Terms of Employment, part 1

Nov 1st, 2013
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  2.     If there's one benefit to being a hired gun in a supervillain's private army, it's the places you get to see.
  4.     Before my expedition to a certain unnamed island in the Mediterranean Sea, I'd worked in an underwater base in the South Pacific, a remote comm relay hidden away in a Nepalese valley, a football-field-sized nuclear tank in Argentina, and even a low-orbit space station for a few weeks.
  6.     Sure, there was the 85% death rate and the fact that I had to deal with Dr. Malcolm Slayde, but there's worse jobs out there, right?  In my case, it was either this line of work or I'd get stuck with passing out shitty gift souvenirs at the baseball stadium.  I'm dead serious: that was the choice I was offered.
  8.     So, a little word about Slayde.  When I called him a fruitcake, I wasn't kidding you.  I don't know what the fuck happened to him before his supervillain spiel, but this guy had enough poorly-suppressed gayness in him to make ten thousand 80's pop music videos.  Ordinarily I wouldn't give a damn, but you could see it in every single fucking world domination plan he hatched.  There was always some big phallic monument he wanted to steal, always some brand new leather costume he wanted to stomp around in...and worst of all was the relationship he had with Agent XB9.
  10.     I can't say how sick I got of him deliberately letting XB9 into the command center just so he could throw innuendo-gushing quips at him.  Christ...all those plans ditched and all those superweapons destroyed just so he could get a chance to meet his crush.  I'm pretty sure XB9 didn't reciprocate the sentiment, (it didn't help that Slayde had a face like a brick) so you can probably imagine how this fucked with Slayde's already warped sex life.  On second thought, don't imagine it.  No, really.  
  12.     Damn, I need to stop myself before this turns into a biography.  Anyway, as I said earlier, Slayde had sent a squad of mooks and yours truly to a small island in the Mediterranean.  I never learned exactly where it was, and given the present circumstances, I probably never will.
  14.     The important thing was that it was a vital part of Slayde's latest bid for Agent XB9's attention.  Word was the island was the final resting place for some sort of advanced ancient civilization.  Slayde ranted for hours on end in the briefing about his hopes for finding the "Sphere of Meganacus," whatever the hell that meant.  All I knew was that whatever this civilization was, they had a pretty fucking weird obsession with horses.  Horse pots, horse cups, horse blankets, horse tapestries, horse murals, horse plates, horse was borderline disturbing, especially given the fact that there wasn't enough open land on that island to raise horses.
  16.     Definitely weird, I concluded.  But considering all the death ray misfires I'd somehow survived, I was pretty confident that an island that used to be the home of a bunch of horse fanatics was nothing to get worried about.
  18.     Christ, how wrong I was.
  20.     I wish I could say that I vividly remember the way the island looked when our chopper came in low for the final approach.  But in all honesty, the place looked about as exciting as a Nebraskan tractor festival.   No smoking volcanoes, no yawning chasms, no majestic mountain ranges...just a flat, shapeless blob of land covered by a thick green carpet of trees.  
  22.     If you're expecting me to say that our helicopter suddenly got hit by a missile and crashed in the middle of the thicket, you'll be disappointed.  Contrary to what you see in movies, helicopters stuffed with thugs can actually sometimes land safely.
  24.     "All right, ladies," barked Chicago as chopper's side doors slid open.  "Saddle up.  Slayde wants us at Waypoint Alpha yesterday."
  26.     In case you're scratching your head, Chicago was the nickname of Tillman Jean-Clark, the closest thing our "security" outfit had to a commanding officer.  Since Tillman Jean-Clark doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, he let us call him by his hometown.  
  28.     "I don't want any mistakes this time, okay?  Do your jobs right and I'll see what I can do about getting the rec room budget approved."
  30.     There was a ragged cheer as we hopped out of the helicopter.  The rec room was a cause celebre for the veterans of our outfit; it made for a good morale boost.  And considering how dull this mission was looking, a morale boost was just what we needed.
  32.     As per usual, we gathered into a wedge formation and struck out towards the GPS waypoint.  There were twenty two of us, Chicago and I included.  Typically our numbers were a lot greater, but after the Mexican fuel dump fiasco the month before, we were low on manpower.
  34.     The woodland we were hiking through turned out to be surprisingly pleasant.  The breeze ensured that no one had trouble keeping up a fast pace, even loaded down with all the tacticool crap Slayde wanted us to carry around.
