Rise of Hellion ch6: Retail Hell

Previously Rise of Hellion ch5: Norcal

Faust was stalking me; he had taken me from the clinic, and put me on the roof of the building that housed the battery. I was meant to steal the battery for him and exchange it for Noah’s life. The very idea sent me into a state of panic. (That or it was the fact that I was pregnant and dehydrated. Either way my abdominal area was in horrible pain, making me want to vomit up the contents of my empty stomach.)

Thankfully I was back in the room that I shared with Tony, sporting a brand-new pair of light weight, stainless steel, aluminum-plated legs. This model was a prototype that attached to my stumps with clamps (as opposed to straps) making them harder to remove, but much less vulnerable to damage. It would take some getting used to but my strength and balance were both noticeably improved (a trait that would come in handy later.) I shifted my weight to sit cross-legged on my bed. I had been laying on my back for the past hour, with a saline IV in my arm. I was starting to feel genuinely better, and as such, I was board out of my mind. “What are you guys doing?”

Axel was using Tony’s hi-tech gaming computer. To see the older man sitting in the neon green gaming chair was kind of adorable. “I needed access to a machine with a reasonable amount of processing power,” he explained in his deep fatherly voice.

“You sure you don’t need my help?” Tony asked, periodically looking over his superior’s shoulder. “I know you’re trying to divert my gaming ram to access the exceptionally encrypted part of the TAC database.”

“Are you admitting to having accessed it in the past?” Axel asked with a chuckle, the light of the glowing screen shimmering off his dark eyes. Before Tony could answer, a red light filled the room, followed by an alarm.

I looked over, almost expecting us to be ushered out for a fire drill, but Axel was still typing. Our fearless leader seemed to know what he was doing. Soon the alarm stopped and the room was illuminated with a calming green glow. “And we are in.”

Tony looked around his mouth agape in shock and confusion. “I guess I’ve never been on the super-secret network. I mean, I’ve fucked around on the VPN to boost my data speed, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never set off a building-wide security light show.”

I couldn’t help but giggle as we locked eyes, amused at the sheer lunacy of the situation.

“Anyway,” Axel said as he cleared his throat. “As of today, there have been over three hundred individuals associated with the terrorist entity known as Faust,” he explained, reading directly from the screen.

“Why is that?” Tony asked. He appeared to be blinking rapidly, his eyes scanning the text and even moving the screen faster than Axel could keep up.

“Do you mind?” Axel removed his hand from the mouse, glancing at Tony with a look of annoyance. “We may be using your network access, but it’s still my credentials on the line.”

“Sorry.” Tony took a step back. “What exactly is Faust? Is he multiple people, an army or something else entirely?”

Axel clicked over a few pages. I couldn’t help but notice he was going in an entirely different direction; not scrolling and clicking but typing and well, for lack of a better word- hacking. “The entity known only as Faust can teleport, shape shift, traverse the dream dimension…” 

I nearly choked on my own spit. “Did you say dream dimension?”

“And as such he’s been classified as a paranormal entity,” Tony added, ending his reading. He shot me a glance, as if to tell me to keep quiet on the subject of dreams.

“Paranormal entity,” Axel said with a laugh. “The science of shit we as humans were never meant to understand.”

His words drew my attention. “You mean like Area 51?” I asked, assuming he was talking about sensitive military information. Was Faust a failed military experiment?

Axel scoffed. “No, more like man-made technological breakthroughs that are an affront to God.”

“An affront to God?” His response took me by surprise.

Tony forced a chuckle. “So, you’re saying Faust is the devil?”

