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"Oh, what-ever!" Jeff shoved his buddies as they grinned broadly at him, showing off pairs and three-of-a-kinds on the checkered black-and-white marble table. Sam had a couple of kings, Joel three jacks, Bill the other two kings (how coincidental was that!?), and Greg sported three beautiful capital 'A's. "Jeez! You guys are a royal pain in the butt!"
Greg chuckled. "Hey, it ain't over just yet, foo! Draw that last card. C'mon."
Jeff glanced down at his hand: a ten, a seven, a nine, a six, a five; all clubs. He hesitated, then laid the five face-down on the table. "Hit me."
Sam sneered and tossed him one off the top of the deck. "This better be good, Daniels." He retorted with a wry smile on his tanned, middle-aged face.
They all waited anxiously, the air in Gypsum's outfacing security office dead silent, crackling with static and the barely audible hum from the florescent lights overhead. Gingerly, Jeff Daniels reached for the card, his heavy-set frame causing the rolling chair he was seated in to creak a little. Monitors blinked, their images shifting sequentially between the various entrances, exits and angles of such their electronic surveillance warded. For a heart-stopping moment, all four security guards held their breath as Jeff's hand hovered over the face-down piece of compressed paper lying in front of him, Daniels' grinning eyes shifting in mock foreboding from one face to the other.
He put a finger on the card, three pairs of eyes locked on the small rectangle in expectation....
The room shook violently, sending stacks of paper, free chairs, surveillance monitors, the four security guards, their stack of cards and box of jelly-filled donuts to the floor. The table rolled over, and the ground beneath them rippled, se nding pieces of tile in disarray as a seismic ground wave tore the place up like a Feraligatr chomping through a rag pokedoll. An eerie, still silence immediately followed.
Joel Reeves groaned, pushing his ponderous body to its feet. "What the heck?!"
At the far end of the room, something fiddled with the room's door.
Greg Mitchell and Bill Gardner were also on their feet, Mitchell rubbing the back of his head, both men turning their attention to the room's entrance. They were drawing their sidearms.
Jeff was rummaging behind the table.
"Man, wha'thu 'ell ar' you doin'!?" Greg hissed at Daniels' fat butt. Jeff was bent over, searching the rubble.
When the handle on the door failed to give, something on the other side kicked it violently, hard enough to put a dent on the other side. It began to repeatedly assault the barrier.
Jeff looked up, tucked the playing cards he was still holding into his belt and, with a subtle quickness one might've not guessed so corpulent an individual possessed, he drew his magnum. "That better?" He grinned at his partners. They just rolled their eyes at him.
Greg scowled. "Man, wha'thu 'ell-!"
Jeff reached behind his back and withdrew his hand. He spread a royal flush, clubs six through ten. The other men stared at him in disbelief. Greg's eyes bulged. Daniels just winked.
They all suddenly realized Sam was missing. Behind them, a black man-sized hole gaped. They stared back, their expressions a mix of bewilderment and horror.
The door's frame heaved and gave way, the entire metal casing falling with an ominous crash. A couple of young, plastic-faced men marched lightly through, complexions displaying an odd smile. They were dressed in black assault attire, each with a massive automatic rifle slung over this shoulder. Elite droids, Jeff thought grimly. He lowered his weapon, motioning for his colleagues to do the same. The mechanized sentinels entered and then stood to the side, that ridiculous grin still on their smooth faces.
Through the broken door, a tall, slender man in a black suit stepped gingerly into the wrecked enclosure. His chestnut hair was swept back, his hands gloved in black, one of which held a large automatic pistol. He removed his black shades.
"Gentlemen." He nodded unhurriedly. "You're all okay, I hope?" His hazel eyes swept the room, coming to rest on the four security personnel.
Mitchell grunted irritably, but he looked slightly relieved. "Yeah, shu' Glade. Wh'thu 'ell's goin' on?"
Agent Glade Forbes shook his head, still surveying the wreckage as he casually moved further into the room. "I don't know, Mitchell." For such a large man, Glade was rather soft-spoken, his voice low and even, which meant you had to be quiet to hear him right. "I need all of you to go with me, please," he continued, "We don't have much time."
That didn't sound right.
Jeff's eyebrow arched. "Go? Where?"
"Away from here, gentlemen--fast."
Joel shifted uneasily. "Why?"
Glade's answer sent odd chills up their spines. "The Shadow is coming," he stated simply, "It has already breached this outlying perimeter and its emissaries are coming." He paused to listen, though for what the four other men could only guess. "We must head into Gypsum's interior. Now." The Elite agent turned to leave, android escort in tow.
Greg was obstinate. "The Shadow !? What the fu-!"
He never finished.
The ground beneath them quivered and then broke in a shower of dirt and concrete. Greg spewed a string of curses as the floor gave way and he fell through the gaping hole as it widened in the busted up floor. Jeff and the others shot as one panicked entity for the door. From the hole, a low, guttural growl rumbled forth, followed by a pierc ing, human scream.
"Oh SHIT!" Jeff howled, and urged his ponderous bulk to move faster. His eyes were wide with sheer terror. Something had got Greg!
Glade was already through the door, frantically gesturing for the men in the room to follow (as if they needed any further encouragement). The two droids had their automatic rifles aimed at the hole, as did the Elite agent his weapon. The remaining security guards struggled to get past one another in their desperate rush to escape whatever horror was besieging them.
The floor suddenly fissured, sending a sickening crack along the length of the room from its newly made manhole. A wave of heat escaped the stretch of newly broken ground. Glade cried out in warning, though he instinctively knew it was too late. The Elite agent watched in numb, helpless horror as the remaining floor collapsed into a yawning pit of dark, crimson fire. Teeth clenched with building rage, Glade turned to flee as Jeff Daniels and his colleague's dying cries rose from the room and echoed down the adjacent corridor and along the gray-stoned hallway.
Before he ran, he barked an order to the two droids beside him. "Forty, Seventy-nine! Kill that thing!"
"Phillips, we're under attack!"
