We don’t actually go in guns ablazing. Something like that would have ruined the mission in the first thirty seconds.
Those shooting games you can play in the holo-booths like to exaggerate the fun of stealthy infiltrations, where you swoop in and K.O. all the guards with expert moves, and then after you get spotted you just take out your dual-wielding AR-15s and plug away at everything that moves.
Here, and maybe this is because I’m not part of any of the three strike forces going on ahead and securing the first floor, this is turning out to be not much more than keeping my guard up and following Yuri Motokawa around.
Every minute or so, I hear a faint zapping sound as the sharpshooters outside pick off the robot guards with targeted EMP blasts, disabling them as quietly as possible. The few human employees here at this Blyth Industries processing center still have yet to find us out, and I actually understand why. This place is massive.
“Red to Prince,” a voice on my radio whispers. “West entrance secure. Human security subdued. Visual confirmation on north security office.”
“Proceed,” Motokawa whispers back.
My friends aren’t with me; Karina, Lamar, and all of the Holos are staying back for now, only to advance when the strike teams descend to the lower floors, the deep underground lair built by Blyth for… Well, we don’t know yet, except that it involves the Ascendants.
We continue advancing in the direction of that red X on the blueprint, the marker for where my journey up here starts and my journey down there, ahead of everyone else in the operation, begins.
I see a whole pile of disabled robots laying about. The two other strike teams have advanced quickly, neutralizing almost any security threat. It almost makes the team I’m with redundant. I don’t know what this group is here for except to escort me.
“Real glad it’s past closing time,” one of Motokawa’s men mutters.
“Agreed,” Motokawa responds. “Red, status.”
“Commencing north office breach in five.”
Suddenly, our close formation breaks, and the mercenaries around me advance towards the center of the processing center, where most of the remaining human employees are working. Their guns are raised, but they are still concealing themselves behind machinery and around walls.
Then, a single gunshot rings out–
And the strike team swarms the building from all directions, screaming at the employees to get out, to run away, making spread out to make their numbers look much greater than they actually are. The employees flee quickly, and the team performs a rapid sweep across the first floor.
Motokawa is still next to me. “They were so concerned about the underground fortress that they forgot to make the processing center safe. This was too easy.”
“It could be a trap,” I say.
“It certainly feels like one, doesn’t it?” But she shakes her head. “I don’t think it is.”
She and I reach the separation point, which turns out to be…
“A mail chute…?” An oversized mail chute, big enough for a cardbox box delivery, and, theoretically, a human being.
“That’s what this is,” she says. “Any problem?”
“Why does this even exist… Don’t mail rooms use those tube pipe things that suck the letters in?”
“This isn’t the fifties, Harding.”
“Can I even fit in a mail chute? This is stupid.”
Motokawa’s grown tired of my whining and ignores me. “Those employees are probably calling the police now. We have about ten minutes before SWAT shows up. You had better hurry.”
“No, the police won’t be coming,” I say. “They made that much clear to me.”
Motokawa doesn’t respond for a second. “Well. Get down there, then.” She pulls the trigger to a grenade and tosses it down the mail chute. “Ten seconds, and then dive.”
“What the fuck was that?”
“Smoke bomb. Don’t want to end up in a mail room full of armed guards, do you?”
“Well, I hadn’t really thought that far before–”
“Four. Three. Two. Jump.”
Without hesitation, I dive into the mail chute.
I crash onto a pile of cardboard boxes and unopened letters, and, miraculously, avoid dying of a thousand papercuts.
The mail room is covered in smoke, enough that I can barely see anything in here, but neither can the two employees I hear shouting about what the hell is going on around here.
Following the plan, I find a panel in the ventilation shaft above, and make a super high leap up there to knock the panel down. Then, after it’s off, I make one more leap to get inside and climb in.
Just like the movies.
The entire world is lucky I’m a skinny bitch, because this air duct is not at all meant for humans to crawl around in. Now I know why John McClane said he knew what a TV dinner feels like…
Ugh, I’m getting covered in dirt and dust. What the hell is this plan…
I won’t bore you with the details of my climb through the ventilation system of Blyth’s fortress of doom. It involves quite a lot of deadly spinning fans, and more than one grate blocking my path that I have to punch out of my way. Also, way too much grossness. Do they just not clean this thing out?
“Harding, report,” Motokawa’s scratchy voice says over my radio. But I can’t quite reach the radio button because this section of the air ducts is a bit… too… tight… Augh…
Finally, I find a quick exit and hop out of it. A huge risk, I know, but I can’t stand being in there anymore.
Now I’m in… a janitor’s closet. Wow. All of the secret base cliches coming together.
“Harding, report,” she repeats.
