The Ǝxecution


abby_icon.gif asi5_icon.gif avi_icon.gif colin_icon.gif faulkner_icon.gif francis_icon.gif kaylee6_icon.gif kirk_icon.gif luther_icon.gif nicole3_icon.gif noa_icon.gif nova_icon.gif verse_icon.gif zachery2_icon.gif

Scene Title The Ǝxecution
Synopsis Victims of the PHARO project travel to Czechia with Wolfhound to perform an extraction of technopath Colin Verse…
Date July 11, 2021

The Bastion doesn’t typically have civilian guests in its ready room. But the people gathered around the table today aren’t officially here, and as far as Wolfhound is concerned, this meeting isn’t happening at all.

Avi Epstein stands at the head of the room, dour and weighed-upon by the decision to participate in this unofficial and pro-bono operation. He looks at the television at the end of the conference room where a satellite image of a mountainside complex is shown. It’s not large, just a concrete building spread out over maybe half an acre.

“ARM installation 21,” Avi says as he gestures to the screen. “A semi-autonomous R&D facility, registered staff of thirty-seven, but satellite surveillance of the facility indicates those figures may be outdated, or grossly inflated. Most of the staff appears to be automated, intel we have shows little to no human security presence.”

Avi switches to another slide, showing areas circled with red rings. “That said, these circular placements are TRX-16 autonomous turrets. There’s nine of them placed around the compound…” He switches to another slide showing a schematic of a cylindrical column with three rings of turrets. “These sentries can sink into their emplacement and rise up to nine feet in height to fire over cover. They have three sets of automated fully-auto mounted firearms. This model works on RFID IFF signals to designate friend versus foe. Probably on security badges. Really rudimentary security. We’ll be deploying Noa, a radio-technopath operative, with your team to blind the turrets.”

Switching to the next image, Avi shows a map of the surrounding mountain countryside in the Czech Republic. “Your team will be air-dropped 1.5 kilometers away from the ARM facility and hike up the mountain on foot.”

The image zooms in, showing a large concrete bridge extending across a ravine from the road to the main facility. “Your primary entry point will be this bridge. It’s retractable, so you’ll need to take control of the security checkpoint here.” He motions to a small square on the map near the bridge. “Noa will hold that position until you’re ready to exit the facility.”

Avi paces back and forth in front of the screen. “I’ll be waiting for your signal at the drop point, and when I get the all-clear I’m going to come in hot with the Tlanuwa for extraction. Last thing we want is to hit the local air force like a hornet’s nest, so we need to keep air traffic to a minimum. Extraction point will be here…” he says, pointing to an adjacent helipad. “Get over there and request an evac.”

Switching slides, Avi displays images of a surly looking man with a stubbled beard and messy black hair. “The target we’re looking for is Colin Verse, technopath. From what we’ve gathered he’s going to roll out the welcome mat for us and disengage the automated security, but I’d be lying if I said I trusted that fully. We’ve captured Verse before and he squeezed out from between our fingers. But we need to bring him in alive. He has too much intel on what’s going on with…” Avi sighs. “All this weird bullshit you have going on.”

Turning off the screen, Avi brings up the conference room lights and looks at the motley group of people sitting around the table, frowning as he does. “That said, this favor we’re doing doesn’t come without strings. I reached out to Washington about this, and they’ve unofficially sanctioned our operation into the Czech Republic. We fuck up, get caught, or get our asses stranded? We’re on our fucking own. We make it back ok, though, we won’t be walking into a legal snarl. They know what we’re doing, but we’re carrying all the risk.”

Avi runs a hand through his hair. “We depart from Floyd Bennet tomorrow morning at 3am. We’re loading up into a C-5 Galaxy, our bird included, and it’ll be a 10 hour flight before we reach the LZ outside of Munich. After that, we’re flying low and under the radar to the ARM facility. If we make it back to Germany in one piece and without the Czech military on our tail, we’ll decide what to do next from there. But don’t expect to be back in the US any time soon.”

“Wolfhound compliment on this Op will be myself on air support, Noa Gitelman with comms and tech, Francis Harkness and Asi Tetsuyama on direct engagement. Civilian company, I’m humbly fucking asking you to keep your heads down and not get your asses shot off. I don’t care if you think you’re some kind of robot or werewolf or what-the-fuck-ever, I don’t want your brains splattered across the fucking floor. But I know you’ve all fought, so I trust you to be fucking smart and take instruction from Tetsuyama and Harkness.”

Avi closes his eyes and shakes his head, stomach twisting from how much he dislikes this whole situation. “Dismissed. Go get some sleep and get ready. We’re wheels-up in 10 hours.”

Twenty-Six Hours Later

The Tlanuwa
Somewhere over the Czech Republic

July 11th
6:13pm Local Time

It’s impossible for Asi to ignore how uncomfortable her commander looks. Major Epstein checks the instrumentation and watches the rolling, forested hillside of Czechia blur past. His grip on the controls is tight, and he’s forced to hug the curvature of the hills to stay out of radar. Without looking at the console again, Avi flips on an active comm channel.

“We’re two minutes out from the drop zone,” Avi says, glancing to Asi in the copilot seat. He gives her a nod, indicating that she should head into the passenger hold and get ready to land. “I need everybody geared and ready to go. I’m only going to park the bird for a minute before I take off again, and you all better be off when I leave.”

In the passenger hold of the Tlanuwa, Francis Harkness sits in his jumpseat with his right knee jittering up and down. “Never participated in a whole fucking international incident before,” he says with an awkward smile, looking over to the person seated next to him. “You?”

Kirk takes one look at Francis and says, “I’m like, six months old, man.”

Francis stares vacantly, then returns to knee-jittering.

“Aww,” comes the faux-soothing voice of Nicole Miller from the seat on Francis’ other side. “First time?” She glances over at him briefly before staring out toward the back of the bird, which she’s jumped from before. “I’m in a competition with my sister.”

She is not.

“Gonna see which one of us requires the biggest cover up.” Grinning across the aisle at her husband, Nicole calls over to him. “In it to win it! Right, baby?”

"Don't look back," is Asi's advice for Avi as she unbuckles herself from the copilot's rig and pushes back from controls that were meant more to be directed mentally than physically. "You've done enough in getting this far. Trust us to want this enough to get the rest of the way." She reaches out to place a hand on his shoulder, then grabs her helmet as she heads back into the hold.

She'll blame the knots in her stomach on the stout dosage of medication she's taken to forfend any of her existence's more unpleasant symptoms rather than admit nerves. She lands with a thud next to Francis and remarks to him "Bullshit." with a hint of a smile. His sake entirely, not for her own. "Or are you one of those people who counts Canada as basically the US? Come on, now, Harkness. This is comparatively old hat for you."

After a brief widening of her smile, Asi's expression sobers up quickly as she turns to look across the hold. Her voice lifts to carry as she heads down the line. "You all heard the Commander. Everyone get your helms on, check you have everything you should. Check your suit's charge, your Banshee, your weapon…"

“You can’t tell me the son of the great Scott Harkness is afraid of a little intrigue and subterfuge?” Kaylee teases him from her spot across the aisle with Luther settled in next to her. Technically this Kaylee was maybe six months older than Kirk, but she had a lifetime of memories and even replicated scars to prove it.

So in a way this wasn’t Kaylee Thatcher’s first rodeo by a long shot. In fact, the part owner of the very company that geared them, looked at ease with the fact they were getting into shit on foreign soil. Almost… too at ease with flirting with her family and company’s future.

It’s a Ray family quality, really.

“Seriously, though, don’t think too hard about it. Keep your head in the now, survive. The thoughts about after can wait til we’re done,” she offers in hopes of easing his mind a little.

Under it all, Kaylee was nervous as hell for what could happen to her family should they fuck this all up. Not to mention the fact that when shit went down, they would officially be racing against time, but Francis didn’t need to see how much that all scared her.

“Me neither.” Nova’s confession probably goes without saying, given her youth, civilian status, and the fact she’s also ‘not a real person,’ (her words) who went to ‘Tim Horton High School.’ She has no idea what her actual self has done, but whatever it was, for some reason, she was very adept with the rushed weapons training the civilians received in preparation for the trip.

“Well, I guess the crash last summer counts as an international incident. But that wasn’t voluntary,” she adds.

After Kaylee’s reassuring words, she offers Francis a thumbs-up. “You’ve got this, buddy,” she tells him with a quick smile, like she’s the veteran operative and he’s the rookie instead of the other way around.

She nods at Asi’s directives, doing the final checks on the equipment she’s been given.

Nearby, Wolfhound ‘consultant’ Noa Gitelman watches with both worry and amusement in her dark eyes. In her experience, such missions are prone to miscommunications or rogue actions at times, even with teams that know each other well, who trained together and know the protocols and weapons. This motley crew is hardly a well-oiled machine, and she doesn’t know which way their instincts will move them.

Still, Noa manages a smile for Kirk’s rejoinder to Francis. “You’re very precocious. Definitely in the 99th percentile for height and weight, too.”

For most of the trip so far, Luther has had little to no response or reaction to the conversation and noise. He looks to have been asleep from the moment he settled into the seat beside Kaylee, like a proper New Yorker on a subway train. Whether he's actually been asleep or not, it's Asi's voice that cuts through and the man bestirs himself to open his eyes. Luther sweeps the interior of the plane once, twice, with his gaze before he follows suit in suiting up. Weapons, check. Backup batteries, check. His helmet is the last to go on, but before he slides it over his face he sends Nicole a longsuffering look and a singular grunt, "Drang." It's an extremely heavy laden word. He then reaches out his gloved hand to lay on Kaylee's, passing a no less determined look to the woman sat beside him. Nothing else comes from the taciturn one, but he turns to look at each and every one of his teammates.

“He’s very advanced for his age group.” A thick southern drawl adds in from where she’s been sitting with eyes closed and hands in her lap praying for the last hour. But the warning that they are landing has Abby roused from her ablutions and starting to check on her gear. Tighten straps on her armor and check her weapon. “Perhaps we just don’t take a cargo ship back from here, and if we do, I don’t suggest stopping in Estonia. Questionable food.” There’s a deep inhale then exhale by her, in through the mouth and out through the nose before straightening in her seat. All signs point to ready to go from Abigail.

Zachery, sitting with his helmet in his lap, has been ready. He looks up from his fourth or fifth check of himself and his belongings to meet his wife's gaze. His grin and the confidence in his eyes serve as the only answer to her question. Or— the confidence in one of his eyes, since the other is a distinct acrylic fake white, with a fun swirl in the middle. Thank you very much, Pippa.

"I have a good feeling about this," he says, gaze sweeping excitedly over everyone else before he lifts his helmet to put it on, grin widening. "A fucking great feeling, actually."

Isaac Faulkner is not so confident… but he's doing his best not to let it show. He's doing his best to appear calm and focused, and not anywhere near as jittery as he actually feels… because oh boy is he definitely feeling nervous. Not because he's going into a life or death situation — he's been living with the knowledge that the Grim Reaper is clearly visible in the rearview for awhile now. Not just because he's going into his first live-fire situation, and not just because he's participating in a potential, quote-unquote, international incident — though those are certainly parts of it.

No, what he's afraid of most is that he'll fail again. Just as he did on that first sunset run across the rooftops — that he'll misjudge his own abilities or overestimate the skills he's been honing, or the Ghost of Migraines Past, Present, and Future that's napping at the back of his (cybernetic) brain will wake up and fuck him over. And this time… someone else will suffer for it.

But even that isn't the entirety of it. Lurking beneath that is another fear, deeper still — a quiet seed of doubt planted during those strange fugue interludes he'd had during the inferno. As much as Isaac wants to know the truth — and he does — he's afraid, a bit, to find out what that truth might be.

But he's also pretty sure that there's no quicker way to make his fears into self-fulfilling prophecies than to obsess over them… so he's doing his best not to. To focus, instead, on how to play to his strengths in what's to come.

So he sits quietly, observing his teammates as they get ready, doing small muscle stretches to make sure he's loose and limber, checking the straps on his gear one last time before he dons his helmet. "Ready," he says.

And hopes he's not lying.

“Ah, hazing, I remember this,” Francis mumbles with a crooked grin. He sits forward and grabs his helmet from under his seat and slides it on, making sure the visor moves correctly, then gives a test of the comm’s system.

Next to him, Kirk looks practically exuberant. Perhaps it’s because he has no frame of reference for precisely how dangerous this all is. “Look, once we get to the ARM facility it’ll be fine. I have overrides for all the external security and clearance to activate the bridge. We signal to Colin to do the routine security scrubbing, then we get in and get out, easy-peasy.”

Easy peasy?” Francis asks with a look over at Kirk. “Where d’you even learn sayings like that if you’re a fresh-off-the-shelf Ken doll? Did you literally get programmed to sound like a complete nerd?

Kirk raises his brows, never having considered the nature of his linguistic quirks. “I dunno,” he says thoughtfully. “Maybe I just, uh…” He shakes his head and disregards it, finding a helmet under his seat to instead occupy his time with.

«Alright kids,» comes Avi’s voice over the comms from the cockpit, «we’re on descent, one minute out from drop.» The warning comes with a precipitous sense of descent in the pit of the passenger’s stomachs. «Remember, don’t leave a fucking trace or it’s all our asses.»

Drang slants a grin to her old war buddy. “Bells.” Nicole spreads her hands out in front of her. Come on, you know how I am. Which is, of course, precisely the thing he meant to highlight with so simple an utterance. There’s no flash of power in her eyes when she gives her sideways assurance. She may not be the storm, but she can still be the fury.

A fury with doubts about the notion of this plan being executed smoothly, but the Olympians specialized in turbulent ops. She’s no stranger to this. But where Kirk’s confidence brings uncertainty, Zachery’s is a bolster. If nothing else, there will be a blaze. It may be an inglorious one, but that’s still a blaze.

“Hey!” Nicole calls across to her husband as she does one last check of her helmet. “Remember what we talked about.” If anything happens to me, keep moving.

No final I love yous. Instead, Nicole shifts her attention to Faulkner. “Stick with me, okay? If shit goes sideways,” and it undoubtedly will, “I’ve got you.” Her gaze is almost too serious when she says that. Maybe he understands why. Maybe he doesn’t. It matters very little to Nicole whether the shift from partners in vengeance to protective guardian is one he notices, or finds any rhyme or reason to.

Locking her helmet in place, the former electrokinetic claps her hands together, eager to begin. Eager to leave no trace, except perhaps a trail of blood.

Some of the tension Kaylee didn't know she was holding onto just bleeds out of her at the touch on her hand. Her hand turns under Luther’s and gives it a squeeze while offering him a thankful smile.

Stronger together was what the real Kaylee once told her friend, her copy couldn't help but feel the same.

With the final descent in progress, Kaylee takes back her hand so that she can twist long curls up into a messy bun and pull on her helmet. As she clips it under her chin she hears Francis’ mocking of Kirk’s turn of phrase and her lips thin out. Something about it gets her back up. So clearly bristling, she turns in her seat to face the man.

“Fran-cis Hark-ness…” Uh oh, it's the mom voice, with it her Kentucky-raised accent shines a little brighter. Only a few there have ever heard Kaylee deploy it. “You will stop that this very instant or I swear I’m goin’ to stick my boot so far up your ass, it’ll rival your daddy’s pocket dimension.” She even sticks out a combat boot clad foot for emphasis, clanking the heel on the floor of the plane. “It ain’t his fault what memories he was born with. So lay off him….”

Only Avi’s voice cuts through the ‘don’t test me, young man’ posture, making her turn away and look at the cockpit.

Nerves flutter up from the depths of her stomach once he’s had his say and Kaylee turns her attention to making sure her gear is secure, only pausing to add, “And for y’all’s information. I use easy peasy all the time. It’s a thing. Deal with it.

Noa Gitelman’s eyes are narrowed as she concentrates, listening for any radio traffic that might give them forewarnings of anything they’re not expecting. She doesn’t miss the exchange from Francis to Kirk though, and reaches over to pat Kirk on the shoulder. “Shows what he knows. Ken dolls don’t talk,” she says with a smirk.

This time Nova’s a little too nervous to give any pep talks to anyone else; she might be giving one to herself, as her lips move silently. She grips the edge of her seat tightly as the aircraft begins to descend – the last time she was in a plane, it crashed, after all, and any memories of happy landings are probably just as false as her memories.

Those who can read lips might be able to make out some of the words and realize Nova is silently singing “Shake It Out” to herself. Her eyes scrunch closed and she looks pale, younger than her supposed 21 years – which of course she is. If Kirk’s still a newborn, the rest of them with only a few exceptions are toddlers.

Asi makes her way to the back of the bird where it'll open shortly, adjusting her own helm and hitting it once with the heel of her hand to assure its security. She touches each piece of her kit in a quick check before turning her head back.

"Luther, Noa," she calls out, with less terseness than before. "Stick to the front with me. When we reach the security checkpoint, we'll cover Kirk until the bridge is down, then the rest can follow. On the off-chance they do sight us before security goes down, they'll see four, not…"

Asi only glances back at the rest of their number as the end to that sentence. The whole invading army of them. Then she holds the look back, activating her comm.

"«It's been fun picking on Harkness on the way here,»" she acknowledges without her previous humor, "«but once that bridge is down, if he calls out an order, listen to it. If we get separated, look to him for direction. Clear?»"

She hopes the scant bit of training the younger and the non-fighters of their group went through will hold up well enough.

Faulkner's gaze flickers to Nicole at her statement; her employment history is public record. He knows who she used to work for, but what does she know? Although ultimately… that doesn't really matter. She's offering to watch his back? He'll take it. If she knows something… well, that probably isn't going to work against him. "Copy that… Drang?" he says, that last accompanied by a tilt of his head and a slight questioning tone.

Kaylee's comments see him smile faintly — it's always funny watching someone else get Mom-voiced… which is, perhaps, an ironic sentiment given that he's only recently remembered his own. That thought sees his smile curdle to a faint grimace, though that's quickly buried.

But even that vanishes at Asi's statement. "Copy that," he acknowledges, once again all business. He takes one final look around his gathered teammates… and his gaze settles on Nova, one and only magna cum laude graduate of Tim Horton's High.

He makes his way over to her, laying a hand lightly on her shoulder. "Hey. We'll make it through this. Just… stick with me, keep your head down," he says quietly. Then he musters a grin. "This is gonna be a much better landing than the last time we were on a plane; we made it through that, we'll make it through this. Okay?"

