The Last Contingency, Part 2: Like Feet in a Barrel
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The following is the second part in an ongoing series. It is strongly recommended you read
Part 1 before continuing.

Ashley's nerves were already on edge. Even populated, the Site had never struck her as particularly friendly. The regular skylights, potted plants and green walls, the colourful abstract murals— none of it could cover over the heavy security doors and the bunker-like shape of the guard posts. The whole place had the air of a fortress, the kind of place that Ashley's family had trained her to tear to pieces. Small wonder that when she turned a corner and ran face-first into a man in a standard-issue Authority coverall, her first instinct was to pump a round from one of her machine guns into his foot. He dropped like a stone, yelping like a wounded animal. Which, she supposed, he was.

Almost immediately, a cloud of shimmering rainbow light poured off the man's body, filling the low-ceilinged maintenance access corridor with technicolour light. It swirled towards her— she let out a few barely-aimed shots— and for the second time that day she felt something wrenching away the iron ball of rage and directed fury that was her combat training. Be calm, it said. All will be well. All will be peace.

She roared an incoherent syllable, her skin exploding outwards into a cloud razor-sharp metal bristles. The sudden expansion in her volume blasted the air away from her, sending the cloud fluttering away against the wall. It retreated back towards the injured man on the floor, cowering like a puppy.

"Holy shit!", Anderson yelped. Less than five seconds had passed since they'd rounded the corner. Claudille was still squeezing her armoured bulk past the bulkheads of the utility corridor, the message panel on her frontal hull displaying a wide variety of obscenities in a wide variety of languages.

The musician threw himself down on the ground next to the injured man, pulling off his shoe with a practised motion. Then, speaking almost to himself.

"All right, large-calibre round, went straight through. Looks like it missed the bone, you're going to be fine if we can stop the bleeding. Ashley, can you make any medical gear with that? Bandages or wire? Ashley? OHSIXTEEN?"

It took Ashley a moment to register that she was being spoken to, as the felt the steely haze of adrenaline fade away. Part of her brain was still focused on the cloud, on the gentle resounding joy that it had promised, on a life without fear or regret, merely boundless self-affirmation, and—

"No," she gulped. "I could give you a sharp knife but no medical gear."

Something large and smelling of machine oil gently shoved her aside.

{HOLD HIS FOOT UP, I'LL CAUTERIZE IT. IT'S GOING TO HURT LIKE A BITCH BUT I CAN DISINFECT AND SEAL IT. YOU SEEM TO KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING, JACK.}

He glanced up at the long mechanical arm with a red-hot soldering iron glowing at its tip that the tank had extended, and shrugged. It was a difficult gesture to make while elevating a profusely bleeding foot. "I did combat first aid in basic, not much else. We could grab a first aid kit and patch him up but that wouldn't solve the root problem here. If you think burning him will fix it, be my guest."

Then he hesitated.

"What would a factory on tracks know about combat surgery?"

{ENOUGH. HOLD HIM HIGHER. LITTLE LEFT. THERE.}

There was a disgusting hissing noise and a smell that made Ashley's lip curl. The man on the ground let out a howl, then collapsed, limp.

{DONE. NOT A WHOLE LOT MORE DIFFICULT THAN SEALING UP A DAMAGED HYDRAULIC LINE. SLAP SOME GAUZE ON IT AND YOU'LL BE FINE YOU BIG BABY.}

The man on the ground made quiet animal noises until the cloud wrapped around him. With a sudden jolt, he sat upright, blinking.

"You shot me," he said matter-of-factly to Ashley.

"You startled me," she said back.

"And I'm sure we'll all be fast friends," Anderson interjected, wiping his bloody hands on the man's jumpsuit.


A few minutes later they were seated, peculiarly enough, inside Claudille. The tank, crammed incongruously inside a hallway much to small for its smoke-spitting bulk, had unfurled a small hatch which led, offly enough, into a gigantic, yawning space full of gently rattling and rumbling machinery. To Belrose, still reeling from the hole in his foot, sitting on a slightly splintery drafting chair amidst the production line was hardly the strangest thing that had happened all day.

{SO, THAT'S INTRODUCTIONS MADE. GLAD WE'RE ALL ON THE SAME SIDE AND THAT NONE OF USE ARE GOING TO SHOOT EACH OTHER ANYMORE. WHAT'S OUR PLAN OF ACTION?}

The tank was currently manifesting as a message-plat dangling from a spidery winch overlooking the little platform on normalcy on which they sat. Belrose was splayed back in a drafting chair, foot up on a low bookshelf which seemed to be occupied by little more than a pile of ashes. Anderson, the smug-looking one with too much product in his hair, was perched on the edge of the drafting table. Davidson, the one the machine called 'Ashley', was sitting on a spindly metal growth that had grown unprompted out of her hands. Belrose was in no position to judge, given the cloud of coruscating rainbows that swirled about his injured foot like a happy but slightly damp puppy. He blinked the soothing numbness from the cloud out of his eyes.

