Actions

Work Header

Raiding A Tomb Parasite's Middle Ground

Chapter Text

>>> >>> Prologue <<< <<<

 

One does not refuse the “invitation” of a US Senator, so Amanda Evert resignedly accepted the airline ticket and set of instructions the unsmiling man in dark glasses presented to her, and boarded a plane for Washington D.C. She wondered (briefly) how the elder Rutland had discovered her relationship with his son James...she'd kept almost nothing at the condo they'd shared, and had sanitized it of even that when he died. Either the old man had the boy under surveillance that she hadn’t noticed, or the neighbors who couldn’t be bothered to say anything to their faces gossiped behind their backs.

At the posh Capitol Hill offices, she went to a specific service entrance and used the passphrase she’d been given; she was whisked through the basement and side corridors, only emerging into public hallways near the senator’s own door. Even with her being an expressly invited guest, the dark-suited guard outside that door checked her with a metal detection wand. Having come directly from the airport, she hadn’t replaced any of her assorted piercings, removed to get though TSA screening, which was fortunate given the placement of some of them. After scanning her, the man offered to take her grey-barred black trenchcoat. Revealed when she slipped it off and handed it to him was her current (and preferred) outfit – a sleeveless black suede halter top that left her athletic and tattooed midriff exposed, paired with black and grey couture slacks artistically designed to imply a garter belt. The man raised his eyebrows, and suggested she either take her coat back or let them loan her a shirt. It was a bit too warm inside for the jacket, so she asked for the shirt.

What they could find in her size was a summer blouse, clearly belonging to a secretary. No telling if the donor was now running around the office partially undressed; she certainly didn’t care. It was sheer enough that her top and tatoos were still clearly visible through it, but that was deemed acceptable. After all, her shoulders were covered!

After she was ushered into the senator's presence, he sent everyone else away, including his hulking (yet deliberately average-looking) bodyguard. She accepted the chair and the whiskey he offered, straight up, cooled by a chilled and polished stone, sipped it delicately. It was, as to be expected, very fine stuff.

“Tell me how my son died,” he said without preamble; his voice held the harsh rasp of deep Midwestern roots.

“Well, sir, it was that British bi...,” she caught herself, mindful of the genteel surroundings, “so-called archeologist, Lara Croft. She'd been seeking the same set of artifacts as us, and we got there first, fair and square. But she's a sore loser, she stalked him until she caught him away from his bodyguards, then killed him in an ambush.”

This account bore a nodding acquaintance with the truth, if one ignored the facts that they and the mercenaries they'd hired had repeatedly tried to kill Lara first, that the reason James lacked bodyguards was that they'd all already died trying to kill her, and that James had launched the ambush on Lara and perished when it backfired.

“In Ghana, that was?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hm. Yes. The British government will naturally protect her, but I think I have the means to make life...difficult...for her. You've suffered a great loss, dear, is there anything I can provide you with?”

The only thing she'd lost that she really cared about was the amulet, and the shadow-beast that it had given her control of. Lara had confiscated it from her, when they’d last met, in the Himalayas. He obviously couldn't do anything about that, so she declined.

“How about a job? I've got a task well suited for a woman of your...adventurous...sensibilities. ”

As well as he schooled his expression, a hint of leer leaked through. Oh God, James, she thought, you idiot, I thought I destroyed those private videos, did you have another copy...?

“What kind of job?” she asked carefully.

Once her told her, she accepted without even waiting for him the make to veiled blackmail threat that was surely coming next...because it was a new adventure, exactly her sort of job.

Chapter Text

“Well,” Lara Croft said, from her vantage point on a Chilean cliff face, “how is it that almost every ruin I go to has armed men already there and waiting?”

Perhaps you might arrive sooner if you actually used climbing gear,” Allistair (her historical advisor) observed tartly from the satellite-linked safety of Abbingdon Manor.

“And where would the fun in that be?” she replied. One of the men down there was distinctly different, form-fit body armor of red instead of black, so she zoomed in as best as her binoculars could, at this distance. The range was a bit long, but she could make a few things out. First off, not a man, not with that body shape. Second, just-above-the-shoulders blonde hair. Her back was to Lara, giving orders to the men, so her face wasn’t visible, but it didn’t need to be.

“Amanda...” Lara breathed, unbelieving.

Are you kidding?” chimed in her computer expert Zip, also listening in at the mansion, “I thought she had better sense than to cross you again.

“She is nothing if not persistent. Hmmm, the boys with her formerly had boldface initials stenciled on their armor, but they've been blacked out.”

As in,” Alistair responded, “she's gotten covert help from some American agency?

“I can't imagine how,” she mused, “James was the one with those connections, and he's...out of the picture now. Still, Zip, if you can track down her recent movements, we might be able to figure out who they are.”

I'll get on that.

Amanda. A fellow archeology student and former friend who’d faked her own death at a dig site in Bolivia a decade ago (amidst the very real deaths of a dozen other classmates, friends, and instructors) and left Lara to bear the guilt. Amanda, who’d made a pact with a smoky spirit-creature (dared one call it a demon?) and selfishly sought more power in the form of the “magical” sword Excalibur. Lara didn’t believe in demons or magic, but she’d fought the wraith herself, and the sword undeniably generated some sort of energy. The sword was also the key to a set of portals that would (briefly) open to Avalon...or what was known on Earth as Avalon...well, it didn’t matter how the portals operated. What mattered was, one had opened...and her mother had been pulled in, vanishing from Earth, almost two decades ago.

A scant few months ago, she had revisited that moment, literally, by being at the other end of a conversation she’d half-heard when she was seven years old; the portal connection had apparently not only reached from the Himalayas to Bolivia, it had reached across time as well! It was herself, as an adult, that her mother had spoken to, a conversation that had been garbled and hadn’t lasted long enough to even remotely begin to clear up what had been a very complicated circumstance.

One question nagged Lara – where had her mother ended up? Amelia, believing young Lara had been threatened, had abruptly cut the connection and vanished into thin air as the portal self-destructed. She hadn’t emerged in Bolivia, either then or now, and the Bolivian portal had been ruined by Amanda’s interference in the here-and-now. A system so advanced had to have failsafes of some sort, and the only logical fallback would be to the central point: Avalon. That was what Lara was pinning her hopes on; in the worst case, if she found Avalon but not her mother, she would at least have closure. In any case, Lara’s research led her to believe there would be another portal structure here, within these ruins.

“Well,” she said, shaking off those thoughts, “since they're blocking the front door, I'll just have to be...creative.”

Oh, Lord,” Alistair moaned, “I'll break out the dimenhydrinate now...it's positively amazing how often I get motion sick while never leaving home...

“Well, you could always just shut off the video feed,” she suggested helpfully.

What, and leave you alone?” he said, a little archly, “I could never do that!

With time, exquisite care, and a few daring leaps, she managed to traverse across the cliff face and reach a terrace above the occupied main entrance without being seen.

Unfortunately, she never got a better angle to view the men themselves, either. She figured she'd see them up close soon enough.

Lara probed her way inward, finding and avoiding or disabling several traps along the way. Eventually she reached the mezzanine of a grand gallery, the main floor of which was at about the right level to be connected to the main entrance. She saw no sign of human intrusion, no footprints in the dust. She was ahead of the mercenaries, then. But she heard something else, the distinctive cough of a big cat. Waiting, she finally caught a glimpse of a moving shape. Something seemed wrong with it somehow, the proportions seemed off, a little too elongated. Hard to tell more in the shadows, and she wasn't about to reveal herself by using her flashlight. She carefully moved closer (she didn't know if there was a stair connecting her level with the main or not), then used her camera's low-light mode to snap a few blurry stills.

“Alister?” she said softly, as she uploaded the pictures, “Who do you think could tell us about these creatures?”

I'll try the Royal Zoological Society,” he said.

Wow,” Zip commented, “I've heard of stretch limos before, but not stretch leopards. You might be on to something, Lara. It looks like Amanda flew to Washington D.C. recently. Still looking to see where she went from there. What the…? Hey!

“What is it, Zip?”

Alister, what did you do?!” he said, sounding suddenly harried.

Nothing, just forwarded the pictures....

Lara,” Zip said, “we're getting some heavy-duty probes. Someone's trying to trace our connection...not just to the manor, but also back to you! They're sharp, whoever they are. I....missed? Who are they...? Lara, I may have to...

The radio connection went silent then.

“Zip? Alister?” she finally ventured, knowing it was probably futile. She kept moving.

The next section of the hall, separated on the main level from the previous section by a massive door, did have a stairway down, so she took it. Suddenly, distant bursts of gunfire echoed through the cavernous rooms, accompanied by feline yowls of dismay. Okay, the mercenaries were getting close. She took a quick look around, taking stock. One thing her eye settled on would do nicely, very nicely indeed.…

^^^^^ ^^^^^ ^^^^^ ^^^^^ ^^^^^

The Lady Avril Fallon, returning to her ancestral holdings in England, was not very pleased. New tenants had set up shop during her (admittedly extended) absence; while she could have quickly...persuaded...them to give the site back over to her, a black-armored security force had arrived while she was occupied learning the new status quo. They hadn’t found her, but they were clearly looking. Called by the current tenants, perhaps? The lag between her arrival and theirs was about right for that; they certainly couldn't have detected her means of transportation. But on the other hand, this unit, whoever they were, had taken pains to conceal their activities from the tenants as well. The unit was a nuisance she could not ignore for much longer; they seemed to have some sophisticated tools, and were managing to slowly but steadily penetrate the multilayered perimeter she'd established around herself. They didn't seem to know her specific wards, but they were cautious and clever. No obstacle balked them for long, no active defense did more than glancing damage to them before being taken down, no diversion or false trail distracted them for long. They were clearly learning as they went, steadily boring their way in towards her. She could not allow herself to be discovered. Not when an ancient rival was clearly active on the face of the earth, and wild scents were in the air, portending greater troubles. With a regretful sigh, she signaled 'retreat' to Leah, her assistant. Her next best option was a secondary estate in France; hopefully they would have better luck reclaiming that one. They left the way they came, as quickly and silently as they had arrived. The anonymous elite unit, when they reached this room in a few hours, would find no trace that they had ever been here.

^^^^^^ ^^^^^ ^^^^^^ ^^^^^ ^^^^^^

Long since, Wendy “Dubbie” Watson had learned there was no such thing as “just another day” when working with the Middleman. Today, they had been tasked by O2STK (Organization Too Secret To Know) to locate a young man who was causing the water in public fountains (and other places) to animate and douse passing businessmen. Privately, she lauded the goal; as an artist living in an illegal sublet with an activist flatmate (when she wasn’t tackling strangeness like this), anything that took the starch out of a suit was fine with her. But the means this fellow had been using, a supposed “Atlantean artifact” called the Arkentrident, was something that should not be circulating in modern society.

