Recovery. There was nothing quite like it in the Conspiracy. It was inevitable that it would come to be called “rehab” in lieu of Recovery among the ranks. After a K-Trooper undergoes the chemical transformations while on a mission, they always went into at least a week of Recovery. This usually involved bed rest, psychological monitoring and evaluation, and a lot of downtime. For his money Josh found the bed rest to be the most therapeutic, while the one on one therapy sessions he could have done without. That isn’t to say that he thought they were pointless, but he found them aggravating.
“Would you say that you are beginning to view Overwatch as a sort of disinterested parent, perhaps?” the psychiatrist asked, scribbling another line of notes in his notebook.
Staring dumbly at the shrink, Josh sighed. Sometimes this was the worst part about rehab, at least to him. The shrinks always seemed to want to reduce everything to the parent-child relationship. It didn’t matter if they were discussing killing, the possibility of addiction to the drug euphoria, or the nature of Phase, they always phrased it in the terms of what sounded like magazine pop-psychology. “I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, really, Overwatch only does the one thing, right? Watch for Phase activity. Other than that, they aren’t really a player in my world. They just tell me when I need to switch on the Phase enhancements.”
Overwatch was a strange institution. Josh had only seen their operation once, and would be happy if he never saw it again. In essence, Overwatch consisted of banks of humans connected into bizarre, almost alien, machines. Metal tubes led into every orifice in their bodies, and they were encased in a gel-filled sensory deprivation chamber called a Tomb. The intimacy of the machines in all of this was not what bothered him so much as it was something an aide told him. She quietly informed Josh that the Overwatch personnel no longer slept. They were kept wide awake 24/7 with a combination of drugs similar to the Phase enhancements, plus a few that were unique to Overwatch usage. They were able to sense and pinpoint areas of abnormal Phase activity, especially where it bled over into the real world.
Given his own aversion to hallucinogens, Josh could only imagine the madness that the typical Overwatch staff must be reduced to.
The psychiatrist shifted in his chair. “Yes, and you hate the Phase enhancements,” he replied. He wrote a few more notes, and said, “Maybe the connection is something you should think about. At any rate, I believe our time is up for this session.” He stood and crossed over to his desk, clicking his pen as he walked.
“I guess I’ll be back in here same time tomorrow, right?” Josh asked. This was his third such session in the past week, and it was only Wednesday.
“Yes, of course,” the psychiatrist muttered as he read over some notes. Disinterested parent, indeed.
Josh made his way through the underground facility to his assigned room. The location of this base/hospital, as every other facility run by the Conspiracy, was supremely hidden, and not even Josh knew where it was. He would also be surprised to know that the psychiatrist he had just spoken with also had no idea as to their current location. Personnel were transported here in the back of a glorified RV with blacked out windows and sound-dampening insulation. Josh had spent up to three days in that rolling hotel room completely isolated from the drivers and the outside world. It was safe to say that the only facilities he knew the locations of were safe houses, and those were a temporary affair at best.
One thing most K-Troopers found odd about the Recovery facility was the fact that they always shared a room with another agent. Josh assumed it was some sort of buddy program, in place to prevent the recovering soldiers from falling into a pattern of self-isolation. He saw the sense in it, even as he was surrounded by a largely empty hospital. Staffing was kept at a minimum, even for the Ketamine Conspiracy, and it was possible to walk from one end of the base to the other without seeing a single person.
“Hey, man,” Josh’s roommate said from his bed. He held a video game controller in his hands, and stared intently at the TV as he blasted aliens out of existence. Maybe they were zombies; Josh didn’t keep up with the latest video games, or even the old ones, which made him an anomaly in the Recovery program. These games were shown to have some value, and his lack of interest in them was generally questioned while he was here.
“Hey,” Josh replied, grabbing a book off his desk. He was struggling with Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols,” and was failing to see the point of reading it in the first place. The shrink assigned the book to him, though, so he dutifully slogged his way through the dense text. When he wasn’t doing that, he watched his roommate twitch from over the top of his book.
