The Cure: Part Five (Vote Your Adventure)

IncubatorThis is the fifth part of an adventure series where YOU determine the next step in the story. If you’ve been following the story thus far, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t stuck to a strict schedule as I typically do. Unfortunately I’ve been dealing with other things that have kept me from being diligent about my schedule. So I understand if you’re asking yourself: where in the hell are we in this story?

The “parts” are short, so it’s not hard to catch up:

Part One: You and your team are on a suicide mission to infiltrate New Milwaukee. You don’t get the antidote you were sent for, but you do find the scientist responsible for the demon-human-hybrid virus sweeping through your city. You kidnap the scientist, then voted to head to the southwest exit toward the armory, medical suite, and garage.

Part Two: You exit the ladder shaft on the armory floor, hoping for some weapons. Unfortunately, you’ve exited into an ambush. You voted to run for it rather than jumping back into the ladder shaft.

Part Three: Your decision results in being trapped in a tiny room filled with occult training gear that you don’t know how to use. Before you can run out of the room to safety, the security forces outside decide the best way to deal with you is by unleashing a full demon to destroy you. You voted to stand and fight the demon.

Part Four: You shove a book into Tankwald’s hands and read the demon into submission. You make a hasty escape in the demon’s cage and set the demon on the security forces outside. You voted to escape through the quarantine zone.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we continue with Part Five! Leave a vote in the comments below or on Twitter. Voting ends Saturday night.

You decide to head into Quarantine. You reinforce your grip on Tankwald’s wrist and yank him behind you, toward the closing emergency door on the right side. Tankwald, still in hysterics from the near-miss with the demon, isn’t helping you along. When you reach the orange striped area marked “Quarantine,” he pulls against you, trying to break free.

“We can’t go into quarantine! Even I’m not allowed inside!”

You don’t answer. There’s no time to argue. You need to escape this facility and you’re determined to bring Tankwald with you. Hopefully, New Milwaukee’s security forces are so occupied with the rampaging demon that you can make your escape unnoticed.

“Please let me go,” he pants. “I won’t tell anyone where you are. I’ll say you knocked me unconscious. Hell, feel free to do that if it makes you feel better!”

By the time you both reach the door, the armor plated slab is two feet from the ground. You dive for the narrow opening, pulling Tankwald with you. The slide through the door is a sloppy, painful affair, but you make it to the other side safely and pull the flailing scientist through. Just as Tankwald’s limbs clear the opening, the door seals, muffling the gunfire, shouts, and demonic tongue.

You stand and drag Tankwald to his feet. Before he can say more, you grab his wrist and start running. You see a security checkpoint up ahead—short posts bearing card readers. The security detail that should be standing guard is gone, probably recruited to deal with the demon.

You blow through the checkpoint, setting off another alarm that warbles an excruciating, high-pitched howl at regular intervals, accompanied by purple warning lights that flash against the orange walls. But no one else comes. This section has been evacuated. You continue to run down the long, narrow hall and pull the resisting Tankwald behind you.

You find the first door about thirty feet from the security checkpoint. Three large windows are set in the wall just after, to provide viewing from the hall. The door looks like an interior door but you make no move to open it, in case you catch a weird disease. Besides, all you want is an exit. As you run past the windows, you see a large, dimly lit room crammed with incubators. And babies. Wall-to-wall babies. Maybe this is a sick ward?

You continue on, pulling Tankwald behind you. His energy is waning, dragging you down like dead weight. The emergency alarm is still going, throbbing in your ears, and the lights are flashing. But you still see no one. There’s no one here but you, Tankwald, and those weird babies.

Sixty feet from the checkpoint, you pass a second door identical to the first. You’re so focused on finding an elevator or stairwell that you barely notice the windows.

A startled cry from Tankwald snaps your attention to the window. The room is larger than the first and crammed with incubators, though these are larger to accommodate the toddlers sleeping inside. You immediately see what Tankwald was reacting to. The sleeping children all exhibit deformities you’ve seen before: sharp black talons, small horns the color of new and flushed flesh, small leather wings, and more. You realize they’re grouped by the strains of disease that Tankwald created.

You aren’t surprised by the sight, just sickened. Humans have birthed so few children since the initial demonic invasion that they’re a priceless treasure. You can’t help but think of your niece who suffers from the same affliction, and you reaffirm your goal to bring Tankwald home and force him to create an antidote.

As you pull Tankwald past the windows and continue down the hall, you hear him sob. “They’re children…” His voice trails off for a second. “The virus I created was for soldiers—willing participants who wanted to become the next great evolution of mankind. They promised—”

You cut his sentence short by stopping dead in your tracks and whirling on him. His red-rimmed eyes widen in fright. “Do you know why I’m here?”

“T– t– to kill me?” he stammered.

You shake your head. “To find a cure to your disease. My six-year-old niece is morphing into one of your demon-hybrid freaks.” You lean in close and fix him with a cold stare. He shudders. “I was advised that this was a suicide mission but I volunteered anyway. I didn’t find the cure, but I’ll do them one better and deliver you—” You turn away and clamp down on Tankwald’s wrist again. “—if I can find the way out of this damn place.”

As you continue down the hall, the alarm shuts off with a snap, leaving cold, startling silence in its place. The purple lights continue to flash incessantly. You pass by two more rooms but you don’t look inside. Tankwald says nothing about them, though you sense his horror and despair.

Just beyond the second room you spot a service elevator on the left wall. Relieved, you make a beeline for it and pound the up-button with your fist repeatedly. You can’t leave this hallway of horror soon enough.

“Wait.” Tankwald’s voice struggles to be heard, choking through tears and labored breath. “Look!”
You glance over your shoulder and look at a metal door that you thought led to another incubation room. A small sign reads “Control Room.”

You shrug, turn away, and resume pounding the elevator button. Just how damn long does it take for the elevator to get here? If you’re lucky, it will take you straight to the garage so you can get an armored vehicle and get the hell out.

“Please,” Tankwald says, trying to pull his arm away. You hear him trying to wrestle the control room door open, but it sounds locked. “Help me,” he says. “There’s a self-destruct code built into the machines.”

You pause, fist in midair by the elevator button, and you turn to him. “Pardon?”

