Josh only remembered a few flashes of reality over the next couple of days. He vaguely recalled lying in the back seat of a car watching white clouds drift across a crystal blue sky through a cracked window. Tires on asphalt and wind blowing past were the only sounds he could remember from those few moments. At another time he woke to the view of a dingy popcorn texture ceiling in a room walled with cheap wood paneling. An ancient hotel painting hung over a lifeless television, and he heard water running in the bathroom.
When he finally completely awakened Josh sat up on a military green cot. He held his head in his hands trying to will away a brutal headache, his mouth like sandpaper. The walls were covered in faded paper and cobwebs and the floor was cold naked concrete. He wore only a pair of shorts and his bare feet rubbed grittily through a thick coat of dust on the floor. There was a decrepit door in one end of the glorified closet complete with a loose doorknob and peeling paint. Swaying as he stood, Josh reached out and steadied himself against the wall.
The next room was every bit as run down and filthy as the first, but with papered over windows keeping the sunlight out. Josh had no idea what time it was, and his body was sore and covered in bruises. The back of his throat was sore, and he had trouble swallowing. Memories of the needle probes flashed through his mind with a shudder. There was a single chair and an end table against the nearest wall. Some clothes were folded on the end table with his pistols laid on top. He quickly dressed and strapped on the two shoulder holsters, feeling much better with the familiar weight of the twin .M1911 .45s hanging from his shoulders. Not sensing any immediate threat, Josh left them both holstered.
He quickly looked over the tiny basement apartment bedroom and moved through the door into what was apparently the living room, complete with ratty sofa and cardboard boxes for end tables. He immediately heard the sound of running water through another door. He cautiously entered and found a sparse bathroom with an occupied tub against the cinder block wall. Water sloshed over the edge and onto the brown tile floor, which was littered with empty ice bags. Josh rushed over and found the female K-Trooper lying nude in an ice bath, her eyes closed and her body trembling. He reached out and turned off the faucet. “What are you doing?”
Lori’s eyes flew open and darted around frantically before settling on Josh’s face. She only vaguely understood what he said through the freezing water and sat up slightly. “Trying… Trying to cool down… Still tactical…”
Josh grimaced as he crouched over her. “Your Handler is down, too, then. You realize cold water isn’t going to help you if you’re stuck in Tactical, right?” She apparently didn’t, but Josh let it be when she sank back down into the water. It might ease her pain a bit, if nothing else. Arriving at a decision, Josh stood up and checked both pistols to make sure they were locked and loaded. “I’ll be back in an hour or two. Try not to let hypothermia set in.”
She shakily nodded in response and closed her piercing blue eyes again. Josh left the apartment and hit the streets, finding that he was near downtown Los Angeles, which was a definite boon. It didn’t take him long to find a dealer, but without any cash on hand he had to negotiate a deal. In this case “negotiation” involved rolling said drug dealer. Fifteen minutes after leaving the apartment he was back with a pocketful baggies and a small wad of worn and grubby cash.
Lori pulled her shivering frame out of the tub and wrapped herself up in a towel. Her muscles were twitching almost uncontrollably, and she had to steady herself against the wall. She’d already had three seizures that she could count, and probably some she couldn’t remember. Opening the door she found Josh sitting at the tiny dining room table with a spoon and a lighter, several packs of brand new syringes arrayed across the table top, and a rubber strap. He glanced up at her and gestured for her to sit across from him.
“Hold out your arm,” Josh said as he drew the dark liquid up into the needle. He reached across and wrapped the strap tightly around her upper arm. “Heroin is not a regular part of K-Trooper training. It’s one of the few drugs they never expose us to. Between this and the various pills I located for you, you should slow down a little bit. Hopefully it’ll buy me some time to get out to Overwatch, work out how to turn your pump off, and get back here. I might even find out what’s going on in the process.”
“Overwatch..?” She didn’t even notice when he slid the needle into her vein and pushed the drug into her system.
“Yes, Overwatch. It’s the only Conspiracy facility I know how to find, so I figure it’s our best bet to work out what’s going on. I also might be able to learn how to gain control over your systems. I saw another K-Trooper do it once, so I know it can be done. You’re Libretta, right? With the knives?” He withdrew the needle and released the strap. Almost immediately her head lolled to the side, and she nodded groggily.
