Too close for comfort
Toxin finished eating dinner in the echoing, empty dining room and stared around. The furniture was mainly white, as always, apart from the odd BL/i logo, grey edging on the chairs and the black carpet. The table itself was extremely long and she began to wonder what it would have been like when all of the Scarecrows and their crews lived in Home Base.
Sighing deeply, Toxin left the room and made her way to Korse's office. She was planning on apologizing for speaking to him out of turn, that seemed like the best course of action right now. Being on thin ice wasn't very reassuring.
However when she reached the door of the Scarecrow's office, she could hear raised voices from inside.
"Do as you are told! The Head doesn't tolerate weakness. We want your officer planted in the zones by the end of the fortnight."
Toxin raised an eyebrow at the cold, feminine voice that was reprimanding the Scarecrow. She hadn't seen a woman working for BL/ind as of yet, and she found it hard to believe that there were people more important than Korse.
"Hypertonic has potential to become a formidable Scarecrow. Sending her out alone so soon is a waste; she'll be ghosted in a matter of hours."
Her heart leapt at the mention of her name.
"We don't care. Right now there is a serious threat that the rebels will unite, all because you couldn't keep a hold on that rogue, Roulette. Another slip up like that and The Head will have to reassess your usefulness. I might just have to turn you off if the Killjoys aren't sorted out soon."
There was a tense silence and Toxin took a step back from the door, not wanting to be caught eavesdropping. Luckily she was just in time because the door opened and a Japanese woman with cold eyes and an expressionless face walked out. She looked Hypertonic up and down, sneered, and then stalked away. Toxin gulped at the intensity of the woman's gaze and didn't fail to notice the katana hanging from her hip as she disappeared down the corridor.
'I wonder what she means by being turned off.' she thought and knocked on the ajar door to Korse's office. It swung open under her touch.
Korse's office was lavishly decorated with plush furniture in black, white and silver. Cushioned leather chairs, plasma screens constantly running news channels and a cabinet of strange weaponry adorned the space. Toxin shivered as her eye landed on the only splash of brightness in the whole room - an orange raygun.
Curiosity overwhelmed her and she crept over to the Scarecrow's desk and picked up the vividly decorated weapon. It was checkered with black and white across the nose and had "Cosmic Crash" boldly declared across the hilt in purple. The bodywork was scratched and the nose was blackened from overuse, however it had look of a loved instrument of survival.
Toxin placed the ray gun carefully back where she had found it and tentatively called out to the Scarecrow.
"Korse? Are you in here?"
There was no reply in the still room apart from the lowered volume of the televisions.
'Where the hell has he gone? I knew it was his voice in here a moment ago, and he hasn't left the room. Maybe there's another door somewhere...'
Hypertonic looked around the office and then noticed a floor-to-ceiling panel that curved around a column in the wall. There was no handle visible, however it stood out from the other parts of the room, and Toxin walked close to get a better idea of it's purpose. It seemed to be made of a white, painted metal which shone under the fluorescent lighting.
"Hmmm." Hypertonic couldn't see any seams or breaks, rather it was one whole panel. She placed a hand cautiously on the cold material, and then leapt back at the reaction.
There was a pneumatic hiss and a cloud of white, freezing steam poured from the crack which had appeared on the right side of the column. Suddenly the panel began to slide back around a giant glass tube. A strange, blueish light illuminated Toxin's face as she stared, shocked, at the contents.
Korse, fully clothed and standing, was being contained within the strange cabinet. His eyes were closed and there were two wires which snaked up under each of his cuffs and were lodged in the skin of his wrist. Toxin shuddered at the unnatural sleep which had taken hold of him and held him upright whilst unconscious.
"Korse?" she whispered and tapped on the glass.
The man made no response.
She trembled and couldn't help but stare with a sick fascination. Her eyes travelled over his body, trying to see if there was truly nothing holding him up. As she did something caught Hypertonic's eye. She leant against the glass and saw that beneath the frill of his shirt's cuff there was something tattooed on his hand. By dropping lower and looking from a certain angle the girl was able to make out what it was. What she saw made her sick.
So frightened by the mark, Hypertonic backed away from the glowing tube and fled his office. She pelted up the stairs and ran straight to her room, slamming the door shut behind her and locking it. She slumped on the bed and crawled under the protection of the covers. That night, as she tried to sleep, Toxin began to ask herself just how much power The Head had over it's Scarecrows.
"Okay, so right now you're in neutral." The drac explained. "Press down for first, then flick back up for second. To get to the higher gears just keep flicking upwards with your toes."
Toxin stared down at her foot as she processed this information. "Right... Down for first, up for second."
"You need to have enough revs going to up the gear though, or she'll stall."
"But remember not to accelerate with your thumb on the clutch, or you'll kill the engine."
"Huh?" She looked at the drac's masked face with confusion. "But I thought you said to keep the revs up... If I don't accelerate I wont have any revs... Right?"
The drac shook his head impatiently. "No. You gun the throttle, twist your wrist back off, hit the clutch and switch the gear, then accelerate again. Got it?"
"Just give it a go. And please take into account that you're main brake is the left pedal, not the right one." He slapped Toxin on the back and left her alone to negotiate the business of driving a motorbike for the first time.
Hypertonic stared at the touch screen before her on the dashboard, trying to remember which control to select. The green button that said "on" seemed like a good place to start.
She pressed it hesitantly and was happy to hear the engine come to life. It purred like a well fed cat.
"Ok, so clutch in," she pressed the lever forward with her thumb, "and press down for first." She tapped the right hand pedal down with her booted toes. It clicked approvingly. "And go."
She let the clutch drop, then tried to accelerate, only to realize that the bike had stalled.
Toxin repeated the process and was flummoxed to find that when she let the clutch out the engine was cut.
"But the drac said not to accelerate and use the clutch at the same time.... I don't understand what I'm doing wrong!" She growled at the bike.
A dark laugh rang out behind her. "Having trouble?"
Toxin pouted, not wanting to face the smug Scarecrow. "Yes. I don't get why it keeps stalling."
After a quick explanation of the logistics of the bike's engine, Korse revealed to the girl that she had to accelerate gently as she let the clutch go.
