed up against a wall, pinned by John’s gun. “You’d best understand this- the only reason you are alive is Dorian. Despite everything, you are the closest thing to a father he has and I don’t want to be the one to take that from him. But I swear to God if you give me any excuse I will kill you,” John growled with a special venom reserved for people who hurt his family- and this man had almost crushed both Dorian and Rudy.
Vaughn visibly gulped, trying to shy away even trapped between the wall and John’s gun.
“John,” Dorian called calmly, in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “I’ve got it.”
“Then let’s get out of here.” He yanked Vaughn away from the wall and thrust him at his partner.
Vaughn managed to look sheepish, while Dorian lashed his wrists. “This isn’t how I’d hoped to see you again,” Vaughn told Dorian in a voice that was almost reverent and adoring.
It made John’s skin crawl. Even knowing Dorian wasn’t human, John was impressed by his calm. He knew Dorian could feel, had emotions- regardless of what he himself would outwardly protest, especially to Dorian.
Ignoring Vaughn, Dorian turned to John. “I took the liberty of uploading a virus into their system. All of Dr. Vaughn’s work will be permanently destroyed and it will temporarily shut down their entire system.”
“Nice work, D.” John squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “You,” he directed at Vaughn, “move it.” John emphasized his instructions with the muzzle of his gun shoved into Vaughn’s back.
Dorian took charge of their captive with a bruising grip on his arm as they led the way to the nearest tunnel entrance and then through the maze of passages until they were safely out of range of InSyndicate’s security systems.
They walked for a few blocks before Dorian veered off into a tall apartment building.
“D?” John asked so softly he knew Vaughn wouldn’t be able to hear.
“You need to rest,” he whispered back, “your leg is firing off like New Year’s Eve.”
He was about to argue, when a spike of pain pierced through his thigh, turning his rebuttal into a wince.
Dorian simply arched an eyebrow and continued toward the stairwell.
Grumbling, John followed. “Damn know-it-all ‘bots.”
Traversing the twenty-one flights to the roof access took twice as long as it should’ve. Partly because of Vaughn and, John suspected, more than a little because Dorian knew how bad his leg was killing him- though John would be damned if he’d let Vaughn know.
As soon as they were outside, Dorian handed Vaughn off to John and began to strip.
“What the Hell, D?”
“The sun sets in a little over two hours,” the android explained.
Of course. Rudy had turned Dorian’s skin into one big solar panel. While Dorian stripped, John secured Vaughn to the iron railing that wrapped around the roof access, and zip cuffed his ankles for good measure. When he turned back, Dorian was almost completely naked, save for a pair of black briefs.
The field-patched bullet holes glared against Dorian’s smooth, unblemished skin. John had to stop himself from reaching out to touch the rough edges so reminiscent of the battle scars his own body once held. It was odd to think this was another thing they had in common- the wounds that would mar most people’s flesh were nothing but memories for them.
“John? Are you all right?” Dorian’s warm voice broke through John’s thoughts.
John looked up into Dorian’s electric blue eyes. “Yeah,” he said softly with an honesty he found surprising, but for the first time since he’d woken up from his coma, he thought he might just be okay. “How much juice you think you’ll have after that?”
“D,” John admonished, knowing Dorian knew he wanted a more specific answer.
“At this rate I’ll have approximately sixty-three percent charge, more than enough to boost your leg and make it the three miles to our extraction point on the Wall.”
“John, I scaled that clock tower with a fifteen percent charge,” Dorian reminded him.
John snickered. “Yeah, you even managed to impress Richard with that.”
Dorian smiled, not only at John’s hidden praise, but at the reassertion of what he’d come to think of as his John.
“What the Hell are you smirking at?” John asked with curious amusement.
“Nothing, man. Just glad to be going home.”
Chuckling, John clapped Dorian’s shoulder. “Me, too. I’m even starting to miss Paul.”
“I’m going to tell him you said that.”
“Do that and you’ll be sleeping with the MXs again,” John mock threatened, biting back a laugh.
“Low blow, man. Low, low blow.” Dorian shook his head, trying to hold in his own laughter.
A softly breathed, “Incredible,” drew John and Dorian’s attention.
“What?” John snapped at their captive.
Vaughn, bound as he was, was almost giddy. “You two,” he replied. “I’ve never seen one of my children bond so deeply. I always hoped it was possible, but the DRNs were recalled before they could reach their full potential.”
John’s brow furrowed, but Vaughn seemed content to remain silent and John wasn’t in any mood to rise to him. He turned back to Dorian, where he had settled on his discarded clothes, and eased down next to him to wait for the sun to set.
As the sun finally dipped fully below the horizon, John grudgingly worked his pants leg up far enough for Dorian to work his magic and get John mobile again and relatively pain free.
It was almost seven hours later when they reached the point of the Wall they were looking for.
John was itching to get back over the Wall and away from InSyndicate, C24s, and the memory of exactly what he was. He watched Dorian scale the Wall with ease leaving him alone with the man who was their entire reason for being here.
“I suppose you’re proud of yourself,” Vaughn broke his self-imposed silence. “I would be,” he continued when it was obvious John had no intention of answering. “It’s not everyone who could survive over here, even with someone as special as Dorian.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” John quipped.
“I’m not sure you’d believe half of what I could tell you,” Vaughn’s often patriarchal tone turned condescending.