The other man in the room was a fellow K-Trooper, also fresh off a mission. Josh had never met him before this Recovery cycle, and when he asked the man’s name, Josh was given his codename. In this case, that was Speedball, which was hardly a reassuring name. As he watched, Josh noticed the same facial tic repeat itself every 15 or so seconds, and Speedball’s hands were shaky when he wasn’t holding the controller. Every time Josh met other K-Troopers, he was reminded of how much he liked the fact that he always worked alone. His own background was military, being a Marine, but early on in his life as an agent he realized that the Conspiracy drew recruits from all walks of life. He suspected that Speedball was probably pulled from a prison, given the man’s mannerisms and attitude. The prison gang tattoos were also a clue.
“Hey, man,” Speedball said again as he played. “I heard you went Phase on your last job. How’d you like it?”
Josh thought about the question for a moment, and answered with, “Same as always. I hated it.”
Pausing his game, Speedball stared at Josh, and then grinned. “Right, man, I get it. We’re not supposed to dig on the chems. But can I tell you a secret?” He made a show of glancing around for eavesdroppers, and said, “I really like kicking them on. To me there ain’t nothing like the rush of going Tactical, and no trip like going Phase.” He smiled, his face twitching as the tic cycled through, and returned to his game. “I can’t wait to go back out on mission. Love it… I love it.”
Josh stared at the twitchy K-Trooper for another moment, put his earphones on, and read as he listened to The Mars Volta. It was a music that in this time and place made the most sense to him.
* * * * *
Later that night, hours after falling asleep, Josh woke up with a violent tremor. The earphones had fallen off his head, and he could hear Jim Morrison singing in a tinny voice from them. The room was dark, and he rolled over in his bed to get more comfortable. He immediately played dead when he saw Speedball hunched over his desk doing something by the light of a computer monitor.
Josh watched in silence as the other K-Trooper took a deep breath, held it, and then exhaled a few moments later. A cloud of thin smoke appeared around his head, and Josh caught the faint whiff of ammonia in the air. Speedball’s body convulsed in one spasm then settled into random muscle twitching as he sat in his chair, his head thrown back.
Josh slowly and quietly got out of bed. He immediately knew the familiar smell of poorly manufactured meth, and the sight of a K-Trooper amping up right there in front of him was disconcerting. “Speedball,” he said quietly, getting the man’s attention. “What are you doing?”
His moves erratic and fast, Speedball turned towards Josh and grinned madly. “Oh, hey, Tiburon! I’m just feeding the monkey, man, just feeding the monkey.” He held out a small smoking pipe and asked, “Want some?”
“No thanks,” Josh answered coolly. He knew that any negative vibes he put out would be picked up by the drugged man in front of him, amplified in the stoned mind, and manifested in potentially bad ways. “No, I’m just going to make a head call.”
Speedball stared at him for a minute, picking up on Josh’s nervousness, and nodded. “Right, man, right… the bathroom.” He got up and jumped on his bed, turning the video game back on. As Josh was about to leave through the door, Speedball said loudly, “You know, Tiburon, I figured out how to trick the implants.”
Josh stopped in his tracks. There had always been talk amongst the K-Troopers about turning on their own drug dispensing systems when Control had them turned off, but to his knowledge nobody had ever actually done it. He never even heard of anyone trying it. Right now, in fact, his was switched off, as was Speedball’s, and theoretically could only be turned on remotely by a Handler. “Oh yeah?” he asked with false nonchalance. “How did you do that?”
The high man on the bed turned to face Josh, held his finger up to his lips, and said, “Shhhh. It’s a secret.” He went back to his game, ignoring Josh altogether in his rushing brain.
Josh left the room and walked four doors down to another Recovery room. He poked his head inside, and upon finding both beds empty went in, shoving a chair up under the door handle. There were no locks on any of the Recovery quarters rooms, so he had to make do with the chair and a shim shoved beneath the door.