“The irony of course, Dubbie,” her boss was observing, unflappable as always, but speaking loudly to be heard over the machine next to him, “is that the artifact isn’t actually Atlantean. That’s a common mistake, to associate Atlantis with water. Atlanteans were actually fire-wielders, this device is Avalonian.”

“That’s great, boss,” she said through clenched teeth, “but the real question is, how much longer do I have to keep holding this hose together?!”

The hose in question was running from the swimming pool of a tacky (but still expensive) mini-mansion to what looked like a steampunk vacuum cleaner, where the Middleman was working the controls. It was in the process of collecting up the last “elemental” that had been summoned by the lad, energy crackled all along it, playing over Wendy without hurting her, like eldritch St. Elmo’s fire. The elemental was not going easily, but it was inexorably being pulled in. Like a Microsoft update, the last eight percent was taking almost as long as the first ninety-two; the hose (cobbled together from the pool supplies immediately at hand) had threatened to fail from the strain about halfway through the process. Which is why she was holding a coupling together by main force.

Finally, however, the machine won, and the animated water-sprite was completely contained within; despite looking and to a certain extent acting like a vacuum, it only drew in the semi-solid transparent body of the elemental, not any of the regular pool water. When nothing more was inside the hose, the Middleman flipped a few switches, and the machine’s roar quieted to a low hum, and the energy crackle on the hose ceased. Wendy gratefully let go, and shook the cramps out of her hands.  The sleeves of her olive-colored jacket were soaked to the elbows; the Middleman himself was, of course, spotless, dry, and spic-and-span as ever.

“I assume O2STK has some sort of permanent containment for that,” she said, indicating the humming machine, “and a storage vault somewhere for the artifact,” gesturing towards the trident that had been the source of the ‘magic’, “but what about him?”

The erstwhile “Living Reincarnation of Atlantis”, a pudgy, unkempt lad wearing a pizza-stained t-shirt, was dozing off to the side, courtesy of a nice tranquilizer dart.

“There’s a boardgame tournament in town, we’ll drop him off at the convention center, he’ll fit right in, and whatever tales he tells won’t be outrageous or out of place. We only need to hold onto the Elemental Reclamation Unit until the energy used for the summoning dissipates, at which point it will revert to being ordinary poolwater. The artifact, however, bears further study, as to how he was able to activate it...”

“Are you people about done? I’d like to take a swim here!” a voice came, from the direction of the house. They’d only spoken with him briefly when they’d arrived; he looked and acted like a cast member from an unaired season of “Jersey Shore”. Under other circumstances, Dubbie might have found his dark, slicked back hair, chiseled abs, and barely-there Speedo attractive; however, she knew that he was the owner of a local pizzeria franchise that overcharged for its barely adequate product, and chronically underpaid his employees. Dubbie could certainly understand why he’d been targeted by the elemental activist.

“Yes, sir,” the Middleman reply smoothly, “I think we can unabashedly certify your pool as beyond satisfactory for guild standards. You’ll receive an official certificate in the mail in a couple weeks. We just need a moment to pack up our equipment, and our co-worker there, who regrettably overindulged at the guild’s anniversary party last night. You wouldn’t happen to have a wheelbarrow handy, would you?”

“Yeah, in the shed with the gardening stuff.”

Not that this McMansion had a garden worth the equipment or the effort.  "Garden State", indeed!

Pool Salinity Taste-Testing Guild?” Wendy whispered to her boss, as they trundled the sleeping ex-summoner to the Middlemobile in the borrowed wheelbarrow, “How do you think of these things?”

“Clean living and good thoughts, Dubbie,” he said, unhelpful as always.

 

Chapter Text

*** Inside the ruined cavern dwelling of a lost Chilean pre-Columbian civilization, that has apparently been invaded by armed intruders ***

*** Daytime.   Not that you can really tell, being indoors and all. ***

Lara had just enough time to finish her preparations before someone tried the door; she quickly retreated back up to the mezzanine. She waited, barely breathing, as the lock was destroyed by a short burst of gunfire. The door nudged open, just enough for someone to slip through. Even in the dim light provided by narrow lightwells, Lara could make out the halo of blond hair and red armor. Amanda. Carrying a gun now, some sort of submachinegun with a flashlight under the barrel. She had previously thought that Amanda would leave gunplay to others. But, she reminded herself, she really didn't know what Amanda had become; with the shadow-demon she'd once controlled denied her she may well have turned to guns. The other woman moved with tactical economy and professional wariness, gun-light sweeping the chamber as she picked her way forward. The light lingered for a while on an unstable-looking pile of rubble, which she moved away from...right into the area where Lara had concealed a real deadfall.

She triggered it.

The blonde reacted instantly, diving out of the way; the collapse missed her, and she came back up shooting – upwards towards where Lara was! – coming surprisingly and dangerously close for unaimed shots. Lara bolted, returning fire, but her aim was spoiled as the weakened, ancient balcony suddenly gave out under her. She rode it down to the main level, rolled, got her feet back under her; she was out in the open now, bullets chewing up the stonework around her. She peppered more shots in the other's direction, which bought her enough time to run for a stone pillar. Just as she reached the cover it provided, there was a bright magenta flash behind her, some stonework exploded, and her body tingled like lightning had struck nearby. No time to consider that oddity, though.

Lara spotted a better position, broke cover and unleashed a few more shots in the other woman’s direction while she ran for it. Got a solid look at the face in the process. Not Amanda.

Not Amanda?!

A fact that was confirmed as the woman began to speak, quietly but still carrying in this chamber.

“Lone female, caucasian, no armor.” The rapid recitation began, crisp and professional. The accent was American, East Coast, and for no reason she could name, the first thing Lara thought was 'police officer'. Who was she, then, and why was she here? Lara kept her head down and took the opportunity to reload.

“Twin pistols, high caliber...wait, you said 'England'? Hold on, I think I know who our visitor is...” switching to a more projective tone, the other continued, “Ms. Croft? It is Ms. Croft, right? Please hold your fire, I'm a United States federal agent. I don't want to hurt you, I'll cease fire if you do.”

“Aren't you a little out of your jurisdiction?”

“We're here at the invitation of the Chilean government,” then aside, “it is her. Pierce, stand down.” In a more normal tone, “You're in great danger here, ma'am, and NOT from me.”

“You started shooting first.”

“Well, you tried to pin me with that collapse.”

“Please accept my apologies. You have an unfortunate resemblance to someone from my past. I only saw you from a distance, outside.”

“And you got in far enough ahead of me to set this all up?”

“I do know my way around this sort of place. I'm coming out now,” Lara declared, holstering her pistols. She stood, switched on her utility light, and eased around the bullet-pocked pillar, showing her hands first.

The other woman's submachinegun (which Lara now could identify as an HK MP5) was casually pointed down and away. Despite her cornsilk-blond hair, the agent had distinctly Asiatic features. Japanese haifu, perhaps?

“I'm Special Agent Aya Brea,” the woman said, “of the Department of Homeland Security.”

Lara nodded acknowledgment, stopped a reasonable distance away from the red-armored agent.

“I am, as you surmised, Croft of Abbingdon. So, Special Agent Brea, what about these supposed other dangers?”

“There is active bio-weapon leak in this zone. We need to get you out of here, for your own safety, and evaluated for possible contamination!”

“You're not wearing anything like hazmat protection.”

“I have a certain...native immunity...to what’s been deployed here.”

“I don’t feel the least bit unwell. If I’ve been exposed, it's already too late. I might as well stay.”

“You've seen those jaguars prowling around, right? They were normal before being affected, and their bite could transmit it.”

“Well, I’m clearly still normal. I hadn't gotten close enough to any of them for a truly good look, never mind getting bitten. All I’ve managed so far are some indistinct pictures.” Which, Lara thought, if your home base was tracking ‘something from England’ already, you bloody well knew about already.

“Keeping your distance was a better idea than you know,” Agent Brea said sternly, “these creatures are like nothing you've ever fought before, and it gets far worse further in. I strongly recommend you go back outside until it's safe.”

“Oh, I've never been one to play it safe,” Lara said airily. “Besides, what I'm here looking for is...fragile. I can't risk you blundering into it and...”

She broke off, hearing the scrabble of claws on stone behind her, whirled around, pistols drawn, even as Aya yelled “LOOK OUT!”

It was another elongated jaguar – with a disturbingly human cast to its face, Lara noted absently as she started firing. Then, with it almost on her, she dodged to the side to avoid its leap. As she turned to track it (not shooting because it was between her and the American), she saw a bolt of magenta lightning leap from Aya's free hand and strike the creature! It dropped, and abruptly began to melt into formless slime.

Lara exhaled in relief; the melting being the least peculiar thing she'd just seen. “How did you...?”

“Long story, but no time now; we need to move,” the American said, all business, “Where there's one, there's more. I'd like to conserve my ammo, and it's going to be a while before I can throw another...”

Too late, more scrabbling noises.

“I've got a better idea,” Lara said, holstering her pistols and reaching up to her shoulder for the hilt of the oddly-shaped sword sheathed under her backpack. It whisked free as they charged into sight, a pack of four. Taking a two-handed grip, she reached inward with her mind for the peculiar tickle of energy that Excalibur had introduced her to and scythed the sword across in a sweeping motion. A trail of green energy came into existence at the sword's tip, and flew forward to meet the jaguars...and when it struck, there were four more piles of melting slime.

It was Aya's turn to be astonished. “How did you...?”

“Long story. Now, what was that you were saying about monsters and danger?”

“If you stay, you're going to see some very strange things...”

Strange doesn't even begin to describe it,” Zip said, Lara's earbud coming back to life; she held up a hand to forestall the American for a moment. “The team outside is not just Homeland Security, but MIST Section, em-eye-ess-tee. These people are bona fide monster hunters, Lara...

Hearing it spelled out, Lara recognized it. To the American, she said, “Some would say I specialize in strange things. Your section is an antiterrorist unit, one that specializes in biological warfare, as I recall.”

“When you say it like that, it sounds like we do it.” Aya replied, snorting derisively, “Our purpose is to prevent it. Like the name says, Mitochondrial Investigation and Suppression Team.”

“What does cellular biochemistry have to do with strange monsters?”

“It’s what...the bioweapon….does, causing instant and radical mutations in affected creatures.”

Mutations that allowed humans to throw lightning bolts only existed in comic books. The only other being Lara had seen able to fling energy bolts wasn’t really human, though Jacqueline Natla concealed it well. She wondered just what Aya was, though it didn’t seem politic to bring that up just now.

“Speaking of teams, where's the rest of yours?”