Gypsum's Command center was immediately a hive of frantic activity as Forbes' raspy voice crackled over the intercom. Agents ran in all directions, their suited forms weaving in and out of the control room on a multitude of urgent errands. Many reappeared, carrying heavy firearms. Despite the sudden burst of motion, everyone maintained their efficiency, each knowing exactly what he or she was supposed to do. But the Elite were grim, their faces a mask of emotionless resolve.
Elite Commander Hawk Phillips gazed detachedly at the control center's large, central display screen. He knew what was happening. A map of Gypsum was on the monitor. From the structure's perimeter, and moving steadily inward, hundreds of red spots were making their way into the fortress's interior. The crimson apparitions varied in size and shape, some large and angular, others just pinpricks. These smaller ones congregated at the various entry points on the map, heaving their mass about their doors, challenging the barriers' integrity. The superficial obstructions gave way before their assault; the heavier ones fell when the larger forms met them, laser-green traces shooting from their jagged forms.
Mystics' witch fire. Shadow Druids and Shadow Swarm.
Hawk clenched his fists. Some of Gypsum's automated defenses weren't responding, and of those that were, only a precious few were enough to even slow the oncoming invaders, much less stop them. A former commanding officer in the SEALs, he was about ready to explode, his driving personality demanding he do something about the situation at hand, before it got out of his control. The problem, of course, he knew, was that it already was out of his control. He shook his white head. The number of assailants were increasing, steadily. The count of invading beings was at 205 and rising by about five or six every eleven seconds, and they weren't slowing.
Damn it! Yes, he knew what was going on. They were about to make a very desperate last stand.
He adjusted the mic on his lapel.
"Johnson!" he boomed into the piece.
"Sir!" A woman's voice crackled through.
"Send in the mobile destroyer units! The system's been breached!"
"About time, sir! Shall I send in the SEE divisions or-"
"Send them all in, Johnson!" Hawk roared. "And then mobilize every agent we have. Have Vegas, Jade and Stilt's divisions hold the artifacts on all levels; I want Kramer and Mitch's groups to hold the command center. The rest of you, get the hell out of here!"
There was a pause on the line. "Yes sir."
"Before you go, initiate our computer's self-destruct sequence. I don't want any data going to those occult fanatics."
"Yes sir. That will blow the lights, though."
"And everything else connected to system. Can't be helped. One more thing, Johnson,"
"Tell Muhammad to bring me a gun."
Stunned silence ensued. "Hawk, no!" Amy Johnson's insistent voice broke through.
Commander Hawk Phillips chuckled. "What? You didn't think I'd just leave my men here by themselves now, did you?"
Another pause, broken by a resigned sigh. "It's over, isn't it."
Hawk stared out over the Elite facilities he'd been entrusted with. He wanted to believe they'd make it--desperately wanted to believe that--but something deep inside him grimly said otherwise. The tactics at play here were too decisive, too precise. The Elite had been taken completely by surprise. He knew what The Shadow did. Death only aided their cause, even the death of their own. He shook his head. "I want to say otherwise, Johnson," his attention again returned to the intercom device on his suit lapel, "who knows, maybe it'll turn out alright. But I don't think that will be happening here. This is too much. All they need is to take a few of us, and a then a few more, and then it's over. We're finished." He shivered. "Technology won't help us much against demons and undead."
"I'll inform Ferdinand, Commander. We'll miss you."
"Don't get sentimental on me, Johnson. Send an SOS to Elite HQ. They'll know where to look for our bodies."
"Just do us a favor, " Johnson's voice was fierce, "before they take you, put a bullet through your head!"
Hawk nodded gravely, knowingly. "Yeah," he clenched his fists, "you better believe I will!"
He disengaged the mic and laid its components on a chair beside him. Hawk's heart pounded with growing anticipation, adrenaline flooding through his veins. It'd been a while since he'd had a real good fight with The Shadow. He extended his hand as a large, Arabian man in his late twenties marched to his side, a pair of massive assault rifles slung over his shoulders. "Thank you, Muhammad." Hawk took the gun as it was handed to him.
The dark-skinned agent saluted in reply, chambering a round in his own rifle. "So, The Shadow dares to challenge The Elite."
Hawk nodded, adjusting his visual receptor's inferred targeting system. "You'll stand with me then?"
Mohammed's broad, almost roguish smile spread a line of brilliant white across his deeply tanned complexion. "I'd have no greater honor."
Behind his dark shades, the Elite Commander's eyes burned. "Alright then! Time to open us up a can of whoop-ass!"
Both men marched down the stairs, jaws set, mind and body hardening themselves against the coming storm. They joined a force of other agents already gathered below--fifty strong. Dark shades lifted to attention, black gloved hands issuing a quick salute. Their assortment of overpowering weaponry glinted in the command center's monitor-screen light. They dispersed across the enclosure, guns sites aimed at every entrance in the room. All the other personnel had left. The room fell into silence.
Glade sped down the corridor, the rattle of automatic gunfire echoing off the walls from behind him. Another tremor jolted the ground floor, almost sending the Elite agent off his feet. He caught himself and continued on. The sound of machinegun fire had dissipated, but something told him it wasn't because the intruder had been eliminated. He clenched his teeth. Willing himself to go faster, he ran on.
Ahead, the passage broadened into a large enclosure. Several passage ways led off in a myriad of directions. He paused, listened and then made a dash for a door on his right. It took him along another short corridor then it abruptly tilted upward, running at a steep slant up a metal stair case. His footwear clanked ominously on the hard su rface, sending distasteful echoes up and down the passage. Sweat poured across his brow.
At the top, he again stopped to listen. All was silent, his enhanced audio receptors picking out only noises in the far distance, mostly from behind. Nevertheless, he again drew his firearm. The gun clicked as he chambered the first round.
