After Aleph
rating: +10+x

- HALSEY -

His friends only ever called him Doctor Halsey. Not that they tried to give him another name, a callsign of sorts among comrades. He insisted he was just "Doctor Halsey." He didn't mean to seem distant, in fact, he was probably one of the nicer colleagues you could meet in Item Retrieval - one among the rare breed of field researchers who did stupidly funny shit like hiding cardboard cutouts of dangerous anomalies where people would least expect them. It got him into serious trouble a handful of times, although his corpus of research on temporo-spatial displacement earned him the patience of his Alpha-level superiors. Enough time to be promoted to Gamma-level himself and handle projects on his own.

That was the extent to which anyone at Base Six knew him. A jovial prankster, a workaholic scientist. Work and play. Test and jest. There was little else to define him as a human being, for whenever his buddies would even begin to delve into their personal lives, Doctor Halsey simply smiled, shut up and sipped on his helping of Mountain Dew. Even those closest to him - like Victor Strate with his infectious grin and comically shiny, bald head - had learned little over the years. He almost certainly worked for the Foundation at one point - he knew quite a few of their anomalies, and the most perceptive could see him tense up whenever they were involved. But Doctor Halsey wouldn't confirm or deny anything about his past.

"Just the assurance of a bright, shining future," Halsey completed the phrase as he inspected the shell in his hand. It was a glossy brown spiral that seemed to glisten with the light of faded galaxies. The Snail Sentry hadn't so much as poked an eyestalk out of its shell ever since he took it with him from his office, likely sensing the threats nearby, for inside the massive testing chamber, echoes still rang from the firefights raging elsewhere in Base Six.

Halsey couldn't deny that he'd grown fond of the mollusc; over the years, he noticed several colleagues becoming attached to their early Items as well. There was Strate and his creepy Terrorbite pets, Bray and his Polapup sanctuary, and Caduceus attempting to elope with a goddamned satellite. It just seemed that, one day, a snail on his office desk decided to stand guard over the room and Halsey forever, displacing anyone who tried to remove it backwards in time; in effect, creating multiverses that branched off from his reality… as far as he understood it. The anomaly sent you further back in time the more aggressively you tried to take it from its rightful spot. Halsey spent the last two years alone working out the exact relationships between the force of removal and the level of displacement. When he found the data he was looking for, it was merely a matter of obtaining an Item powerful enough to test his hypothesis.

The Crystalline Incinerator was restricted to ALPHA-level research. However, by a stroke of luck, a fragment of it had been shipped off to Base Six, and its storage chamber was accessible to a few researchers with BETA clearance. It would take far too long to get himself promoted, but the Falchion Resurgence provided the perfect opportunity. In the turmoil, he called in a favor from one of his colleagues with BETA clearance and had them change his designation to Administration and Command. Within minutes, he had reached the fragment's testing chamber and locked himself in with the Snail Sentry.

The Crystalline Incinerator fragment had already been affixed on a massive emplacement, poised to amplify any light that passes through it into an immensely-concentrated beam of energy. The turret was aimed at the platform at the center of the chamber. Doctor Halsey placed the Snail Sentry atop the platform. He stroked its shell one final time, then turned to run calculations on the console. The machine whirred to life. The room filled with a deep, golden luminance as the beam struck and the fragment lit up like a second sun. The Snail Sentry's eyestalks poked out just in time to meet the death ray coming directly towards it. That was when Halsey realized: it took the miniaturized wrath of a supernova to dry his tears in the rain. It would be his last thought.

When he opened his eyes again, it was already dark. He was indoors. By the familiar feel of the cushions and how easily his arms settled on the armrests, he deduced that he was seated on his favorite chair. It was his room. Just then, he caught the sound of a creature coming from the hallway. He hadn't heard barking that coarse or lovable in years. Kappa leaped into Doctor Halsey's lap and excitedly licked his face. Without a thought, Halsey simply held the dog tightly in his arms. Then, he heard two sets of footsteps.

Henry. He wore his favorite blue cap. He spun as he entered the room, "Happy 6th Birthday, Tommy!" lovingly hand-stitched on his cape. Thomas, in pursuit of the cape thief, followed inside and commandeered one of the doctor's armrests.

"Oh, so there you've been! The boys just couldn't stop talking about those great white sharks, right? I think we'll be having a couple of marine biologists in our hands in a few years." The voice, the perfume. The concern. The roar of juvenile arguments filling the space with life. As his wife came into the room, Halsey did everything to hold back his tears. He couldn't even pull himself to speak when Thomas asked why Dad suddenly had so many wrinkles. He simply took a deep breath and smiled at what he saw. His family. Then, he closed his eyes.


- HOCKENBERRY -

Horrific sounds reverberated throughout the base from all sides as the Falchion's forces and anomalies continued to wreak havoc. It was over, so clearly over. Most of the loyalists had already surrendered, yet many of them still hid inside Base Four's labyrinthine complex, desperately clinging to the hope that Creed, Mark, or even Kahler could turn the tide.