With this valuable bit of information, Hypertonic was able to get the bike going. As it sped up around the circular track she was on, she let out a small laugh. The bike was so sensitive to everything that she thought. Once she got the hang of changing gears it became easy to dodge her way through the obstacles laid out. She even tried a few 180˚ turns, braking and turning sharply before accelerating to avoid tipping over.
Korse finished texting The Head, informing them that he was taking his new protege out on her first expedition into the zones, and then waved Toxin over to him.
Hypertonic sped towards the bald figure and braked sharply. The bike skidded to a stop, perfectly absorbing the shock of the halt.
"That was amazing! Are all motorbikes this good?" She grinned happily, finally finding something good about working for BL/ind.
Korse shook his head and patted the deep red hood of Toxin's otherwise white vehicle. "No, this is called the Spitfire. The make of this bike is at the top of it's class. It's state of the art design accounts for it's agility and unparalleled maneuverability. The Spitfire runs on solar and lunar energies, as well as being bulletproof, acid-resistant and capable of reaching speeds up to 420 km/h. However," he smirked, "it takes great control to achieve such speeds safely on a bike."
She cut the engine gently and swung off. "So why am I riding it?"
He shrugged. "Most drac bikes can outpace the zonerunners, however I'd rather not take any chances with you. There's very little chance that you'll be caught driving this, assuming that you don't crash. Oh and there's a voice activated navigation system on that screen, meaning that you wont ever find yourself short of a map. If you get separated from me then you'll be able to get back to Battery."
"Great... So when are you planning on taking me out into the zones exactly?"
The Scarecrow checked the time and then smiled. "Right about now." He gestured at her bike. "Drive that out to the front gate and I'll meet you there in 10 minutes."
The gates of Home Base for the Scarecrow were huge, nearly as tall as the four meter high wall that encompassed the area. Hypertonic thought it was amusing that BL/ind felt the need to protect their top workers within their own city. The entrance was guarded by a very bored looking drac, who eyed Toxin suspiciously as she sat within the wall, waiting for Korse.
She fiddled with the applications on the touch screen of the Spitfire. It was remarkably similar to that of her ipod touch.
'Maybe BL/ind employs the old Apple Mac designers to manufacture their gear.' She thought.
Among the numerous programs installed on the bike was a tracking device. Hypertonic raised an eyebrow and selected the application, curious. A map appeared on the screen, highlighting her location before zooming back out to depict the local region of Battery City. On the side of the screen was a search bar. She tapped it and was asked to type out the name of the drac she was trying to locate.
"Hmmm." Toxin hummed and then entered Stuart's name.
Immediately a pop up box appeared and asked her for some form of authorization.
"What is you're name?" A feminine, digitally fabricated voice asked.
Hypertonic gaped before stuttering out an her new BL/ind name.
The screen pulsed for a moment, processing this information. The stereotypical spinning, colourful ball winked at her, informing her that her request was being reviewed.
"Access denied." The computer voice stated.
"Huh? Hey, what gives!" She grumbled.
"You do not have clearance from The Head to be accessing classified information relating to the current whereabouts of Better Living Industries employees." The bike responded.
"Wow, a talking bike." She rolled her eyes.
"Actually," the machine retorted, "I am a simulated version of the stereotypical secretary. I can direct, locate, transmit, receive and apply. I also have a customizable voice pattern and I come with bluetooth capabilities."
"Oh!" Toxin gasped. "I didn't actually expect you to answer that. I wonder if you can answer any of my questions, like what they'll give me for breakfast tomorrow. Or maybe you could tell me about who Korse really is. I bet he's just some random they pulled off the street, is he Spitfire?"
There was a pause before the bike repeated "Access denied."
Hypertonic grinned. "Not as smart as I thought then."
Spitfire didn't seem to have any answer to that and remained silent.
The hum of a finely tuned engine alerted Toxin to the arrival of Korse. His black muscle car slid from a garage and crept towards her. It was sleek, shiny and menacing.
The Scarecrow pulled up next to Toxin and the tinted window retracted so that she could see his face. "We'll be heading straight for Gate 3, which is on the western end of Battery City. Stick close behind me, I'd rather not loose you in traffic."
Hypertonic nodded and followed the jet-black vehicle to the exit of Home Base. Korse flashed a card at the drac on sentry duty who opened the gate and let them both through.
After three minutes of navigating the streets of the white city, Toxin came to a conclusion that the Scarecrow had no regard for the speed limit. He overtook cars like they were standing still. She had to focus all her concentration on keeping up with him and not get crushed by the wheels of another car. Riding a motorbike made her feel exposed and vulnerable. The blank faces of people watched her pass them, and although most paid little attention to the dark haired, white suited woman on the streamlined bike, every now and then one of them looked twice.
After a good half an hour of driving Korse's car turned off down a shady looking exit. She followed him along a very exposed looking bridge which ended outside the entrance to a tunnel. Barely slowing, the Scarecrow went straight into the tube which, as it turned out, bore through the thick foundations of the city wall. As they sped through the echoing tunnel. they passed a large painted section of the wall, which declared "Building a Better You, BL Industries" and then changed to announce "We Can Take It From Here, BL/ind, The Aftermath Is Secondary."
Toxin didn't know why, but the promotion for the government made her sad. She thought that it might have something to do with the fact that now she was one of them, the straight-faced people who upheld a system corrupt by their methods of public brainwashing.
Up ahead was a checkpoint, guarded by four dracs wearing masks Toxin had never seen before.
Korse slowed his car to a halt and flashed a metal card with a hologram on it to the people on sentry duty. He also indicated to her behind his car and the masked men nodded.
The drop gate lifted and Korse accelerated, followed closely by Toxin.
The end of the tunnel came up fast, and before Toxin knew it, she had burst into the open, sunlight drenched expanse of the desert. She gasped at the fierce heat that surrounded her, and grinned at the chemical-laced air which stung her nose. The land around her was intensely flat and stretched under the endless reach of the vivid, blue sky. Ahead in the distance were a line of black mountains, throwing cold shadows onto the scorching sands.
"Wow..." Her whisper was whipped away by the wind which pushed against her bike fiercely. "It's beautiful."