He didn’t want to be around when a security team arrived to take Speedball away for a more intense round of Recovery.
* * * * *
The room shook violently with the sound of an explosion. Josh leapt out of bed and found himself crouching down behind a chair before he was even awake. There was shouting outside in the hall, and the stench of burning plastic. Somewhere in the underground base a digital alarm was going off, beeping insistently that something was going horribly wrong.
The heavy sound of boots rushed by his door and down the hall, presumably towards his assigned quarters. Speedball must have gone sideways at some point, and the Security Team’s attempt to collect him had gone awry. Life for such a team could be dangerous, as they were not wired up like the K-Troopers were. The process of training someone to handle even the most basic enhancements was selective enough that the number of K-Troopers in existence was always relatively low. If he had to guess, Josh would have said a few hundred at most. The guards were skilled, but they were all natural in their performance. They only knew vaguely about things like Phase, and most had probably never seen a K-Trooper in full Tactical mode in action.
There were some screams from down the hall, which died away to a broken and quiet sobbing. It was rare that Josh wanted to utilize his own chemical enhancements, but this was definitely one of those infrequent times. He moved to the door, worked the shim out of the frame, and peeked out into the hallway.
The fluorescent lights were all flickering insanely, lending a frantic air of unpredictability to the situation. Josh listened to the dying whimpers of a couple of the Security men, and his nose burned with the stench of burnt plastic. It was a hard decision to make, but knowing he had to get out of there before Speedball came after him, Josh stuck his head further out into the hall and looked down toward his assigned room.
The shattered remains of at least eight Security men lay around the doorway, some of which twitched from the random signals shooting through their overloaded nervous systems. They wore armor that was great for absorbing powerful blows, bullets, and knives, but proved to be worthless against the overwhelming violence of K-Trooper on a meth bender.
Standing naked in a strangely hunched posture, Speedball stepped over the remains of one of the dead soldiers and walked with an odd gait down the hall. His form seemed to be physically unstable as twitches and spasms morphed into brief extensions of his Phase self, and Josh could detect the faint hints of Phase shifting as Speedball’s body seemed to flicker a few inches to the right and then the left at random intervals. Knowing that he would be no match for the man while in his current state, Josh slipped as stealthily as he could across the hall and around a corner. His plan was to get to the nearest Security station, and determine then what his next move would be.
As he padded through the maze of subterranean hallways, Josh saw that the damage to the Recovery facility was pretty extensive, with entire sections thrown into complete darkness from blown out lights. He found that many of the security cameras were dead, as most other electronic devices, and quickly recognized the results of a Phase Pulse.
Phase Pulse was something that was spoken of in hushed tones within the Conspiracy, and usually only done once in a K-Trooper’s career; during training. It was a massive release of energy throughout Phase that was the equivalent of dropping a daisy cutter on the local area. On the Phase side Josh imagined there was complete destruction, but had no way of knowing. With his implants offline he was unable to release the cocktail of hallucinogens that would open his eyes.
The effects of a Pulse were not just felt in Phase. They also bled over into the real world, manifesting in the destruction of unprotected electronics and even damaging the structural integrity of the most solid buildings. There were tiles torn from the floor scattered around the empty halls, and a large crack running along one wall for at least 3 meters. The power deployed by a Phase Pulse was enormous, and the idea of Speedball running around firing off Phase Pulses at will was unnerving.
The Security station was empty. The heavy door, similar to what you would find in a prison, was bent and hanging from a single hinge. Josh could smell the ozone of fried circuitry as he entered the Plexiglas walled room. Where he had hoped to find some sort of armament, Josh only found a couple of chairs and some dead computers and monitors. He still had yet to see any sign of another human being.
“…urity Team, what … status, over…”
Josh shoved a chair out of the way and snatched up a comm unit. “This is K-Trooper Tiburon,” he said with the professional calm cultivated by his breed. “What’s the situation?”
