Anya looked to me and then to Axel. Her eyes filled with hatred and rage. “Why did you bring her here, Julian?”
“Julian?” I muttered.
“Very funny, Ms. Toska,” Axel said with a smirk.
“Oh, I’m sorry you go by Axel, like the prepubescent little boy that you are!” She screamed and spit as hard as she could, in Axel’s direction but from where she was bound, it did not go very far.
Axel rolled his eyes. “Ms. Hellion is here to recuperate and retrain.”
“Really, you aim to train her? You sick fuck!” Anya laughed through bloody lips. she turned to me with sadness in her eyes. “Little sister, you cannot trust this man. He did this, to me!”
I turned to Axel. Crossing my slender arms over my chest, I knew I was shivering. Anya wasn’t wrong. I was the youngest, smallest person in the room. Axel could kill me if he wanted to. I expected him to be standing behind me, looking menacing: anything to give merit to Anya’s accusations.
As I slowly turned my head, I could see that was not the case. The tall, dark-skinned man with the humble smile was leaning against the doorway, propping open the once secured door with his foot. “Are you trying to tell me I can leave whenever I want to?” I asked as confidently as I could manage.
“Or you can stay and speak with Toska or as you know her, ‘Anya’ a little longer.”
“Did you hurt her?”
“That’s up to you to decide.”
“Um, what?” This has to be a joke. Yet, I knew what he meant. I barely knew Axel but I also barely knew Anya. They could argue, yell and scream at each other but in the end, it would be my choice as to who to believe. “What are you going to do to her?”
“The prisoner will be turned over to the United Nations to stand trial.”
Why did that sound familiar? What could Anya possibly have done? I took a step back, standing at Axel’s side. “Thank you for giving me a chance to say goodbye.” I nodded, bowing my head. “I’m ready to continue my training, Sir.”
Axel smirked but he made no motion towards me in any way; no condescending pat on the back, hug, or anything that could be seen as sexual or domineering. The door closed on its own, locking away Anya’s screams. “So, what’s your opinion of Tony?”
“Tony?” He seemed nice enough, but then again all of our interactions had been part of a test. “Is he human?”
“He was born human,” Axel said with a chuckle. “Although he’s lived here, at the facility for the majority of his life.”
The majority of his life? “Oh? Interesting.” I tried my best to maintain my composure. If Anya was right and Axel’s group could not be trusted, I needed to survive.
“It’s not really my story to tell, but rest assured he is monitored by our medical staff and he regularly tests within the normal range for both mental stability and emotional rational.”
WTF was Tony? “You can test for emotional rational?”
“Yes, of course. We like to monitor our forces at a higher level than most other military branches.”
We continued to chat about the standards and regulations of TAC. It seemed like an organization that truly cared about their employees, perhaps even more than their ‘job duties.’ Eventually, we made it back to the room I shared with Tony. “So,” I bit my lip nervously. “What did Maverick tell you about me?”
“Only that I have to earn your respect, the same as any other soldier.” Axel unlocked the door, holding it open like a true gentleman. “You may be young, but you’ve lived through more than most kids your age.”
“Can I ask, what’s your relationship with Maverick? Did you go to school together? Is she your cousin…” my voice trailed off, the question was very much out of line. Even if Axel was acting like a supportive coach, he was still my superior, not my friend.
“She’s his ex-wife!” Tony shouted from inside the room. He was sitting cross-legged on a gym mat holding a wireless video game controller.
Axel only chuckled as he ushered me back in the room, shutting the door. This made me believe that Tony was perhaps not lying.
Looking up at the television I could see Tony playing a racing game of some kind. It looked retro, with bright colorful 16-bit graphics. “So, tell me about yourself, since we’re going to be roommates.”
Tony shrugged as his on-screen vehicle turned a corner, revealing that he was in fact playing on a three-dimensional track. “I’m your mentor, roommate, spirit guide, whatever.” He reached for a previously unseen drink, a can of fruit punch flavor Rockstar energy. Using one hand, he managed to take a sip, all while maintaining focus on the race.
“Axel said you’ve been here since you were a kid?”
“Yup,” Tony said, pulling his legs to his chest. “I’ve been here since I was eight. It was one of those situations where I was terminally ill and my parents had a choice; sell me to science or watch me die.” He paused momentarily to knock an opponent off the track. “Now I have superpowers.”