Hands clasped onto the edge of his seat, Zachery looks at his wife again and offers a somewhat late but resolute nod in response to her comment. "Is it always like this?" He can't help but ask. "So dour."

He sweeps a look of disapproval left and right, then fails to hold back an abrupt laugh that spills over into his words. "Come on, I've seen corpses with more conviction! That last time we were on a plane," he darts a look at Faulkner, "we were also unconscious! Operation: Easy Peasy's a vast improvement on that already, if you ask me!"

Luther reserves any would-be silent banter with Nicole and straightens in his seat as he is named for the front line. Operation Easy Peasy gets a wrinkled lip of extreme skepticism, but the man only shifts himself in his seat, huffs roughly, and adjusts the grip he has on his rifle. Everything else he has tucked away under coat flaps or attached to a tac-belt gets one more count, one more check, before he rumbles his "Clear."

"Worst come to worst," Luther adds in afterthought, "we can knock down turret signals and base comms the hands-on, old fashioned way. Been savin' up for it." His gloved hands flex around his rifle grip, anticipating. For good measure and maybe a half-prayer offering to the gods that might laugh at their efforts, he echoes what's been said. "Easy Peasy."

“Lemon Squeezy,” Abigail amends to the ‘Easy Peasy’. They’re about to land and she’s standing, left hand rising to hold onto something in preparation. “Copy that.” Abby acknowledging instructions from Asi, and who to take directions from if the group got separated. There’s a deep breath and the helmeted woman nods her head as well. Just like her analogs old times.

Hopefully with less new scars to add to the one bisecting her own abdomen.


ARM Facility 2
Elbe Sandstone Mountains
Czech Republic

An orange tabby cat walks in circles in a small, industrial closet, staring upward at something only it can see. The cat circles a few times before rising up on its hind legs to jump. A moment later the cat glitches out, flickers, and returns to its circling position.

Across the lab floor, Colin Verse stares over his workstation at the hologram projector, clicking a few keys and tweaking the cat’s animation frames. He furrows his brows, then executes a script and shuts down the holographic projector.

Standing from his workstation, Colin is greeted by a boxy, shoulder high robot that waddles over to him with an empty mug in its hand.

"Merhaba Frank." Colin says as he grinds the heel of his palm against one of his eyes. "Kahve, lütfen." The robot's chest pops open revealing an inset coffee maker that dispenses a paper cup and begins percolating a fresh cup.

While Frank percolates a cup of coffee, Colin walks over to another workstation with its broad and sleek touch-screen interface and slides a few active programs out of his field of view. There’s a list of unread emails, live-chat messages, and a to-do list that is mostly finished. Closing all of that, Colin opens up a console and types in a command:

sudo mill-prnt resume
printing resumed
status: 98%

Sighing, Colin leans away from the console and takes the coffee out of Frank’s caffeine creche. “Teşekkürler,” he says with a gesture toward Frank with the coffee. The robot beeps and chirps happily, having performed its assigned task, and then trundles off deeper into the lab.

Leaning forward again, Colin presses a button on his workstation. “Tell me some good news,” he says into a microphone.

Meanwhile, Nearby

Stephen Verse sits on a small stool, back ramrod straight and a headset covering his eyes. Homemade wired gloves for a virtual reality system cover his hands as he makes odd gestures in the air. From his perspective, he sees blocks of code assembling like a 250 piece jigsaw puzzle. Cubes of light interconnect and form pathways, constellations of light jumping from one assembly chain to the next.

«I’ll even take mediocre news.» Colin’s voice crackles over an intercom.

“This is fuckin’ delicate work, man.” Verse says with a shake of his head, looking up in the direction of the intercom but not seeing it for the kaleidoscope of information he’s working with. “Memories aren’t just plug-and-play, you get them in the wrong order and it’s cognitive cascade failure and brain death.”

Grabbing a pulsing red brick of light, Verse slots it into a position in the constellation of blocks he’s arranging. “You sure this is gonna work?”

«No. But…»

Meanwhile, Nearby

Colin looks away from his terminal over to a screen on the wall. Camera footage of a sleek, black jet coming up over the mountainside plays in black and white. INTRUDER ALERT flashes on the bottom of the screen.

“We’re out of fucking time.”


The Tlanuwa

Jet engines roar as the Tlanuwa touches down on a stretch of road leading up to the ARM facility. As the rear hatch opens and turns into a ramp leading out onto the asphalt, powerful wind from the idling engines roars into the passenger cabin.

“Move!” Francis shouts as he springs forward, thundering down the ramp and out of the back of the Tlanuwa. He quickly moves off the narrow road and into the undergrowth on the forested mountainside, rifle trained and at the ready. As the rest of Wolfhound and the civilian attache pile out of the vehicle, Avi’s voice calls over the comms through Noa’s woman-in-the-middle hub:

«I’m going to circle the block. In and out, no surprises!»

The moment the last foot is out of the Tlanuwa the jet rises straight up off the highway as its rear hatch closes. A moment later the turbines kick in and the jet rockets away with what sounds like a peal of thunder. Up ahead, along the winding mountain road, a small concrete security checkpoint can be seen. The roaring sound of a waterfall is also clear, and the entire hillside is shrouded in a misty vapor from it, even if the falls themselves can’t be seen.

Francis motions ahead and starts to lead the group with Asi, Luther, and Noa. It doesn’t take long for the small group to reach the security checkpoint at one side of a huge ravine dividing the ARM facility from the road. The bridge from the briefing is visible, retracted into the cliffside. Two hundred feet on the other side of the ravine, the ARM facility resembles a squared, concrete Usonian-style home with narrow, black windows. The dark, cylindrical security turrets on the other side are currently recessed.

Kirk slips through the group to the security checkpoint, running his badge as instructed. The moment he does, there is a loud warning klaxon and the roaring whirr of hydraulics as the ARM facility bridge begins to slowly extend out across the ravine. Stenciled across the bridge in white paint is a designation: 301 ARM. Far below, a waterfall roars and white mist rises up from the ravine like an otherworldly curtain.

“We’re all clear so far.” Kirk says with visible relief. His badge worked, and in theory should disable the security. So far Noa isn’t feeling any pings from their RFID targeting systems. Everything is silent. Everything is going according to plan.

Thump thump, goes Asi's heart.

Thump thump goes Asi's head, despite the medication warding against it.

She waits patiently through Kirk going through the motions, eyes darting to the weaponry on the other side of the ravine, tense in preparation for it to react unfavorably to them. Even when it doesn't, it's too soon to breathe relief. Asi trucks forward when the bridge finally reaches them, stepping onto the platform as soon as it's safe to.

«We're clear,» she confirms across the comms, and then looks back to the others who're immediately with her to silently check if they've felt or seen anything off.

With the clear given, Nicole holds long enough for Francis to take the lead, but follows close behind. She’s wired with a nervous energy like she hasn’t really felt since the war. The operation in Rochester over a year ago came close, but that was a larger, joint affair. Nothing like the quick and messy ops of the resistance.

All the grins and banter have quieted for now. The lack of her ability does leave those nerves of Nicole’s somewhat frayed, but not enough to dampen her determination. Combat shotgun in tow, she’s ready to storm the facility and prepared to ruin a few lives in the process, potentially. Not for her “real” self, like some of the others may feel, but for her. Any other catharsis is purely a bonus.

Pausing for a moment to adjust the hard case pack on her back, loaded with a couple of Raytech gadgets, Kaylee takes a moment to watch the jet ascend; The sight leaves her with an odd feeling she hasn’t had - correction - that the original Kaylee hasn’t had for some time. That intense thrill of excitement and fear that came before any mission…. Especially the less than legal kind.

With a heavy sigh through her nose, Kaylee grips her rifle and moves to follow the waiting group. She hangs back a little, keeping an eye on around and behind them, waiting for the signal to move forward.

Noa gives a nod of confirmation to Asi and Kirk, lifting a thumb to indicate all is good so far on her end as well. Her expression of concentration is one familiar to those who’ve worked with her before, as she constantly scans for chatter, both human and mechanical, while also paying attention to those closest to her and her surroundings.

In the second group, Nova swallows hard as they’re given the go-ahead to move, her hands tightening around the weapon she holds in hands more used to playing the cello or guitar.

“I hope our other uses appreciate us,” she whispers to Isaac. Blue eyes slide over the terrain and the rush of the waterfall and she shakes her head. “It’s beautiful here. I didn’t expect that,” she adds in an even softer whisper, a little touch of wonder creeping in amidst the fear.

Faulkner tenses ever so slightly as the klaxon goes off… but the slow extension of the bridge is not accompanied by automated defenses coming to life and tearing them to shreds. Things are proceeding according to plan. That's good. Some of Isaac's more unreasonable fears had involved those turrets coming to life and gunning them down at the start.

He closes his eyes for a moment, taking a breath and composing himself. Fortune, inside knowledge, and planning have won them an advantage so far. They may well continue to result in things playing out favorably…

…but Faulkner is pretty sure it would be extremely unwise to bank on that luck holding indefinitely. They should play their good fortune for all it's worth while they have it… and be alert for the possibility of it failing them at any moment.

Faulkner opens his eyes again, his gaze sweeping over their surroundings. Not that he thinks he'll be able to spot something before the actual mercenaries do, but knowing there's something he can do, even now — even if it's just keeping a sharp eye out — does a lot for his nerves.

Nova's comment sees his gaze flicker over to her. "It'll be nice to meet the other me. I'll have a lot to tell him," he says back to Nova, flashing her a quick grin. "There's someone waiting for him," he murmurs under his breath — something that he hadn't intended to say aloud.

Nova's second comment, though, makes him blink. Beautiful? He pauses for a moment to examine their surroundings… then lets out a single quiet chuckle. "It is, isn't it?" he says, giving her a momentary flicker of a grin… but it's not long before he resumes that watchful gaze. "I hadn't been thinking about it… but you're right. It is. And I'm glad you're keeping an eye out; if something not so pretty pops up, maybe we can spot it before it spots us," he says, giving a tight nod.

"I have a name," not so pretty Zachery ribs flatly from just behind Faulkner.

It's the first thing he's said in a little while — despite the cheer from earlier, he's clearly out of his element in almost every way, following the example of his fellow not-quite-humans as much as he's following lead. At least he's making an effort not to wander off.

The klaxon's done its job of setting him visibly on edge, and he tugs at the strap of a black backpack in an attempt to settle it somewhere more comfortable against his shoulder, the absolute whopper of a strange gun attached to its side throwing it off-balance. He shows absolutely no appreciation for the environs, to exactly no one's surprise.

The rest of the team seems capable of sticking to the plan as the bridge extends, playing its own role in this insertion nicely. Francis, Asi, Luther, and Noa are the first four across the bridge, forming a wedge as they follow the extending platform with the others several paces behind. The roar of the waterfall over the bridge drowns out nearly all noise, even the klaxons are but a faint beeping sound and the mist rising up from either side of the bridge obscures vision like a dense fog.

All of the team members emerge on the other side damp, with beads of water glistening in their hair and on their clothes. Francis comes to a stop on the other side of the bridge and takes a knee, raising a fist in the air for everyone to halt. The squat concrete compound on the other side is locked up tight, with rectangular blast doors looking to deny intrusion. All closed save for one garage bay door across the helipad, within which is parked a mint condition sports car in cherry red.

A green light abruptly clicks on above the door, and Francis looks back at Asi for a moment, then motions with two fingers to the garage. When the team picks up movement again, something lurches out of the garage to greet them and Francis freezes in place. It’s a robot, but not the turret-mounted murder-machine variety. No, this robot seems more like a boxy refrigerator on legs. It beeps and boops as it waddles out of the garage, then stops about ten feet away and its chest snaps open to reveal—

—an instant coffee maker.

The robot gurgles and begins brewing a pot of coffee.

«Kahve. Siyah.» The robot chirps in Turkish.

“Oh uh, that’s Frank,” Kirk says as he creeps up to the lead. He indicates he means the robot with a nod. “He’s uh, that’s Colin’s… pet?” He shrugs, helplessly. “Great coffee, though. Seriously.”

Faulkner’s mention of his other self draws a sad smile from Nova, and she reaches out with one gloved hand to pat his arm, even as they creep through the damp mist. A lot is left unsaid in that optimistic spin on things. Everyone here stands to lose a lot – everything – in the attempt to rescue themselves.

The Tim Horton alumna suddenly feels much less sorry for herself.

The robot’s approach finds her hands tightening on the weapon in her hands, but then she shakes her head, a surprised laugh stifled. “Surreal,” she whispers.

Up toward the front, Noa gives the robot a wary look – she’s dealt with far too many robots in a dark future to trust even cute little pets serving refreshments.

“No Damla Sakızlı?” she asks wryly, but then taps her temple to indicate she’s at work, seeking out the signals of the coffee robot’s brethren to ensure that this group can pass through the compound as friends, not foe. “Working on the blind – if you do incapacitate any staffers, take their badges as a back-up just in case.”

Just in case, you know, the plan falls apart when she’s killed by a coffee-brewing robot, her expression seems to say as she shoots ‘Frank’ another look.

Asi's eyes flicker from the robot back to Kirk back to the robot again. Her brow curls into a furrow, hair on the back of her neck stiffening. Some amount of cognitive dissonance begins to emerge– they were here for Colin, of course, but this felt so casual. To be so close now…

"That's nice," she indicates, and then looks past the robot to where he's come from, and begins to walk that way. "But we need to get to v.iris. Which way, Kirk?"

Faulkner snorts amusement at Dr. Miller's comment, giving him a brief glance of wry amusement… though his expression becomes more somber as they slowly advance. Nova's hand on his arm draws a quick glance her way; once he's sure that it's not because she's spotted something threatening, he flashes her a quick smile of reassurance.

On the other side of the bridge, though, is something that draws Faulkner's eye; the bright red paint and sleek lines of that car — that beautiful car — are a stark contrast against the muted palette and boxy architecture of the building housing it… and the longer he looks at that gorgeous, gorgeous vehicle, the more out of place it seems.

"Why is something like that all the way out here— " he starts to ask, only to tense as something else emerges onto the scene — a boxy, trundling robot. Immediately Faulkner's expression shifts from puzzlement to impassive neutrality, his left hand hanging loose by his side, ready to draw if it's necessary… but as the robot approaches, its trundling, beeping advance and excessively boxy design sees a hint of a frown emerge onto Faulkner's face, one that blooms in full once Kirk provides his explanation. "Kahve?" he murmurs, glancing around to see if anyone else finds this as… odd… as he does.

Luther has maintained a form of self-imposed radio silence as the four-person vanguard pushes in. The man's there on a mission, but his serious approach bleeds a bit upon sighting the sports car. "And whose fuckin' car is this?" His confused growl tips towards outrage that doesn't quite abate when Frank appears. If anything, it deepens to a heavy sigh as Luther forces himself to relax, keep the point of his rifle down, and move his finger off the trigger. He moves closer to Asi and Kirk in a protective flank position. Frank gets a second glance over. "No thanks, Frank," he rumbles to the coffee bot.

The thunderous beat of her heart is loud in Kaylee’s ears. Despite the calm, there is a level of healthy fear over what they were doing. It was not enough to make her want to flee, but it kept her alert as she scanned their surroundings.

Her back is to the group, watching the forests around them, when the clanky robotic sounds of Frank startles her. Kaylee whips around, weapon at ready, until she sees the boxy figure and hears the familiar gurgling sounds of coffee. The nose of her rifle dips back to the ground.

The f….?!

Even Kirk’s explanation doesn’t ease the tension that just keeps twisting at Kaylee’s stomach. The idea of Frank being a pet affects her weirdly considering what she was, what Kirk was… was he a pet too?

Kaylee gives a sharp shake of her head, because she would not let herself travel down that line of thought. It’s Luther’s question about the car that gets a snort of amusement and eases the knot in her stomach just a little. Very little. Just enough that Kaylee lifts her hand in greeting to the coffee maker on legs, because why not.

Kirk grimaces and shakes his head, realizing he got distracted. “Sorry, sorry. Uh, we can go in through the garage and—I’m—not sure whose car that is. It looks… familiar?” For a moment Kirk squints at the vehicle, then shrugs and presses forward with the lead group. “Colin must’ve left the door open for us.”

“That must’ve is doing a lot of work in your assertions,” Francis says under his breath as he readies his rifle and advances forward toward the garage. He stops at the bay door, looking back at the group to make sure there’s no stragglers. Then he slips inside between the wall lined with automotive tools and the muscle car. He glances in the driver’s side window on his way past. “Keys are in the ignition.” He says as he moves to the back of the car and the more open space of the garage bay.

As Kirk comes up behind Francis, he puts his hand on the hood of the car. Cold. Then likewise looks through the driver’s side window, then to the keys. He sees something that makes him grimace, and keeps moving.

At that side of the garage bay is a closed metal door with a narrow reinforced glass window in it that views into a long white hallway under dim lighting. Francis crouches by the door and looks at it, then holds up a hand. “Kirk, badge.”

Kirk tosses it over and Francis swipes it over the magnetic lock. There’s a soft beep and a green light that flashes, followed by the metal door sliding into the wall. Francis stays crouched beside the door, rifle trained down the hallway. “Which way?” He asks Kirk, who glances back at the car, then Francis.

“Uh, it’s—” Kirk looks at the open door, “hard to say. Um, Colin might be anywhere in here. The uh… over there?” He waves to the left of the door. “That’s—The uh, the lab?” Then he gestures to the other side of the hall. That’s… you know, other stuff.”

Francis fixes Kirk with a stare, then shoots a look past him to Nova and the others with a what is wrong with your weird boy expression. Returning his attention to the hall, Francis waves the rest of the group forward. “We have to find Verse.”

"We take it in two, here," Asi decides quietly. They certainly had the persons for it. "Francis, Kirk, Noa," she asks by name, then juts her head toward the nearest door in the land of other stuff, then turns herself toward the lab door and glances back to Luther and Kaylee. "Millers, with us. The others, you're part of team 'what else is here'. Keep your heads low."

Asi swings her rifle around and forward in preparation for whatever's behind the door, on the very real chance it might not be Colin.

As the others follow their respective leaders, Nicole juts her elbow out in front of Zachery’s arm to pause him a moment. “You enter last. You’ve already been shot once and I’m not going to handle how much of a baby you are during recovery again,” she informs him with the briefest twitch of a smile to betray the tease as well as her own nerves.

