Pairing: John&Dorian (epic-bromance)
Feedback: Makes me happy, just play nice
Disclaimer(s) can be found here
Summary: Four years after making it through a deadly special forces mission on Mars, John was the only survivor of a police raid gone wrong. The raid took his leg and put him in a coma he should never have awoken from and taking almost two years of his life. Now back on the force, begrudgingly partnered with an android, Dorian, DRN-167, who’s too close to human for his own good, John’s being asked to go face the very things that changed his life, to follow the man who created and betrayed his partner, and face the crime group, InSyndicate, responsible for the ambush that cost him his team and his leg- all wrapped up in one nice little package over the Wall, which segregates the livable portion of the city and the area overrun by the C24s.
John was hunched over a plate of a noodles, his mind playing out scenario after scenario based on what they’d learnt and John didn’t like any of them.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Dorian said. He was sitting at the desk across from John and looking much better now that his circuitry and fluids weren’t poking out of his skin and soaking through his clothes.
Arching an eyebrow, John snickered, surprisingly good-natured. “You do, do you?”
“Yep. You’re thinking about those C24s and what Vaughn and InSyndicate want with them. Or if it’s even Vaughn who wants them.”
Chewing and swallowing his mouthful of noodles, John looked at Dorian through half closed and thoroughly unimpressed eyes. “Not exactly a stab in the dark.”
“What I don’t get is why take the Synthetic Souls if he was just going to try his hand at biogenetics.”
“I think you’re thinking too small, John. Dr. Vaughn stole over six hundred processors. He would only need a fraction of them to create enough XRNs for a successful assault on the city.”
“Thanks, D. I was trying not to think about that.” John sighed and set the bowl aside. “You really think that’s a possibility?” John asked, more rhetorical than inquisitive. He knew InSyndicate and what they were capable of, so he had the answers.
Dorian didn’t speak for a moment, and when he did it was to ask about their next move. “Where do we go from here?”
John leaned back in the chair he’d liberated from one of the offices. “The way I see it we either focus our search to the South and hope to find their base there, or we head toward the area where they seemed to be holding the C24s- maybe find out exactly what they’re up to and how royally screwed we really are.”
“Ever the optimist.”
“Realism isn’t the same thing as pessimism.”
“No, it’s not,” Dorian agreed, “and you’ve got pessimism down to a science.” He had the audacity to smirk almost cheekily when he spoke.
John tipped his head back, staring at the ceiling. He stayed like that for a few moments. When he straightened, he rubbed his head in his hands and let out a determined huff of air. “We need to know what they’re up to. Realistically,” he drew out the word making it sound just as sarcastic and thoughtful as he meant it, “that only leaves us one real option.”
“Then you need to make sure your leg is fully charged.”
“Yes, mother. Do you want to pack my lunch and remind me to take my scarf and gloves, too?”
“I already pack your lunch,” Dorian replied cockily.
John rolled his eyes and his pants leg up. “I’m not taking it off with those goons looking for us.”
“Fine? What, no lectures or fighting me on this?”
“John, I know this will come as a shock, but you do make valid points from time to time,” he teased as he set up the charger. “Go lie down.”
John grumbled, but did as Dorian asked.
The amount of time between Dorian hooking up John’s leg and the time John fell asleep was unnervingly short. John might be superhuman, but the world still weighed on him, possibly even more because of his enhanced genetics.
Dorian did his best to make sure John was comfortable and stayed at his side through the night, a gentle hand on John’s thigh seeming to keep the worst of John’s anxiety at bay.
“We should pack up, be ready to get out of here,” John said, calmly drinking his coffee and looking over his map for the thousandth time.
“You know something I don’t?” Dorian asked.
John shook his head. “Call it intuition.”
Nodding, Dorian began to gather their essential supplies. “Nice to see you’re finally accepting your feminine side.”
With a derisive grunt, John drained his coffee as he collected his gear. “They’re looking for us; it’s only a matter of time before they find this place and I’d rather not lose half our supplies when they do,” John clarified.
Within the hour they were well on their way back to the southwestern edge of the city.
Dorian watched with a now familiar sense of trepidation as John transformed with every step closer to their goal into John the Marine- the John who would get them through this.
John dropped to a crouch as noises hit his ears. Gesturing up, John made his way to a tall office building on the next block and began to scale it, Dorian on his heels. Once atop the building they had a clear view of the source of the sound. A wall, almost as high as the wall that bisected the city, lay four blocks ahead. John recognized the smooth granite that had once cordoned off the city’s zoo. His eyes travelled the length of the wall, noting where the wide barred gates had once stood, there was now only more stone and a small access door. He had to admit it was incredibly resourceful of InSyndicate- an enclosed area that wouldn’t stand out to any overhead surveillance and held its own established and tested paddocks, and if memory served, labs and veterinary offices lined the southern and western walls in deep cement bunkers- perfect for Vaughn’s type of work. Two men dressed in the black combat gear InSyndicate favoured appeared to be pacing along a section of the wall, presumably a safety measure for what was behind it. John and Dorian took their time in the relative safety of their perch watching the guards’ movements.
“Are you sure we want to do this?” Dorian asked, knowing full well the answer.
“No, but we have to,” John shrugged almost carelessly. “Check me on this, D, there’s five minutes between rounds, should be enough time for us to cross over if we use that second buttress.”
“No point hanging around then. Is this place stable enough to take the stairs?” he asked Dorian, looking toward the building’s roof access.