“Superpowers? Wow, fascinating.” I walked around the room to see what else was new since I’d left. There were posters of various video game characters, from the chubby cute Nintendo icons; Mario, Kirby, and Link. And then there were more violent, adult games; Grand theft auto, Mortal Kombat and the guy from HALO. Master Chief? Yeah, that’s who it was. I paused for a moment, feeling a strange connection. I’d never played HALO but I knew a little of the plot; in a future war between species, humans sacrificed their children to create super-soldiers. All for the greater good. Right?
“We’re you actually going to kill me?” I asked casually. If this new room decor represented his interests, Tony was just an average teenage boy.
“Dr. Toki wouldn’t have let it get that far,” he said as his vehicle crossed the finish line.
“Dr. Toki?” I asked, making my way to his side. I took a seat next to him, on the floor, where he proceeded to slide me the opened can of Rockstar. It was half empty but I took a sip out of politeness.
“Dr. Toki is the current head of medical research. Nothing goes down without her approval.”
“Is she Axel’s boss?”
“No, not really.” Tony ran his fingers through his hair, as he leaned his head back in deep thought. “But she’s a bit… well, I guess the word would be ‘crazy?’ You’ll meet her soon enough.”
Gee, that’s not terrifying at all. “Can I play?” I asked like a shy, timid younger sister.
“Sure,” he tossed the controller. “Quirky! I meant Quirky. That’s the ‘high-class, hot chick with librarian glasses’ word for crazy.”
“I guess so.” I chuckled, my mind was focused on Tony’s oddly shaped controller. From what I could tell, it was an N64 controller, modded with a wireless node. And the game he was playing? ‘Minecraft.’ I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Do you also play Overwatch and Fortnite?”
“Nah, I’m not into battle-royale shit.”
“I’m going to take a shower, so if you need to piss you have to use the porta-potty.”
“We still have the porta-potty?”
“Yeah, it folds into the wall,” Tony said as he exited out a different hidden door.
I stood up and looked to the corner. I felt my hand along the seam, looking for the secret of how to open what was clearly a door. ‘Click.’ I took a step back as the toilet spun into place. “Not very private.” I stepped closer, lifting the lid as if I was going to use the facilities. All on its own, a wall emerged from the floor, carving off the area into a mini-bathroom. “Wow.” If this was my new life, it really wasn’t half bad.
Over the next few days, I focused on working out, exploring the openly accessible parts of the base. I made sure to be a good girl, up until the day I was summoned to Dr. Toki’s office (located on the basement floor.)
Dr. Toki was not what I expected. The small Asian women looked to be in her early twenties. Was she a child prodigy? The possibility was there since TAC had a habit of taking abnormally skilled children. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” she said, motioning for me to wake a seat in her small office. It was literally just a table, a laptop, and four walls that seemed no larger than a prison cell.
I pulled up a folding chair. “What exactly is TAC?”
“I surprised you haven’t figured that out.”
“I try not to pry into confidential areas.”
“Well, what have you heard?” she asked sweetly.
“We collect and protect? From what I can tell, various parcels pass through here on their way to other places.”
Dr. Toki was taking notes on a small paper pad. “What kind of parcels?”
“Prisoners, technology,” I replied honestly. “That’s all I’ve personally seen.” Anya was the only prisoner. The majority of parcels were advanced weapons or possible computer parts (to me it all looked like overpriced Lego sculptures.)
“I see,” she said she opened her laptop. “You are such a polite, well-mannered girl.” Apparently, whatever came next required her to type directly into her database. “What’s your opinion of Deadlock?”
“Tony? He’s been pretty good to me.”
“He lets you call him Tony?” the doctor muttered as she typed quickly and loudly. It was like she had just witnessed her lab rat locate the end of the maze. “Does he also call you by your civilian name?”
“He knows my name,” I said with a nod.
This caused Dr. Toki to look up. “Really? Your file doesn’t even contain your civilian name.”
“Tony also knows I don’t like it, and he’s respectful of that.” That was only half true. He called me Nikki when he wanted to insult me; ‘Nicki fix the porta potty’, ‘Nicki turn the lights off, so I don’t have to get out to bed,’ etc.
