48: We have the bear and the birdsong.

48: We have the bear and the birdsong. WOE.BEGONE


Anne, Edgar, and Mike are heading into Tier 2.


[Hey guys. Welcome to the end of season 4. There will be an intermission episode next week and then season 5 will begin on December 15th. Hope you enjoy the season finale. If you really enjoy it, consider supporting the show on patreon. We have all that stuff I always talk about, early episodes and instrumentals and cat clips and director’s commentary. A Q&A is going up the day this episode is made public on the feed. Come see all there is to see. Thank you so much to the over 100 patrons that have supported the show, a milestone we just reached. Thanks especially to my 10 newest patrons: Kellaaai, Michael Larsen, Lady Nikita, John Grilz, Duke, Ryan Benk, Courtney Boyer, Sarah G, Logan Cheshire, and Rat & Cameron for supporting the show. Enjoy.]

[Warning: This episode contains a description of violence. Listener discretion is advised.]

It was darkly exhilarating, getting ready, waiting for night to come, cleaning and checking guns, packing bags with weapons and ammo. We relistened to the recording that I had made for Edgar. I cringed, hearing my own voice, hearing what I had deemed important to say in those moments. I remember being filled to the brim with things that I needed to tell Edgar. I was barely able to get out what was overflowing before I was cut off and made to give him instructions. It had been months since I had any real human connection and I was being teased with the connection that I longed for the most. They cut the parts where I faltered, at least for Edgar’s version of the message. They cut the moments where I told him not to follow the instructions that I was giving him, where I told him not to kill anyone, where I mentioned that I was giving these instructions against my will. What remained could be boiled down to: I love you. You have to do what I am telling you to do or you will never see me again. I found myself angry all over again at the Flinchites, at Ty. They hid their willingness to manipulate me behind a facade of being businesslike and polite, by promising me my eventual freedom as long as I cooperated. They made the whole affair sound transactional. I cooperated and still got hurt. I wasn’t freed for my efforts. Someone else had to free me from them.

We based our plan off of the Flinchites’ plan. The message that I recorded instructed Edgar to be at a certain stage of the plan at a certain time: enter tier 2 at 11:00pm sharp, exit the warehouse with the device at 11:19, enter the region with the boulders and the device port at 11:26, activate the device at exactly 11:45. This gave us an idea of what was expected of us and when an ambush might occur. The Flinchites wanted the device activated at a certain time, which meant that the Arbiters would show up at that time in order to intercept the proceedings. We determined this moment, during the last stage of the instructions, to be the most likely opportunity for the Arbiters to attempt to kill Edgar and steal the device or otherwise fulfill their plans. It was hard trying to fill in the motivations of the two groups in conflict here. The Flinchites did not want to simply lure out the Arbiters. If they did, they would only have to pretend to send the message to Edgar. Then, the Arbiters would show up with no device to be found. They actually needed the device for their own purposes, which meant that they needed Edgar because he could enter the warehouse in 116E and retrieve it for them. My connection to Edgar had provided the perfect opportunity to get what they wanted and to take out a rival faction in the process.

It stood to reason that if the Flinchites actually needed the device from the warehouse and if they had a plan for Edgar’s actions up to 11:45pm, then Edgar was most likely to be killed after completing the stated mission or at least getting close to doing so, having put the ball into the end zone, so to speak. Combining those presumptions with the warning that Edgar would be thrust into this situation with or without his consent, the three of us concluded that the best course of action would be to act out the plan as dictated to us until we got to the instructions pertaining to the boulders. We would enter through 116E, retrieve the device, and exit the warehouse at the predicted time. We thought that should keep everything marginally under our control, even if that control was limited by doing as we were told. Strength in numbers would ensure that, even if things went wrong, the three of us would be capable of setting things back on track, together.

