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(Contains: strong language)
Chapter 22

With everyone engrossed in their various tasks over the next several hours, all beginning their preparations for the rescue as soon as they could, it was quite the startle when Que's scream suddenly rose from below deck, quickly followed by Zeta running up the steps, looking shaken and thoroughly confused.

"Uh... can someone help me... please?"

Ophelia and Eric and Liam were the only ones on deck with the crew. Malcolm was getting some much needed sleep (he and Liam were taking shifts piloting) and Brogan and BOB were working deep below deck from a room she'd made her workshop next to the engine room.

Ophelia had heard the scream, but somehow hadn't quite been as startled as the others. As if she'd been waiting for it.

"What happened?"

"I'm... not entirely sure," Zeta admitted, gesturing for them to follow him. "I was showing her how to be mutable, and she got upset and somehow got stuck."

"Mutable? You mean like how you can change your arm into a blade and the like?" Eric asked. The homunculus nodded.

"In essence, but what I'm trying to teach her is much, much simpler."

"Oh, boy," Ophelia said with a roll of her eyes. She went after Zeta and tossed Eric a look that said "this ought to be good."

Below deck, Zeta led them to where Que was. The young woman had her shoulder pressed against the wall – along the seam where the door to her room hinged in the door frame – and was crying hopelessly when they reached her. She looked up at them, fear and tears filling her eyes, while Zeta tried to calm her down again.

"You're going to be alright, Que," he said. "Just calm down and concentrate. You'll be able to pull your arm out."

"I can't!" she screamed back, sobbing, tugging against the wall. A closer look revealed she wasn't pressing against it; her arm had actually squeezed through the tiny gab between the door and the frame!

And now she was stuck. Eric grimaced.

"Oh... huh... well, that's a new one for me."

Ophelia stared for a minute, blinked, and fought back a laugh. A snort still escaped.

"Sorry," she muttered, but her emerald eyes shown with amusement. She handed Eric her cane.

"Here. Hold this."

She then walked toward Que, stepped behind her, and silently put her arms around Que's shoulders wrapping her in a warm hug.

The young woman reached up with her free arm and grabbed onto Ophelia's, her sobs lightening a little. Zeta tilted his head to the side and simply watched them, while Eric looked at Ophelia's cane. That had surprised him. That weapon of hers never left her side, and that she'd actually handed it to him...

All he could do was stare.

Ophelia kissed the top of Que's head and stroked her shoulders gently.

"Take a deep breath, Que. Relax. Smoke taught you how to shoot a gun, right?" she said, her voice level and soothing. "Think about the breathing he taught you, the concentration. Imagine the feeling of the gun in your hand and way it feels when you pull the trigger and that bullet hits exactly where you want it to go. Imagine it in slow motion. Hear Smoke's voice in your head giving you your instructions. You need that focus and that attention now. Focus. Find that calm and let it settle. When you're ready, open your eyes and ask Zeta what you need to do."

Que nodded, closing her eyes and trying to take those calming breaths. At first, it didn't work, but eventually she did manage to steady her breathing and calm down. After another minute or so, she hesitantly opened her eyes, looking up at Zeta, pleading for him to tell her how to get loose. He sighed with relief and smiled.

"Just like I told you before," he explained gently. "Think of it as moving your arm through water. Just pull back slowly, and don't look. That's what got you scared the last time."

Que chewed on her lip, turning her head away from her arm and squinting her eyes shut as she carefully began to pull away. It was like her arm was slowly re-growing as it flowed and reshaped from within the gap. She got as far out as her elbow when she had to readjust, tentatively opening one eye to look. Que caught herself before she could get much of a glimpse, and then continued to pull her arm the rest of the way out.

Once free, she sighed, shaking out her arm.

"That feels so strange..."

Ophelia let Que go and then went to Eric, mechanical hand out for her cane as she arched an eyebrow with an amused smirk on her lips.

It took him a minute to notice she was asking for her weapon back. He was still recovering from the shock.

"Hm? Oh."

With an embarrassed smile, Eric handed the cane back to her.

"Crisis solved, then?"

Ophelia moved beside him and turned back to Que and Zeta.

"Looks like it."

She tilted her head.

"Are you all right, Que? Just keep thinking of this like when you learned how to shoot a gun. Just like you control the weapon, you control your body. Your body is your weapon."

Que chewed on her lip, but nodded.

"Yeah, I'm alright. I just need more practice. I'll have this down before we get there."

Ophelia sighed and looked over at Eric, then back to Que.

"Let's hope all of us are just as prepared."

"I'm sure we will be."