Two doors loomed ahead, on a platform, connected only to his landing by a narrow steel bridge. It was a good fifty feet out, and there was railing on only one side. He leapt onto it and began to run again, making the treacherous crossing without even stopping to check his balance. On the other side, he immediately kicked in the door on his right, then lightly shoved the door on his left open, closed it behind him and dashed ahead. Two yards in, he met another door and pressed his hand against it. Red laser scanned it and then the door released, swinging open of its own accord. He darted through, slamming the door shut behind him and manually throwing the bolts into place. It was only a small barrier, nothing Swarm couldn't take care of, but it would gain him a little time. He was in a large, well-lit hallway, with one end of the passage running down to his left and the other his right. He turned to his left and took a few paces. He stopped dead in his tracks.
Fifty yards away, blocking his intended flight path, a large, nightmare of pure black stood on its backward-bent legs, a jagged, toothy grin on its dark face. It had a mane of jutting, bright yellow hair that suck out in a distressed radius from its thick neck--like its owner had shoved his finger in a light socket. Glowing, amber eyes narrowed, regarding the Elite with undisguised hunger and hatred. Massive claws extended from oversized forearms. As it began to approach, electricity crackled to life across its massive arms. It growled, low and deep. The walls rattled.
Glade held his gun at his hip and fired. Without looking to see if he'd hit his mark, he bolted in the other direction. A high-pitched scream of rage (and hopefully, mortal agony) echoed after him. He glance down his new line of escape and came to a skidding halt. His heart nearly skipped a beat.
Another black creature waited for him, its blue-frilled mane and glowing azure eyes flickering in anticipation. Acid drooled form its gaping jaws, fizzling on the floor.
On the verge of panic, Glade spun around, falling to one knee as he took aim. It unwittingly gained him a few moments more to live. A jagged bolt of electricity seared the air over his head, missing him by inches. Unfortunately, the close proximity also caused a slight interference with the implants in his head, and for a fraction of a second, he was paralyzed.
It was enough. Another bolt flashed into existence, blaring fro m the yellow-manned chimera and lancing him through the chest. Glade was thrown back, his body smoking, his mechanical implants going haywire. As he struggled violently to control his convulsing body, an intense flood of seawater engulfed his writhing frame. He screamed as the elements combined, frying his body to a smoldering crisp.
Mercifully, his weapon somehow managed to discharge, sending a slug through his failing head. He died before the demons that tore his body could also harvest his soul.
None of the Elite met the enemy with any better luck that night. The android armies were somehow cut to pieces before their hyper mechanized systems could detect their opponents (performance the Elite engineers were not going to be happy about). They fell before The Shadow, their blasted limbs littering the halls and narrow corridors of Gypsum's intermediate defensive perimeter. Black-robed apparitions glided, unhindered through the outer defenses, penetrating into the Elite fortress's middle barricade. Hundreds of lithe, winged creatures flitted through after the Shadow Druids. The Swarm. They laid waste to anything the black specters missed or intentionally left them. When they met a living creature, a stray Elite or fleeing security guard from the outermost line of defense, they converged upon it, digging their grotesque claws into the victims' bodies, their dark magic draining away their soul. Soon, a small procession of walking dead followed, their eyes glazed over, dead limbs and gored flesh hanging from their stiff, haunting frames.
The Druids and their demon host met the first stand of Elite agents in the room containing artifacts from ancient Greece and Thebes. The equally dark cyborg-human hybrids dispatched the first line of Druids and Swarm almost before they knew to think better. For a while, the two parties exchanged fire, glowing shards of metal criss-crossing with emerald witch fire. Bodies from both sides fell all over the place, the stench of blood and burning flesh filling the enclosure. Somehow, a Shadow Druid and his company of Swarm flanked the Elite defense and it fell. Most of the Elite ignited self-destruct sequences in their implanted systems, dying but taking many with them. Still, the army of walking dead grew and passed into the next room and then the next. Each time, dark robed figures and screaming Swarm were cut to shreds before the onslaught of flying steel, but always, the Elite's holds were breached. Their own, former comrades fell upon them, clamping virus-ridden jaws on their corpses, infecting their dead bodies with dark magic. In truth, the dead ex-Elite were the hardest to destroy. Only decapitation silenced them permanently, and the Elite had to get passed the Swarm and Shadow Druids to do that. What was worse, the walking dead still remembered how to fight.
Cases of priceless artifacts were reduced to smoldering heaps of ash or piles of rubble. Some items were seized, but almost everything was laid completely to waste. Blood and guts were strewn about everywhere. The dead continued to die, only to rise again, their blasted limbs reassembling in random combinations. Room by room, the first floor fell, then the second. The hellspawn advanced, the zombie army grew. The lights extinguish ed themselves. The air vents cut off. Doors shut and could not be opened again by their handles or scanners. The Elite held their ground and died. Some of them were caught alive. The screams of stolen souls echoed down the bloodied hallways.
The Elite command center was the last point of resistance to fall. Commander Hawk Phillips and his company held the Swarm at bay and reduced the witch-fire druids to pulp, only to have them come back, harder than ever. Then their subverted colleagues converged upon them. Before they were taken, Hawk and Muhammad saluted each other and ceremoniously put a slug through the other's cranium. Their headless corpses were completely useless to The Shadow, and their souls were beyond its grasp.
The ground heaved and exploded, sending debris, hellspawn and undead everywhere. Three dark creatures emerged from the smoking earth, their elemental signatures glowing behind serrated rows of unholy, malicious glee. Swarm, Shadow Druid and undead Elite stood by as the servants of the Shadow's Catalyst advanced into the center of the room. Before them, the Elite command center's main suspension screens hung from their supporting pillar. The ground again quaked as fire, water, and lightning blasted from under the structure . It blew up in a ball of fire and light and imploded, sinking into the concrete foundation. A gigantic, gaping black hole was all that was left of it. The three nightmarish creatures leapt into the smoldering pit and disappeared from sight.
They descended for several hundred feet, free-falling. They hit the bottom hard, leaving craters behind as their charcoal forms slammed into bedrock. They cast about for a moment before sensing the passage. Elements blasted the portal doors off their hinges and into the room beyond. Amber light radiated forth from within, a hallowed presence in the mist of desecration. This did not last long either. Screaming in rage, the three monstrous beings crashed into the enclosure and quickly dispatched the crystal sphere hanging suspended in the air as it rotated slowly, like a golden disco ball levitating in the high ceiling. It exploded into a million dying embers of glowing yellow light. They winked once and then evaporated.