“They're providing containment at the entrance, we're alone in here.”

By consulting with their respective bases, they found a radio frequency that everyone’s equipment could transmit on, and consolidated their voice communications into a single private network; Alister and Zip were introduced to Pierce Carradine (whom Aya cheerfully introduced as her “resident tech weenie”, to a wounded “Hey!’ from his end) and MIST’s section chief, Rupert.

That out of the way, they pressed inward, together.

 

*** A nondescript office serving as the front for a dubious and probably illegal genetic experimentation operation ***

*** in a coastal area of South Carolina, right in the middle of Hurricane Alley ***

*** (I hope they don't keep any of their actual product there!) ***

 

Amanda had been told to keep the blouse; she'd need it as the Senator's liason to Second Childhood Enterprises, LLC. So of course, she ditched it as soon as she was safely away. Turned out to be a good idea. The project manager, Consuelo Garcia, was very nearly Amanda's complete opposite; Garcia was dressed head to toe in sunny yellow, sable hair to her own near-platinum, brown-skinned to her porcelain pallor. They sized each other up, predators recognizing each other and wary.

“So, you're the Senator's new watchdog,” Garcia opened.

“I'm nobody's dog,” Amanda countered with, “I was told to act as liason; I will do nothing else, unless you're so incapable as to foul up the basic tasks the Senator has set for you, and I rather doubt you are.”

The older woman threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, I like you,” she said. Sobering instantly, she said, “I hear you have an interest in antiquities. I hope you are able to look forward as well, because we deal with the future.”

“I'd like to have something to look forward to. The Senator said that I shouldn't make assumptions based your evangelical public image.”

“Well, we are trying to return humanity to a Garden of Eden, but not the one imagined by dusty desert tribes. We are making one with our own hands, a garden of near-immortality where people become what they really want to become.”

“For a price.”

“Naturally. What we build isn't cheap. And it isn't for everyone, so we have to choose who we let inside the walls very carefully.”

“I can’t wait to see.”

Chapter Text

*** Inside of the ruined former cavern dwelling of a Chilean pre-Columbian civilization, which is now ***

*** apparently the site of a laboratory accident that has leaked some kind of mutagenic bioweapon. ***

***  Later in the daytime.  But still daytime.  Even if you can't see the sun right now.  ***

 

With Lara selecting the route, they made good progress; Aya, while not as acrobatic as Lara, managed to keep up with the climbing, jumping, and swimming through flooded sections by dint of sheer (and seemingly inexhaustible) energy, and a bit of coaching from Lara on where the handholds were. Aya merely shrugged at Lara’s compliments regarding how quickly she caught on. The swimming was scarcely a challenge at all, compared to swimming in the near-freezing waters of Hudson Bay, as she had done back in the last day of the year 1997. She need never fear hypothermia ever again, as long as she lived, and somehow she’d known that, even back then when she was new to being...what she was now. If anything, Aya wondered how Lara was managing to accomplish all the feats she’d managed, seemingly effortlessly.

Zip downloaded a few details about MIST directly to her tablet, rather than use the voice network now being shared with them. She glanced at it when she could spare a few moments. MIST had been founded as a department of the FBI in 1999, then incorporated into DHS following the destruction of the twin World Trade Center towers. He also found references to one Aya Brea, age 25, being a rookie NYPD detective in 1998… the better part of a decade ago!

Well, she’d aged remarkably well. As in not at all, as far as Lara could tell. A portrait in the attic, perhaps?

And, Lara dimly recalled, there’d been some sort a major terrorism scare in New York City that Christmas, numerous fires, hundreds of burn victims, and an unprecedented evacuation. At the time, Lara had been on the ill-fated archeological dig in Bolivia that had set her and Amanda at odds, and had only heard about the NY event second-hand. But Aya’s association with whatever this was went back that long?

At the back of the ancient construction was a passage into some natural caves. Lara's intent was to go in, and Aya agreed without quite knowing why. They quickly found what Aya had unconsciously scented, a cluster of squat creatures with two powerful legs, big ears, and big toothy maws. They seemed to be dozing.

“We call them vorpal bunnies,” Aya said, quietly, “they're only active at night, so we're in luck. Kill as many as you can in the first instants, because the rest will probably wake up and attack. They'll try eating almost anything; a pack that big can reduce a car to scrap in minutes.”

Their guns made quick work of the cluster, even the ones that started leaping towards them.

“Congratulations,” Aya said, once all the melting slime evaporated, “if you ever visit MIST headquarters, you'll now have some bounty points to redeem.”

“Bounty points?”

“We're mostly limited to using government-issued equipment, but we reward our most productive hunters by letting them purchase additional equipment with these points.”

“How many have I earned?” Lara asked, bemused.

“Fast estimate for half a dozen vorbunnies?” Aya did a quick calculation. “Call it three-seventy-five or so. Enough to replace that large medkit of yours, or a couple boxes of our better ammo.”

“What about those leopards? Shouldn't I get credit for them?”

“Good point.” Aya pulled a round device that strongly resembled a pocket watch out of a jacket pocket, and consulted the red digital display on it that lit up briefly. “Hey, I didn't get credit for the one I killed, either! Pierce?”

Um, this is our first encounter with them, so we don't have any rating for them. We also would also have to test Excalibur against known quantities to rate its destructive power.”

“It's an ancient artifact, the very literal sword Excalibur, and an utterly unique weapon, not something I'm comfortable loaning out,” Lara responded frostily.

“I understand that, completely,” Aya muttered.

We'd just need to see it demonstrated, it wouldn't ever have to leave your hands.

“Well, at the very least,” Aya commented, “it’s equal to one of my biobolts plus a half dozen or so forty-four caliber rounds, with an expanding area of effect, call it a 60-degree spread, that can take three or four of them easily.”

Anyway,” Pierce said, plowing on doggedly,about the leopards, unless they display some extraordinary abilities to make them more dangerous, they'll probably be in the forty-five to fifty-five point range. I’m creating your bounty account now, Miz Croft. We’ll send a MIST bounty coin – the compact display unit Aya just used – to Abbingdon Manor.”

Aya knew that the vor-buns typically clustered around metallic things they preferred to eat, and wondered what they'd been after. Stopping suddenly at a chasm yawning before her feet, she saw the stubs where a walkway used to be.

“Ah, dammit, they destroyed the bridge!” she exclaimed.

Lara was able to get herself over the gap easily enough, by using her magnetic grapple on the remaining upper structure and swinging across. The grapple was only strong enough, however, for one body's worth of weight. She couldn’t swing the line back to Aya, the electromagnet would shut off as soon as she detached it from herself and drop into the chasm. Retracting it and throwing the whole unit across to Aya was also out, the gap was wider than she could throw. While Aya waited nervously, Lara did a bit of judicious scouting, and found some wooden planks (which the scavengers had ignored, preferring either metal or flesh) that could be laid across the remaining structural rails as a temporary walkway. Their weight was such that she had to ferry them across to Aya one at a time.

Once they were both across, the passage opened into the wall of a cavern; the daylit mouth off to one side was close enough to be worth investigating. It opened out to a different face of the mountain. Not really accessible, even by helicopter, but they had their respective bases log its location anyway.

Lara noted deposits of bat guano on the walls. Aya was not happy about that, in her experience bats were especially susceptible to neo-mitochondrial infection. As a precaution, she moved one of her few flares into a more readily accessible spot on her pack, and that proved to be wise; as they probed deeper into the cave, a cloud of maddened, infected bats swarmed them.

“Close your eyes!” Aya yelled, and popped off the flare. A majority of them evaporated immediately, or were hit and destroyed by a quick wave of the lit end. The remainder were more manageable; Lara had been momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer number of them, but with the breathing room thus created, picked off most of the rest with vengeful gusto.

“I stopped carrying flares when I got this,” Lara said afterwards, ruefully pointing to her near-inexhaustible LED flashlight, “maybe I should get back in the habit.”

“The mutagenic effect does tend to make certain animals, especially rodents, very fragile,” Aya noted, “however, sometimes it goes the other way, and they become gigantified and very tough.”

The gunfire had roused another pack of vorpal bunnies, possibly the other half of a mega-pack that had been divided by the bridge collapse. This bunch, all fully awake and leaping, took longer to eliminate. Some of them got close enough for Lara to bring out Excalibur again. Aya's gun-light also proved to have an additional function; it produced a brilliant stroboscopic flash that stunned the nearest creatures, rendering them easy to finish off.

“That's the last of the annies...NMC's...in the area,” Aya pronounced.

“How do you know that?”

“I just do. It's a sort of instinctive danger sense I have, along with the flashier abilities.”

“Where do these abilities come from? I don’t see you carrying an artifact sword or glowing amulet or anything like that.”

“I caught a small piece of…the bioweapon...which killed a lot of people,” Aya said, reluctantly. “A lot of people. It had a different effect on me. It’s why I’m able to resist it, and combat it.”

And throw lightning bolts? Lara thought. Hell of a bioweapon. There was obviously a lot more to it, as there was a lot more to her own being in these caves. The American was clearly very experienced, and fairly friendly...but to tell her about the portals, and her mother? That would have to wait.

Despite its natural seeming, the ancients had clearly been through this passage. Lara discovered some deadly traps that were still perfectly functional, even after sitting for centuries. They were avoided, disarmed, or spiked as necessary.

Eventually the flare guttered out, and they became aware of a sliver of light in the distance ahead of them. After clearing one last hidden deathtrap and squeezing through a crevice, they emerged not into daylight, but a smooth, modern, electrically-lit corridor with an elevator shaft at one end.

“Well, that will save us a bit of walking on the return trip,” Lara commented.

*** Interior of an illegal sublet shared by Wendy Watson, her equally artistic and improbably good-looking roomate Lacey, and others ***

*** Maybe a day or so after her poolside adventure ***

Wendy Watson threw down her brushes in frustration. She just wasn’t able to create a painting based on her last Middle-mission, which was her stock in trade. While the water elemental had the motion and vitality she had a knack for capturing in paint, it was also almost completely transparent, which didn’t translate well to canvas. The steampunk-y extraction device was an inanimate thing, which didn’t play to her strong suit as an artist, and the former “Living Reincarnation of Atlantis” was just a fat slob in a pizza-stained t-shirt (his name, she had learned, was Parson Gotti), entirely too mundane for her sensibilities.

“Not going well, huh, DubDub?” Lacy said, sympathetically. She was sitting in a pile of plastic sandwich baggies filled with a mix of sand and dirty motor oil, with which to bombard the limousines of oil executives in protest of the ongoing war in the Middle East. Even smudged and covered in grit, her blonde appeal was undeniable. But most of the people in Wendy’s life (including herself) were improbably good-looking, so it was no big deal.

