Conagher reached the back room first. He skidded to a stop, eyes locked on the respawn machine that now whirred and hummed and blinked as it warmed up. A timer, set square in its middle, counted down from ten in enormous red letters.
The others filed in as the countdown reached zero. Not all of them – as far as Conagher knew, Ivan and Niklas were still making a nuisance of themselves at the Blu's front entrance – but most trotted in one by one, from an exuberant Billy to Fischer's masked expressionlessness.
"Who is it?" Conagher asked once Billy stood next to him.
"Their Scout." The Bostonian's face shone with glee. "He was sneakin' around in the sewers, like he was gonna head in here from there. Found this on him."
Billy held up a square, two-pronged metal device that looked to be something between a Geiger counter and an AM/FM radio. Conagher frowned. Maybe they could convince the Blu scout to tell them what it was.
A soft buzz as the counter on the respawn machine hit zero. The men leaned forward in unison.
It was hazy at first, nowhere as smooth as the Mann Co. respawn, but slowly, jerkily, the Blu scout faded into focus. He might have been Billy's brother – all knees and elbows, with a long, lean torso that suggested years of running practice. Even their faces were similar, except the Blu scout's eyes were narrowed and his mouth was twisted into a snarl.
"What's goin' on here?" The Blu scout flung himself off the floor. "What'm I doin' here?"
"Gotcha, didn't I?" Billy leered through the glass doors. The Blu scout drew himself up, as if he planned to throw himself at the glass, then appeared to think better of it.
"Yer in the Red respawn," Conagher said.
The Blu scout rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I caught that, genius."
A grin twitched at the corner of Conagher's mouth. "We diverted your respawn."
That was enough to drain the color from the Blu scout's face. "What? Why me?"
"Not just you. Your entire team."
Conagher could almost see the cogs turning in the Blu scout's head. After several long moments of silence, the Blu scout smirked.
"I got the suicide command too, y'know. See you losers later."
Conagher spread his arms. "Go right ahead, son."
The Blu scout slumped onto the floor, a tangle of limbs and blue-and-black clothing. The counter reappeared on the respawn machine, and ten seconds later, the Blu scout reappeared in the opposite corner. Laughing, he leaped up, only to see the Reds standing just outside the door. The laughter faded.
"Fraid you're stuck here." Conagher couldn't keep the smile off his face. "Just like the rest of your team'll be, when they respawn."
"Not if I warn 'em first." The Blu scout's hand shot to the communication system at his throat.
Moving so fast he was almost a blur, Billy unlocked the glass doors and bolted inside, bat in hand. "Wouldn't do that if I were you, pally. Unless you think you've got a chance against me, and last I checked all you got's your fists."
The Blu scout opened his mouth to reply, then appeared to think better of it. Instead, he shrunk back against the wall, glaring daggers at Billy. For his part, the Bostonian kept the snide comments to a minimum as he yanked the communication system out of the Blu scout's collar.
"There we go." Billy smirked and gave the Blu scout's shoulder a friendly tap with his bat. "Think I like y'much better with your mouth shut anyway."
The Blu scout smashed against the doors as they shut behind Billy, clawing at the Bostonian and shrieking a series of curses that were so fast and loud they all ran together.
Ignoring the Blu scout's fury, Conagher smiled and turned back to his coworkers. "One down. Eight to go." He picked up the device Billy had taken from the Blu scout during their exchange in the sewer and tossed it from hand to hand, looking back at his captive. "Care to tell me what this is?"
"Well, shoot, son, that's too bad." He turned the device over in his hands. "But I might not need your help to figure out what this little contraption's meant for. It's battery-powered, which means you Blu folks weren't necessarily planning on getting it back. The antenna here tells me y'all were plannin' on listenin' in to something we had to say." A pause. "I gotta admit, I'm stumped on the rest of it, but I'd wager its primary purpose is to listen in on us, possibly bust through the scramblers I put in place."
The Blu scout pursed his lips, but his eyes told Conagher that he was correct.
The Texan grinned. "I gotta hand it to your engineer. That man knows his work. In another life, we might've been great pals."
He dropped the panel onto a shelf in his tool cubby. Tonight, maybe, he'd take a closer look at it, see what kind of goodies the opposing team's engineer had stuffed inside. It was a veritable pinata of intel, far as Conagher was concerned.
Billy hovered at the doors. "Yeah?"
"Do me a favor, will you? Since we're not attackin', will you poke your head in and check on this'n every so often?" Conagher jerked his head at the scowling Blu scout, who now crouched in the corner of the room.
"Sure thing." Billy grinned. "I'd be honored."
Fischer stalked back into the haystacks, staunchly refusing to look at the pastel walls and the enormous lollipops that had apparently cropped up along the corners. The hallucinations were less vivid now, but they still unnerved him, at best. At worst, they terrified him, especially the cherubs that appeared in place of his Blu opponents.
And his chest still ached, which only made things worse. By that point he'd stopped wondering if the heart was going to explode out of his chest, deciding instead to assume the mass of scar tissue that made up most of his upper body was the reason the operation had caused him so much discomfort.
"Feelin' better today?" DeGroot rested a hand on Fischer's shoulder. It took all of the redhead's willpower not to flinch away.
"Fine. Just fine."
The words were lost in the gas mask, but DeGroot seemed to understand them anyway. Nodding, he turned and disappeared onto the balcony. A moment later, an explosion outside suggested he'd rocketed across to the Blu team's side.