Lights ran over Dorian’s cheek before he gave an affirmative nod, and the two took the more conventional way back to street level.
“John, do you want to let me in on the plan? Do we even have a plan?”
John rolled his eyes and snickered. “First, we need to get over that wall and see what we’re dealing with, scout the perimeter and hopefully we can locate whatever they’re using as a lab.”
“And if we can’t?”
“Then we finish the sweep and find a place to hole up for the night. Take the south section tomorrow,” John stated simply.
Dorian nodded once again. As plans went it was incredibly simplistic, but John was right about finding out what was waiting for them before focusing their course of action.
Weaving their way carefully toward the vulnerable area of the wall, John let part of his mind wander to what might await them once they scaled the wall. If they were lucky, whatever creatures or experiments InSyndicate was playing with would be secured in the numerous paddocks and not running loose on the grounds. If they were truly unlucky and InSyndicate fell prey to the hubris that had destroyed Philadelphia and lost them half their city, they could be facing dozens of those things. The thought was far from comforting.
When they reached the building across from their chosen point of entry, John held his hand up in a fist telling Dorian to stop. They watched the sentries exchange a few words before continuing their patrols. Counting carefully to ten, John gave the signal to go.
A few seconds later they were on the zoo grounds. It felt strange to be in such an open area in the midst of the city. When the Wall had gone up, all free space in the city was taken up by new buildings- homes and offices to house all those dispossessed. There were a few places on the south edge of the city along the waterfront that held immaculately kept park-like areas, but nothing like this. Only a handful of years ago the zoo had been one of the most famous in the country; their work on and quality of habitat reproduction was unparalleled and world renowned. Now those habitats were overrun by the very flora that had given them their fame.
With a shake of his head, John indicated they should follow the wall to the north.
The enclosures closest to the wall were empty, save for the remnants of their former inhabitants, but the sounds, grunts, growls, and scrapes of things trapped in cages further in let them know without doubt what awaited them.
In near silence John and Dorian crept toward the first of the occupied enclosures The two C24s they’d seen InSyndicate capture when they first arrived snarled at them, their unnatural eyes almost glowing as they approached.
“Should we take care of them?” Dorian whispered.
“I’d like nothing better,” John growled softly, “but I’d rather keep our presence under wraps for now. I don’t want us having to run into this mess blind if InSyndicate realizes we’re here.” John was about to move forward when he felt a warning hand grip his shoulder. He looked back in silent question.
“Cameras,” Dorian said.
“Damn,” John snapped. “Don’t suppose there’s a way for you to block the signal?”
Dorian’s face lit up with dark blue, almost purple, lights. “Got it. I can block it, but knocking out all their cameras would most likely bring someone looking.”
“What about blocking the individual feeds as we pass? Or, your internal recorder’s still operable isn’t it?”
Dorian smiled, nodding his head. “Of course. Record part of the feed and loop it back long enough for us to get out of range.”
A tap on his shoulder told John when it was safe to move.
They repeated the process as every paddock came into view. Thankfully most of the enclosures seemed to be overgrown but empty. Almost three hours had passed before they discovered anything truly useful. They’d gone from nothing but iron bars and unkempt flora to cameras every thirty yards and cages of anywhere from two to five C24s all in different stages of agitation and, for lack of a better word, health.
Dorian stopped in front of one of the paddocks and scanned the occupants. “John, these creatures show signs of medical tampering.”
“No, something much more rudimentary, and even taking into account the accelerated healing, the implants are at least three months old.”
“That means at least a month before Vaughn escaped.”
“I hate to say it, but it looks like we were right- they’re trying to control them.”
“Damnit!” The word was spoken quietly, but with all the vehemence of a yell.
Dorian could only begin to imagine what John was going through and even that made him ache.
“We should keep moving,” John said, coolly detached in a way that made Dorian shiver.
Dorian could feel the tension in John’s body- the way his hands on his weapon changed as John went through phases of white-knuckled grip and forcibly relaxed calm, fingers never leaving the trigger- only to culminate in a spectacular absence of explosion when John stopped, locking eyes with a caged C24. The creature and its cellmates were calmer than those around them.
A quick scan told Dorian what he’d suspected and both he and John dreaded- these C24s had been modified with the processors Vaughn had stolen. There was a knowledge behind their mutated eyes and disfigured bodies.
“I know,” John answered softly through a locked jaw and raw anger and fear. “We need to finish our sweep. Find out how many there are. Then we can look for their lab.”
Dorian laid a silent hand on John’s shoulder, squeezing gently, hoping to instill some small reassurance and strength. John had more inner strength than most, but Dorian knew the man needed support and family, too- even if the stubborn ass wouldn’t admit it.
To Dorian’s surprise John didn’t instantly shake him off- he wasn’t sure whether to be comforted or concerned by John’s reaction. He didn’t have much time to consider it; John moved away down the path a new determination radiating off of him.
By mid-afternoon they’d reached the end of the small peninsula the zoo occupied and had counted over one hundred C24s in captivity. At least one-third of those showed the increased cognizance that seemed to come with the insertion of Vaughn’s stolen processors, though the creatures in the outlying areas nearest what used to be the waterfront were obviously less successful attempts at implanting the chips. They were sluggish and almost childlike in their awkwardness.
“Interesting. These C24s seem to be suffering from some sort of hardware rejection. The brain matter surrounding the implant is necrotic, and judging by these others the necrosis is spreading.”