“I’ll enter first,” she tells the others in their knot, a look settled on Luther briefly. Judging from the length of the hallway they’ve peered down, Nicole surmises it’s going to either be a sizable space, or a series of smaller ones. She doesn’t need her ability to know how to enter and begin the process of clearing a room. Asi as the lead shouldn’t be the first one in, and with the shotgun she’s readied, Nicole shouldn’t try to be providing support with anyone friendly potentially in her way. She’ll let Luther and Kaylee rock-paper-scissors for their own positions.

Faulkner is on the B-team, it seems. Fair enough; that lines up nicely with Faulkner's overarching goal of not getting shot or being a liability here… as well as his more immediate goal of taking a look at that incongruous sports car. "What else is here. Roger that," he says quietly. He moves to more closely examine the vehicle, eyes flickering warily around the garage, lingering for a moment on Frank before settling on the vehicle.

Nova shakes her head and gives Francis a helpless shrug when he looks to her regarding Kirk’s lack of useful intel, then presses her lips together and readjust her grips on the gun in her hands. They’re sweaty on the inside, which makes her feel like they’re going to slip. That’s not how gloves work!.

She glances over at Isaac for ‘Team Other Stuff,’ her expression uncharacteristically solemn, and gives him a nod of solidarity – no words come from her mouth because she’s trying not to throw up from nervousness all of a sudden.

“I’ve got the turrets blinded,” Gitelman advises the team from a spot near the opening of the garage.

“I’m going to stay here so I can a) take care of any unexpected arrivals, and b) keep the turrets peaced out hopefully for a very swift exit from you all,” she explains. “Get in, get what you need, get out. Grab Verse, and don’t get fancy. Try not to trigger anything inside while you’re at it. Don’t try to pull anything fancy; if we’re lucky, it’s nothing more than a B and E; can’t call it an abduction if Verse wants us to save him.”

Mostly quiet up till now, Kaylee slips in at the back of the group - giving the coffee bot wide berth and an apologetic smile - before she stops in front of the car. She does love a classic. Eyeing the vehicle, much like Issac is, Kaylee slips around the passengers side and bends down to look in the window and spots the keys in the ignition.

Spotting the StarFleet keyring, Kaylee can’t help but give a small snort of amusement. Well, she had an answer for Luther’s question. “Looks like it is Verse’s car,” she states confidently, moving to join the rest and the team.

The fact that there are keys in the car is filed away for later.

When Nicole moves to take point, Kaylee’s NYPD training kicks into gear and she moves to follow, sweeping her weapon opposite of the woman in front of her as the way is cleared. She really wishes she had her ability.

Luther resolves a small and silent inner debate within himself when he briefly breaks away to stalk back over to the red sportscar. The announcement that the keys are still in the vehicle merits a second look, and sure enough, he's bold enough to try the driver's side door. Barring objections from any of the others, he extracts and pockets the car keys.

Once he's rejoined the team, Luther slips into position behind Kaylee for their breach and clear sweep into the lab area. There's the slightly longer, lingering look of wariness in Zachery's direction for what Nicole says, a mental note and expectation for the other man to stick close made with an acknowledging nod.

Abigail has remained quiet through the exit off the plane and through to the garage. The bridge setting her on edge like everyone else when the klaxons started up but even that eases up when it’s just the bridge. She sticks mostly to the middle of the group and keeps alert for people that aren't in their group. So when that coffee robot trundles up, blonde brows go up as well. “That’s…" Odd? Not really when she gets down to it. She had Mable after all. But they're skimming past the red vintage vehicle and starting to head in and as the groups are directed on where to go, Abby eases over to group ‘What Else Is There’, looking to each of them with a lift of her chin, opting to not take lead but follow.

And so, it seems, does Zachery. Who was not a baby recovering from his last time getting shot, thank you very much.

Still, maybe it's best Nicole stopped him in his tracks, since the look on his face when he lifts his monocular gaze to hers is just a few cents short of absent. He seems to will himself back into the moment with a sharp inhale, and nods.

"The…" He looks toward Asi and the door she's at, jaw tensing before he forces his head up into a slightly more alert look. "The lab," he repeats in an echo, the word bringing back a semblance of his earlier confident grin before gesturing for Nicole to continue oh so gentlemanly. "After you." It earns him a smirk and a wink.

Francis and Kirk hurry across the hall from the entrance. Surveillance cameras overhead hang in silent slumber, eyes unfocused on their trespass. Francis puts his back to the wall by the door, gun in hand, and lets Kirk push the door open. He bursts through the door into a short, tiled hall, hustling down it to a door at the end which he kicks open into— a bathroom. One quick glance, stalls, urinals, sinks. Quiet. Francis looks back at Kirk and shakes his head.

Meanwhile, Nova, Faulkner, and Abby move down the hall past Kirk and Francis to the pair of doors on the right wall. It doesn’t wind up mattering which pair of unmarked doors they take, because as they enter they discover they go to the same enormous conference room. There’s a long table ringed with wheeled chairs and covered with styrofoam packaging from instant noodles, plastic water bottles, and other trash.

Faulkner spots a nest of blankets covering a couch on the far side of the conference room from where he entered, nearby to a desk with half-assembled mechanical components, soldering irons, and circuit boards. Something started but abandoned.

There’s an enormous flat screen on the wall across from the entrance displaying a black screen that says SECURITY OFFLINE and a string of serial numbers below it. There’s three closed doors beyond the conference room, none of which are marked in any way.

All in all it looks like someone’s been living in here.

Across the building, Nicole shoulders her way into a metal-floored corridor with a two foot thick blast door on the other side, sitting open. ARM 21 is stenciled on the wall as she makes her way past racks containing clean room suits. Protocols that do not look to be followed at the moment, judging from the empty beer bottles rattling around on the floor.

Asi, Luther, Kaylee, and Zachery follow Nicole down the hall to where it opens into an enormous lab. Multiple glossy black desks with inset workstations provide dim light to the lab. There’s a larger multi-monitor workstation at the back of the room, all the screens reading SECURITY OFFLINE followed by a slowly creeping percentage bar sitting at 21% and climbing. Probably the maintenance routine timer.

Faint music emits from a doorway at the back of the lab, but all of that is a distraction from the man sitting on a stool at a workstation at the back of the room. He seems fully unaware of Nicole’s arrival, wearing a VR headset that covers most of his face except for his bearded jaw. The man in the VR headset has both his hands raised, but not in surrender. Instead, he’s sweeping his hands from left to right, gesturing at things only he can see.

Wires from his VR equipment spool into the doorway at the back of the lab, off to where soft jazz music is tinkling out.

The sight of someone present and not yet aware of them, despite their closeness, is something indeed. Asi pauses as soon as she sees them, indicating back with a flat, hushing palm– mostly to the male Miller– to move calmly, followed by a telltale index to her lips to urge silence. Her gaze travels up next to the other two with her, her hand a blade at the end of her arm that directs them onward, all four fingers pointing at the man in VR.

Rifle still raised, she pads softly ahead while keeping to the wall of the room– eyes and attention on the doorway the VR equipment comes out of. The soft music floating their way keeps her suspicion prickled that someone else might be close by.

Nicole lifts her chin to acknowledge the instruction from Asi, caught in her periphery. Blue eyes dip to scan the expanse of floor between herself and the man in the chair, ensuring the path is clear as she makes her way forward, silent as possible.

Her lips have drawn small, thinned with her concentration, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end. Nicole narrows her gaze as she begins to slowly break left, away from the wall. The shotgun is hefted to level at the man’s back, though her finger does not rest on the trigger. Her trust is in Asi to keep her covered from what’s ahead of them as she eases her way to a vantage point that will allow her to glimpse where the wires lead and the jazz beckons.

Zachery does not miss the orders especially for him to move quietly, and as if in protest, takes one extra careful and extra quiet step past one of the glossy desks. He stops there, though, keeping to the back and half turning to sweep a look behind them just in case.

When he looks ahead of him again, something about the sight of Nicole and her shotgun wipes all the previous annoyance off his face, and though this isn't a time to be cracking a smile, it happens anyway.

The slowly filling bar on the screen has Kaylee’s stomach twisting in knots at the knowledge that almost a quarter of their time has ticked away already. It takes a lot of effort not to let doubt start to worm its way into her mind, though it still leaves a bitter taste in the back of her throat.

Luck would have it, a flash of movement manages to pull Kaylee’s anxious gaze away from the screens and over to Asi. The hand signals are acknowledged with a shape nod of her head.

Without a word, Kaylee quietly moves toward her target, sidestepping Nicole, while trading her rifle for a Glock. This would allow her a bit more freedom for the handcuffs she had on her, should she need them. Once close enough, the barrel of the handgun is pressed gently against the back of the man’s neck.

“I don't suggest any sudden moves,” Kaylee says, her words a low whispered growl. “And keep those hands where I can see them.”

Luther eyes the clean room suits with a wary squint as they pass, then presses on into the lab in the center of the team. His steps are measured, careful not to inadvertently kick one of the scattered empty beer bottles, with his rifle readied in case of surprises. To him, the only real surprise is the sound of soft jazz instead of sudden security alarms. His helmet visor hides the puzzled look on his face as he nods in acknowledgment of the go-ahead gesture from Asi to confront the lone occupant. Taking note of Nicole filing toward the left flank and Kaylee down the middle, he takes the right flank of the man in the VR headset. Luther stands squarely over the spooled cables leading towards the lab door behind him, blocking the potential avenue of escape. Rifle raised, he waits as Kaylee makes the first move to alert the seated man.

Across the hall, Nova moves carefully through the empty conference room, blue eyes scanning for anything that might be important. She notices the blankets that Isaac’s discovered, but she moves forward with slow, quiet steps to the nearest door of the three they’ve discovered.

“«Conference room over here with three more doors to who knows what. Goldilocks has been sleeping here. If not Verse, someone,»” she says over the comms; Noa’s keeping those secure while she keeps an eye on the garage.

Once she’s done speaking, she rests her comm-free ear against the door, to listen for anything on the other side before they open them. She looks to Abby and Isaac to see if they want to join her at her door, or each take their own, but once she’s sure they’re aware of her plan, she opens it, rifle up and ready to point at anyone on the other side.

Faulkner frowns as Luther pockets the keys to the sports car, but he's not going to object. And time is of the essence here; leaving no stone unturned would be his usual style, but the longer they're here, the greater the odds of things going sideways, pear-shaped, and up in smoke. So, after eying the garage one final time, he moves after Nova, as quickly and quietly as he can.

Within the conference room, draws a further frown; seems someone's not a believer in making their bed. Or… cleaning up at all, judging by the water bottles and instant noodle packaging. He puts his back to the wall, then lets his eyes make a quick sweep over the room, trying to pick up details. "«Looks like 'Goldilocks' has an unfortunate affinity for instant noodles. And they were building… something,»" he adds over the comms. "«Something electronic. Looks unfinished, though.»" The SECURITY OFFLINE screen isn't terribly helpful, aside from informing them that — assuming the serial numbers correspond to security devices — there's a lot of security here to be offline.

Nova's taken up position by a door; for a moment he considers taking one of the others. Splitting up would cover territory more quickly, and the clock's still ticking. On the other hand, forgetting the buddy system in hostile territory sounds like a good way to end up with either regrets or pallbearers, so after a moment's hesitation he strides over to Nova, taking up a position beside the door she's in front of. He nods to her. Ready.

Abigail’s moving within the conference room with Nova and Faulkner, her eyes sweeping over the inherent mess that comes with whomever has been using the facility to sleep in. Her nose wrinkles at the disarray and there’s a minute shake of her head and inaudible sigh. She’s always been a neat kind of individual. She leans down to rifle through the nest and see if there’s anything of note before noticing Nova’s taking up a door and then Faulkner’s taking up the same door with the intent to go through. There’s a nod from Abby and she moves to a position within the conference room where she can cover the two other doors should someone come through them when door B is opened. “«Covering,»” she relays and settles in with her own gun at the ready to cover them.

Nova and Isaac burst through the door ready for anything on the other side, while Abby covers their backs and the other exits from the conference room. They emerge into a dimly-lit office. Two desks mounted with enormous monitors are powered down and a thin layer of dust covers everything. It doesn’t look like it’s been used for a few months.

But what’s notable is a cork board on the far wall from the entrance. On the wall are pinned printed photographs of numerous people. Isaac sees himself on the board, staring back. Abby. Nicole. Everyone that was—wait, not everyone.

Gabriella and Nova aren’t on the list.

The photographs look to be from readily available government-issued IDs or other official sources. Asi’s face is circled in red marker.

Next to the photographs on the board there’s a dozen post-it notes identifying either confirmed or speculated SLC-Expressive abilities. Where they got any of this information isn’t clear.

Pinned to the right side of the corkboard are blurry photos from civilian surveillance cameras of a white haired woman and a tall bald man in a suit. Post-it notes next to these photographs indicate them as “Likely Contractors?”

At the top of the corkboard is a newspaper clipping from 2019 with the photograph of a long-faced man wearing a Union Jack scarf. He’s smiling and affable. The headline reads: INVERSE TECHNOLOGIES INVESTS IN TORCHLIGHT. There’s a red X drawn through Atkins’ face.

Adjacent to that is a much older article clipped out of a magazine, judging from the glossy finish. It reads:

PRAGUE—The sudden death of inventor and InVerse CEO Nathaniel Verse has sent the tech company’s stocks into a tailspin on Euronext over the last week, and investors are scrambling to pull the company up from this nosedive. InVerse COO Morgan F. Atkins is expected to—

All of this must be connected.

Across the hall, the others are about to get insight as to how. When presented with the barrel of a gun to the back of his head, the man in the VR headset slowly raises his hands. “Careful,” he says calmly, “I keep my brain in there.”

As Luther and Nicole come into their flanking positions, they can both see into the room the Jazz music is coming out of. There’s enormous electronic equipment, machinery, thick spools of cables on the metal grating floor, and a distant din of some kind of mechanical noise, a repetitive whirr-click-whirr-hum-whirr.

There’s also a man.

“Easy. We’re all friendos here.”

Colin Verse slowly steps out of the shadows in that back room, hands held over his head, fingers wiggling in a little wave. When he steps into view of Asi, she recognizes him for who he is, though he looks like he’s put on ten or fifteen pounds since the last photo of him she’d seen. Colin smiles nervously, then motions with his nose to Kaylee. “If you wouldn’t mind uh, the gun? My brother’s trying to finish the thing that’ll keep you all from liquifying.” The corner of his mouth twitches nervously. “Unless you’re into that.”

Kaylee looks from one brother to the other, eyes narrowing at Colin with obvious distrust. It doesn't take a genius to know what the man is talking about or even who he is.

“So it is possible to fix us.” While there is always hope, there is also… reality. Kaylee decides to give a small amount of trust and takes a step back, though she watches Colin’s reaction carefully.

Much to the dismay of the brothers, Kaylee only lessens the pressure of the gun against his skull. The man can still feel the presence of it looming over him.

Though let's be honest, Kaylee would rather not liquify. So the gesture is more than likely not a serious threat.

On seeing Colin, Asi noses her gun down and places one hand to the side of her helmet to ensure she hears whatever response comes over the conversation that's surely about to take place here. «Verse located. Fall back to the entry.» She turns her head to look past Colin, further trying to judge if there's anyone else here…

And finally looks at him properly, giving him a once-over. There's humanity in the glance, a burning desire to say one of a hundred things, each with a hundred different emotions— but not now. Not with the clock ticking how it was.

"Kirk said you'd have the know-how to stop our degradation. Are there any tools here needed for that, or can we go?" Her follow-up look is to Luther, a small nod of trust his way to handle shepherding Colin out however needs done.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Nicole reminds, “so if there is anything you need, I can help haul it.” She moves forward again, passing behind Kaylee, coming up on Luther’s left to move into the room Colin’s emerged from, both to get a better look inside and to have him flanked. And if there’s no threat waiting for them, she’ll make good on her offer to transport gear.

Luther, perhaps thankfully, isn't a jumpy sort. Colin Verse doesn't find the end of a rifle barrel rapidly swung his way, but Luther steps a half pace back against the wall at the T of the threshold between rooms, eyes square on the newcomer as he moves. The better to point his gun on the man in a clear indication of his distrust at being called a friendo.

"«How do we know this ain't another one of the— A decoy?»" Luther's words can be heard growled over the comms. Seeing Asi's nod, he gestures with his barrel steadying hand for Colin to exit the deeper lab space and into the main, closer to the aforementioned brother. Upon hearing Nicole's remarks about gear, Luther adds with a tilt of his head in the direction of the seated man, "«That extra carry-on going to fit?»"

Being in the doorway, Luther sneaks a peek into the darker recesses of the room Colin emerged from. It takes him but a short blink to produce a small sphere of ambient lighting, glowing brightly enough to illuminate the area and equipment, or other potential hidden threats for Nicole and himself.

Zachery's face wrenches into a look of disdain the more he hears of the brothers speaking, before he promptly forgets any and all previously issued commands and rushes suddenly forward to join Nicole. Threats be damned.

Just in case, he reaches halfway for the weird weapon at his side, and says cheerily but sharply, "Friendo, coming through for a friendo visit."

Nova stares at the corkboard, her eyes darting from one bit of information to the next. “«One moment. All fine here,»” she says, as she throws her rifle back over her shoulder and reaches into her pocket to find the cell phone she’d stowed there.

She takes a few photos of the corkboard – a longshot of the entire board, followed by a few zoomed-in shots of each cluster of memos, photos, and notes. Whether it bothers her at the moment that she and Gabriella are missing, she doesn’t say.

That done, she steps back through the doorway, gives the other two unopened doors a curious glance, but they have their target. “«On our way,»” she chirps as she heads back out to the hallway and toward the entry.

Verse is located. Abigail waits until Faulkner and Nova come out of the room that they went into, keeping her weapon still on those other two unopened doors in case there’s someone still hiding. But they have what they came for and Abby’s bringing up the rear of their little group as they start to rendezvous with the others. “«Understood.»” Time to get out of there.

Isaac hesitates for a moment, frowning at the board. Torchlight… why does that sound familiar? Something on the news, maybe? Something… probably not good, if it's in this place. Verse, and InVerse, and Torchlight… and, it appears, Atkins at the heart of it all.

