Operation Hercules, Part III


adel_icon.gif berlin_icon.gif huruma_icon.gif kyle_icon.gif matthew_icon.gif pete_icon.gif

Also Featuring:

avi_icon.gif janice_icon.gif

Scene Title Operation Hercules, Part III
Synopsis Wolfhound's operation to eliminate the Institute remnant encounters the unexpected.
Date January 10, 2019

Tall trees form a region of deep shade within a valley nestled in rolling hills. The cry of gulls makes it clear that the ocean isn't far, even if it can't be seen.

The floor of the forested hills is largely flat, covered in fine pine needles and deadfall branches. Blinded motion sensors anchored to the trees move with power still drawn from their solar collectors further up-trunk, but they have no way to report back; eyes that see, but no mind to speak of.

The greatest oddity in the forest is a metal dome just three feet across sitting six inches off of the forest floor, streaked with rust and littered with pine sap stains. A faint, rattling hum emits from beneath.

And three darkly-clad women’s silhouettes are reflected mutedly in that grimy surface.

One Day Earlier

The Bunker

Rochester, NY

January 9th


“This next part, nobody’s gonna like.”

The image displayed on the large monitor behind Commander Epstein shifts to show the Los Angeles hills, along with a blueprint for a subterranean HVAC system. He draws in a deep breath, then looks over at Huruma.

“Team 3 will consist of Dunsimi in command, supported by Lane and Beckett.” Avi steps back so as to not block view of the screen. “Based on our satellite recon, there's four HVAC vents for the subterranean facility, located on all four sides of the facility. This isn't the Arcology, it looks like, no oxygen scrubbers here. It also means it's probably not a big structure.”

Epstein enlarges the image of the vents. “We've identified the west vent as a primary insertion point.” He looks from the screen over to Huruma, Adel, and Berlin.

“For you.”

One Day Later

Sunstone Manor Grounds

Los Angeles, CA

January 10th

1:20 pm

The top of the vent comes off easy enough, a few pins removed and it's lifted like an aluminum shield away from a square metal vent about two and a half feet wide — just enough for a person to squeeze into — descending into darkness.

We want you to infiltrate the basement level by the west vent. Then move to rendezvous with Team 1 who’ll be coming in from the primary entrance.

A gull cries overhead, as if laughing at the situation. It's shadow is briefly visible on the forest floor below, then disappears into the shadows of the canopy.

The drop and journey through the hillside was made in mostly silence, on Huruma's end. She seems to be particularly single-minded this time, though the helmet that goes with her armor masks whatever expression she has with impassive blacks.

As they reach the vent exit she takes a survey of the area; the incline of the ground, the shadow of the sun, the distant barking of gulls. It gives her a more proper mental picture now that she is on the move. The bird up above gets a passive glance as it circles away chuckling as birds do.

Once the lid is lifted from their entrance, Huruma pops a flashlight and takes a brief, preliminary look into the mouth below. No immediate surprises when it comes to grates or fans, so that's good.

"Alright, you two." Huruma takes a cable and a clip from her belt, hooping the end and offering it first to Adel overhead of the vent. "I'll let you down first, make sure you don't go pinging off of the walls… Keep a nose out for people and signals." At her own command, Huruma flicks open the damming on her own ability, and it loosens from its tight coils to reach out around them and down the vent. Once the girls are in, it'll be her that pulls the dome back over the top.

Without even hesitating, Adel takes the offered end of the cable and attaches it to her suit, moving into position to be lowered down with a smile. While she’s not as at ease at being lowered into the deep dark tunnels of the earth as she might be jumping out of a plane, she’s pretty confident and at ease with this, too. She checks her weapon before she starts down, keeping one hand free in case she needs to shoot at anything, pulling the goggles down for better visuals so she doesn’t need to go down shining a light either. “I’m not completely horrible at the stealthy approach, I promise,” she teases with a grin.

One had to be quiet sometimes in the terrible wasteland of a world she’d come from, after all.

She’s remarkably easy to lower, at least, due to good body control required for someone who likes to jump out of planes. She knows how to balance her weight, how to land, even if she’s not falling anywhere near as fast as one might be.

“I’ll see you all in Tartarus,” she teases before she disappears into the shadows. She has a light if needed, but no desire yet to use it.

Berlin watches Adel sink down into the vent, her expression fixed into a frown. She hasn't been in the field for a while now and a lot has changed for her since the last op she was on. Settling back into things has been a challenge; she's still hoping she'll click into place sooner rather than later.

But she doesn't hesitate when it's her turn and she works to keep her emotions steady for Huruma's sake. It is telling, however, that she doesn't have a response for Adel's banter. She just holds on and waits to hit bottom.

Good luck down there. Get back safe.

Somewhere Below

1:31 pm

With the soft snap of breaking aluminum a ceiling vent cover pushes out from exposed ductwork, held carefully by delicate fingers. A spooled length of black rope comes tumbling out of the duct, followed by Adel as she rappels the rest of the way down from the fifteen foot high ceiling. The concrete room she's found herself in looks like a maintenance storage room, filled with metal racks stacked with extra duct pipes, packaged rolls of tape, circular air filters, ladders, and other equipment.

No cameras here, which bodes well for the team. Hana suspected that portions of the subterranean facility might be air-gapped from the rest of the facility since she couldn't find the basement once she gained access to the facility’s network, much as things were at the dam.

Berlin and Huruma follow Adel from the duct, and after ten minutes of crawling the freedom to stretch feels amazing. As they land, Huruma can feel her ability reach out like a spider, picking up only a handful of conscious minds within her wide range. All of them are nervous, anxious, and full of doubt and fear. These aren't soldiers with the conviction of a belief behind them, these are people in over their heads.

There's a soft hum in the air here, too. Not just the HVAC systems. Power conduits, the fluorescent lights soft flickering, there's a lot of electricity down here.

Huruma keeps her mental eyes ahead as Adel pries loose their exit, and being the biggest of them she is especially relieved to slip down out of the duct. Getting a little tight in there for her tastes. Straightening out, she skims the storage room and takes a moment to orient her senses through her personal web.

What she does find gives her pause, worth studying more closely. The stillness is always an indicator of when Huruma is doing her thing; she only swivels her head to the young women when she has gotten enough.

"We ought to be more able to subdue or intimidate here… and we tend to be very convincing. Do another quick sweep.. " The last is to Adel.

Is it worth it to possibly die here? Those she can sense will have to decide before engaging Wolfhound, and letting the others know is the least effort. As for the power grid, even she can hear it; it vibrates softly against her ears, the idle purring of those many livewires. Huruma traces a path through the storage towards the door, hand placed at her side alongside the belt of various implements she has brought along. Checking out the situation beyond them, silent and unintrusive.

As soon as her boots hit the ground, Adel rocks her shoulders around and readies her Banshee to scan the area, listening as the others come down behind her. She spares them a glance, and a nod to Huruma’s orders, and does her sweep again, checking the corners and shining a light when needed to make sure nothing was lurking in the shadows. Even checking for those buzzy robot things from over the summer, even if she doubted that those who were set up here would have had anything like them.

With the Banshee ready and on a high stun setting, she’s more than glad to hear that subduing was on the table. She still had her side arm and her knives, but she’d been less inclined to pull them first for a while. Giving the signal for All Clear, she continues to look around, as if expecting that All Clear to change at any moment.

The hum of the room has her on edge.

Berlin is the last one down, and she lingers among the racks, picking over the supplies there. She slides a roll of duct tape over her wrist— a chunky bracelet to be put to use later. But she joins the others soon enough, taking up the back and watching behind them as they follow Adel.

"How many do we have to worry about, Huruma?" she asks in a quiet voice. "How outnumbered are we?" Subduing takes time, and they might have to come at this carefully if there are too many out there. Berlin isn't using her own senses at the moment to find out. She's been a little uncertain on that front since coming back into the field.