“In case of invasion,” he explains. “We don’t want the technology falling into enemy hands. We can destroy all the machines.” Tankwald starts throwing his thin body against the door, trying to break it down. The desperation in his voice is clear. So are his tears. “Please help me.”

Behind you, the elevator chimes. The doors open.

Tankwald throws himself against the control room door again, but a thunderous sound overshadows the one he’s making: the demon is pummeling the security door. Another deafening slam suggests it will be through within minutes.

What do you do?

A. Help Tankwald destroy the machines, and then get into the elevator.
B. Forget the machines! Jump into the elevator.

Don’t forget to vote! Leave your vote in the comments below or send me a message on Twitter. Thanks, guys! Hope you’re enjoying our latest adventure.

Incubator photo courtesy of Silent Observer. Continue reading

The Cure: Part Four (Vote Your Adventure)

Steel DoorThis is the fourth part of an adventure series where YOU determine the next step in the story. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. If this is your first time joining the VYA, welcome! You can jump in and vote at any time so please vote! Voting ends on Saturday night.

In Part 3, the vote was almost a landslide to stand and fight the demon. Good luck, Gang!

You decide to run for the workbench. On your way, you grab Tankwald by the collar and drag him with you. Still paralyzed by fear, he stumbles backward, his eyes locked on the demon taking up the entire doorway. You grab one of the black gauge-and-needle contraptions from the bench and sling the strap over your shoulder. As you’re reaching for one of the silver rings hanging on the pegboard, a memory from your short time in basic training flitters through your mind: words have power.

You grab a small black book from the tall stack, flip it open, and shove it into Tankwald’s hands.

“Read,” you hiss.

He blinks and stares up at you stupidly. His mouth opens and closes like a fish. No sounds come out.
The demon enters the room. It doesn’t walk, but it doesn’t glide either. It simply comes forth. Even now, though it’s been years since the initial invasion, you have no words to describe how they move. Supernatural beings defy the laws of this world, even when they take physical form.

Tankwald takes a step back. His knees start to give way.

You grab him again, hauling him to his feet. “Read, damn you!”

Your words galvanize him into action. He blinks and looks at the book in his hands as if noticing it for the first time. His words are robotic. He stumbles through the ancient text printed on the pages.

“T- t- tene tene isene ereth! Vron erebekk bet!”

The demon stops moving, as if barred from coming closer. You place your hand on the back of Tankwald’s neck and push him forward.

“Keep going,” you order.

The demon’s black, soulless eyes bore into you. You think the creature is moving backward. It’s hard to say. You know it isn’t moving forward, and that’s at least better than the situation was five seconds ago.

Tankwald wipes his brow with the back of his hand and continues. You have no idea what he’s saying. From the look on his face, he isn’t entirely sure either. He reads another line and you shove him forward another step. Behind the demon, you can see the box it was kept in. The thick metal walls have strange symbols and foreign writing engraved in the steel. The walls are so thick, you’re sure it comprises a few layers, each one bearing similar symbols to keep the creature contained.

A low rumbling fills the room that causes the hair on the back of your neck to rise. Tankwald reads faster. Louder.

The demon braces itself, standing to full height, stretching its arms stiffly at its sides. Its fingers elongate into razor-sharp tips. Its mouth opens. A cloud of brown and green fumes billows forth from the fanged hole, smelling of bile and feces. The feeling of terror returns, raw and real. Your muscles clench so hard they hurt. Moving is damn near impossible. You can’t help but marvel at how effective demons are at manipulating your mind. Like many others, you suspect that this, not physical force, is Hell’s greatest weapon.

You concentrate on Tankwald’s voice—the thin, shaky words barely heard beneath the growing hellish hum—and you shuffle to the side. The demon’s eyes flicker to you, then back at Tankwald. You take another step and the black gadget hanging on your arm slips down to your elbow. Its swinging motion sparks an idea. You grab the strap and force yourself to take a step closer.

The demon looks conflicted. It moves forward, then back. It sees you trying to sneak around and it moves toward you, but Tankwald’s girlish screaming sends it back. The hum gets louder. As you move closer to the door, you hear the soldiers shouting outside.

“Retreat?”

“No! Hold your ground, dammit!”

You glance at the metal box in the doorway then back at the demon. If you had a gun you could end this. But you don’t, so you improvise.

You wrap the black gadget’s thick strap around your hand and swing. The metal contraption sails through the air and slams into the back of the demon’s head. Black ichor splatters from the wound. Leathery wings sprout from the demon’s back, expanding like onyx sails as the demon crashes sideways to the floor. The humming stops. You’re pretty sure the demon isn’t dead, but you don’t stop to check—nor do you wait for the damned thing to get up. You grab Tankwald by his lab coat, scramble around the demon, and run for the metal box.

You shove Tankwald inside. He tumbles forward and smacks against the back wall. His sloppy landing pushes the box away from the door frame, reminding you that it’s sitting atop a rolling cart.

Tankwald’s scream increases and his eyes bulge at something behind you. The sound of rustling wings fills the room and a tremor ripples beneath your feet. The same fear that gripped you moments ago comes flooding back.

The demon’s up and it’s pissed.

You put your hands on the sides of the metal box and push. You don’t know where you’re going and you really don’t care. You let out a primal scream and give the cart a strong shove. The wheels move. Adrenaline kicks in and you turn the cart right, into the soldiers.

Tankwald continues screaming. “It’s coming! It’s looooooooooose!”

You join him, hoping your combined panic will divert their attention. “We’re all going to diiiiiiiiiie!”

Around you, soldiers are barking orders, some shouting to retreat, others shouting not to retreat. A single bullet slams into the metal and ricochets off into the wall. Chaos and panic erupt.

You push the cart into the soldiers. You meet resistance as you slam into someone and knock them down. Soldiers flatten themselves against the wall, trying to squeeze around the metal box. Someone grabs you from behind and tries jerking you back. A human voice screams in your ear to surrender. But you don’t stop pushing and you don’t look back. You know what’s coming.

And in a single breath, a dreadful, tangible silence descends upon the hall. Within seconds it’s broken by a roar of ancient words. The front of Tankwald’s pants darkens.