Nova's got a picture of it, at least; Isaac pauses to draw out his own smartphone (currently in airplane mode, natch) and snap a few shots of his own, as well. And then… then it's time to go. He glances around the room once more, letting out a sigh of frustration; whatever this is, there are answers to be found here, he knows it…

…but he's not gonna miss his ride out of here. No way. «"Heard, copy that,"» Isaac replies over comms. «"Falling back,"» he says, moving to follow Nova out.

As Nova, Isaac, and Abby move back out of the conference room, they run into Francis and Kirk coming out of the room they’d been searching. “Bathroom,” Francis says with a withering look at Kirk. “Empty too.”

As Kirk moves ahead to enter the lab, Francis hangs back with the others. “How the fuck did this guy not know where anything is in a building he’s been to?” He asks under his breath, giving the trio a suspicious look.

In the lab, Colin watches Luther looking into the room behind him. “Please—don’t touch anything in there?” He asks as an aside before turning his attention to the others. “No we—we can’t just leave yet, there’s no equipment we need to bring. This isn’t—this isn’t what you think it is.”

The man in the VR headset makes slow, deliberate motions to keep twitchy trigger-fingers steady. When Stephen Verse removes his helmet, it isn’t a dramatic reveal for anyone here. No one in this room was a Moab detainee, and Stephen Verse died long before the Albany Trials. He is just an unfamiliar, long face with a casual demeanor… and bad news.

“We don’t have what you need here.” Stephen says with a raise of his brows. “But we have the blueprint for it.” He says, hefting his VR headset, then offering a look to Colin.

Behind Colin, Luther finds that the machinery room is significantly larger than a casual glance would entail. There’s racks of humming servers, electronic equipment, hydraulic machines, and some sort of pod at the far back of the room that looks like a tanning bed and is the source of the rhythmic, mechanical humming. A computer display next to the pod says 97% COMPLETE.

“And we can’t go with you, either.” Colin says with a look at Stephen, then to Asi. “You’re here because we sent a drone to come get you,” he explains, just as Kirk enters the room, shortly followed by Nova, Isaac, and Abby. Colin’s eyes land on Nova and linger for a moment, but he makes no comment. “Because you’re all running out of time.”

“The fuck is he talking about?” Francis asks under his breath to Asi. But Colin overhears and answers instead.

“I’m talking about neurological degradation.” Colin looks around at the Pharo in the room. “It’s not a system flaw or some kind of accident. It’s an intentional design flaw to keep your runtimes low. You were all prototypes. You weren’t ever supposed to last this long, or be in the field.”

Colin looks at Stephen, who offers the headset out to Asi. “Your synthetic systems have something like telomeres found in biological organisms. A time stamp that says ‘your cells live this long’.”

“Your autonomic neurological functions are killing you.” Colin states flatly. “But we’ve come up with a way to rewire them, but we don’t have the resources to do it here. It’s all laid out on the files in the helmet. There’s a detachable drive.” He says with a motion of one finger to a zip drive inserted below one of the earphones.

“As for us,” Colin looks at Stephen and back. “I’m not even here right now. And Stephen’s…” he says of the long-faced man on the stool, “got about eight hours of runtime left.” Then he looks up to Kirk. “And you probably have less.”

Kirk’s eyes widen. “What?”

Nova’s eyes narrow when Colin’s gaze lingers on her, and she tips her head slightly, as if to say what? But she stays quiet while he explains.

“The fact you left that fun fact out of our singing telegram here,” she nods to poor Kirk, “makes me more inclined to think that we’re just here to save you, and not help ourselves or our actual selves. If we even have one.” Her voice cracks on that last word – she’s had doubts about her own existence for some time now, and the corkboard seems to point in that compass direction as well.

“So tell us why we should believe you have the solution to our problems,” she says, voice schooled into a more neutral tone as she tries to keep from sinking into that existential despair. The tough girl act doesn’t fly very well, given she grimaces and looks over at Kirk to mouth sorry for calling him a singing telegram.

Asi doesn't take the headset offered to her. There's only a brief pause before she steps forward to grab Colin by the collar, teeth gritting. "We came all this way, to rescue you, too…" she starts, and then throws him back against the wall. "And you're not even fucking here?"

She stands apart from him, her flare of anger barely contained. "Where's next in this your princess is in another castle adventure, v.iris? Where are we, the organic us? And—"

She breaks her look off of him to glance back at Kirk. She doesn't even know what to say about his situation, so she ends up leveling a glare back at Colin.

Don't touch anything? Luther already has a growing, ill repressed urge to put a hurt on the Verse brothers with their further cryptic words. Seeing inside the lab's recesses, though, the man is spurred on by a renewed desperation of his own need for answers. He stalks further in towards the servers, drawn towards the long metal pod in the back with the attached monitor and percentile progress display. He only stops once he's beside the machines, looking over the humming machinery warily, almost as if expecting a vampire to rise from a coffin. "What's in the fuckin' box, Colin?" Luther calls back as he stands over the console.

Isaac shrugs helplessly at Francis's muttered question. "The same way we can wake up on a plane and not know we're… synthetics, I guess. Or PHAROs or whatever we are," he murmurs, shrugging apologetically. "I'd never believe it if I weren't living it."

He arrives in the lab in time to hear the explanation of what's happening to them; it makes sense, in a horrible sort of way. Still, the news that they've got a cure for this is the best news he's heard in a long time. The knowledge that Verse isn't going to be the one doing the upgrades is something of a relief, too, if he's being honest; he'd have been willing to let Verse do… whatever, if it meant he wasn't going to explode, but he trusts Asi rather farther than he does Verse. Unfortunately, the others don't seem to feel nearly as pleased at this development; the tension in the room is thick enough to cut with a knife.

"Hold up, please," Isaac says, raising his voice as he steps forward to study Verse. "Let me just say… personally, I came here to try to find a cure for my brain apparently slowly melting. I won't say that I'm not disappointed the original me isn't here. But being alive and… fully functional, I guess," he says, lips twisting at applying that turn of phrase to himself, "seems like a good start. Can't find the original us if our brains explode, after all," he points out.

He takes a deep breath. "We flew to the Czech Republic. We can afford to take a few minutes to hear him out, can't we? Just… a few minutes."

With that, he looks to Verse, and smiles a pleasant smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes. "With that said… I would like to hear what you have to say, Mr. Verse. But we are on a bit of a timer here, so if you could take a moment to address the issue of where our… originals… might be sooner rather than later… I think we'd all greatly appreciate it." He pauses, tilting his head. "And… does this 'Torchlight' have anything to do with this?"

“Torchlight?” Colin asks, then huffs out a laugh. “It goes so much deeper than Torchlight.”

Hands in the air and eyes wide, Verse only lowers them when Isaac brings the temperature of the room down a little. “Look, I’m just like you all.” He says to the room. “Me, my brother,” he nods to Stephen who raises one hand with a wiggle of his fingers, “we’re all exact copies.

“The people who I’m—” Colin shakes his head, “we are all prisoner to? It’s InVerse technologies, it’s Crito Corporate, it’s Torchlight, it’s the entire fucking British government. I’m in a fucking nesting cage and I have done everything in my power to sabotage their efforts because—up until I enlisted you—no one knew any better.”

Rubbing his hands at the side of his head, Colin looks at Asi. “I’m dead in less than eight hours. It’ll take you at least twenty-four to pull together the resources to save the rest of you, probably more. But that’s not even where you need to go next.

Colin motions to the room Luther is examining, not yet answering what’s in the pod. “In less than ten minutes the locks holding your original selves are going to break. Your original bodies are going to wake up in an InVerse lab in Prague and I don’t know if I can keep everyone alive. Once we’re done here, you need to torch this place and get to them before it’s too late.”

Prague?” Francis blurts out. “You want us to hit a corporate headquarters? Are you fucking nuts?”

The alternative is death!” Colin shouts, then looks down at the floor, jaw trembling. “The alternative is death.” He says, quieter. “InVerse knows this project is going tits up, they’re going to want to start from scratch. Liquidate the entire team. And the captives. The evidence.” He looks up at Asi. “You can’t let this happen. You don’t know who is behind this. No one does.”

Stephen looks at Colin, “You shouldn’t wait to tell them. It ain’t fair.”

Colin swallows audibly, then nods. It’s clear something is deeply affecting him. “Four years ago Wolfhound pulled me out of Praxis custody at the Ross Dam in Washington,” Colin explains, clearly winding up for a long story. “I got put in solitary confinement at Liberty Island, stayed there for about a week before I was whisked away in the dead of night. Bag over my head.”

He looks around the people in the room, his jaw briefly clenching. “I got brought to a lab in the middle of the fucking desert, Fort Irwin. Humanis First was building something, bankrolled by Crito Corporate. Something they started before the Civil War even began. A plan to combat people with abilities by leveling the fucking playing field.”

Stephen chimes in. “Synthetic life. Augmented humans. Advanced cybernetics. Extended lifespans. The works.”

“Our brains, the Cogito system, consciousness transferral. It’s the brainchild of a Crito engineer named Marvin Whitlow.” Colin explains, hands trembling as he does. “Whitlow was there in Irwin. When the US Military hit it, he and I evacuated with two POIs.”

Colin’s eyes scan the room. “The first successful test of the Optica Suppression System, Tracy Zimmerman, and…”

Colin’s throat works up and down. He’s actually afraid to even say the name.


London, England

A sliding glass door opens on an elevator, emptying out into a palatial corner suite overlooking the glittering skyline of London. The floor-to-ceiling windows have a reactive tinting that makes it look like dusk outside. The entire suite is dimly lit, chandeliers cast warm, fiery glow on whitewashed walls and a dark tile floor of perfect geometric shapes trimmed in gold.


Minister George Nowell steps out of the elevator, unfastening the buttons on the front of his suit jacket. He has a wolfish, appraising look in his eyes as he scans the antique furnishings of the suite, then zeroes in on an elegantly-dressed woman standing by one of the windows, sipping from a flute of champagne.

“Celebrating something?” Minister Nowell asks, a hint of judgment in his voice.

“Shouldn’t I?” She asks, turning a look down to him from the raised landing that would wither a lesser man.

Nowell exhales a sigh and ascends one of the five steps up to where she is observing the city, but stops when she gives him a challenging look. That’s close enough it all but says. Nowell hesitates.

“Tell me why you’re here, George.” She demands.

Nowell swallows and looks out to the city skyline for lack of wanting to look at her any longer. “InVerse is reporting a cascading security breach at the Czech facility. A liquidation team is already en-route, but communication cut off with the local ARM facility at the same time.”

“Coordinated?” The white-haired woman asks, taking another sip of champagne.

Nowell glances up at her. “Likely.”

“Do we have assets on the field in striking distance?” She asks, finishing the champagne. Nowell nods. “Then cauterize the situation.”

Stepping back and away, Nowell inclines his head. It’s almost a bow, certainly deferential enough. Absolutely fearful enough. He turns, as if that were enough, but he feels her eyes on his back and stops, looking over his shoulder at her. In the dim light, her pupils shimmer with chromatic blue light.

“Nowell?” Her voice is like ice.

“Yes, ma’am?” He looks down at the floor. Not her eyes. Anything but her eyes.

“Don’t fuck this up.”

“Yes.” He says with a tightness in his throat. “Ma’am.”



ARM Facility 2
Elbe Sandstone Mountains
Czech Republic

“Georgia Mayes.”

The name leaves Colin’s mouth like poison.

“She was the first Pharo.” He says with a dry swallow. “This whole project, all of it? Started with her. With Humanis First.”

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” is the first stunned stream of consciousness murmur from Nicole. “That bitch—” Her voice catches. They fought an entire war over it. Over her brand of vitriolic hate.

It takes the space of a breath for her to backtrack and put more of the details into context, shifting around order of priorities to neatly slot them into her agenda. Finally, she lowers the shotgun, pointing it toward the floor. “Hold this,” she tells her husband as she passes it off to him in that orientation. Her hands are shaking. She slides up the visor on her helmet so she can look between the two men and let them really see her.

“My—” There’s a hesitation. A remembering. There’s no flash of pain, just a quiet and calm determination to her. “Nicole’s children. Are they there?”

Yeah.” Colin replies, unable to look Nicole in the eyes. “They are.”

The shotgun lands in Zachery hands without him even looking at the thing, his hands unused to the weapon but keeping it pointed in the right direction all the same.

But he can look Colin in the eyes just fine, even if only with the one eye, and within seconds of that last answer, the shotgun is swung and aimed toward him. With flat affect and his face fallen, he says simply, "If you're lying, I want you to remember this so you can look forward to seeing it again."

Colin stares flatly at Zachery. But it’s Stephen who says, “Yeah, I can see why you picked these people now.” Which elicits a withering look from Colin.

The weapon in Kaylee’s hand starts to dip down when Colin begins to speak and by time he is done it hangs numbly at her side. It was a lot to take in and some of it didn't surprise her. She knew about bits of it and found some of what she knew was wrong. It wasn't Mazdak?

“Fucking Humanis First cockroaches,” Kaylee hissed out between her teeth, shoving the gun away.

Glancing at the countdown on the screen, lips press tight before turning her attention to where Luther went, and back to the group.

“We need to go.”

Those simple words were edged with a panic that was growing in her stomach. Even though there were questions she wanted to ask, all that… everything… meant nothing compared to the news their real bodies will be waking up in ten fucking minutes.

“Let's blow this popsicle stand…literally,” Kaylee comments, turning back the way they came, trusting Asi to grab the information they needed to survive. She was low key freaking out and fresh air sounded great right then.

Somewhere amid the explanation, Asi goes elsewhere with her thoughts. Prague… Can they even? Should they? Or should they trust and hope that the them with their abilities can make their way out on their own? Would charging in with all the force of a military strike in the middle of a hostile continent not just close a gate around them from the military forces of all the surrounding countries and ultimately ruin things for all of them?

Where was the nearest safe territory they could flee to, assuming they were able to perform a surgical strike and escape before being shot down by scrambled forces? Germany was already a no-go if they were being chased. Flying West didn't feel like an option— they could be intercepted by the RAF if the UK came to quiet the mess, and it wasn't like they had the fuel to sustain an Atlantic escape. South then East, though… the information they had already could make them valuable to Mazdak. Sanctuary in exchange for information. They'd still have to skirt around Turkey, though…

It was a last resort option, regardless.

Asi comes back from her thoughts and her hand comes curling around Colin's collar again to begin to pull him along with them after all. He may be her dearest friend, but it doesn't change how angry she is about all of this right now. "If we're lighting this place up on the way out, and you two only have so much time anyway, you can spend it with us. More answers on the way to stop two. It's the least you owe us. Especially with this non-zero chance something may kill you before we get to you. You can't just… die, not with all this information only you have. Not before passing it on."

With that, she pushes Colin ahead of her and at last takes hold of the helm she'd been offered, popping free the drive to tuck it away on her person. She looks back to Stephen as well and nods her head forward. "The clock is running, we need to go. We vote on our plan after we get to the helipad."

“Hold up,” Colin says, hands raised, “slow down.” He shoots a look at Stephen, then back to Asi. “We can’t go anywhere until what I’m cooking in the oven is done. You want all my info? A brain-dump? That’ll be done the same time your doubles wake up. They’re uploading some data for me right now from the sim, they established a remote link just before you arrived.”

“Now you’re gonna have to explain the simulation.” Stephen says with a shake of his head.

No,” Colin barks back. “Let’s just focus on one fucking thing at a time.” He looks back at Asi. “If you need to do something with your hands, start with the offices across the hall, destroy all the hard disks, nothing useful is kept in paper form.”

“«Georgia Mayes.»” Noa’s voice suddenly explodes from a speaker in the room, as well as everyone’s comms – she’s been listening in from her place in the garage, and after a few moments of trying to breathe through a panic attack, she’s finally able to send her voice to everything capable of receiving it.

“«Did we kill the original and you have a PHARO of her, or was it the other way around?»” she demands, though she knows that’s really a moot point. If the PHARO has the “real” woman’s memories and mind, it doesn’t matter. “«Fucking hell, she’s a fucking hydra. I should have realized this was her work.»

Usually Noa Gitelman’s “radio” voice is a more neutral version of her own, but she doesn’t bother to temper it this time. The anger bleeds through the speakers.

Colin looks up at the sound coming through his bluetooth speakers, not having expected an active technopath to be here. He seems relieved, all things considered.

“That was the flesh-and-blood Mayes.” Colin confirms. “She’d already been uploaded, we stashed a copy of her on a drone originally outfitted for the ALIA AI system, could hold her cognitive weight. Crito did a pick up. Whatever you did with that old bat… she didn’t even realize what happened. Or if it worked.”

Nova’s eyes are wide as she looks from Colin to Asi, but she lifts a shoulder when Colin suggests destroying the hard drives. “On it,” she says, swinging the rifle back off her shoulder to cross the hall to do just that.

In Nova’s wake is Abigail as well, since time is of the essence and they need to ensure the place is trashed electronically. She nods to Nova and breaks apart to go to the unopened rooms. Since it would seem that they’re alone, this group and the two, there’s little need for the covering of backs like they did before and Abby heads for that conference room and then to the top most office that hadn’t been looked into yet. Offices. Hard drives within the offices. She can do that at least.

Luther's eyes remain on the pod's progress bar even though he has an ear on the fevered conversation in the other part of the lab. After certain keywords and names caught, he jerks his head up and over when Colin shouts. With growing alarm - and for good reason, given the information revealed - Luther turns his attention more fully back to the main group. He takes a half step back towards the door, but pauses again, torn. Ten minutes before their world comes crumbling down. It sums up into an all encompassing word gritted through clenched teeth. "Fuck."

The sudden blast of anger through comms from Noa startles Luther with the venom of it. He shakes his head again, glancing back from Colin back to the long pod beside him. Luther is aware that whatever it is, Colin's invested in its completion. He's also aware that his previous question hasn't been answered. He lays a gloved hand on the pod. It's all Luther can do to resist a swelling urge to drop a balled fist against the cover. "I won't ask again. What's in the fuckin' box, Verse?"

Colin grimaces and looks at Stephen, who does little to help his brother. “Uh…”

A stillness settles over Isaac Faulkner for a moment at the drop of that name. "Okay," he says after a moment. "So I can't say I'm happy about any part of that, but okay, yes, if Georgia Mayes is out there slithering around somewhere unknown to the rest of the world, yes, that is a problem and someone absolutely needed to be brought in to deal with that infestation." He lets out a slow, even breath.