On a rise of black stone, a long table of glittering white crystal stretched wide, almost the room's width. The entire room sparkled eerily in the light given by the chimera beings, reflecting off gold and silver-veined walls. Blades pointed downward, inserted in the table, seven gleaming swords of jewel-encrusted gold glowed with a ghostly light of their own. Ancient letters from a language long forgotten were inscribed on their polished surfaces. The characters glowed with a deep, crimson fire that seemed trapped just beneath the blades' last layer of amber metal. The swords sported neither cross-guard nor sheath. Only handles and naked blades, like gigantic quarter-moon shaped kriss, forged as from a single piece of gold. The Dreadfire Crescents began to emit a low, warning hum.
Silently, the three chimera beings surrounded the table, one in the center, the other two on each corner. Grotesque heads jutted forward, massive jaws spread wide. Acid drooled from between serrated fangs, the rows of white toothpicks glinting wickedly in the g rowing pale light. Suddenly, the embedded blades quivered and jerked free of the crystalline table. The sound of sliding metal resonated through the chamber. Their wickedly curved blades hovered in midair, tips up, razor edges facing the three demons. Emerald fire traced its way along their gleaming surfaces as the Dreadfire Crescents drew themselves back, ready to strike.
A thick, emerald mist spewed from the demons' gaping, razor-filled mouths. It exploded silently forth, shrouding the chamber in haze and twilight. The flying swords disappeared within the fog. When the green mists cleared, only the black slab and the elemental chimera remained.
* * *
Ash's eyelids flipped open. Had me been asleep? He stretched his legs. They were stiff. Grimacing distastefully, he glanced cautiously about. How many times did he have to tell himself, Never let your guard down in a place like this! Never!! His body met resistance from a pair of criss-crossing straps that held him securely in his seat. He was still in The Elites' plane, he realized; still very much in harm's way.
He lay back for a moment, letting his fatigued brain come fully awake. The events of a few hours past flashed across the screen of his mind's eye. After loading their van on Carlos and Griffin's stealth craft, they'd boarded, strapped themselves into their seats and taken off again. As far as he could tell, that's exactly where they still were. In the dimly lit passenger compartment, he could make out the fuzzy shapes of seats with people in them. Brock, he knew, was in the flight chair directly on his right, and Pikachu, he could tell, was still curled up in his lap. They both snored lightly.
Damn it! Didn't SOMEBODY have the mind to stay awake!? His mental outburst was immediately gratified. To his left, across a small isle running down the room\rquote s middle, Samurai sat up straight in his seat, flight straps loosened enough to allow him to do so. He had his sword drawn, its blade point resting on the floor, his hands placed firmly about the katana's hilt. He glanced at Ash, giving him a brief nod of recognition. Ash remembered Shoto had fallen sound asleep the minute they'd seated themselves, as did Giselle, Misty and April (and the little girl's Pichu). Duplica, it seemed, was already so. He and Brock had determined to remain awake, standing guard against whatever other misfortunes might still befall them all. "And I just went asleep!" Ash mentally kicked himself for the third time. Samurai must've known as much, had probably hit the sack early for that purpose, ready to awake when Ash and Brock's determined vigil finally failed.
Ash glanced over again. "Morning, Sammy!" He quipped in a harsh whisper, "Hey, how long've you been awake?"
Samurai wrinkled his nose. "You dishonor me at every turn, Ketchum." He smiled ruefully, "I've stood guard for the better part of two hours."Two hours!? Now he was really pissed with himself. "Thanks." He returned curtly, through clenched teeth.
"Don't be harsh with yourself, Ashura," Samurai offered, "You were tired. We all were. You needed the rest."
Ash huffed, unconvinced. "With you left to guard my sorry ass? Screw that. I'd rather be dead!"
Samurai shrugged. "Would you rather have it that I slept as well? With no one to watch our backs?"
"You didn't have to, you know. Not for us, anyway." His brow furrowed. Looking past Samurai, he noticed Giselle was also awake. He shook his head in dismay. They'd both been on watch. "Why do you guys even care?"
Samurai scratched his chin for a moment. "Ashura, I will be honest with you," he stated presently, "You are no friend of mine, and I no friend of yours, but I do not think it is because either of us has really wished it to be that way." His face turned in the twilight, sharp eyes alert and seeking. "You are a shame to me, and I a nuisance to you. We are rivals, each of us trying to outdo the other, to prove ourselves more honorable or more proficient. The only reason we don't cut each other down here and now is because no matter how much we feel we hate the other, we also know we're hopelessly stuck on the same team." He averted his gaze, eyes locked on some unseen image from his own mind. "Do you know I was devastated when you defeated me, Ashura? Back in Viridian, when we were both mere pups at play? I see now that it was my own arrogance that led me to that end. I was wrong. Yet the sting of that defeat stays ever with me, and that part of me feels it will never be redeemed until I somehow prove myself to be the better man. I choose to ignore my ego because I know it will only destroy me, but I cannot escape it."
Ash felt a slight pang of guilt. He hated to admit it, but He could identify. "Oh, come on Sammy-boy!" Ash grinned good-naturedly, "No need to get melodramatic. Jeez! I can't even begin to count the times you've taken a case Brock and I had planned to work on. I'll be the first to admit, you're a good 'odd-jobber' yourself. Damn good, I should say. Hell, I swear, every criminal ring in Kanto's scared shitless of you!" Why am I doing this? I should be rubbing this arrogant snob's face in the mud! But Ash continued. "Yeah, I hear what you're saying. We're on the same team, after all--more or less. Jeez! Don't be so depressing! A little competition doesn't hurt!"
"It has been no 'little competition' to me." Samurai retorted. He sighed, letting his hands and sword handle fall into his lap. "I appreciate your appraisal, Ashura. I will say the same of you and Mr. Stone. I cannot lie. You are both superb at what you do. But the fact is, no matter how hard I try to dismiss it, I cannot shake the pervading bitterness that I have harbored against you. I didn't realize how strong it was until now, when I'm forced into such close proximity with the one whose skill and prowess I have envied for so long and sought to better." Samurai let his head fall back into his seat.