  36.     As we marched, I passed the time in the way I normally did: chatting with Chicago.
  38.     It was no secret I was his right-hand man, and I was happy to make a show of it if I could impress the newbies.  
  40.     " then Vasquez gave me this bug-eyed look, and he was like, 'Wait, what do you mean "explosive barrels?"'  And then--just a second later--the whole shed fucking explodes.  Jesus, it was like a bad comedy movie!"  Chicago said breathlessly as I started to crack up.  "And do you know what the best part of it was?  After he got back from the burn ward, he just walks right up to me, stuffs a hundred-dollar bill in my hand, and goes, 'I kept my word.  Oh, and by the way: fuck you.'"
  42.     My sides practically detached at that point, so you can probably understand why it took me a moment to realize that Slayde had just emerged from the bushes.
  44.     "Enjoying yourselves?" he sneered.
  46.     I can't say how hard it was to keep myself from bursting out laughing all over again.  Slayde was a tough man to take seriously as it was.  He was cursed with a perpetually messy mop of brown hair, a nose like an overripe mango, and big blue eyes that consistently failed to convey any real malice.  Top it off with stature of the wimpiest kid you ever met in high school, and you had a man who looked more at home at a small-time stand-up comedy club than the director's office of P.H.A.N.T.O.M.  
  48.     But that wasn't what made me bite my tongue.  It was his fucking hilarious leather trenchcoat.  It had enough pointless straps and buckles to make him look like a villain from a 70's nazisploitation porno--you know, the ones with names like Prison Camp Sluts 3: Anne Cums To Auschwitz.  
  50.     "My apologies, sir," Chicago said briskly.  I could tell by his facial twitches that he was having trouble, too.  "I let myself get distracted."
  52.     "Forgiven," grumbled Slayde.  "But if I catch you breaking protocol again, it's off to the piranha moat with you."
  54.     "Understood," Chicago said, his mouth painfully stretched into an artificial frown.  
  56.     "I am disappointed in all of you," Slayde said, addressing the whole squad.  "If I could sneak up on you this easily, what of Agent XB9?  I have reason to believe he is aware of our activities.  It'd be rude if we couldn't give him a proper reception."
  58.     Our squad collectively grumbled an apology.  Miraculously, it seemed to be enough for Slayde.
  60.     "Right.  We should be fairly close to the waypoint.  When we get there, you will allow me to carry out my work with no distractions.  Is that understood?"
  62.     We all nodded, except for that idiot Childs.  "Uh, sir?  What exactly -is- at Waypoint Alpha, anyway?"
  64.     Slayde smiled in a way he probably thought was cold but mostly just came across as childish.  "All in good time...all in good time."
  66.     I rolled my eyes as Slayde started to lead us onward.  Christ, I was sick of him using that phrase.  Why did he want us to let XB9 into the death ray prototype center?  All in good time.  Why did he need to travel around in a spider tank?  All in good time.  Why the hell had the vending machines not been restocked yet?  All in good time.
  68.     I was still in a sour mood by the time we got to the waypoint, and what I saw didn't exactly lift my spirits.
  70.     We emerged from the woods to find ourselves staring straight at a bleached white outcropping of rock.  
  72.     "You sure this is the right place, sir?" Chicago asked, scratching his lantern jaw.
  74.     "Of course it is, you fool!" Slayde snapped, striding up to the formation.  Chicago traded a look with me: we had a game where after every mission, we'd down vodka shots for each time Slayde had said "fool."  Vasquez had tried to introduce a variant where we'd drink Everclear for every time he said "imbecile," but that had almost gotten us killed.
  76.     A particularly unpleasant breed of tension clung to the air as Slayde began to tenderly run his fingers along the rocks--at the time I wondered if he was imagining them as Agent XB9.  
  78.     "Mishmillaponvi," Slayde chanted softly.  "Ayhvantchu kome inncydde reianbyouwva duayiesh..."
  80.     I was just starting to scratch my head when a bright blue light began to pour from the spot Slayde had touched.  A strange sound like wind chimes filled the clearing as the light grew brighter and spread across the stone.  Blue lines spiderwebbed outward, forming into a tesselated pattern of shapes that reminded me of small horses.
  82.     I must admit, even after all the things I had seen in my line of work, it was enough to make my jaw drop.  
  84.     Suddenly, with a deep tooth-rattling rumble, a thin black fissure appeared in the middle of the outcropping.
  86.     As it grew into a rectangular opening, I realized what the outcropping was: a facade.  A simple cover for the secret entrance that led into the ruins proper.