With the problem taken care of, Eric turned and started down the hall. It was good to hear that Que was so confident they would be prepared; he hated to admit that he wasn't that sure. He wanted to be. God only knew, he wanted to be sure that they were prepared. That they would be able to rescue Smoke. But still, knowing they were taking on the Enlightened on their territory again – their home base, no less – had him more scared than ever before. They had barely made it out when they rescued Brogan.

What chance had they this time?

Ophelia caught the look on his face before he walked out. She turned to Que and Zeta and rolled her eyes.

"I feel like stitching."

Shaking her head, she left as well, following after Eric until she had caught up with him.

"What's wrong?"

Eric pressed his lips together, ignoring her at first. It didn't last long.

"Everything."

He ran his hand through his hair.

"I just don't want to lose any more of my friends."

"Hey."

She put her good hand to his face.

"You're not going to lose anybody. We're going to save Smoke."

"Yeah, but who might we lose in the process?"

Eric shook his head, brushing her hand from his face. He didn't want to push her away, but it was so much to think about. So much to worry about.

"We rescued Brogan too, and lost all but one of the men who I brought from my militia. This is more than just Enlightened territory, Ophelia. This is their base. After Atlasur, and Croydon, I can't help but be pessimistic."

Her hand curled back and fell onto her cane atop her mechanical one.

"In Atlasur, someone who was our enemy is now our ally. We went into Atlasur knowing nothing. We have someone with us who knows how to sneak in. We know about the generator and where it is. We have Brogan with us this time who can equip us with the firepower of a small army. The Enlightened wanted her for a reason, remember? We have two homunculi with powers that we can't even begin to imagine how they can be used. This isn't Croydon being attacked while we weren't there, this isn't Atlasur where we went in blind. This may be Valgeyne, but we're a hell of a lot more prepared." She sighed and her expression softened. "Be pessimistic, but don't you dare give up. Eric –
you're worried about all of us making it out alive. Guess what, you're the one who guarantees we do."

"And that has me even more worried."

Eric stopped, turning to face her. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

"God, I don't know why, but I have this nagging feeling that I'm going to do something to ruin this. My father is going to be there; I'm sure of that. I'm not sure I'm prepared to face him if we meet."

"Eric. You'll be with Malcolm. If I know that Trumble, and I'm fairly certain I do since both of them are very similar, if he sees you freeze, he'll grab you, toss you, or punch you. One way or another, he'll be covering your ass. He might not be Smoke, but he's formidable."

She gave him half a smile.

"As for facing your father, no one can prepare you, but you. But you are stronger than he is."

Eric still shook his head, leaning against the wall. He opened his eyes and looked at her.

"That's doubtful, at best."

He glanced down the hall, as if avoiding her gaze.

"I haven't seen him in over ten years. I don't know what he's become. Or accomplished. For all I know, he could have mechanically enhanced himself..."

He sighed again, at last looking back.

"I just don't want this to get any worse."

Ophelia grabbed his shoulder with her mechanical arm.

"Remember what you did to me? I know you've been practicing."

She stepped close to him, invading his personal space and let her lips hover over his ear.

"If your father mechanically enhanced himself, he's fucked."

She pulled back and gave him a chipper, wicked and almost malicious smile.

He raised his eyebrows. She had a point.

"Yeah, I suppose that could work in our favor."

Eric took yet another deep breath, trying to come out of his depressive stupor.

"I just want Smoke to be ok."

Ophelia's smile faltered a little, but remained steady. Not quite so animated but still there and supportive.

"He will be Eric. Well, okay, let's be truthful. He won't be okay, but he'll be alive and he'll be back, right? And that's better than not having him at all and dead."

"Right."

Change the subject, Eric told himself. You're getting into a depressive rut again.

He forced himself to smile and take a good long look at Ophelia. She was trying hard to keep him alive (as weird as that was for her), or at least sane. Eric couldn't tell, however, if she was trying to be so damn sexy and coy or if she just did that naturally. Or if he had completely lost his mind and was hallucinating.

Probably hallucinating.

God, he hoped he wasn't hallucinating.

"I'm surprised you let me hold your cane back there," he tried. "A bit out of character for you, don't you think?"

Ophelia shrugged delicately and arched an eyebrow.

"Was it?"

Well, that didn't work so well. Eric returned the shrug in a desperate attempt to run with it.

"Yeah. I mean, you hardly put it down, let alone let anyone handle it."

That would sound absolutely terrible out of context, he found himself thinking, despite himself.

Ophelia chuckled quietly.

"I suppose so. I do like to have my weapon handy whenever I need it. But I didn't think I needed it to calm Que down." She smiled. "Why? Are you honored or just shocked?"

"Both, I supposed," he admitted, finally relaxing a little. At least he hadn't said anything stupid yet.