“Yeah,” Wendy said, “I’m gonna take a walk to clear my head.” She wiped the most egregious paint splatters off her clothes, grabbed her raincoat, and headed out.

In the hallway outside their apartment, leaning nonchalantly against the wall of the hallway (as he was almost every time she saw him) was Noser, a tall, light-complected black man (just on the right side of the so-called “paper bag” test) strumming disconnected chords his guitar. As always, he nodded in her direction.

“Hey, Wendy Watson. Going dancing in the rain?”

“I’m only happy when it rains,” she replied, falling into their usual conversation-by-song-quotes, “how about you?”

“Silent lucidity is the game for today, my ventriloquism demo is rained out and can’t play.”

“The trick is to keep breathing,” she said. The failed painting must have been bothering her worse than she thought, her mood was pure garbage at the moment. She seriously wanted to hit something.

But even so, she’d found the right note with him, even if his smile was a little sad. “You always get me, Wendy Watson.”

That ended the conversation; she took the cargo elevator down and hit the street. The vegan taco truck held no interest for her, she wasn’t hungry. She passed two more regular taco trucks. Then two more, on opposite sides of the street, along with a churros seller. That was a little unusual, they didn’t usually congregate in this neighborhood, and anything unusual immediately got her guard up. One thing she’d learned as a trainee-verging-on-rookie Middleman was that unusual things inevitably had unusual causes.

Cheering erupted from a nearby gymnasium, one that had been vacant and dilapidated for as long as she could remember, and a gabble of Spanish, which she readily understood. The vocabulary used told her it was (unsurprisingly) a Mexican crowd, as opposed to her own Cuban, but there hadn’t been any inter-Latino incidents lately, so she shouldn’t have any problems going by it. It did explain the food trucks. A ringing bell told her what kind of unauthorized event had popped up at the location: a luchador match. Not her favorite sport, but one she was quite familiar with, nonetheless. But why hold an underground match here?

As she drew alongside the building, a side door popped upen, and a masked wrestler emerged. She recognized the mask and knew the body shape of this particular man – it was Sensei Pppiiinnnggg, the instructor in martial arts introduced to her by the Middleman, and he strode over to her unhesitatingly.

“Come inside with me,” he said, “right now!”

Well, she didn’t have anything else to do, and her was her sensei, so she let him take her by the arm and draw her in

He took her back in through the door, locking it behind them, and brought her to a curtained-off area.

“Listen,” he said urgently, “there is a women’s match coming up soon, and the member of our team who was supposed to be in it, the only woman we have on our team, spun out on a bad patch of the expressway. She’s okay, but there’s no way for her to make it here before the match starts. I need you to step in and take her place, we cannot forfeit this match! My honor as a luchadore, the honor of the entire team, rests on this match!”

“I’m not a wrestler...” she started, feebly.

“You know enough,” he interrupted, “with what I have taught you. Winning would certainly be best, but simply even going down fighting will be sufficient, for honor’s sake. If you can even just hold your own, we’ll tag you out for her when she arrives. Your costume is in here, change quickly. I have to make the substitution on the fight card!”

Shaking her head, she obeyed. It looked like she was going to get her wish to hit things tonight, after all. The outfit and mask were thankfully clean, practically brand new, had a clearly Cuban motif, and fit her perfectly.

Well, that was capital-U Unusual. How far in advance had he been planning to spring this on her? How had he even known she’d be walking by just this moment? How on earth was she going to pull this off?

Chapter Text

*** Chile, inside of a dubious and highly illegal genetics lab, Early Evening ***

The elevator had only an 'up' arrow, and a symbol was painted onto the doors, red double X’s styled to resemble chromosomes. After regarding it for a long moment, Aya said, “That logo looks awfully familiar. This may raise an alert, but I have to know.” She fished a grey plastic card out from a pocket of her tactical vest, held it up to the sensor next to the elevator.

The wall box beeped, and a synthesized female voice said “Authorization pending. Please wait for a guide and consult with supervisory staff for full access.”

“This is not good, Lara,” Aya said grimly, “this passcard is from a similar covert laboratory, and even partial recognition of it means this is part of the same black operation. At bases like this, ‘wait for a guide’ is polite code for 'security has been dispatched to detain or kill you'. We'd best not be here when they arrive!”

The American agent reported in as they withdrew back into the cave, and discovered that her base had lost her signal when they'd entered the corridor. Lara quickly found out the same, but didn't dwell on it, she had ancient deathtraps to reset and not a lot of time.

“There’s an elevator shaft to the surface,” Aya said into her headset while Lara worked on the first one, “about 10 meters northwest of our current position. It’s probably hidden from satcam, so organize a ground search. It’s also probably defended by automated sentry guns, so watch yourselves. Give my regards to the man with one leg.”

“Man with one leg? What was that code for?” Lara asked, as the trip plate of the first trap clicked into its “set” position.

“He helped me once,” Aya answered, covering her headset mic. “My team knows him, which should clue them in as to what we’ve found...”

Pierce broke in to report that an increase of thermal energy had just revealed the outline of an otherwise concealed hangar bay to satellite view.

“That's nice,” Aya said, “but we need to go silent now, because if there is any noise when the guards arrive, it'll give the whole show away.”

With Aya occasionally providing a hand, they got three traps completely reset before the base security team's arrival forced them to stop. Remaining absolutely still, pressed back into the rock formations, barely breathing, they hoped the guards would give up quickly and leave. A moment later, they heard the scraping as a rock shelf tipped over and deposited some unlucky, screaming souls onto a spike-filled pit. Aya used the noise to cover drawing her secondary weapon, a P229 pistol, shielding it between her body and the rock wall so it wouldn’t reflect their lights. Lara, barely able to hide her larger frame as is, wisely hadn’t drawn hers yet. Their glossy silver shine would have been as obvious as one of Aya’s flares.

They listened, breathing as quietly as they could, while the guards hoisted their unfortunate comrades back up, disarmed the trap, and ran smack into the second one. More wary now, the men ducked quickly enough to receive only minor injuries.

Only one more trap between themselves and the others. Peeking around a rock outcrop, Aya could just barely make out the silhouettes of the men. The leader was reporting via his headset.

“I don’t care what the computer said,” the leader said, irritatedly, “there’s no one here. And if there was, they couldn’t possibly get through here alive. I’m not taking any more casualties chasing phantoms through this damned cave. Not when we've got other problems.”

Once the guards had withdrawn, and they could breathe easily once more, Lara said “We have to continue in. How safe will it be for us? How many teams are they likely to have? What about security cameras?”

“If they follow their previous examples,” Aya mused, “we won't have to worry about that. For some funny reason,” she observed dryly, “these operations don't want video recordings of what goes on inside. What monitoring they do is real-time, to supervise their own personnel, not catch intruders. That was probably the bulk of their security force right there, and the only person likely to be trusted enough to sit at the monitors would be leading that squad.”

“Charming.”

“For intruder prevention, they tend to have robotic guns covering the corridors instead, which are usually easy enough to disable.”

A short ways in from the elevator, they came across an unoccupied alcove with a reception desk. The computer terminal (a standard consumer PC) was active but locked. Aya took a mini CD out of a pouch, inserted it, and forced the machine to reboot. A few minutes later, she had control of the terminal, but couldn't break into any of the encrypted files or penetrate further into the system. It did, amazingly enough, have internet access, so she fed Pierce the machine's address numbers. Lara did the same for Zip, and let them start working on it via remote access.

Around a bend, there was a long stretch of corridor and a closed door. Flanking the door were a pair of the sentry laser emplacements Aya had been expecting, and unfortunately, these were several degrees better than ones she'd encountered previously; they were more powerful, and had a rapid firing cycle. They were also cunningly placed, hard to hit in return. The distance was such that they could fire several times before either of the women could get a clear line on them to attack. Their first attempt didn’t go well; Lara couldn’t dodge as freely as she would have liked with Aya alongside, and Aya’s aim had been repeatedly spoiled by Lara getting on the way. They were quickly driven back, around the corner, where they regrouped and and sat down to patch themselves up.

“I thought you said they were easy to disable!” Lara groused.

“Clearly, they’ve learned some lessons. Besides, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be secure, now would it?”

As Lara reached for her medkit, Aya held up a hand and said, “Let me try something here.”

She touched Lara, who felt some energy flow into her...and the wounds vanished! Aya seemed almost as surprised as Lara.

“I was never able to do that for anyone other than myself before now,” the American said.

“I’ll grant it’s quite handy,” Lara said.

“And a much more renewable resource than pills, ointments, and bandages,” Aya replied. “But having them on hand is a good idea. My energies are not infinite.”

They had a few grenades between the two of them and tried throwing a couple, to no avail; the turrets handily destroyed them mid-air. It was a stalemate – until Lara managed to tag one with an Excalibur energy wave, a vertical downward slash. The wave was greatly weakened by the distance when it hit, but still enough to blind the turret’s sensors at least. The other one couldn't be hit that way, so Lara made a mad acrobatic dash down the hall, drawing its fire while Aya, using the corner as cover, pounded it with nearly a full clip from her assault rifle. These emplacements were much tougher than previous models. Lucky for them, the functional turret had a hard time deciding which of them to fire at, so it didn’t do much shooting at all. Aya’s armor picked up a few more scorches, and Lara’s unpredictable dodging worked much better with her solo. The turret exploded in a most satisfactory fashion.

“We're going to have to come up with a better plan,” Aya observed as she gave Lara a hand up (the turret’s explosion had knocked her down), “or I'm going to be out of ammunition in no time.”

The computer behind them started playing a popular hip-hop tune. Lara recognized it as Zip's ringtone, so they went back to it. Zip had a video chat window open; Lara picked up the receptionist's headset and said, “I'm here, Zip.”

Lara, at the computer, do you see a peripheral that looks like a card reader?

“Yes.”

It's actually a card encoder. I can make you valid passkeys, but they'll be fairly limited. All I need you to do is find some blanks, and feed them into the machine when I tell you to.

With a (blue) card made for each of them, they went back to the door. “If Gnosis design remains consistent,” Aya said, “this should lead to the staff habitation area.” Aya swiped her card, the door opened, and she instantly knew what the security detail meant by 'other troubles'. She whipped her MP5 up to ready position.

Lara, mystified, followed suit with her pistols; she saw nothing out of the ordinary, give or take a couple bloodstains on the floor.

“There are NMC's loose on this level,” Aya said, tightly, “I can feel them, almost taste them. Get in and close that door, quickly, please, because as surely as I've sensed them, they've sensed me. And some of them can cloak their appearance until they attack.”