Envy burned at Fischer's face, turning the inside of his mask hot. Here he was, cowering in their base like a mouse, letting his teammates call the shots, take the risks. That wasn't the way it was supposed to be. His last time at Teufort had been all crazed, adrenaline-fueled rushes and the entire team running from the mere sight of him. A cacophany of screams and the sound of flames.
Snarling, he ripped the mask off, clenched it in his fist. He'd be damned if he'd just sit back and let the rest of the team do the work. Even now, with God-knew-what coursing through his veins, he refused to be a bystander. Refused to let the Blu spy reduce him to uselessness.
Besides. He could be careful. There had been times where he'd killed the Blus eight or nine times before going down. The only difference now was that caution was absolutely necessary.
The soldier stopped halfway across the haystacks."Yeah?"
"I'm coming with you."
Doe frowned beneath his helmet. "But Tex said you were stuck here in the fort. On accounts of that stuff the Blu team jabbed you with."
"I don't care. I'm coming with you."
Clearly confused, Doe glanced from side to side. "But... but you can't rocket jump!" The words were a crow of victory, and punctuated by a finger jabbed in Fischer's direction.
"I can run, though. I'll be across the bridge in the time it takes you to finish talking."
"Is that a challenge? I eat weaklings like you for breakfast! And then I eat other weaklings like you for brunch! Then my mid-morning snack! Then-"
But Fischer had already disappeared past the entrance to the balcony. Cursing, Doe followed, flinging himself into the air when he reached the platform's edge.
Below, running across the covered bridge, Fischer pulled the gas mask back over his face with one hand. Beneath it, he smirked, even as teddy bears appeared along the bridge's hand rails. He could do subterfuge. He could do stealth, and caution. And the Blu team wouldn't know what hit them.
Now he'd show the Blu spy exactly what happened when he messed with the living embodiment of an inferno.
"Er, Tex? Y'might want to come look at this."
Billy's voice came from the barracks. Conagher looked up from his teleporter and frowned. Something about the Bostonian's tone sent the Texan's stomach into nervous knots. He stood, stretched, and made his way to the barracks, only to freeze in the doorway.
Across the room, behind the glass doors, a dozen prone Blu scouts littered the floor.
"What the hell?"
Billy stood at the doors, hands in his back pockets.
"Dunno what happened. I stuck my head in 'ere to check on 'im like you asked, and I found this." He gestured at the bodies, scowling.
With a scowl of his own, Conagher threw the double doors open and stormed inside, kicking at the bodies with his boot. "If you're fakin' to get the better of me, boy, it ain't gonna work."
No response. Snarling, Conagher walked back into the barracks and to the respawn machine, glaring at the panel on its front.
What he saw made the knot in his stomach twist even tighter. A series of numbers ran across the panel's front, flickering and obviously frozen in place.
"What is it?"
"I don't believe it." Conagher stared, open-mouthed, at the machine. "I never would've he could do that. I never would've thought he'd be clever enough to try somethin' like it in the first place!"
Billy rolled his eyes. "What is it, then?"
"The bastard jammed my respawn machine!" Conagher slammed his fists against the machine, denting the smooth metal side. "He must have used the suicide command so many times that it jammed and sent him to the secondary respawn."
"At their damn base!" Spinning, Conagher aimed another kick at the glass doors. The impact was enough to crack the bottom of one of them, sending spiderweb-like lines up its surface.
If the Blu scout had respawned back at the Blu fort, their plan was useless. The scout would've told his entire team what the Reds were up to. That meant the Reds had no element of surprise. No ace up their sleeve.
No chance of ending the fighting.
Not once, not once since he'd stepped foot back on this godforsaken patch of earth, had something gone his way. From the spybots to Fischer to the Blu spy, and now his respawn machine, it had all been one failure after another. And through all of it, they'd laughed in his face, outmatched him.
But no more.
Fury built in Conagher until he was sure it would explode out his fingertips. Even Billy, who tended to push his teammates' patience to their limits, took a step back.
"So what now?" he asked softly. "What're we supposed to do?"
Conagher didn't answer. Instead, his hand went to the communication system and activated it. "Doc."
"Ja, Herr Conagher?"
"You two still outside?"
"Outside ze Blu base, ja."
With narrowed eyes, Conagher surveyed the Blu scout corpses as he spoke. "Get back here. I need your help. I'm done playing nice. I'm reverse engineering the serum, and we're going to use it on the Blus."
Short chapter is short, and I have some bad news.
Originally I had planned on not having an update two weeks from today (July 20). Well, starting this Monday (July 9) a consultant will be coming to my work for some assessment things, and my publisher wants all hands on deck from 8 a.m. to at least 7 p.m. for the entire ten days he'll be here. That includes next weekend, and with a convention so close every spare second of my free time during those ten days will be for me to feverishly finish cosplays and props.
So. I really am sorry, and I hate having a break this long, but there won't be an update next Friday, or the Friday after that. I know you guys are all awesome and understanding about me having to keep up with real-life issues, but I still feel bad about it.
Now. That said. IF you plan on being at Tokyo in Tulsa, come say hi to me! I'll be the Twilight Sparkle in the MLP:FiM group (with a Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie) Friday, the RED Pyro with the RED Demoman Saturday, and the Kaylee Frye with Jayne Cobb Sunday. I'm very tall. You really can't miss me.