"You handle it so well... I mean, really well. I've handled swords before, but nothing like that. Hell, I don't even have a sword anymore."

He realized too late how bad that sounded. So much for not saying anything stupid.

Ophelia muffled a laugh. It came out a snort.

"Oh. Oh, really? That's a shame. Remind me to get you a new one. I'm sure you could use it."

She'd noticed. Well, he may have deserved that, but still. Unfortunately, Eric wasn't up for a counterstrike to that one.

"Alright, I'm not even going to try," he said through embarrassed chuckles. "I am really bad at this, aren't I?"

Ophelia nodded.

"Yes. Yes, you are. Though I am curious."

She tilted her head.

"What do you think this actually is?"

"Innuendo laden banter, specifically jabs at my masculinity, although I'm fairly certain Brogan would have called it flirting."

He smirked at her.

"You?"

She smirked back.

"Glad to see we're on the same wavelength. But that does bring to mind a question."

Ophelia leaned toward him again, that black eyebrow against her cream colored skin stark and arched.

"Why are you flirting with me?"

Eric raised both eyebrows, feigning innocence.

"I don't know... you want an answer that sounds good or the honest to God truth?"

She leaned back, gave him a curious look and then quirked a half smile.

"The honest to God truth. I'm curious."

So Eric shrugged.

"I don't know, really," he explained as nonchalantly as possible. "Frankly, you scare the shit out of me, having watched what you can do with that blade, but for some reason I also find that incredibly arousing. I guess I just didn't notice until after I broke your arm. Wasn't paying as much attention before then."

Ophelia looked amused.

"So me killing people turns you on?"

"I think it's the dance leading up to the killing rather than the killing itself. I'm not that sadistic."

Her voice became very quiet.

"The dance?"

Her emerald gaze was hot as she looked at him through her black lashes.

"Sure," Eric said with a smirk. "Handling any sort of blade is an art. The true artists are the ones who can make something so deadly look beautiful."

He laughed, bringing his violet gaze to meet hers.

"And what's wrong with appreciating art?"

She tilted her head.

"Nothing at all. I appreciate a man who can appreciate art," she said, her voice laced with amusement. "No wonder you were so pissed at me in Atlasur," she mused. "I'd butted my way in, you didn't trust me, and I was turning you on against your better reasoning."

She arched an eyebrow.

"Or am I wrong?"

"More the first two than the latter at that point," he admitted, rolling his eyes. "I didn't really see you fight until Croydon."

"Ah. True that."

She pushed a loose strand of hair back behind her ear.

"Well, I must say, I am quite flattered that you see my technique as an artform."

She smiled ruefully.

"But not quite so flattered that I scare the shit out of you. Pleased – after all, I do my best to be scary – but not flattered."

Not that he hadn't seen her with all her defenses down before. Hair loose, in her nightgown, completely dependent on him from the injury he gave her, and he tickled her feet. Eric and Brogan were the only people who had seen her completely let loose. Well, Smoke and Que caught a glimpse, but she doubted they believed what they saw.

Eric's smirk settled into a pleasant smile as he rubbed the back of his neck.

"I don't think I phrased that quite right, because you seem to have misunderstood me. Maybe 'scare' wasn't the right word..."

He was trying to fight his own embarrassment, and if he could have stopped his face from reddening, he would have.

Now Ophelia looked at little confused.

"Well, you did say I scared the shit out of you and you found... Oh, okay. You find the fact that I'm scary attractive. I thought it was scary and arousing, not I'm attractive because I'm scary."

She smirked.

"Sorry. My mistake."

"No, not so much that. I mean, yes, but..."

Perhaps he should have told her that she made him nervous, but somehow that didn't sound right? Unnerved? No, that was even worse. Distracted? Maybe, but that seemed wrong too.

How was he supposed to explain that the very fact that she could scare him like that – completely throw him off his balance – that was what attracted him? Should he even say anything?

Fuck it. No risk, no chance, right?

Eric mustered up his courage for what was probably the most suicidal thing he would ever do. Without another thought or hesitation, he leaned forward, cupping Ophelia's face in his hands and taking her lips in a kiss.

Ophelia blinked. Well, she hadn't expected that. She thought he'd never work up the nerve.

Fuck. He smelled good.

She closed her eyes, grabbed his shirt and tugged him closer, kissing back.

That threw Eric off a bit, but at least he still had a pulse. A racing pulse, but a pulse nonetheless. He slid his hands from Ophelia's face, down her neck and to her hips. Somehow, between her pulling on him and him moving towards her, they ended up against the opposite wall, with Ophelia pressed beneath him.

Well, hell. Guess she hadn't imagined it, after all. A thrill ran through her with the wall at her back and Eric's body pressing against her. She pressed back, her hand releasing his shirt to move to nape and then her fingers into his hair.