Ash almost reeled in shock as single tear rolled across the hard man's stony face.
Samurai let the droplet fall. "I have been thinking through all this for a very long time now," he breathed, his voice a shallow whisper in the dark silence, "and I still cannot come to terms with myself on it."
Ash looked at the man seated across the small isle from him. "Why are you telling me all this?"
Samurai smiled satirically. "I do not know. Ironic, don't you think; that of all people, I should be telling this to you." He shook his head. "But I thank you for hearing me. Perhaps I simply needed to release some of the pain. Who can say. Maybe this will change things. Maybe open confession will succeed where determined resentment has apparently failed."
Samurai's eyes closed. A few minutes later, he was sound asleep.
Ash looked up. His eyes met Giselle's. There was a puzzled expression on her smooth face. She looked away.
"I never knew he felt like that." She stated finally.
Ash turned to stare at the seat in front of him. "Yeah..." This is crazy! "...Neither did I."
The Elite joy-ride from hell (or into hell, depending on which way you saw it) ended about half an hour later. The Swellow Escort's engines resigned themselves to a barely perceptible hum as something from outside steadily pulled it forward. Instinctively, Ash's hand fell to the inside of his assault vest. He and Brock had changed on the way over, and they were once again clad in more comfortable attire. They'd also made a general assessment of their equipment. They'd lost a rifle, an assault helmet, the remainder of their van's smoke grenades, and several rounds of rubber bullets. Considering how things had gone of course, they decided they were lucky enough to come away with even that. They'd reloaded their weapons, donned a few more, and headed up to take their seats with the others. And wait.
Ash drew his Beretta and inspected it. It wasn't nearly as big as Brock's Super Eagle, and it only held standard ammunition. Brock's was a freakin' mag, or a mini sawed-off shotgun! Nevertheless, he'd taken care to outfit it with all the upgrades he could. He patted his vest-full of replacement clips, and then made a run of his entire body, making sure all his other dangerous playthings were in their place and properly concealed. Satisfied, he replaced his main firearm and returned his attention to the world about him. He wasn't sure, but he thought he heard the faint clang of metal, hollow and echoing from multiple sources. A docking bay? He nodded to himself. Considering they were in a flying contraption of some sort, probably so. He carefully unstrapped himself, nudging Pikachu as he did.
"Hey, buddy," He encouraged softly, "time to wake up."
"Pika?" The yellow Pokémon stretched and yawned, then bounced lightly off Ash's lap. "Pika-pikachu!"
"Good morning to you, too!" Ash stroked his partner's elongated ears. "Hey, wake that lazy bolder over there for me, will ya?" He grinned, gesturing at Brock."Er? Who ya callin' lazy?" Ash turned to find Brock, fully awake, out of his seat, arms crossed as he leaned casually on the seats in front of his. "Heh. Thought I was out cold, didn't ya?"
"With all that we've been through, 'ol buddy, I'm surprised we're even alive!" He extended his hand to the other. "This is it, Brock Stone. Now we'll find out what all this crap's really about."
"Well, Ashura Ketchum, this crap better be better than the last batch of crap I had," he quipped, running with Ash as they went through the motions of their exclusive handshake. "'Cause the last batch of crap I had wasn't particularly all that good." He finished their crossed-guns salute. "Speaking of crap, I think I need to go make some myself. Care to direct me to the nearest men's bakery?"
Ash pointed at Brock's vacant chair. "Just shove it down the crack in the back!"
A flurry of crimson and peach erupted next to him.
"Ash Ketchum, that is the most disgusting thing I've ever heard you suggest!"
"Ah! Good," Ash turned to face Misty as she perched her elbows over the top of her seat in front of him, "You're awake. Sleep well?" He regarded her still-haggard appearance.
Misty's smile was full of bitter irony. "Like someone shoved a plank up my butt." She tried unsuccessfully to straightened the remainder of her tattered dress. "Lucky you thought to bring your real clothes!"
"Hey, if you don't like what you've got, just take it off."
Misty's face turned several shades of crimson. "Ash! Don't make me hurt you!"
Ash looked about innocently. "What? I did." He ran a hand through his jutting black hair. "'Course, those dudettes down at 'jackass-wear depot' aren't going to be too happy." He chuckled, "Not much of a loss, though. Looked like a freakin' idiot anyway. Good riddance."
"I disagree. You look very becoming in a suit. And like I said before, I didn't bring anything else to wear."
"Fine. Just stand there and screw with me."
"No thanks. Last time I did that, it didn't exactly go over too well."
Misty crossed her arms. Now she looked genuinely pissed. "Very funny, Ash."
Brock broke in. "So, I guess we're just about here, guys. Any idea what we're going to do?"
"Same thing we always do, Binkie," Ash drew his semi-auto and chambered a round, "Try to take over the world!"
Brock grinned, pulling out a pair of twelve-round .50 magnum revolvers (very big handguns!). "I say we start ourselves a new line of work. Like blowing the hell out of fancy glass ballrooms!"
Ash whipped out another semi-auto. "Putting free metal implants in the heads of deserving thugs!"
"Shoving balls of rice up their nostrils!"
"Buckshot down their adulterous throats!"
"Scrambled eggs in their eardrums!"
"Vienna sausages up their butts!"
Brock and Ash crossed firearms.
"God bless America!"
"Long live the Queen!"
Misty just stared blankly at them. "....Huh??"
Ash grinned. "One small step from man..." he continued.
Brock snickered, "One last step for cockroach-kind!"
Misty rolled her eyes. "Seriously, please! Anybody at all have a good idea how we're supposed to survive the next few hours?"
"Sure." Ash holstered his weapons, assuming a nonchalant demeanor. "We stick together and try to stay alive."
Misty frowned. "That's not very reassuring."
"Well, it's about all we've got," Brock piped in, "There's still a lot we don't know about this whole business."