By Huruma’s estimate, fifteen minds in range. All of them tense with anxiety, wracked with guilt, shame, or fear. Some are more panicked than others, some are calmer and more in denial. Huruma’s tasted this blend of emotions before during raids on government facilities during the war. These are the emotions of people who were just following orders. Pliable, looking for absolution, looking for a way out.

As the strike team reaches the end of the maintenance closet, a few more conscious minds brush the edges of Huruma’s psychic feelers; two minds in a state of conflict and frustration, she knows an argument when she feels it. It paints a picture, one of their surroundings. Many tense people clustered in close proximity, possibly in a mess hall or some other kind of gathering place. Two others in argument, possibly executives or other authorities. The chain of command is breaking down here, the Institute must feel the noose tightening.

No one is immediately beyond the maintenance closet door, the first group of concerned minds lays some twenty feet beyond and to their right.
The door opens to the hall with a crack, Huruma finding nothing visible or sensory beyond. It is quiet beyond the idle hum of the walls, and Huruma is already counting when Berlin asks it of her; "Seventeen, roughly. Some in minor conflict, others- - not at all soldiers…" She is approximate in number and description, given variables. "Clustered. First set six meters down on our three."

Huruma slides her Banshee into hand, holding the weapon at her side as she steps out of the door. She stares down the opposite end of the corridor for a few seconds before pivoting, beckoning the girls along, shadow falling in along the wall. Free hand alights on the surface beside her, trailing delicately.

Webbing strung out in a thousand directions quivers back to her as other signatures pluck against them; Huruma halts not far from the first bundle of minds ahead, still tucked against the wall as she aims carefully beyond barriers.

At first it is a trickle, a faint brush of something soft and hopeful against what panic she finds, and an idle pressure coaxing out notes of calm compliance- a low dose cocktail mixed just-so and spilled across the table.

Once it casts across the surface of her field, Huruma readies her gun-hand and moves forward with the girls in line just behind.

Of the odds they could be facing, less than twenty wasn’t too terrible. Especially if they weren’t not a unified force. They could be subdued, some might surrender as their leaders go down. Adel hoped it went that way today, because honestly— things could always get worse. She checks her setting on her settings on her Banshee again, something she’s had the habit of doing lately. It wasn’t a bad habit, but it’s not as if the settings changed randomly. Or one would not expect that to happen. It didn’t even cost time.

“You stay in the back, make sure no one’s sneaking up,” she nods to Berlin before stepping to follow behind Huruma, training her weapon from one angle to another carefully. It could come from any direction, but she trusted Berlin to have the rear more than just about anyone these days. As long as it was a living person, she would have some warning, she assumed.

When she's given the task of watching their backs, Berlin opens up to her power, just enough to keep tabs on anyone getting too close. Her banshee is out and ready.

The numbers aren't too bad, especially since they're not all soldiers, but she does start to worry that they might not have enough handcuffs for everyone. Hopefully they won't have to get too creative. Her attention stays behind them as she follows along with the others, even if there is a touch of reluctance. She's not as sure as their leadership was that she is ready to be here.

The door Huruma reaches is locked from the outside with a heavy sliding latch that looks partly forced open, but not enough to disengage the lock entirely. With a brush of the side of her hand she’s able to push it open and pull the door out into the concrete hall. Beyond the door is an irregularly lit cafeteria about two hundred feet across on a side, rows of cafeteria tables sitting mostly unoccupied, save for a group of white-jacketed scientists in various states of distress. As Huruma comes through the doorway a short-lived pang of fright moves through them, one smoothed flat by the empath’s ability.

The scientists nevertheless push back toward the rear of the cafeteria where serving areas and buffet tables rest adjoining vending machines. The lights flicker and sputter overhead, and a din of concerned voices fills the air. All of the scientists at one point or another in the arrival of the black-armored figures raise their hands in gesture of surrender, some beginning to break down in visible relief, others in palpable dread.

Please don’t kill us,” a dark-haired scientist near the front of the group pleads, his accent notable Pakistani. “Please— we’re not— please— ” He isn’t sure what to say, seeming to struggle with his words as he sweeps his attention over the suits, as if looking for something. Identification.

Inspection of the door and its lock is short and punctuated, Huruma's hand alighting there on the partially shifted latch to draw the others' attention there. Yes, sweat the small stuff.

The Banshee finds them first in the sputtering light; Huruma watches the group as they huddle back away from the Hounds. Though her gun remains lifted, the muzzle dips by a fraction. She inspects them next, ability drawing them apart for a brief study. It is the speaker who earns the slight angling of her helmet towards him.

"You assume much." At least the tallest speaks English? A small consolation in that dark voice. "We are not here to kill you. We are here to arrest you." As much as she'd love to go upstairs and slice something open- - what Hana says, goes. Huruma makes a mental note of the lock on the outside again; no need to give them individual attention, they can simply lock the door again and bind it. "Who put you here and where are they?"

Moving in behind the leader of their team and stepping a little to her left side so she could support with firepower if required, Adel points her banshee at the people who were raising their hands in surrender. She doesn’t show her relief that they chose to surrender, but she definitely feels it, even if she’s paying attention to their surroundings in case someone decides not to follow suit with the rest. Rather than engage, she leaves the negotiations up to the tallest of them, shifting the Banshee around to follow her line of sight, checking for any hiding spots that aren’t immediately noticeable, any people who might be skulking behind those surrendering.

Observe and be ready, is the order she’s following now, but she’s also quietly counting each of those she can clearly see as she looks for those she can’t.

Berlin comes up on Huruma's other side, senses open but eyes on the scientists ahead of them. Once they speak, she seems content to let Huruma handle the negotiations and she starts to look over the room, too, as Adel does. No reason to let something take them by surprise. That last question has her looking over at them, as if she might want to gauge for herself if they are here willingly or not.

Lately, her tolerance for the Institute's leftovers is low.

But she's aware of that. And so she doesn't jump in with any accusations. She just watches, gaze drifting between them.

Anything!” One of the prisoners shouts, “take us out of here, please! I don’t want to die!”

“They’re going to kill us all!”

You have to help me! They have my family!

It’s becoming a cacophony of panic, kept at bay by the sturdy dam of Huruma’s ability. In the crowd of scientists, a slip of a young man with chalk white hair looks strikingly familiar to the empath. She recognizes the eyes, the bone structure, the hair. She’d arrested his sister. Kyle Renautas takes a step forward away from the other prisoners, his hands raised and brows lifted.

“The whole facility went on lockdown yesterday. They started gathering researchers, executing them. Word got out— Doctor Allen hid as many of us as she could. It’s been a mad-house down here. I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t have anything to do with this.” Kyle looks back at the other scientists, then back to the Wolfhound team. “Most of these scientists are prisoners. They’ve been held here against their will, forced to work. They have families outside of the Dead Zone.”

As Kyle tries to advocate for the prisoners, he curls his hands closed with a wave of anxiety before a question comes. “Is my sister dead?”

Having the two other woman at her sides overseeing the group with her allows Huruma to concentrate more exclusively on calming the apparent prisoners. The fear is palpable and real, and if there is subterfuge it is laced with the same fright. Like rabbits in a warren, exits filled with gravel and earth, air melting away.

Doctor Allen. A name, anyway, even if not the one she expected. Not a warden, anyway. The rest of Kyle's claims seems to fall in line with the rest of the Modus Operandi of this place.

"No." Huruma is curt but not wholly unkind. "We took her into custody. She is safe." If he counts it as safety. "And all of you, it seems you have been safe here thusfar? Would this place remain in one piece if something… unfortunate happened to the rest?" The tall woman's gun tips a further inch down, letting Adel and Berlin keep trained while she offers:

"If that is the case, perhaps you ought to remain hidden. It will make this much more expedient. The sooner we finish, the sooner you leave."

While the one doing the talking starts to lower her weapon, Adel keeps hers up, as she continues to glance around, watching the panicked people for signs of a weapon. If Huruma believes their story, though she had every reason to believe them. Once she finishes the count, she keeps it in her head in case she needs to count them again later, preferably once they’re out.