Soldiers run past you, no longer concerned with you or the scientist fleeing the scene. After thirty feet of pushing you slam into the wall at the end of the hall and flop headfirst into the box.

You scramble back out and toss a glance over your shoulder, just in time to see a torso flying through the air.

No limbs, no head. Just a torso.

The demon towers over the soldiers. It’s staring at you.

An alarm goes off. You hear an official voice over a loudspeaker, calling for reinforcements and a lockdown. The overhead lights flicker and turn red. To your left, you see armor-plated barriers lowering from the ceiling.

If you don’t move, you’re going to be trapped.

You roll the box down the left hall, trying to get past the dropping barrier, but you don’t make it in time. The barrier clamps down and pins the box in place. The lowering mechanism makes a horrible grinding noise, but the box is too strong to collapse. You put your whole body into it, but you can’t push it loose. The mechanism gives up and the emergency lights start flashing in a new area. Somewhere up ahead, you hear a backup barrier coming down.

A familiar deep hum fills the air and you glance back over your shoulder at the corner you just came around. Bullets tear into the wall and you catch a glimpse of a black, leathery wing.

You drag Tankwald from the metal box, squeeze around it, and run. You soon find yourself at another crossroad with a barrier closing on each side. On the left, the hall slopes downward into darkness. At the edge of the light, you think you see a stairwell heading down into pitch black. To the right, the walls have been painted orange with the word “Quarantine” in bold black.

You turn to ask Tankwald which way to go when a deafening slam fills the air. More gunfire. Screams. Another slam, and a metallic screech that curls your toes.

The barriers are lowering and the demon is trying to get past its box. It hasn’t forgotten about you. You have only a moment to decide which way to go.

What do you do?

A. Run left, down into darkness.
B. Run right, into a quarantine zone.

Vote in the comments or on Twitter. Voting ends Saturday night, September 21st. The highest vote will be the next step in the story, posted in two weeks.

Steel Barrier photo courtesy of Anjan Chatterjee. Continue reading

The Cure: Part Three (Vote Your Adventure)

Metal Box Jen’s note: Gang, I’m so sorry for interrupting the schedule and posting this a week late. The truth is, there’s a lot of things happening in my professional life right now and I just couldn’t get this wrapped up last week. Work has calmed down a bit so we should be back to the regular schedule. I apologize for the delay. Voting will end on Saturday night and I’ll be sure to get pinups done this weekend for your nerdy pleasure.

This is the third part of an adventure series where YOU determine the next step in the story. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

You know there’s no way you can drag Tankwald back into the emergency shaft without one of you falling to your death. The only way for you to escape is to run for it.

You step behind Tankwald and hook your arm around his throat. Surprised, he tries to shout, but it comes out in a gargled moan. You step back, dragging him with you, pressing him against your chest so that his body protects your vitals.

“Help!” Tankwald gasps. His hands grasp at your arm, pulling and slapping at you to get free. “I’m over here!” With your forearm pushing on his throat, his voice is barely above conversation level.

“Yeah,” you say. “They know.”

A head pokes around the corner. The face is obscured by a mask and goggles. The helmet is swathed in gray and orange camouflage matching the hellfire slowly sweeping over the surface of the planet. The soldier sees you retreating and dragging the unwilling scientist with you and steps out from behind the corner. His rifle snaps up, pointing directly at you, trying to get a clean shot. More soldiers file into the hall at the far end. At quick glance, you count six, but you aren’t sure. You’re too busy retreating to count. The soldiers’ shouts fill the air.

“I can’t get a clean shot!”

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”

“You’ll hit the doctor!”

You drag Tankwald to the end of the hall. Just as your shoulders smack into the door, sending it flying open, movement to your right draws your attention. As you back into the black, unlit room, you look—reinforcements. Six more soldiers. What’s worrisome isn’t their armaments, it’s the enormous metal box covered in occult symbols they’re rolling down the hall. Before you can speculate as to whether they’ve brought in a demon hybrid or a full demon, a voice rumbles from the box in a pitch so low it wavers in and out of the human hearing spectrum. The words are unintelligible to you but laden with an ancient evil that makes every hair on your body stand on end.

Sol zulo’tha innso zolo beleet…

Yep. Full demon.

You back into the room and kick the door shut, encasing yourself in darkness.

You release Tankwald, spinning him away. He yelps as he spills out on the hard floor in a heap. But you barely notice. At the moment, you’re too busy groping for a light switch. The voice outside gets a little louder and you feel a heavy thump on the other side of the door.

Did they just back that box up against the door?

You hear shouts outside. Metal grinding against metal. You can only guess the soldiers are opening the box.

The longest three seconds of your life pass as you search along the wall with one hand and fumble for the door lock with the other. Your fingers brush over a small plastic knob on the wall and the room fills with an intense, sterile light. Above, the light boxes begin to hum. Heart pounding, fingers shaking, you twist the deadbolt into the locked position.

“W– w– why would they release a demon with me in here?” Tankwald stammers.

“Maybe because they think you know how to handle them.”

Something slams hard against the door, bending the metal slab inward. Tiny white particles rain down from the ceiling tiles.

You whirl around. There’s a door on the left, slightly ajar, but the room is dark so you can’t see inside. Black ichor stains the floor around the entry. The sign on the door says “Training Room.” Opposite the door, a tall bench sits against the wall and odd metal instruments hang from brown pegboard. You don’t see a single gun. The gadgets in the room are for occult specialists, the soldiers trained in archaic symbols and demonic languages. The specialist on your team died in the lab explosion and your knowledge of these instruments is vague at best. A few of the gadgets on the bench and pegboard look familiar: a metal ring with little tabs that slide around it, a small black device with a gauge and moving needle, and a stack of small, black books.

Tankwald gapes at the door, apparently unable to rip his gaze from it. He shakes his head. “Demons are hard to control. Th– th– that’s why I make the human-demon hybrids. Easier to control.” The demon slams against the door again, causing Tankwald to jump a foot in the air. “Demons think,” he adds. “They’re intelligent. They’ve had millions of years to think. And they crave destruction before…” His voice trails off and he shakes his head, unable to finish his sentence.

You don’t want to hear it anyway, so you don’t ask.