  88.     "No need to thank me," Slayde boasted before stepping into the doorway.
  90.     A smile started to find its way back onto my face.  It seemed there was at least a slight chance this would turn out to be worth the nauseating helicopter ride.
  92.     To Slayde's annoyance, Chicago would not follow him inside the passageway until we had completed one final exhaustive check of our weapons, radios, and flashlights.  You might think it's cool when the movies show guys like us getting picked off one by one by monsters lurking in the dark, but I can assure you there's nothing cinematic about it.  It's mostly just a lot of running and shitting your pants.
  94.     After we finished preparing our gear, we squeezed one by one through the narrow aperture.  Boris's claustrophobia almost gave him a panic attack, but fortunately the passage widened after a few meters.
  95.     I quickly began to miss the gentle breeze of the forest.  The air grew more and more stagnant and heavy as the passageway slopped downwards, and sweat started to tickle my back.  God, I hate that feeling.
  96.     The passage was a perfect square in cross-section.  There was no thick layer of dust, no broken pottery, not even any loose gravel or pebbles.  It was all carved from smooth grey rock polished so immaculately that you could faintly see your own reflection in it.
  98.     Illuminated by dozens of anglehead flashlights, Slayde's form cast a score of unnerving shadows.
  100.     "See how perfectly carved it is?" he purred, running his hand against one of the impossibly smooth stone walls.  "Even the finest laser cutters could never match it."
  102.     There were a few murmurs of awe as we continued walking down the corridor.  As for me, I had my eyes thoroughly fixed on the floor.  This was exactly the kind of place where you could expect to step on a trigger plate and get chopped apart by swinging axes because you'd offended the Almighty Ahpoopu or something retarded like that.
  103.     Fortunately though, we completed our journey through the first hall without incident.  After about ten minutes of hiking the passageway opened up into a colossal room that laughed at our puny flashlights.
  105.     I pulled out my flare gun and aimed it towards the ceiling.  "Permission, sir?" I asked Slayde.
  106.     He nodded.  "Granted."
  108.     Pa-chook!  A bright red streak described the flare's trajectory through the chamber.  I couldn't help but gasp when I realized just how utterly massive the place was.  You could have easily parked four 747's inside and still had room to spare.  
  110.     I heard more than a few other squadmates take the name of the Lord in vain.
  112.     We were at the top of a wide, 200 meter long ramp that was flanked by six giant horse statues; three on each side.  Each one was set in an imposing, watchful pose, and as we descended the ramp I could've sworn I felt their huge stone eyes boring into me.
  114.     I glanced upward, wondering how the ruins hadn't collapsed.  The ceiling was a masterfully carved gigantic dome that had no visible supports or bracing.
  116.     "Perhaps now you can appreciate my interest in this site," Slayde said to Chicago, whose mouth hadn't closed for several minutes.  "Imagine--if you're capable of it--the forces they must have had at their beck and call.  While the rest of humanity wore animal skins and screamed at the moon, this civilization built something that makes the Great Pyramid look like a sand castle."
  118.     Sometimes I wondered if that asshole was reading from notecards.  There was a standing prize of 5,000 bucks to the first guy who could prove that Slayde wrote his cheesy little rants ahead of time.  
  120.     "So...where do we go first?" asked Childs.  
  122.     "Let me concentrate, you fool," hissed Slayde, pulling out a scroll and examining it.  
  124.     Ha, another vodka shot tonight.
  126.     Although a large portico awaited us at the end of the ramp, it was far from the only structure of interest in this astounding underground city.  There were four-story towers, courtyards with trickling tiered fountains, garguantuan collonades, grand temples, and winding walkways galore.  By the time the flare fizzled out, I was so mesmerized by what I saw that I immediately prepared to fire another one.
  128.     "No need," Slayde said, pushing my arm back down.  "I only needed to confirm the map was accurate. The Temple of Meganacus should not be far."
  130.     I was supremely grateful for that, given how enormous this place was.  Christ, how did they manage to fit this all on such a tiny island?
  132.     We reached the end of the ramp and traveled along a boulevard lined with plentiful pillars.  The bizarre obsession the architects had for horse imagery certainly didn't get any less ridiculous:  I was starting to see little horseshoe bas-reliefs and saddle symbols everywhere I looked.
  134.     "What the fuck was wrong with these people?" Vasquez muttered.
  136.     "Fool!" spat Slayde.  "Who are you to question a civilization that reached such glorious heights?  Our greatest innovators are but drooling imbeciles compared to them!"