When she sees Kyle, Berlin lowers her Banshee and blinks. She knows him, as she knew his sister, from names and photos in a file. Images she's not soon to forget. They never had anyone rescue them as she did.

"We're here to help you, all of you." She holsters her weapon, lifting her hands slowly so they all can see she isn't about to fire anything at them. "We're getting everyone out of here, we can sort out how to help your families once you are safe."

She looks to Huruma, then back to Kyle. She's glad to have a helmet on this time; it helps to hide the fact that she's staring.

Relieved when his sister’s fate is spelled out for him, Kyle seems more pliable with his information and prone to freely sharing. “It’s— Director Varlane’s still down here in this wing. Doctor Allen locked us up and said she was going to try and rescue some of the— ” Kyle looks away, “some of the test subjects,” a bitter bile aura brushes against Huruma’s senses. When he looks back up to the Wolfhound operatives, Kyle’s stamped down the shame and guilt.

“Director Varlane headed to the Gemini lab, he’s probably securing samples before he flees.” There’s an urgency in Kyle’s voice, as he motions to his right toward a wall. “If you go back outside, the Gemini facility is at the end of the curving hall past the offices. If they’re doing what Doctor Allen thinks they are, they’re going to destroy this entire facility once they’re sure they have their research,” whoever they is.

“The only safe route out is the freight entrance up by the old power plant,” and as Kyle describes that, it resonates with the Wolfhound team. Claire and Colette were sent to investigate that very location. Unfortunately, so deep underground they have no way of letting them know they’re coming unless they’re close enough to receive the signal. This facility seems designed to cut off short-range communications. “I don’t think Doctor Allen knew about that exit. I’m— I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Knowledge that Varlane is still down here speaks volumes for the emotions she heard elsewhere on this level, as does Allen. The tilt Huruma's head some towards the door seems to indicate a deeper train of thought as her tendrils reach out once more. Where are you?

"They may find themselves disappointed." Is all that Huruma gives back on the matter of the facility being given a pink slip. Her helm moves towards Adel first. "Keep a check on the radios so we can tip off the others up top when we're able." The downside of sneaking in the back way, she supposes.

"So are you staying, or coming along? If there is only one way out- -" Huruma momentarily lifts the front of her Aegis helmet, showing them that yes, it's a person in there. Her look outside is brief, then the helmet is down again, with Huruma angling for the door, Banshee in hand.. "Then I suggest you follow at a distance and stay away from funny business. We'll take care of Varlane." And if they do try anything funny, the implication is that she will know.

Time to move; the imprisoned can follow- - or stay. They won't be getting out the way the Hounds came, and they chance the structure's integrity. Going alone… well. Pete's out there, somewhere.

The mention of Varlane causes a change in Adel’s generally steady but weary emotional state that Huruma will notice immediately. It’s a mix of excitement, of anger, of disgust and something akin to a knife being drawn out of a boot. For the first time since they walked into the room, she stops scoping the place out and looks directly at Huruma. Well, up at Huruma. “We have to stop him.”

It’s not even a suggestion or a request, cause she will turn around and go straight after him if Huruma hadn’t already said they would take care of him. She doesn’t switch the setting on her X-LRAD, but the empath can feel the sudden readiness that hadn’t quite been there before. Any reluctance she’d had for this mission had vanished. Even Berlin would notice the way her poise shifts, the way she holds herself changing as she moves to follow. “I have the radio ready, and a count of who we have so far.”

And she was hoping to add to that count, with at least one hogtied and dragged along until they reached the exit.

Test subjects. Berlin is already edgy, but it spikes upward as Kyle talks. She does change the setting on her Banshee, just a quick tweak made by impulse rather than thought.

"Come and stay close," she says to the group, expecting that they won't want to stick around here and hope the building holds. "You'll get out of this." Them and anyone else they can find along the way. She glances over to Adel, watching the woman's demeanor shift. "We'll stop him," she says, less as reassurance and more as a dark promise. He won't leave here unless it's in custody.

Although, Berlin can already feel the urge to make sure he doesn't leave at all threading its way through her mind.

She heads for the door, too, still taking up the rear of the group, but heading toward the lab with a purposeful stride. And her weapon in hand.

When presented with their options, the surviving Institute research team risks imprisonment or worse rather than the fate they believe awaits them down here. The scientists stay huddled together, watching the Wolfhound operatives move back toward the exit of the cafeteria to the main hall. Kyle stays between the scientists and Wolfhound, looking to angle as an intermediary between the two groups. The young, white-haired man offers a mild look over to Huruma, and she can feel something stirring in him. There’s a brief pang of uncertainty, of tension, and of anticipation. It’s as if he recognizes her.

As Huruma leads the way back into the hall with Berlin and Adel at her flank, Kyle follows behind and the scientists anxiously creep along with them. “Research labs are that way,” Kyle says pointing down the gradually curving hall into the darkness they haven’t explored yet, “there’s just a maintenance closet down there, for the air filtration systems. We heard gunfire before you showed up, a few minutes? But I don’t think it was you.”

Kyle looks back to the researchers, then to the Wolfhound operatives. Berlin can feel a tremor in her chest, a pang of trauma-induced anxiety starting to build in her heart. Huruma can feel it too, recognizes the onset of post-traumatic stress. This is the arcology all over again for Berlin, and what that means to her is different than anyone else.

“Gunshots came from that way,” Kyle says, indicating the research labs in the dark.

«This is Wendigo-3,» Colette’s voice crackles over the comms, «We found a hidden freight access at the power station off-site. Looks like this is how the Institute got material hardware down to the labs. There’s something in the superstructure of the concrete, it’s blocking our comms from reaching the surface. We’ve found dead security guards, no sign of hostiles. Someone else might be here. Team 3, Team 1, you down here with us?»

With Kyle at her flank, it is all the easier to feel his apprehension; the only real regard Huruma gives to it it is a brief, tipped look over her shoulder to him. While he relays which route is which, she seemingly pauses to listen. Berlin has known her long enough now to know better, feeling those eyes on her in a silent question. A reassuring gesture of Huruma's hand comes before she turns back again, popping her handheld light out and shining it down the corridor.

"It wasn't." Huruma confirms the source of shots as someone else, head angling at Adel when Colette's voice comes in prickly and tested over the radio. She can take care of the relay perfectly well. Knowing that they've found the access is good enough for Huruma.
She focuses ahead again, strides long and flashlight held with the lift of her Banshee; the web of her senses stretches out to pinpoint the other minds she had felt before. That harkening feeling of an argument is hard to misplace, and the empath seeks it out with a hunter's boldness. Huruma trusts in that bloodhound sense to take them right where they need to go.

It always does.

Each step further feels more and more like that dagger being sheathed and unsheathed to the empath, all coming from Adel. Ready and willing and able is all that she gives off, paying attention to the sides and occasional glance behind to make sure no one that they were escorting had a hidden surprise in store. She trusts that Huruma would sense the emotion that came with the intention to do something, but she trusted her eyes too. More than she trusted people those who had been forced into this situation. Supposedly. She hoped so.

At the radio, she shifts one hand free of her Banshee and so that she can give a report, “«This is Team-3, negative on the dead security guards. No hostiles encountered. We are escorting eight surrendered non-combatants and going after Varlane, who might be liquidating assets. Freight entrance you’ve found is supposed to be the only safe exit, near a power plant. Keep eyes open. So will we.»”

Someone else down there with them killing guards. While she hoped that was Varlane and his liquidation tactics, she wouldn’t count on it. “Keep senses out in case we have even more company,” she warns the two who actually have senses to keep out. She’ll just have to use eyes and ears.

"I'm okay," comes the lie from Berlin at the gesture. But she doesn't mean she's okay, she means she's keeping it together. That she's trying to keep it together. She has to lift her visor, though, because she can't breathe quite right with it down. Her senses are on, but she's more distracted the further they go. Her gloves come off next, and she hangs them off her belt.

But even with these adjustments, her hands still feel too clammy and she has to force herself to breath even and deep. She does her best to keep her eyes open for trouble, especially from their new company.