John’s brow furrowed. “They’re on their way to being brain dead as well as mindless monsters,” John said, the question evident in his voice if not his phrasing.
“After a fashion. The disturbing question is whether or not the processors are connected successfully enough into the cortex to support the neural network for the rest of the body even without biological brain function.”
John slouched back against a nearby trash can. “You’re telling me they could become remote controlled zombies. That’s just what we need.”
“I wouldn’t exactly say ‘zombies’, but for lack of a better word- yes.”
“If it’s any consolation, it’s not going to work. The amount of decay combined with the existing mutation will destroy what little neurological connection and subsequent brain function they have.”
“That’s something at least.” John offered up an incredulous and sarcastic look to match his words as he pushed off from his slouch. “We should start in on the bunkers, see what we can find.”
“The bunkers on the southern side showed the most signs of possible use.”
“Good. Then we’ll start on the western wall, we need to find a camp for the night and that’s our best bet.”
Dorian once again found himself torn, not sure whether to feel concern or pride over John’s statement- John was being sensible. It was a unique experience and Dorian couldn’t help but run a quick scan of his partner to ensure he wasn’t attempting to mask some injury. He registered slightly elevated endorphins and heart rate, but nothing that was out of sync with their current situation.
The bunkers and connecting corridors that dotted the zoo’s western edge turned out to be little more than bleak boxes of rooms, occasionally large indoor paddocks where certain animals were kept at night or feeding time, or rooms that had once served as veterinary offices. Most were empty and void of any trace of their previous calling. It was in one of these barren rooms they set up for the night. Vines and roots had grown around the main entrance to the bunker affording both some extra cover and a place to conceal Rudy’s charger.
By the time they’d settled, John’s leg was once again protesting the workout he’d given it. Thankfully, Dorian spared him his usual lecture about the care and feeding of the prosthetic even though John rubbed at the appendage irritably. “How much juice you think that thing has?” John asked with a quick head jerk toward the charger.
“Rudy said it should be fully charged in three hours. It had close to a third of a charge when we left this morning and got about an hour to charge before sundown, so it’s close enough to full.”
John nodded in understanding as he slid his pants down far enough to release the connection of synthetic to flesh.
Without a word Dorian fished out John’s ointment and brought it and a suspicious looking MRE to him. “Sorry it’s not noodles.”
“It’s not cardboard and sawdust either,” John quipped, earning himself one of Dorian’s playful smiles. John set the meal aside and reach for his ointment, only to be stopped by a strong, dark hand.
“Eat,” Dorian said.
John’s eyes softened and a smile toyed on his lips. Always a self-sufficient person, he wasn’t used to someone taking care of him, he was and he resented people insinuating he needed help with anything- a mindset that had only increased with the loss of his leg. Yet somehow with Dorian it was different; he didn’t feel pitied or coddled. Releasing the jar, he retrieved the tray of food and leaned back against the wall, letting Dorian treat his leg.
Sitting on the ground next to his friend, Dorian began to gently rub the ointment into the inflamed skin of John’s thigh. A small thrill ran through him knowing John trusted him this much.
Soon John’s eyes were drifting closed, meal half eaten and forgotten- the warm feel of Dorian’s skillful hands relaxing sore, tense flesh and calming jangled and tangled nerves.
“John?” Dorian called in a voice barely above a whisper. He smiled at the small noise he got in response. “Sleep.” Dorian pulled out a blanket and laid it over his sleeping human.
John was jolted awake by the tones of a bleating, blaring siren, his hand instinctively reaching for his weapon. “What’s going on?” he asked as Dorian’s face lined with light.
“One of the C24s escaped while they were moving it.”
John paused in his efforts to reattach his leg and raised an inquisitive eyebrow at his partner.
Dorian smiled conspiratorially. “I’ve been scanning the frequencies of the radio we took off that shooter. I started picking up transmissions a few minutes ago.”
“Which would explain why everything’s ready to go except me,” he snarked sarcastically.
Dorian offered John something almost the reverse of an eye roll that told him in no uncertain terms he was not impressed by John’s indignation.
John huffed, shaking his head as he started zipping his pants. “Any chance of going out the front door?’
“There are six patrols searching the park.”
“So, no.” John flexed his leg a few times, testing it out of habit. “You have the schematics of this place?”
This time Dorian did roll his eyes.
“Lemme guess, you scoped it out while I was asleep.”
“No, John. But I do have the plans in my database.”
“Close enough.” John shouldered his weapon, checking his sidearm, and jerked his head toward the back of the bunker, asking, “Is there a way out?”
“The back passage only connects between these buildings. Nothing that will take us past the wall,” Dorian informed him.
“Good enough,” John said with a slight shake of his head, taking off down the passage.
The pathways were relatively easy to navigate, each bunker fitting into one of three basic layouts depending on its original function. They passed unnoticed through the forgotten halls until they reached the final building nearest the park’s wall.
In the main entrance room, John made his way to the opening, prepared to scan the immediate area for any sign of InSyndicate or C24s, only to be pulled back by his shoulder by a disapproving android.
Ignoring John’s glare in favour of imparting his own chastizing gaze, Dorian reminded him, “Taking these kinds of risks is my job.”
John rolled his eyes. “Fine, but you get shot again and it’s your own damn fault.”
Smiling, Dorian easily translated the John-speak. “Love you, too, John,” he quipped just before he ducked out to check their surroundings.
Dorian returned almost instantly. “You want the good news or the bad news?’