"Wait."

Eric looked down at her. Damn it, why had he said that? She not only hadn't killed him for what he did, but was actually asking for it. Why the hell had he said that?

"Not here. Hallway."

Ophelia heaved as she looked up at him, the tops of her breasts rising and falling hard with her ragged breath. Her emerald eyes were crystallized with heat.

"We are in the hallway."

She grinned. She leaned up, watching him with hooded eyes and brushed her lips over as she spoke.

"Oh, wait," she breathed. "You mean let's find a room. That sounds like a reasonable idea."

She nipped his bottom lip.

Eric practically growled and wasted no time acting on the suggestion.

Once they were inside the closest room (it was Brogan's and Liam's, but luckily neither were in there at the moment), Ophelia closed the door behind her. She locked it, leaned back against it, and grabbed Eric to her again.

He started with her mouth: plump, soft, and delicious. A decadent chocolate dessert (as Malcolm had called her) wasn't nearly as decadent as her taste.

Ophelia's breath hitched – almost sounding like a moan – when he took her mouth with such deliberateness. She held his head to her, fingers flexing in his hair, gripping and easing and then gripping again. She kissed back, her mouth open under his, eyes closed, her body sandwiched between the hard planes of his and the door.

Eric eased his hands back to her waist and deepened the kiss. He pressed himself against her, keenly aware that she would notice the stiffening in his pants. He didn't care. He almost laughed that he didn't care. Ophelia was worth the risk.

Ophelia did notice. And it excited the hell out of her. She didn't quite know why, it wasn't like this was the first time she'd been in this situation, but for some reason everything about Eric excited her. She couldn't remember the last time her skin had felt on fire. Or the last time she'd been breathless.

The airship abruptly lurched to one side, sending anyone not holding on to something tumbling in that direction. In this case, since the only thing Eric was holding on to was Ophelia, they both went down. A second later, an announcement came over the intercom.

"All hands on deck!"

Ophelia stared at the intercom, Eric on top of her, and then burst out laughing. She gave him a wide, toothy grin.

"Well. Damn."

Her grin became a sly smile.

"Hey, I was going to say that," Eric chuckled. "I think the Gambler wants us to go right ahead. Too bad Liam had to make that call."

Even still, he was not inclined to get off of Ophelia just yet.

Ophelia stared up at him, her fingers stroking the tendrils of hair at his nape.

"Do we count as hands?" she whispered.

He smirked, but it slowly started to become a frown.

"We don't know how serious it might be..."

He did not want to leave, but given they were en route to Enlightened territory...

The ship shook again and their ears popped at the sudden rise in altitude. Ophelia sighed.

"I'll bet even Malcolm is awake now."

Eric reluctantly pulled himself off of her.

"Better safe than sorry then. How about we make a date for when this mission is over? We can have stealth make-out sessions until then to hold us over."

She took hold of his hand to help herself up. The ship jerked again and this time toppled Ophelia toward him. She caught her balance, but ended up pressed against him again. She looked up at him, amusement on her face.

"Stealth make-out sessions, hm? The only problem I foresee with those..." she lifted her head and nibbled on his bottom lip. "Is having to stop."

Then Ophelia pulled away and strode to the door, unlocking and opening it. She tossed him a look over her shoulder.

"Coming?"

Again with the wide, toothy grin.

Eric wrinkled his nose, hands balling into fists as he bit his lip, trying to force himself not to smile before he followed after her.

"You had to say it that way, didn't you?"

Her grin didn't leave her face.

"Of course. How could I resist? You're so easy," she said and headed out the door.

***
Smoke felt another sharp pain at the base of his spine. In his temples. On each fingertip. He couldn't see. His eyes had been pried open and blinding light shown down into them only blocked on occasion by the dark shadow that was Horace.

He'd gotten to know Horace well.

Smoke had barely said a word to him, much to Horace's frustration, but that didn't stop the endless experiments. Horace kept talking amicably, his feminine melodious voice almost a lullaby at times. Horace continued to ask questions. Continued to cut. Continued to probe. Continued to touch.

He told Smoke to call him Alexis. Smoke said nothing. He said the Mister thing seemed so foolish – the Enlightened were ridiculous really, but useful.

Horace outright tortured Smoke when Zeta never returned. Smoke's back still had the bloody raw wounds.

The day after, Horace began to touch Smoke more intimately. More and more with every passing day. Smoke felt tired and worn and exhausted – part of him wished to die – but the only sure fire way to die would give Horace what he wanted, and he refused to do that.