Another slam. The door bows inward. This time, the top hinge snaps and splinters, spraying metal fragments. You run to Tankwald, grab him by the collar, and haul him to his feet.

You take a step toward the bench when another violent slam fills the room, followed by the gut-wrenching sound of the deadbolt snapping and the bottom hinge ripping away. The door topples to the floor with a deafening sound.

A massive figure fills the doorway. Black robe. Black wings. Frighteningly lean. So tall, the figure has to stoop to see you. Like all demons, it isn’t male, nor is it female. But its appearance is beautiful, blending feminine and masculine together. Obsidian eyes peer out at you from its lovely face, like bottomless pits pulling you in. The demon’s mouth isn’t moving, but you still hear the evil language, dipping in and out of the range of perceptible sound. The demon’s head tilts a little to the side. Its elongated fingers gesture in your direction.

Fear seizes you. You’ve never felt anything like it before. Tankwald goes completely rigid; he must be feeling it too. You can’t think. You can’t move. All you can do is try to remember your training—to break demonic emotional manipulation, scream out the name of your deity.

You panic and scream out six gods—but it works. You find yourself back in control and quickly looking around for a weapon or an exit. You spy the door to your left and the loaded pegboard to your right.

In physical form, the demon moves as fast as you do, so you’ll only be able to choose one.

What do you do?
A. Go for the bench and the occult instruments.
B. Run for the door.

Vote in the comments or on Twitter. Voting ends Saturday night, August 31st. The highest vote will be the next step in the story, posted in two weeks.

Metal Box photo courtesy of KelcyLyn

The Cure: Part Two (Vote Your Adventure)

Laser EyeThis is the second part of an adventure series where YOU determine the next step in the story. Read Part 1.

Last time, you were given the choice to head southeast to the armory and medical floors or northwest to the helipad. The vote was nearly a landslide to head southeast.

Southwest: 11 votes
Northwest: 6 votes

So let’s get to it!

You decide to head southeast, toward the armory and garage. A nagging feeling in the back of your mind tells you this is the wrong move, but you’re pretty cut up from the lab explosion—a stop at the medical floor sounds good too.

You walk over to Tankwald, who’s still squatting on the floor, giving you a look that says he doesn’t plan on going anywhere. As your shadow falls over him, his lips purse into a tight, thin line, and in his eyes you see what you were hoping for:

Fear.

You may have lost your weapons in the scuffle, but you’re still physically threatening in your body armor. Unlike Tankwald’s, your profession requires physical strength, stamina, and a willingness to use tactics your opponent won’t.

On second thought, that last one applies to Tankwald too. The only difference is that you have morals.

You grab the scientist by the collar of his lab coat and haul him to his feet. By the way he pulls against your grip you know he’s not going to come willingly, so you drag him all the way over to the ladder and shove him against the metal rungs. He stares at you, mouth agape, like you’re the monster. In your mind, you see your six-year-old niece at her birthday party, sporting a pink dress, tiara, and a new pair of black leather wings.

Unfortunately, the wings don’t come off like a plastic tiara does.

You weren’t able to get the serum that would reverse her transformation, but you’ll be damned if you don’t bring her the one person who can. You glare at Tankwald, the threat of violence heavy in your voice.

“Climb.”

You wait while he mounts the ladder and, with awkward movement, pulls himself up on the rungs. When his legs reach your head height, you watch his right knee pull up a little higher than necessary and his hands grip hard—

Tankwald kicks out hard, trying to drive the rubber heel of his shoe into your head. Your reflexes kick in and you lean to the right, well out of the way. You grab his ankle and jerk down hard.

He lets out an agonized cry. One hand slips off the rungs and his other foot flies out from under him. He throws a flailing arm around a ladder rung and clings for dear life.

You decide not to tell him how ridiculous he looks hanging only five and a half feet from the floor.

“You do that again and I will throw you off this ladder. I don’t want to carry you home with a bunch of broken bones, but I will if I have to.” You release his ankle and let it fall back against the metal rungs. “Now climb.”

You spend the next twenty minutes staring up under Tankwald’s dirty, torn lab coat at his flabby backside. You’ve passed countless hatches, some with names, some just numbered. Tankwald’s upward movement is getting slower. You can’t blame him; even you’re getting a little winded. You don’t want to give him any ideas about escape, but you don’t want him passing out and plummeting to the bottom, either. You grab the next rung and step up—and that’s when you see the blue text on the hatch above Tankwald that reads “Armory.” You feel a surge of elation and relief with a side of ache and nausea from your injuries. But mostly elation.

You allow Tankwald to keep climbing until you’ve reached the door. Tankwald notices you’ve stopped and does the same, hanging on while panting from the exertion.

You give him a minute to catch his breath, then reach over and grab the metal lever. You push down—it’s stiff, like it hasn’t been used in a long while—and feel the lock mechanism release. You lean over, put your shoulder against the door, and push.

The door swings leftward and its hinges grind out a high-pitched squeak. You freeze, straining your ears for the sound of shouts or armored boots moving toward you, but you hear nothing.

You glance up at Tankwald to make sure he isn’t planning on going anywhere, then stick your head out.

The hatch opens to a utilitarian hallway: dingy, off-white walls, concrete floor. You can’t see very well over the hatch to the left side of the hall, but the coast seems clear. The hallway to your right is short and splits off in a T. There’s a door in the middle of the T, slightly ajar. The hall is quiet, save for the thrumming of the air circulation system.

You duck back inside the shaft and descend just far enough to make room for Tankwald. You look up and point at the door. Words aren’t necessary. You see the relief on his red, sweaty face.

As he climbs out, you hang onto his pant leg, making sure he doesn’t run off. It makes getting out difficult, but you manage.

You glance around the hallway and see that the left side is much longer than the right and also splits in a T. A few closed doors line the hall.

As you start to close the hatch, a red flash at the edge of your vision catches your attention. You look to the right and catch a glimpse of a laser sight sweeping across the floor and disappearing behind the corner. You hear the soft rebuke of two sharp finger snaps and the shuffling sound of body armor.

You realize you’ve just walked into an ambush. And you have mere seconds to decide what to do.

What do you do?