The sounds of a distant argument fill the hall, a woman and a man shouting at one another. Huruma can feel the emotional content of the distress, one side filled with not just resentment and anger but also panic, another side of fear, guilt, and anxiety-filled rage. The scientists keep a long distance between themselves and Wolfhound as they begin to sweep the hall toward the sounds of arguing, past open doors leading into vacant labs.

Halfway down the hall, blood stains mark the wall. There’s two black-clad Institute security operatives slouched up against the wall, both of them shot in the head at close range. Neither look to have even gone for their holstered handguns. The bloody is still wet, this couldn’t have happened more than an hour ago. Nearby, there’s a pair of metal doors marked with what looks like a highly stylized Roman numeral II, or perhaps the Gemini zodiac sign. The argument comes through those doors, and the sound of a man and woman shouting reverberates through the door, though the exact words aren’t clear.

Kyle stays up against the wall, looking down at the dead security guards and then back to the scientists as they’re huddled together. No response yet from Colette or the other teams. It’s hard to tell if the message even went through. Comms might be sporadic down here.

You promised me you’d make him normal!” The woman screams, close enough to the door that her words can be made out. “He can’t control it, you promised! You fucking promised/ you //motherfucker!

After a moment of finding her direction, Huruma leads the others on a trail she picks out with precision; as they come to the guards along the wall, she affords them a downward look, examining. Guns still in place, which tells her more than is plain. They had no reason to draw, or something kept them from it.

Huruma motions to Kyle to stay where he is, keeping the others backed against the corridor. Adel and Berlin get a sign to flank the doors. If Colette got it, she got it. If not, it will come.

The empath's reach finds them, her light forward and Banshee up. Careful fingers pluck at the two of them, drawing out strings of their strongest emotions rather than replacing; Huruma pulls on them like a fisherman's net, gentle but insistent, levelling the duo out. A concerted effort in stabilization, offering what may be a reprieve from the adrenaline they bring along.

Unfortunately for them, she provides a new source of it when she lifts an armored boot and kicks in the doors.

Someone didn’t have their Snickers.

Adel puts her hands back fully on the Banshee, keeping it extended to the front for quick sweeping motions if she hears anything, she casts a quick glance toward Berlin, but the girl had insisted she was fine, so she nods. They still had their weapons on stun. Whoever the irate woman was, whatever she was yelling about, they could handle this without bloodshed.

And based on what was on the floor, bloodshed probably had come from other sources. Sources the guards thought were friendly, if she had to guess. People don’t draw on people they know and trust.

Another case of liquidating assets, she would guess. As Huruma kicks the door in, she had her Banshee charged and ready to fire, even if she currently had it on the lowest of the settings. They might need quick answers that unconsciousness wouldn’t allow.

Berlin looks down at the bodies as they pass. That reminds her of the Arcology, too. Her hands curl and uncurl as they pass, a gesture that only stops when she takes hold of her weapon again and takes her spot to the side of the doors. She tips her head to listen, catching the strains of the argument once she's close enough.

To give powers, to take them away. Promises made from science perverted. Made to the envious and the fearful. Berlin knows that all too well.

When Huruma kicks in the door, Berlin pulls up her weapon and turns toward the voices. Hopefully, the sight if the three of them will be enough, but she knows better than to count on that.

As the metal doors swing open with a resounding crash, a pale blue light floods the hall beyond. The massive room beyond is dark, spacious, and haunting. The shouting arrests with the reverberation of that violent crash, and the room comes into a sharp and grim focus. What is first visible is the blue light, tall tanks of luminous cerulean fluid connected to transparent hoses that snake around paired sets of padded steel chairs with obvious arm and leg restraints. Banks of computer equipment line the outer walls of the room and cameras give a comprehensive view of the chamber floor. Abandoned gurneys rest at odd angles in the rows between the chairs, implicating invasive medical procedures.

Two Institute security officers lay dead on the floor, each shot to death at close range. Beyond them are two figures standing close together with one-another. One of them is a barrel-built man with a coif of messy gray hair and a beet-red face contorted into a slowly-relaxing look of righteous anger. Pete Varlane. His suit is disheveled and wrinkled and the handgun he holds is trained ahead at the woman across from him.

The woman is the same height as Pete, likewise armed with a handgun trained on Pete. Her long brown hair falls over her shoulders. Her clothing indicates that she’s a civilian, not a researcher or possibly administrative. Her clothes look to have been worn too many times and is coming apart at the seams. But more disconcertingly is that her face, one presently twisted into frustration and anger, is familiar. It isn’t Erica Kravid, isn’t any of the Institute targets that Wolfhound have been hunting for years.

Mom, stop.” A third person, one who didn’t ping on Huruma’s radar makes their presence known. Standing by her side, a boy barely in his teens with wide eyes and a round face. He clutches his mother’s arm, and was trying to dissuade his mother from arguing with the man with the gun.

But on that instant when the doors flew open, Pete turns to the entrance with a look of shock and betrayal. His gun moves from the woman to the teen boy. “Turn the power back on,” Pete is quick to demand, but the boy just stares at Pete with wide and frightened eyes. That’s when Huruma remembers where she’d seen that woman’s face before. Newspapers, missing persons reports, an old acquaintance’s ex.

That’s Janice Parkman.

And that boy, is Matt Parkman’s son.

Huruma's kick carries her inward as her feet plant inside the room, momentum easing after a few, languid steps. The plane of her helmet stares ahead at the room, and the scene laid out for them, reflecting blue shine. She trusts the girls with her to back her up accordingly, giving them no second glance. Her eyes remain on the three- - three.

The feeling of a boring gaze may find purchase with the pre-teen boy. A quick study, before Huruma tips her head, Pete giving his demand. That woman, though… Ah.

"Oh, pleeease…" The Hound's voice filters out with a drawling derision, Banshee ahead of her and trained on Varlane. "You should watch your blood pressure, Petey… Maybe have a sit down…?" With each word's intonation he won't feel that calm coming over him any longer. Instead- -

Despair. Guilt. Doubt. Sharp, pricking fingers and plunging fangs, that red-faced righteousness buried under a landslide of powerlessness and molten sorrows.

"Please step aside, Janice." No indication of how she knows, just that she does. Huruma's bearing says a great deal on it's own, but her certainty speaks just as well.

After so long hoping to find Pete Varlane on one of these missions, Adel can’t help but tense a little when he’s finally there in front of her. If it had not been for the fact that he had a gun leveled on a kid, she might have just opened fire with the Banshee on him right then and there. Instead she gives the kid a glance that ends up longer than a glance, almost as if she recognizes him specifically, rather than the older woman, even whispering a surprised, “Matty?” And mouthing a little ‘wow, he’s so young!

They can’t help the kid, not the way the mom wants, but they could get them out of here. Maybe they can find another way to help, too. But she knew Pete Varlane was not the answer.

With Huruma setting the mood, Adel decides she can do the one thing she always thought about doing upon seeing the old man finally, but never thought she actually would be able to. She raises a hand away from her weapon to wave fingers at her grandfather and says, “Hi, Grandpa. Nice to finally meet you.”

The others move, but Berlin lingers in the doorway taking in the sight of the lab. She's lost concentration on her breathing and it starts to come in sharp, shallow gasps. When she starts forward, it's not toward the people with guns, but toward the padded chair. Her fingers trail across the tank next to it, her eyes following the hoses. Then her steps take her to one of the gurneys and she stands next to it, eyes blinking in an effort to push back the memories that creep into her mind.

But it's not enough.

She'd repressed so much for so long, but now she knows, now she remembers her own turn in rooms like this one, on gurneys like this one. It presses against her like a boulder, it started rolling down this hill well before and now it's too late to stop it. Her head jerks away from the sight, eyes pressing closed. That isn't enough, either. The memories are there, waiting.

"What have you been doing in here?" she asks, her tone haunted. Because she knows what they've been doing here.

Janice fires a guilty look to Berlin when that question is asked, even as she’s slinking her way to the back of the conversation. There’s a haunted look in her eyes as well, especially once they reach her son who stares at her as though she were a stranger.