She giggled and accelerated hard, overtaking Korse on the cracked road. The girl grinned and poked her tongue out as she passed the Scarecrow, who rolled his eyes behind the tinted glass.
Toxin kept going, speeding ahead of the black car until she was alone on the straight, flat road. The further she drew from Battery City the more plants grew, springing up from the ground in patches. The dull green's blurred past, mixing with the warm orange of the ground and the harsh blue sky. Hypertonic was hypnotized by the intensity of the desert. It just didn't seem to stop.
However when she crossed into the shadows of the mountains and the temperature dropped massively she slowed the Spitfire to a halt. Ahead was a narrow canyon, blasted through the ridge by human hands. On the other side she could see more light, however hesitation tugged at her and she waited for the Scarecrow.
He arrived promptly, idling up beside her and opening the window.
"Once we cross through this pass there will be zonerunners. This ridge is the boundary between zone 1 and 2. We are aiming for my bunker in zone 5. From there we can work out a plan for the next few days."
"How long will it take us to get there?" She asked.
He shrugged. "It depends. If we encounter some cocky rebels, then anything could happen. All going well we should be there by mid-afternoon."
Toxin nodded, anxious at the thought of fighting.
"Stay close to me from now on; the rebels will try to separate us if we end up in a chase. Don't let them get between us or I wont be able to protect you." His face was a mask of indifference, but Toxin could read the stress levels in his voice.
He was worried.
"Okay." She patted the holster on her leg, checking that her ray gun was secure.
"And one last thing," he added, tapping the screen on his dashboard. "there's an acid storm brewing up in the drop zone. It's predicted to be a big one, and so some of the clouds are going to spill over into the south sector of zone 3. If for some reason we do get split up, do not head in that direction. If you get caught without shelter, well let's just say there wont be much left of you to bury." He smirked and rolled the window back up before Toxin could reply.
'But what's the drop zone?' She wondered and followed Korse into the canyon.
"Poison, come in Party Poison." The two-way crackled.
Gerard picked up the receiver and responded hesitantly. "Who is this?"
"It's D, I've got some news on BL/ind activity for you."
Party glanced in the rear vision mirror and made sure that no one was watching as he pulled off the road and parked behind an old shed. "What's the news D?"
There was a pause of static before "BL/i vehicles were spotted by some Cardz members, posted between zone 1 and 2. They were headed along the old highway, and the scouts think that they're turning onto Guano and heading out to zone 4 or 5."
Gerard pondered this and shook his head. "It'll just be a squad. The Head seems to be targeting the Scorpion Pools. A few gypsy rebels without crews set up camp nearby and BL/i's probably out to get them."
"I don't think so Poison, the scouts say that it was an oh-so-familiar black car and a Spitfire."
The Killjoy's leader sat up straighter. "A Spitfire? Is that what you said D?"
"That's right. I couldn't believe it at first, but the Cardz were sure about it. They said that it looked like a woman was driving it with long, black hair."
Party's brow creased. "Long hair? Newsagogo is the only woman working for BL/ind that I know, but she doesn't do zone runs. Not to mention her hair is short." He sighed. "The car has to be Korse... But what is he doing out now? This makes no fucking sense D!"
The Doctor agreed, and told the Killjoy to check it out in case it was important. "We need to know what the government are doing. This war is going to come to a climax soon, and if we don't have the upper hand the outcome might be bleak. Check out this blindo on the Spitfire, but don't get involved just yet."
Gerard sighed. "You know I hate recon duty. Being stealthy is no fun. I'd much rather shoot first and ask questions later, with the Scarecrow especially."
"Suck it up Party, and we'll be expecting you back at HQ by nightfall."
"Over and out." Gerard placed the mic back on it's hook and pulled out from behind the shed. "Whatever you're planning Korse, I'm onto you." he growled and took the exit onto Route Guano.
Toxin was completely in her own world, daydreaming about busting Anton out of Battery, when the first grenade went off.
It was thrown from a distance, by a group of rebels answering to Cobalt Blues, who were positioned behind an outcrop of rocks. The explosive was impressively thrown within twelve feet of the Spitfire, which was blown completely to one side at the point of detonation.
Korse on the other hand was unaffected by the grenade, and spun his car around immediately to face their attackers. "No one messes with my protege. You want to play with her, you fuckers gotta go through me." He opened the window and fired off a few shots in the general direction of their assailants.
Meanwhile Hypertonic had regained consciousness. She groaned and wriggled her fingers and toes tentatively. Everything worked, however from the metallic taste in her mouth and a constant stinging, Toxin knew she had split the skin on her forehead.
The ringing in her ears subsided a little and she could hear the sound of laser-fire. Through the dust filling the air a few stray, brightly coloured beams streaked past. In her foggy state of mine Toxin was entranced by the glowing blurs of light.
"Pretty." she sighed.
"Not as pretty as your brain splattered on the tarmac." Korse growled, stepping back towards her, firing off shots towards the rebels. "Pink's my favourite colour after all."
Hypertonic gaped up at the stony-faced Scarecrow. He was staring intently ahead, taking one shot then deflecting another with the flat side of his gun.
"I'll remember that next time I go shoe shopping for you." She mumbled, then fell back into darkness.
Party Poison was traveling along Guano, when up ahead the tell-tale smoke cloud of an explosion rose up from behind an outcrop of rocks.
"Shit." He muttered and braked sharply. He cut the radio, frustratingly missing the tale-end of the weather report and poked the Trans Am along quietly. Gerard slid the car off the road, behind a patch of vegetation and grabbed his ray-gun.
The Killjoy slunk through the low-lying bushes and up over the small rise. From behind a shrub he looked out over the road ahead and tried to assess the situation.
Through the dust Party Poison could see the familiar muscle car driven by Korse. The Scarecrow himself was firing shot after shot of a large, semi-automatic Puncture Snub, in front of a white figure crumpled on the ground. There was a drac bike, which he assumed was the Spitfire reported, off to one side as well. Their attackers seemed to be a group of rebels hiding behind a similar outcrop of rock as him.
Gerard felt pity for the zonerunners, he could tell by the minimal return-fire that they were low on ammo. He quickly checked his ray-gun, but didn't feel confident with the battery being just under 5%. He thought about what the Doctor had said and knew that getting involved directly wasn't going to help.