"Right," Ash finished the thought, "Until we know more, there reality isn't a whole lot else we can do."
Misty sighed wearily. "Wonderful. In other words, we'll just mosey on along until it's too late to turn around."
Ash rolled his eyes. "Yeah, probably." He cursed. "Man, why can't we ever seem to sort through this? The minute we finish processing one thing, something else rolls in to take its place. This whole business is still just a bunch of friggin' senseless bullcrap!"
"I'll second that opinion." Brock piped.
"I'll third it." Misty quipped.
"Like a nightmare from hell." Ash concluded dryly.
"Like the song that never ends!" Brock grinned.
Ash gave him a withering glance. "Don't you even think about singing that obnoxious song!"
Misty sighed again. "We're getting nowhere, are we?"
"Not that we were going anywhere to begin with." Brock observed dryly.
"Still," Ash mused, "Some solid answers would be nice right now."
Brock stared for a moment at the black object adorning his right hand's middle finger. Its crimson jewel stared back. While loading their vehicle, he'd briefly related his duel with Griffin to Ash. The latter was about to dismiss him when he\rquote d shown him the dark Elite insignia ring--that and the bruises to his chest and shoulder. Even then, his tale seemed questionable. And what was worse, it didn\rquote t resolve any thing for them. At best, the fight had only suggested that they might really be dealing with forces completely out of their league. Brock thought back to that battle; Griffin dodging his well-aimed shots, moving around them like liquid silver. Damn! What I'd give to be able to fight like that!
"Yeah...answers," Brock thought aloud, "Like the ones we've got aren't good enough already!"
"Well they aren't!" Ash retorted.
Misty whirled around; Ash and Brock's heads jerked up. Five handguns flashed and steadied, sites aimed at the new speaker.
Ferdinand Carlos casually held his hands up. "You're certainly a skittish bunch." His brow furrowed. At the same time, an upward tilt to the side of his mouth suggested amusement.
Ash snorted indignantly. "Didn't someone ever tell you eavesdropping is rude?"
Carlos shrugged and lowered his hands. "Of course," He smiled pleasantly, "But as an Elite, you'll learn to do it very well. Espionage is, more or less, simply eavesdropping perfected to a fine art."
Wonderful. That changes precisely nothing." Ash growled. Grudgingly, he lowered his weapons. "Are we about ready to get off this oversized buzzard?"
Carlos ignored the other's rudeness and simply nodded. "We are indeed, Mr. Ketchum. And are you ready to learn the finer details of your mission?"
"Ready as I am to shove a stick up my nose." He retorted irritably. "Let's just get this over with."
"Very well. Wake the others, then follow me."
"No need for that." Samurai's voice announced the short warrior's presence from the pair of seats on Ash and Brock's left. He and Giselle were already unstrapped and standing in the isle. Samurai was turned sideways, his sword arm leading, weapon drawn. Giselle looked like an Arbok about to strike. Apparently, Carlos' entrance had made them jump, too.
But then again, wouldn't he have seen them? He'd kept his gaze on Ash, Misty and Brock, but to think he'd actually miss furtive movement from just across the way seemed unlikely. Ash's frown deepened. This man was pulling responses out of them.
Carlos surveyed the scene for a moment (superficially, Ash thought darkly to himself). "Mimique?"
"Still here, Firdy." Duplica's sensuous frame materialized in the seat directly in front of Samurai and Giselle's.
"Excellent," Carlos stated simply, not the least bit surprised. He glanced at Misty's daughter. The girl was staring vacantly at him. She'd probably been awakened by the commotion and was still wondering what had happened. "Ms. Waterflower, if you will take your daughter, we'll be moving on." He turned to face Ash and Brock. "Your van has been parked in one of our facility's garages. It will be safe and you may return to it whenever you like." He tossed a dark ring with a piece of paper rolled inside it to Ash. "The map will tell you where to find it. The ring will allow you to open the garage door's locks," he turned toward Brock, "as will yours." He clapped his hands together. "Ladies, gentlemen, I welcome you aboard The USS Nautilus, Main Elite Battle Cruiser and Mobile Base." He turned. "Brace yourselves."
Above them, the ceiling to their dark little passenger compartment split, its halves sliding silently out to each side. Light and noise instantly flooded the room as the floor beneath them began to rise.
They emerged through the opening, shafts of yellow pouring down about them as they crouched and held onto or sat in their seats. Slowly, the glare became less, and they found themselves in an enormous, high-domed docking bay full of Elite craft. Some were like theirs, though most were smaller, single and double-man machines that sped to and fro and in and out of the massive air dock. Hundreds of Elite droids and other automated equipment were busy at work, operating the various sequences of landing and coming in. Several tall, long-legged machines moved about the bay, large cannons and shield generators housed in their smooth framework. About a dozen or so heavily armed androids sporting body armor that looked like something out of anime sci-fi marched behind these automated sentinels. And scattered throughout the grounds below the air-docking network, large, heavy mechs made their way along the outside perimeter, just behind a defense line of cannons, and surface-to-air, hellfire, and cruise missile launchers. The firepower displayed in this section of the Nautilus alone was impressive.
On all levels, several dozen Elite agents themselves moved about purposefully, some in tight flight-wear and dark combat attire, others wearing crisp, coal-black suits. The pilots marched briskly from their craft, briefly seeing the androids to their inspection and then pulling out GPS, intercom, and other gadgets, making their reports and filling out their logs. Battle-ready Elite marched in companies to and from airships, boarding and un-boarding, their massive weaponry glistening dully in the artificial light. The suited Elite held out in several strategic locations across the bay, reporting regularly, fingers pressed against their ears as they spoke to unseen supervisors over unseen intercoms.
Behind them all, the night sky stretched away. Ash and company could just make out the horizon line, a distant curve overshadowed by a star-filled canopy stretched overhead. Surrounded by enormous machinery, hundreds of Elite agents, their droids and being in that massive air dock filled with craft that looked like standard Lockheed stealth-plane technology crossed with Star Wars--with the infinite night sky stretching from horizon to horizon, made them feel terribly small. For the first time, perhaps, it began to dawn on them that not only was The Elite real, it was powerful.