John gave his partner a derisive look from under his eyelashes.
Dorian just snickered. “Well, the immediate area is clear, but they have men placed every forty feet along the wall.”
“Damn-it,” John swore softly, eyes casting down to stare at nothing as he tried to think. “What about the tunnels?”
Dorian’s face lit up briefly before he answered. “Yes, but we’ll have to go back two buildings. You should know, John, they’ve started searching the bunkers. We’ll need to move fast if we don’t want to run into them.”
Standing, John looked at his partner with incredulous annoyance. “You didn’t think that was something I needed to know?” he asked sarcastically.
“They weren’t encroaching on our location and I saw no reason to add further stress to our situation,” Dorian explained simply.
John closed his eyes and shook his head. Only Dorian would think like that and worse- John could admit it to himself- Dorian was probably right. There was nothing they could do about it and as long as they stayed ahead of InSyndicate’s men and they weren’t actively following them then it wasn’t a priority, especially since Dorian could monitor the patrols’ locations. John gave a frustrated huff. “Let’s go.”
As they came to the corridor that connected the second and third bunker, Dorian whispered John’s name, “John.”
“Where’s the tunnel?” John asked in equally quiet tones.
“Storage room on the left just ahead. But John, InSyndicate’s just entered the building. I estimate we have less than three minutes before they reach the storage room and less than two before they’ll be close enough to see us.”
“Then why are we talking; we need to move.”
Dorian followed John’s swift precise movements the few yards down the hallway.
“Damn-it,” John swore softly seeing the card lock on the door. “D? You got this?”
Lights were already spattering Dorian’s face; a few seconds later the door made a soft click as the locking mechanism released.
John wasted no time sliding the door open carefully, hoping the hinges wouldn’t alert their unwanted company. Their voices were already filtering to them and getting progressively closer.
Miraculously, the door opened with ease and they were able to slip through in silence.
The storage room was little more than a janitor’s closet and the drainage grate barely wide enough for an average size grown man. John felt like a bit of a contortionist as he wriggled through the opening. Dorian on the other hand, slid down as if he was made to.
Unlike other parts of the city, the tunnels here still held a few murky inches of stagnant water, the watershed exits having been sealed and collapsed in when the Wall went up. John tried not to think about what he was trudging through- he’d been hip deep in worse. He stopped as they approached a large junction.
“Keep going forward, it should be a straight shot out of the park,” Dorian supplied helpfully.
John nodded absently as he focused on the tunnel bending off to the right. “What about the bunkers along the southern wall?”
“What about them?”
“Well, these tunnels should lead us to them, and presumably all of InSyndicate’s forces will be concentrated along the wall and the bunker entrances. It might be our best chance to check out those rooms.”
Dorian seemed to consider John’s words. “It’s a big risk.”
“D, being on this side of the Wall is a huge risk,” John shot back sarcastically.
Giving John a classic ‘bitch please’ face, Dorian continued, “As I was saying, it is a risk, but as much as it pains me to say this, I think you might be right. Their guard will be down and it is our best chance to move freely through those rooms.”
John nodded once. “Let’s move out.”
They exited the tunnels in a corresponding storage room in the southern bunker.
“John, I’m picking up electrical readings to the southwest.”
“Anything we need to worry about?”
“Other than runaway genetic mutants with homicidal tendencies and militant terrorists who probably want to kill you? No, nothing, special.”
“Gee, thanks for the reminder.”
“Anytime, man,” Dorian smiled and slapped John on the back.
With a roll of his eyes and a shake of his head John mumbled something about snarky androids with a death wish.
Readjusting his gun, John gingerly opened the door. Light flooded the small room, the corridor illuminated by harsh utilitarian lights.
“Well, I guess that answers whether or not they’re using these bunkers. Come on,” John said, heading into the main part of the bunker.
Boxes and crates were stacked and ordered along the walls. Everything from food products to computer components and mechanical parts and then some were represented. “Hey, D? Tell me this stuff isn’t as bad as I think it is,” he said, standing in front of a stack of what appeared to be enough robotics to create a small army.
Dorian stopped at John’s side, scanning the crates.
Dorian’s silence told John all he needed to know- a chill ran through him at the thought of so many potential XRNs just waiting to be assembled and unleashed on the city. “We’re going to have to destroy all this before we leave.”
Backing up, Dorian tried to push the images of all those lives that could’ve been away. Logically he knew these were just parts, nothing more than plastic, wires, and metal- none of the things that gave them any sort of true life. Just as he knew if these parts were ever given that ‘life’ it would be as XRNs. And that couldn’t be allowed to happen- too many human lives would be at risk.
“You okay, D?” John asked softly.
“Yeah, fine,” Dorian replied, turning away. “We should go.”
“Yeah,” John agreed absently, more than a little concerned about his friend. “Any word from the voices in the sky?”
Dorian shook his head. “They’re all still focused on the search.”
“Good. Let’s get a move on before they think better of it and come back.”
The next bunker was much the same except instead of parts and supplies there were crates of weapons and ammunition. Looking over the boxes, John noted, “There’s enough firepower here to arm a small army.”
John let out a low whistle when he opened the lid of a nearby crate- grenades, high quality, military issue ones. He quickly pocketed several before closing the box. “Might come in handy,” he said at Dorian’s furrowed brow. “Anything we need to stock up on?”
“Rudy’s supplies will hold us.”
John gave a quick nod. “Let’s see what’s next on the menu.”