Unfortunately, everything else was entirely up in the air. Anne suggested coming up with a detailed plan, anyway. Things might change on the way there, in which case we would change our trajectory, but if we were not there with a purpose we were asking to be picked off while we were wandering around inside of Tier 2 figuring out what to do. We decided to place the device in front of the port in the boulder region and then get the hell out of there. The port was damaged beyond repair, so putting the device there was as far as we could take the instructions. The Flinchites could worry about what happened next, intercepting the Arbiters for their own purposes. We hoped this would be enough. It was a future iteration of Anne that had me destroy the port. We trusted her to know what she was doing. She wouldn’t have instructed me to do so if she had any doubt. This is what we told ourselves. With no more instructions left, we hoped that Edgar would be free to leave. If not, we would have to improvise. There was no way to plan for every contingency of what was coming, even if we assumed there would be a linear temporality to it all, which was not a safe assumption.

We poured over the message again and again. We made maps of where everything was, what could be hidden behind, where patrols normally were, how likely any of them were to be close enough to gunfire to respond to it. We mentally steeled ourselves against what might happen.

The clock struck 11. I tricked the lock to the front of 116E open. It beeped and unlocked. I pulled open the door. Anne, Edgar, and I stepped inside. This is WOE.BEGONE.

[Intro theme plays.]

“This is surreal,” Edgar said as he put the code into the door that led into the 116E warehouse and out into Tier 2 and opened it. “It feels like going into work but technically I think it might legally be treason.”

“Most of the best things in life are,” I replied. He turned on his flashlight, using it to direct us down the hallway and into the warehouse. He led us into the back, navigating the place with a sense of confidence that I lacked. I had never seen the warehouse or the hallway that connected it to the main building of 116E in the day or with the lights on. My image of it was always incomplete, marred by black spots that my flashlight had never reached into, my brain filling in the gaps with what I expected out based on every hallway and warehouse I had ever been in. Edgar had seen these places lit up more times than he could count. He probably had dreams of walking down those halls, just as I had dreams about walking my patrol route. He ushered us into the warehouse and shut the door behind us, all of us turning our flashlights on.

I looked around the warehouse, shining my flashlight out into the darkness. It found darkness before it found the side wall of the warehouse. The warehouse was larger than I had ever had reason to explore. When I had passed through it, it was always with the intention of getting to Tier 2 on the other side. I never had time or knowledge enough to go through the storage and see if there was anything that I could use in there. I assumed that most of the tools in storage pertained to technology that I did not understand nor have access to.

I looked at the rows of storage stretching out before us. “Fuck, that’s a lot of storage bays,” I said. “How are we supposed to find the right one?”

“65N,” Anne said. “It said 65N in the recording. Do you know where that is, Edgar?”

“Kind of. There’s a system to everything, but I’ve never had to work with any of it before at the front desk. “N” is a classification, but I don’t know what the different letters correspond to. They should be in alphabetical order, though. So, this way,” he gestured with his flashlight. We followed him.

“What is all of this stuff, anyway?” I asked.

“Interfacing materials. None of this is allowed inside of Tier 1, so people traveling into Tier 2 that need these tools can check them out for however long they are staying inside. It’s for people visiting from other high-security sites and employees being trained for Tier 2, mostly, with some stuff that Tier 3 rents out sometimes when they need it. There’s an extensive database of who signed in, what they took, and how many minutes (and seconds) they were inside Tier 2. Assuming that you get in the legal way, of course. I don’t suppose this thing in 65N will be returned to its bay when we are done with it, which is going to be a paperwork headache when someone notices,” he said. He came to a stop. “We’re here. 65N. Up there.” He shone his flashlight upward. There was a storage bay labeled “65N” four bays up. Each bay was around 5 feet tall, so the bottom of bay 65N was 15 feet up in the air.

“You gonna climb it, Mikey?” Anne asked. I couldn’t see her face in the dark but I could feel her grinning at me.

“Hard to climb with this,” I gestured at my weak hand… then my left arm… then my back… “With this… everything… I guess.”