Agent Hockenberry—a long-shafted, golden weapon in hand—led his squad into the deepest levels of the mountain base. Even then, they could still hear the carnage coming from their beast-soldiers and clock-tipedes; the shrieking, both human and inhuman; the pleading, the automatic weapon fire, and the eerie bouts of silence thereafter. So much talk of Base Four being the weapons capital of the North American cells. In the end, the loyalists failed to use that strength when they needed it the most. That was pretty much representative of the whole, bloody ordeal, really.

Hockenberry's team breached through the doors of the Inner Sanctum—the thick, blast-proof material absorbed into the Supermassive Spear in bright, horrific ribbons of light—finally emerging into view of a frightened throng of Alpha Command remnants and their security personnel. Several bursts of fire followed. The guards died where they stood. He recognized a few of the assholes. Blackout, Fatum, Hailstorm, Rowan. The men who approved careless operations, banned projects, and treated their Teal allies like trash, he'd happily kill. However, as he circled the room, he couldn't help but notice the grand trophy was absent.

"Where is Creed?" He asked one of the researchers.

"I don't have a bloody cl-" The Alpha felt his sternum began to crack, so he changed his mind.

"NO! STOP! I'LL TELL YOU!" The agent took his boot off from the man's chest. "The Director… He's at the lowest level of the facility. Absolute Sanctum. Been there since the attack began. You'll need my credentials to access the elevator." Hockenberry took the man's keycard. He turned to one of his sergeants.

"I'm going after the Director. Take these Alphas to the surface. We don't want them to miss the grand send-off ceremony we're throwing at the hangar."

"Good hunting down there, Captain." The sergeant said. Hockenberry smiled back at the inside gag as he ran down the hallway to the Absolute Sanctum elevator. As he entered, his eyes met garish symbols on the walls—no doubt written in Creed's own blood—that he recognized as warding runes. Superstitions that were sadly doing nothing to keep his hands from finding and wringing the Director's neck.

"I warned you Creed. It's Agent, always Agent. Only God and my dear, old Mama can call me Kenneth Hockenberry." He muttered, then adding more thoughtfully, "Long live the Falchion."


- NOUVA -

Nouva was just beginning to shake away the drowsiness of his nap. He had laid down on the soft, wind-swept grass, his hands under his head like a pillow. The quickness of his pulse and the numbness of his skin meant that the antitoxins that relaxed his Hunter-Tracker glands were still running their course through his system. Even now, he could feel his hirsute arms becoming smooth again, the hair being shed to the ground.

At the distance, an oily, black smoke was rising steadily, punctuated by random flashes of light and whitish streaks of machine gun fire. He could still hear magazines' worth of bullets being emptied into their targets by automatic rifles. Targets that have been corpses for a good solid hour now. And he could hear the shrieking and the pleading. He should still be there, on-site, contributing to the carnage.

The remains of Base One were just a five or ten minutes' sprint away.

"Feh." The agent sighed. "Looks like this new regime is going to be as needlessly cruel and vengeful as the last."

The wind itched his nose. "I'd be perfectly fine with that, though." He said aloud. Quaesitor's position in orbit was still fixed to the campaigns in the region, and she was most likely near enough to track a wayward agent's monologue. Nouva didn't want to risk it.

Despite his peaceful surroundings, Nouva's mind was quite active, thoughts coming and going with the periodic peals of thunder resonating from the Base.

"One blast." He said aloud as a bomb dropped, his mind coming to the first memory.

Concealing one's anomalous abilities as an operative of the Chaos Insurgency was a fairly common practice. In his first assignment alone, at that accursed outpost in Montana, about six of his twenty colleagues harbored some odd mutation. Most of them were clearly meant to maim and kill. They kept quiet, however, preferring to be researchers than field agents. It invited less danger in the mortal sense. If you were exposed, you weren't actually tortured or killed, but you'd usually be treated as pathetic for refusing to help the CI with your anomalies. Nouva's own hyper-enhanced senses made it futile to hide such traits from him, though.

"Another blast." The Hunter Tracker project had been in a precarious position throughout its life. It was, perhaps, Nouva's first sign of the imminent change in the organization - an initiative to train special reconnaissance agents from non-combat personnel with physiodynamic abilities. Nouva, naively, volunteered immediately. As the first generation of HT's, his team frequently faced their demise during assignments. There were no HT-specific combat stimulants back then, before Cad and Strate went to work on them. But the big wigs of Alpha Command still used them to retrieve intel for situations too risky to deploy expensive drones and too difficult for baseline humans. Of his team, only Nouva remained alive now.

"And another blast." The Falchions. He felt embarrassed. He defected to their side so quickly, it made him look disingenuous. Cad, Hock, and the rest of the 55th Field Observations Unit - even Strate - joined him. But he had seen the way its commanders treated the Hunter Trackers, actually sending them into missions that suited their skills. The rebel HT's revealed hidden sites and hunted down fleeing high-value targets. They were given support crews, specialized medical bays, a squad of transport ships, and more. For him, it was a sold deal.

And yet, the carnage that the Falchion was inflicting to their former brethren reminded him that their project's loyalty had simply been bought for the time being. The Falchion and their leader - this eccentric Haos - were still vicious and impenitent. They would do terrible things to projects that become useless. Nouva hoped he wouldn't let the Hunter Trackers fall into such a state.

