The 2020 Event |The Main Event|

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|20.20|21|22|22.2|22.22|22.222|23|24|25|Those Extra Four…|1|2|3|4|Back Cover|


Chapter 9.333
Exit Strategy

Ray And Wolf

“I don’t know, I just feel like they might perceive this as a threat.”

“The bogey’s in sight, approach is clean,” Rose reports, ignoring Wolf’s attempt at last-minute cop out. “MERCs, prepare for jump.”

“Really? Nobody else thinks that maybe, just maybe we should reconsider this whole plan?”

“We were given direct orders Wolf, if we go back without results then we’ll end up like freakin’ Gary. Are you really tryna piss motor oil for the rest of your infinite, unbiological life?”

“…Fair point, kid. Fair point.”

Streaking through the skies of Northern New Jersey in broad daylight without even a single cloud to obstruct its cloaked hull from the view of the animals and other nonhumans still occupying the mostly deserted town of Treering, a human-controlled Zerocian Jettison craft makes its approach towards the mysterious foreign object that entered Earth’s atmosphere early this morning. Behind the wheel is none other than Rose, the fourth recruit to undergo Apex’s experimental Mercenary Enhanced Reflex Conditioning program, or as acronymized by the program’s father Doctor Edvard Torpol, the MERC program. She’s joined by Ray and Wolf, number six and seven, globally unmatched experts of blade- and projectile-based combat, respectively, and also by the craft’s original pilot, codenamed The Prisoner. That one’s locked in the storage closet and restrained by chains composed of solidified kinetic energy, the same energy used as ammunition by all seven of the guns Wolf keeps tucked away in his various pockets, and he was only brought along just in case things go haywire and last-minute repairs need to be made to the craft.

While Rose is more than adept at flying spacecraft, mechanics have never really been her thing, similarly to how soldiering has never really been Wolf’s thing. She’s utterly useless with a wrench unless you need her to cave a skull in; in that case, she’s your girl. Neither Ray nor Wolf can really be bothered with under the hood matters either, and unfortunately the team’s mechanical expert is naval-deep in the pit of mud that serves as his sleeping quarters at the moment, so The Prisoner had no choice but to tag along. Well, The Prisoner rarely has a choice in his actions, but whatever.

Ray is pretty sure The Prisoner has a name but, always one to read a room, he’s never asked. The Prisoner is only brought out of his solitary confinement in the most extreme of situations, such as the stealthy boarding of what he described as, “…a warship that could turn the entirety of your apeish species and this blasphemous concrete jungle that houses the worst iterations of your kind as they fester within it to dust with the flip of a switch.”

He’s always had a dramatic flair though, don’t mind him.

‘You two are sure you want to do this?’

Wolf turns around in his seat and faces the sealed closet door, almost certain he just heard some muffled language attempting to escape. He glances at Ray and sees the boy not paying any attention whatsoever – he’s focused on the task at hand, just as he was trained to be. The Gunman, not to be confused with the Gunborg, stands, the thought, ‘Give it a break kid,’ running rampant through his mind, and gingerly approaches the closet.

Knock knock, “You say something in there, big guy?”

A staticy white noise fills Wolf’s head and then fades, as if a radio operator was going to listen to today’s hippest pop tunes but decided to listen to the sound of insects dying against her windshield instead. He waits a moment before knocking again.

“C’mon, if you have any words of advice for us, I’d like to not get eviscerated today. Spit it out.”

“Dude just give it up, he’s not gonna speak to you,” Ray calls out, strapped so tightly in his seat that he can’t turn around. “I’ve tried, we’ve all tried; he just doesn’t see himself as part of the team. I don’t think he ever wi–”

“That’s probably because he can’t see at all. Speak when you’re spoken to, Knifebuck.”

“For once, you undomesticated dog,” Rose chimes in, “I agree with you.”

Gunman shakes his head. “I’m sure Ray and I are gonna die doing this stupid shit today, so can I at least know your name? The thought of a sentient creature named The Prisoner makes my skin crawl.”

A tense moment of anti-gravity engines humming is followed by nothing. As Wolf turns to walk away, he hears the mumble again.

“You’re definitely doing that on purpose,” Wolf says, discreetly pressing his ear to the door.

After another moment of a lack of mouth noises, Wolf stomps his feet as if he’s walking away.

The mumble, finally audible to Wolf’s brain, hums, ‘Unless you have an exit strategy, you are correct. Maybe you humans aren’t all as senseless as I still firmly believe you are.’

“HAH!” Wolf touts, “Caught ya!”

A heavy exhale, then, through the door, “Very well, ape. You have earned my council. What will you do with it?”