Nothing happened right away, but immediately visible after the next corner they turned were what looked like a trio of crawling babies with noticeably oversize heads and wearing muzzles of some sort. Aya didn't hesitate, shot the nearest one. Lara's offended hey! turned immediately into what? and eeewwww! as the “baby” messily exploded.

“Bloody hell! Literally.” Lara commented, glad that the ever-proper Alister wasn't on the radio to hear her vulgar exclamation.

“You don't want one of those near you when it does that,” Aya said grimly, plinking the next one, which chain-reacted with the last one, and also revealed (as it destroyed) something that looked like a small pile of blue translucent gelatin.

Aya let her submachine gun drop onto its sling, took up her tonfa baton instead.

“Jellies like that are invisible until they attack; bullets are useless, use blunt force or electrical...”

One appeared under Lara's feet and jolted her with a stiff electrical shock. She immediately vaulted away, and Aya whacked it with her tonfa (which turned out to have cattle-prod-esque electroshock capability), and it too dissolved in death.

Then one appeared behind Aya, catching her by surprise. Lara was back instantly with a low leg sweep that knocked it away, followed by a booming rugby kick that sent it flying smack into a wall, where it expired.

“Well, that works too,” Aya said, moving very stiffly; she dosed herself with penicillin to recover from the creeping paralysis it had inflicted on her.

Lara wanted to punch inward as deep as they could, as quickly as they could, but at Aya’s insistence, they worked at systematically obliterating all NMC's in the various rooms and corridors, one at a time. There were more of the sentry guns, but these didn’t seem to be active. They smashed them anyway.

Lara tried slicing the next jelly that appeared with Excalibur, but the odd shape of the blade made it too unwieldy for that; it was clearly not meant for actual melee. Since Aya, with a little concentration, could almost see where the jellies were sitting on the floor, like invisible gelatinous landmines, she concentrated on them. They were spaced out well enough that no single blast of any of Aya's available abilities would get more than one or two, and she didn't want to waste energy spamming that trick, not with so many unknowns ahead of them. That left Lara the unpleasant chore of killing a couple more 'splodey-babies. With Aya in front of her, Lara couldn't do the energy crescent. She tried to kick another jelly, but it flew astray and it landed on Aya instead!

“We need to get you a taser or something,” Aya said after that one was shaken off and splatted. “Maybe we'll find one, they tend to stock them in their armories.”

Lara appropriated a fire extinguisher from a nearby wall hook. “Blunt force, you said?”

Aya’s answering smile was almost as big as Lara’s own.

It made a suitable club indeed, as they checked all the rooms on the level, looking for useful records. They saw no other humans, but clear signs of hasty and recent abandonment, papers shredded, equipment destroyed. That was a tad worrisome. The extinguisher also proved to be extremely useful for dealing with some gigantified moths, knocking them out of the air with short puffs, where they could be safely stomped. In one of the computer terminals on this level, Lara eventually found references to what she was searching for, a 5-meter diameter stone ring with a small altar next to it. This terminal had no connection to the outside, though. The ring was stored, of course, in a secure chamber in the second-lowest level, just above the incinerator area. The GNOSIS researchers didn’t know what it was, only that it has been found in the caves they’d expanded to create this base.

Lara told her that the ring and Excalibur were Avalonian artifacts, and that the sword would act as a key to opening a portal, but wasn’t sure where it would open to, or how reliably it would function. The last attempt had met with ‘problems’. 

Problems that were clearly a sensitive subject with Lara, so Aya changed the topic, explained that the creatures they were finding had been created in the lab, either by intent, by leakage of materials being worked with, or bites from infected creatures. Neo-Mitochondrial Creatures fell into two broad headings, Artificial, or “Arties” like what they were contending with here, and Natural, or “Natties”, which tended to spring up in and around contaminated areas. Preventing the creation of natties in Chile was the main reason Aya insisted on thorough eradication now. There was, unfortunately, no way to 100% prevent such, not with a lab accident on the scale they were dealing with here, but it would certainly make future containment and cleanup easier.

After more exploration and creature extermination, they found the armory. Aya used another plastic card from her collection (black this time) to open that door, and they gratefully restocked. Lara, having emptied her extinguisher, picked up another.

Not everyone of the lab’s staff had managed to escape. Lara was treated to the gruesome sight of a pair of technicians undergoing the metamorphosis from human to “stranger”-class ANMC, from person to misshapen, crazed, hissing creature. They were quickly put down.

“I understand your earlier concern; is there any danger of that happening to me?” Lara asked worriedly, “Just how infectious is this plague, anyway?”

“No, that won’t happen to you,” Aya said with utter certainty, “not while I’m with you. Maybe not even after we separate. When I healed you earlier, I also made you immune...”

Aya was realizing this herself only as she was speaking. She paused, sensing...something more...from her inner self, maddeningly vague, but she understood some of it at least.

“Well, maybe immune is too strong a word,” Aya amended. “Resistant might be a better one. You can handle being around typical NMC’s, just don’t get within, say, a football-field-length of any...super-creatures. Your only warning will be your skin starting to ignite, back away immediately. Any contagion level less than that, you should be safe from.”

“Well, that’s reassuring,” said Lara, not really reassured in the least.

“Special service for my friends,” Aya bantered, “no extra charge!”

A friend? Even on such short acquaintance, Lara found that she couldn’t disagree. Even if Aya was clearly withholding secrets; fair was fair, she was too.

Something that had been nagging at Lara’s subconscious for some time now finally surfaced. “Speaking of that, is it just me, or is the air getting warmer in here?”

^^^^^          ^^^^^          ^^^^^          ^^^^^          ^^^^^

*** A rainy evening at a normally vacant gymnasium, where an unofficial Mexican Wrestling match is in progress.***

*** Have you ever had fresh churros? I mean really fresh? Those are so good! Man, I could go for some now! ***

Masked and wearing the impractical and frankly too revealing wrestler’s costume, Dubbie made her way from the improvised dressing area to the ringside, where Sensei Pppiiinnnggg collected her and steered her to his team. The rest of the team had a Latin-but-not-Mexican theme, with their costumes representing Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina; Sensei Pppiiinnnggg’s mask bore the flag of Brazil. She was told their nom de guerres, and promptly forgot. “Chile” and “Argentina” had already had their turns, the next match was Panama’s. Argentina had had a really hard time of it, having lost his match,and was still breathing hard, trying to recover. She also saw the rival team gathering at the other corner; they were conversing a great deal, frequently pointing at Dubbie’s team. Her opposite number, a little shorter than Dubbie but solid and built like a brick fire hydrant, was casting dirty looks in her direction.

While she certainly knew some wrestling moves, she was a little more uncertain about the showmanship aspect of it. Although, since this seemed to be a grudge match of some sort, there was an element of real competition. Or, at least, more of an element of real competition than usual. In any case, she watched Panama’s match closely. He was their “big guy”, but he wasn’t nearly as musclebound as their “big guy”, so his moves were faster and more fluid. A spectacular flying drop barely budged his opponent. But as she watched, she began to get a sense of how it worked. The loud, obvious expressions of pain and dismay, slapping the arm that had just been twisted, holding the hand dramatically behind one’s back, was reserved for when little had actually been done. But when the other scored a hit that really did something, Panama shrugged it off and went back to work. She could see, for example, after taking one kick to his side, that Panama was actually slowed down, if only a little, but he made no overt demonstration acknowledging the hit. So now she wondered if that flying hit early in the match had really scored. Soon after that hit, he threw another of those flying drops, and the opponent’s reserve cracked; he was visibly rocked, but neither played it off not ignored it.

And that’s when the match got really interesting.

It was a classic wrestling dirty play; the big guy was getting some help from one of his partners, double-teaming Panama while the team’s female “distracted” the referee. Almost without thinking, she moved. Seizing the middle rope, she launched herself into the ring...but didn’t let the rope go. She swung herself horizontally, using the force to stretch herself out to full extension. The “give” in the rope gave her just enough reach for the toe of her boot to connect with the back side of an opponent’s knee, causing his leg to buckle and forcing him to let go of Panama. The crowd roared approval. She used the follow-through to swing herself back out of the ring, as the rope yanked her back. The other woman, pointing into the ring, trying to tattle on her intrusion, succeeded only in getting her own partner caught out by the referee.

But Dubbie also didn’t miss the small motion of the outgoing opponent passing something to his partner. The referee, of course, did miss the exchange.

Dubbie’s forboding at the covert handoff she’d witnessed proved to be justified. First off, “Argentina” had not recovered from his match; if anything, he was getting worse, sweating and shaking from his seat on the sidelines. Sensei Pppiiinnnggg had administered a small vial of medicine earlier, and was concerned (even through his impassive manner) because it hadn’t seemed to work. Then, in the ring , Panama’s opponent made a seemingly ordinary bare-handed slap to his bare upper arm. Panama disengaged, looked at his arm briefly, and then his manner changed. He went on an all-out offensive. Dubbie could sense the desperation underlying his sudden focus. All business, he managed to finish the match, pinning his opponent. It wasn’t graceful or entertaining, but it was a win; even so, the crowd had quieted down a little.

“He had something in his hand,” Panama whispered hoarsely to her, in Spanish, as he left the ring, “there was a drug. I felt it. I had to end the match before it took effect. They used it on Argentina, too.”

She looked at his arm, where the slap had landed; she couldn’t see any obvious injection mark. That worried her. There was going to be another regular match, and then she would be up. Panama was the only win for their side so far; she would have to win her match to keep the series alive, otherwise Sensei Pppiiinnnggg would be fighting only for pride. Which he had in abundance of course, but if these “bad guys” weren’t just playing at it for dramatic purposes, if they were actually cheating, she wasn’t just going to hand it to them.

 

Chapter Text

^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^

Pierce had finally made some headway on the base's computer system and notified Aya (via text chat) that spy satellite feeds had seen the concealed hanger open and launch an executive jet plane. Chile had absolutely nothing ready to intercept, and the only American assets that could have were forbidden from doing so. The plane wasn’t running its transponder, either, making it impossible to track. But also, more worrisome, all of the base's exhaust vents (including the still-open hangar door) were showing a distinct, steady, and ongoing increase in temperature. Aya was, on the other hand, was very relieved to know there was a real physical reason for Lara’s sense of increasing warmth, that her chance-met partner wasn’t about to spontaneously combust. The increasing heat (and the faint skin-tingling sensation she was getting, like that of an approaching storm) was worrisome for other reasons, but they had work to do, and time to do it.

The better-grade access cards they picked up from deceased techs and scientists opened doors that had been previously impassable. Exploration of the Gnosis facility and creature extermination continued. They cleared more corridors of aimlessly milling NMC's and worked their way downward. At the maintenance level, free of contamination and NMC’s, they found their first humans, a handful of uniformed guards. They had to be dispatched when they answered Aya's demand to surrender with a hail of bullets. The only other person they found a wild-haired man, clearly a Chilean, in a janitorial jumpsuit. His eyes widened when he saw them, but his attention was entirely for Aya.