He was greeted with a moment of silence, and then, “The Marine, right?” It was a woman’s voice, and sounded like she was on the edge of panic. “Tiburon, this is Theresa Marsh, Assistant Facilities Manager. What’s going on down there?”
Great, Josh thought. There’s a deranged K-Trooper running around blowing things up and killing people and the person in charge is from housekeeping. “You need to get a Handler to put me online,” he said abruptly. “We have a K-Trooper down here who’s freaked out on meth and running at full power. He’s tactical, Phase enhanced, and highly unpredictable. He was able to trick his implants on. He took out the entire Security team, as far as I can tell, and has already fired off at least one Phase Pulse.”
Again the communicator fell silent as Theresa Marsh, Assistant Facilities Manager, processed what she had just been told. K-Troopers had gone rogue in the past, but not full on berserk. Not officially, anyway. Finally, she said, “OK, we’re working on getting a Handler for you. In the meantime, where are you?”
“I’m at a security station,” Josh replied into the microphone. “I don’t know where Speedball is.” The last time he’d seen the rampaging menace, he’d been heading towards the cafeteria.
“Well, stay where you are,” Theresa said. “At least until a Handler links up. They contacted the On-Call, so it should only be a few minutes.”
A few minutes were more than long enough to die, but Josh refrained from pointing that fact out. He imagined Theresa was feeling the pressure enough as it was, and would only become more frazzled if he pushed her. “Will do,” he replied as he peered down the flickering hall. He missed his two M1911 .45s at that moment.
“Warriors!” a strangely sing-song voice called from the darkness down the hallway. “Warriors!” the voice taunted again. Josh recognized it as a line from an old 1970s era movie, and a chill shot down his spine. He had a lot of experience in keeping tight control over his own fear, but it never got any easier. He crouched down behind the desk and stared into the erratic darkness.
Speedball’s reality warped figure stepped around a corner and clearly into sight. He was still nude, and his body was transforming itself in disconcerting ways. The muscles seemed to move of their own accord beneath his writhing skin, and moving bones shifted his frame in a nauseating way. Every few steps he seemed to fast forward as he passed in and out of Phase.
“I can see you!” he sang out, his fingers elongating briefly until they touched the floor, and then retracting to their normal length. “Who were you just talking to, Tibby?”
Josh stood up, knowing he’d been spotted, and said, “Nobody in particular, Speedball.” He switched off the comm device and dropped it in the trash. “What’re you up to?” He knew that appealing to the logical side of the drug-enraged mind was a waste of time, so he opted for calming conversation instead.
“Oh, not much,” Speedball replied. “Just playing my game, man. Killin’ aliens, saving the world.” He stepped towards the security station, then dropped to a knee and vomited. That happened to even the most experienced K-Troopers when the mix of chemicals got to them, and Josh could only imagine what Speedball must be feeling. Nevertheless, he took advantage of the opportunity to flee while the rabid agent was down, and sprinted down the hall as fast as he could. It felt painfully slow.
He wound his way into a part of the facility he was unfamiliar with, running from empty hall to room, and even through what appeared to be maintenance ducts. He didn’t hear any sign of pursuit, but knew better than to trust his un-augmented senses. He finally took refuge in a small chamber that was really nothing more than a large closet, and crouched into a relaxed fighting stance. He knew he would be no match, but intended to go out swinging.
He was in no way prepared, then, when an unseen force slammed into his back, sending Josh sprawling across the floor and knocking the air out of him. This was followed up with a vicious assault of kicks and punches that left him bleeding on the floor when they finally subsided. Out of the corner of his eye Josh saw Speedball sitting on a desk, his gaze mocking and insane.
“So what’s your real name, Tibby?” Speedball asked. “I know your folks didn’t name you after a shark, so what do they call you?” When Josh didn’t answer, he said, “It doesn’t matter, dude. The angels won’t mind. You just lay there and bleed for a while.” He began humming madly to himself as he closed his eyes. Speedball was pouring another drug into his system, and was pausing to enjoy the sensation.