"Idiots." He whispered, staying put. "They shouldn't have attacked unless they were sure of a kill." But guilt was tugging at him as he watched the event unfold before him.
"You can't win vermin!" Korse shouted. "Better to die sooner rather than later, so why don't you just come out now!?"
There was no more retaliation from the rebels, who were evidently out of blast battery. He looked down at his protege and sighed heavily. If Hypertonic wasn't out cold he'd be able to make an assault on the fools who dared challenge him.
He rolled his eyes. "Can't loose you now kid."
The Scarecrow leant down and picked up his apprentice, casually dumping her over one shoulder. However, as he made his way back to his car, the rebels made the mistake of taunting him.
"What's wrong blindo? Aint you gonna come get us?"
A few hundred meters away Party Poison winced. 'They must be with Cobalt Blues - I cant think of anyone else stupid enough to taunt Korse.' he thought.
The Killjoy was right.
The Scarecrow faltered slightly in his stride and frowned before continuing towards the vehicle. He opened the door and placed Toxin inside, noting with irritation the blood which was now smeared on his jacket.
"Leaving so soon? But the party has just started!"
"Shutup you twats!" Gerard growled, seeing the Scarecrow pull out a very large firearm.
Korse grinned and hoisted the bazooka over his shoulder. There was a sharp cry from the rebels before he pulled the trigger and blew their hiding place apart.
Party Poison watched sadly as Cobalt Blues followers fled, injured by shrapnel rock. He expected the Scarecrow to give chase and finish them off, but instead he went back to the strange woman in the car and began digging around in his pockets.
Gerard tried, but couldn't see what what happening. The fresh dust swirling through the air had cloaked the car. He sighed and slid back down the rock face, walking briskly back to the Trans Am.
"Dr D, you there?" He spoke into the radio transmitter.
There was a long pause of static, and when the reply came, it was distorted.
"Poison, is that you?"
"Yep." he said, recognizing Ray's voice. "I'm calling to say that I've located-"
"Party, listen to me, you've gotta get out of zone 3!" Ray interrupted him.
Gerard frowned, not sure he had heard his friend correctly. "What was that Jet Star? I think there's some interference on the wave."
"Get out of zone 3 now! static Acid storm approaching fast - static - drop zone."
Party struggled to make out what Ray was saying, piecing together the vital bits of information. "Which direction should I head?"
There was another rush of static, but between the gaps he could make out the words "north" and "flare on Guano."
"Can you repeat Jet?"
There was no reply.
Party chewed his lip as he started the engine. From the sound of it there was an acid storm heading his way fast, and the best direction to go is north. However "flare on Guano" probably meant that somewhere along the highway there was a spike in radioactivity.
"Fuck." he growled. The only way, not on Guano, out of this zone would take him south before swinging east. "I need to get off this route and find some shelter. There's no way I can get out of this zone before it rains."
He pulled a makeshift map out of the glovebox and examined it for a hideout. Nearly four kilometers away from where he was now, was an old farmhouse. Gerard remembered staying there a few months back to loose a squad of dracs.
'Well, there's one spot of good luck.' he thought and slipped away quietly.
Korse pulled one of the recently developed, healing injections from his pocket. He checked that it was only a level one before picking up Hypertonic's wrist and sinking it into her skin. He pushed the bright pink liquid into her system and watched as it knitted her forehead back together.
"Mmmph ouch." she mumbled and blinked.
Korse rolled his eyes. "You're lucky it was only 'ouch,' because 'I'm dead' cant be cured." he grumbled.
Her lime eyes focused on the Scarecrow and it took a moment for her logic to kick in. Toxin patted at her forehead, perplexed and relieved to find it smooth and intact. "Did I miss something?"
"We were ambushed. Not very well either. The fact that the grenade got so close to you was a fluke." He lit a cigar and inhaled the calming smoke. "BL/ind has invented a new healing formula. That's why you're not bleeding all over my car."
As Toxin mulled this over Korse was distracted by a shrill beeping on the car's touch screen. He frowned as selected the flashing warning icon.
"Alert." The programmed voice said. "Levels of radioactivity increasing. Rate of body damage will reach deadly in approximately five minutes."
The Scarecrow cursed and pulled Toxin out of the car. "Get the Spitfire, we need to go now!"
Hypertonic nodded, still half dazed and ran to her fallen vehicle. She hoisted it up, swung a leg over and started the engine. It was amazing how little damage was inflicted by the grenade. Apart from a slightly blackened nose and the odd scratch there was nothing wrong.
"Alert." The Spitfire announced as soon as she started the ignition. "Levels of radioactiv-"
"I know." she snapped at the bike.
The automated voice paused before continuing with "Warning; storm approaching. Sever acid potential to whole of zone 3."
"Korse!" Toxin shouted. "I thought you said the storm was only in the south of this zone!"
The Scarecrow was already aware of the updated danger and was searching for a place to take shelter on a map. He saw three potential sites, but chose to avoid the one closest. It took them too close to the heart of the radioactive flare. Instead he entered the second location in the GPS.
"Toxin!" he shouted out the window. "Follow me and whatever you do, don't stop. We need to move fast!"
Hypertonic nodded and followed the black car.
The Scarecrow was driving insanely fast, and although it scared her trying to keep up the pace, the rumbling of clouds overhead were far more threatening. The wind dragged at her long, black hair and whipped loose strands of blonde across her eyes. The heat of the Spitfire's engine just warmed the inside of her thighs, protected by her long boots. She silently thanked Korse, realizing that anything less than the thick, white leather wouldn't be enough to protect her skin from the blistering heat.
In the car, the Scarecrow constantly glanced at the mirrors, checking that Toxin was still behind him. The Spitfire was keeping pace with him easily, however his protégé's face constantly switched from terrified to determined.
"Turn left at next exit." The GPS directed.
Korse slowed the car slightly and put on his indicator. Toxin noticed and slowed down as well. The turn was quite sharp, and the change from bitumen to gravel was unpleasant. Korse felt the steering wheel lock slightly as he skidded around the corner.