"I have… a staggering number of questions about… all of this, but in the interests of time I'm going to start with the two most pressing ones that I can think of: first, how long do we have before things go fully pear-shaped in Prague, in your estimation? Secondly — what exactly is in the box?"

“How long?” Colin looks at Stephen, then shakes his head. “No idea, honestly. Could be twenty minutes, could be twenty-four hours. I’m totally cut off from everything happening there and in the simulation. Until that printing is done, we won’t know a fucking thing.”

He motions to the doorway containing the printing in progress. “It’s a database.” Colin says with a cautious look at Luther, then Faulkner. “It’s a database of everything I know, everything there is to know about the Optica system, Project Circuit Breaker, PHARO, all of it. I’m making it for you.”

All this time, Kirk has been silent. But it’s only now that Stephen Verse notices Kirk has leaned up against the wall by the door, wiping blood out from under his nose. “Hey,” he says, looking at Colin. “Your delivery boy’s popped a gasket.”

Colin sees Kirk’s condition and puts his hands up in a mock surrender gesture, then motions to Kirk and starts heading in his direction. Kirk, blearily, looks up at Colin with wide eyes. “Why can I taste apple pie?”

Grimacing, Colin puts one hand on Kirk’s shoulder and the other on the side of his face, opening his eye and looking at his pupil. “It’s uh,” he mumbles, “it’s a uh, synaptic self-defense mechanism. Happy thoughts.” He says hesitantly, glancing back at the others. “He’s got like thirty minutes.”

What?” Kirk rasps. It’s not really words so much as a hoarse sound.

Colin glances back at him, a haunted look in his eyes. “I’m sorry, kid. We made do with what we had. There wasn’t…” Colin looks away. “There wasn’t any other way.”

Francis steps over to Colin, looking between him and Kirk. “Are you telling me he’s going to—” he almost says die right in front of Kirk. “Is he gonna make it? Where’s his original?”

Meanwhile, Abby and Nova cross the hall back to the conference room. Nova heads into the office she and Isaac found the corkboard in and sets to destroying the desktop hard drives, while Abby moves into one of the office spaces the group hadn’t explored yet. In there, what was once an office has been converted into some sort of cold storage. There are numerous glass-faced coolers running on a spaghetti-mess of power cables all over the floor.

There’s a few computers in here regulating temperature. Most of the coolers contain vacuum-sealed organs, though none of them look perfectly human. Their appearance matches that of the autopsy discoveries that Zachery made with the help of Agent Castle. Synthetic organs designed for Pharo use.

But in one of the coolers there is a whole human body with the top of its head removed and brain excised. The corpse looks remarkably familiar. Because it’s—

Kirk.” Colin says, hands on the blonde’s shoulders. “You should sit.”

Colin turns to Francis. “There is no original. Kirk was…” he glances at Kirk who is just sliding down the wall to sit on the floor. “He was made out of a pastiche of memories from an ARM employee who used to work here. He worked with the raw materials we had on hand. Stephen was the same way, except I used my memories of my dead brother. He and Kirk are, effectively, unique. And it’s a goddamn shame.”

It’s with a horrified fascination that Nicole watches Kirk once his condition has been drawn to attention. Apple pie, she mouths to herself. Less to herself, but still only faintly audible, she muses aloud to herself, “Bet none of the rest of us are going to get that.” If their states thus far hadn’t been an indication already…

It occurs to her dimly that maybe someone should go to Nova. To find her and make sure she doesn’t see this happen. That she stays away until they’re ready to… She doesn’t even fucking know at this point. And Nova’s not a child. (Even to her, that feels like a callous thought when used as a rationale against extending a potential compassion.)

Turning away from it, because she ultimately can’t stand treating it like it’s a spectacle, Nicole approaches the printing apparatus in the back part of the lab, exchanging a wary glance with Luther with a tip of her head. “Bells.”

There’s more she means to say, but the only word that she can manage is the nickname given in camaraderie. Her eyes slowly roam the pod from one end to the other, like the opaque will suddenly be clear in meaning. All she manages is another turn of her head, a glance to her friend, and more silence while she digests the last several minutes. The last year.

Asi's sharp intensity goes sailing off a cliff the moment it's pointed out Kirk is struggling. She turns her head immediately in his direction, and her train of thought continues to freefall. One second passes. Two.

And then her gaze hardens again, looking to Colin and then steps once to the side to be clearly visible to Luther after Nicole's stepped that way— and to get an eye on the machine he lingers in front of. She has a bad feeling about what the final form of the printing is going to take shape as, but adds to Nicole's plea, "Let it finish, grab it as soon as it's done. Leaving here nearly empty-handed isn't ideal."

That done, she moves aside and looks to Kaylee next, Zachery after. "What else needs destroyed?" she asks, presumably of the brothers Verse. "How much time do we have left?" In everything that's unfolded in the last few minutes, she's lost track herself.

“Ten minutes, tops.” Colin says, watching the group form around Kirk. Asi can see the tension in his expression, the guilt in his eyes. He glances at Asi. “As soon as you wake up, it’ll be ready.” Then, discreetly, he leans in close to whisper something only to Asi.

The part that Colin says aloud is distressing enough, truthfully. Asi seems torn– they can't be in two places at once– and then after he leans in her gaze goes unfocused briefly while she listens before snapping back up to him in silence. She looks between both his eyes before whispering something fervent in return.

“Don’t be so sure.” Colin says with a hesitant smile.

Kaylee had been moving for the door when she heard Kirk and stopped in her tracks. Turning back, she watches Colin for a moment, taking in the prognosis before quietly moving to Kirk’s side and gently taking an elbow. “Apple pie? Doubt it's as good as my Granny’s, never got to make you one of those.”

Offering a bit of levity and a gentle voice. “I think sitting is a good idea, Kirk.” Luther knows that tone. It was Kaylee’s caregiver tone.

In truth, Kaylee is reminded of another man who never got to ‘live’ and was never meant to. Varlane had been on her mind often since she found out what she is and that they were all dying. The innocent ones were always the victims. “It’s a damn shame,” she agrees with Colin, swallowing back rising emotions. “Cause Carl liked you, said you were good people,” she offers that bit for Kirk’s sake, cause to her that kid knew best.

“You don’t have a backup of their minds we can take?” Kaylee asks Colin, when she looks at him. “I dunno if… if.. We’ll ever be able to do much more than store it, but then the spirit of who they are lives on in a sense and I know the perfect vault at Raytech to protect them. And… and technology is always changing, there’s gotta be a way eventually,” she says with tears in her eyes, because life wasn’t fair.

“There’s no backup,” Colin says with a quick, nervous look to Kaylee. “I had to hide my work, and I don’t have the storage capacity here anyway.”

Abigail comes to a stop in front of the preserved corpse, a flat press of her lips into a thin line at what’s before her. No worse honestly than cadaver lab, but seeing Kirk’s form there and knowing the analog is in the other room. “«I found Kirk’s donor body.»” Comes over the comm. “«Spare sets of Pharo organs.»” Abby rattles off the other organs found in the coolers in the room as she looks into each one. “«Computer seems to be keeping them cool but we might be able to bring them with us. Would have to get them into a container and keep ‘em cool like a real organ I suspect. Or do you want me to destroy them?»” Who knows if one of the others might get hurt and need a spare liver or kidney or… who knows what. She moves to the computer to see if she can see what the temperature is keeping the organs at or other information to glean.

“«Don’t mind me, just taking care of the hard drives,»” Nova’s voice comes across the comms, a harbinger to the sudden sound of smashing that can be heard from across the hallway. Not wanting to risk ricochet, she slams the butt of her rifle into the hard drives of each computer after opening the casing, but just to be safe, she then pries loose the damaged disc to take with her.

Abby’s words draw her attention so Nova drifts that way, leaning in the doorway and staring at that body, her eyes wide. “I thought he wasn’t based on anyone,” she says, a hitch in her voice as she looks at the donor body of the person she was quite fond of, really.

“I guess his body was, and his personality was all Colin’s devise,” she murmurs, voice suddenly a little thick as she swallows the tears. “I don’t think we can fit much, but maybe the others have an idea.”

She heads back across the hall, leaning in the doorway, surveying the group, noting Kirk where’s slid to sit down on the floor. She’s heard enough to get the gist of what’s happening. She moves over by Kirk, glancing up at Kaylee with a small, sad smile, and then sits down beside him on the other side, taking his hand. “We’re here. You’re not alone.”

Isaac regards Colin evenly; it feels very much like the man is trying his very hardest to answer the letter of the question but not the spirit. Kirk's sudden breakdown sees Faulkner's focus slip away from Colin for the first time, and he remembers the news of Kimiko Nakamura's death amidst the second round of strokes. He swallows hard.

Nicole's already on top of figuring out what else they need to blow up; good. And Kaylee's going all Mom-voice on Kirk; Faulkner's glad for that. And Nova's dropped back in, too. Good. That means that he can focus on business, and not on the idea of one of them just… grinding to a halt right in front of him.

"I assume your… database… will have the knowledge of how to stop us from suffering that fate," he says evenly. "Will we be able to save them? Kirk? Stephen?" he asks, looking to Verse's brother; he doesn't know Stephen that well, but he's been urging for forthrightness so far, which earns him points in Faulkner's book. He looks back to Verse. "I would prefer that Mayes be the lowest percentage representation of us possible. At least until we can, ideally, reduce that percentage to zero."

“You’ll save yourselves, if there’s any justice in this world.” Colin says without making eye contact with Isaac. “It’s too late for the rest of us.”

Confusion prints its mark on Luther's expression in the form of a furrowed brow, a frown, and a glance down to where his hand touches the pod. He retracts it, the urge for violence briefly gone. As Nicole approaches, Luther dips his head in an acknowledging, silent nod. They've come a long, long way from those days on a long, long road.

Which hasn't yet ended for the majority of them, he believes despite Colin's words. At the sound of Kaylee's tone and her words over the comms, Luther tightens his jaw. "Ten minutes," he utters aloud in audible self-reminder, straightening from watching the 'printing' to look back towards the others, to Nicole beside him, then to Asi. "We should get going, those of us who can, move towards exfil outside. A few of us can stay back, make sure what needs doing is done, and take the car out."

Luther takes in a steadying breath, and exhales slowly. "Where's the generator?" Looking at all the delicate electrical equipment, feeling the thrum of the power coursing through the wires, he assumes there must be one in case of emergency backups.

Zachery's attention is on Kirk the moment it becomes clear he's unwell, but seconds later, his focus shifts somewhere unseen. The shotgun now lowered, he stands silent while everyone speaks, until lifting his free hand to rub his face as if only then emerging from a brief mind-vacation.

He looks around the room, blinks twice, then sneers and says completely out of order, "… Simulation?"

Leaving no room for anyone to even answer, he shakes his head and waves a hand out in front of him like he's sorry he even fucking asked, stepping to the side to start walking briskly back where he came from while continuing to stumble over his words. "What in the actual hell is— I'm leaving. Thanks. Good bye."

Noa Gitelman’s calmer radio voice comes through the speakers. She sounds remarkably like her mother when she’s editing all the emotion out of her voice.“«Colin, do you still have a physical body somewhere? Is it in Prague? Can I get in contact with you there to coordinate?»”

“Dead as a doornail,” Colin says to Noa as he turns to the nearby computer terminal that Stephen is sitting at. “We had an issue occur down in Prague and they put me in the Optica simulation and cut the plug. I’ve got this copy here, and my consciousness in the simulation living in a nice little walled garden that looks a lot like Las Vegas.”

“«Sorry to hear that.»” Noa’s voice is still neutral, mentally sent through the radio waves rather than spoken into the comms, but at least it’s not sarcastic, as some people’s might be. Nova’s eyes look tearful for the stranger as she looks up him.

Kirk is quiet as Colin talks, looking at his hands as he holds them up in front of himself. He seems a little delirious, but at times slips into moments of lucidity as he looks at Kaylee, then back to looking at his hands as if they’re strange to him.

“Hear-tell I died over a decade ago,” Stephen says with a huff of laughter. “Wild shit, man. Wild technology.” He pops out the data card on the VR headset and offers it to Asi. “This is your cure,” Stephen says standing up off the stool.

As Zachery starts to move away, Francis makes a thumbs-up gesture at Nicole and follows him. “Hey, why don’t we go smash some electronics, buddy?” He says to Zachery, offering him a hesitant smile. “I think I saw a sledgehammer in the garage.”

Inside the fabrication room, a hologram of a black cat glitches over to Luther, looking like a janky version of the holograms inside of the Yamagato Building back in the Safe Zone. It purrs, pretending to rub up against Luther’s legs, then vanishes. The display on the screen says 89% complete.

“Backup generator is on the roof in an enclosure by the satellite dishes.” Colin says, leaning into the room to have a more direct talk with Luther. “Main power comes from that other building to the north,” he says, gesturing toward the main entrance, “that’s a hydroelectric plant. There’s a half dozen maintenance drones that keep it running. They’re not AI, remote-piloted by outsourced ARM staff in India.” He’s about to explain more about it when he glances at another monitor on the wall. “Buckle up, security’s coming back online.”

ARM Security Reboot Complete

“Alright folks!” Colin shouts as he steps out of the room Luther is in. “Security systems are back up and running. Next time I turn them off it’ll be for good and it’ll trigger alarms at both ARM HQ in Tokyo and at InVerse HQ in Prague, so we—”

Colin?” Stephen says, swiveling toward his workstation monitor, tapping a red ALERT button on the screen, “You might wanna look at this, bro.”

Colin glances at the others, then sidles up beside Stephen, putting a hand on the back of his chair. There’s security camera footage from the outside, PERIMETER ALERT flashing at the bottom of the screen.

“Fuck,” Colin whispers, “Fuck!



Eight figures in matte black tactical gear run at full-speed up across the security bridge, tripping motion sensor alarms at the furthest perimeter of the ARM facility. As they file across the open stretch of bridge dividing cliff the ARM facility is on from the rest of the mountain, Noa is the first to see them, but what’s worrisome is that they’re pinging RFID Friendly signatures—the same kind she’s spoofing to keep the turrets quiet.

They’re soldiers, outfitted with a style of body armor she’s not familiar with. Helmets equipped with an abundance of electronics and some sort of projected hologram display and minor exoskeletal enhancements to mitigate the weight of the unusual light machine guns they’re armed with..

Meanwhile, trundling across the helipad, Frank the coffee robot bleats out a greeting to the armed guests. «Kahve. Siyah.» The robot chirps in Turkish.



Somebody’s here!” Colin shouts. “Somebody’s fucking here and they’re armed!

Everything Asi was in the middle of feeling and contemplating is lost in the face of this new threat. Eyes widened on the screen footage, she calls out, "«Noa, let the guns on them and call Epstein!»"

"Everyone get ready to board the Tlanuwa!" she raises her voice for those closer than Noa is. "Luther's right after us. Take cover by the garage and wait for the unfriendlies to go down. Then, we run. We're on the clock now!"

Nicole looks up from the pod, eyes widening. “Shit.” That Francis is with Zachery keeps her from immediately hitting the ceiling with panic. But she looks down at her empty hands. Well, at least he’s not relying on a peashooter. Although Nicole isn’t sure how prepared her husband is to handle a Benelli M4.

Her hand bounces off the equipment in front of her lightly while she allows her frustration a couple of seconds to have its way. That nervous energy is allowed to manifest as the tapping of her boot next as Nicole checks the status of the print job they're waiting on.

There is disappointment at the idea that there is absolutely no way to save the trio, Kaylee doesn’t hide it either. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers to the confused Kirk, whether he understands it or not.

Then so much is going on at once and Kaylee is forced to focus away from the dying man to the others. Straightening from a crouch, she gives Kirk’s shoulder a squeeze. It’s a farewell. Trusting Nova to stick with him as long as she can, Kaylee unslings her rifle and moves to stand with Luther. A simple statement of ‘I’ve got your back.’

“A place like this must be full of canisters of volatile chemicals and gasses… let's open ‘em up and dump ‘em on our way out and…” Kaylee pulls out the long cylinder of a flash bang and holds it up. “And make it go Boom.” A delicate brow tips up at Luther as if inviting him to join her or maybe to see if he approves.

Kaylee would really like to see this whole place go boom.

“Unfortunately we’re a fabrication lab not a bomb factory, there’s nothing here that volatile!” Colin shouts to Kaylee over the commotion. He grimaces, apologetically, but appreciative of her explosive chutzpah.

Okay, so Kaylee was a little over enthusiastic about the boom. “What about burn? I’ll settle for enough flammables to create a nice 5 alarm fire.”

Kaylee doesn't want to leave anything salvageable.

Zachery blessedly doesn't have the time to respond to being called 'buddy', immediately distracted by the promise of a sledgehammer and then the threat of incoming violence.

"Garage it is," he replies to Francis in too cheerful of a tone and in spite of the latest news, swinging the strap of the shotgun he's been handed over his helmet and quickening his pace. Smashing sounds great, apparently.

“«We have company,»” Noa’s voice announces, both to those in the facility and to Epstein, who she’s looped into the conversation through a speaker in the Tlanuwa.

Inside the facility, her words are probably lost in all the chaos as everyone reacts at once to the security alert.

“«Working on it,»” comes Noa’s calm reply to Asi. “«Do not exit the facility until it’s clear.»”

She glances at Frank, but her mind is having a conversation with the turret system, changing that “Friendly” signal to “Unfriendly.” As she waits for confirmation, she tells the little robot, “Hayır teşekkürler.”

Her own rifle is pulled from her shoulder and aimed as she moves behind the car to take cover, aiming on the first of the soldiers she can see – but she’ll wait for the turrets to play their round first.

Inside, Nova moves up to a crouch balancing on the balls of her feet, but she doesn’t move yet. One hand rests on Kirk’s shoulder in an effort to be a comforting presence as he slips away from them. A tear runs down her cheek, and of all things, she softly begins to sing, “A long, long time ago… I can still remember…” It’s the first thing that pops into her head. She holds the rifle at the ready, ready to run as soon as there’s no more time.

Kirk, bleary eyed and bleeding from his nose and ears, murmurs along with Nova. “How.. that music used to make me smile.” Of all the things that were either composited into his memory or experienced since his printing, Kirk knows American Pie.