“Exalted One! I never thought I'd see you with my own eyes...but why are you here? You should not be here! You should have been on the plane! We didn't know you were here! If we knew, we would have evacuated you! Oh, you must leave! The base shall soon be sterilized by purifying fire!”

“How soon?” Aya barked.

“Oh, oh, with only the one proto-generator, it will take time, ten minutes more at least to build up to detonation! You are too precious, you must flee!”

A proto-generator, Aya knew, was a former human, gigantified into immobility and used as a crackling source of mitochondrial power. Two such had been sufficient to power the entire Neo-Ark under Nevada's sands. One would be quite sufficiently destructive here. And based on how long they didn’t have enough time to find it and kill it first. Not both it and the gigantified firebreather that served as the base’s mundane incinerator, which (according to schematics) lay between them and the generator room.

“It'll take too long to retrace our steps,” she said, “Is there another jet in the hangar?”

“Oh, no, no, Exalted One, the lift is the only way out. With the destruct condition set, it will express-run you to the surface, once you clear decontamination! Go, go, you must flee without delay!”

“My card won't work the lift. With all the chaos here, they weren't able to check me in properly.”

“What? This is intolerable! Take my key, you must take my key!” the man fumbled it out, offered it to her. “It will call the elevator down here and bypass decontamination!”

“What about you?”

“I am nothing, I don't matter! I give my life for you! I have seen the Exalted One, my life is complete!”

“The portal!” Lara said urgently. “I can open the portal, and we can all leave through it! Where is the tall stone ring?”

“Who is this woman?” the man asked Aya, confused but not hostile.

“An associate I trust. Answer her,” Aya said. On sudden inspiration, she added, “I came all the way down here to see that ring, and I will NOT leave without seeing it, especially if it is about to vanish with the rest of this base. If you wish to hasten my departure, answer her!”

“Aiiiiiiiii, Exalted One, you are too late, the Nort-americanos took it weeks ago! Please, please, leave now before it is too late!”

“Come with us!”

“I cannot, I must remain here! It matters not, my life is complete, my life is complete!!!” He danced around the room, cackling.

Leaving the madman, they sprinted for the elevator. The air in the corridors was now decidedly warmer, enough for Aya to also notice, and her skin was tingling from the energy she felt being gathered below them. The man's key did indeed work, and they were rocketing upwards in no time. Aya was certain they had no NMC’s stowing away. As soon as their radios connected, they warned everyone to get clear. Lara had studied the local geography extensively beforehand; as soon as they emerged from the camouflaged entrance on the surface, she'd approximately placed where they were, even before the GPS fix came in. The sentry lasers (looking outward, not inward) were easy to destroy, and after checking the countdown (they were already past the ten-minute estimate), Lara took over, directing their exit path. She knew where a small lake was, close by, and led Aya on an all-out dash down the slope to it. They reached it and dived in just before something went “whumpf”, the earth shook, and the base spit fire out of every vent and opening...including the elevator shaft they’d just vacated.

Drying out on the shoreline after, Lara first question was “What was all that ‘Exalted One’ stuff about?”

“Damned if I know,” Aya said, shrugging, “I just took advantage of it. Must be someone else who looks like me, there seems to be a lot of that going around.”

Lara could tell that Aya knew something, but that flippant deflection didn’t leave her an opening to probe further. Zip was going to be very busy, digging up more on the secretive American, when she got home.

Going back through the base was not possible; they could see smoke pouring out of the hanger bay, above. They located and met up with the army squad that had been searching for the elevator entrance. It would be a long, hard climb retracing their path down the mountain. They decided to try to reach the cave mouth they’d found earlier. As it turned out, it was reachable, barely. Aya had been given experienced mountaineers, but Lara was by far the best free climber; she blazed trails and set pitons for them. There was one particularly tricky traverse, however, where even the daredevil Brit was glad to have real equipment for.

The gamble paid off, the fires of the self-destruct hadn’t reached the outer cavern; from there, they were able to rapidly and easily backtrack to where the women had first met, and to the rest of the MIST contingent.

 

^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^

 

By the time she was up, Argentina’s condition was getting worse, and Panama was beginning to show the signs she’d seen on the other man when she’d first arrived. Sensei Pppiiinnnggg/Brazil had been trying various standard remedies, to no avail. She bounced into the ring with confidence she didn’t really feel. Circling warily, she studied her opponent’s hands carefully for any telltale glints, but saw nothing. The traditional opening grapple proved to have nothing untoward, so she went at it with a will. She had to concentrate more on making her moves exaggerated enough for the audience to see, although her real fighting experience came in handy when the other wrestler tried some dirty tricks. She deflected the first few attempts handily, and resisted the temptation to throw a similar move in return. She was “the good guy” here, putting on a show, not honestly fighting for her life. Panama, despite his increasing dizziness, was on the ball enough to prevent one of the other bad guys from getting in a cheap shot on her while she was briefly trapped against the ropes. The punch he took outside the ring however clearly staggered him. There were a couple times she could have used Chile’s help, but he was a little slow on the uptake and/or too invested in ‘honor’ to throw an elbow when it would have done her some good. Dubbie was all over the place, bouncing off the ropes with abandon, throwing flying kicks; she was getting into a rhythm, starting to have fun, when Chile’s sudden warning shout jolted her.

She’d missed when someone outside the ring has passed the injector to her opponent, but she saw it coming in. She twisted desperately to get her body out of the way, but not enough, felt the bite as it went home. She seized the other’s hand, tried to hold it while calling for the referee, but the other wrenched herself free, and a quick wrist flick sent the contraband item flying away before the ref got there. So of course, he found nothing, and ordered the match to resume.

Feverish warmth was beginning to spread through her body as they resumed circling each other, and the slight buzzing in her head that presaged the dizziness her fellows had reported. She tried a quick flurry, but the other woman fended her off eaily, smirking.

Dubbie’s dizziness got worse, quickly, but she still managed to slip out of several atteempts to pin her. She needed to get her head clear. Almost without thinking, while the other woman circled again, closing in for the final pin, Dubbie’s hands moved in a centering exercise that resembled a tai chi move, a form that Sensei Pppiiinnnggg had taught her.

And her head was instantly completely clear.

The surprise was so great, her opponent nearly got her, but she wrenched her way out once again; the lack of finesse almost the same as her muddled responses from before.

From there, it was almost trivially easy to pretend the same sloppy ineffective desperation as when she’d been under the drug’s effect, the better to get her opponent to commit to a move the Dubbie could smartly reverse.

Due to distractions by the woman’s teammates, the three-count was at least eight or more, but she cheerfully held the other woman in a very uncomfortable backbend with full undiminished strength until the referee, seeing the woman slapping the mat for “mercy”, finished the count.

Sensei Pppiiinnnggg was the first to congratulate her when she got out of the ring. “That was amazing, I thought they’d gotten you with whetever drug they’re using. Which I still can’t figure out,” he added worriedly.

“They did, Sensei,” she replied, bringing him up short, “and I was definitely feeling it, but when I did the centering exercise you taught me, it cleared right up.”

“Centering…?” he broke off, clearly replaying the match in his head. “That was the Blue Fox Swallowing His Tail move! That did it? That worked?!”

“I didn’t remember what it was called, but, yeah...”

The next intermediate match was starting. As the bell rang, he strode over to Argentina, who was about ready to slide out of his chair. He did the same set of hand gestures, but followed it with what Dubbie would have called a “ha-do-ken” motion. Argentina jerked up, eyes wide, the red flush suffusing his features vanishing in favor of deathly paleness.

Folding his hands into a more normal gesture, Sensei Pppiiinnnggg allowed himself a faint smile.

“Wendy Watson,” he said in a stage whisper covered by the roaring crowd, “you are the first student I have ever had to truly master this technique; in this, you have surpassed even your mentor, the Middleman. Proper total focus of chi is required to obtain the true effect of the ritual, which is to remove poisons from one’s bloodstream. You have done the first form, to detoxify yourself. I have just used the second form to help Argentina, here. But I cannot help Panama; I will need my energies for my upcoming fight.”

“I’ll try it. You just turn your hands like this after doing the pattern, and ‘push’ towards him, right?”

“That’s it. Now, I must get ready.”

It took her several tries, but when it worked, she knew it; she felt a rush of energy leave her, and Panama’s breathing immediately eased.

The bell rang. The intervening match was over. Sensei Pppiiinnnggg was next, and with whatever additional senses had suddenly been awakened in her, she did not like what she could sense about his opponent, the leader of the rival team. She could almost see wisps of darkness surrounding him.

Chapter Text

Amanda came away from her tour of the South Dakota Neo Ark somewhat sobered and reflective.  The "Second Childhood" promised by the GNOSIS Project was one where youth could be regained, but at a pretty severe price...a near-total loss of humanity.  Not something they mentioned in any of their promotional materials, to be sure.  "A minor side effect that we're working on," Consuela had breezily claimed.  There were examples of subjects who'd received the treatment and remained human, Consuela had assured her, but they were in other facilities.  There was a message from the Senator waiting for the petite CEO when they got back to the surface; he'd gotten a hot tip that Natla Industries was running a major "off the books" shipment.  That company, which heretofore had been a broad-spectrum technology incubator, had been recently accumulating materials relevant to genetic research, presaging a move in that direction.  Not a small move, either, and entirely covertly, which is what made it so...intriguing. But they would have to move quickly to capitalize on this.

^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^

 

[WATCH THIS SPACE FOR FINALE OF LUCHADOR MATCH.  All plot significant points have already been established]

 

^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^        ^^^^^

Aya had a disquieting report to make, one that was going straight to the head of Homeland Security, and probably further upstairs from there. She was pretty sure the “exalted one” the janitor at the former Chilean base had mistaken her for was another clone of herself, produced by Gnosis to control the Artificial Neo-Mitochondrials (ANMC’s, aka “arties”) produced by GNOSIS at that site. A clone who’d clearly been evacuated in the lone jet. She’d rescued the first one she found from the Nevada Neo Ark, an innocent girl once the brainwave amplifier used by GNOSIS to control her had been removed, naive and ignorant of the outside world. She’d renamed the girl “Holly”, adopted her, and homeschooled her until she’d had enough basic social skills to try a private school. But she kept her close; Aya was the only one who could contain (or counter) the uncanny powers the girl manifested. A universal characteristic of Neo-Mitochondrials was that supercharged mitochondria destabilized the nucleic genetic structure, rendered it fragile in some respects, which is why defeated annies dissolved. That fragility also what had kept previous neo-mitochondrial queens (aka “Eves”) from reproducing, though not for lack of trying. Doctor Klamp in New York had provided the Second Eve (Melissa) a way of working around that limitation. Aya herself seemingly lacked that fragility, so she’d figured Holly, sharing her genes, did too.