Smirking derisively, John ducked his head. “You have no idea.” He cast his eyes toward the top of the Wall. “That’ll be our ride.”
Even Paul came up to shake his hand and slap Dorian companionably on the shoulder. “I hate to say it, Kennex, but you two did good work,” he admitted.
“Coming from you, Richard, that doesn’t mean a damn thing,” John answered, though they were both smiling at the insults.
“Play nice, boys,” Valerie chided playfully.
John and Paul shared a look.
“You’d have us locked up if that ever happened.”
“Speak for yourself, Kennex.”
Dorian sidled up beside Valerie and stage whispered, “I think we might need to make that call now.”
Laughing, Valerie shook her head. “I gotta get back to work. You guys were really amazing,” she said, dropping a completely inappropriate kiss on each man’s cheek.
John caught glimpse of Captain Maldonado at the top of the steps to her office.
She smiled at him and tilted her head toward her office.
Nodding in understanding, John turned back to his friends. “Well, kids it’s been fun, but we’re being paged.”
“Already in trouble then, Kennex,” Paul shot out, shaking his head goodnaturedly as he settled back as his desk.
After giving the command to screen and secure her office, Sandra hugged John. “It’s good to have you back.” She stepped back and squeezed Dorian’s hands. “Both of you.”
“It’s good to be back, Sandra,” John agreed.
“I’m so proud of you, I know I had no right to ask you to do this, but you know you’ve saved a lot of lives.” Maldonado gave them a quick nod and a smile, returning to her desk. “Now, I think Rudy’s about to blow a gasket waiting for you.”
“Well, we can’t have that, can we?” John smirked.
“Captain?” Dorian stepped forward.
“Yes, Dorian?” she asked sweetly.
“I just wanted to say thank you. For everything. For giving me a chance.”
“Dorian, I’ve always had faith in you.”
Dorian practically beamed, smile wide, his eyes seeming to shine even brighter than usual.
“Now go. I don’t want to see either of you until Monday.”
As they left, Sandra had to smile at the two men. Putting those two together was one of the best things she’d ever done.
John clomped down the stairs to Rudy’s lab, Dorian behind him. “Hey, Rudy, you miss us?”
The robotics expert breathed a visible sigh of relief. He rushed to meet them at the base of the staircase. “You made it.” Rudy threw himself at the pair, first giving John a bear hug, which was met with an awkward pat on the back, then treating Dorian to the same greeting; unlike John, Dorian returned the hug.
“Good to see you, too, Rudy,” John replied.
“Well, come on. I need to run diagnostics on both of you.”
“Rudy, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not one of your ‘bots,” John remarked. Still he followed the frenetic scientist to his main workstation and took a chair close to the gurney Dorian would be on.
“Take care of John first,” Dorian told Rudy as he hopped up on the gurney, handing John the bag he’d had slung over his shoulder.
Rudy looked at the bag quizzically. “What’s in the bag?”
“We came bearing gifts,” John told him. A single finger innocently trailing from just below his eye to his ear and down, in a lopsided Y.
“Oh!” Rudy exclaimed, understanding John’s signal that this part of Rudy’s lab had eyes and ears. “Okay, well, I’ll just… or it can wait.”
“Rudy,” Dorian said to calm their friend.
“Right.” He took a deep breath and punched a few keys on his console. “Five. Four. Three. Two. One,” he counted down. Rudy smiled in satisfaction as the room powered down. “Routine system review and maintenance,” he explained. “The systems linked to the police interface will be down for the next forty-seven minutes.”
John gave Dorian a questioning look, a final check that he wanted to do this.
Dorian responded with a definitive nod.
With that John carefully opened the bag, revealing its contents.
“Are those?” Rudy asked reverently, kneeling down for a closer look.
“They are,” Dorian affirmed.
“Shouldn’t these be in evidence?” Rudy asked.
“Officially, they don’t exist; they were destroyed when we blew up Vaughn’s lab,” John explained.
Rudy gingerly picked up a small vial containing one of hundreds of Synthetic Souls. The look on his face was one of pure rapture. “Not that I’m complaining, far from it, but why?”
“More than anyone you understand the value of these,” Dorian told him. “We both agreed they’d be safest with you.”
“I-I don’t know what to say.” Rudy set the vial back in its case. He looked between John and Dorian with wide eyes full of amazement. “It’s an honour and I promise you I’ll live up to it.”
“We know you will,” John said honestly as he rezipped the bag and offered it to the tech.
Taking the bag, Rudy stood, saying, “I’ll be right back.”
John and Dorian shared a smile, knowing giving the Souls to Rudy was the right decision.
“You know, I’ve been thinking-”
“A dangerous pastime for you,” Dorian snarked.
“Shut up. I think I know why Sandra partnered us together.”
“Because you’d destroy any MX that came near you.”
“Damn-it, D, I’m trying to be serious here.”
“I’m sorry, John.”
John took a deep breath before continuing. “Neither of us is quite fully human- it’s a hard thing to deal with alone, but there’s not much choice. You know, when Paul called us two cops from the scrapheap he was right about one thing, there are two of us. We’re two of a kind and we don’t have to be perfect. It’s what makes us a good team. You and me, D.”
“John,” Dorian’s voice was full of awe.
John sat back. “If you’re going to say something about my feminine side, I’m gonna take it all back.”
Dorian chuckled. “I wasn’t. I was just going to say thank you.” He gave John a soft smile. “But since you brought it up…”