Horace liked to give pain and he liked to give pleasure. His touches were caresses when he wasn't slapping, cutting, whipping, dissecting or beating Smoke. He was a child, he was a man, he was a woman. Sometimes Smoke wasn't sure which one Horace would be. Usually though, Horace was a woman. Smoke ignored Horace's seduction, ignored Horace's touches, ignored Horace's kisses... but it was getting harder. Horace was doing it more often.

When Horace was a man, Smoke usually became unconscious from the pain pretty quickly. He liked to mix alchemy with physical pain.

When Horace was a child he was terrifying.

Today's experiment did worry Smoke a little. But he had locked part of his mind away. He no longer cared. He said nothing.

Then Horace the child moved close to Smoke's face, blocking the blinding light until all Smoke could see was that giddy grin.

"Let's try one more experiment, shall we, dear?" Horace cooed and then giggled.

Smoke winced when he felt Horace stab needles into him, each stab playful, as if Smoke was a giant doll rather than a man. Smoke felt like a pincushion, felt like there were hundreds of needles in him, but Horace didn't have the patience for hundreds of needles when he was in this mood.

Smoke wished for a second that he could close his eyes and escape the light and pain into unconsciousness. He wished for a second that Que hated him enough to flee from the Enlightened forever. He wished for a second that he could hear her say she forgave him before he died.

"Ready, dearest?" Horace said.

Smoke said nothing.

Horace slapped the table. Alchemy pulsed through each wire, each needle and soared into Smoke, filling his bloodstream.

Smoke screamed. His first. His last.

Alchemical runes and glyphs glowed on Smoke's skin, carved into his cells and burning into his flesh. He screamed, his back arched, unable to control the alchemy inside him because he was desperately holding it within and not releasing it.

Horace stopped.

Smoke collapsed. He was breathing hard. His skin felt like it sizzled. He felt Horace's lips on his ear.

"You're a conduit," Horace said, girly, gleeful and menacing.

***

"So let's run over this one more time," Liam said as they neared Valgeyne. "Brogan and Zeta: you'll disable the security system, hijack it if you can. How fast do you think you can get it taken care of?"

Zeta looked over at Brogan, thinking the calculations through his head before turning back to Liam.

"Assuming some opposition and the location of the security hub, it could take anywhere from ten to twenty minutes."

"From there, it shouldn't take me more than ten minutes to get it entirely under my control," Brogan said.

They had stopped along the way at a doctor to have Brogan's casts removed. She was supposed to have a few weeks of therapy, but they couldn't wait. She had designed over the week a pair of boots that not only supported her still fragile shins but allowed her the mobility as if she could walk normally. They looked like huge clunky things, but they were fairly light. She was geared up with a new version of her Big Gun and two modified pistols and a shot gun. She had even upgraded BOB who would be accompanying her and Zeta.

"So let's assume you need half an hour then, just to keep our bases covered," Liam continued. "The rest of us will move in after that. You're sure this map you made us is accurate, Zeta?"

"To the best of my knowledge. I don't think even the Enlightened have the resources to make any severe changes to their base in such a short amount of time as to render the map useless."

"Good. And we all know the rendezvous point?"

There was a general nod of consensus. Eric nudged Malcolm.

"You prepared to blow some shit up?"

Malcolm gave him a wide, feral grin.

"Hell yes. Blowing up Enlightened shit is my idea of a good fucking time."

"Just make good use of those bombs," Ikeza told them. "I made them extra special for this."

"Duly noted," Eric said with a little salute. The pirate rolled her eyes, scratching her ferret under the chin as Liam continued.

"So we're all set to go then, right?"

"I'm scared," Que muttered softly.

Brogan put her hand on her shoulder. God, it felt good to do that again.

"Hey, don't think about being scared. Think about Smoke. They took him and god knows what they've done to him. Get mad, Que. Get Smoke back."

Que chewed on her lip, but nodded. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

"I will."

"Malcolm," Ikeza said, sidling up to him. "I'll go break the bridge and prep to land next to you. Let's get this rescue mission in motion, hm?"

Malcolm nodded. He cracked his neck and headed back to his helm.

"Let's start this. Those bastards will never know what the fuck hit them."

"Hey, Eric," Ophelia said. When he glanced up, she tossed him something. A sword in a black sheath with a black hit.

"Merry Christmas."

The militia man raised an eyebrow when he caught the weapon, taking a moment to slide it out of the hilt and take a look at the blade. A smile danced across his lips as he nodded towards Ophelia.

"I'll make good use of it. Thanks."

Ophelia shrugged like it was no big deal, but her look said come-back-alive-or-I'll-go-down-to-hell-to-kick-your-ass-and-kill-you-worse.

What a look.

Eric snorted, getting the message loud and clear before he moved to help get the ship landed. It was a crisp and clear night; no cloud cover, bad for the mission, but they couldn't risk waiting any longer. They had to do this now or chance never getting Smoke back. No one wanted to chance that.

