“You met the slug-thing?” the young scientist asked with trepidation, taking note of the discolored splatters on the team’s clothing and skin. “It’s something of a queen of theirs. If you’ve hurt it, it may send the swarm into chaos but you would have made a lot of new enemies.”
“We hurt it,” replied Roger, flatly.
“The person in charge isn’t exactly human,” she continued, hesitatingly. “Most of us are here under duress. They have men with guns like Captain Brown there,” she gestured to the glassy-eyed former soldier who, under Roger’s mental dominion was carefully overseeing the slow shutdown of the lab. “It’s understood what happens if we don’t comply – we become the next test subjects.”
“What’s in the other labs?” Ismene asked before looking through the hole in the center of her mystical coin, using it as a lens to see “that which is hidden,” as she was instructed.
“Lab 04 is where the big people work,” the scientist shrugged. “I’m sure they’ve heard the gunfire,” she made a point to avoid looking at Tommy, “and have probably sounded the alarm. They probably let loose the early subjects – the creatures that were able to survive the bonding process.”
Ismene didn’t hear her, lost within the visions shown to her by the coin. The room and all its surfaces seemed to pulsate and glow with rippling tendrils of orange energy, like a vascular system infusing the whole of the building. Invisible wasp residue was everywhere, except on the scientists, who were protected by small auras of blue light, emanating from sigils sewn into their lab coats. The higher-ups not only knew there was a danger, but also how to mitigate it for their own employees. The whole area had a wrongness about it, and the visions made her stomach turn. Gagging, she let the coin drop on its chain, back around her neck.
“We need to not be here,” she cautioned, “this whole place is wrong.”
“You don’t know what you’re dealing with,” a crumpled heap on the floor rasped, the man Tommy shot grinning eerily at the investigators. He ignored the slowly-spreading pool of blood beneath him as he looked up at them.
“The Crawling,” replied Tommy flatly. “We’re dealing with the Crawling.” He racked his shotgun in preparation for an assault on Lab 04.
“Your guns and your magic won’t be of any use against what’s coming,” the mystic coughed, smirking. “You should just leave now and save yourself a horribly painful, brief, existence.”
“Gag and bind him,” Roger demanded of the armed guard, who obeyed blankly, securing the cultist against any attempt at escape or interference.
As Tommy and Seth squared up, ready to charge the door between Labs 03 and 04, Tammy urged caution. “A two-pronged attack,” she suggested. “I’ll enter from the hallway.” Tommy nodded, appreciating the battlefield tactic, and tapped his fingers against a flashbang grenade he carried. She gave a quick thumbs up and returned to the hallway, her sword at the ready.
Cracking open the inter-lab door, Tommy threw his grenade inside before slamming the steel portal closed again. It’s concussive blast rang the facility’s thick walls, giving he and Seth their moment. Prepared for the worst, they charged in.
Lab 04 contained several scientists clad in long research smocks, all wincing and grabbing at their temples, the visual, auditory, and concussive assault from the grenade dazing them. An armed guard in the corner fared no better, but her training had kicked in and her rifle was pointed squarely at the entrance. Without hesitation Tommy pulled the trigger on his own shotgun, crumpling the stunned soldier to the floor.
Standing just before the entrance, seemingly unaffected by the disorienting assault, a tall woman stood with hands raised, sleeves pushed up, chanting in a low but distinct tone of voice. Tommy recognized her from previous meetings of his society – she had been a high-ranking member of the order.
“Sweep the leg!” Seth yelled, jumping into action. Flailing in a vague attempt to trip the woman, but having no knowledge of the martial arts, he ended up in a heap at the woman’s feet, much to her cruel delight. She neared her spell’s completion as the hallway door burst open, a grim-faced Tammy entering the fray. Two quick sword strokes interrupted the casting, as well as any future use of the woman’s left hand.
Fully committed to the role of General Brickland, Roger marched into Lab 04 like he owned the place, ignoring the bout of gunfire and melee combat unfolding before him. “Stand down,” he demanded of the scientists who had been caught in the middle of packing up their experiments. One threw a vial of viscous, steaming liquid at Tommy, who countered with a sharp strike with the butt of his shotgun. The projectile broke against the wall and left an expanding, slightly bubbly smear.
A second scientist, more senior than the rest, charged Roger, her eyes and fingertips glowing with arcane energy as she screamed in a language unknown to the the party. Unimpressed with her charlatan tricks, Roger merely held up his hand, which seemed to sap the woman of her accumulating energy. Surprised at the immediate disarming, she backed down and bowed her head submissively. “Good choice,” Roger commended.