  138.     "But at least they weren't batshit crazy," Vasquez murmured weakly.  Fortunately for him, Slayde didn't seem to notice.  He was too busy gaping at a large three-story structure a quarter kilometer ahead.
  140.     "The Temple of Meganacus," he gasped.  "All these years of research...all the frustration...all the mockery from the Council...and finally I can see it with my own eyes!"
  142.     He took off like a little kid at a theme park.  Giving a heavy sigh, I gathered my strength and tried to keep up with him.
  144.     I had to admit, he definitely knew his way around.  Even with our flashlights, my squadmates and I kept tripping over dozens of idiotically placed steps and sculptures.  Slayde effortlessly wove his way around obstructions like he'd been raised here.
  146.     "Don't tarry!" Slayde yelled impatiently.  "The Sphere of Meganacus awaits!  Unlimited power will be ours!"
  147.     By which he meant "his."  As you could probably guess, I wasn't exactly optimistic about how this was going to work out.  If you ever go into the supervillain henchman business, I'll be brutally honest: your boss will never share power with you.  Just consider yourself lucky if you get a good dental plan.
  149.     The appearance of the Temple of Meganacus came as something of a disappointment.  It was a simple cubical structure with a columned entrance and two bronze horse statues set by its sides.  I half-expected to see a big sign proclaiming "First National Bank."
  151.     "Can we expect any trouble inside?" Childs asked as we climbed the steps.  "You know...trap doors, dart guns, zombies...anything like that?"
  153.     "Fool," snorted Slayde.  "Secrecy was their defense against intrusion.  They had no need for such primitive measures."
  155.     "So why did you have us bring all this firepower?" asked one of the younger thugs, waving his shotgun.
  156.     "Do I pay you to ask questions?" Slayde growled.
  158.     I knew the real reason, of course.  It was all about Agent XB9.  I think the big guns were sort of a phallic thing for Slayde: maybe he thought he could impress XB9 by always being surrounded by a legion of muscular men with really big, wide-barrelled weapons.
  160.     I walked up to the temple's tall brass doors with a growing sense of unease.  There was a low thrum emanating from within, and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
  162.     "Should we use a breaching charge, sir?" Chicago asked Slayde.
  164.     Slayde wordlessly pushed past him and punched a small stone icon set on the left side of the doorframe.  Without even a tiny squeal, the doors slowly drifted open.
  166.     Bright light stung my eyes.  Blinking away the disorientation, I took in the sight before me.
  168.     The doors led into a large, hexagonal atrium that was featureless save for a massive glowing blue orb suspended from the ceiling.  
  170.     "The Sphere," Slayde breathed.  Christ, did he think we were idiots?  What else could it have been--a Home Depot discount lighting fixture?
  172.     I gripped my submachine gun more closely again, feverishly checking the room for any "uninvited guests," as Slayde always called them.
  174.     I didn't have to look long.  Suddenly a black jumpsuit-clad figure rappelled from the ceiling, rolling gracefully on impact and springing to his feet.
  176.     XB9.  Oh, but of course.
  178.     He pressed some sort of small stone cube attached to his belt, and I felt a quiet woosh of air from behind me.  
  179.     If that was a distraction, I decided, it was a pretty shitty one.  I opened fire, sending a hail of 9mm bullets at him.  A second staccato of machine gun fire told me that Chicago had been quick on his feet, too.
  180.     One of the things I hate the most about this job is the crappy equipment.  Slayde always made us use guns that were about as accurate and reliable as political commentary from a drug-crazed hobo.  
  182.     So just like usual, we didn't hit anything but the walls and the floor. That asshole XB9 was practically -walking- out of our line of fire.  And also just like usual, Slayde did nothing but just stand there and gawk.
  183.      I cursed and tried to compensate my aim, wondering why I wasn't getting any more support fire.  XB9 grabbed Slayde so quickly that I could've sworn Slayde actually ran -towards- him.  Big fucking surprise.
  185.     "Drop your weapons," XB9 said smoothly, standing right behind Slayde with a silenced pistol aimed at his head.  
  186.     I hesitated.  "Do it!" yelled Slayde, a deep blush on his face betraying exactly how he felt about the opportunity to get so close to XB9.
  188.     I looked over at Chicago, who nodded gravely.  Out of the corner of my eye I could see that the doors to the temple had been closed, locking out our reinforcements.  Panicked voices and fists banging on metal sounded from outside.