Edgar turned to Anne. “You wanna help? We can get this done with faster if I have an extra set of hands up there.”

“Might be a good warmup for me,” Anne said, making circles with her shoulders in preparation. With that, they both began climbing up the metal frame of the storage bays, grabbing onto the bar that constituted the floor the bay and then pulling their body weight up and over into the bay. They had to do this 3 separate times to get to 65N. With their lights pointed away from me and into the storage bay, I could barely see them.

Just as they arrived at bay 65N, I saw a glint out of the corner of my eye, back the way that we came from. I jolted and turned in time to see a distant flashlight.

“Pssst! There’s someone here. Hide!” I whisper-shouted to them, the quiet but reverberant warehouse amplifying my voice. Edgar and Anne went quiet and their lights went off. I turned my light off and scurried into the bay on the floor below them, putting as many boxes as I could between me and the main floor of the warehouse.

A minute or so later the light was upon us. I watched hopelessly as the light poured over the bay 2 away from me, then the bay beside me, and then ultimately the bay that I was hiding in. My shadow projected sideways and out from behind the bay.

“PUT YOUR HANDS UP AND GET ON THE FUCKING GROUND, NOW,” a voice said, authoritatively. “I HAVE INSTRUCTIONS TO KILL ANYONE WHO DOESN’T COOPERATE. COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP AND GET ON THE GROUND IMMEDIATELY.” My heart sunk into my stomach. He knew I was there. The best that I could hope for is that he didn’t know that Anne and Edgar were above me and I could provide a useful distraction. I came out with my hands up, tripping over a pallet for good measure, skidding onto my knees as I fell out into the main floor of the warehouse. I looked up into the light. It was bright and I couldn’t tell who was pointing it at me.

“Holy crap, it’s Mike,” the voice said. He lowered his light and his weapon. I got a better look at him. Hunter Jeremiah Hartley. Of course it was.

“Hunter?” I squeaked.

“What are you doing in here, Mike?” he asked. I tried to see his face in the darkness. There appeared to be a fresh scar on his face. This was Innocent Hunter. I suspected as much from his reaction.

“I could ask the same thing,” I replied.

“They assigned me a Tier 2 patrol tonight,” he explained. “Something happened here last night so they put some trainees on some extra shifts tonight. They didn’t explain the details.”

“I might have had something to do with that,” I muttered. “But that’s not important. I’m here because Edgar is in danger. There’s something going on at the boulders tonight and it ends badly as long as we don’t do anything. People from outside of O.V.E.R. Maybe even lots of people. I can explain everything. Do you trust me?”

“Mike, of course I don’t trust you,” he said. “So you better have a great explanation. I wouldn’t be assigned out here if something wasn’t going on. You’re going to have to tell me everything you know. Then we can talk about trust.” He shined his flashlight up toward the bay that Edgar and Anne were hiding in. “Is that Edgar?” he asked me.

“Yeah. We had to get something from that storage bay,” I explained.

“You can come down. It’s Hunter Hartley,” I said, the conversational volume of my voice feeling almost like a shout in the warehouse. I heard the zipping of a backpack and then Anne and Edgar climbed back down. The device was secured. Step 1 of the plan was complete.

The four of us stood in a circle in front of the bay where I had been hiding. I anxiously looked at my watch. We were on a tight schedule.

“Hi, Hunter,” Edgar said. “He knows me from the front desk,” he explained to me.

“Yeah, I know Edgar here from training,” Hunter said. “I knew he was your boyfriend, too, but I guess I never really saw you two together until now.” He turned to Anne and extended his hand. “Hunter Jeremiah Hartley, pleased to meet you.”

Anne accepted the handshake. “Anne,” she said. She blushed. I was confused. Anne had told Charlie that she had met Hunter when we were at the front gate together and that had confused me as well. I had no recollection of that happening and Charlie didn’t seem to remember it either. Then Anne seemingly knew the night guard, Troy’s, name, which as far as I knew she didn’t have a reason to know. Now she was introducing herself to Hunter as though they had never met, which was what I thought was the truth except for what she had said at the gate. There was no time to interrogate her about this, though. The clock was ticking. I would have to file it away for later.