“Don’t listen to them,” the cultist leader bellowed, cradling her mangled hand. “Whatever they say, you all know who’s in charge here! The work must not stop!”
Gesturing to Tommy, Tammy, and Ismene, Roger glared at the woman. “These spooks here have enough deep, dark holes to throw you in that your grandchildren will have forgotten your names by the time you taste fresh vegetables again. Under orders from the Deputy Secretary of Defense, stand down.”
Narrowing her eyes and setting her jaw, the spellcaster nevertheless backed away. The other scientists, the ones looking for a fight, followed her lead.
“Are we beyond the red line here?” Roger asked firmly, borrowing what sounded like official military jargon. “And if not, how close are we to a point of no return?”
“The man in charge is very good at improvising,” the woman snapped back icily. “The ritual isn’t going quite according to plan of course, but when we heard your commotion in the next room, we gave them as much notice as we could.”
“What are all your roles here?” he asked pointedly.
“Leave the normal humans out of this,” she avoided answering, gesturing with her head toward the others in the room. Tommy had the sinking feeling that the Black Lantern Society was far more involved than he originally feared. “A very influential individual has involved himself with us,” she continued, referencing the society, “and we have since lawfully obtained this property and right to conduct non-profit scientific research.”
“‘Scientific research?'” Ismene asked angrily, stepping into the room. “This isn’t science. This isn’t progress.”
“The insects are part of the bargain we made with this individual, to ensure the protection and continued safety of our people.”
“Your people?” Tommy asked from behind his gas mask, no longer recognizing any kinship between himself and his former organization’s leadership.
“Americans,” she answered flippantly, glancing at the General. “We’re here to save everyone, to find a method to reduce the overall impact of the experiment. From the sounds of things the boys below are starting early, using the scientists.”
“Tell me what’s going on,” Ismene offered, her tone softer than the rest of her group’s. Removing her gas mask, she tried to reach a level of understanding with the lab supervisor.
Her more gentle and non-armed approach seeming to have worked, the woman focusing her attention on Ismene. “Have you heard of the genetic chimera? We have managed to successfully cross the genome of the wasp creatures you’ve already encountered with several strains of local fauna. Ultimately we were hoping to control the influence of these ‘infernal’ creatures, but various factors — I assume mostly your group — have accelerated our experiment time-tables, without waiting for proper protocols.”
[Hardy, fire-creatures down below, controlled by collars. Regeneration power and they are healed by combustive force. Wards and security doors between them. Below that are ‘familiars,’ small and agile creatures that poison their foes, and en masse can cause a weakening of the barrier between our and their world, allowing stronger entities through. Without being able to use the assigned hosts for tonight’s ritual, it’s likely the Deacon will use the best host bodies available to him.]
“Host bodies, like the scientists?” Ismene asked.
“Quite. The Individual gave us a Pandora’s Box and encouraged us to open it,” she sighed.
“I know that name!” Seth offered unhelpfully from the floor.
“Just leave the innocents alone,” the woman plead. “It’s not their fault.”
“In five minutes my containment team will have surrounded this base. Everyone will be dealt with in accordance with their involvement,” Roger lied. “Those who cooperate will be given some measure of reprieve. Stay here and continue to be helpful and this might just not go poorly for you. First, tell us all you know about what we’re up against as we continue.”
Having encouraged Tommy to escort Roger and Seth out of the room, Ismene turned her attention to the scientists inside, taking a leadership stance and attempting to gather more flies with honey than Roger’s vinegar-based approach. “No government should have this kind of research,” she began, “let alone the results thereof. I do not want all this work to spread out into the world.”
Surprise rippled through the assembled scientists. “Aren’t you an agent of the government? Don’t you mean you don’t want foreign powers to have this?”
“Any government,” Ismene explained.
“I took an oath to protect this country, and from everything I’ve seen, that means keeping the military from getting their hands on this. I need your help to shut it down. Someone, this ‘Individual’ made demands from the top, and you didn’t have a choice but to obey, I get that.” Holding a mystical coin in her hand, she felt angry warmth emanating from within the walls, a mystical energy that went away when she released the coin. “Let us solve this problem.”
“We won’t go anywhere,” the head scientist promised, “trying to clean all this up. I hope – we hope – that you’re able to stop this from happening to any other research base.”
“One more thing,” the scientist called after Ismene, “the people down below are likely used up, spent. Ending their suffering would be a blessing.”