  190.     With a sinking feeling in my gut, I remembered that Chicago was the only one with breaching charges.  No one would be coming to our aid anytime soon.
  192.     Reluctantly, Chicago and I placed our guns on the floor.  
  194.     "I always like to think ahead," boasted XB9, waving the stone cube.  "I'm surprised, Slayde--don't you have an override switch of your own?"
  196.     "You're quite a pain in the ass," muttered Slayde.
  198.     XB9 stripped off his balaclava, revealing the chiseled, dashing face beneath.  "I'm becoming quite good at it, it seems," he smiled, his sharp blue eyes twinkling.
  200.     I let out a mental moan.  God, I was sick of dealing with this shit.  
  202.     "I'm afraid you'll never find out what secrets the Sphere holds," XB9 mused.  "You'll be coming with me, Slayde.  The Coalition plans on locking you up for a very, very long time."
  204.     "I'll break out of whatever bonds you put me in," said Slayde.  "And I'll find this place again."
  206.     XB9 smiled again.  "You don't understand.  My team has placed twenty seismic charges.  As soon as I'm out, this place goes down. Oh...and if I don't check in every fifteen minutes, they'll detonate them early.  So don't try anything cute."
  208.     I couldn't decide whether to be worried or simply annoyed. XB9 had proven himself to be a big fan of bluffing tactics, but occasionally he did have some weight behind his threats.
  210.     "You work for a cabal of imbeciles!" Slayde roared. "The Sphere of Meganacus holds infinite power!  To destroy it is to spit in the face of destiny!"
  212.     Hoo boy, this conversation again.  I rubbed my temples, trying to stave off my growing headache.  It didn't help that the low thrum in the room was growing louder.
  214.     "No one deserves infinite power," said XB9, some of his composure breaking.  "But then again, you'll never believe otherwise.  Enough talk--I'm behind schedule as it is.  As for you two," he said, glancing at Chicago and I, "I think you and the rest of your friends should leave.  This place will be--"
  216.     "Evacuation protocol initiated," droned a flat feminine voice.  
  218.     All four of us were taken aback.  The voice had come from the orb itself, which now pulsed with ripples of violet energy.
  220.     "W-what?" stammered Slayde.
  222.     "Imminent threat reported to Site Meganacus.  The city thanks you for your assistance.  Initializing emigration process."
  224.     Before I had a chance to ask what the hell it meant by "emigration process," a stream of blue coruscating energy shot out and wrapped Slayde in its coils.  He screamed and thrashed, although it seemed to be out of fear rather than pain.
  226.     With a growing look of terror on his face, XB9 backed away and fired wildly at the sphere with his pistol.  It responded by sending a smaller tendril of energy around his gun, ripping it out of his grip before ensnaring him as well.
  228.     "Weapon use is not advised," the voice informed him politely.  
  230.     I heard a scream to my right, and saw that it had caught Chicago, too.  I tried to run when the final tentacle of energy shot towards me, but I might as well been trying to outrun lightning.
  232.     I felt no pain or burning when the energy wrapped around me: only the sensation of the air being pushed out of my lungs as it coiled tighter.  Still, I gotta admit I screamed like a little bitch.
  234.     The sphere held each of us in the air like some sort of gigantic octopus examining its prey.  I could only stare slackjawed at it and pray for rescue.
  236.     "Scanning," it announced, illuminating us with bright green rays of light.
  238.     "Analyzing results. Conclusion reached. Current state of evacuees unsuitable for emigration."
  240.     "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" yelled Chicago.
  242.     "Species reassignment necessary, as per Command Seventeen."
  244.     It didn't take a genius to figure out how bad that sounded.  I struggled harder against the tendrils, but they didn't weaken in the slightest.
  246.     "Additional complaint: unacceptable levels of disharmonious personality traits detected in all four subjects.  Will disrupt proper integration into the herd if not resolved.  Modified emigration protocol implemented."
  247.     The tendril holding Slayde changed color, becoming brighter and less translucent.  It lengthened several meters, wrapping him in more and more coils of energy until he was enveloped in something that resembled a cocoon.  
  248.     Now, let me make one thing clear: I hated Slayde.  The little weasel was a micromanaging, megalomaniacal jackass.  
  250.     But goddammit, he was still a human being.  
  252.     So when I heard the increasingly high-pitched, agonized shrieks from inside that cocoon, I didn't enjoy a second of it.  I just swore and kept fighting against the energy holding me in place, growing increasingly desperate and furious when it only gripped tighter.