A. Grab Tankwald and jump back into the shaft.
B. Use Tankwald as a hostage. Retreat to the open door on the right.

Vote in the comments or on Twitter. Voting ends Saturday night, August 10th. The highest vote will be the next step in the story, posted in two weeks.

Laser Eye photo courtesy of Gerard Fritz

UPDATE: The voting is now closed. The B’s have it, so on August 19th you’ll use Tankwald as a hostage and press ahead! Continue reading

The Cure: Part One (Vote Your Adventure)

The CureThis is the first part of an adventure series where YOU determine the next step in the story.

The lab explodes around you in a deafening roar of violet flame, black smoke, and screams—both human and inhuman ones. A blast of heat and fire slams into your chest and stomach. The shock wave hurls you backward through the air and out of the door. The initial impact is so painful it’s disorienting; you barely notice the steel wall that abruptly ends your short flight. As you collapse in a heap of Kevlar and camouflage in the hallway outside, watching your squad incinerate in the chemical fire, a tiny thought whispers in the back of your mind.

We all knew this was a suicide mission.

Security alarms scream to life in the underground city of New Milwaukee. You hear a voice blaring on the overhead speakers but you can’t make out the words because of the ringing in your ears.

Not that you need to hear it; you know it’s about you.

The voice warbles on longer than it would take to simply notify the city that they were under siege by a small enemy force. You guess the extra bit contains instructions on securing the hybrid project—an unholy genetics program created by the city’s scientists and priests. As if the Biblical apocalypse on the surface wasn’t bad enough, the leaders of New Milwaukee were trying to become the very demons that humanity is fighting against. Since no one would join their cause, New Milwaukee created a virus and infected the water supply of three cities, including yours.

You look back into the destroyed lab and watch fire-retardant foam shower down and abate the fire. The hope for a cure was somewhere in that lab, and you failed to retrieve it.

You glance around the wide hallway and your eyes rest on a red, flashing emergency bulb on the wall, just a few feet down from where you lie. The light illuminates the painted block letters and numbers just below it: LEVEL 85. MAXIMUM SECURITY.

You’re so deep in the bowels of the city that you figure it will be another two minutes before security can even get to you. And once they do, you know they’ll take you in for questioning, torture you for information, and, when you refuse to break, they’ll use you in their demon research.

There’s no way you’ll allow that. You’d prefer an honorable death.

You reach for the pistol at your side but the holster is gone; all that remains is a melted stub of fabric. Your rifle is also nowhere to be found. Both must be in the lab.

You’d better get up then.

You roll over, feeling the pains of the explosion, and a searing pain shoots up your side. As you force yourself to your feet, your body’s agony helps you take stock of your injuries: a broken rib or two, a deep gash in your thigh, a sprained ankle, bruises everywhere, and so many small cuts that you don’t have time to count them all. You’re weaponless but you’re breathing.

You glance around for an exit or emergency hatch when movement in the lab catches your eye. By now the fire is out and the smoke makes it hard to see into the laboratory, but you can make out a small, round hatch swinging open on the right wall. A man pokes his head out and glances around the room. His face falls, crestfallen at the ruin.

Through the smoke you can make out his features: medium height, bald head, mustache, beady little eyes. You recognize him from the briefing. His name is Tankwald and Intelligence says he’s the lead scientist on the hybrid project.

Maybe this mission isn’t over after all.

You step to the side of the doorway so that the wall hides you from his view. Tankwald creeps from the hatch, stepping around and over mounds of foam that hide the bodies of your fallen teammates and New Milwaukee’s corrupt scientists.

Down the hall, you hear shouts. The guards are coming. But you need Tankwald to get a little farther from the door…

You hear footsteps now, fast and hard, heading your way.

A little farther…

Shadows appear at the end of the hall. They’re just around the corner.

Far enough. You duck inside the room, startling Tankwald, who jumps a foot in the air and shrieks. When he lands, he slips on the foam and his feet fly out from under him.

You move toward him as quickly as you can, given the slick floor, but you aren’t going fast enough. Tankwald climbs on all fours and scurries toward the hatch much faster than you can safely move without falling.

You launch yourself forward, throwing yourself onto a counter. The momentum propels you forward fast, sliding you across the slick surface like a greased pig. At the end of the counter you dive off head-first and land on Tankwald’s ankles. He shouts, either in alarm or pain; you can’t be sure. You really don’t care.

You jerk him back toward you and manage to slide him, face-down, beneath you. You jump to your feet, ignoring the pain in your body, and drag the scientist into the hatch. You slam the door shut and press a red button on the wall, which you assume will shut the hatch and activate the lock. The hatch swings shut and air hisses as it escapes. A soft white light illuminates the room.

You’re standing in a bare steel capsule, about fifteen feet to a side and seven feet high. At opposite ends of the room are two metal ladders going up to two hatches with release wheels. The left hatch is painted a soft blue and has a short directory printed next to it:

SOUTHEAST: Medical, Mess Hall, Dormitories, Entertainment, Garage, Armory

The right hatch is yellow. Its directory reads:

NORTHWEST: Engine Room, Hydroponic Gardens, Water Purification, Security, Administrative Offices, Helipad

Tankwald stares at you from where he sits against the wall, between both ladders, with his knees pulled up to his chest.

You check yourself for weapons, but you don’t even have your knife anymore. Without your armaments, you aren’t that much of a threat. And if you don’t get out of there, the guards will surely come through that hatch in the next few minutes.

You look down at Tankwald. “I don’t suppose you want to share the way out?”

His eyes narrow at you. He doesn’t respond.

What do you do?

A. Take the blue hatch to the southeast section of the city.
B. Take the yellow hatch to the northwest section of the city.

Vote in the comments or on Twitter. Voting ends Saturday night, July 27. The highest vote will be the next step in the story, posted in two weeks.

Beaker photo courtesy of Erin M. Continue reading

The Mark: Part Five (Vote Your Adventure)

GameOverThis is the fifth part of an adventure series where YOU determine the next step in the story. Read part one, part two, part three, and part four.

You decide to go after the goggles. As soon as the guards disappear through the door, you pull yourself out of the duct and race to the ladder. You climb to the third level. Through a small window on the door, you can see a narrow hallway. The guards are walking away from you. Thirty feet away, they stop, nod at each other, and enter doors on either side of the hall. The guard with the goggles takes the door on the right.