For all that he’s been through, it’s Huruma’s psychic hammer that sends Pete collapsing nearly to a knee. His only saving grace is a hand catching the arm of one of the paired chairs. He loses his grip on his handgun, though, and it clatters to the floor helplessly. “I… I’m just— I’ve just—” Pete doesn’t, can’t form full words. All he can do is stammer, and more visibly, cry. His eyes are red the instant Huruma’s psychic effect hits him, the guilt he’s only barely been able to hold inside now seething out through the cracks in his own denial.

Adel is confronted by her grandfather, by her father’s tormentor, and Pete Varlane looks at her like a stranger. He spares Adel not even the barest look of recognition, he has no idea who she is. But her assertion — grandpa — is met with a twisted look of both confusion and uncertainty. In his heart he may have suspicions, but he can’t be sure. He doesn’t know who any of these people are, except—

Nathalie?” It isn’t the name Adel expected him to say. Pete’s voice hitches when his tear-filled eyes square on Berlin. His hands tremble, guilt is rapidly being replaced by something else that Huruma feels welling up powerfully within him: fear.

Tell her, mom.” Is the unexpected conversational thunderbolt thrown from the young man in the room. “Tell them what you’ve been doing!” Indignation paints itself on young Matthew’s face, his own eyes red from crying, but nothing fresh.

“Matty— no. No,” Janice says, still holding the gun she’d been threatening Pete with.

Matthew moves away from his mother, toward the Wolfhound operatives. Then, slowly, he rolls up his right sleeve and shows the purple and red injection marks all along the inside bend of his elbow. They’re large, surrounded by angry red circles, long term subcutaneous fluid implants. They match the pattern of needles on the chair’s restraints.

Tell them what you did to me!” Matthew yells, fresh tears welling up in his eyes.

It is only Pete's fear and speech that draws a subtle tilt of her head, putting Berlin into her peripheral- - an inquisitive twitch, for her words and his, and then the boy's presence moving closer, revealing himself. Adel is the nearest and can almost feel the tall woman bristle.

What fantastic parents she's been meeting lately. Huruma steps forward, extending the same arm of emotions she dealt on Pete outward to Janice. No quips for this one. Just a silent sinkhole that collapses under her own guilt. "Put the gun down." It's not a suggestion.

Huruma moves closer to Varlane, stopping to kick away the gun he dropped, her own trained with certainty. "On the ground. Hands behind your back."

She promised Hana and Avi that this time it was 'apprehend'.

To be fair, Adel didn’t expect grandpa to recognize her, even if he worked for people who once worked for a man from the future. She doubted that they had been briefed on those who had come from the future, even those who had assaulted their businesses back before the boss had been taken care of up in Alaska. But he didn’t need to recognize her. She knew him. And— apparently he knew Berlin, by a totally different name. A brief glance is cast in the direction of her teammate, until she looks back at the young teen that—


With the other two ready and willing and able, and with Huruma apparently moving to take her grandpa into custody— she can talk to him later — she holsters the weapon and slowly starts to approach Matty, arms spread. “We’re going to get you out of here, so don’t worry. You’re going to be okay.” She’s not exactly afraid, but she’s certainly wary, cautious. As if she knew something the others might not.

Which possibly she did, considering where she was from.

Hearing that name, her name, Berlin jerks upright and turns toward Pete. She's been agitated since they got here, with her distress increasing the further they got into the building. But here, her face turns stony. Like she's viewing the moment instead of being a part of it.

But Huruma knows better. From the moment her name leaves Pete Varlane's lips, Berlin's familiar emotional signature is— not gone, but it's suddenly harder to find her. A tidal wave of emotion floods her senses, as if the room were packed full of bodies, rather than just a handful of them. Berlin is in there, but she's somewhere under the surface. Drowning. Berlin has been holding this back for years, Nathalie has only just gotten curious about her connection to the others who've held what she now holds, and normally, she might be able to pull herself up from the depths. But unfortunately, she's already been battling memories of a little girl held captive by cruelty and she can't quite find her way.

But one memory sticks out from the others. One voice. One moment.

"Do me a favor and shoot Pete Varlane if you find him."

Richard Ray is something she can cling onto. A memory that she knows is hers. And there he is, Varlane, crying on the floor in front of her, confirming what she already assumed.

He knew everything. He was still doing it now, to others.

Berlin draws a pistol from her waist and fires, aiming right between Pete's tear-filled eyes. It isn't only her own training and experience, it isn't only her own trauma guiding her…

…but it is her hand that pulls the trigger.

Sunstone Manor

Just Outside Los Angeles, California

April 15th


The end of a cigar is clipped off cleanly, landing in an ashtray beside the smoldering nub of another. The wood accented walls of a dark office are lit only by the glow of an enormous tank full of tropical fish. Under that blue light, Pete Varlane looks tired.

The flick of a flint wheel accompanies the glow of fire illuminating his face, the strong aroma of a fresh cigar wafting up around him. Pete has no intention of reading the report sitting on his desk in this lighting, but he can still see the block print at the bottom of the document that reads: UNSUCCESSFUL

Closing his eyes, Pete draws in a slow and fatigued breath, then exhales swirling rings of smoke in a thoughtful moment of amusement. The smoke rings don’t elevate his spirits, not the way they used to. Pete’s attention drifts to a photograph in a plain wood frame on his desk of a dark-haired boy with an optimistic smile. He sighs, leaning back against the stuffed leather of his chair, which creaks under his weight.

When the door to his office opens without so much as a knock, Pete looks up to the thin sliver of light spilling in from the hallway and the dark silhouette of a woman slipping in from outside. Pete’s eyes lid partway, an expression of wistfulness becomes something more tepid. “Erica,” is delivered the same way someone might tersely ask, what?.

Erica Kravid slowly shuts the door behind herself, one of her arms wrapped in medical gauze and bound in a tight sling to her chest. That she even still has an arm is a miracle after what Pete did to her. Erica’s expression is much steelier. As is the gun she has in her good hand. Pete exhales a lungful of smoke, looking to the gun, then Kravid.

“We never met where you’re from?” Pete wonders aloud. “Did we?”

Erica raises the gun and aims it at Pete. There’s rage in her eyes, smoldering and intense as she trains her aim between Pete’s two questioning eyes. “No,” she answers plainly as she pulls the trigger.

“You were dead.”

Present Day

Screams fill the air in the Gemini chamber. Janice Parkman has dropped her gun entirely, hand to her mouth, muffling a scream of horror. Matthew has backed away from both Wolfhound and his mother, staring in wide-eyed shock at the pool of blood spreading out beneath the prone body of Pete Varlane. The team of scientists in the hallway recoil in horror but are also frozen in place, recognizing that there is a razor-thin line between being a prisoner of Wolfhound, and being an enemy of Wolfhound.

Berlin’s gunshot still rings in the air. Dark red spatter clings to one of the machines, slowly trickling in rivulets. A single entry point in Pete’s brow belies the size of the exit wound in the back of his head.

“That won’t be necessary.”

Berlin is the only Hound near enough to hear him say so, Noa’s belayed order tempered carefully quiet beneath the churn of filmy water around their feet, and the dwindling hum of the machinery around them. He gives her a look, too — asserting rank in aside, steady as the gun he’s turned against Georgia Mayes’ temple in its silent prompt for her to take a step back. The muzzle follows the arch of her skull as she tips it back.

He looks down at Mayes looking up at him, and for a strange beat, that loathing is shared in force. Intertwined. Quickly, before the others can act on the shift in dynamic:

Vincent pulls the trigger. A sweeping arc of brainmatter splatters muddy against the glass away from the shot.

A thin line of smoke trails from the muzzle of Berlin’s handgun.

She feels the bump and spike of emotion from inside Berlin but a moment before she draws the pistol and fire. It tastes of a multifaceted bitterness, spawning in fineness from shared traumas like buckshot. The salt and snap of static lingers on Huruma's brain as her connection to Varlane is snapped off; blood sprays against her legs, smearing over the armor with a dull shine.