I explained what was going on in broad strokes to Hunter. Edgar had been forced into a dangerous plot, much like Hunter had been with 357A. It could even be from the same people, none of us were entirely sure yet. There was a set of instructions that we knew was leading us into a trap, but we didn’t have much choice as the alternative was worse, which we knew from future intel. The standoff would be happening at the boulders. We were on a timer and in a few minutes we would need to make our way there.

Hunter looked at us in silence for a moment, studying us, thoughtful. He took a deep breath. “And this is one of those objectives that O.V.E.R. can’t ever know about, right?” he asked.

“Uhhh… yeah,” I said. “The less they know the better.”

“We’ve done a few of those,” Hunter said. “More recently. They tell me that I go on to do a lot more of them. I get it. You’ve got the right guy for the job.” He did the “zipped lips” motion with his fingers across his lips. “And I know better than to directly impede Mike Walters at this point. Not with what I’ve heard about you. So I guess I’m along for the ride. Let’s get to it.”

Edgar nodded but looked impatient. “I hate to spoil this moment, but we have 1 minute and 15 seconds to get to the exit of the warehouse if we want to exit on time,” he said. “Let’s move.”

We walked briskly to the back of the warehouse and over to the door with only a few seconds to spare.

“I guess I’ll do the honors,” Edgar said. “These are my instructions after all.” He looked at me then at the door, looked at his watch, took a deep breath, and opened the door just as the time on his watch read 11:17 and 0 seconds. He stepped through the doorway.

Immediately as he stepped through the door, his flashlight went out. I couldn’t see him anymore. A shot rang out from close range. I heard the gun fire and the report of the bullet against the metal of the warehouse door in quick succession. I didn’t see Edgar. I couldn’t tell if he was still in the doorway. I didn’t know if he had been hit. Instinctively, I headed for the door. I had been standing several feet back from it when Edgar opened it. Anne put her arm out to hold me back. She quickly took off her backpack and handed it to me. It was the bag that the device from the warehouse was in.

“Hold this over your head and get on the fucking ground,” Anne said. I tried to take another step forward, not fully processing what she was telling me. She grabbed my left arm and pulled me to the ground. I winced in pain at having my still-wounded arm jerked around like that.

“Get on the fucking ground, Mike. You don’t have a weapon. There’s no point in standing in the way unless you wanna be a meat shield. Sorry about your arm. Stay down.” I did as I was told, putting the bag over my head to protect it. I heard more gunshots. Hunter had a head start on Anne while she was making me take cover. I heard three more shots and then everything was quiet. I felt horrified and useless. I didn’t know what was going on. I was left to cower in fear while Anne and Hunter took care of things. I resented not having a weapon. After a few seconds of gunfire, everything was quiet again. I could hear the sound of nocturnal insects from the now-open warehouse door. I could hear shoes on grass and concrete.

“All clear,” Anne half-yelled back to me from outside. “There were two of them.”

“No Edgar,” Hunter said.

I leaped to my feet and hurried outside with the bag that Anne had given me. I turned on my flashlight and looked around for Edgar. “He’s okay?” I asked. I knew that the area outside of the warehouse was quite similar to the place in the photograph that I had been sent of Edgar’s corpse. This ambush could easily have been the one that returned that result. I didn’t see him.

“He’s not here,” Hunter said.

“What do you mean not here?” I asked.

“I watched him vanish,” Hunter said. “Someone moved him right before he would have been killed.” Hunter turned to look at me. “Was that your plan? Did you do that?”

“No, that was not our plan,” Anne answered for me. “We have no way of doing that. If we did, we would have a much better plan, I promise you. No idea who would do that or why.”