"I was heading to one of the command centers before, uh, well…" His eye contact with the girl lasted a little bit too long.

"Before you startled me." Her expression was blank. It reminded him eerily of the expression he'd seen on mug shots online, normally under headlines like Florida woman feeds relatives to alligators

"Yes, that."

There was a long pause.

{WE RAN INTO YOU IN ONE OF THE UPPER MAINTENANCE HALLWAYS. WHY WERE YOU HEADING UPWARDS IF THE COMMAND AREAS ARE ALL LOCATED AT THE BOTTOM OF THE FACILITY.}

Anderson glanced up at the message board. "So, how exactly do you know so much about how this facility, anyways? Last I've seen they didn't let a tank drive around unguarded, Claudille."

{A LADY HAS HER WAYS. AND THERE WERE INTERNAL MAPS POSTED AT SEVERAL JUNCTIONS WE PASSED.}

"Okay, fine, lady's ways, whatever. So we make it to a command center and then what, call for help?"

The girl shook her head. "No way of telling if there's anyone out there to call for- for all we know whoever made this happen is waiting for us to call."

The cloud whirled about them, becoming a tight, opaque sphere which slowly expanded, growing more and more tenuous before swirling away to nothing and reforming as a lightning bolt with a large 'X' over it. It swirled towards Belrose insistently, and then things clicked.

"You're saying something this powerful needs a lot of power, right? Limited range, then? So you think they've only locked the Site down?"

Ashley peered up towards the cloud, frowning.

"What would you know about teleporting people away? You're a cloud."

Belrose couldn't resist the opportunity.

"What would you know? You're a teenaged psychopath with daddy issues."

The girl's stool fell over with a clatter, and Belrose was unsurprised to find the cold metal barrel of yet another firearm pressed against his gut.

"Gonna shoot me again?," he snorted, long past the point of caring.

Anderson jumped to his feet, clapping his hands together.

"Right!," he said brightly, "let's get moving, shall we?"


As Ashley clambered out of the hatchway, a thought occured to her.

"Hold on. How are we going to make the tank fit? It's huge!"

Then she realized she was at ground level- she'd needed to climb steps to get into the thing beforehand. She rounded on the tank, which was suddenly much, much smaller.

"Holy shit, Claudille! You're adorable!", Anderson guffawed behind her, and she had to agree. The tank had gone from tank-sized to something roughly the size of a Great Dane, if a Great Dane was mostly wraparound treads and clattering exhaust pipes.

"That's great, tank," said Belrose, his voice hollow. "Let's get moving, please?"


They walked in near-silence for what felt like an hour, past endless empty offices and containment cells full of mysteries which all of them were far too sensible to even consider investigating. Then, without warning, there was a hiss from the speakers above them, a squeal of feedback, and then a bubbling intake of breath.

"Attention, downtrodden victims of the Authority. We have come to offer you succour in your time of darkness. We will raise you from the depths of enslavement into the light of pure biology. Offer yourselves to the Malthusian Church, and become part of the congregation."

Belrose stopped dead in his tracks, causing Ashley and Anderson to run into him. Behind them, Claudille ground to a halt, splashing bits of the cloud across the walls. The confusion that resulted was dominated by a howl of anguish from the psychic.

"Fucking god dammit!"

Anderson was on his feet first, trumpet held high above him. "The hell is your problem, Mike?"

"Church of Malthus! Cee of stupid fucking Em! They're here for me!"

There was a clatter from Claudille.

{GOODNESS, AREN'T YOU POPULAR. OLD GIRLFRIEND WANT YOU BACK OR SOMETHING?}

"Hardly," Belrose spat bitterly. "They want to turn me into genetic goop and add me to their colony organisms or something, I dunno."

Anderson snorted. "Sounds like some girls I know."

Belrose rounded on him, his face a white mask of equal parts fear and anger. Seizing the musician by the collar of his jumpsuit, he slammed him back against the wall.

"You weren't there, Jack. You didn't see what they fucking did to people. Rooms of meat and limbs and heads and eyes and organs and it was all still alive, you hear me? I'm not going back to that!"

Both men relaxed as the Cloud swirled around them, and Belrose took a step back.

{OKAY, SO I GUESS WE KNOW WHO SET THIS WHOLE THING UP. I'M THINKING WE BRING THE KID TO THEM AND SHE MURDERS THEM ALL?}

Ashley suddenly found herself at the center of a ring of eyes. She was more than a little surprised at how much the concept appealed to her.

"Okay, I guess."

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