All of your senses come alive, fueled by adrenaline. Your heart is pounding. Luckily, you’ve been trained to ignore it.

You slide your knife from its sheath and step into the hallway. It’s quiet. Muffled sounds of city life float in the air. You sneak quickly to the door on the right. Every squeak of your damp boots echoes off of the concrete floor and walls and sets you on edge. You stop at the door and press your ear against it. You hear shuffling sounds on the other side… and a strange growl.

You tell yourself it’s just nerves getting the best of you and crack open the door. You peek inside. Red light and hot air wash over you. The room is narrow and long with a high vaulted ceiling. Massive heat lamps are chained overhead. Large cages are built into the stone walls and stacked, two high, to the ceiling. They’re all empty. More cages are stacked in the center of the room, creating a maze. There’s no sign of the guard. You slip inside and quietly shut the door.

At first glance, you aren’t sure what the room is for. The cages are large enough to hold demons but the room doesn’t look like a containment center.

You hear heavy boots on the other side of the crates. You take a deep breath and walk to the corner. Very slowly, you inch your head out until you can see the guard. His back is to you. He’s checking his weapon, oblivious to your presence. The goggles are sitting off to the side atop a crate.

You raise the knife and step behind him. You reach around and clap your hand over his mouth. He rears suddenly, startled at the attack, and throws his weight into you. This reaction is nothing new to you. You step back with him and jerk his chin upward. You reach around with the knife and slice through his left internal jugular and carotid artery.

His lower body goes limp almost instantly. You keep your hand on his mouth and wait a few seconds for the blood to drain from the brain. Then you release the body, allowing it to drop to the floor.

As you bend and wipe your knife blade clean, you hear the door. The other guard is coming through.

“Hackley? You still in here?”

You duck out of sight between two cages and watch the guard round the corner. When he sees his companion on the floor, he screams out a curse and rushes to the body. He bends over the fallen form, turning his back to you. You step out from your hiding place. Within seconds, the guard has met the same fate as his companion.

It’s like taking candy from a baby.

You clean your knife again and stand. You grab the goggles. You slip them on, fasten them securely, and turn them on. The room comes alive in shades of purple. The stone wall at the back of the cages seems to pulse. The glasses define features in the stone that make it seem almost alive — you make out feet, claws, wings…

Eyes.

Hundreds of unblinking eyes stare at you from the cages. Fear seizes you, nearly rooting you to the floor. You realize the walls aren’t just stone; there are gargoyles, two or three to a cage, settled into the stone. The room is an incubator for demonic hybrids.

You take off running for the door. You hear the metallic squeal of cage doors pushing open and the rush of many, many wings.

Luckily, your prized goggles let you watch the gargoyles rip you limb from limb.

YOU LOSE.


Epilogue

Undermanned and leaderless, your team is easily captured and turned into mindless demon-human hybrids. The Mark, Evangeline Ryder, begins to recruit other surviving cities into creating more hybrids. She plans to mount an offensive against the very people you failed. Continue reading

The Mark: Part Four (Vote Your Adventure)

Kitty Night VisionThis is the fourth part of an adventure series where YOU determine the next step in the story. Read part one, part two, and part three. Vote in the comments below or on Twitter at #TheMark.

You want to get out of the creature’s reach so you head to the ladder. Your head is pounding with a migraine. You glance at the oxygen level in your tank.

It just hit zero. You’re minutes from suffocation.

You climb as fast as you can. Black spots dot your vision and you start to feel dizzy.

At the top of the ladder, the passage narrows. A metal hatch with a release wheel hangs overhead. The oxygen deprivation is causing severe fatigue. You guess you’re at about half your normal strength. You try tugging on the wheel but it doesn’t move. In your head, you repeatedly order yourself to turn the damn wheel.

The black dots clouding your vision are getting larger.

You pull.

Your heart feels as if it might explode.

You pull.

Nausea and dizziness weigh you down, threatening to knock you from your perch.

You pull.

The release wheel groans and gives way. You hear a loud hiss, as if a seal has been broken. You spin the wheel then throw your shoulder against the hatch. It’s heavy and it doesn’t move easily. The metal hinges groan.

You can’t open the hatch all the way in your weakened state so you wiggle through the opening as best you can. As soon as you’ve cleared it, the lid bangs down. You rip off your oxygen mask and gulp large, ragged breaths. The cool metal floor feels good against your skin. You can’t see yourself in the dark, but you can feel yourself shaking uncontrollably. Your energy is gone and your body craves sleep. But sleep is a luxury you can’t afford.

“Get up, soldier,” you growl at yourself. “Get your ass up.”

You grab your flashlight and hunting knife and roll onto your stomach. You shine the light around to get some idea of your surroundings.

You’re in an access tunnel that’s tall enough to stand in. According to the compass on the handle of your knife, the passage runs northeast to southwest. Your team was heading west. You estimate that they’ve already entered the city and you’ll have to move quickly to meet up with them.

You drag yourself to your feet and give yourself a quick inspection. You’re covered in muck and sewage and stink to high heaven, but at least you’re alive.
You jog southwest. Your steps are dogged until your strength starts to return. Five minutes later, you reach a metal door with a small round window. As you near it, you hear the constant whirring sounds of machinery and fans. You peek through the glass. It looks like the boiler room.

You step away from the window and press yourself against a wall. Intelligence warned you that this room was heavily guarded. You’re lucky to have missed the patrol. You definitely won’t get through the room without a confrontation.
It takes you less than a minute to pick the lock. You slip inside the room and duck behind a water heater.

The room is expansive; three stories of tanks, piping, and machinery are crammed together. Red ladders run from top to bottom. You also see security cameras but they appear to be off. All of the other exits are on the upper floors.
You stay close to the wall and head to the nearest ladder. As you duck under a pipe, something black near the floor catches your eye. It’s a black boot poking out from a duct. You unholster your manure-caked Glock and take a look.

A dead guard has been hidden inside. Blood has pooled around his torso, but it’s still fresh. Your team has obviously been through here very recently. If you move fast, you can catch up.