“Maybe they thought he had the device on him,” I said, holding up the bag that Anne handed me. “He would have if he had been the only person here.”

“Makes sense. The shooters and whoever transported Edgar both might have thought that Edgar was carrying the device,” Anne said. “Mike, do you recognize these guys?” She pointed her flashlight to her left where one person was sprawled out, dead, postured much as Edgar had been in the photograph. Then, she pointed it to the right where another person similarly lay dead. They were both wearing hard plastic masks like the Arbiter had been wearing at Donny Evans’s house, except these masks were black.

“That’s what the Arbiter looked like,” I said.

“Mike, you check this one with me. Hunter, you check that one. See if you can find anything on them. A plan, an earpiece, anything,” Anne said. Hunter nodded, went over to the body to Anne’s right, and began to check it. We did the same with the body on the left.

Anne knelt down by the corpse. “Moment of truth. And…” She pulled up the mask. “Do you recognize this guy?” She lifted his head up so I could see it better.

I looked at him. His eyes stared blankly ahead like Edgar’s had in the photo. His expression limp but somehow terrified at the same time. Like any other body I had ever seen. I looked at him, trying to remember if I recognized him– from O.V.E.R., from the Flinchite compound, from anywhere else.

“Doesn’t ring a bell, I’m afraid,” I said. She laid his head back down and started going through his pockets. I helped her search. After a few seconds of looking, I found something in one of his pants pockets. I thought it was a cellphone at first, but upon further inspection it was clearly something that wasn’t mass-manufactured. It looked more like a graphing calculator, bulky and with a low-resolution screen and physical buttons. It appeared to be on and functional, at least according to a green LED light on the front of the device. The screen displayed characters in code, variables that I had no way of understanding, a language that I didn’t speak.

I held it up to show Anne. “Any idea what this is?” I asked.

She looked at it, pondering. “It’s definitely something,” she concluded. “Throw it in the bag. We can tinker with it when we get out of here.” I did as she said.

“Hey… uhh…” we heard Hunter say from the other side of the doorway. His voice was shaky. “I… uhhh… I know this guy.” I shined my flashlight over to where he was. He was kneeling beside the body, mask lifted up to see his face. The same device that we had found on the body we had searched was sitting in the grass beside them. I walked over to them, to see for myself.

My eyes widened in surprise and fear. “Hunter,” I said. “This is…” I caught myself. “Okay, so this is Ty Betteridge,” I said. I was looking at the face of Ty Betteridge, the man responsible for directing me in the Flinchite compound, at least a decade younger than the man that I knew and entirely deceased. I looked at Hunter, puzzled. Could he be mistaken?

“Yeah,” Hunter said. I could hear the shock in his voice. “I killed Ty Betteridge. Fuck, Mike. I killed Ty. Ty from 116E. That Ty. Oh my god, Mike. Why was he out here? Why did he have that thing on him? Why was he shooting at Edgar?”

“Ty from 116E!?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”

“Ty. Him and Edgar started around the same time. That Ty. He does interfacing in 116E. Fuck, Mike. He’s so young. Why was he shooting at us?” Hunter said. I could see Hunter losing his grip, realizing that he had killed someone that he knew. I didn’t have the wherewithal to console him or get him back on track. I was still grappling with Hunter knowing Ty at all. I looked again to make sure. It was definitely Ty Betteridge. The Ty Betteridge that I knew, minus a few years. It was an unmistakable likeness. This was not a strange coincidence of names. This was Ty. Ty from the Flinchite Compound. Ty from 116E. Hunter and I were somehow thinking of the same person.

“I don’t know Ty from 116E,” I said. “An older version of this guy took me hostage. He worked at O.V.E.R.?” I looked at Hunter. He didn’t seem to be able to engage with my line of questioning.

“Anne, can I get some help over here?” I called out, hoping that her wartime experience would be sufficient to help Hunter get his head back in the game. Anne headed over. She handed me a gun.