“Would you care to share your civilian name with me?”
“For your files? I’m fine being listed as ‘Teenage Jane Doe.'”
“How about just for me, between friends.”
“Maybe at a later time. I mean, I just met you.” I forced a smile, but Dr. Toki was starting to come off as creepy.
“How would you describe your relationship with Tony?”
“My relationship?” And the creepiness just hit all-new levels.
“You share a room, I assume you’ve seen him in his most private state.”
“I try not to.” Was she asking what I thought she was asking?
“Do you see him as a potential partner?”
Holy mother of fuck. I forced a smile, hoping to radiate teenage innocence. “He’s like an older brother.” An older brother who tried to warn me about you.
“I mean, we fight for the bathroom, he taught me how to build stuff in Minecraft…” my voice trailed off as I saw her look of disappointment.
“I was hoping for something more. He is quite a remarkable specimen, are you certain he would not make a suitable breeding partner?”
Of all the men I’d met in my lifetime, Tony would be someone I would consider. But what Dr. Toki was asking- it was downright rude. “Don’t you hate having no windows?” I asked nervously. I needed to get the hell out.
“I take it you’ve been outside?” Dr. Toki said with a sweet smile, her eyes sparkling in the light of the fluorescent bulbs. “Does this area of the building make you uncomfortable?”
“A little.” I nodded, biting my lower lip. “I guess you find it cozy?” Unless you were put here against your will.
Dr. Toki did a half nod, half head-tilt in response. “It’s cozy enough. Where do you think we’re located?” Was she, herself, a prisoner here?
“Japan?” From what I could tell the facility was in the mountains of Japan or maybe Mongolia. We were high up (to the point where I noticed a change in oxygen levels) surrounded by cherry blossom trees as far as the eye could see. Was Dr. Toki a local? That would explain why she found the scenery unimpressive.
“And have you been enjoying your time here?”
“Yeah, totally. It’s really beautiful. Ever since I got taken off bed rest, I like running laps on the outdoor track.” I made sure to pose with extra big doll eyes. I’m just a sweet little girl who wants to live to see the sunlight again.
“Well, I’ll let you get back to it. I just wanted to meet you face to face,” Dr. Toki said as she leaned in to shake my hand. “I’ll put you down for a full physical in a few weeks. My schedule is pretty full, so I’ll get back to you on the date.”
“Cool, it’s been nice meeting you.” I shook her hand, pausing just long enough to look her in the eyes. ‘That seemed normal enough.’ I exited her office, and rain straight for the stairs. I could have taken the elevator but I wanted out of the cursed basement as quickly as possible.
I caught my breath at around the third floor, exiting back to my room. Tony was out. According to his day planner (which was no-doubt filled in for him by whatever mad-scientists were working on further mutations) he was at the fifth-floor pool. ‘Yeah, no.’ I was not about to walk in on him half-naked in a swimming pool.
The more I thought about it, the more upset I became. Axel had been nothing but kind to me but if this was the master plan of his organization. Oh God, I felt like I needed to vomit. “You don’t need to puke, you just need to calm down. Go for a run and when you come back Tony will be there with all the answers.”
I made my way outside to the aforementioned track. It was the shape of an infinity symbol (or a number 8, as I called it.) I giggled at the memory of the conversation Tony and I had when he first gave me the tour. I said something like, ‘That’s so cool! It’s a number 8 since we’re on the eighth floor.’
I found out three things that day; The outdoor track was on the tenth floor, an infinity symbol looks like a stretched out number eight, but represents a never-ending line. And I learned that my prosthetic legs were springy as a rubber ball, which made it infinity more satisfying when I kicked Tony’s superhero ass in a footrace.
Wearing a tank-top and shorts, I was fully ready to run laps until my mind relaxed via exhaustion. But as I adjusted my ponytail, I took notice of something even more appealing.
In the middle of one of the circles was a jungle gym of sorts; bars for strength training, various gymnastic equipment, it looked kind of fun.
I got a running start and jumped on to a balance beam that was a few feet off the ground. Needless to say, I was impressed by the spring-like ability of my new legs. I was able to jump, leap, and even tumble. I was having fun when I noticed a figure sitting on a fence post at the edge of the property line.