But for now, the battle was won. The HT's fought on the winning side. That would give Nouva time to prepare and make the right connections. Perhaps, one day, the Hunter Trackers would even rise as rivals to Teal Division.


- STRATE -

Before the freight truck even came to a full stop, Doctor Strate's limp body fell from its cockpit like a disgraced ragdoll, collapsing like mush on the sizzlingly hot asphalt of the desert road.

The burning of his left cheek restored some semblance of consciousness in him, and he cursed an inappropriate amount as he stood and regained his bearings. It must have been a day since he drove off from Base Four's extension facility, glad that the place saw far less violence than what he heard went down at the actual Base. Upon Hockenberry's request, he gave the assault force two colonies of his hungering Terrorbites. Hock really had a bone to pick with the Alphas.

Victor fell into a panic there as he rummaged the inside of his lab coat. The panic quickly subsided and gave way to elation as he took out the handheld glass case that contained Terry, his personal Terrorbite pet.

"Six times as powerful, nine times as durable. You will be the undisputed king of the Terrorbites, my little arachnid ally. As soon as we find a good place to stay, I'll find you seventy-two house spiders to mate with. Your babies and grandbabies will be our minions, and we'll use our personal army of enhanced spiders to rule the Insurgency!" Victor said, cackling giddily. "I just hope nobody else beats me to that plan."

Victor rounded the truck, puckering his lips as he realized the left-side tires were flat. He inspected the back side next, catching sight of the white tarpaulin with the words, "So Long, Suckers!" that swayed lazily in the breeze. He cut the message out. It was funny for the first three hours but was now blatantly a security risk.

"That reminds me! The Items!" He said to Terry as he opened the back of the truck. "I got to scram with a ton of them in their shipping crates. I don't know exactly which Items I managed to take with me since we were in a rush back there, but hopefully we've spirited away some helpful ones. Help me bring that one down, please." He released Terry from his case. The cybernetic insect lifted the crate to which Victor pointed and placed it on the dry, cracked ground.

"Oh man, I sure hope we get the Staff of Hermes in here!" Victor said as he took a crowbar from the truck and began prying off one side of the crate, only for it to come off and reveal the Candle Wax Child curled inside like a malnourished ghoul.


- STEFFIE -

The NVC Anomalocaris emerged onto the stormy waters of the Pacific Ocean, its huge form momentarily breaking apart the sea like a surfacing whale. The waves around the submarine were turning a grisly red as its drain ports regurgitated the remains of its loyalist crew members. Already, their ruined blood and guts were becoming chum to some fish on their migratory paths.

Falchion-aligned agents climbed out of the submarine's escape hatch. Despite themselves, some of the rebels had elected to revel in their act of betrayal by enjoying the raging storm outside, the torrential rains washing away all the blood from their uniforms. Even Dr. Kojcewska came to see the view, still clad in a stolen suit of tactical armor. She hugged a jar to her chest, the bubbling flesh of the colorful jellyfish, Mitokondria, floating within.

She undid the seals of her helmet, uncovering her head to feel the force of the raindrops on her face. After hours spent coordinating the takeover, moving through hot, claustrophobic hallways to reach one safe area after another, and personally executing tens of her colleagues, it was quite a refreshing feeling.

Storms at sea were typically regarded as perilous and bleak, but Steffie viewed them differently. In the dance of lightning above she saw countless battle groups snaking across their enemies' lines, delivering death within the span of single moment. The rain was a raging downpour of their anomalous weapons, eroding away at the pristine defenses of the Farce until nothing of them remained. This was a vision of the Insurgency reinvigorated.

Steffie recalled a moment from her time as a Junior scientist. The Senior researcher - her superior - often spoke fondly of his time as one of Dr. Mung Fionggio's students. Steffie's young eyes would light up at her supervisor's stories of dissecting insect-human hybrids and discovering the tissue alterations in each of their organ systems. The Skirn Cell was still alive back then, their skittering minions and viral weapons research contributing to the CI's once-fearsome reputation.

The malaise of the Insurgency was starkly visible when she was recruited. She had expected mad-scientist types to be commonplace at the lab. She found incompetents, neurotic researchers, and rival organization rejects. She expected their bloodshot eyes to be twinkling with excitement over optimizing the best uses for their Items. She found only her own eyes bloodshot looking at diminishing Item retrieval reports month after month.

Ineffectual people had been leading them for over a decade now. In the Anomalocaris' case, they had spent far too long at sea doing inane studies on anomalies that legends like Dr. Fionggio would've never even considered examining. If the Farce wanted to sabotage the Insurgency, they need only to let idiots run the CI to the ground for a few more years, or, if they felt indulgent, sneak said idiots into their ranks in the first place.

As another spear of lightning flashed above the submarine, Steffie could see the shadowed outlines of six vessels on the horizon. Her face darkened. "We'll pay them back," she muttered, unsealing the lid off Mitokrandia's jar. The invertebrate seemed to pulse with orange light within its flesh as an ultrasonic message began to be broadcast.

