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*** ‘Are we ready to commence with the operation?’ General Anderson asked with a slight bounce on his heels as he wrung his hands together with impatient expectancy. ‘Almost,’ Peterson nodded. ‘The final calibrations are being made now.’ ‘Well, waste no time,’ General Anderson said gruffly as he stared into the white-panelled room. ‘I want everything to go off without a hitch.’ ‘Oh, don’t worry sir,’ Jacobson replied, briskly rushing past him with a tray full of test tubes. ‘We refined the programming to your exact specification this morning. Nothing can possibly go wrong.’ ‘Oh, thanks Isabelle,’ Stevenson grumbled from his desk across the other side of the laboratory. ‘Now you’ve done it.’ ‘What did I say?’ Jacobson frowned as she placed the tray into the compressor. ‘Nothing can possibly go wrong?!’ Peterson exclaimed. ‘What were you thinking? Even I want to do something to make sure it doesn’t after hearing you say that!’ ‘Enough!’ General Anderson said icily. ‘I have a meeting to attend with Admiral Rathbone to finalize everything. When I return, I expect everything to be operational. Is that understood?’ ‘Perfectly Sir,’ Peterson nodded as he took a selection of syringes out of a far cabinet. ‘Don’t worry about a thing, I’ve got it covered.’ ‘Puh,’ Jacobson scoffed. ‘Now who’s tempting fate?’ *** ‘DON’T THINK YOU’RE GOING ANYHWERE BEFORE YOU’VE FINISHED CLEANING OUT THE-!’ Whatever else was yelled from the voice inside Beakedbard’s caravan; neither he nor his new acquaintance heard it as he slammed the door firmly behind him and sauntered off towards the fire in the middle of the encampment. The muffled yells could still be quite clearly heard, but their full content was a mystery to them all. Beakedbard seemed well versed in ignoring it. ‘So,’ he said as he blew out a cloud of marijuana smoke. ‘Tell me more about this … err … thing.’ ‘I just told you everything there is to know,’ Vash replied with a frown as the two of them strolled through the squalid mass of caravans by the river side. ‘Yeah, you probably did,’ Beakedbard nodded. ‘But, I forgot already.’ Vash regarded Beakedbard with a quizzical expression, wondering if he was joking or not. ‘You’re kidding,’ Vash said with a half smile. ‘No,’ Beakedbard replied as he stroked Bill the cat who had come over to investigate the newcomer. ‘I really wasn’t listening all that much in the first place. I’m not in a … listening mood … I’m kinda high.’ ‘So it would appear,’ Vash sighed, massaging his temples. ‘But to be honest,’ Beakedbard shrugged. ‘I think I’m up for it, as long as it’s not too much effort. I guess its less effort than sticking around here with the Hippos.’ ‘Yes,’ Vash nodded, looking around warily, wondering which one of the numerous travelling folk would mug him first. ‘But, from what I’ve heard you don’t actually do anything here.’ ‘You mean I’d actually have to do something at this all-seeing place?’ Beakedbard grumbled. ‘Just a little,’ Vash nodded. ‘Otherwise they wouldn’t need your help.’ ‘Urgh,’ Beakedbard groaned, tossing his mass of hair. ‘Fail.’ The Hippos were not a well known breed of travellers. Upon sight, most regarded them as regular gypsies or a bunch of rag-tag hippies, both of which was essentially
correct, but not the entirety of their nature. The Hippy Gypsies were essentially harmless as long as they could fill their days puffing away on spliffs or bongs. It was when their supplies dwindled that valuable items began to go missing from nearby towns and the well-to-do people found themselves being held up at knife point. Vash gave the campsite a contemptuous look; he wasn’t used to standing in the middle of a muddy field, surrounded by the smell of bong water and horse manure. He was a PR Agent, freshly hired by a diminutive, green cherub messenger. The prospect of helping to run something like ALLUC was an opportunity that was too good to miss. Though there was never anything in the contract about hiking into the middle of nowhere to find somebody that was rumoured to be one of the greatest Link Hunters in existence … but only while stoned. To find him in such a place beggared belief. ‘Well, then’ Vash said as Beakedbard seated himself by the campfire amidst a hoard of other Hippos. ‘Are you coming with me or not?’ ‘ … Errr …’ Beakedbard mulled as he graciously accepted a bong from one of his fellow Hippos. ‘… Yeah … I suppose so … once I’ve finished this.’ Vash tutted and folded his arms impatiently. ‘Well hurry it up will you? I’ve got other things to do today.’ ‘Wow,’ one of the other Hippos commented, shooting Vash an incredulous glare. ‘You need to … y’know … do … stuff.’ ‘Yeah,’ another nodded as though understanding completely. ‘You’re, kinda … so … y’know …’ The other Hippos nodded in some form of agreement. ‘Alex, you’re like … y’know … gonna, like … dude … y’know … with … like … stuff … and, like … fail … utter fail …’ Beakedbard nodded sagely. ‘Yeah,’ he replied. ‘But … y’know … meh.’ Again, the circle of Hippos nodded in complete agreement. ‘Madness,’ Vash muttered to himself through gritted teeth. ‘Hey,’ one of the Hippos spoke up again dozily. ‘Y’know, like … stuff … that like … with … crap and junk?’ ‘Mhmmm,’ a large majority of the Hippos replied. ‘Well, like … … … yeah,’ the first Hippo said, raising his hands. ‘Totally,’ the Hippos replied in unison just before part of the field close to their campsite exploded in a giant fireball. *** Peterson carried the tray containing the muscle stimulant through the large metal door that separated the laboratory from the holding pens. He marched past the test subjects, most of which were either too tired to move or far too scared to react to him. He ignored them completely and went through the second heavily armoured door into the Dangerous Subjects area. Here, there was no such fear or weariness. Here, the test subjects glared at him through the tiny pieces of metre-thick bullet-proof glass in the giant steel doors keeping them confined. Again, he ignored them and continued on to the room at the very end of the complex. This was the room he was most interested in. This was the project that was keeping the Epsilon Operation running. In fact, when compared to the rag-tag assortment of utter failure behind him, there really was nothing that could compare with what they had created in this room. He swiped his key-card, placed his eye into the optical reader, gave his voice-print analysis, allowed the machine to take his finger print and inputted the twelve-digit code in order to gain access to the octagonal chamber. The door slid open with a whoosh and as he took a step forward, a fist connected with Peterson’s face sending him crashing beck into the Dangerous Subject door. He had barely been able to register the impact when a hand closed around his throat while another bent his own arm backwards at the most painful angle he could ever imagine. Peterson sucked in what little air he could and opened his eyes to see what he had been most fearful of seeing. Any of the Dangerous Subjects could have killed him, in fact, a lot of the regular ones could, even some of the rejects. But none of them could be quite
so dangerous as the one that currently glared at him. It seemed that L96A1 had become immune to the heavy-dosage tranquilizers. ‘WHAT HAVE YEA DONE TAE ME?!’ L96A1 shouted angrily, tightening his grip even more. ‘WHO AM I?’ he thundered, twisting Peterson’s arm even further. Peterson couldn’t reply, his larynx was being crushed, moments later, after some choking, wheezing and gasping, he blacked out. L96A1 allowed the scientist to fall to the metal floor as he glared around his surroundings, looking as though he was viewing the world for the first time. He brushed his fringe from his eyes as he registered the faintest of noises echoing from one of the four heavily armoured chambers around him. He peered into the tiny square of glass in the centre of the door to see the occupant of the secure suite banging on the door with all his might. L96A1 cocked his head at the boy inside before grasping the handle and tearing the door from its hinges. The occupant, who had still been putting all of his efforts into escaping tumbled out of the chamber at the sudden disappearance of the door and fell with a clatter to the gridiron floor. He scrambled quickly to his feet before attacking the huge metal door that led back towards the lab. ‘OPEN IT!’ He shouted at L96A1. ‘OPEN IT! GET US OUT OF HERE!’ ‘Where are we?’ L96A1 questioned as he peered into the glass of the second chamber. ‘How the hell should I know?’ His newly released acquaintance frowned, pounding on the door. ‘Just get us out of here before they find out what’s happened! I’m NOT going back in there! OPEN THE DOOR!’ He shouted, tugging on the handle with no effect. He was panicking now as he stood away from the door, clasped and unclasped his hands before firing a jolt of electricity at the security panel on the door. There seemed to be little effect other than giving himself a nasty electrical shock. ‘OW!’ He cried, nursing his hands. L96A1 ignored him and tore off another of the high-security doors. The chamber of this room was lined with some kind of mesh intermixed with reflective wiring, though the occupant was sitting quite still, crosslegged in the centre, eyes closed tightly. He didn’t seem to register that the door had been opened, simply paying no heed to the outside world. ‘YOU’RE WASTING TIME!’ The first escapee exclaimed angrily after shocking himself again. ‘THEY’LL BE SENDING SOMEBODY TO CHECK ON HIM!’ He kicked the unconscious Peterson with his bare foot, wincing in pain as he caught the buckle of the scientist’s belt. He suddenly ran over, pressed his hands firmly against L96A1’s arm and shook his body fiercely as he detached himself. ‘What are you doing now?’ L96A1 asked, forced to take an interest. ‘Helping myself since you don’t seem to want to,’ the boy replied, gripping the door handle this time and pulling with all his might. The handle came off in his hands. ‘GREAT!’ He shouted and kicked the door, and then remembered he had no shoes on and cursed in pain again. L96A1 shook his head at the curious behaviour and wrenched the door from the last cell. The detainee inside was completely encased in metal restraints; it was well over another minute before L96A1 was helping a boy around the same age as the first stumble out of the chamber. ‘Thanks,’ he muttered, flicking his long hair from his eyes and glaring at the door. ‘We don’t have long, they’re coming.’ ‘I THINK THAT’S WHAT I’VE BEEN SAYING!’ The first boy shouted, stamping at the door and wincing again. ‘C’MON STRONG MAN! GET THE DOOR OPEN!’ ‘That won’t do any good,’ the man from the second chamber said quietly, suddenly emerging from his prison and joining them at the door. ‘By now they’ll know something’s wrong. The complex is probably surrounded already.’ ‘I TOLD YOU TO HURRY!’ The first prisoner shouted. ‘FUCK!’ He added, giving the security panel yet another bolt of electricity, this time though, he barely managed more than a few sparks. ‘He’s almost out of power,’ the second subject said evenly. ‘It seems his experiment didn’t succeed.’ ‘GOOD!’ The first prisoner shouted. ‘I HATE THIS! I want it to go away!’
‘You seem to know a lot about what’s going on,’ L96A1 glared, rounding on the second subject. ‘What’s going on? Where are we? … Who are we?’ ‘I think it best that we make our escape first, don’t you?’ he replied. ‘Beyond this door is another just like it, and then there is a labyrinth of laboratories that’s now probably filled with guards. No doubt the military will have been called in.’ ‘So what do you suggest then?’ the first detainee asked, calming down slightly but not losing the edge of concern in his trembling voice. ‘Well, if I remember correctly, you’re Project Sponge, yes?’ number two asked quizzically at the first. ‘So?’ ‘Well, that’s the manipulation of atmospheric ions and spontaneous DNA modification. You suck up the conferred abilities of people around you, from all the other DNA modification projects, yes?’ ‘SO?’ The first prisoner shouted again. ‘Well, did you ever come into contact with X35?’ Number two continued pointing at the empty chamber. ‘He was designed to phase through solid matter, walk through walls. That’s our best way out at the minute.’ ‘I never met him, no,’ number one growled. ‘Even if I had, the power’s fading, all of them, I could barely use the electricity before, now that’s gone too.’ ‘That’s what you were doing,’ L96A1 nodded. ‘You were trying tae absorb ma strength before when you pulled the handle off.’ ‘Fat lot of good it did,’ number one replied sulkily. ‘Too bad,’ the second prisoner commented. ‘The number of abilities they gave you L96A1, he’d have been invaluable with your abilities on top of all the other ones they’ve exposed him to.’ ‘How do you know this much?’ L96A1 asked the second escapee incredulously. ‘Tell us that much at least. A don’t know if a can trust somebody who won’t level with me even a tiny bit.’ The second prisoner stared back harshly. ‘I’ve had nothing to read for nearly eight months now,’ he said calmly. ‘Nothing but the charts stuck on the sides of your cells … I’ve been ferried too and fro from complex to complex so I know the lay-out. Happy?’ ‘WHAT?’ the first prisoner frowned, squinting at the miniscule writing on the chart by his cell door. ‘I can barely read that up close!’ ‘I’m really long sighted,’ the second prisoner said evenly. ‘Fair enough’ L96A1 narrowed his eyes and stood back, assessing the room, tapping a bare foot on the grid iron floor. ‘So where does that leave us?’ ‘With me,’ the third prisoner said, stepping forward. ‘Oh yeah?’ L96A1 raised an eyebrow. ‘And what do you do then? Does fire come out o’yer bum?’ ‘No,’ the third prisoner retorted as he clapped his hands together, creating a volley of purple sparks. ‘I think I can teleport all of us out still … maybe.’ ‘I don’t like maybes,’ the first said darkly. ‘Well then you can take your chances with the door and the guards then,’ L96A1 said with a glare as he turned back to number three. ‘You sure this’ll work?’ The third prisoner allowed himself to give them all a grin. ‘Where do you want to go?’ *** The explosion lit up the night all around the Hippo camp, the large area of scrubland to the south was lit up like a giant fiery Christmas tree. ‘DUDE!’ One of the Hippos on the ground remarked. ‘Like … shrooms … y’know … they’re like … awesome!’ ‘That’s not the drugs you moron,’ Vash snarled, unsheathing both of his swords and tossing his cape over his shoulder guards. ‘That was a missile.’ ‘A missile?’ Beakedbard frowned, shrugging on the jacked of his thread-bare blue suit that looked ridiculously too small for him. ‘Who’d want to fire a missile at us?’
‘Ever met a Conservative?’ Vash clucked. ‘Hey … like … tanks n’stuff …’ one of the Hippos commented, pointing to an army of tanks that were sweeping across the landscape accompanied by Army jeeps, Land Rovers and armoured personnel carriers. ‘Oh … this doesn’t look like anything good,’ Beakedbard commented unhappily as he took a long drag of his spliff. ‘We might even have to move.’ ‘Meh … effort … fail …’ came a unionised analysis of such a proposal from the other Hippos. ‘I don’t think they’re firing at your campsite,’ Vash said, lowering his swords but retaining his firm grasp on their hilts. Vash might have been a PR agent, but he was a warrior, well trained in many art forms. He had studied under countless masters and had honed his senses to their optimum peeks. His eyes pierced the darkness of the scrubland and picked out four figures in dark grey t-shirts and pants sprinting away from the oncoming barrage. ‘Well,’ Vash observed. ‘That’s not something you see everyday.’ *** As the third prisoner had warned them, what remained of his power was dwindling. That was apparent, when, instead of translocating outside the complex, they instead found themselves in what seemed to be a reception area. An alarm had begun to sound out of massive speakers on the walls, the noise was deafening. They could see the compound outside. Freedom was denied them by a large courtyard that was now full of soldiers, tanks and Army vehicles. The entire ensemble was surrounded by a giant concrete wall. ‘Wow,’ L96A1 commented. ‘They really don’t want us gettin’ outtae here do they?’ ‘SHIT!’ the first prisoner remarked as a battalion of soldiers began to advance towards the glass doors. ‘What now?’ ‘Can’t you think of something?’ The second inmate asked L96A1 evenly. ‘You’re supposed to be the Super Soldier. You’re supposed to be a one-man army.’ ‘I am?’ L96A1 frowned, scratching his head. ‘A don’t know how am supposed tae beat all them!’ ‘You don’t have to beat them,’ the second inmate retorted. ‘You just have to get us past them.’ L96A1 approached the flimsy glass doors of the reception area. He heard the order for them to put their hands up and surrender, but he wasn’t listening. He quickly counted the soldiers, their vehicles, their weaponry. The height of the wall, the materials that made up the gates. There and then, everything solidified into a plan that no normal person would ever dream of contemplating. The only trouble was, now that he was sure that this plan would work and was utterly confident beyond all reasonable doubt that he was capable of making it happen, he was beginning to think that he wasn’t a normal person. Even if he had been at one point, and it was a stage that he couldn’t remember, he certainly wasn’t anymore. He looked over his shoulder at his escapee accomplices and gave a sharp intake of breath. ‘You have a plan I take it?’ the second inmate inquired. ‘Sort of,’ L96A1 nodded. ‘Yeah,’ the first prisoner scowled. ‘I’ve got the same problem with “sort-ofs” as I do with “Maybes”.’ ‘Looks like its not your lucky day then, Danny,’ the third inmate shrugged. ‘Shut it Will-ko,’ Danny retorted. ‘Both of you be quiet,’ the second prisoner scowled. ‘Let the man speak.’ ‘Alright,’ L96A1 nodded thankfully to the second prisoner and pulled the four of them into a huddle. ‘Here’s what we’re gonna have tae do.’ ***
‘Is it just me,’ Beakedbard said as the camp of Hippos looked on nonchalantly. ‘But are that lot coming our way now?’ ‘Yes,’ Vash nodded with a gulp. ‘Yes, I do believe they are.’ ‘Well then …’ Beakedbard continued, stubbing out his spliff. ‘… Err … I’ll take the job … but I think we should … y’know.’ ‘Yes,’ Vash nodded. ‘And be quick about it.’ ‘There’s an access terminal in my place,’ Beakedbard said hurriedly dashing back towards his caravan. Vash concluded this was probably the fastest the skinny Hippo had ever moved in his drug-fuelled existence. Beakedbard burst through the flimsy wooden door of his caravan, causing an uproar of shouting and angered yells from inside as Vash stood on the wooden steps, his swords ready. Though what good they would do against tanks and people with machine guns he really wouldn’t like to think about. Vash looked over his shoulder at Beakedbard who was frantically trying to connect to the Internet through his access terminal, still ignoring the ranting that was coming from further inside the caravan. ‘not to hurry you at all,’ Vash said with a slight quiver in his voice. ‘But would you like to … maybe hurry, just a little bit.’ ‘Going as fast as it can,’ Beakedbard clucked back coolly. ‘We’re in the middle of a fucking field! I’m amazed it’s connecting at all!’ ‘Wouldn’t mind you at least trying to hurry, even just a teeny, tiny, little bit.’ His view of the oncoming tanks had been blocked somewhat by the fire and the cluster of caravans, so it was a shock to him when the quartet of fleeing dark-grey-clad runners emerged from around the sides of one of the larger caravans, heading right for Vash. ‘Scratch that,’ Vash said, darting up into the caravan as the platoon of tanks crashed their way through several of the caravans in pursuit, decimating the crowd of Hippos who were still lying around the campfire. ‘WE HAVE TO GO NOW!’ *** If nothing else, L96A1’s plan had gotten them out of the complex. But where were they supposed to go now? Will-ko voiced his concerns to the other three with a strain as he helped the still calm and unpanicked second prisoner to carry L96A1. Though his plan had been an excellent one, he had still been hopelessly outnumbered, even for a Super Soldier. He was still determined to continue onwards, even with several bullets in him and a knife wound to his back and had done so for quite some time. But now, the tanks that he had sidestepped instead of destroying were now chasing them through the fields and woodland that surrounded the facility. ‘Over there,’ the second prisoner said, hoisting L96A1 onto his own back and pointing towards what looked to be some kind of camp site. ‘What?’ Danny panted as they crashed through the undergrowth. ‘How are gypsies going to help us?’ ‘I don’t know, and I don’t care,’ the second prisoner replied with a grunt. ‘But it’s more shelter than we’ve got at the minute, and they might have a first aid kit.’ ‘Seriously,’ L96A1 groaned. ‘I don’ need a doctor, am fine, a can walk on ma own.’ ‘Shut up and stop moving, you’re bleeding everywhere!’ Will-ko frowned, trying to remember how to perform a healing spell. What use was having a limitless array of magical spells at his disposal if he had no power with which to use them? No wonder the experiment that left him like this failed. Whoever those scientists were, firstly, they were utter morons, and secondly … well … they were douches too. They marched their way towards the encampment, ignoring the shelling that was going on all around them. All this for their benefit? Surely it was a little bit of overkill for them. Sure, L96A1 was their master project, a Super Soldier, fair enough. But what good were an ability-mimicking human-sponge with no abilities, a powerless wizard and …
whatever on Earth the other guy did? It was beyond him that they were going to all this trouble to re-capture them. He tried to make it a subject of light conversation, but none of the others seemed interested in making small talk right now. ‘Do you see that?’ the second prisoner said sharply. ‘What?’ Danny frowned, cursing as he stepped on something sharp in the field. ‘They’ve got an Internet Access Terminal,’ he replied, turning his stumbling amble into as much of a run as he could. ‘I can see the portal forming! COME ON!’ So they ran. They sprinted as fast as their tired legs and bleeding feet could carry them into the campsite itself, past a group of stoned gypsies huddled around a campfire, past several caravans, all the while fully aware of how close the lead tank was to them. They ran across a muddy patch of field, up the steps of a small wooden caravan where somebody was screaming blue-murder inside and straight into an opening Internet Access Portal. Safe. ‘JESUS!’ Vash shouted, disentangling himself from the cluster of bodies that had tackled him and Beakedbard through the Access Portal, that had thankfully, closed behind them as the tank had tried to follow. ‘Well … at least, it was interesting,’ Beakedbard commented, raising his eyebrows. ‘What the hell is going on?’ Mooney asked as he fluttered over in a state of confusion and annoyance. ‘ALLUC isn’t open to the public yet!’ ‘Tell that to these guys,’ Vash said, indicating the four people in grey. ‘We need a hospital!’ The one with dark brown hair said, jumping to his feet. ‘L9 … err … this guy,’ he said, pointing to one of his colleagues who was bleeding liberally from several wounds all over his body. ‘He got shot … a lot.’ ‘We can’t turn away injured people,’ Vash said imploringly to Mooney who nodded and craned his bald head skywards. ‘FINK!’ Mooney shouted to the ceiling. ‘FINK! We have injuries! Have you created an Infirmary for this place?’ ‘WHAT?’ Fink’s voice echoed from all around them. ‘YES, YES OF COURSE, AT THE END OF THE INDEX, I WILL INDICATE THE WAY.’ The golden trim around the walls suddenly illuminated brightly, and pulsed sequentially down the corridor. ‘Give me a hand,’ Vash said to the boy who had spoken as he lifted up the injured L96A1. ‘I’ll help,’ the second prisoner said, getting to his feet. ‘I don’t think you should,’ the other, taller boy with black hair commented. ‘I think they got you too.’ ‘It’s his blood,’ the eldest of them all, the second prisoner replied shortly. ‘I had him on my back remember. He’s bled all over me.’ ‘No, dude,’ Beakedbard cut in. ‘Seriously, you’ve been shot or something.’ He pointed to a tear in the back of the man’s shirt where blood was dripping copiously. ‘So I have,’ the man nodded. ‘I really … didn’t notice … so … I really should get this looked at … which way is the Infirmary again?’ ‘Follow me,’ Mooney said urgently as he fluttered off down the corridor. ‘Come on mate,’ Beakedbard said, letting the man lean against him. ‘Who are you guys by the way?’ ‘Well,’ I’m Danny,’ the black haired boy replied, that’s Will-ko helping L96A1 and this is …’ He turned dumbly to the second prisoner and found himself lost for an answer.’ ‘Oh, excuse me,’ the man said, actually smiling. ‘My manners are atrocious … I’ve forgot to introduce myself even to my colleagues … My name is Fred … Fred Kelly.’
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