Everything seemed just fine, until the day the young girl’s own body unexpectedly betrayed her by hitting puberty...and she instantly went from being a vibrant young girl to a dissolving pile of slime, like so many other NMC’s. It happened at home at least, easier to cover up, but horrific nonetheless. The grief nearly caused Aya to quit MIST. Adding to that grief was Kyle Madigan, the mysterious investigator she’d met in Dryfield, who shared the knowledge of what she and Holly were; he ended their (casual? not-casual?) relationship immediately thereafter. She’d suspected his (or more correctly, his mysterious employer’s) primary interest had been Holly, not her, and having that proven added to the hurt.

Pierce had Lara's dossier ready for Aya on her next shift back at the office. Lara's adventures had begun very young, when a chartered plane she and her mother were on crashed in the Himalayas. The two of them had survived the crash, but Amelia Croft was nowhere to be found when rescue arrived, and the 'round portal' that young Lara said her mum had fallen into was a shattered wreck. The pieces they could find roughly formed a 5-meter diameter stone ring. In Lara's collegiate years, around the same time as Aya’s tumultuous rookie year as a detective, a disastrous dig in Bolivia had claimed the lives of everyone who'd been in the caverns – except Lara. One picture caught Aya’s eye, a blonde woman. Remembering Lara's comment about her resembling someone, she looked up the name. Amanda Everts, a classmate ostensibly killed along with everyone else, but the only one whose body was never found. For Lara to be concerned about her, Amanda must still be alive, and some sort of rival. A quick search turned up a few traces, she turned deeper investigation over to Pierce.

Skimming journal reports of Lara's other activities, she was intrigued by the claim that Lara had fought and killed a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Having done the same thing, a museum exhibit reanimated by Eve in New York, she wasn't going to outright dismiss it as impossible. Another name that cropped up in connection with Lara was Jacqueline Natla, the CEO of Natla Industries. She didn't have time to read much more, however; an alarm call came in. They'd been increasing in number lately, a trend that concerned her. She was going to have to drive a fair piece to get to this one.

 

^^^^^ ^^^^^ ^^^^^ ^^^^^ ^^^^^

 

Back home in England, Lara settled in to do some research. She hadn't told Aya she'd previously heard of the Neo-Mitochondrial Theory, had even skimmed one of Professor Maeda’s papers (in the original Japanese, no less). Like most people, Lara had thought it to be crackpot pseudo-science; now, she knew otherwise, and needed information. Zip gave her everything he could find, including fresh copies of those same papers from her own archives; she was lucky to have obtained them previously, his works apparently had been quite thoroughly scrubbed from all scientific journals and publishing houses since then.

FBI records showed that Aya Brea, Special Agent of MIST, had been dispatched to a western US ghost town in 2000 to investigate a supposed creature infestation. Dryfield, Nevada was a name infamous worldwide; the whole world had sat up and taken notice when a killer satellite (not known to have previously existed) had suddenly obliterated the town. The official US claim was that it had been an accidental firing, and that the satellite had been repositioning to aim at a nearby uninhabited military reservation for a calibration test when a software glitch caused it to power up and fire. There had been considerable international uproar that such satellites even existed. American conspiracy theorists and “sovereign citizens” found new justification in the fact that it had been pointed at American soil, rather than evil Commie soil. Not to mention being over the western desert area that happened to have many of their camps. To this day, many claimed that the destruction of the Pentagon and the twin towers on 9/11 had been a “false flag” operation, accomplished by other killsats (despite the on-camera footage of the airplane strikes) even though the US strenuously claimed that all such had been deorbited and destroyed by order of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce shortly after the Dryfield incident. While Zip could find no documentation about why it had really fired, nor the agency responsible, Lara had some nasty suspicions. Medical sterilization, political coverup, or both?

A military veteran named Gary Douglas, the only survivor from the town, had been resettled elsewhere in Nevada; a side note indicated that he was a gun collector and licensed dealer, and furthermore that he was authorized to accept MIST bounty points! He’d lost a leg in Vietnam, meaning he was the man of Aya’s code phrase. Even before the orbital strike, Dryfield itself had already been trashed by the creatures. The MIST file photos showed massive, but ordinary, fire damage, splintered walls, and a classic car that looked like it had been put through a shredder. Lara never thought Aya’s comments about what vor-buns could do were hyperbole, but seeing actual proof sent a chill down her spine.

She re-read Maeda's writings in detail; they claimed that the mutation rate of mitochondria – the energy-producing symbiotes in all cellular biology – while slower then nucleic, had finally given rise to cases where the mitochondrial half had evolved enough to achieve it own sentience, and as such desired freedom from its biologically-ordained role as passenger in the human body. New York, as it turned out, was not the first known emergence. Maeda wrote of an event near Tokyo that had preceded New York by several years. Liver transplants and immunosuppressive therapies figured prominently in both accounts, and the fact that emergent queens always named themselves “Eve”.

And the good professor was somewhere in Tokyo? Well, that was something she could address. She made a phone call to the private line of the CEO of a certain media corporation.

“Muushi muushi.” the male voice at the other end said.

“Nishimura-san.” she said, simply.

“Ahhh, Lara! It has been too long since I heard your voice,” he said in flawless English, “What is the occasion for this call?”

“Have you heard of a biologist named Maeda Kunihiko?” she said in equally flawless Japanese, by way of reply.

“Maeda-sensei is a disgraced scientist, if memory serves.” Nishimura said carefully.

“I've seen the proof of his theories; we have need of him. I would consider it a great favor if you would find him and provide him with a safe house. We also need to get him whatever research and production facilities he needs, if you can arrange it. If he questions this unexpected generosity, tell him the pretty policewoman from New York says hello.”

“The pretty policewoman from New York.” the businessman repeated, uncertain but committing the phrase to memory.

“My profound thanks, Nishimura.”

“For you, Lara, anything. However, I do not have a great deal of available capital.”

“If you need more, don’t hesitate to call me back.”

With that out of the way, Lara had found a new avenue of approach regarding Avalon-portals, a temple submerged in the Mediterranean Sea. While she prepared to go, she set Zip to researching the Nevada incident, and anything that could be uncovered regarding “Gnosis Project”.

 

^^^^^           ^^^^^          ^^^^^          ^^^^^          ^^^^^

 

Jacqueline Natla’s day had started out pretty well; she’d learned that Lara Croft was moving in the direction of one of the old Avalonian ruins in the Mediterranean, and immediately diverted a small NatlaCorp container ship bearing one of her covert shipments to intercept the woman’s runabout, joining it on board. But things had turned, not for the better, when some other party had intervened. The other had been cunning, watching and waiting until Jacqueline sent her team of mercenaries to dive after Lara. A black chopper not belonging to NatlaCorp swooped down and deposited a handful of large lumbering figures with unconventional weaponry, heavy arm mounts of either grenade launchers or energy lances (which she acknowledged to herself with some irony, were based on NatlaCorp tech). They shredded her remaining bodyguards and took her prisoner, again ironically using an unbreakable plexiglass tube of her design meant to grow clones in; she could sense the wrongness of them, wrongness that not only took the form of cybernetic enhancements, but of genetic tweaks that smelled of abomination. Tweaks that hinted of a rogue entity that had been put down millennia ago by the combined might of all four of the Ancient races, not just her own Atlantean, but also Avalonian, Asgardian, and Xanadian. Perhaps the last time the Great Four had been of one mind, and certainly before certain...internal divisions occurred.

Encased within the transparent tube, Natla was not entirely helpless; she had her wits and her voice. The cyborgs didn’t appear able to listen and respond, but the woman with the aggressively short blonde hair and tattoos? Her, Natla could reach.

When the cyborgs were elsewhere, Natla said to that one, “Oh, finally, a real human!  What, don’t you know what you’re working with? Or, wait,” Natla said cocking her head and looking at the human intently, “maybe they don’t know what they’re dealing with, in you.”

“What’s there to know?” Amanda challenged.

“You have been touched by something extraordinary,” Natla said, eyes boring into Amanda’s, “something not of this world, a creature of shadow and power. I can sense the imprint of it lingering on you.”

“How do you know that?” Amanda said, shaken, “How can you possibly know that?!”

“Because of what I am, my senses extend outside the material. You tamed it, and wielded it once, but have it no longer.”

“Thanks to Lara Croft! She took the amulet from me, to her manor, and locked it away in a damned vault!”

“Lara? Lara?! Ah, then we have an enemy in common! Listen to me, there is no vault on Earth that I cannot breach. Aid me now, turn on these thieves, and I shall get that amulet back for you!”

“But what about GNOSIS? And the Senator? He has some blackmail material on me.”

“GNOSIS is nothing but a bunch of foolish monkeys tampering with forces they do not understand and cannot hope to control; for that alone, I would destroy them. But avenging this insult they have visited upon me will make doing so ever so much more satisfying! Once you have your amulet back, you may deal with the Senator yourself. Do we have an agreement?”

Amanda’s expression hardened. “What do I need to do?”

Natla told her. What Natla did not tell Amanda was that she could have gotten the amulet back herself any time she wanted. She was permanently linked with the smoke-creature, and could have summoned the amulet back to herself merely by concentrating on that desire with all her willpower. Had she been properly trained by the Ancient master who crafted the amulet (probably Asgardian, based on the trace of aura remaining), she would have known it. Natla needed this human’s assistance; hand-delivering the amulet to her was a small price to pay.

 

Chapter Text

At the illegal sublet Wendy Watson shared with Lacy, her equally artistic and improbably photogenic roommate, Wendy's watch made its characteristic “Urrrn Urrrn” attention signal. She heaved a huge sigh; having just finished a painting of “Panama” performing one of his flying drops, she and Lacy had been about to go to one of the innumerable local espresso shops, Coffee of Doom. It was double loyalty-punch day for organic coffees, which in this case meant literally getting punched in the arm by the sassy Southern barista. Showing off ten bruises got you a free espresso drink (worth it!), even if they didn't always show up well on Wendy's Cuban complexion. Well, maybe one of the bruises she’d collected at the luchador match would get counted. Lacy was nattering about how the pain of the consumer should equal that of poor exploited coffee growers. But duty called, so instead of getting a knuckledusted latte, Wendy headed to the Middleman headqurters cleverly disguised as the seemingly abandoned “Jolly Fats Weehawken Temporary Help Agency” and checked in at the control room. There, an overweight woman with short curly hair and wearing a ridiculously florid muu-muu was poking buttons on the panel.