As they approached the next bunker section, Dorian quietly informed John, “This is where the electrical signal is coming from.”
“Can you tell if anyone’s in there?”
“It looks clear, but we should be careful, there’s no way of knowing what’s taking so much power.”
“Gee, and I thought all this time we were being reckless,” John snarked, even as he took extra care approaching the room’s entrance. “Jesus,” John breathed out slowly.
Next to him Dorian’s entire body began to flash a myriad of colours.
“D? Dorian!” John placed a gentle hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You okay?”
Dorian shook himself slightly, colours still tracing his face, and shrugged off John’s hand. Almost reverently he began walking along the rows of work stations- the bits and pieces of what made him ‘him’ spread out like a last supper. It should’ve reminded him of Rudy’s, but it didn’t. This place was clinical and just wrong. Much as he would deny it, Rudy’s felt like a home- it wasn’t just a lab, a place to repair broken androids; it was a place where someone tinkered with the things they loved, where he created life.
“Dorian, these what I think they are?” John’s voice broke the weighty silence.
Dorian’s head snapped up and he moved to John’s side. “The ZNA processors.” He scanned the container quickly. “Forty-three of them are missing,” he informed John.
“And how many of those things out there had them implanted?”
“Thirty-seven,” Dorian reminded him easily.
“So six unaccounted for. Damn-it,” John swore.
“Let’s keep looking, see if we can find anything useful to tell us what their plans are.”
No sooner had the words left John’s mouth than Dorian was making a beeline for one of the far work stations. He picked up a sheaf of papers and began scanning them- reading them and storing the images in his memory banks.
“You got something?”
“The outlines of Dr. Vaughn’s plans for integrating the processors and,” he held out a handful of sheets that looked like so much jibberish to John, “his research notes.”
John didn’t have to be a robotics engineer or bio-geneticist to understand the value of Dorian’s find. “How bad is it?”
“According to this, my assessment of the deterioration of the implanted C24s was correct. Also, three of them have already died. Unfortunately, he seems very close to perfecting the process. These notes indicate his last three subjects are showing signs of higher cognizance and little deterioration.”
“Great. So the good news is three of the processors have been destroyed, the bad news is there’s three souped-up monsters out there they have control over,” John summed up in his typical sarcastic fashion.
Dorian absently nodded, his main focus still on the files he was scanning, while John milled about the tables and work stations.
“Dorian,” John called softly. “I think you’ll want to see this,” he said, pushing a box away from his find. Crouching down, he pulled out a medium sized clear plastic case.
“The Souls,” Dorian’s voice was almost reverent. “We have to take them back with us.”
“D, I don’t know if we can.”
“Please, John. They might not be alive in any conventional sense, but they are souls. They’re my family.”
John sighed. “You and those Synthetic Souls aren’t the same. Vaughn saw to that when he tried to modify them and created Danika.”
“He said he didn’t do anything different,” Dorian countered.
“He also said he wanted to stop Danika, then tried to get us killed and is responsible for over forty deaths- innocent people in the wrong place, at the wrong time. You can’t take anything he told you at face value.”
Dorian looked at the case containing hundreds of Synthetic Souls. “I’d still like to try.”
With a slow shake of his head, John placed a reassuring hand on the back of Dorian’s shoulder before turning away to continue his exploration of the room- mostly parts, diagrams, and circuitry he had no hope of understanding.
A barely audible scraping noise caused John’s head to snap up. “D, I thought you said there weren’t any life signs in here,” he whispered too quietly for the average person to hear at that distance.
Dorian’s face lit up on veins of light as he once again joined his partner. “There weren’t. There still aren’t,” he added in confusion.
John adjusted his gun and pointed it toward the sound when it repeated. “That doesn’t sound like we’re alone.”
Dorian beat John to the section of the wall the sound was coming from. He placed his hand on the wall, more streaks of light running over his skin from his hand to his face. “There’s something here, but something’s interfering with my sensors.”
“There’s got to be a way to get in there.”
Dorian was already trailing along the wall, his body virtually glowing with the amount of energy he was using. “Here,” he said, stopping in front of a cart piled with incongruous parts and materials.
“You got something?”
“There’s a seam here. It could be a doorway.” He moved the cart hastily to run his hand along the section of wall. His hand sparkled as a hidden keypad flickered under his palm.
A moment later the doorway slid inward to reveal a secondary room.
John took point as the entered. Inside they found a row of five cells set into the back wall. The first two were empty, the third and fourth held C24s. “Good God,” John said in hushed tones as all too knowing and unnaturally golden eyes stared out at him from behind heavy reinforced Plexiglas and heavy iron bars.
“John.” Dorian stood in front of the fifth cell, head turned toward John so he could judge his response. “I think I know where the C24 they’re looking for came from.”
“You gotta be kidding me.” John’s voice was equal parts disbelief and resignation. Of course it would be one of these C24s that was loose on the grounds. What could happen if it escaped the zoo confines didn’t bear thinking about. With a sigh and a shake of his head, John ignored the snuffling and yellow gazes of the two creatures and joined Dorian where he was going through more of Vaughn’s notes. “Anything useful?”
“It seems these three were his most successful attempts to date. This one,” Dorian indicated the conspicuously empty fifth cell, “was not only accepting the implant, but obeying the base signals sent through the processors. It says here they were about to run a compatibility test to see if it could respond appropriately to multiple and more complex tasks. That’s the last notation- made approximately six hours ago.”