Ash felt a little silly with his small arsenal of minute handguns. If he had to fight with these things, he knew he was good as finished. The image of Samurai committing ritual suicide rather than lose (and be dishonored) flashed across his mind. He swallowed the lump in his throat. Not a bad idea!
Presently, a flying limousine (for lack of a better description of the floating, wheel-less car) pulled up to their platform. The doors swung down, making narrow gangplanks for boarding. With a nod from Carlos, Ash, Samurai and Brock took the initiative, marching boldly across and seating themselves on the plush, black lavender benches within. They nodded approvingly, motioning for the others to follow.
Samurai took Giselle's hand as she boarded the narrow walk; Ash and Brock stepped aside for Misty and Duplica to pass. April came last, hoping lightly after her mother, Pikachu and Zapper in tow. Her eyes were wide with excitement as she gazed in awe around her, soaking in the experience. Ash shook his head, a wry smile crossing his angular face. At least somebodys enjoying this, he thought bitterly.
The door-planks swung shut. From the driver's seat, a female Elite with lustrous blond hair, pulled in a neat ponytail, turned in her seat to peer back into the passenger section. Pushing her shades up to her brow, she smiled brightly, "Please buckle your seatbelts, boys and girls," one of her playful blue eyes winked as she added with a mischievous grin, "this could be a rather harrowing ride!"
From the back, Clay Griffin retorted dryly. "No extracurricular excursions, Rhydmie. Pick up Carlos and drop us off." Apparently, he'd hailed a ride while Carlos docked the Swellow.
"Okee-dokee," their gorgeous chauffeur replied lightly, putting the elongated flying car into gear. Her dazzling smile never diminished as she returned herself to the car's steering controls. Ash immediately looked over at Brock. Sure enough, the rock trainer's eyes were glazed over in bright red hearts, an elated smile on his tanned face. It was all Ash could do to keep himself from groaning out loud. He elbowed Brock hard in the ribs.
Brock quickly snapped out of his adoring trance. Nevertheless, he felt relieved when Carlos joined them in the passenger cabin, as oppose to sitting by the blond Elite (odd name, he thought to himself, Ride-me?). He couldn't help a roguish grin. Suddenly, becoming part of this dark organization didn't seem half so bad--and with Rhydmie's whimsical attitude as evidence, maybe The Elite weren't really so dark?....
From there, they flew swiftly across the vast docking bay, finally pulling up next to a large platform extending several hundred feet from the large entrance portal it came from, hanging into thin air. A veritable fleet of flying limousines docked on this and a dozen or so other copies of the same structure. When they exited, they were escorted by a small patrol of armored Elite androids through the portal and into the ship's interior.
After passing down a long steel-walled tunnel, their escorts left, going back the way they'd come. Carlos led them through the crowd of other coming and going Elite, through a series of detectors, and into the space beyond. They emerged into an enormous lobby, several rows of elevators running the entire perimeter. This part of the Nautilus deviated greatly from the next generation look of the docking bay and entrance port. The lobby looked like it belonged to a large, high-class hotel. Black granite floors and pillars contrasted nicely with white marble walls and silver trim. The aluminum elevator doors had digital level indicators above them, and a smiling, plastic-faced Elite android bellhop waited beside each one. The information desk ran in two crescents, joined at the tips, forming an oval structure in the middle of this spacious room filled with white walls and cloudy-silver elevators. Carlos led them to one, nodded to the perpetually smiling android, and when the doors opened, he motioned them inside.
The elevator barely seemed to move--or maybe it moved so fast, no one noticed it? Either way, about a second later, the floors' count had jumped from 1-GL (GL meant ground level, Ash assumed) to 20-GL. The back wall opened and slid back. Ash jumped back from his perch in surprise. The elevators were two-sided.
They marched briskly through the door and out into the hallway beyond. The aluminum doors slid silently shut behind them. Carlos and Griffin took them down the short stretch into a longer, broader hallway that seemed to run along the curved perimeter of the ship's interior. They passed several other Elite going in the other direction. They exchanged brief nods and verbal greetings with Carlos, Griffin and sometimes Leslie Rhydmie (who'd accompanied them) as they moved by, and glanced quizzically at the group they led.
The small procession passed several small deviating hallways before Carlos at last led them down one. It stretched away for a good fifty yards or so. Its walls were of polished glass, with no doors or other intrusive breaks of additions of any kind in its smooth surface. A pale blue light radiated from within the clear barrier.
Ash glanced uneasily about as he marched mechanically down the hallway, almost shoulder to shoulder with Brock on his right. All the other hallways had been brightly lit, with doors and such in their walls. This one was several shades darker, with a mysterious, even sinister air to it, with no route's of possible escape should something go wrong. He felt boxed, trapped. Nevertheless, he continued on.
Brock was directly behind Leslie (he'd learned her first name from one of her passing colleagues) and Duplica as they strutted alluringly behind Carlos and Griffin. Brock didn't care much for Mimique, but she gave him something to compare Rhydmie to. He noted they were about the same height, of similar build, Duplica in her form-fitting ball gown, Leslie outfitted in a equally contour-matching black tailored two-piece women' business suit. Duplica's exotic, intoxicating sexy allure contrasted with Leslie's complex of playful, spirited flamboyancy and sophisticated, fluid beauty. There was little question which Brock preferred. The blond woman's fluffy ponytail bounced lightly up an down as she walked, her high-heels clicking in sync with woman on her left. To say Brock was impressed was an understatement. Nevertheless, he began to wonder, if The Elite had commissioned the likes of Duplica Mimique, what sort of person was Leslie Rhydmie?
Misty held April's hand as they walked behind Ash and Brock. She'd slept on the Swellow Escort, but very poorly, and she felt she might crash again at any minute. April, of course, was simply ecstatic. She was finally on one of those hair-brained adventures Misty had often told her, from her traveling days. Ash's Pikachu padded alongside her and Zapper sat on her shoulder, peering cautiously about.