Only one indication of her surprise, and that is the twitch to clear her head of that rubber band sting of her ability reeling back in from that close vicinity. The feeling of buckshot emotion, however, shocks but does not manifest itself. Huruma's Banshee falls back to her side as her helmet's front plane angles birdlike towards Berlin. The people outside burble like a flock of nervous sheep, Janice and Matthew shivering shock and trepidation.

It's different here, than before. There wasn't an audience.

But otherwise? A distinct lack of irritation; she did her job, even if the young woman couldn't.

Huruma's free hand lifts in a gesture of ease, with a splay of fingers which curl gently as she turns towards Berlin. Perhaps she should have not believed her reassurances after all, and yet- - here we are. With the motion of her hand comes some manner of peace; Huruma does not pull on any threads from her fellow Hound, simply aiming to drape all of her in a sheet of placidity to allow her to sort out what lies underneath.

"Berlin," Her name is the touch of a soft brush from the empath, and Huruma cannot shake the more maternal shades from her voice, soothing. "Utulivu moyo wako, ni sawa… be still." It's okay. You're okay.

If there is one thing she knows here, it is the sting of salt in old wounds.

Everything feels still for a moment, even quiet in the ringing of a discharged weapon in the room, drowning out most of the other sounds. Adel’s eyes slowly move around, the slightest shift of her head, to Janice, to Matty, to… to the demon she’d been chasing all these years really. And then finally to Berlin. For a moment, there’s a flash of something. It’s almost anger, almost disappointment, but all at once it’s also relief. Mixed feelings were something that Huruma probably was used to.

With a breath, she realizes she hadn’t actually moved since the gun went off, standing stark still except for the swivel of her head to look around. As Huruma starts to approach their teammate, she starts to go over the steps she needs to take in her head. Quietly, she walks over to where Janice dropped the weapon and picks it up, placing it behind her belt so her hands are free as she moves toward Matty again.

“Hey, kid. You’re getting out of here.” She’s talking loudly enough that she can just hear it over the ringing in her ears, which means it’s a little louder than normal conversation. “No one’s going to hurt you here anymore.”

Berlin is stuck in position for a long moment, holding the gun pointed at Varlane even though it has already done its job. Her hand starts to shake too late for it to help Varlane. It isn't just Mayes that haunts her in this moment, but Clark's ghost lingers in the echo of the shot as well. They play in her memory, a dark triptych.

After her rush of emotions from herself and the others, Berlin is left suddenly empty.

She holsters her weapon. She can't think of anything else to do.

Hearing her name— the name she chose— she looks over at Huruma. She's here, but she's not and no one can feel that like Huruma can. "I don't think I should stay here," she says, as a general observation. But still, she doesn't break for the exit. She stays still, like she was told.

Janice doesn’t say anything, frozen in shock and horror, impaled on a spike of guilt. She is crying, silently, with one hand cupped over her mouth. There are spines of fear bristling from her, fear of repercussions for what she’s done, for what she would have done. Every time she looks at her son all of that rises, and she slides down on that spike of guilt, further staked in place by its paralyzing intensity.

Matthew is sobbing by the time Adel gets over to him, red-faced and bleary-eyed. The slight young man has one hand covering his face, shoulders hunched forward and strangled half-words barely audible in the back of his throat. He doesn’t seem afraid of Adel, something about her demeanor, about the promises she’s making, but none of that seems to quell the deep fear and sadness inside of him. When Adel gets closer, Matthew looks up at her and she feels something stir in the middle of her chest. A tightness, at first like a flutter of panic, but then…

Sunstone Manor

Just Outside Los Angeles, California

April 15th


Blood mixed with something thicker — chunks of bone and hair — decorates the wall behind where Pete Varlane was seated. Gun in hand, Erica Kravid slowly stalks forward and looks down to Pete’s seated corpse now slouched in his chair. She lowers the gun only when she’s sure he isn’t moving. She circles around the desk, spotting his cigar still burning on the floor where it dropped from his now slack mouth. She presses her shoe down atop it, grinding the cigar into the floorboards.

“You don’t ever touch me,” Erica says to Pete’s corpse, turning her back to the body. But when the corpse sucks in a wet, wheezing breath, Erica snaps back around and stares in wide-eyed horror at what she finds in the chair.

Present Day

Motherfucker,” is the gurgled slur that comes from Pete Varlane’s corpse. It’s wet, slippery, bubbling in the way someone with a mouthful of saucy pasta might try and spit the words out. All eyes are understandably on Pete’s corpse when it speaks, let alone when his face splits in half like a melting candle, bone and muscle dissolving into a pinkish red slurry of fluids, revealing Pete Varlane beneath his own flesh. His clothing becomes soaked dark with viscera, and with one hand held out in a let’s not be hasty now gesture, Pete pushes himself up onto one wet hand, leaving the flesh of his palm stuck to the floor.

As he sits up, Pete sloughs off the flesh of his body like a snake shedding his skin, leaving a gory, gooey, tacky mess behind that is breaking down into a swirl of red and clear fluid, collagen, and fat. He doesn’t even have a scar on his forehead where the bullet impacted.

Janice begins screaming anew.

"Perhaps not." Huruma answers, lifting her gesturing hand to pry up the face of her helmet; her only interest seems to be Berlin in that moment, canted eyes staring out from above those razored cheekbones. She heard what Varlane called her, yet she says nothing of it. Her intent is to keep the young woman level, even if the inside is a maelstrom of things. "But your only exit is with us."

After that, well… we'll see.

Then she feels it, the tickle of something just to the left. Huruma's head cocks to the side just a moment before the wet garble of sound from Pete Varlane. Her now visible expression betrays her fascination.

Well then.

She laughs lowly, lips pulled back, grin sardonic and toothed.

"Behave, or we'll play this game again, mjinga." Huruma growls, hefting her Banshee back towards the man on the floor. "We are leaving. Now. Get up. Move." A spare glance roams towards Janice and Matthew, panic tugged at, unraveling slowly. "And you. Calm down. Adel, do you have him?"

Of all the… “Lasers, that is gross, grandpa,” Adel exclaims quietly under her breath, with one of those strange curses that she sometimes uses, that one seems the equivalent of Christ really. “Don’t look, kiddo,” she says as she turns her attention back to Matty, moving forward to offer him something much better to look at than meatbag of disgusting old grandpa. It’s definitely an incentive not to shoot him again.

Despite the grossed outness that she’s radiating, something about her is relieved all at the same time. And anxious, all at once, perhaps the way she’s interpreting that ball of anxiety that grew up on her middle. Whatever was happening, it’s giving her gooseflesh under the armor, and she’s definitely wanting to get out of this place.

And to a shower. And a long vacation. “Berlin, can you get the mom moving— and preferably not screaming?” She’s hoping giving Berlin something to do will keep her from shooting anyone. “I got the kid.” Even if she has to carry him.

Berlin turns toward the corpse, watching as he slithers out of himself. She takes a few steps toward him, fingers twitching like she might be thinking about reaching for her gun again. But instead, she crouches down to look at the discarded skin. And then over at Pete. Her gaze lingers for a long moment. Blank. Free of remorse or guilt.

"He knows it isn't the guns he has to worry about," she says as she pushes back up to her feet.

If he knows Nathalie, then he knows.

Looking over to Adel, she gives her a nod and moves over to Janice, close enough to usher her toward the exit with a sweep of her hand. She doesn't touch her, but she gives her a firm look. "If you want to get out of this building, we're going now. If you want the chance to try to make things right with your son." Her tone isn't kind, she can't keep the disgust out of her words, but she will make sure Janice gets out of here alive.

What the fuck is that?” The group in the lab hears one of the scientists out in the hallway say a split second before automatic gunfire breaks the moment of calm. Huruma can feel the bubble of panic spread out from the scientists and into the room as recognition of the noise fills the air. A visible look of shock comes over Pete as he hears the sound of gunfire, both his hands up in the air and shoulders hunched in a it wasn’t me gesture.