Hypertonic dropped back to avoid the spray of loose rocks from the Scarecrow's car and followed him around the turn. Immediately the Spitfire reacted to the change in road surface and compensated for the bumps.
'I wonder where we're headed.' she thought, cringing at the clap of thunder.
Up ahead Korse could see the shape of an old farmhouse. He accelerated slightly; the storm was right on their heels and it would be a close race to see who got there first.
Part Poison stashed the Trans Am in a machinery shed a little way off from the farmhouse. He found an old tarpaulin and threw it over the car. The house itself had a garage, but he knew that leaving it somewhere so obvious was stupid.
As he strolled over to the house a rumbling of thunder made him look up. The dark, angry clouds of the oncoming storm swirled towards him, spilling their corrosive load as they went. He felt a shiver go down his spine and he hurried towards shelter.
The elderly wood creaked loudly as he hopped up the stairs and across front porch. The Killjoy was 80% sure that no one was bunked here, but he was still cautious as he opened the door. It swung back under his touch, making a long squeak of protest and unsettling the thick dust on the floor. He knew immediately that no one had been here for months. There were no footprints in the filth on the rug and the fact that the windows were open were a dead giveaway. There was also the fact that the chairs and furniture were the way that he left them last time he stayed there.
He carefully made his way upstairs and dumped his bag in the first bedroom. One or two spits of rain tapped against the pane of the window and he shivered slightly as they dug small trails in the glass.
"Strong levels of acid." he murmured, thankful that he was safely inside.
He slipped his jacket off, tossing it to one side. The Killjoy stretched happily and rubbed his eyes. He was tired but he wouldn't sleep until he was safely at home. The Diner was the only place he felt secure enough to close his eyes. The zones were too dangerous, too unpredictable otherwise.
Thunder rolled above the house again to compliment the flash of lightning nearby. Out of the corner of his eye, Gerard saw movement outside. He moved closer to the window and saw with a sinking feeling that two vehicles were approaching the house.
"Shit!" he cursed and looked closely. They were undoubtedly Korse's car and the Spitfire. "Of all the bad luck..."
He kicked his bag under the bed and paced the room nervously. He knew that making a run for the machinery shed wasn't an option, they were close enough to see him. Options of what to do ran through his mind, but nothing seemed like a good idea.
Suddenly the sound of engines were amplified and he knew that they had pulled into the garage.
"Fuck." he hissed and threw open the door of the wardrobe third along. He shut the door behind him and buried himself behind a row of hanging clothes. The smell of old boots and musty fabric clogged his nose and he fought to settle the pounding of his heart.
'There's nothing I can do.' he told himself. 'Just sit here and wait it out.'
Korse pulled into the garage just as the rain began to fall in earnest. Hypertonic was close behind and made it to safety as well. He got out of the car and stood beside Toxin, watching the rain fall. Her heavy, panicked breaths slowed and she cut the engine gently.
"That was close." Korse growled. "Too close. I'll need to get Numb to fix the warning systems in our gear. We should have been altered to the updates in the storm and the flare far sooner."
His words went through one ear and out the other for Toxin. She just stared at the rain pounding on the ground outside and suppressed a shiver.
'Day one in the zones and I've already had two near-death experiences.' she thought morbidly.
"Come on." The Scarecrow broke through her thoughts. "We need to check that the house is clear."
"Clear of what?" she asked, propping the Spitfire up on it's stand and following him.
They walked through the door into the open space of the ground floor of the house. The Scarecrow looked around suspiciously, taking note of the thick dust and open windows. "Clear of zonerunners you idiot, what else would I be talking about?"
Hypertonic frowned and glared at the bald man. She felt her cheeks flush with the humiliation of being insulted. "I am NOT an idiot."
Korse fixed a steady look at her. "Could have fooled me." She knew he was referring again to the fact that she had been stupid enough to tell Anton of her plans to bust him out while he was under surveillance.
He popped the waning battery from his ray gun and replaced it with a fresh one. It clicked into place loudly. "This place looks like it hasn't been used for a while..." he stated, walking cautiously through the lounge room and kitchen. "Still, I want you to check upstairs. Don't miss anything, search everywhere. If we have company, it's best to know sooner rather than later."
Toxin took two steps towards the staircase and then noticed a footprint in the thick dust.
"K-Korse?" she stuttered and pointed to the mark.
The Scarecrow immediately became more alert and narrowed his eyes. "Vermin." he hissed.
Toxin watched him lean down over the footprint and inspect it, but kept one eye out for movement. The evidence that they were unlikely to be the only ones in the house unsettled her.
"Okay, new rule." he announced, straightening. "Until we finish a thorough search of this place we are not to get separated. Understand?"
"Yes Korse." she whispered, understanding the gravitation of the situation.
"There might not be anyone here. I don't know how old this footprint is. However until we know for sure you need to stick with me." He began to walk up the stairs. "If you get caught alone I don't doubt that you would be picked off easily."
Hypertonic glared at his back. He was constantly reminding her of how stupid or weak she was. It was beginning to really test her temper. 'He's wrong.' she thought as they made their way into the first room. 'I'll show him just what I'm capable of. One day he's going to regret screwing with my life.'
Gerard could hear voices and footsteps coming up the stairs.
'Don't come in here.' his thoughts begged. 'Please, don't come in-'
The creak of the door opening crushed his hopes. There were the sound of two sets of boots. One was the heavier thud of Korse, and the other was the unfamiliar, high-heeled click-clack of the woman. He couldn't help but feel curious about this mystery drac. There was no record of her among the zonerunners, and yet he knew that she was important.
'Who are you?' he thought. 'And where the hell did you come from?'
Toxin opened the first door, ruffled through the moth eaten coats and sneezed at the decade old dust that swirled around her head. It was evident that anything of value within the wardrobe had been pilfered, leaving behind the overly old, worn, and the unsuitable. Other than the shabby array of jackets were a pair of broken heels, black satin frayed and dull.
"Nothing." She stated and moved on to the second closet.