“About time you got here, you hashish-huffing hussy!” the woman snapped.

That was despite the fact that Wendy had neither gotten lucky nor smoked hash (at least, not anytime recently) nor been particularly slow in responding; Ida was always like that.

“What's threatening the world today, Ida?” she asked, “and where's the boss-man?”

“He's checking over the filter seals on the Middlemobile,” the heavyset woman responded, “We've got a real live one here. Supposedly, something in the air at the Smif College humanities building is turning people into monsters...there's some irony for ya. First responders called for Federal backup, but apparently there isn't any available; county SWAT team is already there, but standing by. So you get to go instead.” A metallic tentacle slid out of Ida's volumnious sleeve and connected to the console; despite her human appearance, she was actually a robot. “Grab a pair of the Fenzpridorian plasma rifles. Not because you deserve it, but so your hoyden appearance will at least somewhat match the heavy hitters they're expecting.”

As usual, Ida's insults had no relation to reality, Wendy looked as neat and professional as the Middleman himself. The only time she'd ever looked like a hoyden, it wasn't really her, it was her green-eyed-redhead-white-chick alternate-universe self, twin sister of another mother. There were times she wished she had the nerve to wear a belly shirt like that, though. She grabbed a square-muzzled carbine from the rack that had opened up on the wall, plus a second one for her boss, and headed down to the garage.

As she arrived, Ida was on the intercom, telling the Middleman that the regional SWAT team was about to make entry at Smif, against the incident commander's advice.

“That'll end well,” the robot added acerbically.

“Sweet Mother of Fonzarelli!” he exclaimed, closing the hood of the Middlemobile, “things are getting dicey out there. Time to go, Dubbie!”

Somehow, not even working in the engine compartment of the classic (verging on antique) car had managed to leave any trace of grime or oil on his immaculate uniform. She stowed the weapons and away they went.

Even as dire as the situation was (or so she'd gathered), Wendy's clean-cut boss would not do anything other then the speed limit and scrupulously observed all traffic regulations. Even when updates came in indicating that the SWAT team's efforts were not going well at all. Wendy was about ready to jump out and push. At one point, when a traffic signal turned red just as they reached it, frustration got the better of her and she dropped an f-bomb.

“Now, now, Dubbie, profanity weakens the intellect...”

“...and cheapens the soul”, she chorused, having heard this bon mot many a time.

“There's no need to get your knickers in a Moebius,” he said primly, “we're almost there.”

Approaching the cop at the perimeter, they did the usual quick badge-flash, and she waited to see what lame cover story he'd invent this time.

“We're with the Mitosis Institute Status Testing group,” he announced, not batting an eye.

“Yeah?” the cop said. “Boy, will the Incident Commander be glad to see you. From what I've heard, the county SWAT team just got chewed up pretty badly. Literally. Go ahead and check in with her, blonde woman at the van by the front door.”

Further in, out of the cop's hearing, the Middleman muttered, “This can't be good, Dubbie. Anybody who can keep enough of their wits about them in circumstances like this to be ‘in command’ will see through our charade like a vizier through a bellydancer's pants...”

“Boss, I don't know how any of your stories ever hold up, and yet they do. This isn’t any worse than the ‘Swimming Pool Taste Testers’. We’ll be fine.” She patted his arm reassuringly.

The blonde woman (apparently a plainclothes detective; leather jacket, concert t-shirt, jeans, gold badge on lanyard around neck) cocked her head as they approached. Wendy had been around a lot of improbably photogenic twenty-somethings, but this woman absolutely took the prize...Asian and blonde, and the hair hadn't come from a bottle, if she was any judge.

“You're from MIST?” the policewoman asked, skeptically.

“Yes, indeed, Ma'am.” Even looking far too young to be a senior detective, she rated the honorific from the ever-polite Middleman.

“Well, you certainly look like feds,” the woman muttered. “All right, before I let you in to my hot zone, I need to see what kind of hardware you're packing. This is not a situation where peashooters will be of any use.”

“I'm sorry, Ma'am, that's classified. I'm sure you understand, we just can't wave it around...”

“You better pull something out, or I ain't letting you in,” the woman said bluntly, a trace of New York accent creeping into her diction. “C'mon, super-secret agency and all, you've gotta have some good stuff. And trust me, yer gonna need it in there,” jerking a thumb over her shoulder at the front door.

Wendy and the Middleman traded looks, then unslung their blasters and held them up. The blonde nodded approvingly. “What are those, plasma? Nice.”

Clarence was getting very nervous now. This was no ordinary woman in front of them, to casually recognize advanced equipment.

“How about body armor?” the not-so-ordinary woman asked.

“We never....” Wendy began.

“It slows us...” Clarence began simultaneously.

“You're donning some,” the woman said with flat finality, “there should be vests in your sizes in the van. And think about picking up a regular gun or two for backup, if that's all you have. Some of the things in there are immune to plasma.”

Clarence and Wendy traded another look. How did she know that?

The detective shed her jacket, picked up a red-enameled vest, and began strapping it on with practiced efficiency.

“Y-you're coming in with us?” Wendy said, shocked. She felt warm for a sudden moment, but it passed.

“No, certainly not,” Clarence started, “after what happened to the SWAT team, you should leave this to experts like us.”

The policewoman looked back at them with a wintry smile. Looking in her eyes, Wendy silently revised the estimate of her age upwards several years.

“Wouldn't be the first SWAT team I've cleaned up after,” the not-so-young woman said. “You've got the balls to claim to be 'experts like us', I want to see you prove it. Or if, God help you, you're wrong, I'll do my level best to get you two back out alive.”

The Middleman was dumbfounded, probably at the notion that anyone thought they could protect him. Wendy was having trouble believing they weren't being arrested, but wasn't going to question their good luck. If still having to walk into a building where a SWAT team got shredded could be considered “lucky”.

“But frankly,” the agent went on, “with what’s in there, I need the help. The only real flaw in your disguise is that we,” the improbably photogenic officer went on, indicating herself, “are not exactly a suit-and-tie outfit.” She held out a hand to Clarence, her smile a trifle warmer now. “Special Agent Aya Brea, Homeland Security, Mitochondiral Investigation and Suppression Team.”

Clarence's jaw actually dropped as he automatically took her hand. “Hecate's ragged silk drawers! New York City, Christmas 1997?”

“The same. Although this is looking more like LA’s Akropolis Towers, 2000.”

Wendy's jaw had also dropped at the notion that he'd accidentally almost named a real agency in his usual far-fetched spur-of-the-moment invention, not to mention the oath he'd just used.

“Wow, boss, that was extra salty, even for you,” Wendy said as she also shook Aya's hand. “I'm Wendy Watson, and he's....”

“The Middleman.” Aya finished for her. “I'm actually glad you two showed up on your own, it's kind of hard to send an invitation when we're not supposed to know O2STK exists. Oh, don't look like that, Mr. Coulton, I for one am glad to dispense with the pretense.”

“How'd she know your name?” Wendy asked incredulously. “I worked for you for several years before I learned your name!”

“We have our sources,” Aya said, cryptically. Businesslike now, “Anyway, like I said, pick out anything you like from the van. Your lucky day, you get to see my agency's secret stuff. Only fair, you showed me yours.” That last with a dimple for Clarence. He remained unruffled as always, Wendy rolled her eyes.

The weapons selection in the van was extensive and had rare and obscure guns alongside the expected standards. The MP5K Aya selected for herself had an unfamiliar accessory attached to the underside of the barrel, and the magazine of 9mm she picked for it was color-coded with a sky-blue stripe.

Wendy's initial choice was a Calico M950, whose 100-round helical magazine was also blue-striped.

“Dubbie,” Clarence said to his protege, “that gun may look cool, but it had a strong tendency to jam...”

“It's all right,” Aya said, “our armorer's re-engineered it for vastly improved reliability, even in full auto. You've already got 'long guns', but to cover all possible situations, I recommend you both take a handgun along for close work, and you should have something full-auto, Clarence.”

“I'm fine with just this,” he said, holding up a .38 Browning.

“Take a second one, then, grey-banded magazines for one and sky-blue for the other. Switching weapons at need is usually quicker, simpler, and less error-prone than trying to switch magazines. At least, in my experience.”

“I'd never argue with a lady,” Clarence said. But he only took magazines, not another weapon.

“What do the colors mean?” Wendy asked, picking up a Glock P229 and grey-banded clips of 9mm. Keeping to the same caliber as Aya seemed prudent.

“Stripe color on magazines indicates ammo type, grey is plain lead, Hydra loads for extra penetration power. Light blue is a MIST specialty, hollow point containing a pellet that aerosolizes on impact....”

“Valium in a concentrated acid suspension?” Clarence exclaimed, reading the label on the appropriate ammo box. “Ingenious, but a person shot with this would take lasting harm!”

“What we're going to be dealing with inside won't be people, not anymore,” Aya said grimly, “once the transformation takes place, it's one-way and permanent.”

“I wish I could disagree,” Clarence said, a little sadly.

“You know what these things are...?” Wendy said, then stopped herself. Of course he did.

“Most of the time,” Aya went on, for Dubbie’s benefit, “there will be absolutely no doubt about your targets, but if there is, use your plain ammo weapon. Be wary, though, of anyone who looks human but is unable to speak. That could be an untransformed annie, er, neo-mitochondrial, trying to lure you in close before it attacks.”

Wendy put the Calico back down. The “MIST Special” ammo sounded too vicious for her comfort, and she didn’t see any grey-banded magazines for it. Following some unnamed impulse, her next choice was an Ingram MAC-10 that showed signs of extensive modification, a longer-than-usual barrel immediately obvious. Her boss handed her four magazines for it, three grey, one orange-striped.

“Firefly incendiaries,” he said by way of explanation, apparently having instantly decoded MIST's color classification system.

“Wait,” Wendy said, looking at the magazines, “are these shot shells?”

“Yep, and that's not a bad choice, actually,” Aya commented. “Shot shells, even skinny four-tens like that, deliver special payloads better, which is why Jodie rechambered the Mac. With the extended barrel, the spread pattern isn't too extreme. Take a green magazine or two also, that's slug rather than buckshot. Time's wasting, are we just about ready?”

“I always am, ma'am.” Clarence responded. He'd reconsidered, and taken a second .38 after all. No 'room broom', though.

They put on ballistic vests (the weight wasn't as bad as Wendy feared), Aya handed out tonfa-style batons to complete their collection, and they went into the ominously-silent building.

 

^^^^^           ^^^^^          ^^^^^          ^^^^^          ^^^^^

[Lara at underwater temple in Mediterranean.  Get gloves, encounter Natla & Amanda.  Watch this space for expanded writeup]