John let out a sound somewhere between a sigh and a huff. “We can’t risk that thing getting out, there’s no telling what it could do if it got to the Wall.”
“There’s no reason to assume the creature would be that aware,” Dorian pointed out.
John looked at him sidelong from under heavy eyelids. “Do you really wanna take that chance?”
“We can’t just leave this lab. It’s half our mission.”
“Dorian, sometimes mission parameters change.” He began to brush roughly past his friend, hesitating, he paused to grip Dorian’s shoulder. “We’ll come back,” he promised.
Dorian nodded slowly. “Thanks, man.”
“Now, come on, we’ve got a mutant to track.”
The sunlight was a stark contrast to the sterile lights illuminating the workroom and it took John’s eyes a moment to adjust.
“How do you want to do this?” Dorian asked scanning the area.
“Well, between the two of us we’ve got the best chance of locating this thing. You’ve still got their channel?”
“Yes, though they’ve been disturbingly silent.”
John shook his head dismissively. “They’re probably maintaining radio silence.”
“Mmm,” Dorian acknowledged.
“All right, we do this just like yesterday; we work up from the far wall, maybe we can herd it back toward InSyndicate and keep our cover a little longer. You got the cameras?”
Dorian just rolled his eyes in answer. They hadn’t gone far when a thought occurred to Dorian. “It’s odd they can’t track its processor.”
“I was wondering that myself.”
“I suppose it’s possible something in the process renders it inert.”
John considered Dorian’s words. “Could be why those animals were still locked up in Vaughn’s hidden lab.”
Dorian nodded thoughtfully. “It could also explain their inability to control this one and simply program it to return.”
Both men were thoughtful as they continued their search.
“Tell me more about these processors. They can’t be your standard CPUs.”
Lights flashed softly over Dorian’s skin as he accessed the designs and specs for the processors. “They are state of the art, designed to be more intuitive- not independently ‘thinking,’ but they are designed for higher functioning androids, ones that can be more responsive to input.”
“Like you?” John asked, brow furrowing.
“No, it’s a step closer. Some of the base coding and subroutines are similar, but nothing as advanced as the Synthetic Soul,” Dorian explained.
“Great. So these things can think beyond killing everything in sight,” John huffed out.
The soft crack of a twig drew their attention to the south and killed whatever conversation may have been left.
With silent nods, they changed their path to investigate the sound. As they approached, they were met by a strangled scream.
“Shit!” John cursed softly, taking off at a run. Whoever was under attack may be part of InSyndicate, but they were still people and it wasn’t in his nature or Dorian’s to standby when someone was in trouble.
They arrived just in time to hear the sickening crack of bones snapping and flesh ripping, followed by the tell-tale thud of a body hitting the ground, and see the remaining two members of the patrol back away from the carnage of their fallen comrade.
“So much for keeping our cover,” John muttered as he took aim and let off two rounds at the creature.
It howled and glared at John before disappearing into the growth around them.
“Go check on those two,” John instructed Dorian. “And Dorian, don’t turn your back on either of them if you even think they might be infected.”
Instead of the eye roll Dorian would’ve normally given at such an obvious statement, he gave a curt nod before parting ways- John going after the creature while Dorian checked on the two remaining men.
Faster than ‘strictly’ humanly possible, John gained ground on the C24. The cement pathways, even overgrown as they were, didn’t make the best surface for tracking, but John’s acute sight and hearing made the trail easier to follow. Soon they were in the heart of the zoo. The paddocks of C24s erupting into a cacophony of grunts and growls, bars shaking and groaning under the violent pressure of incensed C24s. John knew it was only a matter of time before the walls of their prisons gave way and there would be God only knew how many of those things running loose. But John couldn’t focus on that right now. He had a full-fledged cognizant monster to deal with, the others would have to wait.
In the centre of the zoo there was a small park, once immaculately kept with lush rows of veronica, phlox, hibiscus, and other lively garden plants, beaches, tables, and a small sandbox. Now the colourful flora had run rampant, reminding John of nothing so much as a scene from an old film he’d seen as a child with a wild brightly-coloured field of poppies.
Only at the far edge of this field was an angry once human monster, its features distorted to the point that calling it bipedal was as close to recognizably human as it got. Its body was all swollen and disproportionate muscles and limbs, hands like clawed meathooks. Its unnaturally human eyes bore into John, a warning and a challenge.
Steadily, John took aim, but resisted the urge to fire, knowing that at this distance the C24 would most likely be able to dodge the projectile. Instead, he made his way closer, using the scattering of trees and overgrown bushes as nominal cover. He kept his eyes on the C24- it stood still, body flexing with each breath, watching and waiting as John neared. John knew that dance too well.
As soon as John was in range, the creature surged forward, knocking John to the ground. John rolled with the movement, coming up in a crouch at eye level with his opponent. It opened its elongated maw and roared into John’s face.
The snarl John let out in return was almost inhuman in its primal vehemence.
The creature lunged and John ducked out of its grasp, pulling his gun up to shoot. A swift and painful strike from one of those bulky arms knocked the gun from John’s arms with a resounding snap-crunch as bone was crushed. John barely had time to take stock before the C24 lashed out again, claw aiming for John’s injured arm.
His near instant healing allowed John to be able to raise his arms unhindered in a cross, blocking the creature’s strike and catching it off guard. With grace and speed, John gripped the arm and twisted, flipping the C24 onto its back. It roared in frustration as John expertly wrenched its arm out of the socket, giving it a kick to the head while he grappled for his gun.