Five scientists collapse to the ground, some screaming and others unmoving. Blood stains white lab coats. Kyle Renautas comes scrambling in through the lab doors, blood droplets stark against his pale cheek, though he otherwise seems uninjured. As the gunfire continues and there’s time enough to react, the Wolfhound operatives spot a humanoid figure moving out of the dark, at first resembling a heavily armored man carrying a too-large assault rifle.

But then Adel sees the cyclopic red lens of its single digital eye. It’s a machine.

Mom!” Matthew screams in the chaos, and Adel sees him drop to his knees with Janice. But it isn’t to cower for cover, he’s cradling his mother in his arms. Janice Parkman gurgles up a mouthful of blood, pawing helplessly at her son’s face. She’d been struck in the chest between her collar bones. A shallow lake of blood has already formed there where she lay.

The scientists are scattering into the lab, screaming, terrified. Pete, on his knees and watching the machine, looks like he knows what's coming. The resignation in his eyes is palpable.

Huruma feels nothing coming when the hall beyond erupts into a shower of bullets; it gives her an indicator of what's going on even if she doesn't realize right away.

"Cover- -" There are enough pieces of equipment in here that Huruma has some faith in the idea of cover until they know what they're doing; she herself grabs Varlane by the collar and drags him behind his own desk before kicking it over. She knows the other women can find something makeshift as she does. "Keep your head down," is her only warning to Pete. He can get himself killed by her or the robot, otherwise.

It is then that the figure steps into view from the dark, its hail of fire becoming a distinct prelude to worse once they see it for what it is. The single red burning eye says the most, even for her- - and she only saw one other exit aside from the one currently taken up by an armored war machine. The Banshee docks back at her side.

"There's a back door," Take it if you need to goes unsaid, as she is deciding to at least give this thing a bad time first. Then maybe a tactical movement.

Huruma jerks her chin down to replace the frame of her faceplate with a click; her hand pulls on the grip of the pistol at her back, the heft of it showing in the way she sweeps the muzzle upward and rests the grip in her other hand over the edge of the upturned desk. A snarl of air sits in her as she aims, Wilby's barrel priming and firing just above the ridge of armor at the crux of neck and collar.

Turns out a hand cannon comes in useful.

Berlin watches Janice take a hit. She watches Matthew come to her side. She only remembers to drop a few moments later, as the situation filters in past her walls.

It only took the blink of an eye for her to fail at keeping her charges safe.

Last time she tried to heal someone this close to death, she had the fuel of another body. And she can't claim that it went well. Not for anyone involved. She looks over at Matthew, reaches for his shoulder. "Stay low, get to the back door. Before it gets all of us," she says, using these precious moments to try to convince him. They're counted in Janice's dwindling pulse. She glances to Adel, knowing she'll get these people to safety.

And then she looks at Janice. She knows what she did to her son. She knows what the Institute did to kids like him. Like her. People say her mother was awful, but this one is a monster.

Berlin knows a monster when she sees one. Like recognizes like.

"You could have just loved him," she whispers from her crouch next to her, "why couldn't you just love him?"

Huruma’s shot punches through the machine’s chest, demolishing ablative armor, demolishing central servos, cutting through the thickest portion of the machine’s heavily armored chassis with all the strength of a handheld anti-tank weapon. Huruma had no way to know the central processing unit for the machine was contained in its chest, rather than its head, and when her round demolishes the center mass, the entire machine falls backwards with a clattering crash, scattering broken screws and fragments of metal across the floor like an upended toolbox.

Another whirr-click is approaching from down the hall, another bipedal machine a hundred feet behind the other, laying down blind suppressing fire against the wall and in some buzzing blasts through the open double doors.

Come with me if you want to live,” Adel shouts as she grabs Pete from Huruma, hauling him up to stand. As she does, gunfire continues to pop from the hall, screams fill the air, and panicked scientists scramble ahead of Adel toward the rear door. In the chaos, Matthew and Berlin are huddled around Janice’s body. Her eyes are unblinking, focused on the ceiling, unaware of the violence happening around her.

She has but the strength to take her son’s hand, smearing her blood on his palm, and gurgles, “Matt?” before she dies. A ragged sob slips from Matthew as he hunches over his mother, cowering from the gunfight happening around him and crumpling from the loss of his last parent. As he exhales a weary and broken sob, all of the lights in the room begin to flicker on. The electricity, which had been a point of contention when Wolfhound arrived, suddenly begins sputtering to life.

But it doesn’t end there.

Berlin feels it first, a wave of nausea rush over her body as her eyes flare blue. Prickling pinpoints of light spot her vision, tingle her fingertips, and she feels both a weight in her chest and a weightlessness in her mind starting spine-deep. A susurrus of voices builds up in her thoughts, dozens of them all speaking and shouting at once, demanding to be heard.

“Dis le encore, je te défie,” the blonde woman says, leveling her pistol down at the man laying in the grass. “Appelez-moi un hérétique!” A cross swings around her neck, glinting in the midday sun. The curly-haired man laying on his back stares up at her, trembling, clutching a bleeding wound in his abdomen. His own pistol, discarded in the grass, lays beside his rapier.

“Je me rends,” the wounded man splutters, “Je me rends.

##bfa877|The woman responds by clicking back the second hammer of her double-barrel flintlock. “Non.”

Berlin’s breath hitches in the back of her throat, her head swims and her mind reels. Machinery in the lab begins to activate, pumps turning on and automatic clamps on the chairs snapping open and closed rapidly, clattering like wind-up plastic teeth.

A scream erupts from the samurai as he drops to one knee, sword clattering into the tall grass from his trembling hand. Though he cannot die, he can feel pain in all its forms, and never once experience the sweet release of death. The woman standing before him, dark hair and blue-eyed, frowns intensely as she watches the cut on her arm slowly seal shut.

Watashitachi wa onaji,” the samurai says through his mask, carved in the countenance of a snarling oni. She says nothing, merely lowering her now uninjured arm as he pries his mask off. Adam Monroe reveals the true face of Takezo Kensei to the woman, who narrows blue eyes at him with both suspicion and curiosity.

“Who are you?” She asks, and Kensei had mistaken her for many things, but he never expected to hear an Irish accent this far away from home. Sucking in a breath, he tentatively moves to stand, leaving his sword where it lay.

“Not your enemy,” is the first thing out of Adam’s mouth. “I am… Takezo Kensei. I thought you were one of Whitebeard’s men.” His eyes narrow, and the woman can’t help but laugh, looking at the swordsman with thoughtful intent.

She approaches closer and Kensei flinches, watching her with nervous trepidation. “My name is Eiléan,” she says with a breathy voice. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Somewhere between the first and the last vision, Berlin fell to her knees, hands trembling uncontrollably. But she can feel palpable waves of emotions slamming against her, confusion and fear and passion mixed with happiness and euphoria. It’s disorienting, and when she catches sight of Huruma she can tell something is impacting the empath as well.

Once the lights started flickering, Huruma felt like a serpent swallowing its own tail. Her ability flared to life, spiking external emotional pushes out of her control. At first it is so disarming and alarming that she is caught unawares, but decades of training allow her to fight against herself, as if her mind was not her own, trying to combat the internal tempest of emotions surging up within her.

Ahead with the scientists, Kyle, and Pete, Adel suddenly loses her footing and falls. Up. Into the ceiling. A bubbled eruption of laughter escapes from her once she realizes what’s happening, laughter mixed with tears and a sudden level of focus as she plummets back down to the ground and grabs Pete by the collar again. The laughter may not be her own, or perhaps it’s just jubilation at a sudden return of her long-lost ability.

Huruma unfolds like a rising cobra when the machine stutters and pitches over, Wilby is uplifted in her grasp, a cock to her head. "Headshots are so overrated…"

She won't have too long to celebrate her lucky shot, however; the sound of another pings in the hall beyond, and the room fills with the stirrings of electrical life. Matthew and Berlin are the ones idling, and for a moment they are the ones that get her attention next. The despair is thick, and Janice has no taste left in Huruma's mind. It is the rise of the power coming back on that takes Huruma's eye from Matt.