The sarcasm of the question was clear, but even so, I zoned out on Axel’s reply. Faust was a devil who found a way to stalk me in my dreams. To be fair I didn’t know that for a fact. the flowerchild was my imaginary friend, maybe even my conscience telling me what to do. He was the proverbial devil on my shoulder, but more importantly, he was someone I had grown to trust. (And now I had a headache.) I leaned back, resting my head on my pillow, desperately trying to coax my mind to sleep. ‘Inhale, exhale, you can do this.’ I closed my eyes, certain that Tony would wake me up for our evening workout or at least dinner. I could easily get the full story, over a meal of breakfast cereal and malt liquor (or root beer since Tony knew better than to let me drink). Part of me was hoping I could dream about that; Tony and his beautiful eyes. Everything about him was just so perfect, from his slender muscular body, to the way he smiled at me during out workouts (even when I kicked his ass.)

And then there was the way he would touch my stomach when I sat on his lap, while building my princess castle in Minecraft. He always seemed to pretend like he was just trying to guide my hand. After all, it was his computer, his network access and his copy of the game. But little by little, we would undress, flirtatiously touching each other’s bodies until Tony carried me to the bed. There we would engage in our sessions of intense passionate sex. I knew him and he knew me and together we made one complete, beautiful soul. Anyone of those memories would have made for a lovely dream. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

In my dream I was standing in an empty grocery store. The lights were on, and the shelves were filled with colorful products from my youth; cereal, candy, chips cookies and cake mix. I couldn’t help but smile. The scene was oddly quiet, as there were no customers or staff.

The signage on the wall read, ‘Trader Joe’s.’ It was a place I recognized from my childhood. Since this was my dream, I ran to the freezer section looking for the frozen treats I lived for; soy ice-cream, rolled cookie cannoli, and peppermint chocolates. As a miserable child gymnast, this was a place I always dreamed of working. I helped myself to a package of ice-cream sandwiches, tearing into the cardboard.

“Seriously?” asked a voice over the PA system. It sounded male but with the static I couldn’t be sure.

“Seriously what?” I asked with a mouthful of food.

“You’re walking around this place like a kid who just won a ticket to Willy Wonka’s candy factory.”

“So what?” I looked around for any cameras, but of course there were none. “Who are you? How are you seeing me?” I asked, taking another bite of my comforting treat.

There was no reply, only the sound of uncontrollable laughter.

“Are you Faust?”

“You think I’m Faust?” The voice laughed even harder, struggling for breath. “Why, because I can see into your dreams?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” I put down the frozen snack, no longer feeling safe in my surroundings.

The voice crackled, “You’ll just have to come on down to find out.”

“Come on down?” To Trader Joe’s? I pinched my hand with my nails. “Wake up, you need to wake up.”

Somehow, I managed to blink myself awake. Taking a thankful breath, I awoke in the darkness of my room. Why was it so dark? How long had I been asleep? Axel was long gone and Tony was asleep by my side. I gently maneuvered my way out of his arms, taking a moment to stroke his sleeping face. It had been so long since I had a real friend. Did I really have to leave the bed?

I shivered as I exited the safety and warmth. Standing on my metal legs, I had to force my brain to take one step and then another. Even still. I almost couldn’t make it all the way to Tony’s computer chair without looking back. I tried to tell myself, I needed his computer more than I needed him. But that was a total lie.

I made sure that headphones were plugged in, to avoid any bootup noise. At the main screen, I logged on as a guest, since I didn’t need a security clearance, just Google. ‘location of nearest Trader Joe’s?’ There was one in town. Since it was well after midnight, they would be closed. That was the point. I was meant to enter a well-lit empty grocery store. Now for the big question; Should I wake Tony, or should I go it alone?

The part of me that was brave (and wanted to prove to Flowerchild/Faust that I was not a pussy) knew I could easily sneak out. But with my shitty luck I would end up on a boat to Finland; I’d lose Tony. Like a little girl clinging to a stuffed animal I wanted so badly to take him with me

I’d already lost Noah; I couldn’t lose Tony.

I approached the bed, and nudged Tony’s sleeping body. He looked warm and comfortable in his sweatpants and hoodie. “Tony?”