It’s almost worse, that way, as he manages a flutteringly weak smile while staring off into the middle-distance. He reaches up a cold hand to the one Nova placed on his shoulder. “And I… I knew if I had my chance…”

Isaac can only nod agreement at Stephen's summation; all of this is, indeed, some wild technology. Shortly after that, things go pear-shaped.

Verse's shout sees Faulkner's eyes widen in surprise. "How many, how heavily armed?" he asks; right on the heels of that, a third concern occurs to him. "And how did they get here so fast?"

“Seeing eight,” Stephen says, looking back at Isaac. “And uh, somewhere between walking tank and Rambo?” He grimaces, pointing at the screen. It’s unhelpful.

That one bugs Isaac. This place is miles from anywhere; unless they've got a teleporter, the response time's got to be non-negligible. Had they tripped an alarm on the way up? The only thing they'd really done inside the installation was Nova breaking the hard drives, but even then…

"That coffee robot outside. Frank. It's not one of the ones that's remotely piloted, is it?" he asks. "Or could one of the maintenance drones have spotted us on the way in?"

“Frank’s raw AI, mostly navigation and serve coffee.” Colin says with a glance to the door. “I wanted to make him a little walking landmine but I really don’t have the shit for it here.”

When Asi gives her orders, Faulkner's gaze flickers to her; after a moment, he nods. "Understood. We're going to retrieve the database, though, aren't we?" he asks, seeking clarification on that point. As far as Faulkner is concerned, they cannot afford to leave that behind — not if it contains information that'll let them pull the plug on Darth Mayes's plans.

"Luther's right behind us," Asi repeats firmly.

Faulkner nods. He tries to think if they're missing anything else, and his gaze slips to Kirk again. Faulkner's eyes tighten, but… what can he do?

Well. There is one thing, maybe. "Hey, Verse. Who was Kirk's… who was that guy who used to work here you were talking about?"

Visser,” Colin says as he sticks with Isaac. He’s quiet, as if afraid to let Kirk overhear. “Kevin Visser.” He frowns, then looks down at the floor. “He was really nice. Loved Star Trek. Didn’t deserve what I did.”

Luther looms over the holographic black cat and watches it briefly with an unsettled gaze. The man shakes his head as the feline vanishes, seeking focus in favor of silently wondering 'what the fuck'? He looks back up when Colin explains on the generator's location and the hydroelectric plant, which garners a quick glance back to Nicole as security comes back online. And then, with them out of time, he looks back to the progress display. "How much fucking longer?" His exasperation bleeds into the question. Maybe at best, five minutes?

Feeling that clock timer ticking down, Luther pulls out the pilfered keys to the beautiful red sports car, Starfleet charm dangling, and reaches over to press them into Kaylee's hand. No Chevy to be left at this levee that isn't even remotely dry. Unslinging his rifle, he holds it out for Nicole to take while he pulls out a smaller handgun. "We can cover more ground while this is still going," he tells them, "Start wherever Abby is and work back this way. I can stay with the brothers 'til this is done and meet you at the garage door." He looks like he's about to say something else to them, but shakes his head and urges instead, "Go on. I'll be ready and waiting. Right behind."

Visitors. Abby’s looking toward the exit of the rooms she’s in and frowns. Not enough time. While they’re discussing how to tackle, and Noa’s giving instructions, Abigail is setting about destroying the containers that the organs are in and the computer itself as well. If they can’t take them with them, then no ones going to get them. “«Done, falling back»” She confirms once she’s done doing the best that she can and starts to head back out to the group.

«Great!» Avi’s voice suddenly cuts in over all the comms. «Breaking radio silence, doubling-back. How hot is the LZ?»

Outside, the multiple security turrets rise from their enclosures when Noa blocks the IFF signal coming from the inbound intruders. The strike team had just split up, half the team to go across the bridge to the helipad and the other half circling around the building. Neither group makes it once the artillery turrets start firing. The sound is thunderous, shaking the complex as each turret blasts out high-velocity rounds. It chews up the asphalt, tears through the heavily armored strike-team, and leaves them as dark-armored heaps bleeding out on the ground.

Jesus,” Stephen hisses at the sound, reflexively ducking from the loud noise. It’s over before he even has a chance to process what it is he heard. Nearby, Colin is scanning the remainder of the security panels, flipping through camera feeds. He jerks his head around, looking at one of the speakers that Noa’s voice had been coming out of.

“Hey—HEY!” Colin yells at the speaker, “other side! We’ve got incoming! North—north side!” On security display there are five more of the same group coming around from the mountain on foot. Noa can’t feel their RFID signals yet, they must be just outside her expansive radio-technopathy range.

Inside the printing room, Luther and Nicole watch as the progress bar hits 100% and the machine emits the same soft chime that an EZ-Bake Oven does, which is specific, weird, and weirdly specific. At the same time there is a gurgling drain sound and what looked like an opaque screen on the top of the printer reveals itself to be a window that is showing a lowering level of bubbling, milky-white fluid. The latch on the printer opens, followed by a release of humid, pressurized gasses the smell of which reminds Nicole of her water breaking.

The printer’s lid lifts up a few inches, then pops backwards and angles straight up revealing a half-dozen spidery mechanical limbs dripping with amniotic protoplasm and dangling with bits of loose protein. Inside the printer lays a ghostly pale woman with wet, dark hair. She sits up with a sudden startle, immediately rolling onto her side and vomiting more of the same fluid that is draining from the printer onto the floor.


In that same moment, there’s a doppler-roar of a jet engine which at first feels like relief—the cavalry's here. But she isn’t picking up the Tlanuwa’s IFF signal, it’s something else, someone else. It only takes a thought for Noa to block the signals they’re using to show as friendly to the turrets, and the roaring sound of the defenses firing picks up again. The jet-engine whine gets closer, and from the garage the only thing that can be seen of it is a rapidly moving shadow crossing the facility.

Then—a resounding crash on the roof of the building. The lights flicker, dust settles from the ceiling. All eyes are up, and before Colin can switch to the correct security feed the noise of gunfire increases. Those in the garage bay can hear the sound of a pitched firefight happening on the roof, small explosions and gradually less gunfire. It sounds like a warzone.

A moment later there’s a few heavy footsteps, and then a hydraulic whine before something drops down off the roof in front of the garage door. It is eight feet tall, matte black, and even with its back to the door Noa Gitelman knows exactly what she’s looking at. It’s a nightmare, an old nightmare, come crawling back out of her memories and into reality. A bipedal robot with two top-mounted machine guns, clawed hands, and a single glowing red eye at the center of its body.

A Centurion. A weapon of the third world war. The war that never was.

How hot is the LZ, Avi?

"«Next-gen warbot, bipedal, blocking LZ access»," Asi reports. "«Very hot out here.»" She begins to jog for the garage, readying her rifle– Noa was going to need support. "Kaylee, Harkness," is the way she asks them both for them to join her. She runs past Kirk without looking at him.

Nicole stares at the printer when the timer goes off. She knows that sound entirely too well, from her own childhood as well as her daughter’s attempts to learn to bake just like Mom. It elicits a sense of annoyance, but also self-inflicted pain.

Disgust wins the day when the pod opens and that smell hits her, though. “Oh, Jesus.” That’s not the most pleasant of memories. She shoves them down while she checks over the rifle, getting a quick feel for it in her hands, testing the weight. She gives a short nod to Luther when the contents of the pod sort of… spill forth onto the ground.

And it’s a person. “Oh, great.” Hopefully they aren’t fawn-legged. It occurs to her that this is likely the way she came to be, and she moved around just fine, didn’t she? This is fine. “I got her,” Nicole assures, already shrugging out of the coat she had pulled on over her gear. “Hey.” Her voice is gentle, but loud enough to grab attention over the—

Hell breaking loose above, apparently. “Do what you need to do,” Nicole shouts over her shoulder to Luther. “I’ve got this!

Kaylee is in the middle of tucking the flashbang away and looking at the ceiling with concern, when Asi calls her name. “Please be careful, big guy,” she says to Luther, before turning for the door. “Behind you,” the blonde calls after Asi, moving to follow with her rifle in hand. There is only a moment to give Kirk one last glance as she runs past.

Eyes focused on the retreating back in front of her, memories that are not her own tickle at the back of her mind. Memories of another place and the horrors that a different Kaylee faced.

The line of Luther's shoulders stiffens as he checks a glance up to the sound of thundering turret fire over them. Each bang sounds like the pounding march of the time ticking away by rounds-per-second. But when it's sharply contrasted by the too pleasant chime of the printer project finished, he looks back down. Absolutely nothing prepares him for the sight - and smell - of what is revealed within. "Fuck," Luther swears softly, staring in a moment of horrified wonder. It stirs up something within that's decades old, buried behind blurred memories of loved ones long gone. Nicole has a better, more present reaction than him. He turns, staring after the retreating form of Kaylee, caught in a frozen moment.

But then, the crash. Luther snaps back to the present too, blinking and ducking when it seems like the ceiling might cave in. He tightens his grip on his perhaps inadequate pistol against worrisome gunfire and explosions. Luther turns back to Nicole and the new, naked girl as he's shouted at, seeing Nicole drape her coat over. He sees the open pod behind, and an idea comes to mind. Coverage. Do what you need to do, she said.

Luther holsters his pistol, stepping forward to the pod and grasping an edge of the opened lid before he snarls with focused strain to tear the cover off its hinges. He gives the impromptu riot shield a short shake off of protein fluids, and decides it will have to do. Luther turns to march his way out of the lab and onward towards the garage, stopping for a brief moment at the sight of Kirk. Nova and Isaac get a couple of jerking head tilts towards the door. "You comin' out with us or not, boys?" he barks at the Verse brothers. Time to go.

“«On it,»” GItelman replies at the warning of another team coming from the north – she can’t feel them yet, but as soon as she does, she’ll send the command to the turrets to mark them as hostile. But the crash on the roof draws her attention there, her rifle held and tracking the noise as it moves before the centurion drops into view.

Gunfire against its heavy metal shell in this enclosed space isn’t only nearly futile but dangerous. Noa’s own personal history knows this enemy well, and even as her mind seeks to find the frequency to turn it off, she rushes forward, turning the rifle to jam it against the unsteady legs in an effort to knock it down.

Inside, Nova knows she’s out of time, and she squeezes Kirk’s hand once more. “‘Death is that state in which one exists only in the memory of others, which is why it is not an end,’” she murmurs as she rises to her feet. A Star Trek quote that comes to her courtesy of a friend in the dorms who made her watch it in exchange for his help on a biology lab.

She doesn’t want to leave him but there’s no more time, and she nods, running after Luther and the others.

Not yet fully in the garage, Zachery is treated to the sight of a Centurion from around the corner. He throws Francis a panicked look of 'what the fuck?', but it isn't until Noa makes her move that he suddenly grins like an idea lights up his entire brain.

"«Did anyone happen to have the keys to this car?»" He asks over comms, too nonchalantly for how tightly instinct knots his shoulders, "«I need them tossed over to me in the hallway. Now.»"

Abigail’s cringing each time that the turrets activate and go off as she’s making her way through the hallway to meet up with the others. She keeps her eyes on the corners and doorways just in case something slips through though the radio chatter makes it evident that nothing has. Not when weapons fall silent. Until there’s the sound above and as she rendezvous with the others and looks at them when told what’s been dropped on them like a christmas present from satan, eyes widen. “Well that’s not good,” she mutters. She falls in place though, ready to start firing their way to the LZ if needed. Not so keen on seeing what this bipedal robot looks like.

As Noa charges the centurion, the machine turns toward her. Its cyclopean red eye trains down on her with a laser focus, even as she reaches out with her ability to feel for a point of vulnerability. As her rifle butt slams into one hydraulic leg joint the centurion twists and drops to a knee, but the follow-through of her plan finds no purchase. There’s no external communications port, there’s no external instructions going to this thing. Suddenly, and with great horror, Noa realizes what she’s facing as its mechanical hand clamps around her neck and lifts her up off of her feet, legs kicking in the air.

«Evolved.» The machine speaks, its voice digitized and tinny. «Soft.»

It’s not just a robot, it’s not receiving commands from anywhere. Because there’s a person’s mind inside it.

Inside the lab, Colin and Verse look at each other in an unspoken moment. The brothers say nothing to one another, and then split up. Colin heads into the fabrication room in the back while Stephen moves to follow Luther. “C’mon big daddy,” Stephen says with a crooked smile, “let’s go see what the people knocking on the door want.”

Mere feet away, Kirk is unaware of Stephen’s cavalier disregard for his passing. Kirk looks up at the ceiling, swallowing audibly, then over to watch Nova’s retreating form as she moves to follow Luther. His trembling hands reach down, unfastening a velcro flap on his body armor, then slides something out to hold firmly in both hands.

In the fabrication lab, the recently-awoken woman steps bare-footed onto the metal floor. She is dripping with protoplasmic film, eyes wide and breathing in gulping, gasping breaths. “Clothes!” She shouts, shakily, only to have a backpack hurled at her by Colin.

Back outside of the garage, the machine slowly begins to squeeze the life out of Noa, hydraulics pressing down around her throat. Its single red eye narrows to a fine point, just as small arms fire pops off and strikes it along the side of its chassis. The machine turns, raising Noa as a human shield and Francis—halfway in the garage in the doorway—ceases firing.

Fuck!” Francis hisses, ducking back in the door to shoot a look at Zachery and Abby, then to the others coming out of the lab. “It’s got Noa!

Inside the lab, Colin runs up to his creation and nearly touches her face but stops himself. “Are you functioning?” He asks, and she doesn’t answer, tugging on a pair of dark jeans. “Cognitive functions? Memories? Are you whole?” He tries to grab her face and she slaps his hand away.

“Touch me again and it’s a stump.” She says, tugging on a ratty black shirt, then throwing a jacket over it. “I’m fine. Your plan worked.” She shoots a look at Nicole, then back again. “They made it to Vegas. Optica is collapsing.” Ducking down to throw on shoes, the dark-haired woman looks at Nicole, as if trying to puzzle her out.

The keys are already starting to be handed off when Kaylee spots what’s going on outside. “Noa!” The name is out of her mouth before she can stop it. Instantly, her fingers snap around the keys, away from Zachery and clutched to her heart. It wasn’t hard to know what he was thinking.

But the girl dangling there hasn’t even been born yet… and may never be. Kaylee feels the panic starting to swell in her. They already lost so many of the others, even her step-daughter. The thought of losing yet another… It’s almost unbearable.

But they needed to do something, and Kaylee knew that.

WIth a shaky breath, Kaylee finally holds out the keys to Zachery, but not without a warning, “If you ram that thing before that girl is clear and I will kill you myself.” She adds, shifting her rifle into position. “Slowly.

After a second thought, Kaylee pulls out the flash bang again and asks those nearest to her. “Think they have shielding against sudden, very bright lights?” Maybe they could blind it at the right moment.

Faulkner lets out a shaky breath. Okay. Okay, cool, there is now an actual Murder Robot out there fighting the death turrets. Beating the death turrets, it sounds like.

Cool. Cool, cool, cool. Verse's… database… or whatever is hatching and for a bit Faulkner finds himself swept along with the tide of the exodus outwards, towards the garage.


Except Nicole's not here. And neither is Verse's database, yet.

And there's someone else they're leaving behind. Should they really be doing that? There is at least one solid reason Faulkner can think of why that's a bad idea — namely leaving evidence at the scene of the crime — but it also seems like bad taste.

It's not hard to slow down just a bit, to fall to the rear of the pack… and then back further still. Towards the lab.

Fuck. Asi doesn't have eyes to see if this thing has friends, but she has eyes enough to see it doesn't appear to have artillery. "Stay on it!" she yells to Francis, and then sprints out into the open toward the machine. She skirts wide of it, then seeks to repeat on Noa's cleverness to destabilize it.

She brings the butt of her rifle down in frenzied purpose against its legs, shouting out. One knock, and then a second. If it turns to deal with her, maybe Francis gets another line of fire on it, perhaps a lucky one. If it turns to deal with her, maybe it stops crushing Noa to death.

To do nothing here was just to let it happen.

Despite being choked, Noa has the presence of mine to send her radio voice out – there’s an edge of panic to it, though it sounds clear, as if she wasn’t having her throat crushed by metal hands.

“«Someone else’s controlling it mentally or,»” and the very thought is terrifying, “«uploaded their consciousness into it. Verses, any insight?»”

“I have no fucking idea!” Colin shouts at the overhead speaker in the fabrication lab.

Despite the calm delivery of information and request for the same, Noa’s physical form seems anything but calm as she rams her rifle at joints, looking for an area of weakness to at least get the viselike grip to break a little.

Nova can’t help but watch in horror, looking from one person to the other as they try to combat the monstrosity. When Isaac falls back, though, she turns to look at him, her gaze questioning. “What are you-” but she trails off.

Realizing this might be her last chance, she whirls around to find Colin. “Why aren’t me and Gabby on the board?” she says a little breathlessly.

Unfortunately, the closest Verse sibling she can find in the hallway is Stephen. Thankfully, he knows the answer too. Ducking away from the sounds of the carnage just outside, he glances at Nova. “Milos is the control case. No power. You?” Stephen frowns. “Your parents put you in. The systems’ designers.” He says it like an apology.

Luther's smile back to Stephen Verse for the nickname looks more like a fierce snarl that is partly obscured from behind his helmet's visor. When the man swivels back to focus on clearing a path to the outside, he moves with single-minded purpose, shield up and ready. He weaves around the retreating Faulkner, then the others ahead of him, with the briefest pause by Kaylee's side as she passes off the keys to the red sportscar to Zachery. Two words stand out: Ram and Blind. The half-snarling smile returns. "Give me space and thirty seconds," he rumbles as he continues forward, trusting the pair to the plan.

Because his plan solidifies too, one slow step. Luther sees the Centurion, finally. Another step. Another, faster, and another. The bullets barking from Francis' gun sound muffled through his helm. Luther focuses on the war machine, and Asi's battle cry as she strikes it is his starting gun.

Charging forth, Luther lifts the pod lid up as he closes the distance to the robot. "Pick on someone your own size!" he snaps out loud, with both hands swinging the edge of the shield down for the shoulder joint of the arm holding Noa.

Oh, good, at least this part was planned for. Nicole keeps her coat held up while the woman — the database — dresses, darting a glance in Colin’s direction until he’s snapped at by his creation. It brings her to smirk and murmur low, “Sounds like my sister.”