  254.     I saw a flash of Slayde's flailing arms as they briefly broke outside the cocoon.  They still looked mostly human, but they had shrunk dramatically.  Worse still, a thick coat of white fur was creeping along them.
  256.     Hell, even XB9 seemed mortified by whatever horrible fate the Sphere was inflicting on Slayde--especially since he was about to suffer the same thing.  "No!" he screamed just before a cocoon enveloped him, as well.
  258.     If anyone could've broken free, I figured it would have been Chicago.  Although he was no Olympian, he had biceps like cinderblocks and a chest that looked like it had been ripped from the pages of a superhero comic.
  260.     "Hold still," the Sphere commanded him.  "You are delaying the process."
  262.     "That's exactly the point, you bitch!" he yelled, thrashing back and forth.
  264.     I could tell what he was doing.  Just like a crowd rocking a bus to push it over, Chicago was trying to translate his struggles into momentum to exploit.  A vindictive smile lit up my face as the tentacle holding him began to sway.
  266.     The smile disappeared when I realized that the tentacle was just compensating for his movement, letting him slowly drain his strength until it was ready to get to work on him.
  268.     He fought like a legend, but it made no difference to the damned Sphere.  As soon as he tried to catch his breath, it wrapped him up in a tight cocoon.
  270.     "You have necessitated more drastic changes," the Sphere stated as his scream reached an earsplitting pitch. "That is unfortunate."
  272.     When the Sphere addressed me, it actually had to raise its voice to be heard over the screams and the torrent of profanity spewing from my mouth.
  274.     "Final evacuee," it said coldly.  "Initializing--"
  276.     The light flickered.  "In...itializing..."
  278.     I stared as it tried to finish its statement, unsure whether to take it as a cause for joy or panic.
  280.     Abruptly the tendril grasping me flickered out of existence, and I plummeted to the ground.
  282.     My landing wasn't exactly catlike.  I didn't take the impact badly enough to break any bones, but it was enough to elicit a few more choice expletives.
  284.     Groaning and rubbing my bruises, I surveyed the room.  The cocoons slowly drifted to the ground, each one disgorging a pile of empty clothes on the floor.
  286.     "What the hell did you do to them?" I demanded.  Had it reassigned their species to "nothing?"
  288.     "Species reassignment...75% percent successful..." the Sphere said disjointedly.  "Cause of disruption: power failure.  Your...your process has not been completed.  Report to secondary...secondary..."
  290.     The sphere went dead, plunging the room into total darkness.  I cursed again and clicked my flashlight on.
  292.     Disturbingly, I could hear what sounded like the cries of children nearby.   I realized they seemed to be coming from the piles of clothes, which were now squirming fitfully.
  294.     What the fuck was going on? I rushed over to the nearest pile, which consisted of Slayde's trenchcoat and pants.  A small lump was thrashing around inside the outfit, sending ripples through the black leather.
  296.     Baffled, I reached through the trenchcoat's neck hole and tried to pull the whatever-the-hell-it-was out. I felt something sharp stab into my fingers, causing me to yelp in pain.
  298.     "Son of a bitch!" I barked, quickly pulling my arm back.  But the damn thing wouldn't let go!  Swearing like a wino, I changed my grip and grabbed the perpetrator.
  300.     The creature wailed piteously as I dragged it out of the suit, flailing its stubby little arms and legs furiously.
  301.     I blinked, unable to formulate a curse that could exactly express how confused I was.
  303.     The creature was covered in a layer of short brown fur with white splotches, its mane a faded straw color.
  304.     It was a baby horse, for the lack of a better term.  I say that because most horses don't have ridiculously thick legs, tiny muzzles, and blue eyes that would be quite human-like if they weren't so disproportionately huge.
  305.     "Swuh-swuh-swayed," it gibbered.  Despite its animalistic appearance, its voice sounded exactly like it came from a preschool-age boy.
  307.     The effect was unsettling, to say the least.  It took me a few seconds to reply, and when I did, my voice was distant and dazed.
  309.     "What?" I asked.
  311.     "Sl-slayde," it said, pronouncing the word more clearly this time.  "I-I'm Slayde."
  313.     The little horse-creature stared fearfully up at me, its short muzzle twitching as tears dripped down its cheeks.
  314.     "Help me," was all he could manage.  I could tell it took every ounce of effort on his part to keep his l's from turning into w's.
  316.     It was a sight that would have melted the hearts of even Slayde's Mortis Squad troopers, but somehow it elicited no emotion from me.