He turned over and moaned, letting out a soft, sexy snore. I just wanted to watch him sleep. The way the light of the window caressed his skin, made him look ethereal. I shook his arm, causing yet another moan. How could one human being be so hypnotically beautiful? It took me five tries to conjure enough force to actually wake him.

“What’s up, Nicki?” Tony asked in a whisper. He was clearly tired, not even bothering to sit up.

Maybe waking him was a mistake. “This is going to sound stupid, so feel free to say no or even lock the door and write up a report on my pregnancy induced madness.”

Tony groaned, pushing himself up, to a seated position. “Just say it.”

“Will you go with me to Trader Joe’s?” I closed my eyes as I blurted out the words.

“The grocery store?” Tony asked with a yawn.

“I had a dream. I was in an empty Trader Joe’s, and the voice on the PA was making fun of me.”

There was no need to explain further. “So, you think Faust is waiting for you at Trader Joe’s?”

“Someone is,” I replied truthfully.

Tony ran his fingers through his hair, allowing him a moment of contemplation. “Well, Let’s go.”

“Let’s go? Really?” I was thankful to have an ally.

“It’s the logical course of action,” Tony explained. “You’ve been having weird dreams for days, clearly someone or something is trying to communicate.”

My mind halted. “How did you know about my dreams?” We’d talked about a good many things but I had no memory of discussing the flowerchild with him.

“You talk in your sleep.”

“Oh,” I said quickly, turning away to grab my running shoes. That was not a conversation I wanted to engage in.

We were able to leave the base without issue. Wearing our casual clothes, we looked like typical urban explorers looking for a place to crash. With Tony leading the way, we made our way to the Trader Joe’s attached to a shopping center. This was the main Vancouver location, (or at least the one closest to the base.)

Something felt wrong. “This isn’t it,” I said standing under the lights of the parking lot. “Is there another location? A freestanding one?”

“I know there’s one off the highway,” Tony replied while stretching his back. “I think it merged with this site to reduce overhead.”

“Two locations merging?” It made no sense. Trader Joe’s was a major corporation, why would they want less retail space?

“I guess it’s a foot traffic thing,” Tony responded to my rhetorical question. “If one store has more customers, they’ll have better sales, and justification for more hires.”

The mention of employees caused a light to go off in my mind. “Where would they keep the excess inventory?”

“What do you mean?”

“The inventory for two stores. Think about it, if one store had more walk in traffic it would make sense to have the maximum amount of display space.”

“While keeping the other location as a warehouse.” Tony answered so quickly it was like he could read my thoughts.

“Can you read my thoughts?”

Tony laughed. “You serious?”

“Earlier you said you knew about my dreams even though I know for a fact I’ve never mentioned any of that to you.”

Tony took a step towards me, biting his tongue with a sly, sexy grin. “Do you honestly want to know if I can read your thoughts?”

I was blushing. Even if he couldn’t read my thoughts, I sure as hell could read his. “We’ll table that question for later.”

“Fine with me, but we have a bit of a walk ahead of us. How about a game of eye spy?”

It was a thirty-minute walk to the freestanding location off the highway. The lights were on, clearly the location was staffed. Traveling in the shadows, we made our way to the building.

“Did you bring a weapon?” I asked Tony, nervously. Amidst the excitement of literally following my dreams, I’d forgotten my knife. We were well trained in hand to hand combat, but not, two vs a hundred without a weapon level of mastery (or at least I wasn’t.)

Tony stood strong, his back pressed against the wall as we made a turn. “I am a weapon.”

“Did you seriously just say that?” I giggled.

We went to the loading dock. There was a window peering into the stockroom, and or sales floor. The space was set up like an actual store. There were actual shelves with product in plain view. “Someone’s heading to the door,” I said quickly darting to the area under the ramp. Sure enough the gate started to rise. A man in a black grocery store uniform walked out with a bag of trash, heading to the nearest dumpster. Fortunately for me, and Tony, the nearest dumpster was well across the parking lot, allowing us ample time to sneak past the door. Inside the store was fully lit, just like in my dream.