“Well let’s start with your name, unless you like being called The Prisoner, you kinky thing, you.”

“The noise used to label me matters not. I know not which of the Chairseats mans that ship, but I can sense their energy, human. If you’re planning on going inside, you’ll have to fight your way through that energy, and believe me when I say it: you will not survive the transition.”

“Oh?” Wolf says, refusing to show the buildup of nervous futterblies inside his gut. “What exactly are we dealing with here, and what’s a Chairseat? It sounds redundant, does it know we’re comin’?”

“So concerned with labels that you miss the meaning conveyed underneath. You are a mouse, ape, and the cheese is waiting for you on that ship, hidden in plain sight in the mouth of the barrel of a loaded cannon that’s programmed to fire at anything that moves.”

“Are… you’re saying this is a trap, aren’t you?”

“That’s actually impossible,” Rose snaps. “We’re cloaked on thirteen visible spectrums using their own technology. They’ll never see us coming.”

‘It’s no they, just one. And while I know not which one lays in wait, I do know they’ve seen you coming since the moment you were birthed into this Universe. You’re different than them, Wolf. When it’s offered, take your leave.’

As The Prisoner watches Wolf’s aura walk away trough the solid wooden door, he bows his head, resting his chin on the searing energic chains that bind him. His skin is so scarred, nerves so burnt out… he doesn’t even feel the pain anymore. It used to keep him grounded, used to remind him that even through this unending, twisted internment, he’s still breathing, still alive and kicking, still feeling something. But now there’s nothing, just the dull roar inside his head. ‘It will all be over soon… it has to be.’

“This’ll never be over, you know,” nudges Wolf as he sits down on the ceiling-mounted seat next to Ray. “The missions, the fighting, the espionage. It’ll never end.”

“Well sure it will, we only have a ten-year contract. When that’s up we’re free to go.”

“That’s exactly right,” Rose cuts in, not allowing Wolf to further elaborate on this obnoxious fear that he keeps reanimating. “We’re approaching the drop location, strap in. I’m lifting the gate, good luck boys. Don’t get mauled too hard down there.”

With the pull of a lever, the floor beneath their chairs splits, both halves sliding into the body of the craft to chamber off the jumpers. As icy whirlwinds whip around the MERCs, a screen blinks to life on the wall in front of them, displaying a countdown that’s depicted as words, not as numbers.

Five.

Wolf sighs, then, “I love ya kid, but you’re either–”

Four.

“–stupid, naïve, or a shitty combination of both.”

Three.

“The day we fuck up, we’ll be put down and turned in–”

Two.

“–to cyberslaves. If we get the chance to run today–”

One.

“–we need to take it. We might never get the op–”

Zero.

Ray and Wolf plummet down to the dusty surface of the invasion craft, the latter’s warning lost among the maelstromic rushing of the atmosphere being torn apart around them. Or maybe it got lost in the rushing of Ray’s blood to his brain, excited to get another mission under his belt for that post-Apex resume he’s been imagining ever since he signed up. Regardless, as they watch the shimmering ghost of the cloaked jettison ship disappear into the horizon, the booster jets underneath the seats of their chairs reverse their downward propulsion and provide the MERCs a safe landing roughly halfway between the middle and the edge of the invading vessel.

Ray unstraps himself and leaps out of his chair, landing with a roll before priming the teleportation belt to zap him back to the ship just in case that planet-dusting bullshit The Prisoner was spewing has any merit. He watches his comrade do the same, and then, his brain pumping pure adrenalin, Ray brandishes his overarm hidden blades, striking the daggers against one another and losing himself in the harmonious sounds of steel clashing against steel.

“You ready for this, old timer?”

“You didn’t hear a word of what I said, did you?” Wolf groans, unholstering two palm pistols and spinning them on his fingers to re-familiarize himself with their exact mass. “Fuck it, we’d best get to it.”

Staying low to the ground, their black combat suits taking on a powdery gray tone as they wallow through the last wingspan of a passenger jet’s worth of space dirt, the MERCs approach the center point of the craft. Ray takes out his communicator and brings up the schematics of the ship, provided by UltraVi’s many scans that The Prisoner was electrocuted into detailing for them. There should be a tunnel of some sort, a smooth, metallic, cylindrical passageway that leads directly to the ship’s largest interior cavity, the entrance of which is buried under the dirt up here.

Wolf, after hearing Ray talk about the tunnel, asks, “Then why’s there a statue standing where there’s supposed to be a hole?”