He was squatting, like a stereotypical ninja, but his legs looked odd. He was wearing some kind of armor primarily on his lower-body.
I walked across the track, to the edge of the garden. that was when I hit an invisible wall of electricity. “Ouch.” The sensation was not too painful but clearly, the figure was not going to be reachable.
“Hello,” said a man with a distinct Caribbean accent. He was Hispanic or bi-racial African American but his voice was clearly tropical. Maybe I wasn’t in Japan after all.
“Um, hi,” I replied. He seemed nice enough (unless I was hallucinating.)
“You’re quite talented, Miss Hellion.”
“How did you know my name?”
The man ran his fingers through his long, hair. His curls seemed to be hiding a pair of goggles on his forehead.”I’ve been watching you for a while now.”
“Let’s just say Anya sent me.”
“Anya?” I hadn’t seen her since the day in Axel’s office-jail. “Are you here to save her? Is she still alive?”
He was laughing. “Save her? Yeah, sure,” he said with a shrug.
“Then why are you here?”
“To show you the winning team.” he reached out his hand.
“How?” I’d already received a zap from the invisible wall.
“Oh, sorry.” he turned his chest, allowing me a view of a giant cross symbol on his jacket/shirt/armor.
Before I could ask what he was doing, he shot a single cross-shaped laser beam. The light hit me in the face. “What the hell?” My eyes were temporarily blinded as I stepped backward to blink away the pain. I could hear the alarms sounding, but my vision was too compromised to attempt to run.
I felt the Caribbean ninja grab me with his two strong arms. I guess I was going to meet the ‘winning’ team. “You ready to jump?” he asked over the roar of the wind.
“What?” I blinked my eyes faster, desperate to restore my sight. I heard the sound of a helicopter on steroids (the sound was like a cross between a propeller, a jet engine, and a cargo plane.)
A massive vehicle arose from below the clouds. I gave my eyes one last rub if only to keep in the moisture. “Is that an Apache helicopter?”
The strange ninja-man only laughed. “Like ‘the Lifers’ could afford that shit.” He was holding me by my waist as we flew to the opening hatch.
The lifers? “But you can afford anti-gravity boots?” I asked. That was what I assumed he was wearing since I couldn’t see any kind of jet-pack or other means of travel.
“Anya was right about you. You’re just adorable.” Once we landed safely aboard the cargo hold, the door slammed closed, shoving us inside. Immediately, the vehicle made a sharp left turn away from TAC headquarters.
The ninja and I went flying across the cargo hold, crashing into a stack of wooden pallets.
The ninja gripped his head in pain, “Damn girl, you act like the place is on fire.”
“What?” I asked, assuming he was talking to me.
“Oh piss off, Manny,” said a female voice from the cockpit.
“Anya?” I muttered as I got to my feet. Thankfully my new legs seemed to have survived the ordeal.
The pilot’s hands seemed to put in a code for auto-pilot, as she chuckled. “You know what I always say: If you can’t handle me at my best, you won’t survive me at my worst.” A heavily armored woman stepped in to view. She had now short purple hair and a scowl across her face that seemed hard, tortured.
“Hi, Anya,” I said meekly, in case she was pissed that I made no effort to rescue her back in Axel’s office.
“Hey,” she said with a raised chin, “long time no see. I hope Axel treated you well.”
“He’s nice, in a high school principal sort of way.” Hopefully, my meaning was clear; I didn’t attempt to escape because I saw Axel as an authority figure.
“Figures,” she said with an eye roll. “You’ll like where we’re going, I promise.”
“Ok,” I said with a forced smile. I was debating whether or not to add, ‘Yes, Ma’am,’ but luckily Anya simply turned back to the cockpit.
I turned to the ninja (or Manny) who was brushing himself off before testing the anti-gravity function of his boots.
“I’m Hellion,” I said, nervously holding my hand out. “But you already know that. Um, what can I call you?”
The ninja patted me on the head. Apparently, I had made the right choice to ask his preferred name. “Call me Baron.”
“Baron?” I repeated. “Very European.”
“Yup, in honor of the crooks who stole power from my land and people.”
I paused, trying to pick my next words. Was he from an Island? Would it be rude to ask?