“Here. It was on that guy,” she said. “Don’t hit us or yourself with it, okay hotshot?” She knelt down with Hunter and began consoling him, talking to him close to his face.

“Hunter, they were shooting at us. You would be dead if you hadn’t shot back. We all would be. You saved our lives,” she said. “You need to stay with us. Deep breaths. This isn’t over yet. Edgar is missing and we haven’t made it to the boulders yet. We aren’t safe yet. Stay with us. Deep breaths. Look at me. We’re going to get through this, but we’re going to have to power through. You’re going to be okay. We need to hurry. Can you come with us?”

Hunter simply nodded. He didn’t respond. He didn’t look consoled. I didn’t know how many people Innocent Hunter had killed up to that point. It might have been zero. Ty might have been the first person he had ever killed. I picked up the device that was in the grass and put it in the bag. It was identical to the one we had taken from the previous corpse.

“We need to go, Hunter,” I said. “We’re going to be behind getting to the boulders. I don’t know what happens if we’re behind.” I looked at my watch. “We’re already behind. We were supposed to be there 2 minutes ago. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we need to get there A.S.A.P.” Hunter didn’t move. Against my better judgment, I got frustrated. “Hunter. Edgar is missing. We can’t sit here and mourn my kidnapper.” Anne shot me an angry glance. I started walking toward the boulder region, high on adrenaline and worry.

“Mike!” I head Anne exclaim through gritted teeth at me. The sounds of her trying to console Hunter got quieter as I continued on without them. I knew that I was making a hotheaded mistake, but it felt like my feet were moving of their own accord. Ty wasn’t going to come back to life no matter how long they sat there. Edgar was missing. The mission wasn’t over yet. They would only be a few minutes behind me anyway. I made my way to the boulders.

A few minutes later, I was at the boulders, alone. I didn’t know if Anne and Hunter would catch up to me. Taking refuge in the darkness, I looked into the area with the device port. I didn’t see anyone. I wasn’t expecting to. If anyone was there, they were lying in wait to ambush Edgar. Edgar wasn’t there either. I had hoped that whoever transported him had moved him to the next part of the instructions, for him to plug the device in. The hope that he would be there when I got there was the reason that my feet couldn’t stop moving, even though I was leaving Anne and Hunter behind. He wasn’t there. The area was empty. I looked around but there were too many places to hide. I couldn’t check them all. I still had the bag with the device in it.

I could see the device port and the box that supplied power to it. They were intact, much to my surprise. I didn’t understand. I had mangled it beyond all recognition less than 24 hours prior. How had it already been repaired? Who repaired it? O.V.E.R.? Why would Anne tell me to destroy it if it was going to be functional again by the time the mission started? What was the point? I turned around and looked for Anne and Hunter but could not see them. I thought they were likely on their way, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for them. I left the safety of the darkness and made my way inside the boulder region and up to the device port.

Up close, I could confirm that not only was the port repaired, it was brand new. It had no sign of wear from the elements that it had when I had destroyed it. Someone had entirely replaced it between the night before and the night of. I looked at my watch. I had three minutes to decide whether or not to activate the device as Edgar had been instructed to. I pulled the device out of the bag and sat it on the ground. It had two long wires protruding from either side, which I connected to the metal of the port on its left and right side. The port shocked me both times, akin to a strong static shock, not bad considering what I knew it was capable of. Seconds crawled by. I pointed the antenna of the device over my right shoulder, into the center of Tier 3. I heard a sound in the distance. I couldn’t tell if it was Hunter and Anne or just the normal operations of Tier 2 at night. I continued to look around helplessly for Edgar. He wasn’t there. He would have come out of hiding to help me if he were there. I heard another sound. More seconds crawled by. I looked at my watch. Twelve seconds remained. There was nothing to do but to push the button on the device. A better option wasn’t presenting itself. Two seconds. One. Zero. I pushed the button.