Josh picked her twitching body up in his arms and carried Lori to the couch where he laid her down gently. He gave her a few pills and a glass of water and set a kitchen timer with more pills on the floor next to her. “When this goes off, take these pills too. This should get you through a few hours.” He stayed by the couch until she drifted into some sort of oblivion, holding her hand. Offering comfort didn’t normally come naturally to him, but he owed Libretta his life. He shuddered at the hazy memory of Eito Yoshida’s tortures and his pet cyborg’s icy grip, and brushed a few strands of red hair from her face.
No, Libretta had earned anything he could do for her, and he intended to do right by her.
* * *
Most K-Troopers could not pinpoint on a map any Conspiracy facilities; as an organization they took their paranoia very seriously. They were especially concerned with the possibility of rogue K-Troopers, and had gone so far as to utilize what was called Transport mode to render the K-Trooper completely unconscious before taking them to any base. Fortunately for Libretta, and the Conspiracy, the transport agents slipped up once and revealed the location of an Overwatch station to Josh.
It was entirely unintentional on their part, of course, but they got lazy and sloppy. He was being taken into Overwatch to assist in a mole hunt, and had literally fallen asleep in the van on the way out from Los Angeles. They decided to leave him be, rather than kicking in Transport mode, in a misguided sense of giving him a break from the drugs. He woke up as they were pulling into an ancient and abandoned trailer park out in the middle of nowhere in the deserts east of Los Angeles. He promised the panicking transporters that he would tell nobody of their screw-up, and he hadn’t. He decided it was the sort of knowledge that could come in handy someday.
It turned out that that day was today.
As he pulled into the remains of Shady Acres Mobile Home Paradise Josh half expected either Conspiracy security guards or Arbitrary Factor cyborgs to come storming out of nowhere, but nothing of the sort happened. He climbed out of the stolen car and walked towards the lone work shed near the rear of the property. To the unsuspecting eye there was nothing unusual about the building of dingy white-washed cinder block. To the suspicious mind, though, it was obvious that the building was starkly out of place given the surrounding ramshackle abandoned mobile homes. It was the only thing in the area that was built to last.
Josh walked into the lonely building with one pistol drawn, carefully surveying the area in Alert mode. Every detail leapt out at him and was immediately registered in his brain as relevant or irrelevant in milliseconds. The cracked paint on dried out window sills… irrelevant. The stack of 80’s era skin magazines sitting in the far corner… irrelevant. The brown recluse spider hiding just behind that stack… irrelevant, but noted. The gaping hole torn in the concrete where there used to be an access hatch… very relevant.
He briefly scanned down the hole with his drug-enhanced senses before quietly dropping to the hospital green tile beneath. The faint scent of decaying meat and fecal matter wafted from down the long corridor before him, which came as no surprise. It was readily apparent that Overwatch had been hit by some heavy force in more ways than one; evenly spaced dents of crushed tile lead down the hall, not unlike the footprints of some massive being. Josh hoped that whatever it was, it was either dead or gone. He didn’t hold out much hope for it being gone, though, as the trail only led inwards to the facility, not out. Josh silently pulled his other .45 out of its holster and did a quick ammunition check. Alternating AP and hollow point rounds filled both magazines. His four spares were loaded out in the same way.
As he neared the double doors at the end of the corridor, Josh kicked himself into Tactical mode. He caught something in the air besides rotting flesh and human waste. There was a familiar griminess like sweat and formaldehyde that reminded him of the cyborg. He pushed slowly between the doors and moved stealthily down a short flight of stairs as the short hairs on the back of his neck stood on end in anticipation. It was a subconscious reaction to a very obvious danger.
The obviousness only grew when he came to the foot of the steps and found the door torn from his frame and thrown about twenty feet down a darker green tiles corridor. At the far end he saw the forms of two corpses slumped against the wall. They were in plain black security uniforms and the twisted remains of their shotguns lay scattered around them. Chunks of concrete had been blasted out of the floor, walls, and ceiling from where their slugs had impacted. The fire was poorly aimed, though, and indicated desperation on their part. He couldn’t help but criticize their panicked shooting; if they were fighting what he suspected they were fighting, precision would have been the name of the game, not randomly fired slugs. In his limited experience a cyborg could shrug off massive amounts of damage. Josh’s suspicions were confirmed when he came across a fist sized chunk of formaldehyde soaked flesh on the floor.