"We need to g- - hhk- -" Before her head begins to swim, she sees the flickers of blue illuminated in Berlin's face. No time to figure out the implications, only time to process that something bad is happening. To her. Words catch in Huruma's throat, and long legs quaver mid-stride when the first sensation touches her. She can feel Berlin- - Nathalie?- - in as equal measure as herself, and then the others, sweeping them up like a thousand leaves in a cyclone.

She can feel another thousand arms reaching out like as many thorns, a blast of everything unfolding from her like a cloying miasma.

This hasn't happened for such a long time. A complete, primal takeover of empathic force that yanks a pained scream of pain out of her lungs, mind assailed and striking out all at once.

Huruma's field is immense, and suddenly, every inch of it is consumed in her personal hellfire. Wilby still clutched in one hand, she buckles at the waist with her other arm wrapping instinctively and desperately around her head. It does not block a thing. It does help her to concentrate on the pressure of her own limb. It does let her to grab onto something of herself.

"Inauma, inaniumiza, bibi…" Huruma's breath hisses outward, her teeth clenching in force of effort. She isn't sure what she's saying, just that she knows this feeling of being emotionally twisted inside out.

Huruma refocuses on her breathing and heartbeat to constrict it back in on herself, the ouroboros spinning as it slides free. "Nnnnnn… we need.. to goBerlin…"

Nathalie's fingers grasp at her helmet, clawing desperately at it until she's able to push it off. It clatters to the floor next to her and her fingers anchor into her hair in a tense grip. Memories and emotions that aren't— and are— hers batter against her. A hurricane she has been holding back for years. A desperate sound grates against her throat and she battles to find herself among the masses.

Nathalie is cold and limp in Quinn’s arms. Her face is turned over the older woman's shoulder as she leaves the drainage culvert, looking up at the ruins of Bannerman’s Castle, backlit by fires with the dark silhouettes of birds cast against clouds and smoke. Tears have cut a clear path down her face, eyes puffy and red. She doesn't understand why this hurts so much.

Curling into herself, she gasps in breaths and forces them back out like she might be forgetting to breathe. She doesn't hear Huruma. She hears the sound of mortars slamming into the castle above her. She hears people screaming at her to help them, to heal them. She hears the crackle of the fire lapping at her legs. Blue eyes look up at Matthew and she reaches over to take his hands in hers.

As she focuses in on the here and now, she winces at the machinery whirring and clamping like something out of a nightmare. It's work to keep her attention on the boy, it's work not to give into everything pounding at the walls of her mind. But she squeezes his hands, to get his attention.

"Be better than they were," she says, a reminder to him and to herself, "be stronger than they thought you could be." The words are marred by her raw voice, by tears and sobs of her own. But she says them to him, as she has said them to herself over and over.

Matthew is ashen-faced in the face of the oncoming machine, his mother’s open-eyed stare at the ceiling, and the chaos happening all around them. Only the sound of a voice crackling over Berlin’s radio interrupts the carnage. «Is anyo— out th — re? Repeat, — s is Wendigo-3, we’re under fire from hostile mach — s in a warehouse. We have civilians, requesting support!» It’s Colette.

As the second bipedal machine comes striding through the doorway into the lab, it ejects its magazine and snaps in another. Matthew, holding Berlin’s hand, scrambles up to his feet and pulls her back with him. As he moves, the machine’s boxy rectangular camera head pivots to follow his movement, but then pivots toward Huruma and opens fire. A three-shot burst from the heavy rifle slams into Huruma, sending her crumpling to the ground. AEGIS armor turns lethal gunfire into a three-stroke hammer to the chest that knocks the air out of the empath and leaves her world spinning and ribs bruised. As it steps in to finish the shot, gun training down on the prone Hound, Matthew lets out a violent and frightened scream of “No!

And the machine stops.

Huruma can see up through the barrel, see the irised lens of its single eye, and more importantly she feels in control of her ability again. Whatever was forcing it to be on has suddenly released like a hand easing back from a throat. Berlin, too, feels less pressure leaning on her ability. Matthew stares at the machine, helpless, brows twitching and face red.

«Wendigo-3, this is Keelut-1.» Rue’s voice comes over the comms, «We are en route to your position. We’ve picked up civilians as well. Keelut-2 has been tagged. What’re we coming into?»

The radios crackle again, this time Colette responding. «Heavy fire! We’ve got heavy hostile resistance, making a fighting retreat! Three civilians with us, Kravid is dead. Rendezvous by the stairs up at the freight elevator!»

With the comms working, Berlin and Huruma can hear Adel calling back from where she’s leading the others. «The scientists know where that is! It’s right up ahead! Wendigo-4, Wendigo-5, what’s your status!?»

Matthew, hearing only the tinny and faint sounds escaping Berlin’s headset, stares down at his mother’s body in the looming shadow of that murderous machine. Status: unwell.

"Nathalie." Huruma hisses, pawing for the girl's attention with something she's not even certain of. The sound of the second machine thumping its way inside vibrates in her ears, the echo of bullets and click of a reload with it. She straightens out in time to see its sights hawk onto her instead of Matt and Berlin. Even from where they are they can hear a growl from her as the machine fires.

The armor is a blessing in every sense of the word; with advances like those, you need armor like that. Huruma pitches sidelong into a heap, somewhere between lunging away and getting caught with an incredible accuracy. The pain in her bones is less worrisome than the gasping for air, all she hears and all she focuses on; she seems to hold onto a breath or two when she angles onto her side and up into the cyclops' face.

For a moment, her rebellion tells her to fight to the death. But she need not sacrifice herself today. Matthew's command illuminates several things at once, not limited to his control and the surge of electric in her head.

A heated miasma emanates from her as she pushes onto a knee; the others feel an unintentional flash of brave defiance as Huruma lifts her new best friend Wilby to train at that collar point and fire. It worked the first time, after all. Arm across her ribs, Huruma doesn't wait for it to hit the floor this time before she moves, eyes moving to the Parkmans. A great irony, this.

"Matthew…" The Hound's currently rasping voice is a salve, voicing his name with a feeling of security in its wake. Wilby hangs at her side. "Come and live."

Berlin— Nathalie— feels dizzy when the others stop pressing in on her. She breathes. And she gets pulled to safety with Matthew before she really tunes into reality properly. She watches the shots hit Huruma, then the machine going dark. She reaches over to touch Matthew's cheek.

"You're amazing," she says, a bit of encouragement she's fairly certain he's never heard before. She doesn't fear him, even with the effect his power had on hers. Instead, she sees the marvel in what he can do.

She needs him to see it, too.

You poor, delusional child. Nat hears the voice in the air, disembodied and she takes in a sharp breath. It's not Matthew bringing the voice out this time. Just one persistent man's memories lingering as her control readjusts. There are no heroes in this world.

Berlin snaps her attention to Huruma. "I'm here. We're here." She keeps hold of the boy's hand as she moves them toward the exit Adel took. "This is Wendigo-5," she says over the comms, "we were taking fire from the machines, too, but heading to your position, Wendigo-2." She looks to Huruma, giving her a nod. She's shaken, but she's not out.

There is recognition in Matthew’s eyes when the machine seizes, but frustration, confusion, and disbelief. His mother’s body isn’t even cold yet, and he’s being told he’s amazing, he’s being told to live. The last thing he said to her was something hateful, something angry, and he will never be able to explain to her how he truly felt. Matthew Parkman doesn’t feel exemplary, doesn’t feel amazing, doesn’t feel like he deserves living.

And yet, he does.

As Huruma moves back, calls to him, urges him on in ways he can't yet understand he feels a hollow sense of certainty. A certainty and reassurance that feels as though he'd read about it in a storybook. Not something he experienced. But so too did the knife of his mother’s death begin to feel disassociated from between his ribs. Matthew stares at Berlin and Huruma vacantly, and doesn't realize he is moving forward until he cannot see his mother's corpse any longer.

All he hears are the shouts ahead.

Around the dark corridors.

And the uncertain future.

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