“Tiburon, are you still alive?” a voice asked calmly through Josh’s implanted comm system.
“Still alive,” he subvocalized in response as he lay on the floor in a pool of his own blood. “A couple of cracked ribs, some internal bleeding, I think, but I can perform.”
“Good,” the immediate response said. “Then let’s get you amped up.” The rush of chemicals into his system almost overwhelming him, Josh felt the painkillers kick in first. After that came the stability chems, which countered such side effects as nausea and dizziness, and finally the methamphetamine and cocaine flooded in. He visibly shuddered at the sudden change, and stood up to face the ecstatic Speedball.
“I need to go into Phase enhancement,” Josh said, his voice even and controlled. “I will also need to know where a weapons locker is.”
“There are no weapons in the Recovery Facility,” the Handler said as she unlocked the Phase enhancements. “Not in your section, at any rate.”
“No weapons but us,” Josh muttered as the ketamine compounds hit his nervous system. Everything pulsed briefly, and the walls melted into a ruined version of their real world counterparts. The results of the Pulse were evident in the Phase version of reality, with the lights being completely down and bolts of what looked like some sort of electricity flashing through the air.
Speedball noticed the change that came over Josh. The insane K-Trooper was coming down off of the initial rush of whatever drugs he had just pushed into his own system, and grinned crazily. “Oh, you’re gonna fight back, are you?” he said. “OK, man, you got it! Goddamned aliens…” He lunged forward at an inhuman speed, and lashed out with a brutal kick towards Josh’s groin.
Spinning out of the way with enhanced ease, Josh realized that his self-control gave him a very real edge in this fight, even if the spikes of pain from his cracked ribs stabbed through the haze of the painkillers. He continued his spin and laid the back of his fist across Speedball’s face, followed up with a gut punch from his left fist. His opponent was knocked backwards, kicked the floor with his feet, and back-flipped through the wall as though it were liquid. The matter of his own body flowed safely though the concrete in the disconcerting way that made Josh queasy at the thought; passing through solid matter while caught between Phase and reality made him feel somehow unclean.
Sensing Speedball’s position in the next room, Josh jumped through the wall head first, executing an aggressive combination of punches, chops, and kicks on his disoriented opponent. He managed to grab onto a piece of rebar from the wall while phasing through, and he swung it with a precise brutality. Tricks like that were something only a very few K-Troopers could pull off without killing themselves in the process. Blood sprayed across his chest as he whacked at the other K-Trooper, and he finished off this round of attack by kicking the downed man repeatedly in the stomach and ribs. When Speedball stopped moving, Josh stepped back.
“Target is down,” he reported to the Handler. “He appears unconscious. I am standing down.”
“Negative,” the Handler said. “Overwatch is seeing an energy buildup on your location. It has a Phase Pulse signature.”
At this distance if Josh were caught in a Phase Pulse, even a weak one, he would be killed. His Phase form would be eradicated, and his physical body would crack and tear under the onslaught. “I’ll handle it,” Josh said as he stepped towards the crumpled body on the floor, the rebar clenched tightly in his fist. With a swift and vicious motion, Josh cracked open Speedball’s skull on the first blow and crushed it completely with his second. There was no need for a third blow.
“Tiburon, Overwatch indicates dissipation of Phase energy,” the Handler said. “Good job.”
Collapsing to the ground, Josh felt the effects of the counter-chems wicking away his unnatural speed and strength. He vomited on the corpse of his fellow K-Trooper, and felt himself fading into unconsciousness.
As he drifted off, two things occurred to Josh. The first was why K-Troopers were always paired up for rehab. It was the only real security measure the Conspiracy had for containing one of them going off the rails.
The last thought Josh had as he faded was that therapy was about to take a turn for the ugly.