"Mitoka, it seems our cousins at the Foundation are noticing this little revolution. Recall Charybdis from its playtime at Area 09.01.P in ten minutes. I'm sure both of you have been missing the taste of Mobile Task Force armor for a while now. Isn't that true?"

From inside its jar, the tumorous jellyfish happily pulsed blood-red.


- E -

Agent Hugh decided to let the waters lap at his feet for a little while longer. He heard the Ecstatic's horn blasting from far off in the horizon. The agent sighed deeply. In a short while, the transport would be docking at the beach, waiting to carry him and his new team, fresh from their seminar, off to their next assignment.

Hugh had scant understanding of where their next assignment would take them. All the dossiers had been redacted to the point where they resembled Sigma-class documents. He felt unused to this. Being an operations lead for so long, he usually had the enjoyment of knowing way more than his colleagues. If this new assignment was a lesson in humility, it was surely taking an effect.

Of course, many things were lessons in humility in the months following the Resurgence. Agent Hugh's colleagues had all disappeared, the last communications being sent during the final assault. But even those were redacted when he found them. In the seminar facility, he always found that everyone talked down to him - not quite as if he were a subordinate, but as if he had been a brain-panned patient.

Truth be told, Hugh hadn't been feeling like himself for a while now, although he knew it was due to the extensive injuries he sustained during the Aleph operation. His physician had been straightforward with the causes. Exposure to several cognitohazards and brain trauma inflicted by neuropredatory organisms. A few of them still lived symbiotically inside him, altering him in ways yet-observed. Hugh's head struggled to wrap around such complicated words. He was still no researcher, after all.

He was told he had a 25% chance of surviving when he was found by first aid personnel. The medical crews worked on him and others like him for days. During his convalescence, he was told the crews had been personally sent by Haos to recover everyone who had fought fiercely for the Falchion. Hugh cried when he heard that. In his heart, he had nothing but gratitude for their new leader.

Hugh heard someone step onto the sandy beach, their footsteps accompanied by the grainy sound of their cane landing on the rough sand. He instantly recognized who was approaching him. The man - the research lead - had been his only steadfast friend at the facility.

"That'll be enough lying down, Hugh. Finish your preparations for your next assignment and meet your new team at the quadrangle. We have arranged for a small send-off ceremony to celebrate your recoveries." Dr. Deny said. Rather than a cane, he was holding an old, wooden scythe. He was an eccentric man.

"Of course, Doctor!" Hugh said, wiping off the sand from his clothes as he rose to his feet. Just then, he was overcome with a sense of thankfulness at the simple fact he was alive and well. He suddenly made to hug the doctor, only to be stopped in his tearful approach with a curt tap on the head by Deny's scythe.

"This is not the place for sentimentality, Agent. Remember that I am your superior first and foremost, not your friend."

"Will we meet again, Doctor?" Hugh said.

Deny regarded him coldly. "We've already met one too many times."

An hour later, Hugh and his team were already sailing away from the island. He was out standing against the railing on the starboard side, looking at the dusk creeping over the sea.

Just then, the jagged shadow of some sea creature came rising onto the surface. The creature had a long, blade-like snout and bore small, spiny teeth set onto a large expanse of gums. Several of these creatures had also surfaced a distance away, but this particular specimen wore several scars on its body to distinguish it from its fellows. Its snout was similarly broken. It seemed to be watching Hugh with unnatural intelligence in its eyes.

This strange shark recognized him. It was an unusual thought - transient, but strong.

Hugh's attention on them was interrupted by the sound of an alarm as Item Retrieval agents moved to capture these wild anomalies, but by the time his view returned to the sea, the creatures were already gone.

With his back to the setting sun, Agent Hugh silently bid farewell to the Imperial Sharks.


- CREED -

"I entered into the Aetheric Temples. I made my name known to a thousand deities across dozens of belief systems, and consorted with the likes of Anubis, Dionysius, and Torngasoak. Entire cults of lesser daemons worship me as a font of power in the material plane…"

Creed rose from the floor, his wild eyes fixed on the bloodied tome at his feet. He stood in the center of a wide circle, splattered in crimson and flecks of salt and sage. This chamber - Absolute Sanctum - was enormous and empty, its polished, bronze walls and ceiling contrasting sharply with the grisly exhibit at the center.

"So give me a little credit here," he said, addressing no one in particular. The guards that accompanied him were all strewn around the chamber, their blood drained to use as ink for the ritual inscriptions. "Partake of my sanguine sacrifice and heed my command!"

The Director of Base Four knew his end was coming. He could sense the being descending into the hallways of Absolute Sanctum. He knew it was Hockenberry. That insufferable curmudgeon now had to cross through a quarter-mile of phasmic bolt turrets, ectogamma rays, and soul traps to reach the end of the Base's most esoteric sublevel. Creed didn't want to take his chances, however, and deigned to find aid from his Necronomicon to escape from the Base.