Giselle and Samurai held up the rear. Neither one spoke, but somehow, through their occasional glances between each other, they felt the other's growing apprehension with the course they were all currently taking. Glass walls, no doors--boxed in. But there was something else. Samurai caught it in the way Giselle refused to hold his gaze for more than a few seconds. Something was troubling her, and he felt that it might be him. He was sure she'd heard his conversation with Ash, and he was beginning to wonder what effect that would have on her, on their relationship. Maybe that hadn't been such a good idea after all, he mused to himself. Deliberately shifting his gaze in Giselle's direction, he caught her sideways glance. She stared back. He smiled and shrugged. They were here now, no turning back.
At the end of the hallway, a large, circular vault door greeted them. Carlos paused, as if listening for something. Samurai exchanged weary glances with Giselle as did Ash with Brock and Misty. Even April seemed to feel something of the danger in the moment, the animated smile fading from her pixie face as she cast about nervously. Only Clay, Leslie and Duplica were as self-assured and calm as Carlos. That only made the others even more nervous.
Ferdinand held out his right hand and removed the black leather glove that covered it. Ash inhaled sharply. The man's hand was made completely out of metal. They all watched as Carlos pressed his steel-clad appendage against the round barrier's center. The whole door glowed with white light as it scanned the Elite from head to foot. What sounded like a series of bolts being simultaneously released echoed from behind the door, followed by a low, hollow rumbling sound. Presently, it released and, like all other Elite doors, it swung silently open.
Carlos stepped inside. One by one, the others followed, though Griffin waited for everyone else to enter before he did so himself. Placing his gloved hand on a panel embedded within the room, beside the entrance, he spread his fingers and then turned his hand a quarter. The door closed itself.
"This," Carlos gestured to the spacious, semi-circular enclosure, "is where you will stay for the night." He turned and glanced behind himself. A large, oval coffee table stood in the room's center, several small silver boxes on its polished, black-oak veneer. A ring of black leather couches formed a semicircle around it, the open end facing the room's entrance. "You have each been given an Elite decoder ring," Carlos explained, "Theses tell us who you are and will allow you access to Elite facilities. It will not respond for anyone else. Only you can wear it and also invoke its special properties." He re-gloved his metal hand. "For convenience's sake, your names have been lightly inscribed on the inside or your individual ring." He extended both hands toward the low table. Ash and his general company jumped as the small boxes flew from the dark oak oval and into the Elite agent's outstretched hands. Carlos casually tossed the small ring boxes, one at a time to the decoders' particular owner.
While everyone opened their cases, Ash removed the paper map from his ring and slipped it on his left hand's middle finger. It was black, like Brock's, but sported a hexagonally cut piece of smoky-quartz for its gem. The winged sword of The Elite flashed back at him.
Carlos again got their attention. "The walls behind this stand of couch and table conceal the doors to your rooms. Run your ringed hand along the wall's surface and the doors will slide open for you. Within, you will find beds and bathroom, refreshment dispensers, fresh combat outfits, your own pair of matching suits, a rack of Elite-grade weapons, manuals for their use and a small room in the back with a pair of laptops and a table spread with several other standard pieces of Elite equipment. Instructions for their use will also be present." He paused to take a breath. "You have also been provided with a detailed account of your mission. You each have a copy of this document sitting on the nightstand between your beds."
"When will this mission of yours take place?" Samurai questioned.
Carlos gave him a tight smile. "Tomorrow morning."
Ash settled into the suit of black night clothes he'd found in a set of drawers under his bed. He and Brock had been assigned the same room (thankfully). After running the walls, everyone had found out that it took two rings to open the hidden entryways, one from each of the dorm-styled enclosure's intended occupants. Samurai and Giselle and been found theirs first, then Misty and April (Strangely enough, she'd also been given a decoder ring, a small band of silver metal with a bright topaz in its center), and finally Brock and Ash. Duplica, it seemed was the only one with a room to herself.
Pikachu hopped nimbly onto Ash's shoulder as he exited the bathroom. A light steam poured out after him.
"Took you time, didn't you!" Brock complained.
"Hey, it was you who insisted." He grinned, smoothing back his unruly black hair. "So, whadda ya think about our new line of toys?"
Brock was sitting on his bed, a cup of tea in one hand, a weapon manual in the other. An assortment of handguns and riffles were laid out across the covers and propped against the bed's frame. He looked up from his intent study. "I think I like this." He put his saucer and teacup on the nightstand. "Yes. I like this a lot. Here," he picked up a long gray and black handgun and tossed in to Ash, "Pull the clip out."
Ash stared quizzically at the firearm. It was a strange gun, its barrel composed of a single, large metal cylinder with a smaller tube on the underside, which held an imbedded inferred flashlight. An inferred scope sat on top. He turned the gun over.
He met Brock's expectant stare. "What clip?"
Brock grinned. "The LXG Jaguar is an automatic laser gun. The only thing you have to worry about is overheating its self-sustaining power cells."
Ash noticed the small array of buttons on the weapon's side, along with a small digital screen. "Whoa." He hefted it experimentally. "Does it shoot well?"
"How would I know?" Brock quipped. "No way I'm firing that thing off in here!"
"I wonder if they have a shooting range around here. We could have ourselves a damn good time with these!"
"That would be pretty cool."
Ash laid the weapon back on Brock's bed. "Fascinating." He made his way to the stack of paper that sat ominously atop his own. He picked hit up and began to leave through its pages, skimming the contents. "Hey, you been through this yet?"
"That thing? Oh, yeah, about half an hour ago."
"I wasn't in the shower that long was I?"
"Go check the room's mildew content!"
"Okay, I'm sorry! You can go now, you know."
"I think I will." Brock put down the manual and stretched. He stood up, and with his own night clothes in arm, made his way toward the bathroom's open door. "Have fun with that report. It answers a lot about this whole mess."
"Great," Ash breathed, "I can't wait." He turned back to page one.
He was up late into the night, even after Brock and Pikachu were sound asleep.
==To Be Continued==
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