Great question. Standing in the exact location of their purported porthole is a statue, no more than eight feet in height, composed of what seems to be the cloudiest purple gemstones and dullest silver ever brought to Earth. It depicts a Zeroc, that much is obvious; the figure is gazing off towards the horizon with its arms to its sides, the pale mauve body of the sculpture draped in once-resplendent silver robes gilded with amethyst and flowing with the wind. Whomever crafted this thing definitely deserves bonus points for realism, like, weaving silver and gemstones into an actual cloak? For a statue? I guess artists really are nuts, human or not.

The closer the MERCs approach, the more detail they pick out; the face of the statue is decorated in black war paint, two rigid lines run from the center of the forehead and drop down at the temples, and one traces the midpoint between the model’s eyes and breaks off diagonally at the nose just to drop straight off his face at the glass-cutting cheekbones. In the hands of the sculpture are two weapons, a tomahawk and a curved dagger, both sporting blades blacker than the void of outer space; surely this is commemorative of some lost Zerocian warrior who had slain legions of enemies in his day, forever memorialized as the hood ornament of an otherwise drab spaceship.

Wolf and Ray stop in their dusty footprints when the weapons fall from the suddenly open hands of the statue. Its arms raise up and pull the hood down to reveal a war bonnet, a blaze of feathers dyed scarlet red no longer shrouded by the cloth. The statue, clearly a very advanced from of animated extraterrestrial sculpting, flexes the muscles in his hands and the weapons, untethered, return to him.

Without turning to face the MERCs, the obviously not a fucking statue decrees, “I know not how you boarded this craft, but it will be the last glimpse of this physical plane your bodies have the privilege of perceiving.”

Wolf reaches his arm across Ray’s torso and guides him back, putting his own body between the alien warlord and the kid. Ray takes Wolf’s arm and uses it as leverage to spin him and throw him to the side, hidden blades at the ready. His focus is so tight that he barely hears Wolf questioning what the fuck he thinks he’s doing.

“If your drop your weapons, your death will be merciful and swift; if you choose to engage, I cannot promise the same courtesy,” warns the Zeroc as he turns to face his adversaries

Ray bends at the knees and dashes towards the alien, putting himself far too open to the impact of the alien tomahawk that’s now spinning through the air for Wolf’s liking. Wolf acts fast, releasing a hailstorm of searing plasmic bullets that do little more than divert the flight path of the tomahawk, forcing it to impale and impair Ray’s teleportation belt rather than his skull. A crippling electric shockwave travels through Ray’s entire body but he stands firm, not even allowing himself to fall down on one knee.

“Kid, DOWN!” Wolf shouts as he leapfrogs over Ray, bringing his hands together to fuse his palm pistols into a proper hand cannon as the tomahawk returns to its sender. He fires a kinetic cannonball at the alien in midair, the projectile flying wide but self-correcting its trajectory just to be split perfectly in half by the twisted blade of the dagger. The two halves of Wolf’s secret weapon bound out and curve back together nearly ten yards behind the alien. The resulting explosion sends a ragged sandstorm of space dirt billowing across the mid-air battlefield. When the dust settles, the warrior is standing mere meters in front of Wolf.

The giant tilts his head to the side, holding an emotionless stare at the ballsy human before him. “You were given a choice today, weren’t you, human?”

Wolf’s blood stops flowing, then, “He set us up, didn’t he?”

‘No,’ says a powerful foreign voice inside Wolf’s skull. ‘You’re just incapable of understanding the true stakes of the orders you so blindly follow.’

Wolf leaps backwards just as the blade of the dagger comes down and clangs against the metal shell of the craft buried beneath the ultrafine spacey substrate. He’s at Ray’s side in half a second, the resulting dust-laden wind catching up to him after he removes his primed escape belt and latches it to Ray’s waist.

“Listen kid, you need to go. This is the end of the line; either one of us makes it off this ship or neither of us do.”

“Fuck you, I’m nah–” Ray begins to say before he’s dropkicked in the gut and sent flying backwards.

Wolf stands and turns to face the Zerocian guardian. “I know you couldn’t promise merciful, but how about swift?”

He then takes off, sprinting past the alien in a blur. Jolon gives chase, pursuing the MERC on foot and struggling to keep up. In mere seconds, Wolf reaches the end of the craft and stops on a dime, struggling to see through the resulting cloud of dust to make sure he’ll hit water when he jumps the fuck offa this thing.

Footsteps approach from behind him but stop short, Wolf not bothering to turn around. As the tomahawk viciously twirls through the air, it shaves a single unkempt hair from the back of Wolf’s head, nearly missing the layer of scalp that Jolon was aiming for. The handle of the tool slaps back into the alien’s hand as Wolf’s body slaps into the water of the Wanapo.