Korse sat on the moldy armchair and lit a cigarette. "Just because you've taken out one killjoy doesn't mean the other four will be easy kills. Party Poison and his crew are the most elusive rebels in California. There's a reason why up until now no one has been able to take them out. The fact that you exterminated Spider Bait doesn't mean a thing." He took a drag on the cigar and smiled at the headspin it gave him. "You were lucky Toxin, and right now I'm just counting on that luck to pull you through again." Tendrils of smoke slipped from his mouth as he spoke. "Today when you passed out you were very slow to get back up. That's obviously one of your weaknesses. Zonerunners aren't trained like us, but it's their life on the line so they'll fight to their last breath. If you can't remember that and play the game right, then you may as well become one of the vermin that crawl around in the dirt out here, like them."
Hypertonic took a moment to sort through the boxes in the second wardrobe before replying haughtily, "They aren't animals you know. They're human. Just because they don't follow your rules doesn't change the fact that the rebels you want me to kill are people." She finished rifling through the closet and closed the door. As she opened the third Korse's reply made her pause.
"Our laws, Hypertonic. Not mine." He exhaled a lungful of noxious smoke. "Ours."
Abbey paused and gritted her teeth. She turned around to face the Scarecrow, chin lifted in defiance and a dangerous smile tugging her lips back from her teeth. "Opps, so sorry Korse. I must have made a slight grammatical error there. You're right, it is OUR law, which WE uphold." She kicked the door shut behind her, "Room clear." and stalked out to the hallway.
Party Poison exhaled slightly as the door slammed shut and the closet returned to darkness.
'That was way to fucking close.' he thought and rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead. His pounding heart slowed to a steadier thump and the adrenaline that was shaking his hands retreated. Gerard eased forwards gently through the hanging coats and listened through the thin wood to the BL/ind agents.
Party was surprised to hear the female drac make a derisive comment to the Scarecrow. Her voice was layered with sarcasm, which normally would have earned an officer a laser beam to the head. However Korse made no effort to reprimand the draculoid and didn't try to stop her leaving the room.
'Korse called her Toxin,' Gerard thought.
A few tense moments went by as the Killjoy tried not to make a sound. He knew that the Scarecrow was still in the room.
"I'm letting her get away with too much." The dark voice reached Party's ears through the door, followed by a deep sigh. "Ah well, the kid will learn to curb her temper soon enough." Booted footsteps on the hollow wooded floor signaled the Scarecrow's exit.
Party Poison, however, remained cramped and uncomfortable in the closet until he heard a pair of voices and feet make their way downstairs. The sound of his enemies echoed quieter and a calm silence accompanied by the pattering of acid rain enveloped the second floor of the house once more. Gerard cracked the door open cautiously and peered into the dim room.
Grey light seeped in through the window panes filmed with grime, softly illuminating the empty room. Party pulled off his mud-covered combat boots and padded across the floor, hoping that his socks would muffle the echo of his footsteps. He reached under the bed and carefully extracted his jacket and holster. Gerard's hand closed over the comforting body of his ray gun and the fear that had settled in his stomach dissipated.
By judging the strength of the light that was filtering through the clouds, Party Poison assumed that it was late afternoon, closing in on nightfall.
'Korse isn't completely stupid,' he thought, 'they'll be sleeping in shifts, and the one on watch will have plenty of ammo.' He glanced at his almost drained battery. 'I've only got a few shots left, and it's still raining so I cant make a break for it if I don't sink them both.' Gerard frowned at the unfair hand luck had dealt him. 'If only I had another battery, I could do a stakeout on these fuckers and take them both out.' He sighed, 'But I cant. If something went wrong and I got ghosted no one would ever know what happened to me. I can't do that to the boys, I owe it to them to play it safe.'
He stored his jacket and boots safely away in the closet and pulled his mask over his eyes. 'That doesn't mean, however, that I'm spending the night in a wardrobe.'
Toxin bit into an apple and tried to squash the feeling that she wasn't alone. It was cold and dark out on the patio, and she felt sure that somewhere in the inky blackness of the moonless night, someone was watching her. The occasional flashes of lightning that lit up her surroundings revealed shapes that set her nerves on edge.
Although the rain was still heavy, it had been easing up slowly. Rather than battering the corrugated iron roof of the verandah, it was now hammering gently. Although it seemed like the storm would last a few more hours where they were, far away in the distance a few stars where shining over the lip of the mountains. In the other direction though, the clouds swirled deep black, and Toxin prayed that the wind wasn't pushing them towards the house.
Although the highly acidic rain didn't seem to have much of an effect on her environment, the few stray droplets that had landed on her skin stung sharply. She grumbled at the smarting sensation and pulled loops of acid resistant fabric around her. The two shimmering swaths of material attached at her hips had proven to be far more useful than expected. Abbey was amazed at the vicious burning effect of the desert rain, it surpassed the mild irritation of that in the city. Korse had told her that it was because of the chemical waste that was dumped out in the zones; the air was full of harmful chemicals that mixed with the rain to make a solution which corroded human skin as well as most metals, plastics and fabrics. The plants out here, however, had developed an immunity.
Toxin bit off another chunk of her apple and relished the crisp sweetness of the fruit. Korse refused to let her indulge in junk food now that she was training to be a Scarecrow. Apples and the limited selection of fruits available in Battery City were her only source of sweetness, which she took advantage of. Her parents, although very well off, only purchased fresh fruit on special occasions. Most of the food from before the takeover was still available, however some items had become scarce. Toxin pondered this, contemplating how many farms were left in America.
'Perhaps most people live in cities now.' she mused, 'That would make sense, seeing as I don't think I know of anyone who lives anywhere rural.'
Her train of thought was interrupted by another bolt of lightning, followed closely by the deafening crack of thunder. Toxin winced and gripped her ray gun tighter. She knew it was just her imagination, but she could have sworn that she could see eyes winking at her out there in the rain.
'Korse said I couldn't listen to my ipod while I was on sentry, but that doesn't mean I can't sing to myself.' she thought, and began to hum Under Pressure by The Used and My Chemical Romance to herself.
"Pressure, pushing down on me, pushing down on you..." she whispered and tapped the drum beat with her booted toes against the chair.
The fear coiled up inside her began to loosen and she relaxed, warmed by the loops of fabric wrapped around her curled up legs. The lyrics of the familiar song turned her thoughts away from her problems, and Hypertonic momentarily forgot that she was out in the desert on a mission to destroy the people she actually admired.