  318.     Imagine a computer getting shut down and only being able to start up in safe mode.  That was my mind at the moment: safe mode.  No fancy features like emotions, empathy, or pretty much anything that you usually associate with a worthwhile human being.  I was in a state of shock, unable to understand what was going on.
  319.     I turned away from the creature Slayde had transformed into, ignoring his sobs of despair.  
  320.     Slowly but earnestly, an empty jumpsuit inched away from me.  I could see a small dark gray hoof occasionally poking out from underneath the suit as Agent XB9 tried to crawl away from the man he had disarmed only minutes earlier.
  322.     I leaned down and pulled the jumpsuit away, revealing a creature that looked much like what Slayde had become, but with a much darker coat. Startled by his sudden disrobement, XB9 jolted back and cowered in fear.  His catlike green eyes were practically the size of dinner plates.
  324.     His furry gray ears poked out from his short purple mane, twitching nervously as he gawked at the giant before him.  I saw something flutter behind his back, and I realized that he sported a pair of small, bat-like wings.
  325.     "D-don't hurt me," XB9 sobbed, his voice just as childlike as Slayde's.  "Just let me go...just let me go."
  326.     I was terrifying to him.  A faint voice told me that I should try to comfort him, but my emotions were still flat and muted.
  328.     There was one final person I wanted to check on.  I left XB9 to himself and approached the last pile of clothes.  Chicago's signature scuffed-up ballistic vest rested on top of the heap.  I remembered how he always wore that thing even off-duty.  He said the extra weight helped him stay fit.
  330.     Seeing the armor just lying there, unused--as if to hammer home the point that I'd never have drinks with my old buddy again, never have weightlifting contests with him, never have at least one trustworthy man guarding my back again--
  332.     It hurt.  
  334.     A faint wail came from inside the pile, and I noticed that my vision was getting blurry.
  336.     I wiped my eyes, and my finger came back wet.  
  338.     I heard the wail again, softer but no less wrenching.  My emotions were coming back, and I didn't welcome the feeling.
  340.     In an instant I was kneeling by Chicago's empty clothes, desperately trying to free him from the tangling straps and combat webbing.  
  342.     My eyes were getting blurry again.  I snarled and scratched at them, suddenly wishing I could rip out my tear glands. The wails became louder, and I felt my hands close around Chicago's thrashing form.  I didn't want to see what he'd become, but I knew I needed to.
  344.     I pulled Chicago free, and when I finally saw him the reality of Chicago's fate hit me like a sledgehammer.
  345.     In my hands I held a small milk-white foal that struggled uselessly against my grip.  A sharp horn jutted from his forehead, emerging from his long, fiery red mane.
  347.     But as I examined the foal closer, I realized the Sphere hadn't just taken Chicago's humanity and his adulthood away.  No.  That wasn't enough, apparently.
  349.     It'd taken his manhood.  They'd taken the most masculine man I'd known, and turned him into a sobbing little filly.
  350.     "Chicago," I managed.  "It's me.  Do you still know who I am?"
  352.     The small foal sniffed, trying and failing to stifle another sob.  But somehow, she managed to stare at me with her wet, deep blue eyes and give me a sickly nod.  I held her closely, hoping that eventually we could both stop crying.
  354.     Suddenly the Sphere lit up again, glowing with dim red light.
  356.     I noticed that my gun was missing--the Sphere must have vaporized it along with XB9's, I realized.  It was a shame, because at that moment I desperately wanted to rain lead on that horrible machine until it shattered into a thousand pieces.
  358.     So instead I clutched Chicago closer, trying to shield her from whatever new horrors it had planned for her.  XB9's and Slayde's cries quickly fell silent: they must have been frozen stiff with fear.
  360.     "Power...reroute successful," the Sphere stated, its voice still distorted and slow.  "Error: power reserves...inadequate to complete integration protocol.  Current operational capability at ten percent."
  362.     "How incredibly fucking tragic," I spat.  "Let me tell you what you're gonna do: you're gonna find a way to get us back to normal.  If you don't...I swear to God, I will rip you off the ceiling and carry you straight to hell.  Is that clear?"
  364.     "Oracle mode engaged," the Sphere announced, its color turning from red to a pale whitish-blue.  
  366.     "Confirmation...required: you wish for you and the other three become normal.  Is this is your request?"
  368.     "Of course it fucking is."
  370.     "Processing...complete," the Sphere said.
  372.     A small scroll materialized in front of me.  I reached out and pulled it open, showing it to be a map of the city.  My eyes widened: the damn place was far, far larger than I'd thought.