I press my receiver. “I’m partway through, on floor… B4, I think. So far, I can report that nothing has gone awry. No alarm has been sounded yet. I think you’re clear to enter.”
“We won’t enter until you have eyeballs on Blyth. You can’t let him escape.”
“Fine. Give me, I don’t know, five more minutes. Over.”
I jump back into the ventilation shaft and continue my perilous, grimy journey down another floor or two. It’s really, really tough being quiet in this place, and you’re extremely vulnerable to being killed by machine guns if someone spots you when you’re stuck in here.
Honestly, the worst possible place to be. Don’t try this at home. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Ten minutes later…
This is going to take longer than I thought. Sorry, Motokawa.
Every peek I take out of the air duct shows me very little.. just guards standing around, people in labcoats hurrying from one room to the next… Nothing interesting happening at all. Just–
Okay, that’s not normal. There is a figure in a pewter-gray cloak, a hood over their head concealing them from me entirely. They are followed by a robot with a gun, and are entering the elevator.
Crap, crap, crap. That’s what I’m looking for.
I watch the elevator closely, watch as it descends to floor B6, B7, B8… and finally stops. B8. That’s where I need to go.
Sick of all this sneaking around, I drop down to the floor and knock out the human and robot guards before they have a chance to react (just like in the stealth shooting games). I open up the elevator doors with a great force of strength and drop down in one jump. The elevator has gone down to B10, so when I land, I can just do one more leap up and enter my target.
Going down an elevator shaft is so much easier than climbing up one. I wish Mayor Epstein had had an underground lair.
Well, now I’ve got to tear the door open here, too, but there’s a pretty high chance that there will be a bunch of guards here ready to shoot me to smithereens. And… the elevator below me is already rising.
Okay, scratch that, new plan. I leap off the ledge and back on top of the elevator, making my best effort to make sure I don’t thud too loudly. The elevator stops right at floor B9.
New plan’s better than the old plan. I make yet another high jump, reaching floor B8, where, when I open up those steel doors, there is nobody in the vicinity to see me. And, because I hate myself I guess…
I enter the air ducts one more time, crawling down to floor B9 and meeting a couple friendly rats in the process.
And, as expected, security is extremely tight around here. Tons and tons of human guards, and about twice as many robots, in the hallway I’m following. The robots not noticing my movement through the air duct is a product of the sad reality that even the top-line guard robots are still pieces of junk.
I see another gray-hooded figure walking down the hallway. I follow their path and see that they, along with their contingent of bodyguards, are entering one large door right at the end… And right past the swirling fan in front of my only pathway forward.
Did I say I was skipping over all of the ventilation shaft stuff? Sorry about that lie.
Okay, a giant fan in front of me. Spinning blades that will cut my hand off if I get too close. I’m going to go out on a limb (ha) and say my healing powers don’t cover a missing hand.
I touch the center of the fan, grab hold of it, maybe in some stupid effort to slow it down or figure out some way to turn it off, or maybe I could–
Without thinking, without even being conscious of it, I feel like some sort of– I don’t know.
Okay, the fan has turned off.
I don’t know how I did that.
I don’t really care.
After carefully and quietly removing the barrier in front of me, I continue crawling forward until I pass into the next room…
A conference room.
I peek out through the very small opening and get the best look I can. It’s heavily obscured, barely giving me a glimpse of what’s going on. But I see a big round table with a bunch of people, all mysterious figures wearing gray cloaks. About fifteen of them, though I can’t see the whole scene. From this angle, so high up, I can’t seem to see even a single one of their faces. I’m practically above the table.
I see… someone’s nose poking out, I guess. They have a big nose. So… a white person, I guess? Is this the Klu Klux Klan? I’ll be upset if that’s all this–
No more jokes. I see it.
Right in the center of the table is a head.
A robotic head.
One with LED lights where its eyes should be, static in a dissatisfied position.
R8PR is here in the conference center. He’s literally the centerpiece. That means he’s okay. Besides the lack of a body.
I can’t see Jones, or any evidence of her. Ugh, I wish there was a better vantage point… I could keep going in this ventilation shaft, but… Not going to risk that.
The hooded figures make quiet chat with each other, but I can’t make any of it out. It’s just noise and rumblings.
That is, until the front door slams open.
Another hooded figure bursts through the conference room and swaggers to the center position. I already know who this is, so there’s no point doing a guessing game there.
Donald Blyth, hood over his face, but red eye still glowing through it, stands at the front of the conference room, and then all of the other cloaked figures stand up with him.
“It is time to commence our meeting,” he says.
“Aye,” everyone shouts in unison, most of the voices deep and resonant. “We are the Ascendants! We will advance!”