The light on the device came on. Electricity visibly coursed through the port across its length, with nothing to hide or temper it. Before I could move out of the way, I felt a painful shock go through my body. My expectation of the shock did not limit the pain. I fell to my knees and attempted to crawl away from the device before it could shock me again. Things went black for a moment.

Things did not return from being black after I realized that I was still conscious. I could feel something touching my face, a bag of some kind. It was at this point that I felt something press into my back. A gun. I put my hands up.

“I can’t believe Ty wants you alive. Dumbfuck,” a voice said. The person spat on the ground beside me. He sounded familiar.

“Ty?” I asked. “Ty’s dead in the grass over there,” I said.

“Ty’s not here,” the man said, indignantly. “He’s not field operations. Ty has no reason to be here.”

“My friend killed him not 15 minutes ago,” I said.

“You’ve got quite a mouth,” he said. He pistol-whipped me in the back of the head. Much less funny than a buttstroke. I fell to the ground, still conscious but woozy.

“That’s for Kyrgyzstan,” he said. I realized where I recognized the voice from. He hit me again. “And that’s for kidnapping me in the first place. You’re lucky you’re an asset, shithead.”

“I meant to send you to Kazakhstan,” I groaned.

“Shut the fuck up,” he replied. “As soon as the signal goes through, we’re out of here.” I heard the beep of a walkie-talkie.

“F1 and F3, copy?” he said. “We have the bear and the birdsong. Extraction is incoming. What’s your location? Over.”

Everything was quiet for a second. There was no reply from the other end. I could hear the electricity still arcing from the device port.

“Where’s Edgar?” the man and I said in unison.

“He’s not with you?” he asked.

“You kidnapped him,” I said belligerently.

“Are you serious? He’s not hiding in the bushes out here somewhere?” he asked.

“No, he’s gone. Go ahead and put your guard down,” I said.

“Goddammit,” he replied.

I heard the walkie-talkie beep again. “F1 and F3, do you have eyes on the panther? We need him prior to extraction. Could have used you at the bear trap. What’s your 20? Over.” he said. There was still no answer from the other end.

“Playing military operator,” I grumbled. “Extraction imminent, what’s the 20 on alpha mu sigma, give me a break.”

“Shut the fuck up,” he said.

“Where are your friends?” I asked.

“Where they are is going to be their own damn problem here in a minute,”
he said.

“Kind of arch,” I mumbled.

Before he could respond, there was a crash of metal against metal. It was loud, almost like a car crash. I could see light pouring into the area through what I could now see was a burlap sack that had been placed over my head. I felt the Flinchite turn his gun away from my back for a moment to point it at the source of the light. Seizing an opportunity for freedom, I pulled the sack off of my head and tackled him to the ground, punching him in the head as I did so. He loosened his grip on the gun, allowing me to disarm him in the process. I finally got a look at him. It was indeed the same Flinchite that I had sent to Kazakhstan, the calm and cool he displayed the day that I interrogated him apparently absent after his involuntary vacation. He wriggled underneath me, but I pinned him down with my weight. I pulled the Arbiter’s gun from my holster and, in one smooth motion, aimed it at the Flinchite’s head and squeezed the trigger. I did not give myself time to conceptualize what I was doing or deliberate on its ethics. I felt the recoil and heard the report of the bullet. The Flinchite immediately ceased resisting and went limp under me.

I scrambled to my feet, hardly having time to process what I had just done. I looked over toward the source of the light. It was coming in from the barrier between the two Tiers. The wire fence that had served as a barrier between Tier 1 and the boulders had been crumpled and smashed, leaving a wide open hole between the two areas. Inside of that opening was a Tier 1 patrol cart, which must have been driven at full speed into the fence in order to generate that level of mechanical carnage. One person was inside the cart, in the driver’s seat, obscured by the light in front of them. Someone else had exited the cart and was standing in front of its headlights, backlighting him. It was Edgar. The person still in the cart began to extricate it from the wreckage as Edgar walked toward me.