Malcolm controlled the ship expertly, landing it silently into the location Zeta had told them. It was well hidden. The Enlightened wouldn't know they were there, allowing for an easy escape as long as things went smoothly.

They had better.

Ikeza slid her ship in beside his with equal silence, and once both were settled, they began to move. Zeta was already taking lead with Brogan, waiting for her to follow, knowing the way well enough to get them in quickly. He made sure to point out the entrance the others would need to use. Eric couldn't keep himself from shivering while he watched the homunculus.

Malcolm put a hand on Eric's shoulder, silent encouragement and calm support.

Brogan followed Zeta, BOB whirring silently beside her. She'd increased his mobility and added the flying capabilities that DeeDee had once had. His eyes were dim, to not draw attention to themselves. Brogan's boots, made of metal, were nevertheless silent as they maneuvered.

"This way," Zeta said quietly, moving down one of the darkened hallways. "We should run into less opposition here."

His eyes darted all over the place, looking for any Enlightened that may be wandering there. He knew there shouldn't be, but with all that was at stake, he still searched.

They reached the first door without opposition.

"Only a few more, and we should be there," Zeta explained, digging his finger into the keyhole. "This shouldn't take long."

Brogan nodded. She pulled out the two guns at her side, ready just in case.

"BOB. Do a scan."

BOB sighed softly and went to the door hovering over Zeta's shoulder. There was small whirring sound, like a breeze through a pipe almost. Dim red light passed from twenty feet to BOB's right to twenty feet to BOB's left.

"There's one person – coming from the left."

He flew back behind Brogan with a quiet swoosh.

Brogan cocked her guns.

Zeta hesitated only briefly before he finished picking the lock. It was easy enough to form his finger to the necessary shape, but knowing there was someone on the other side had made him nervous. It could be Mr. Horace, after all.

The locking mechanism clicked and the homunculus straightened. He placed his hand on the knob, ready to open the door as soon as Brogan was.

Brogan nodded. She had equipped her guns with a mechanism that made them quiet too. She took every precaution. They were getting Smoke back dammit. She moved up close to Zeta, ready to move past him and blast the hell out of the guard, Enlightened or whoever.

With that affirmation, Zeta turned the knob and pulled the door open. It was unfortunately not as silent as they would have liked, but there wasn't much that could be done about that. The homunculus's gaze immediately shifted to the left as he stepped back, looking for the figure BOB had detected.

The guard had heard the noise and rushed toward it. Brogan slipped past Zeta and fired one of the guns at the oncoming figure. There was a quiet pop, but nothing else as a rifle sized bullet flew out with a strong ricochet. The man's chest half exploded as he flew back. Brogan would've probably fallen from the ricochet had it not been for the boots she'd designed.

She looked over at Zeta.

"Let's go."

He moved past her, then around the guard, as if he was nothing more than a table or a crate that needed to be avoided. Zeta took the lead again, heading down the new corridor towards the security hub. They could definitely expect more guards now. The trick would be taking them down before an alarm could be sounded.

Which, between Brogan's firepower and Zeta's prowess, shouldn't prove to be too difficult.

They ran into several more guards along the way. BOB kept a constant scan going and warned them every time one approached. They always tried to hide the bodies, in case someone came by, saw them and rose the alarm.

It was fifteen minutes in when Brogan whispered, "How much further, Zeta?"

"This door up ahead," he said, gesturing with his hand. "We're making good time."

The homunculus stopped when they reached the door, knowing there would definitely be guards inside. He looked at BOB, waiting to hear how many.

BOB made his scan and announced, "There's six of them. The room is not very big, so it is advisable to NOT use the big gun, though it would be more efficient."

"That's fine," Brogan said as she reloaded.

Zeta nodded.

"I should be able to take most of them. How many do you want?"

He placed his hand against the door.

"We may want to lure them out in smaller groups."

Brogan finished reloading.

"Take too long. I can probably get three in a couple of seconds."

She cocked her guns.

"Can you handle the last three?"

"At the very least."

He morphed his arm into a blade.

"Ready whenever you are."

Brogan nodded. Guns lifted, there was a swoosh from one of her boots, and then she kicked the door in, sending it flying back at the soldiers inside. They drew their weapons and made to sound the alarm. In the next half a second Brogan shot off two shots, both hitting their targets square in the chests, flesh, blood and bone exploding from the enormous explosive impact at close range.

Zeta moved in, stepping ahead a fraction of a second after she'd fired, thrusting his sword-arm through another guard's chest before switching, morphing his other arm while returning the first to its usual form. He swung the blade with unyielding precision, slicing through the necks of the next two in a single, graceful motion.