I walked further, until I saw the exact set from my dreams. “This is it.”

The PA system screeched to life. “G’day Miss Hellion, I see you’ve brought a friend.” The voice had a clearly Caribbean accent. “You really shouldn’t have.”

“Baron?” I was so overjoyed to hear his voice, I mentally blocked out the last part of his sentence.

The lights flickered, once then twice followed by a bright green laser blast that looked like something out of Star Wars. Tony easily dodged the shot, but I could see by the burn left behind on the wall, he was the intended target and the impact would have incinerated him.

“Oh, you like special effects?” Tony said with a laugh. “Because I’ve got some of my own.”

I watched as Tony took a step back, disappearing into the shadows. “Tony?” He was completely gone. “Where are you?”

The walls started to rattle. The sound was like an earthquake, without the ground motion. We’re they fighting inside the walls?

No. As the shadows started to warp, moving on their own, it was clear they were in some kind of pocket dimension, accessible only through the walls of the Trader Joe’s warehouse.

Baron appeared, flying with the use of new, rocket powered anti-gravity boots. He body slammed Tony back in to the wall-shadow-portal disappearing like a waterfowl diving for a fish.

All around me I could hear footsteps. That was when I realized, other than the man taking out the trash, I had not seen any other employees. Suddenly dozens of grocery employees wearing aprons and surgical masks appeared from the shadows. “Let’s move!” shouted an unseen male voice. “This is what we’ve been training for.”

I watched from a safe distance, as they started to lace a metallic gold rope through the shadows. The thick thread cut in and out of reality, creating a massive net over the surface of the store.

“This is some Twilight Zone shit.” I ducked, crawling on my stomach to a well-lit corner. Although I was out of reach I could tell when the ropes were in place because all sound stopped; no talking, footsteps, just waiting. I knew I was holding my breath, but I had no idea why. Was I afraid for myself, my baby? Or the fact that two of my most trusted friends were fighting (possibly killing each other) in the shadow dimension.

Suddenly Baron crashed through the ceiling, power driving Tony straight towards the rope spider web. “This is my domain, robot boy!”

Tony struggled to his feet, gripping blindly at his surroundings. When his hand touched the rope, Tony released a massive energy blast that seemed to knock out every worker who had been touching the cursed trap. “You may be out here playing supervillain with whatever second tier equipment Feng could steal from TAC.” Tony paused to crack his neck like a warrior stepping in to battle. “But I’m the real deal.”

Baron took to the sky. Somehow the rocket component of his boots nullified the paralyzing effects of Tony’s attack, allowing a few of the workers to awaken. Tony fought off the first two but the next three managed to secure the rope around his chest.

Tony wasn’t done. From a near sitting position, Tony jumped. Although he was unable to break the rope, he was able to grab hold of Baron, pulling him to the ground with a surprising amount of strength. The force of the impact left a hole in the floor.

“Oh, God.” One of my friends was going to die, while I was hiding like a little bitch. “No, Hellion, this is not ok.” I needed to show my face. Maybe, just maybe I could stop this once and for all. “Hey! I shouted. My voice echoed and for a moment the world froze.

Tony fell to his knees, allowing himself to be restrained by the rope wielding retail soldiers. “I surrender! Let the girl go!”

Baron took full advantage, pressing his massive weapon to Tony’s back. “The girl? Is that truly all she is to you and your superiors?” He chuckled and smacked Tony across the back of the head. “I’d never hurt my baby sister, right Nicki?” Baron tossed his hair like a supermodel surfer, before winking in my direction. “As far as I’m concerned this is more of a rescue mission.”

Tony gripped his arm, flinching in pain. “What is he talking about, Nicki?”

“I, um…” There was nothing I could say. I never told Tony that two of the worst criminals in the world (three including Nash, the robot) offered to take me under their wing.