“Edgar,” I bleated. He looked at me, but walked past me to the device port with confidence, as though he were on an important mission, as though he somehow suddenly knew exactly what to do. I looked in his hands. His O.V.E.R.-issued service weapon was in one hand. A metal rectangular object with a handle protruding from its center was in the other. He holstered his weapon as he strode up to the device port and readied the object in his other hand. I may as well have not been there at all. He was singularly focused on the device port.

Edgar ripped the modem-like device, the one that we brought there per the Flinchite instructions, out of the port, the light leaving the device as it powered off. Electricity arced and coursed through Edgar’s body. I winced in sympathetic pain. Before he could even recover from that shock, he raised the rectangular metal key in his other hand. He stuck this key in the port that he had just disconnected the device from. The port shocked him a second time, rendering him unable to remove his hand from the device for several seconds. Once he got his hand free, he left the device in the port. The electricity from the port was still visibly arcing as he stepped away. He was still standing but was noticeably shaken. I approached him and pulled him away from the electricity, lest he continue to get shocked by it.

I heard footsteps approaching from the distance. “You found Edgar?” a voice called out. It was Anne.

“Something like that. Where the fuck have you two been?” I shouted back, my voice getting quieter as Hunter and Anne got closer. I could see that both of them were covered in blood.

“Fucking killing 2 guys,” Anne said. “Two more guys, I mean.” She looked down at the corpse of the Flinchite in front of Edgar and I. “And that makes three,” she said. “Is he one of the three that attacked you that night?”

“How did you know?” I asked.

“The other two tried to get the slip on me and Hunter. They are the same ones that attacked me. I recognized the other two,” she replied.

“We need to leave,” Edgar said, wincing. “Marissa.”

“Marissa?” Hunter asked, confused. Edgar gestured over to the cart that had crashed through the fence.

“Of fucking course it’s Marissa,” I said. We hurried to the patrol cart, Edgar leaning on me for strength. I helped him into the front seat and Anne and I climbed into the back. Hunter stood on the outside of the fence for a moment, observing the mayhem that had occurred inside of Tier 2. Then, without saying a word, he reached in his pocket and pulled out the button. He pressed the button and it began to emit a horrible screech, just as it had the night that my button had been activated. He lobbed it like a hand grenade into the boulder region of Tier 2. It landed unceremoniously on the ground. For a few seconds it did nothing but screech. Then, without warning, the fence between Tiers 1 and 2 popped back into existence, fully repaired, as though Marissa had never driven through it. It was difficult to see from the outside if anything else had changed. Hunter ran back to the cart and got in the back with Anne and I.

“That was in my training, but I’ve never done that before,” Hunter said. “But I know that it is going to take a lot of paperwork and fieldwork in order to cause that to retroactively happen.” He looked at me. “You are going to do that work with me, understand?” I nodded.

“Edgar tells me that you’ve had quite the night,” Marissa said from the front of the cart. “Did you have fun blowing up 357A, Mike?”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“The device,” Edgar said. “You blew up 357A tonight.”

“It was pointed into Tier 3. What did you think you were doing?” Anne asked. “Did you not figure that out?”

“I… don’t know if I care or not,” I admitted. “I wanted it to be over. Also, I definitely have a concussion.”

“Poor baby Mikey,” Edgar said. “Just wait until you hear about the year I’ve had. Anne, may we use your accommodations as headquarters while we debrief?”

“Sure. Are you okay, Edgar?” Anne asked.

“I think my heart stopped for a minute, but it’s beating now,” he replied. “If that constitutes “okay.” It’s good to be back. We can discuss everything at your place.”

“Finally. Mikey never let me in on the fun espionage,” Marissa said. “How could you not include me after I figured out how to get the door to 116E open? Rude. Thankfully, Edgar showed up at my door tonight with the plan. I would have been so jealous.”

We sped into the darkness, out of Tier 1, past the main gate, and toward our destiny.


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