Suddenly the temperature in the chamber turned ice-cold. Creed knelt down and tried to concentrate as aetheric energies from the surroundings poured into the ritual circle. The spell was working. He threw his arms into the air, crying out the cant of the dark gods, supplicating himself to them as otherworldly winds blew around. The lights that had been flickering were now shattering to pieces.

The Director crouched on the floor in an inhuman way. Amid a flurry of growing teeth and tongues, he recited the Nine Blasphemous Oaths, and then declared his plea to the gods who listened.

"Your undying servant asks for a reprieve from these usurpers." Creed said, spitting out each word with rivulets of inky corruption and vomitus pooling on the floor.

Creed braced himself for the gods' reply, closing his eyes as tightly as he could. For one frightful, fleeting moment, his very soul felt a truly massive, overwhelming presence loom above him and sweep away any of his conceptions of power and authority. In the face of such a being, he was no more than a miniscule worm, and yet he asked of them so much. He had half a mind to weep aloud, this High Priest of thousands of cults, and beg for a swift death.

Then, in the next instant, Creed felt himself crashing onto the floor. Around him, Absolute Sanctum regained its footing in realspace, and the gods' gift manifested itself to him at the far corner of the chamber. And the sight of this gift caused Creed's smile to falter, then fade, and ultimately curdle his entire face. "The gods…" he said, almost mewingly, "have sealed my fate."

Sobbing openly, Creed brought the benighted guitar with him and sat on the steps to the central platform of the chamber. The instrument bore exquisite craftsmanship - its headstock was formed from soot-black East Indian Rosewood, the neck out of varnished mahogany, and the tuning pedals in pearlescent ivory. The strings were made of metal; each string a fine coil or strand of copper, bronze, silver, gold, platinum, or palladium. The frets were bleached bone studded with diamonds.

And yet, when Creed plucked at the strings, the sound immediately ruptured his inner ear. All the beauty in the world couldn't compensate for the sheer ugliness of the noise the guitar could make. Creed bit his tongue as he plucked another string, and another, and then another, forcing himself to play the notes of a song he decided he wanted to die with.

Hockenberry found him like this two minutes later, almost skeletal, almost ready to be loosed from the mortal coil, and playing the tabs to Johnny Cash's Hurt with the stumps of his fingers.


- ED -


"He's been humming like that for two days now." Dr. Habanchi 's aide said.

The two regarded the man on the other side of the observation window. The patient's eyes - bulging halves of ping-pong balls with tiny pinpoints for irises - were firmly planted on the ceiling. His cracked mouth was open and drawn into a permanently placid smile. The light from above reflected generously on the thick streak of drool that collected near his chin, forming a wet depression on the pillow.

"Any idea who he is yet?" Habanchi yawned as he consulted the sheaf of papers in his hands. His breath fogged up the glass, leaving a bitter scent that smelled of too little caffeine to fully rouse the doctor from his prolonged lack of sleep.

"Not a word, sir. The order from The Progressor yesterday is the only reason this man is still here under our care. We would've reclaimed his body parts by now if he wasn't being personally vetted by Haos himself to stay here playing my grandma's elevator music." The aide said.

Habanchi groaned. "All this secrecy is coming across as a tad comical. I mean, look at him."

His aide viewed him quizzically. "With all due respect, Doctor, if it weren't for my suspicions that this man was actually a highly-destructive Item that could easily bust out of this room on a whim, I would be laughing beside you." He paused for a moment, staring expectantly at the bedridden man. "As it is, though…"

"My thoughts exactly." Habanchi said.

The two fell into an abrupt silence as they continued to examine the man for any changes to his behavior. The man could not feed or clean himself, nor did he register any response from being connected to a line of IVs to ensure he didn't waste away in his stupor. He did not blink; a plastic tube running down his forehead administered a steady drip of fluids to moisten his eyeballs. He gave no actionable answer when spoken to, never breaking off from a single note of his curious little jingle. For all intents and purposes, the man was trapped in his own, unseen world.

Habanchi heard a faint, but distinct clicking sound behind them. He almost brushed it off before noticing that the aide heard it, too. They looked back to find the towering form of one of Haos' Illogicals behind them, its grotesque, cybernetically-enhanced body covered carelessly with bandages soaked in blood and oil. Its polished, red lenses betrayed no motive, although Habanchi was sure it was studying him thoroughly. In its exposed hand, the abomination held out a packet of papers addressed to his office.

The doctor wordlessly accepted the new intelligence, stiffening as the Illogical emitted another clicking noise that paralyzed their muscles and forced them to look upwards as the light from its lenses grew in intensity until their vision was overwhelmed in a brilliant, red flash. While the pair were blinded, the Illogical simply vanished.

Habanchi rubbed the back of his head as his vision returned, pulling out a handkerchief to wipe away the blood seeping from his eyes. His aide did the same.

"Was I bringing this packet with me this whole time?" He asked. The aide shook his head, the look of alarm clearly etched on his face. The two momentarily exchanged a dreadful look of speculation before turning their attention to the papers. Habanchi carefully tore open the packet and frowned. Most of the words swam in the paper, psychically locked until the doctor received the appropriate brainwaves from a cleared operative. He sifted through each page for the few words they were able to read. There were references to something called the "Scythe of Lethe," the names of a few Loyalist facilities, and a handful of other names. Habanchi glowered as he found Caduceus' name among them, and…

"Edison Denhai." The doctor said, as he pulled up a personnel report of a researcher who plainly resembled the man in the cell.