The large room where the Overwatch personnel were kept was almost exactly as he remembered it. Banks of people were kept in pods facing outwards towards the blank wall, their heads completely covered with some arcane apparatus. Much of their bodies were covered with the pod shell or twisting cables that fed down into the floor. He was shocked to see the people still locked up in this gruesome machinery, mindless of the carnage that was scattered all around them. They were literally lost in an isolated world of hallucinogenic drugs constantly fed to them, watching for disturbances throughout Phase space. It was a fate Josh wouldn’t have wished on his worst enemy.
The floor was covered with gore and pools of blood, and crumpled bodies were thrown almost casually against the walls and pods. Three pods had been torn out of one row with brutal force and exploded in a shower of plastic, metal, and flesh across the chamber. The attacking cyborg had rampaged through this room, but didn’t stop to take out all of Overwatch. Apparently it had targeted only staff and security; basically anybody moving.
Something moved at the far end of the room. Josh swiftly brought his pistols up and slid to the wall, taking cover behind a pod. He soon realized that he needn’t have bothered when he saw that it was just a survivor of the massacre pushing his broken body across the floor. As he neared the man wearing a bloodied lab-coat, Josh saw that his left arm had been ripped off at the elbow, and was bound tightly using a belt as a tourniquet. That strap of leather was probably all that was keeping the man alive.
Holstering on of his pistols, Josh crouched over the struggling man and helped him to sit up against the wall. “What happened here,” he asked directly, already knowing the answer.
“Tulk… Dr. John Tulk… It went… Cafeteria…” The madness of shock flashed across the face of this man, who looked to be in his late forties. When he looked up at Josh, however, lucidity briefly made an appearance. “It was huge… Like a giant. They shot it, but nothing even slowed it down. What in God’s name..?”
“It was a cyborg. They belong to Arbitrary Factor.” Josh glanced quickly around the charnel house nervously. The smell of formaldehyde was growing, and he suspected the engine that had visited this destruction on Overwatch was drawing near. “What do you know about the pumps?”
The broken doctor looked up at him quizzically. “Pumps? Like… in the K-Troopers?” When Josh nodded, Tulk stammered, “Not much. I did have to reprogram one, once. Are you going to get me out of here?”
Listening outwardly with his highly focused hearing, Josh nodded again. “If I can. I need someone who knows how to turn pump control on and off. Do you know how to do that?”
The man rubbed his jaw with his remaining hand, wiping gore across his chin. “Well, I don’t know that, exactly, but I think I can figure it out. Like I said…”
“… You reprogrammed a pump once. Yeah, I got that. OK, let’s get you out of here.” Josh pulled the tourniquet even tighter and fastened it down, much to the doctor’s agonized grunts. To his credit he managed to keep from screaming in pain. Josh ascertained that the man also had some cracked ribs, which would make his journey that much more painful, but that’s just how it was going to have to be. He had planned to further explore the ruins of the base, but deemed the wounded man to be more immediately valuable. He was pretty sure, too, that if he tried to return here at a later date that he would definitely be killed by either the Conspiracy or Arbitrary Factor. This Doctor Tulk had better be useful as far as Josh was concerned.
“Come on, then.” He pulled Tulk’s good arm across his shoulders and grasped his wrist with one hand, while holding the pistol in front with the other. He half carried and half dragged the man across the bloody floor. They made it across the Overwatch chamber and through the door, leaving the hapless watchers behind, forever entombed in their pods.
As they neared the stairs leading upwards the terrifying sound of metal being twisted and torn erupted with a shrieking noise from the Overwatch room. Josh glanced back over his shoulder and kicked into Tactical mode at the same time. A pod, torn from its wall mounting and still occupied by its inhabitant, flew through the open doorway and slammed into the concrete wall with a sickeningly wet crash.
“Oh shit,” Dr. Tulk muttered through the haze of semi-consciousness.
Josh had to agree with the sentiment. Whatever this thing was, it was obviously more massive than the cyborg in Yoshida’s service. If he weren’t carrying the scientist he would have switched over to Phase mode and gone up through the ceiling to affect an escape. He briefly considered leaving the man behind, but that was not an option for the man’s own sake and Libretta’s. He pushed himself harder to close the distance to the ripped out entrance.