The creature twisted, pulling its long arm out of John’s grasp. Just as it rolled to its feet, a dot of red erupted on its forehead. John squeezed off another shot, hitting squarely in the creature’s eye. It crumpled to the ground, landing heavily on John’s synthetic leg. He kicked the creature’s dead weight off him with his good leg. Shots of pain from his trapped leg stabbed like electric daggers into his flesh. Groaning, he stood. Giving one final shot where he judged the C24’s heart to be, John began the journey back to Dorian and their captives.
“John!” Dorian rushed to his partner’s side, throwing John’s arm over his shoulders and helping him back to the two men Dorian had secured to a nearby railing. “You need to let me check that,” he said, indicating John’s leg.
John gritted his teeth against the pain. “We deal with them first,” John declared, but otherwise made no argument. “How are our friends?”
“I had to set one of their arms and his leg. He has two broken ribs, as well, but nothing life-threatening. He’s currently unconscious. The other one is just bruised and scared.”
“Good. Get any information from them?”
“I was waiting for you,” Dorian answered.
That got one arching eyebrow from John- he knew Dorian wasn’t exactly a fan of his interview techniques, especially where InSyndicate was concerned. Despite his leg’s protestations, John crouched down in front of their captives. “Where’s Vaughn?” he asked calmly, his hazel eyes hardened more than his voice ever could be.
The question seemed to startle their conscious prisoner.
“Vaughn. Where is he?” he asked again, voice harder and more menacing than before.
John’s question was met with stubborn silence.
“No?” Forcing himself not to wince, John stood. “Get them up,” he instructed Dorian. “He can carry his friend.”
Once they were up and around, John led the way toward the nearest occupied enclosure, biting back the pain stabbing in his leg and channeling it into his anger and the task at hand. He stopped just out of the largest C24’s reach. Looking back to the other men, “Take him,” he said to Dorian, indicating their still unconscious companion.
As soon as the other captive was unencumbered, John grabbed him by the neck and pulled him next to him in front of the cage. “Now, we’re going to start easy- what’s your name?”
The man watched the creatures’ grabbing claws and quickly decided divulging their names wasn’t such a bad idea. “Alan. And that’s Sean,” he said on ragged breaths.
“There, that wasn’t so hard was it?” John tugged Alan away from the cage. “Ready for question two?” He didn’t wait for an answer, not that it would’ve mattered. “Where is Dr. Nigel Vaughn?”
Alan looked from John to the snarling C24s.
John dragged Alan by the scruff of his neck to stand just too close to the bars. “Vaughn,” he said in an eerily calm tone.
The largest C24 huffed and snarled against the bars, then lashed out at Alan- its deadly tongue shooting out as its claws grasped for its prey.
John’s speed and strength allowed him to yank Alan out of the creature’s reach and grab hold of the disembodied tongue before it did any damage.
Alan stared at John and the still writhing tongue in his hand. “H-how?” he stuttered out.
“How doesn’t matter- if I can do it again… now, that’s a good question.” He dropped the tongue and stomped on it. “I’ll make you a deal, Alan, you answer my questions and you won’t have to find out the answer to yours.”
Alan gulped, obviously scared, but still stubbornly silent.
“Have it your way,” John told him as he dragged him back toward the cage.
Struggling fruitlessly against John’s superior strength, Alan caved. “All right! All right!”
John jerked Alan out of the creature’s reach, glaring at him impatiently.
“When he’s not in the lab complex he’s at the compound.”
“Which is where, exactly?” John demanded.
“South. The old warehouse district.”
Alan shook his head in self-disgust at giving up the information. “The main complex is below the Mercer Industries building over by 68th.”
“Thank you,” John said, dripping disdain as he threw Alan down at Dorian’s feet. Then he turned his attention to the C24s, dispatching them quickly with twin shots to the head.
As John turned back to Dorian and their captives, the injured man- Sean, John recalled- groaned, returning to consciousness.
“Glad you could join us. Just in time, too.” John’s smile was just this side of manic with a side of menace and completely unnerving. “D, get the lock.”
Tell-tale lights flashed on Dorian’s face as he cracked the lock.
“Up,” John ordered.
Alan stood and helped Sean to his feet.
Gesturing toward the now open door with his weapon, John watched the pair hobble to the opening. “Welcome to your new home.”
Alan and Sean looked nervously at the other occupants, they may have been dead, but InSyndicate knew better than most what those things were capable of.
“Get in,” John urged none too gently.
Reluctantly the men climbed in- the door closing behind them with a disturbing clunk and click as the lock snapped into place and Dorian crushed the lock without a thought.
“You can’t just leave us here,” Sean protested.
“In fact we can,” Dorian said. “In here, you will be safe from your escaped C24s and the shots and your lack of communication will insure your comrades will come looking for you.”
John dug around one of their packs and pulled out a bottle of water, tossing it to the men through the bars. “Enjoy your stay,” he said in parting.
Once they were out of sight and earshot, John collapsed. Half an hour of fighting back the pain and weakness in his leg had taken its toll.
Dorian was on his knees next to John in an instant.
“How bad is it?” John asked breathlessly.
“I can handle the repairs, but we need to get you somewhere safe; it may take awhile.”
“Vaughn’s lab.” John winced as he spoke. “The tunnels underneath it. Doubt they’ll look there- for awhile anyway.”