As he put the papers back into the packet, he found Denhai's lurid face pressed against the observation window, his gaze burning past the doctor.

"THAT NAME IS DENIED. ACCESS IS DENIED. I AM INSCRUTABLE. I AM THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER IN WHICH EVERYONE ELSE IS DROWNING. THERE IS NOBODY ELSE THERE BUT ME. YOU MUST NOT DENY ME, CADUCEUS, MY GOOD DOCTOR. I SEE YOU WITHOUT SEEING YOU. THERE SHALL BE NOTHING FOR YOU TO ACCESS INSIDE MY LABYRINTHINE MIND. ACCESS IS NOW AND FOREVER SHALL BE DENIED, DENIED, DENIED, DENIED, DENIED, DENIED, DENIED, DENIED, DENIED!"

Ed's loud reverie - so lively and animated despite the tinny audio of the intercom - startled the pair, but only for a brief moment as the aide hastily adjusted some knobs on a control panel beside the lunatic's cell, lowering the volume of his ramblings substantially.

"Well, this development both complicates and clears up some of our questions." The doctor said. His aide stared at him with concern. By the hunch of his back and the lazy drooping of his eyelids, Habanchi was visibly exhausted. He scribbled a few notes on his clipboard, placed it inside the packet, and checked his watch. It was early morning. All the while, Edison Denhai continued mouthing gibberish from his cell, sullying the window with his spittle. Behind him, there were lines of detached IVs snaked across the floor. There was also a distinct lack of any anomalous capacity from the man, who had resolved to clawing fruitlessly at the reinforced window.

By the time Habanchi said he was going to the cafeteria for coffee and breakfast, his aide had already dispatched a tranquilization team to administer to the patient with due haste. The pair steeled themselves for the rest of the day's unpalatable agenda as they walked out of the hospice arm of the facility. Nobody looked forward to testing the latest refinements to the Human Serum, but like everyone in Base Eleven, both researches believed in Haos' grand scientific direction. Together with their sister site, Base Six, they would do their part to consolidate His power as members of the nascent Nucleolus.


- CHUMAGEN -

It was a bright and beautiful day, early in the spring, and Director Heaton was walking along a footpath of warm-colored bricks to pay a visit to phantoms.

The Insurgent leader was accompanied by a large, portly man - bald, save for the spiky shocks of red hair behind his ears. Ten minutes ago, as he descended from the VTOL transport, Heaton noticed that the phantoms had sent this one man by his lonesome self along to escort him to their headquarters. As they began their promenade to the secretive group's headquarters, however, Heaton had learned the error in his perception.

It was still quite cold. The two were wearing dark trenchcoats and gloves. Although the sun bore down on them, the seasonal breeze still carried the frosts of the past winter. It became apparent to Heaton that the shimmering air around them was not simply the heat haze evocative of the warm months to come, but the illusory body-cloaks of ShaDES Technologies' Corvidines at work. They stood in a line alongside the footpath. A show of might, as subtle as ShaDES itself.

The portly fellow - the senior liaison officer of the start-up - noticed Heaton's discovery. It had taken the Director eighty-six seconds to detect the guards' presence. He reached into his coat to retrieve something, handing him a strange-looking visor. "It'll make anything concealed by our cloaking technologies slightly more visible to you." He placed the visor on his head, his vision supplanted with a violet-hued electronic display. The life energies of many organisms - the grass, the bees, the squirrels - could be seen through the reverse-engineered VERITAS set. The air over the footpath still shimmered as before, empty of any human outline.

"That's our point, Director." The liaison said as he removed the visor from Heaton's head. "Nothing can see past our cloaking technologies, which we have been constantly refining over these months thanks to the Insurgency's generous investments. As long as we continue to confound our enemies with the question of our absence or presence, we will remain in business. That has been our lives' work."

"You could have given me a bugged VERITAS, for all we know."

The liaison simply patted Heaton strongly on the shoulder and laughed in his jovial, jostling manner. Wordlessly, he continued their tour of the company's headquarters.

The object of Heaton's visit did not precisely concern a tour. In the turmoil of the Aleph-11-Tango procedure, Heaton had far less altruistic reasons for meeting with this burgeoning provider of anomalous tech. He declared for the Falchion, after all; every stroke of treachery and violence that his faction propagated in Haos' name now granted Heaton uncontested authority over the Spanish Branch. As such, it was vital that he obtain new and powerful partners. First among all other potential partners would be ShaDES.

Heaton needed the fledgling company's unparalleled achievements in cloak technologies to strengthen his control and deter the ambitions of other branches. This would give him the security to let his other plans unfold. With their expertise, he would reform the Spanish Branch into a legion of shadows and silent killers. And in doing so, perhaps he might even earn the Branch a place at Haos' side as his chosen enforcers. They would be capable of securing the Falchion's dominance for years to come. His branch would be irreplaceable.