Gerard was sitting closer to Toxin than she would have guessed, so close in fact he could have reached out to touch the fabric of her eerily white suit. The table behind the jumpy girl on sentry duty was covered by a sun damaged tarpaulin, which was hiding the greatest enemy of Better Living Industries. It rippled gently in the wind, dripping with acidic rain, but didn't lift up enough to expose the rebel.
Party Poison was proud of his hiding place. It was so obvious the girl hadn't even bothered to check under the table for any danger. He was also protected from the stinging rain by the tarpaulin, and he could quite clearly see his adversary. The drac in question jumped slightly at a bolt of lighting, gripped her ray gun closer and began to hum a familiar tune. Gerard was taken aback to hear the lyrics to Under Pressure mingle with the growling storm. He wondered if she was reciting the original versions, or the one My Chem and the Used collaborated.
'It doesn't make any difference.' he told himself. 'She's one of them. Just because she listened to MCR doesn't make her a good person.'
But still, some small portion of the Killjoy agonized to think that BL/ind had turned one of his kids. Sure the girl couldn't carry a tune very well, but her quiet voice reciting the lyrics word for word took him back to the days of hectic concerts and screaming fans.
'Every kid from those times,' he thought angrily, 'every last one of them has no doubt been taken away from their homes, from their friends by the government.'
The Reprogram and Rehabilitate Program, also known as R&R was introduced by The Head to weed out the young, problematic citizens of America. Any kid still in school who showed signs of resilience or an aptitude for not wanting to be like the others was immediately removed from their home and were taken to a juvenile detention centre where they had sections of their brain altered. The result was a group of young adults perfectly suited for the process of being molded into dracs. The ambiguous rumors circulating the zones even hinted that the Scarecrows underwent such surgery and slept in tanks until they were "awoken" by The Head. Although Gerard dismissed this last fact as propaganda, he knew that there was significant truth behind the stolen children.
'Perhaps this Toxin character is one of those kids... but she doesn't seem lucid like the other dracs. She taunted Korse when he pointed out her mistake.' He screwed up his nose and scrutinized the young drac from under the table, trying to make sense of her. 'I don't know of any blindo that has gotten away with mocking the Scarecrows.'
Party tried to convince himself that the girl wasn't the one who had murdered his friend. He told himself that the likeliness of running into the same person so soon was next to impossible, and a clear thinking person wouldn't be working for BL/ind. 'She's young, still in her teens. As if The Head would be sending out someone of her age, especially a girl, to fight in the zones. In fact I've never even heard of a female drac, BL/ind only accept boys, which is stupid really. If they met Russian Roulette and Harlequin Diamond head on they'd rethink that decision. I just can't assume that this is the same person who took out Spider Bait.'
He had almost persuaded himself to believe that the girl sitting on the porch, now innocently humming I'm Not Okay, was not the very person (other than Korse) who he had sworn to destroy, when a flash of lightning crush his hopes.
'Lime green.' Gerard thought savagely. 'There's those fucking lime green eyes again! It's her, that bitch killed Bob!'
The Killjoy gripped his gun and was about to break his resolution not to shoot the BL/ind agent when Korse burst through the front door, eyes wild and teeth bared.
"I knew it!' The Scarecrow cried, holding up Party Poison's jacket and boots triumphantly. "There is someone here; and it's none other than the Killjoy leader himself."
Gerard's heart leapt up in his chest. He knew that if the Scarecrow decided to search for him he'd be ghosted - no doubt about that. So staying in the house would be suicidal. However so would running out into the rain. His only hope was to shoot the blindos when their backs were turned, and pray that he didn't miss.
"What to we do?" the girl asked her master, eyes wide and glowing in the gloom.
Party held his breath as the Scarecrow deliberated what to do.
"We retreat to the garage and check over our vehicles." The answer surprised Gerard and he began to hope for an easy resolution. "If he's tampered with any of our gear we need to locate the problem right now. At the first sign of a break in the weather, we head back to Battery."
"But don't you want to exterminate Party Poison? If we search for him now then-"
"No." The Scarecrow's voice was tense. "He could be anywhere in this house, and if we go digging around too closely we might end up as the hunted." Gerard watched the booted feet of his arch enemy cross the patio and Korse placed his hand firmly on Toxin's shoulder. "If I had a larger group of dracs with me, then maybe we would try to trap the rebel. However I don't want to risk loosing you this early on in the game Hypertonic, you'll be a Scarecrow long before I let you get ghosted."
That last sentence revealed to Gerard enough of the Scarecrow's plan to spark amusement in the Killjoy. 'The next Scarecrow, eh Korse?' he thought, 'We'll see about that. You're precious protege wont last a month in my desert, just you wait and see. The day of the Scarecrows is ending, and you and your fledgling are going to go down with the sun."
"Toxin." Korse shook the girls shoulder. She grumbled and tried to push him away in her sleep. He frowned and prodded her harder. "Kid, get up. We need to move."
Hypertonic opened her eyes to darkness. "Huh?"
The Scarecrow's face loomed in front of her. "Get on the Spitfire. We're going."
She crawled out from the back of his car and stretched. Her joints cracked and she rubbed her eyes sleepily. As she turned on the ignition of her bike she couldn't help but notice that it was 2am. "Ugh, why so early?"
"Because the rain has stopped." Korse answered tersely, slipping into his car and starting the engine. "We're going straight back to Battery."
Toxin raised an eyebrow. "But I thought-"
"New plan." he replied, cutting her off. "I need to talk to The Head."
The teenager just nodded and followed him as he drove back out into the desert.
It was pitch black, except for the small amount of light offered to them by the stars. Lightning continued to crack across distant mountains, but the sky between them and Battery City was clear.
Gerard watched the pair of BL/ind employees leave in the dark. He couldn't help but feel a twinge of regret that he didn't shoot the both of them when he had the chance, especially now that he knew who the girl really was.
Tears stung his eyes, threatening to fall at the thought of Bob.
"Pull yourself together Party." he told himself sternly. "Revenge is a dish best served cold."