Tony looked at me with sadness and disappointment. I imagined there were hundreds of words he wanted to say. Maybe he would have asked me to explain myself. Perhaps he might have figured out that the baby growing inside me was not his.

Baron laughed. “Nicki is my warrior blood, right love?” My old friend smiled, reaching out his hand.

I nodded, taking a step forward. “Do you know what happened to Noah?”

“Noah…” Baron was still grinning, but with a noticeable look of fear in his eyes.

“Have you seen him?” I swallowed hard, resisting the urge to cry. “Did you see what Feng did to him?” I wanted him to say that Noah could be saved.

Baron glanced nervously at his small army. “We need the battery; I know you’ve seen it.”

“I can’t take you to the battery.”

“You can’t or you won’t?” Baron tilted his head, with a menacing glare.

I glanced at Tony for a hint of guidance. We had only a fraction of a second of communication, and at our current distance I would be making a lot of assumptions.

From what I could tell he nodded, and darted his eyes in the direction of Baron’s weapon.

“I can’t,” I said, with as much confidence as I could muster, “but you’re right I have seen where they’re keeping it. The room is heavily guarded and monitored by hundreds of cameras, but worst of all there are multiple entrances, making it all but impossible to evade the security detail.” I looked at Baron, trying to judge his response. “I want to give it to you, I really do, but I’d never make it off the base alive.”

Baron paused, biting his lip in deep thought. “Well, I can’t go back to the anime twins without the battery, so I guess I’ll just have to go with you.” Without a second glance he fired three rounds in to Tony’s back.

It was all I could do not to scream. I shut my eyes, desperately trying to picture that night back in Russia; drinking, laughing. We were a team, friends. I felt love, trust. I wanted to see that person, but all I could see was the monster who just shot my lover, roommate and current best friend.

Time stood still as Baron reached for Tony’s body. I assumed he was going to take Tony’s TAC ID. In the right lighting Baron could pass for Tony, especially with all the robotic augmentation.

I felt a single tear roll down my cheek. “Don’t you dare touch him!” I said in an angry whisper.

 “What did you just say?” Baron paused just long enough to lower his weapon. “Do you even care about us at all? Do you even know where Anya is? Do you even give a shit?”

Before I could respond, Tony sprang back to life. He had been faced down on the floor, but somehow, he rose up like a vampire-zombie high on steroid laced PCP. Within a few seconds I solved the mystery, kind of. He was drawing in power from everything around him; the electricity of the building, the life force of Baron’s retail army. Body after body was falling, convulsing, and there was the real possibility something had snapped in Tony’s lab-made superhero brain.

I ran for my life, hiding in the dumpster (across the parking lot) as all hell broke loose. I pulled my prosthetic legs to my chest, rocking like a scared child as I covered my ears. All around me I could hear screams, explosions. Thankfully, the dumpster remained in place, held down by the massive weight of the thick metal floor. The lid was getting warm and I could actually see orange flames. “Shit.”

Moving around the trash bags, I found a comfortable place to sleep. I was able to breathe without choking on smoke (even though the small metal room reeked of rotting, expired food) and eventually I must have fallen asleep. I awoke to a knock or rather a banging.

“Nicki? You in there?” Tony’s voice sounded calm, or at least human.

“I’m here.” I started to craw to the surface. Part of me was expecting to see the sunrise or maybe even a blue sky. But no, I was still in Hell.

Tony reached for my arm. “Too bad we won’t be able to collect any evidence,” he said calmly.

I allowed him to grab both my hands, assuming he would pull me to the surface. He picked me up, carrying me like a bride. We turned away from the still burning hell scape, but I couldn’t help but look. “Come on, Nicki, we need to get out of here,” Tony said calmly, patting my shoulder.

I nodded silently. He wasn’t wrong; that was what we needed to do. Even if it wasn’t what I wanted. Where was Anya? Where was Noah? And was Baron still alive? I had to know.

next: Rise of Hellion ch7: Dreams

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