"So now, we arrive to the actual point of your visit, good Director." The liaison said as they entered the back portion of the campus, climbing atop a raised platform to get a better view of the spacious area there. "The inspection of the assets we have prepared according to your wishes."

A handful of armored personnel carriers drove into view, followed by a column of main battle tanks. The air around each vehicle shimmered - this time, not from their cloaks, but from the heat dissipating in the cloak-reactors. The military vehicles assembled in front of the platform. They were awaiting an unknown signal.

"I suggest you avoid direct line of sight when they activate their cloaks." The liaison warned.

"No." Heaton responded. "I'm seeing this for myself."

"Very well." Replied the liaison, turning his gaze skyward. He pressed the mic on his collar. "Enshroud on my mark. Three… two… one…."

Heaton couldn't tell if his eyes were closed or not, so sudden was the impact of the cloaking devices on his optic nerves. For an achingly long moment, it looked like he was transported to the inside of a prism. Bands of blinding light in trillions of colors filled his vision entirely, not only obscuring his view of the vehicles, but the rest of his surroundings as well. Such sensory overload caused excruciating pain shooting up his spinal cord. He could even feel the nagging, piercing pain deep in his brain. Without his sight, Heaton instinctively touched a ring on his right hand. There was a stir of strange energy. The ring's cheap gemstone broke into pieces, and he slowly regained his vision.

Heaton wiped away tears and cerebrospinal fluid from his eyes. Before him stood an empty field. The liaison was folding his arms, regarding the Director with bemusement etched on his face. "No." He said, anticipating something. "No tricks, my good friend. They will be unshrouding now."

With the order given, the vehicles returned to visible wavelengths. "Currently, all vehicular reactors are capable of sustaining XI-class cloaking for eighteen hours at full capacity. We will send maintenance crews to you following each order to ensure your hardware is operational and secure. The Corvidines will also join your recovery crews to retrieve or destroy any reactor lost in battle. I trust everything else in our agreement is to your satisfaction?"

Heaton nodded and shook hands with the senior officer.

"Ah, but there is one more demonstration you wish to see, right? I regret that we need more time to engineer a cloaking reactor to its size and specifications, but perhaps you'd like to see the progress." The liaison said. "If you'll follow me…"

Within minutes, Heaton found himself in the control room at one of ShaDES' headquarters' sub-level storage bays. Outside, he could see the mechanic team tinkering on various parts of the TEL missile vehicle stationed there. Although bulky and imposing, the TEL was, itself, a non-descript vehicle in comparison to its cargo.

Barely visible in the dim lights was the silhouette of a Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile. Most of the mechanics were busy augmenting, repairing and retrofitting the components therein, especially its slate-grey, steely biceps, which seemed to pulse with virile, radioactive energy.

Heaton nearly shed a tear witnessing its majesty.


- DEBOUT, DEBOUT LES MORTS -

"Cad."

Opening his eyes was a pain, but Caduceus wanted to see the dead that was calling to him.

"Brooke?"

The figure of a girl knelt beside him. Smiling, that was clear. No visible injuries. No grime, or machine oil, or blood caking her wavy brown hair.

Brooke was the only apparition to accompany him on his death delusions, it seems. Cad thought to give her a thank-you note once he joined her in the great place beyond. He slowly shut his eyes once more.

He felt an incessant tapping against his right cheek. To his irritation, the poking was interrupting his smooth transition into a corpse.

"Do you think both of us died, Cad?" The former agent asked.

"Do we all become as philosophical as you once we reach Heaven, Brooke?"

His face twitched as he felt a sharp flick to the tip of his nose. Cad abruptly sneezed.

"Always like you to go for the bloody weak spot." He said, trying to soothe his ruffled nose. He was certain it remained broken. He could feel the itch to sneeze again. "For the love of Wiggins, you know full well that-" Suddenly, he felt her press a silken handkerchief gently against his nostrils.

"Shush." Brooke said. "I know. I just want to see that stupid expression of yours one last time."

By now, Martin had regained some energy to move. He propped himself up a little by his elbows. He looked at Brooke with a scrutinizing gaze. "What did you just say?"

"Caduceus! Crosscomb!" Someone else yelled from far away. It was Wiggins. Seadrus was tagging alongside him.

"Guys?" Cad asked out. "Where did you come from? Where are we?"

"Right, that seems the most pressing thing to ask right now, but you've got weightier matters to personally attend to." Wiggins said as he arrived before the two. Cad squinted. The Item Retrieval specialist looked perfectly healthy and well. Seadrus wasn't missing an arm. This was glaringly inconsistent with his last, grim memories of them.

"Just me? What about you guys?" Cad asked.

"There's someone here who wants to meet you." Seadrus simply replied. He and Brooke helped Caduceus stand on his feet. The doctor was surprised he could even work his legs again.

"Hold on." Cad said, straightening himself. "Who, exactly? Have you re-established contact with Cavendish?" He paused to try and regard his surroundings, failing to see anything but a warm, diffuse light around them.

"Relax, Marty. These are Insurgent orders. From Command, to be precise." Seadrus said.