I didn’t even realize I was still holding out my hand until he shook it. “I think we’re going to be great friends.” Baron put his arm around my shoulder.
Again, I forced a smile and a nod. I needed to have faith. All my life I had wanted friends, allies, now I had more then I could ever ask for. It was just a matter of who I’d be standing with when the bullets started to fly. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” Baron said, leading me to what appeared to be a mini-fridge. “You hungry?”
“I could go for a drink,” I replied noticing the generic brand soda.
“Sure,” he said, tossing me a beer before grabbing one for himself. “So what’s your question?”
I looked at the beer, considering my options. I’d drank before. I just had to hope this was not drugged. “Your team. Why are you called ‘The Lifers’?”
“Because we’re best friends for life,” he said with a laugh.
Anya groaned. “It’s because we’re a team of criminals.”
“Serving life sentences?” I asked. “I mean before you escaped.”
Baron counted on his fingers. “I don’t think I had a life sentence, not originally anyway.” He opened his twist top beer and took a long swig. “But don’t worry your little head, we’re all good people.”
I opened my beer, cautiously looking down at the brown liquid before taking a sip. “That’s interesting.” The drink tasted sweet, like cinnamon or rum. “This shit packs a punch.”
Baron laughed. He was doubled over, gripping his side.
“I handed you a Jamaican Soda. There’s no alcohol in it.”
“Was I acting drunk?” I said defensively. “I just don’t like cinnamon-flavored soda.” I wanted to talk to Anya, to know just how she escaped. But that was a story for a later time. “So, where are we going?”
“Russia,” Anya shouted from the cockpit.
“Russia?” I repeated.
“Russia. And yes, I’m serious.”
I took another sip, silently wishing for drugs or alcohol. Russia was a big place, maybe I was overthinking.
Three beers in, Baron was comfortably sleeping against a wall, using his jacket as a pillow. So, I went to the cockpit to sit by Anya/Toska’s side. Perhaps I could get some answers. Looking out the window I could see we were flying above the clouds (either that or Russia was especially foggy that day.) “So…” I had so many questions I didn’t know where to start. “Where was TAC located?”
“Guess,” Anya said with a chuckle.
“I kind of thought we were in the mountains of Japan.”
Anya was full-on laughing now. “Try North Korea.”
“No way,” I replied firmly. “Stop messing with me.”
“Why would I lie? Even Hell can have beautiful scenery.” Her voice drifted off making me feel like she was thinking of just how badly I’d failed her.
“I’m sorry I didn’t try harder to save you.”
“No worries,” she replied, staring straight ahead. “You made the right choice; become familiar with your surroundings before starting a mission.”
I nodded, her response seemed logical even kind.
“I just hope you didn’t suffer too terribly.”
“I think they wanted me to give birth to a superhero baby.”
“Ah, breeding stock,” she replied with a knowing nod. “Yes, that sounds like something TAC would do. Let me guess they set you up with Deadlock?”
“You know Tony?”
“I know of him. They screwed with his genetics so bad I’m surprised he can even reproduce.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
Anya turned to me, placing her hand upon mine. “Good work, little sister. All men see us as vessels; construction material, or vehicles,” her voice trembled with noticeable anger. “But you denied them. For that I am proud.”
I felt a connection, a friendship, maybe even love. Could I trust her? “What did you do?”
“To get labeled as an international terrorist?”
“I teamed with Faust.”
I yanked my hand away. “Faust? Are you taking me to join his team?” My heart was racing. At that moment I truly considered jumping from the plane.
“We’re not Faust’s team. You will meet our leader, SHE is a strong, powerful woman.” Anya turned to me. “You trust me, right?”
“Yeah, totally.” I guess I have to since I’m on your plane.
I closed my eyes to attempt to sleep.
I dreamed of the flower-child.
A blonde man in his late twenties, with eyes like crystals, and clothing that looked oddly tie-dye.
“Hi,” I said, my voice sounded underwater. “Do you know where we’re going?”
He smirked and held out his hand.
“No thanks, I’m kind of tired of blindly trusting people.”
The man bit his lip. He didn’t look disappointed or even surprised. He simply motioned with his hand and then just started walking towards the sunrise.
I blinked my eyes, forcing myself awake, as the plane landed in a field of sparkling white snow.