Dorian considered it for a moment. It was close, not exactly defendable, but InSyndicate could only come at them from one direction; it also held the bonus that if Dorian needed anything to repair John’s leg it would be easily accessible. Though he didn’t think he’d need anything more than what Rudy had sent with them. “All right,” Dorian agreed.
“Okay,” John said as he tried to lever himself up.
Dorian grabbed John’s arm and helped him stand, taking most of John’s weight without giving him the option of pushing him off.
It took them another forty minutes to get back to the bunkers. They entered through Vaughn’s lab, where Dorian picked up a couple tools that would make his work easier and therefore faster.
Rocks and rubble blocked off the far end of the tunnel. Here and there larger fragments lay on the ground, giving John and Dorian places to sit and work away from the stagnant muck on the tunnel floor.
John winced, easing himself down onto a cement slab, mindful of the mangled rebars sticking out of it. Rubbing his thigh, he looked at Dorian with bitter resignation as he asked, “You’re gonna make me take it off, aren’t you?”
“It’ll be easier,” Dorian said apologetically. “It’ll hurt less.”
John snorted, but began unbuttoning his pants.
Soon Dorian had John’s leg laid out with the service panel open, intently repairing and rerouting the damaged circuits.
Dorian stopped his work, face lighting up in pale greens.
“Problem?” John asked.
“They found the dead C24.”
“Anything about us?”
“Then we’ve still got a little time. How much longer?” John asked with a nod toward his leg.
“Almost finished with the repairs, but it will need to charge.”
“We can charge it tonight,” John insisted.
“No, we can’t,” Dorian countered. “As it is you wouldn’t even make it back to the access point. Your leg needs to charge, John.”
John sighed, grudgingly accepting Dorian’s assessment. “How long will that take?”
“Assuming we don’t run into any more trouble- half hour should get us out of the zoo grounds, though it really needs longer.”
“How much longer?” John asked, his annoyance with the situation- his damned useless leg, InSyndicate, Vaughn, and the C24s- showing through.
“John,” Dorian said in a tone he knew from experience would soothe him.
Exhaling slowly, John offered Dorian a small smirk in thanks. “I want us to get out of here, get Vaughn, and get home. Now we know where Vaughn, and InSyndicate’s base, is, but soon enough they’re going to find those two idiots and they’ll spill their guts to their friends, who will put the base on high alert. We’ve got a small window to get this done. If we can get me mobile again that is.”
Dorian furrowed his brow at John. “You have a plan.”
“Part of one.”
“You planning on sharing?”
“You finish my leg, set the damn thing charging then go back up to the armoury, get some of those explosives, place them in the supply room and the armoury and Vaughn’s lab- after you grab the Synthetic Souls. Hopefully, InSyndicate will put their forces into dealing with the explosions. We hotfoot it to where Alan said their base was, find Vaughn and get out.”
“Finding their base even with our current information might not be that easy, let alone finding Vaughn.”
“This would be why it’s only part of a plan,” John answered sarcastically.
“It’s a good plan,” Dorian agreed as he closed up John’s leg and hooked it up to the charger- frowning slightly at how low its charge was. “At the least it will make it easier to get out of the park. If you’re right, we may even be able to breach the base perimeter.”
“Then we just have to find Vaughn.”
Dorian seemed to ignore John’s words, giving a dismissive nod, while all his attention was focused on the little black box set up on John’s leg.
“Everything okay over there? Jon asked with a furrowed brow, an uneasy feeling developing in his stomach as he watched his partner’s expression.
“It’s fine, John. It’s just this will deplete the last of the charger. We need to find a place to let it charge.”
Dorian didn’t need to say more than that for John to hear the ‘or else we’re screwed’ that hung in the air. “Let’s just hope we get lucky, then.” John pulled out his map, searching for the location Alan had given them. “Here,” he pointed to a set of buildings in the center of the city’s southern peninsula. “This whole area,” he indicated a large industrial park, “is Mercer Industries and this is the main building. If Alan was telling the truth, that’s where we’ll find InSyndicate.”
“We should be able to make it there in no more than three hours.” Dorian hesitated a moment before he spoke. “We should travel above ground as much as possible.”
John arched an eyebrow in question.
“I believe I can rig the charger to my pack so that it can get at least a partial charge as we go.”
“What was that?” John asked when barely visible green-blue lights flitted along Dorian’s cheek. He’d grown accustomed to most of Dorian’s disco lights and what they meant, but this one he couldn’t place.
Dorian smiled. “The ten minute warning on your leg. Here, hold this,” he said, unceremoniously dropping his pack in John’s lap.
Faster than even John’s acute eyes could follow, Dorian twisted, pulled, and snapped the top of the pack until there was a near perfect cradle just the size for their mad scientist’s solar charger. “We just have to hope they don’t start shooting at us.” Dorian smirked.
John rolled his eyes. “First- I was hoping to avoid that regardless. Second,” he shoved the pack back into Dorian’s arms with an almost playful scowl, “Murphy’s Law, D- look it up.”
Dorian rolled his eyes dramatically. “You’ll be ready to go when I get back?”
This time there was nothing playful about the scowl John gave Dorian. “I’m ready now except for one little problem.” He looked pointedly at his thigh.
“Drama queen,” Dorian shot over his shoulder as he headed off down the tunnel to complete his explosive objective.
John’s, “Asshole!” followed Dorian a few feet into the tunnel, and the android laughed and shook his head, smiling.