Just as they found themselves beneath the gaping hole in the ceiling another crashing noise burst from down the corridor behind them. Not bothering to look, Josh tossed Tulk up through the hole and spun to face the aggressor. He wasn’t sure what he expected to see, but a massive gorilla charging down the corridor was nowhere in his mind. As it threw itself at him, Josh dove forward beneath the behemoth’s frame and rolled back to his feet, emptying the single pistol into the back of its head.
The monstrous beast turned and slammed its forearm into the wall, sending a large crack through the concrete. Josh noted that it was covered with scars similar to the first cyborg, but this one was clearly designed for heavy assault. He yanked his second pistol out and fired into the thing’s face as he jumped backwards in the desperate hope that he could at least blind it. Gouts of flesh and bone flew off its head with each round, but nothing seemed to slow it down. The stench of formaldehyde was overpowering at this distance. He dodged another fist as it lashed out viciously towards his head, then turned and fled back downwards into the Overwatch chamber. He snatched up a shotgun from one of the dead guards as he passed by; it would probably be less than effective, but it was better than nothing.
The cyborg slid past the door and into the wall in its rush to catch the fleeing K-Trooper. At Tactical speed Josh shot through the chamber and into the next room, the assault cyborg hot on his heels. He was wary of turning on Phase mode while moving, as any distraction during the transition could easily get him killed in this situation. The thing was not only huge, but it was incredibly fast, its artificial nervous system enhancements outperforming the natural nervous system by many factors.
Suddenly something struck Josh at the ankles and sent him sprawling across the tile floor. He slid a good ten feet before hitting a wall with a dull smack. Spinning around as fast as he could he brought the shotgun up and squeezed the trigger.
The gorilla swept the firearm to the side as it discharged, sending a slug into the ceiling. It reached out at a speed far beyond anything Josh could muster and grabbed the barrel, yanking it violently from his hands. He kicked out and landed his boot against its crotch, to no effect. Just to be sure he tried it again three more times.
The gigantic cyborg abruptly froze in place, its unmoving fists upraised and positioned to slam down on his body. Its face twitched, and the fanged mouth slowly and mechanically opened wide.
“Hello, Tiburon. You’re proving to be fairly resilient. Of the K-Troopers we expected to see come back here, you were not on the list.” The voice emitted from the cyborg’s gaping mouth as though from a speaker, and sounded very familiar to Josh.
“Yes. Don’t bother asking how I am alive. It’s a secret I will not be sharing with you, even at this, your last moment.”
Taking advantage of this brief respite, Josh ordered the pump to flood his system with the Phase drugs. He didn’t see how he was going to be able to take this thing out, even with a Phase pulse, so he was going to try to escape. “This is some scary toy you have here. A gorilla?”
“Not just a gorilla. This one was raised specifically for this purpose. Have you ever seen an ape on steroids? You’re looking at one right now. I wanted to mount a heavy gun of some sort on its shoulder, but we ran short of time. It proved to be more difficult to create than I had anticipated, and the beast died of heart failure before I could perform the transformation. I had to make do with a preserved corpse, which is not as effective as a fresh body would have been. Still, I think it worked out in the end. Out of curiosity, why did you come to this place?”
Josh decided to combine lie with truth as he stalled for time. “I wanted to find out what happened. Now I know.”
“I will never understand you K-Troopers. You fight to the death for these people, and for what? What reward do they offer you?” The gorilla leaned closer to Josh, its fanged mouth hanging open wide, drool pouring from its lower lip. “Do you even remember why you joined the Ketamine Conspiracy? Do you even remember who you are?”
This last struck a nerve with Josh. It was something he had always wondered about. He was told that a common side-effect of the installation of the pump system was a loss of memory, and he lost quite a bit. He knew he was in the Marines, for instance, but could bring to mind no specific memories of his time in The Corps. He had no real memories from his childhood, and wasn’t even sure when his birthday was. No K-Trooper seemed to remember why they volunteered to become K-Troopers, and the rumor was that that part of their memory was deliberately removed in the process. Josh tended to believe that particular one.
When he didn’t respond, Yoshida continued. “No, of course you don’t. None of you do. You’re a slave without even the benefit of knowing what the point of your enslavement even is. Pathetic.” With this last statement the beast resumed movement, raising its fists for a killing blow.