He got together his things and tramped back to the machinery shed and the stashed Trans Am. Puddles of acid rain splashed up around his legs as he walked, but the need for him to get back to the Diner and his crew squashed any hesitation about leaving shelter. Right now he just wanted the comfort of his friends.
As Party pulled away from the farm house he light a cigarette and inhaled deeply. The nicotine rush numbed the tide of emotions washing over him;
Hatred for this Toxin character who murdered his friend.
Anger towards BL/ind for turning teenagers.
Curiosity for Korse's new plan of attack.
Sadness knowing that nothing would bring Bob back.
Anticipation for the thought of wreaking revenge on Hypertonic.
Longing to get home and get some sleep.
And a slight sense of smugness knowing that he had evaded the Scarecrow once more by the thinnest margin.
Toxin had only had an hours sleep when a knock at her door pulled her back into consciousness.
"Ugh," she grumbled and dragged herself to the door, "don't these people know the meaning of sleep?"
She hadn't bothered changing when they arrived back at Home Base, she just fell on her bed and let dark numbness take hold. Toxin took a second to congratulate herself on this as she only had to drag herself to the door and open it, rather than get dressed.
She was surprised to see the BL/ind weapons guy, Acid, outside. "Morning." he smirked at her half closed eyes.
Toxin yawned and raised an eyebrow. "What on earth could you possibly want? It's better be good, because have some important sleeping to attend to."
The ex-zonerunner rolled his eyes. "Yes it's important. I need you to follow me."
"Where are we going?" she questioned, not moving from where she was leaning against the doorframe.
He shook his head. "Cant tell you."
"Then how do you know that it's important?" she growled, looking at her bed longingly.
"I said I cant tell you, I didn't say that I didn't know." he retorted and tapped a foot impatiently.
"Come on." he said and grabbed her arm.
Toxin pulled the door to her room shut and stumbled after the spiky haired man, thinking about how intensely fluro it was as they made their way through the building. She had no idea where he was taking her, but when they came to a set of doors labelled "The Head" her stomach dropped.
"Umm so why are we here again?" she stuttered.
Acid avoided her eyes. "Sorry kid." And with that he opened the door and pushed her inside.
Toxin tripped into the room and found herself being caught by Korse. The Scarecrow was staring ahead at three figures seated behind a bench. She followed his gaze and was shocked to see that each of them wore a completely white mask which was suctioned over their heads. Any characteristics of their face had been disfigured by the thick, plastic material.
"This is the girl." Korse stated.
Toxin looked up at him and then back at the erie figures. There was no holes where there eyes should have been, only a small slit across their mouth.
"She will be sent in to complete Mission Assimilation tomorrow, with your permission."
There was a tense pause as the faceless figures looked at one another with no eyes. As if some kind of wordless agreement passed between them, one finally spoke.
"The Head is pleased Scarecrow Korse. Tag the girl before she goes."
And with that they all rose in unison, turned and left the room through a door at the back.
"Korse?" she looked up at the man, eyes wide and questioning. "I don't understand."
The Scarecrow ignored her and hit a button on the wall.
"Korse, please? Tell me what's happening!" she cried, trying to break free of the grip he held on her arm when he didn't respond.
Four dracs filed into the room, one carrying a suitcase. At a nod from their master two went and took the struggling girl from the Scarecrow.
"Let me go!" she shouted as they calmly pulled her towards a table. "Korse! Make them let me go!"
The bald man lit a cigar and ignored his apprentice's cries.
The two dracs pulled her onto the table and pinned her arms behind her. Another made towards her with a liquid-filled syringe. She struggled but couldn't break free. Toxin watched in horror as the drac sunk the needle in her wrist and pumped the orange liquid into her. Almost immediately she felt the dracs hold on her loosen slightly. She went to pull away but found that her limbs would not obey her.
Hypertonic looked up at Korse again. "Why do I..." she slurred, "What's going..."
Her tongue sagged in her mouth uselessly and she slumped against one of the dracs.
With a growing sense of horror Toxin watched as they opened the suitcase and removed a drill-like instrument and two black vials.
'No!' her thoughts screamed, images of the BL/ind logo and that dreaded word tattooed across the Scarecrow's hand. 'Not me! Please oh God not me!'
Korse dropped his cigar and screwed it into the floor with the heel of his boot. He walked over to the table and unzipped his protégé's boot, sliding it off her left leg. The Scarecrow paused before indicating to the bottom of her foot. The masked men nodded and one pulled on a pair of plastic gloves.
She tried to choke out her protests, but could only manage a groan.
The dracs ignored her and one turned on the drill. A high-pitched whine filled the room, and the drac dipped the tip of the instrument into the black ink.
Hypertonic screwed her eyes shut. She couldn't feel it, but she knew that they were marking the soul of her foot, forever.
Korse stared at the girl, slumped on the table. Somewhere during the procedure she had fallen unconscious, probably from a mixture of sleep deprivation and heavy sedatives.
The dracs packed up the tattooing equipment silently and left the room.
The Scarecrow sighed and inspected the job that they did once more. There, on the underside of her left foot, was a perfectly circular BL/ind logo, combined with the possessive word that The Head felt fit to tag on all their workers who ventured into the zones. The reason why is that any BL/ind worker who was sent out into the desert and turned rogue on the government would eventually be found because they bore the mark. Most had it somewhere half-conspicuous, like the hand or the back of the neck. It could be covered up if needed but couldn't be hidden forever. Toxin on the other hand, needed hers to be hidden. Or else Mission Assimilation wouldn't work.
Korse slipped her boot back on and hoisted the girl over one shoulder. He carried her back up to her room and settled her back onto her bed.
As he pulled her boots off and threw a blanket over her limp form, Hypertonic's eyes opened.
"Korse?" she whispered.
"Hmm." he raised an eyebrow at her.
She concentrated hard, battling the sedatives, and reached up for his hand. With her thumb she pushed back the fabric hiding the marking that she knew was identical to hers.
"Mine." her eyes filled with tears.
"Mine." he repeated, running a finger across the four-lettered word on his hand.
"Why?" her voice broke and she looked up at the Scarecrow for some kind of comfort.
"Because," he replied, giving her none, "they own us, until the day we die."