The last one had managed, in the seconds it took, to aim at Zeta. His finger never made it to the trigger as his head jerked back, half destroyed from Brogan's shot. Her guns smoked, and the six were dead.

BOB flew over the control panels.

"Brogan, these should be no problem. Five minutes tops."

"Excellent," she said shoving aside a body to take a gory seat. "Zeta, get rid of the bodies, please?"

The homunculus nodded, flashing her one of his simple, child-like smiles before turning to attend to the bodies. For a moment he paused, looking back at Brogan over his shoulder.

"Thank you."

"No problem," she said, her fingers already flying over the controls and keyboard. She glanced up at him and gave him a small smile back.

"Just hurry back and don't get caught."

Zeta nodded again and went back to work, gathering the bodies a few at a time to move them somewhere they wouldn't be found.

It took a little under five minutes thanks to BOB's help as well. Brogan grabbed the communicator she had designed.

"Copy boys and girls. You are free to move around. The cameras won't see you, but guards will. Keep to the shadows. I'll be watching your back from here. Stay on your toes."

"Roger that," Liam replied through the device he and Que had, tapping the girl on the shoulder to get her attention. "Ready to go, kid?"

She nodded and tried not to bite down on her lip. She'd been chewing it nervously the entire time they were waiting for Brogan's call and had already bit too hard once. The whole group set forth now that they'd gotten the call, splitting off immediately once inside, Liam and Que heading off where Zeta had indicated Smoke would most likely be: near or around Mr. Horace's lab.

Unlike like Brogan and Zeta, they didn't have BOB to tell them when a guard was around the corner, but thankfully Liam's military training wasn't that rusty. The one's they couldn't sneak past were quickly and quietly "disabled," as the pilot had put it, and Que was glad that she so far hadn't needed to use her gun.

They came upon their first serious problem when they reached a door at the end of one of the halls. Que had been able to use the morphing tricks Zeta had taught her to pick most of the locks, but this one seemed to be bolted from the inside, with no keyhole on the side that they stood. All it had was a tiny barred window at the top.

"Fuck," Liam cursed under his breath. "We'll need to find some way around it or break it down, and that last one could cause some problems. Let me see that map, Que."

She handed it to him, but had her attention on the door instead, eyes darting as she examined the small window.

"I think I can get through."

Liam had barely begun to look at the map and had been all set to find another route when she spoke. His brows furrowed and he looked at her confused.

"What?"

"Give me a boost so I can get to the window," Que said, taking off her shoes. "I think I can squeeze through, but you'll need to hold my shoes. They won't fit."

Even knowing that she could probably do it, Liam couldn't help but be skeptical. Still, if she could get through, it would save a lot of time.

"Alright..."

He knelt in front of the door so Que could use his knee as leverage. Grabbing onto the bars, the homunculus shut her eyes tight and tried to remember what Zeta had told her.

"It's just like moving through water," she said to herself, pressing her head against the bars. "Just don't look."

Carefully, her head gave to the pressure, squeezing thinner to conform to fit the space between the bars. Once her head was through, her shoulders came next, and with an unnerving, unnatural twist both arms were through. At that point, Liam had to close his eyes. Some things even he couldn't stomach.

"Let me know when you're through, Que," he said through gritted teeth, still needing to hold her legs until she could pull herself out on the other side. After another minute of squirming and twisting, she made it all the way, and dropping herself to the ground with a careful plop, she unlocked the door from the other side.

Que smiled uneasily as she opened the door for Liam and took back her shoes.

"That... felt really weird..."

Down another door Ophelia and Ikeza wove their way through the labyrinth of tunnels until they reached the point where the map Zeta had given them said to exit.

"From secret passage to their fortress."

Ophelia leaned against the door listening.

"Some fortress," Ikeza scoffed quietly, crossing her arms while Lejanay scurried from one shoulder to the other. "Hear anything?"

"Not yet."

She gave Ikeza an amused smile.

"Does Lejanay?"

The pirate shrugged, her ferret running down her back and bouncing from side to side on the floor.

"Something's got her doing her war dance. She'll probably run after it any second now."

Sure enough, Lejanay scampered over to the door, the gap beneath it plenty of room for a creature her size the nose through, and began wriggling to get under.

Ophelia waited until the ferret was through and then leaned against the door to listen. The moment she heard someone exclaim because of the sudden appearance of the ferret, Ophelia used her mechanical arm to slam through the door. Her blade flashed and the guard collapsed, his head rolling away from him.

She sheathed the sword.

"Shall we?"

"Laturba," Ikeza remarked, raising an eyebrow at Ophelia while the ferret sniffed the headless corpse. "I can't say I'm fond of confrontation, but that was impressive."