At the same time, you’re painfully aware of your current condition. You’re caked in shit. The heavy scent will compromise your attempts to remain covert. The dead guard’s clothing might help…

You slide the body out. You relieve it of a rifle and some goggles that look better than your night-vision set. You switch the goggles on and press them to your face but you see nothing other than the room. Maybe they’re broken?

You set them atop a pipe and change your clothes. You toss your soiled gear into the duct, then slide in the body and the extra rifle.

As you’re strapping on your pack, you hear a heavy door slam shut. You slide in feet-first next to the bloody, naked body.

Voices and footsteps near your hiding spot. A pair of black boots step into view and stop. And that’s when you realize you’ve forgotten the dead guard’s goggles. You aim the Glock at the boots and wait.

“He already made his rounds. See? The idiot forgot his hybrid goggles. He probably went for a beer.”

Hybrid-vision goggles? You can’t believe you left them behind.

The guards walk away, taking the goggles with them. You slide out just enough that you can watch them ascend a ladder.

Your team would have gone north into the complex. If you hurry, you can catch up with them. On the other hand, the hybrid goggles would be very useful, but they’re heading south.

What do you do?

A: Go after the goggles.
B: Try to catch up with your team.

We want your vote! Vote in the comments below or on Twitter at #TheMark. Voting ends Tuesday night. The highest vote will be the next step in the story, posted on Fridays.

Image courtesy of Alan.

Voting for Part 4 is now closed. Thanks to all who participated! Continue reading

The Mark: Part Three (Vote Your Adventure)

DemonHorns This is the third part of an adventure series where YOU determine the next step in the story. Read part one and part two. Vote in the comments below or on Twitter at #TheMark.

Your gut says not to split up your team but you decide it’s best to find a way through the tunnels. You order the team above to carry on. You’ll try to rendezvous with them later.

You and your teammate strap the rifles high on your backs and wade to the mouth of the pipe. You take the flashlight from your pocket and shine it inside. You can’t see the end.

You reach in and plunge one hand into the thick waste. Chunks of matter squish through your fingers and jam under your nails. You press down until you can feel the metal at the bottom. You climb inside. The sewage comes up to your chest and the barrel of your rifle bumps against the top of the passage. The weapon looked clean when you held it above your head — you can only hope it stays above the sewage. You pause and give a reassuring pat to the hunting knife strapped at your side. As long as you have that, you can make the best of any situation.

You hope.

You both crawl forward as fast as you can. The sewage is thick and flows heavily against you, slowing your progress. You can’t help but wonder about the sludge you’re submerged in. Animal manure is typically harder. It doesn’t flow like a liquid. If this stuff doesn’t come from an animal, then what?

Ten minutes later, the pipe widens slightly and curves to the right. The manure recedes a few inches. As you crawl around the corner, you hear a gentle scraping. It doesn’t sound mechanical — some scrapes are longer than others and they’re at random intervals. You shine the flashlight ahead but see nothing of interest.

The sound gets closer. Within minutes it’s right next to you. You press your hand down and hit something scaly. Startled, you pull away and grab for your knife. The thick manure impedes your movement. Before you can get to your weapon, something shoves you against the pipe wall. The sound echoes in every direction.
Behind you, your teammate shouts. You twist around and shine the flashlight at him. He has his hunting knife in his hand, poised above the surface of the sewage. You’re finally able to grab your knife, too. You both stop and listen.

The scraping sound is gone but you know you’re not alone.

Your teammate drops his free hand into the sludge and searches around him. You feel a slight vibration in the pipe and the scraping starts again.

Your teammate lets out a blood-curdling scream and snaps back, as if trying to yank his arm away. He starts thrashing and stabbing his knife wildly into the sewage. You rush forward with your flashlight and knife raised, trying to figure out what’s happening.

Your teammate finally gets free but he’s still screaming. He holds up his arm. Wet manure and blood drip from the stub where his hand used to be.

In the space between you, two small, curved horns break the surface of the sewage. You strike at the spot between the horns but they submerge too quickly. Whatever the creature is, it moves faster in the sludge than you do. You follow the scraping sounds and stab again. A sharp pain shoots through your side and you think you’ve been bitten. You plunge your knife hard into the muck around you, desperate to keep your limbs attached.

Your teammate’s screams intensify. You shine the light just in time to see the horns reappear at your teammate’s side.

You reach for your teammate’s jacket but his body lurches away from you. You grasp air and fall forward, leading with the knife. You scrape metal and skin and muscle. The scratching sounds become frenzied. You jump up and reach again for your teammate, grabbing a tentative hold on his sleeve.

The horns submerge. Your teammate is ripped from your fingers and dragged backward. This time, he doesn’t stop — he picks up speed. Sewage sprays in his wake. His screams grow faint.

You can’t help him now. You just have to get the hell out of here. You scramble ahead on your hands and knees, panicked by what you just saw. The pipe twists and turns. After a couple of minutes, you reach a T. To the right, the pipe inclines and you see a flashing white light that exposes a ladder. To the left, the pipe declines and you hear human voices, but you can’t see more than 15 feet.

From behind, you hear the scraping sound again.

What do you do?

A: Go right (incline, light and ladder)
B: Go left (decline, human voices)

We want your vote! Vote in the comments below or on Twitter at #TheMark. Voting ends Tuesday night. The highest vote will be the next step in the story, posted on Fridays.

Image courtesy of Herruwe.

Voting for Part 3 is now closed. Thanks to everyone who participated! Continue reading

The Mark: Part Two (Vote Your Adventure)

demon cows This is the second part of an adventure series where YOU determine the next step in the story. Read part one. Vote in the comments below or on Twitter at #TheMark.

You decide to avoid the gargoyles and search for another way in. You signal your team to fall back another 30 yards. A few minutes later, the team gathers behind the wing of a 757 that protrudes from the ground like a shark fin. You pull a map of the city from your bag and point at a remote spot at the edge of the airfield.

No one looks happy, but they seem to understand that it’s your best chance to avoid more human-demon hybrids.