As the gorilla cyborg’s fists hammered downwards, Josh slid to the side and through the cement wall. He heard the meaty sound of the impact, but didn’t wait around to find out what happened next. Passing through wall after wall, Josh fled as fast as he could. Each obstacle his body phased through became more and more solid to him as the Phase drugs were already beginning to wear off a little bit. He considered pushing another dose into his system, but decided against it as he skidded into the Overwatch chamber. He heard the beast tearing after him, but it had to pass around corners and through turns, which bought Josh enough time to get down the corridor and up through the exit.
Tulk had managed to drag himself to the side of the car, and Josh hurriedly picked him up and shoved him unceremoniously into the backseat. He then climbed into the driver’s seat and threw gravel into the air as he gunned the gas. As they flew out onto the hardtop through the trailer park entrance, Josh reloaded his pistols and tried to focus. When he went back into Alert mode a prickling sensation tickled the back of his neck. He glanced in the rear view mirror and gasped.
“Son of a…” Behind them on the empty road he saw the dark form of the gorilla chasing after them, its massive knuckles hammering into the asphalt in its awkwardly fast gait. He pushed the gas pedal to the floor, but the beast somehow managed to keep pace. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he muttered almost angrily. Then he had an idea. “Tulk!”
The scientist groggily sat up, his hand cradling the stump of his arm. “Yeah?”
“I need you to pull the back of the seat down. There’s something in the trunk I need you to get for me.”
After a few seconds of struggling with one hand, the lab-coated man finally wrestled the back down and fumbled around in the dark. When he pulled out the only thing back there, he looked up at Josh with worry in his eyes. “This? Are you serious?”
“Yes,” Josh confirmed, bringing the car to a stop as he pulled the object into the front seat. “You stay back there and keep your head down. He might not know you’re there.”
When the K-Trooper stepped out of the car, the gorilla was trailing them at about fifty yards. It showed no signs of slowing down as it barreled towards Josh like a freight train. He simply stood there, readying himself for what was to come. His muscles began to twitch as he reactivated Tactical mode, and he crouched tightly in the middle of the road. Unstopping, the cyborg threw itself into the air and flew at the still K-Trooper with all of its horrific mass.
When it was close enough Josh rolled to the side and brought the razor sharp edge of one of Libretta’s long knives down on the monster’s forearm. He hoped to sever it, and came close, leaving the arm dangling by a strand of muscle and skin, worthless and ineffectual. The glistening blade sent a spray of rancid blood across the car. It was really more of a machete or short sword than a knife, and curved wickedly to a vicious point.
The gorilla hit the pavement and rolled a couple of times before it righted itself. It glanced down at the ruined arm, then back up at the defiant man. In its own act of defiance the gorilla ripped the remains of the arm off and threw it to the side of the road.
Josh simply coiled himself for the next onslaught. He didn’t have to wait long, and the cyborg charged at him again at a markedly slower pace. Not waiting for it to close in on him, he dove forward and slashed through a trunk-like ankle with all the force he could muster. He almost lost the knife with the blow as bone shattered and the hulking form went sprawling.
Quickly regaining his feet, Josh leaped on the struggling cyborg’s massive back and started hacking down into its shoulders and neck. It managed to throw him off, however, and he fell violently against the car. He barely avoided its snapping jaws as the broken thing tried to tear into him with huge fangs. In a moment of pure desperation Josh slashed out with the blade and landed an extremely lucky blow. The head separated from the ape’s body and landed wetly at his feet. Without signals from the computer brain, the cyborg’s body thrashed backwards and convulsed hideously on the blacktop in the darkness. Josh almost gagged at the wave of formaldehyde that washed over him from the flailing corpse.
Exhausted and leaving Tactical mode, Josh dropped the knife to the ground with a loud clang. He sank to the hardtop and exhaled deeply, a headache beginning to set in.
“You are surprisingly tenacious, Tiburon.” Yoshida’s voice rang out hollowly through the night air from the decapitated head’s open mouth. “Ironic that you have no idea what you are fighting for.”
“Oh, I think I have an idea,” Josh replied. “Right now I am not fighting for the Conspiracy. I’m not fighting for truth, justice, or any other ideal. I am fighting because I simply want to be there when you finally die. I only hope that I get to be the one to kill you, you son of a bitch.” With that he unloaded both pistols into the gorilla’s severed head, stopping the disconcerting voice once and for all.
It was going to be a long drive back to Los Angeles.