The way she’s being scrutinized (to say nothing of the death that waits outside) wipes the momentary mirth away, however. Nicole narrows her eyes very faintly, masked by her helmet’s visor. “You’re with me,” she explains, giving the woman someone to stick close to as they wade into hell out there.

Again, she looks to Colin, but doesn’t ask the question on her mind: Why is she looking at me like that? Turning her attention to her new charge again, Nicole asks, “What do I call you?”

Virus.” She says, running hands through her hair to try and shake out the slime. “Not spelled the way it sounds, though. First name Violette, second name Iris.” At the same time she’s taking a handgun out of the backpack Colin threw at her, checking the magazine and clicking off the safety. Colin closes his eyes, taking in a deep breath.

Then, she shoots Colin square in the head at point-blank range.

The sound travels easily, shaking Zachery out of a moment of tunnel visioning down at the car keys offered to him by Kaylee, as if he can't quite believe he's actually being given the thing he asked for.

He turns his head toward the noise, but only for a split second, before he snatches the keys away with a nervously widening grin. "Right. No hitting the girl, that's a guarantee," he blurts out, possibly 100% less trustworthy sounding than he means to, before wasting absolutely no time in diving into the sportscar to get that engine ready to roar after shrugflinging his backpack and attached weird gun into the almost perfectly appropriate shotgun seat.

Others are paying attention to the massive robot outside that is trying to murder one of their teammates. But Abby’s turning her head at the sound of a single gunshot happening back within the building proper and the blonde turns with her gun at the ready in case something else came in from behind without them somehow noticing, pathing back to where she thought the report came from. “«Everything okay back there?»” She asks over the radio, clearly not meaning Noa and the robo soldier out front.

Back there Colin Verse hits the lab floor, blood pulsing from the hole in his forehead and the far larger opening in the back. V.Iris—Violette—never looks away from Nicole on doing that. “It’s all part of the plan. Unless you want InVerse learning all of this.”

Outside, a far more immediate threat has presented itself. Noa, struggling against the vice-like grip of the centurion feels a pop come from her neck and a stabbing sensation of pain that shoots up and down her spine all the way to her fingertips and her toes. As Asi closes in as Noa did, the centurion starts to turn its two shoulder-mounted guns toward her, only to pick up the larger movement of Luther Bellamy. Sensors onboard indicate him as a greater threat:

Database Offline
Recommended: Kill On Site

Both turrets train on Luther even as Asi assails the resilient machine’s body. It drops right back down onto one knee after having risen, and Asi is able to deform the metal of a hydraulic strut, making it struggle to stand. In spite of this damage it barely even notices her as Luther charges in. The twin light machine guns open fire, striking the lid of the fabrication tank he carries as a shield like it weighs nothing. The rounds dimple the backside of the shield, but the rate of fire is so great that some eventually tear straight through. Luther feels the impact of three rounds hit his AEGIS armor—two in the chest and one in the shoulder—but it does nothing to slow him down.

Luther impacts with the centurion like a rioting silverback gorilla and possessed with as much superhuman strength. The force of the blow knocks the centurion back. The machine lashes out, striking Asi with Noa and sending them both down to the helipad on their backs. The centurion then grabs the shield from Luther and tries to pull it away, but finds his strength considerably greater than it expected, resulting in a tug of war between the two.

The shoulder-mounted turrets on the machine eject their magazines and two small auto-loader arms start the process of reloading the weapons. Francis pops out from cover while it's reloading, opening fire with his sidearm at the guns, not enough to damage it but enough to keep it distracted.

Finally able to tear the shield away from Luther, the centurion hurls it over the edge of the helipad down to the ravine below, then angles both guns down at him as—


The centurion turns just in time to hear the roar of a muscle car’s engine as it is struck full-force in the legs by the speeding car. The centurion topples forward, crashing onto the hood of the car with one clawed, mechanical arm smashing through the windshield. Asi has just enough time to grab Noa and roll away before the car roars past them, to the edge of the helipad, through the railing down careens down into the ravine.

Zachery—having either leapt from or been knocked from the car—lands on his shoulder, rolls across the helipad, and then tumbles over the edge only to have his body armor and jacket snared on the railing, leaving him dangling over the two hundred foot drop to jagged rocks and water below. He is given a bird’s eye view of the car crashing into those rocks and the centurion shattering like a dropped action figure on a kitchen floor.

Noa is choking and coughing in Asi’s arms, purple-black bruises around her neck from the vice-like grip that tried to choke the life out of her.

«ETA 2 minutes!» Avi’s voice crackles over the comms.

Meanwhile, on the north side of the facility, the turrets that weren’t destroyed by the centurion begin opening fire on the team coming in from that side. It’s impossible to tell how they’re faring, but there’s returned gunfire and the sound of all-too-close explosions.

“«This fucking job,»” Noa’s radio voice comes through the comms, even as the woman gasps for her breath, gloved fingers curling against Asi’s arm. She tries to turn her head to see what’s happening and a wave of pain swells through her; she sucks in a sharp breath and presses her lips together.

Slowly, unseen, she wiggles toes, then moves a foot – not paralyzed then. But when she tries to raise her head again, tears fill her eyes with the shock of intense pain. “«Going to need an assist. Don’t think I can get there on my own.»”

Nova has been huddled on the threshold between the garage and the hallway, waiting for the rest of those inside to come out, and using the door as a cover, while watching the battle ensue. “Holy shit,” she murmurs to herself, her eyes wide with fear. Her fingers are locked onto her rifle, though she hasn’t fired it yet.

“«We need to go,»” Nova says – well shouts, but she’s scared – into the comms for the benefit of those still inside. She finally dares to move, rushing to the helipad and toward Zachery to try to pull him up. She’s going to need help.

The gunshot sends a jolt through Nicole’s frame, startled by the sound of it more than by the result of it. She swallows, putting together the sequence of events on a couple seconds delay. Part of the plan, V.Iris says, and she understands. It’s grim work, but she understands.

“Two minutes,” she repeats. “«I’ve got the database,»” Nicole announces over the comms, maybe the calm of her voice assuring to those close enough to have heard the pop of the pistol in the lab. Grabbing the other woman’s arm, she fixes her with a warning look. “Vi,” she gives a short shake of her head, “don’t tell Tetsuyama what you did.”

Violette looks Nicole in the eyes for a long moment, but says nothing and gently pulls her arms away.

The sound of gunfire back in the lab sees Faulkner's eyes widen. "Fuck," he hisses, accelerating, his left hand going to the butt of the handgun at his side… but Nicole's voice, calm and steady over the comms, deflates the worst of his worries.

Right. Now he can get back to what he came back here to do. He turns, looking for Kirk; sure enough, he's still there on the floor. "Alright," he murmurs. "Let's get the hell outta here while—" he begins… only to break off abruptly as he spots what Kirk is holding.

Faulkner swallows the knot that's suddenly formed in his throat. "Kirk. Kirk, buddy," he says shakily, face paling as he looks at the unmistakable shape of the grenade Kirk is holding grasped in his hands. "We've gotta get outta here."

He hopes to god the crew out front is doing okay with the Super Murder Bot — sounds like Noa's not doing so great, but if she's talking about needing an assist for extraction, that means maybe things aren't completely screwed (yet)… and to be fair if they can't handle it out there, there's not going to be a whole hell of a lot he can do to contribute that they can't. "The plane's coming, we gotta be on it."

Rule number one for a potential neck injury– don't move the patient until they're stabilized. Asi's already had to break that rule once, and she hisses when Noa lets out the notes of pain she does. "It's okay– it's okay. Breathe slow." She reaches under the other technopath's head to try and brace it. "We've got you now."

Her eyes dart to the sky– to the distinct lack of Tlanuwa in it. "«We don't have two minutes, Epstein. Hurry.»"

It's then she realizes… where the fuck is Zachery? She finds Luther and asks out loud, "What happened to Miller?"

Heart in her throat, Kaylee watches in horror as it all happens, feeling absolutely helpless as the guns train on and open fire on her best friend. Maybe a little shocked that Luther was carrying that huge pod lid… had he always been able to do that?

Not that it matters, because as soon as the car clears the garage Kaylee is running after it and sliding to Luther’s side. “You okay?” she asks, her voice shaking with an edge of panic. There is no way she is going to wait for an answer - or believe it - so her rifle strap is slung onto her shoulder haphazardly so both hands are free to check him for injuries and noting the state of the armor and the obvious angle of his arm. They’d have to set that.

That isn’t the worst of the news though. “Shit, the armor’s spent,” Kaylee says out loud for his benefit, just before Asi calls to Luther which manages to yank her attention away from him to take her own look for Zachery.

Seeing only empty air and the broken railing where she last saw the car, Kaylee pales and glances at Luther, “He wouldn’t…?”

A few seconds of silence pass.

And then, from just below where Nova's already on the job of trying to help, a "HAAA!" erupts. Zachery's arms go up, before twitching back inward ever so slightly as the movement causes him to jostle on the bit of railing keeping him from tumbling down into the big death below. Even staring down at it, though, apparently doesn't stop him from yelling at full, panicked force, "EASY PEASY LEMON SQUEEZY, YOU BIG, UGLY BASTARD!"

Nova running past is an indicator on its own, and then Zachery's screaming is a second. Asi lets out a sigh of exasperation and then looks back down to Noa. Okay, back down to only one casualty on this trip, then.

Winded as he is, back against the ground after having leapt clear of the speeding red blur of a sportscar, Luther finds himself staring at the sky in a moment of forced respite from the fight. He involuntarily coughs as he tries to regain his breath, grimacing at the pain from bruised ribs. It's when Kaylee enters his field of vision that Luther seems to remember there might still be a fight happening. He tries to rise, but the dislocated shoulder sends a sharp pain down his side from neck to arm. "No, but," he grunts in late reply to his status, albeit with there’s a forced half grin to the woman’s concern.

Once Asi joins his periphery and asks about Zachery too, Luther briefly looks worried about the other man. "He's—" He hears the triumphant, manic shout from past the edge of the helipad. "He's fine." For the most part, and relative to the situation. Life’s Lemonade and all that.

Luther then reaches up to Kaylee with a hand, gripping the woman's shoulder for stability as he seeks to roll himself up from his prone position. "«Where's Gitelman?»" he asks immediately, concern evident for the other woman who had been in the grip of the Centurion.

"«I've got her,»" Asi answers on the line. "«Neck injury, severity unknown.»"

This was the plan. Abigail comes into the room as it’s iterated that Colin with a bullet in the brain was the plan by a complete stranger. It would appear that they are a database. “We gotta go. Now. More enemy incoming.” The turrets above them outside can be heard. She glances to Kirk and the explosive in his hand. There’s a firm press of the woman’s lips and a shake of her head as she puts a hand on Faulker’s arm to try and guide him away from the dying robot. “Please let him do this. Kirk’s not going to make it out. Let him die a hero.” She pleads softly as she looks behind her to the others coming out of the lab and toward the exit.

Abby’s words are punctuated by the sound of the north door to the facility being breached by a shaped charge. The whole building shakes and the lights gutter, but then flick back on. Someone is inside. The hologram of the cat re-materializes for a moment, rubbing its head against Kirk’s side.

Bye, bye, Ms. American pie…” Kirk whispers to himself, as if he can’t even hear Abby and Faulkner. “Drove my… drove…” He trails off, hands trembling.

Nearby in the lab, Violette looks at the wall where the blast from the shaped charge left cracks in the concrete. The overhead lights are still flickering. She’s not going to go into that hallway. Knows better. She looks at Nicole, stare intense, and then turns about to march not to the exit of the lab but the far wall from the printer.

This way!” She exclaims, rolling a cabinet aside to reveal a blocked entrance to the lab. Violette quickly unlocks it from this side and leads Nicole out onto a narrow concrete walkway that wraps around the building, overlooking the surging basin of falls water. Violette vaults the railing and drops down onto the grassy rocks a few feet below. “Come on, hurry!” She points to a view of the helipad, though from this angle Nicole can’t see her husband. She can see the wreckage of a car down on the rock below.

Outside on the helipad, everyone can hear the explosion come from the far side of the facility. Francis wheels around from the garage, ejecting an empty magazine and loading another as he checks the corner of the hallway. “Fuck,” he hisses, ducking back out of sight. «We got three inside the compound!» He calls over the comms.

Stephen gives Francis a look, then puts a hand on his shoulder. “You know what the most fucked up thing about all of this is?” He asks, and Francis is only half paying attention to him. “I know I’m not Stephen Verse. I know he lived a life, chose to become a fascist, and died for it.” Stephen takes his hand off of Francis’ shoulder. “The fucked up thing is whether we make good choices or bad, sometimes the ending’s the same.”

Francis sees what’s about to happen and tries to grab Stephen by the sleeve. “Dude—Dude.” His fingers slip as Stephen pulls away and steps out into plain view in the middle of the hall, hands raised. There’s three heavily armored and cybernetically augmented soldiers entering the facility from the main entrance, one checking a door to the conference room, one crouched by the entrance to provide cover, and a third tucked into an alcove.

«Asset on the floor!» One barks, voice modulated by his helmet. «On the floor, hands on your head!» He shouts. All eyes are on Stephen. Francis sees his opening. He tucks out from the corner, crouched, has enough time to train one shot and fires. The soldier checking the doorway is hit square in his unarmored thigh, crumpling to the ground inside the conference room.

The other two open fire and Stephen, hands in the air, is perforated by high-velocity automatic gunfire. Francis tucks back behind the corner, hearing the rounds slam into the wall behind Stephen. «I can’t hold them off! Stephen’s down!»

«Thirty seconds! I can see the facility! Going in low, hold on to your asses!» Avi’s voice comes over the comms. Thirty seconds is going to feel like an eternity.

Faulkner looks towards Abigail at her comment, staring for a brief moment. He doesn't bother looking at her for long; there's no time to argue with her here. Instead, he looks back to Kirk. "Kirk, man…" he whispers shakily, kneeling beside him. Faulkner notices the holographic cat, but doesn't remark on it, doesn't even give it any thought.

Because… he knows how the song goes. "Drove your Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry…" Faulkner murmurs when Kirk falters, nodding to encourage him.

Faulkner knows the next two lines, too, and he tells himself that in them, he sees Kirk's answer; maybe it's even true. If it's not, well, he'll still probably be able to convince himself of it, which is good — Faulkner would very much like to be able to sleep at night in the future without being haunted by additional ghosts of trauma past. He nods one last time, patting Kirk on the shoulder. "Godspeed, my friend," he whispers, eyes misty… then he stands and turns.

"Let's go," Faulkner says, loudly enough for Abby to hear but without looking in her direction… and then he starts running. He's good at that — he's practiced. There's not a lot of time to get where they're going, but it's not a long way, either.

Abigail has no parting words for Kirk other than a grim look as she takes off right on Faulkner’s heels, especially in light of more gunshots happening and within the facility itself. The play out of what’s happening to Stephen and Francis can be heard. But that’s out in the hall, and they’re not going that way. Avi’s 30 seconds out. Noa’s got a neck injury, she hears it all over the comms and that spurs her on faster. 30 seconds is not a lot of time, but it’s also an eternity when you’re raiding a facility. “Fuck,” comes from Abigail as they go through the airlock corridor and she peers left to make sure it’s clear before darting into the garage, gun up and ready for surprises that aren’t friendly.

Out on the far end of the helipad, Nova’s grasping what she can of Zachery, trying to ensure the rest of him doesn’t go over, and looking for a way to help him back over the railing. “Grab my hand!” she shouts, lying flat so she can extend her hand down to him so she can try to pull him back up.

“Don’t look down,” she thinks to add, because she has just made the mistake of doing so herself. She turns her head to look over her shoulder. “Help!” she calls out, unaware of what’s happening inside the facility. Ignorance is bliss.

Epstein’s voice on the comms draws a groan from Noa as she rolls to get her knees beneath herself, pushing up off the garage floor slowly. She bites down against the wave of nausea that rolls through her each time she moves. “«You’re paying for my physical therapy, Epstein,»” her radio voice mutters to his comms alone.

”Oh, I've been looking,” Zachery answers Nova unsteadily, eye still squarely on what lies below. He twists around just enough to turn his scuffed face upward, and to find purchase, tightly grabbing Nova’s hand with a well aimed swing of one arm.

”If I drop,” he tells Nova, or maybe himself, forcing his grin back into his face, ”It's fine, alright?”

“All due respect, Doctor, but I disagree!” Nova shouts back down at that grinning face.

Luther gets back to his feet just as the sound of the explosion on the other end of the facility sounds the newest threat. From his vantage he scans back toward the open garage at the sound of gunfire, at Francis' report of Stephen going down he tenses. But then call comes for help from the other side of the helipad with Nova hanging on to Zachery. "Cover them, keep that flashbang ready," Luther says to Kaylee and Asi, counting on them to hold the exit point for the remaining people within.

Then he turns and jogs as quick as he can manage for the helipad's opposite edge. Luther might be down one arm, but he's got just enough juice left to fuel his reach to clasp around Nova. With a backwards tug, he moves to scoop up the whole hook, line, and one-eyed sinker. "Drang'll never let me hear the end of it if you went over," Luther grunts curtly at the man.

“You’re reading' my mind,” Kaylee replies to Luther, having already unslung her rifle after helping leverage him up to his feet.

Without another thought, Kaylee is sprinting across the small bridge between the Helipad and the building. Doesn't stop as she ducks past Abby. A part of her knew if she let Scott's son die on this less than legal mission, she’d never be able to face him again.

Kaylee owed Scott her life.

When her armored shoulder connects with the doorjam next to Francis, Kaylee gives him a wicked grin. «”Brought the party favors for our guests,”» she says breathless, holding up the flashbangs she has been carrying around.

"Noa, please," Asi whispers in agony when Noa tries to come to her feet. She, as gently as she can, pushes back against her. "You need to let us move you. I'm glad you're eager to get back on your feet, but you're going to hurt yourself worse." She looks back over at Luther as he single-handedly pulls up Zachery, armor and all. "Bellamy can get you up aboard as soon as Epstein's here. All right?"

Fuck.” Nicole casts one last look to what remains of Colin Verse before taking off with Violette, trusting her to know a better way to their extraction point than to run toward the sound of thunderous gunfire. “«We’re taking an alternate route!»”