Cad pressed the question. "From the Falchion?"

Wiggins shook his head. "From Command, Cad. There isn't a simpler way to put it. I don't think the old coot even knows about the Falchion yet." He gestured to the route from which they arrived. "Come on, we have to move."

"Pardon my indolence," Cad said, rubbing his temples, "but I can't go with you unless I know where we are."

The two field agents stared at him. "Don't you recognize this place?" Seadrus asked, a note of concern in his voice.

"All I see is the bright blankness of St. Peter's backrooms, and I'm pretty sure this is my first time here, so explain to me exactly what you can see that I can't."

Wiggins shook his head. "We're in the thick of a truly ancient forest. The pines alone are enormous. And the view here is pretty nice, to say the least. The old man built a cabin in a clearing up ahead, and that's where he told us he wanted to meet you at." He raised his head, tracking something unseen in the sky. "You don't have much time, mate. Let's move."

Sensing Caduceus' unease, Brooke said. "Cad and I will be right behind you. Please lead the way, sergeant." Wiggins curtly nodded, and he and Seadrus started walking back along an invisible path. The two IRUS agents followed close behind.

It would never become evident to him to Caduceus later, but Field Research Unit 116 had regrouped for the final time.


- CADUCEUS -

Although Director Cavendish was old and weary from administrating one of the Insurgency's most critical central sites in North America, he maintained a sense of vitality thanks to his gruff appearance. With a long, blonde mustache, a grizzled beard, and perpetually-furrowed eyebrows, he appeared, at all times, to be one moment away from pulling out a flintlock and blasting away at any miscreant that crossed him. But all of those features had withered by the time he wrested Base Six from loyalist control, and now the only reminder people had of his sanguine self was the tall, ash-colored cowboy's hat he wore everywhere he went.

Nevertheless, he regarded Caduceus with characteristic scrutiny. Being the only recovered survivor of his field unit, it fell to the young researcher to deliver the report of their exploits during the Procedure. Caduceus, for the most part, provided inventories and intelligence on the Items retrieved from other sites with cool composure. He didn't act like the still-healing wounds pockmarking all over his skin underneath his bandages ached with every movement. He certainly didn't treat his immobilized leg as anything worse than a minor impediment.

Just like with his previous unit, Cavendish knew that Martin was fond of the 116th FRU. He was dissembling all of his losses over the year admirably.

Caduceus concluded his after-action report about thirty minutes ago. The conversation had since shifted to one of future prospects. Despite the losses, Base Six stood at a formidable position in terms of Items and manpower, and had the distinction of being one of Haos' first declarants. The Director activated one of his lobotomized menials in the Inner Sanctum to help the researcher sit on his chair.

The junior scientist's request was reasonable, given the degree of expertise and care with which he handled the several Items that the 116th 'liberated' during the Procedure. Caduceus' unit surprised Cavendish. He didn't expect them to rescue so many Teals from Creed's twisted internment camps. The doctor personally tended to the Ward's wounds and escaped with an entire company of initiates under the Obelisk's protective barrier. If the researcher could be as prodigious as Dr. Kuhli from Base Eleven, Cavendish might install him as a loyal operative leading the site's Item Research, Usage and Storage Department in the near future.

For Caduceus' part, he assured Cavendish that the new BETA-class credentials would be enough recompense for his service, and would be the best way to help him serve the Insurgency after Aleph. Having the Items he helped retrieve in his immediate oversight would unlock plenty of opportunities in the future. There was no need to weaken Cavendish's trust in him by raising more requests.

After saying his goodbyes to the leader of Base Six, Caduceus entered the lift to descend from Inner Sanctum. On the way down, he studied the sinusoidal forms of the twin reptiles that coiled around each of his arms. He willed them away for now, and allowed himself a little more time to muse.

Cavendish, he understood, rewarded loyalty. That was a principal reason why he flourished as a Base Director, when most of his contemporaries had been usurped over the decades. But his patronage would never amount to anything more than a means to an end.

Haos had what he truly wanted, and Dr. Caduceus wouldn't retrieve such a reward from The Progressor by remaining loyal.


Recording starts..

Our work is just beginning - the realization of a billion dreams since the age of Man dawned over the world. The liberation from the corrupt and ineffectual Foundation brought upon a change to us all - a strengthening of our spirit and our resolve, and the hope for a bright, new era of scientific discovery.

Dr. Fillius likened our journey to Moses, how he led the slaves to freedom from their Egyptian masters. He had a sense for the Biblical that I'm afraid I would never fully appreciate, like when he referred to the act of killing an Overseer as "the hurried blow of a bare-fisted angel".

But I suppose it is an apt metaphor. The Insurgency has cast aside many chains to bring our race to the "Promised Land;" ethics and containment no longer lord over our work, and our anomalies are now loyal because they are free. By embracing the world's chaos, we are on the way to accomplishing Moses' work a second time.

By that, I mean—and I hope you lend me your Old Testament gravitas, Emerson—this Insurgency will be able to "Shepherd the Chosen unto Paradise."

- from "The Recorded Memoirs of Dr. Angus Remidi, 1947 Original Release"


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