You jog to the east edge of the airfield. Scraps of planes, service vehicles, and towers lay heavy on the ground and give plenty of cover. Halfway to your entry point your nostrils twinge with a familiar foul scent. Directly below you is the maze of ventilation ducts of New Milwaukee’s processing plants that turn thousands of pounds of cow dung into electricity and fuel. The processing center is only reachable through a narrow, methane-filled passage. The team has small oxygen packs that are just enough for a one-way trip. You’ll have to move fast.

You reach the service grate and bash open the rusted latch with a rock. Metal rungs descend into the shaft. Small ducts appear opposite of the rungs. You climb in first. The smell of manure turns your stomach.

At the 19th duct, you stop and hoist yourself across. The methane is thicker here, making you light-headed. You activate your oxygen pack and don the mask. Almost instantly, your head begins to clear.

You crawl deeper into the duct. While you wait for your team, you hear a skittering sound ahead, but you can’t tell if it’s coming from inside your duct. You remove your night-vision goggles, grab your flashlight, and shine it into the passage. About fifty feet ahead the passage turns left. The way is clear. You stash the flashlight back in your pocket and put your goggles back on.

The trek through the ducts is quick; you’ll even have a few minutes of oxygen to spare. As you near the end, the temperature rises dramatically, threatening to bake you in your body armor. The metal beneath you bends more easily under your weight. You must be over one of the processing tanks.

You signal your team to space out to keep from putting too much weight on the ducts. The soldiers in the rear hang back. As you crawl forward, the duct beneath you lurches. You realize you’re putting too much pressure on a seam between the panels. You start scrambling past when the panel beneath you gives way. You feel yourself fall through the air for a few terrible seconds, then splash into a large vat of thick and slimy material. Instinctively you grab your rifle and scramble to your feet. You hold the rifle over your head. An unlucky teammate is doing the same thing.

You’re both standing in waist-high manure. The walls are sheer metal except for a three-foot pipe that gushes manure into the tank on one side. The rest of your team is looking down at you from the mangled duct fifteen feet up.

You have enough oxygen to last another 25 minutes. Your team could haul you both out, but that would take a lot of time and most of your oxygen. Instead, you could crawl through the pipe of manure, though you aren’t sure where it leads. Either way, you could run out of oxygen before you make it to safety.

What do you do?

A: Have the team haul you up out of the tank.
B: Crawl through the pipe.

We want your vote! Vote in the comments below or on Twitter at #TheMark. Voting ends Tuesday night. The highest vote will be the next step in the story, posted on Fridays.

Don’t forget to subscribe to my website via the RSS links on the toolbar and on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Matthew Harrison Blue.

Voting for Part 2 is closed. Thanks to all who participated! Continue reading

The Mark: Part One (Vote Your Adventure)

gargoyle This is the first part of an adventure series where YOU determine the next step in the story. Vote in the comments below or on Twitter at #TheMark.

You approach from the south. The decimated airfield is deathly silent. Nothing moves. Heavy clouds block the starlight, blanketing the area in pitch. Conditions are optimal — your special ops team has practiced this scenario so many times that you don’t need light. Besides, you didn’t travel 250 miles to sightsee.

You came to kill.

Your team has taken up positions 30 yards from a large bunker rising out of the ground, circled by razor wire: the entrance to New Milwaukee, an underground city that was once your ally. Tall poles topped with glass globes are stationed every ten feet along the fence. You remember the fence from the photographs provided by intelligence. No one was sure what the globes were for.

You glance at your stopwatch just as the sound of a rough diesel engine reaches your ears. Dim, yellow headlights sweep over you and continue on, unaware of your presence. A flatbed truck turns away and slowly circles around the fence. It’s supposed to be a patrol, though your night vision goggles give you a clear view of two people inside and neither of them appear to be looking for anything.

Before the truck pulls around the fence and out of sight, its engine stalls. Brake lights flash and the truck comes to a halt. After a few failed attempts to restart the engine, the driver lays on the horn. You grab your binoculars for a better look.

The gate swings open. Two soldiers step out of the fenced enclosure and walk to the back of the truck. One peels back the tarp that’s strapped across the back while the other lowers the truck’s tailgate. Now the truck driver and passenger get out. All four soldiers are dressed the same, in fatigues and heavy boots. Surprisingly, each has only a simple firearm at their side. You can hardly believe how weakly armed they are.

The four gather at the truck’s tailgate and strain to drag out a hulking object. It’s hard to see between them to know what the cargo is. When leathery wings flop on the ground, you almost drop your binoculars: the cargo is a demon that’s been captured and sedated.

One of the soldiers disappears into the bunker and emerges again with a rolling cart bearing a mechanical device. They attach a cable to the sleeping demon, then to two posts on the fence. A soldier stands by each post. The device is turned on.

Static races across your skin and the globes atop the two posts pulse with a soft purple light. The static intensifies and the glow deepens to crimson. The two soldiers below are bathed in the bloody aura. As you watch, the soldiers’ bodies transform.

You notice it first in their legs — they squat like animals. Their thighs bulge, tearing long gashes in their trousers. Their shoulders broaden and sag forward, causing their arms to hang between their knees. Their boots tear in the front, giving way to elongated toes and razor-sharp talons. The transformed soldiers expand leathery wings and take to the air. They circle around the fence twice and take up positions atop the bunker on opposite sides.

The rumors are true: New Milwaukee is creating human-demon hybrids. No wonder the brass sent you. You’re here to take out the man responsible for these abominations.

The light fades and the globes return to their dormant state. The demon on the ground has been drained of all unlife and is left an indiscernible husk. The two remaining soldiers kick at the demon’s remains, scattering its ashes to the wind. They disappear inside the fence and close the gate.

You check your infrared. The soldiers have gone underground. The half-human, half-demon gargoyles aren’t visible on infrared. If the truck hadn’t broken down, you wouldn’t have known about the gargoyles until it was too late.

You weren’t prepared for this. Regardless, you have a job to do. You have to make a decision.

What do you do?

A. Attack the gargoyles
B. Look for another way inside the underground city

We want your vote! Vote in the comments below or on Twitter at #TheMark. Voting ends Tuesday night. The highest vote will be the next step in the story, posted on Fridays.

Don’t forget to subscribe to my website via the RSS links on the toolbar and on Twitter.

Image courtesy of RayBanBro66.

Voting for part one is now closed. Continue reading