Without hesitation, she vaults over the railing. People may not suspect it to look at the woman with a government desk job, a former tactician, but she moves with a certainty and a fearlessness that reminds that she saw combat before all of that. The Drang to Lynette’s Sturm, Nicole was also Nemesis of the Olympians. If this isn’t another shock and awe op…

“Why do you keep looking at me like that?!” Nicole shouts as she races alongside Violette, rifle gripped in her hands.

“Because you’re different than the other you,” Violette says as she hurries along the rocks, trying to keep low. “The one in the simulation, you two’ve—it’s hard to explain. Robert Frost poems about roads and forests or some shit.”

Coming up onto a rocky outcropping, Violette looks out at the helipad, watching others hauling Zachery up onto the platform. Then she turns her head, holding up a hand to Nicole to be quiet like she heard something—as if that would do anything about the noise of the raging water below. Nicole makes a face, but knows the moment isn’t right to pursue the line of questioning further.

Inside the facility, Francis flashes Kaylee a smile, and holsters his sidearm so he can grab both the flashbangs. He looks down at them and both the flashbangs disappear into a dimpling pop of teleportation. He grimaces, turning away from the hallway, followed by two blinding flashes and thunderous pops emanating from the hall, accompanied by cries from the soldiers still in there.

«Almost on top of you! Get on the fucking helipad!» Avi’s voice rings out over the comms, and Francis takes that as a cue to run while the soldiers are distracted. He taps Kaylee on the shoulder and sends her ahead, then follows her out onto the helipad behind Isaac and Abby.

“We gotta hurry!” Francis yells, drawing his sidearm again as he turns to watch the garage door. “Hostiles inside, they’re gonna pop out any minute! It—where the fuck is Nicole?”

Meanwhile, across the divide, Violette swiftly raises her handgun as she hears the whining sound of a jet engine so close it should be right on top of her, waiting for something to come into view. But there’s nothing in the sky, nothing around. Until suddenly the Tlanuwa rises up out of the narrow valley like a sleek, black bird.

Violette braces, expecting it to open fire, but when it pivots on a dime and opens the rear hatch she lowers the firearm and looks at Nicole with wide eyes. “You brought a jet?

Inside the back hatch of the Tlanuwa, Avi Epstein waves frantically. “Jump! Get the fuck in we have aircraft inbound and I still gotta pick up the others!

Nicole flashes Violette a grin. “Goddamn right. And the best fuckin’ pilot I know, too.” She slaps the other woman on the back. “C’mon!” There’s absolutely zero hesitation from Nicole, who takes off at a dead run. “«Boarding the bird!»”

She’s jumped out of the Tlanuwa before; jumping in will be a breeze. And this time, she has more power in her frame. Nicole races forward headlong and at the last moment makes the leap.

Violette watches Nicole leap the small gap between rock and ramp with saucer-wide eyes, astounded when she sticks the landing and is pulled inside by Avi. Violette breathes in deep and sharp through her nose, takes two steps back, then rushes forward and leaps toward the Tlanuwa.

The gap is, strangely, harder for Violette to cross. She barely makes it, and when Avi grabs her by the arm he shoots a look back at Nicole. “When we’re not about to die you’re gonna tell me who the fuck this is!” He demands, yanking Violette inside. “Don’t let her fuck anything up!” Avi adds as he hurries back to the cockpit.

Kaylee doesn't hesitate to hurry out the garage door, turning back while Francis comes through to be sure no one is sneaking up on them. There was something mildly satisfying about those screams. A sense of karma, maybe?

Once they are out, Kaylee only allows herself a quick glance to see how others are fairing, before she stands alongside Francis and trains her rifle on the garage door. It is hard to calm the quick hammering of her heart in her chest, the clock was ticking.

The familiar sound of the jet helps, but Kaylee squashes the thrill of victory that tries to follow it. They were far from done.

The roar of the Tlanuwa's approach is unmistakable, and Asi looks up to do a swift headcount. Nicole has the database, Avi has her; Zachery did not plunge to his death; Abby and Faulkner have re-emerged from the building, along with Kaylee and Francis… Her chest tightens, but there's no time. No time for farewells or last arguments; it's on to the next locale. There would be time to process and regret when this was all over.

"Luther–" she calls out, but amends it to, "Or anybody, I need help keeping Noa stable for transfer. This is it, we've all got to get aboard now!" Now being as soon as the Tlanuwa centered up on the helipad.

“«Literally life or death. I’m not paralyzed, just, you know. Almost.»” Noa knows that Asi is right, but she also knows they have no time. She exhales, her dark eyes, still a little wild from the near-death stranglehold, roll up toward the sky to find the Tlanuwa, then over to where she thinks Luther is, without turning her head. “«if we have time.» She’s poised to stand up if she has to, but she’ll wait for assistance in those few seconds they have left.

Over at the railing, Luther finds himself suddenly clung to in an emphatic hug by Nova; only after she sees Zachery is safe does she start visibly trembling from the close call. “Thank you!” she exclaims, patting Luther’s arm with her gloved hand, before she turns to watch the approach of the jet, ready to run for it when it gets near enough to board.

Zachery, freshly hauled back into solid ground, breathes a quiet conclusion of, ”I'm fucking unkillable," before getting slowly to halfway to his feet in staggered movements.

He stares at Luther and Nova, looking between them as though an explanation for their actions is unthinkable, until Asi's voice prompts a sudden sweeping look around and lands his attention on her and Noa.

Spines are tricky and have never been his specialty, and an instinctive attempt at reading Noa’s condition earns him nothing but a frustrated wrinkling of his nose… before he leans forward into a hurried walk toward them anyway. ”Are all technopaths like this?" This is probably rhetorical, but what follows immediately after is said with an urgent and grim sort of disapproval. "Stay the fuck still."

He'll do what he can. That seems to be the theme of today, anyway.

Spines are something the original Abigail knows about, from life as an EMT, then Nurse and her brief stint in Elmhurst as Nurse Practitioner. So PHARO Abigail in turn, knows as well. She comes to her knees opposite Asi as Kaylee and Francis are playing with flashbangs. “Zachery, hand, palms up to under each side of her shoulders with your forearms right against her neck, supporting her head. Don’t let her turn her head. Asi-”

She gestures to one side of Noa and then Abby’s sliding to the other, weapon slung behind her back. “We keep her as stiff as possible, get her on the bird as fast as possible. Hopefully we can find a healer somewhere.” In case they jar something or snap something in getting Noa out. “Noa, don’t move, just relax as much as possible, okay?” She’s looking for where the jet is and then to the others. “On the count of three, when it lands, we move.” Trying to ensure everyone is on the same page. Now it’s a matter of waiting for the jet to come in.

Zachery's involving himself is a pleasant surprise, but Abby's is a genuine one. The focus on her being cop until now made Asi forget the obvious. To Noa, the would-be-also technopath offers her a quirk of her head before moving to follow the instructions she's been given. "We've got you," she promises.

Isaac regards Noa with a certain wide-eyed blankness that masks the low-key horror he feels at seeing her condition, compounded by his helplessness to actually do anything about it. He wishes, for a moment, that Melody was here…

…but she isn't, and if only is the single most useless pair of words in the English language. He isn't trained in assisting with neck injuries, so best to leave that to the good Doctor Necromancer. Not much Isaac can do there.

But he can follow the advice he gave Nova earlier: to keep an eye out, so that if something not so pretty pops up, he might see it before it sees them. He falls in behind Noa's carriers, keeping an eye out in the direction of the facility…and his gun in his hand.

Luther answers Nova's thanks with a smile that holds warmth for the young woman and hides the pain that briefly surfaces in his mind of Chess, and how many close calls had they had in the war. He doesn't have long to stand there reminiscing as a different pain sweeps in a wave down his injured shoulder. He turns at his name being called, and with an encouraging tilt of his head to Nova, bids her to get to the other side of the helipad with the others and get ready to board.

While Zachery and Nova go ahead to join the others, though, Luther lingers behind by a few seconds. Aware of Noa's injury and hearing the chatter on the comms to rally around her, he turns back to look at the broken and bent guard railing for a moment, assessing the metal lengths bolted to their posts. One last idea comes to take hold in his mind as he grips the railing and harnesses, pulls with a deep growl in fighting against pain and metal, to rip off a length long enough to utilize as a temporary stretcher plank. Maybe he gets only part of it, maybe he gets a piece just long enough. Luther stubbornly, quickly as he can manage, drags the piece along with him back towards the team so he can offer it over to the trained medics.

The Tlanuwa pivots over the ravine, turning for the helipad. As it circles, there’s additional roaring noises from aircraft, the engine-sound distinctly different from the Tlanuwa’s high-pitched whine. Heavier, deeper, larger. But at the moment out of sight thanks to the mountains and trees.

Avi swings the rear of the Tlanuwa around and begins to perform a vertical landing, kicking up a tremendous downdraft as he does. The rear ramp of the Tlanuwa is still open when the aircraft touches down, engines still running.


A dark-haired woman only Luther recognizes stands inside, waving everyone in. “Hurry!” Violette screams. Then, eyes darting upward, fixes on something coming over the distant ridge. “Fuck, fuck—fuck! Move, move!


To the south, rising up over the ridgeline, are three matte black aircraft moving on an intercept course. They have a rotary-wing design, with pivoting turbines, like a bigger, meaner, and heavier Tlanuwa. They’re not familiar aircraft, except to one person. Because Noa had seen them… in the Third World War.


Many hands lift Noa up and put her on the length of railing serving as a makeshift backboard. With Abby holding her head, Luther lifting the foot and others assisting her shoulders and the center weight, she’s lifted up off the ground and ready to move into the Tlanuwa.

At the same time, Francis spots movement through the garage door and opens fire. Kaylee joins him, laying down covering fire to keep the team inside the building from getting out the door connecting the main hall to the garage, trying to keep them bottlenecked. “We’ll cover the rear! Go! Go!” Francis shouts, slowly walking backwards while firing into the garage.

«We got seconds until they’re in firing range! Move!» Avi bellows into his headset.

Faulkner, spotting motion in the garage, lines up a careful shot or two… but it seems that Francis and Kaylee have got the covering fire angle covered. Right then — time to go. He falls back, joining the others, ready to help with Noa if necessary, otherwise content to follow orders and get himself on board as quickly as possible.

“«Those… are from my future.»” Noa Gitelman’s radio voice on the comms is full of dread as she spots the aircraft rising over the ridge. She stares in horror at the dark shapes, coming on the heels of the Centurion like specters from a past that hasn’t happened yet, that she and her friends had tried to keep from ever happening. But her angle shifts as those helping her move her toward the Tlanuwa and she closes her eyes to keep from turning her head.

However they’re here, now, is a problem for another time.

Nova is one of the first people up the ramp but she reaches out to help others up and in so they can. “Your future?” she asks, confused, but doesn’t expect an answer right away from the injured woman or anyone else.

“One, two, three,” Abigail snaps it off fast the moment that their jet is in place or about to settle into place and, grip firm under Noa’s shoulders and her arms keeping the younger woman's head from moving too much till they can find something better on the ship. She doesn’t look at the ships approaching or the door to the facility. Her job is to get Noa on the ship and she trusts the others to do their job. “Center of the jet, much as possible,” So there is less chance for jostling and room enough to move about if needed.

Up and in. Luther assists wordlessly and following the directions given to the letter in getting Noa into the jet. Everything now has become something of a blur of action and a cacophony of noise even through his helmet. He doesn't turn to look at the incoming aircraft, but feels the pressure of time running out. He doesn't linger long in the center of the Tlanuwa, leaving Noa in other capable hands, and heads to the edge of the open ramp, sparing a brief stare at the dark-haired woman waving them in as he passes her. He frowns, seeing the three black shapes growing larger in the sky. Handgun drawn out again, Luther switches focus to the garage opening, adding his own cover fire and a kinetic push of each fired bullet, aimed to strike farther than the smaller pistol's effective range. "«Hey let's go, we're going to be late to the afterparty,»" he calls.

There is no real time for thought when you are working to keep the enemy pinned down. She felt like a sitting duck out there without cover. Kaylee makes sure to time her reloads with Francis’ own. So that there isn’t much time for the opposition to have a chance to fire at them, one of them is always firing.

During one such reload, Kaylee catches Luther’s shout over the sound of their own weapons. Training kicks in and she flashes him the SWAT ‘Okay’ sign over her shoulder. “Luther’s got us. Let’s get the fuck out of here, Francis.” She shouts over a volley of bullets to the man next to her, “Still got a real me to save in the other caste.”

Kaylee tries not to pay attention to the sound of bullets as they pass by, just surviving as she backs towards the jet still firing off a few rounds.

Aboard the ship already, Nicole has been watching from behind Violette, counting heads as the rest of their team makes their way across the helipad. Higher brain is trying to convince stomach to stop twisting in knots. Noa’s been speaking (or “speaking?”) over the comms, so at least she’s still alive, if in some of the roughest shape.

It’s Zachery’s involvement that finally sees some measure of relief come to her. Were he not helping to carry in her oldest daughter’s friend, she’d be shouting at him to hurry up, which is a lot like saying oh, thank god in the language of her anxiety.

He’s lucky she doesn’t know he nearly fell to his death.

Not that you'd be able to tell— adrenaline still coursing through his system, Zachery keeps his attention on Noa while she's carried, helping while his stare grows increasingly vacant even with the second aircraft's noises joining in.

"They're in Prague," he mumbles inaudibly downward. He blinks, breathing out half of a laugh before it catches in his throat, promptly turning his head to find Nicole - behind whoever the hell that is now to tell her as if they didn't find this out a dozen attempted murders and a few successful ones, "They're in Prague."

Who the fuck emerged as the 'database' is a question to consider later for Asi. Once they all collectively emerge on board with Noa safely transferred by their efforts, she peels for the cockpit. "Epstein!" she shouts. "Prague. The clock is ticking. How fast can the Tlanuwa go?" She pulls herself into the cockpit to settle herself in the copilot's seat, looking down over the controls. She blinks once hard to clear her vision and then looks to the left at Avi.

Avi flips a switch to close the rear hatch. “We’re about to find out!” He shouts with a mixture of enthusiasm and terrified mania. Francis barely makes it inside as the ramp is coming up, grabbing Kaylee by the arm and hoisting her up inside with him. «Everyone hold the fuck on to something!» Avi screams over the comms, rare fear in his voice.

Before the back door has even fully closed, the Tlanuwa is spinning around and moving straight up to try and get proper elevation to move at speed. With no windows anywhere except the front, the rest of the passengers are unable to know how close the other aircraft are.

There’s a plink-plonk of small-arms fire on the underside of the aircraft as the augmented strike-team exits the ARM facility, followed by louder rattling and pitching as they switch to full auto, causing actual damage to the undercarriage of the Tlanuwa. No rounds make it into the cargo hold, but some can be heard ricocheting around inside the aircraft’s outer hull.

As Francis stumbles back into the passenger compartment, he drops into one of the jump-seats and straps himself in. “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck,” he hisses, gripping the straps. There’s a moment immediately after where everyone inside the aircraft experiences a split second of total weightlessness as the Tlanuwa stops its rapid ascent and begins to fall back to Earth.

Then, throttle open and accelerator slid forward, Avi opens up the engines. Unwilling to make a sudden acceleration for fear of hurting Noa or throwing any untended passengers into a wall, Avi brings the aircraft up to speed like a commercial jet taking off from a runway. The sudden chime of contact alarms in the cockpit are met with a “Fuck, fuck, fuck!

On the console, Asi can see LOCK ON display in bright red text.

Avi continues throttling up, then takes his hand off and flips two switches on his side of the cockpit. There’s two extremely loud bangs from the sides of the aircraft as chaff canisters disengage from under the wings and propel themselves backwards. A split second later there’s a thunderous roar of explosions so close it leaves ears ringing. Avi continues to bring the jet up to speed and out the cockpit window the landscape of Czechia is turning into a blur below.

«We are moving at speed in radar range, I can’t outrun those other aircraft flying low!» It’s impossible to see what’s happening beyond Avi shouting, impossible to know how close to death anyone aboard is.

Violette is holding on to the netting on the side of the passenger compartment for dear life, looking down at the others crouched over Noa, trying to keep her steady and secure while the ship moves at a furious speed. Her eyes are wide, hands trembling. Silent panic sets in.

The one gun on the Tlanuwa is a forward-facing minigun, one that is of no use while being chased. It’s a deployment vessel, not a fighter. It’s not intended for these kinds of engagements anymore. The war was supposed to be over.

Avi suddenly jerks the controls to the left, banking sharply. As he does there’s a rattle-pop-pop-pop of air-to-air gunfire. Bullet holes perforate the ceiling of the Tlanuwa, punch daylight holes diagonally through the vessel and out the side. Avi lets out a hiss of shock as three holes punch through the cockpit window and the pressure alarms begin going off. He lurches forward, looking wide-eyed at Asi.

Take the controls.” He hisses through clenched teeth. “Down– low as you can go now–” He grabs an oxygen mask from beside his seat, pulling it on over his own head. «Masks! We’re losing cabin pressure! Fucking masks!»

He should have helped Asi with hers.

He shouldn’t have left red handprints on the visor of his mask when he put it on.

He shouldn’t be bleeding.


A Short Time Later

ARM Facility 2
Elbe Sandstone Mountains
Czech Republic

Two heavily-armed soldiers sweep through the ARM Facility. One sits with his back up against a wall, applying a dermal injector to his thigh. He hisses in pain, then spreads a pink gel over the gunshot wound. There’s blood all over the floor. The soldier turns his helmeted stare toward Stephen’s corpse.


The soldier sighs relief.

In the lab, the others approach a figure slouched against the server racks. «Contact,» one of them says in a thick British accent. «Unknown asset, database is still offline.» He approaches, rifle trained down on the blonde man.

“…drove… drove my Chevy… to the levee… but the levee was dry…” Kirk whispers to himself, head slouched forward, blood covering his face below his nose and dripping off his chin. It soaks into his shirt, staining it dark.

«Hands where I can see them!» The soldier shouts, jutting the barrel of his rifle forward.

“Them… good ol boys… mrn’hh… whiskey and… rye…” Kirk looks up, blearily, into the gleaming light of an under-barrel flashlight.

«Hands!» The soldier demands as another approaches, trying to get a look at what Kirk has cradled in his lap.

“Singin’ this’ll be the…”

«The fuck is wrong with you! Hands up!»

“…the day that I…”

Kirk unfolds his hands from around the live grenade.

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