Lejanay (finished inspecting the body) hopped from side to side again before scurrying ahead, bounding across the floor only just slow enough for the women to follow her without running.

Ophelia gave Ikeza a small smile.

"I hope the ferret knows where she's going," she said before following after Lejanay.

"Oh, I'm sure she does. She has a knack for finding where people store things, and I don't mean food either. I've been teaching her what items I'm interested in since she was a kit, but oddly enough, her favorite thing is paper."

The pirate couldn't keep herself from chuckling.

"She's got quite the collection of journals she likes to nap on back at the ship. Completely useless for my trade, but she likes them."

"Journals, huh."

Ophelia lifted her eyebrows.

"Perhaps one day she will let me peruse them. One never knows what one might find in journals."

Her smile was sly.

"Let's hope she finds us the right kinds of paper."

They worked their way up the building, Brogan giving them quiet messages whenever there was a guard approaching. Since neither Ophelia nor Ikeza had any way to get rid of the bodies, Brogan put the building on lockdown, allowing no one in and no one out.

The ferret eventually bounded towards another door and began to wriggle under its gap. With the number of guards dwindling because of the lockdown, it wasn't a surprise there was no one in sight as the women caught up.

"I think this is what she was after," Ikeza said, watching her pet squeeze through the gap. "Here's hoping it's what we're after."

"Let's hope," Ophelia said as she broke the lock with a twist from her mechanical arm and entered the room. It was an office.

"Bingo," she said and headed toward the first desk and the set of cabinets with it. "There better be something here we can use."

"Tell me what sort of thing you're looking for," Ikeza said, following Lejanay to another set of cabinets. "This whole – what's your word for it? – espionage deal is a bit beyond what I normally do."

"Anything that can help us destroy the Enlightened. Roster of cities and people, those who work for them that are spies, plans of attack, defense plans, city information that will help us figure out Valgeyne's weaknesses, information on captives," Ophelia said, rattling off a few as she shifted through papers.

Ikeza let out a low whistle, opening a drawer and beginning to leaf through the papers.

"How about I pull out things I think might fall under those categories and you say yea or nay?"

"Sounds good to me. Anything works at this point. We just have to be quick," Ophelia said quietly and continued rifting through the papers.

***

"As crisp, clean, and cold as I would have expected," Eric snorted as he and Malcolm made their way down the narrow passageway. "Even for a generator's cooling network. I bet they even filter the goddamn water they use to make sure nothing gets mucked up. Well, at least I know my father would want it that way..."

"Shut. UP. Eric," Malcolm said, rolling his eyes. "You really are fucking nervous, aren't you? I'm cold, soaked, trudging through darkness with bombs on my back and can't have a bloody cigarette. My temper is short. Don't make me deck you. I kind of need your bombs and your sword arm."

Malcolm stopped.

"Goddammit, where the fuck are we?"

He turned with the mechanical lantern Brogan had made and shone it in Eric's face.

"Get out that map again will ya?"

The militia man squinted when the light was on his face, reaching into his coat to get the map out.

"Alright, alright. Hold that down a bit, will you?" Eric said, unfurling the paper under the lantern so they both could review it. He took a deep breath, coughing from taking it too fast.

"Sorry," he added. "Bad habit..."

"What is?" Malcolm asked, shining the light down at the map. "Okay, those are the markers we need to be looking for just before the turns that lead toward the generator."

The light pointed at the drawn red symbol. Then it pointed at the yellow one beside it.

"Avoid those."

He lifted the light and looked around.

"Well, there's a yellow one, so I guess we keep going till we find a red one. Should be one soon. God, my feet are cold and killing me," he muttered.

Eric opted not to answer his question and instead rolled up the map and tucked it away, already turning to trudge onward.

"So what're we going to do once we get there? We can't set off anything until we've gotten the signal from Brogan, so other than holding the fort, there won't be much to do, will there?"

Malcolm nodded.

"Probably take out security and then hold the fort. There'll probably be plenty of people to take care of once we get there."

The light flashed to and fro looking for the red symbol.

"Lord knows, I'm going to be grumpy as hell and knocking Enlightened heads will do me some good."

"So long as they don't swamp us, yeah, that could be fun," Eric agreed. It was several minutes later when the lantern light caught a glimpse of red ahead of them, at last the symbol coming into view.

"Good, now maybe we can warm up a little."

"Here's hoping," Malcolm muttered.
So, once again, Horace manages to really disturb me in this chapter. He's quickly becoming one of my favorite villains. Que also learns a rather useful (albeit disquieting) trick, and Eric does something potentially suicidal. Fun times!

This story is also posted on :icondulcis-absinthe:'s page, my co-author. She formats a bit differently.
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