  374.     "Your location," the Sphere stated simply as a purple dot appeared in a tiny outline of the Temple of Meganacus.  A second later a green dot appeared in the city's far north, inside a large circular structure.  
  376.     "Location of Site Danicus," the Sphere explained.  "Power levels...should be adequate...for the requested operation..."
  378.     "How far is it?" I demanded.
  380.     "Sixteen givaqria."
  382.     "What the hell is a 'givaqria?'"
  384.     "A givaqria is ten zoriths."
  386.     I cursed and rubbed my head.  "Fuck it.  Look, just open the doors."  The sooner we could link up with the rest of the team, the better.
  388.     "Denied."
  390.     I blinked.  "What do you mean, 'denied?'  How hard is it to open a fucking door?"
  392.     "Official procedure for managing evacuees using the Integration Protocol is to provide specialized supplies," the Sphere explained.  Right underneath the Sphere a squat column rose from the floor, quickly opening to reveal a sack woven from strange shimmering cloth.
  394.     "These items have...been fabricated to resemble goods...readily available in the Sacred World," the Sphere explained.  "They are indispensable...for a proper Integration."
  396.     I rolled my eyes. "Yeah.  We don't need them."
  398.     "Official procedure dictates that they must be taken before the evacuees can be released.  It is written in that all things fashioned in the form of--"
  400.     "Okay, okay, fine!" I roared.  "Christ!"
  402.     Chicago had calmed down somewhat, so I set her down so I could grab the sack of supplies.  
  403.     The bag was much lighter than it looked.  As I carried it back to the three ex-humans, I couldn't help but wonder what the hell was in the bag that made it so important for this Integration Protocol.
  405.     So I took a quick peek inside.  To my surprise, the goods looked very much like products that you could find at a modern store, if you ignored the images of smiling cartoony horses on most of them.  Jars of baby food, bottles, clothes, medicine, boxed snacks...and then several packages of white, puffy rectangles that I at first thought were miniature pillows.
  407.     It took me a second to realize what they really were.  And I knew Chicago, Slayde and XB9 would not be happy to see them.
  409.     Before I let any of them see what was inside, I slung the bag around my shoulder.  Fortunately, it had a strong strap for just such a purpose.
  411.     "What's in there?" Slayde asked.
  413.     "Food, medicine...a bunch of junk like that," I explained.  It wouldn't have been politic to say anything about the plentiful packs of disposable diapers.
  415.     "Oh."
  417.     I shot a look at him, confused.  
  419.     "Oh"?  That was it?  No snarky remarks? No disdainful sneers? No intrusive questions?
  421.     Already I was starting to miss them.  In the past, Slayde had been a pain in the ass even in the direst circumstances.  But now he quietly stared up at me with the wide, worried eyes of a child who just wanted to go home.
  423.     Christ, what had that machine done to him?
  425.     I hoped it was just some byproduct of his stress, because the thought that the Sphere had mentally regressed them was a new horror in itself.
  427.     I didn't have much time to reflect on that development; seconds later I heard a small, distorted voice coming from XB9's abandoned gear.
  429.     Rushing over to inspect the source, I quickly discovered a sleek black radio headset.  
  431.     "XB9, do you copy?"  a distorted voice crackled.   "If you don't reply within three minutes, we'll have no choice but to detonate the charges."
  433.     Oh, for fuck's sake, I thought.
  435.     I tried to channel that same sense of detachment and coolness that had saved my ass every other time we'd gotten into a life-or-death situation.  I'd survived a volcano eruption, a genetically-engineered shark tank mishap, a plasma tornado, (don't ask) and no less than four cases of giant robot superweapon rampages.
  436.     This is easy, I told myself.  I just have to keep cool like before, even though my boss, my boss's rival, and my best friend all got turned into horse-creatures by an ancient artifact that looks like a prop from a bad 60's drive-in sci-fi--
  438.     Sometimes, I really suck at giving myself pep talks.
  440.     "Wait!" XB9 squealed, frantically crawling towards me.  "Say it smells like cabbage down here!"
  442.     I was only starting to give him a confused reply before he clarified, "It's a code!  It tells them to stop the countdown!"
  444.     That was all the explanation I needed.  Clearing my throat, I tried to prepare myself for the absolute best possible impersonation of XB9 I could manage.  Christ...if only I'd taken that voice acting class.
  446.     "'It smells like cabbage down here,'" I said, doing my best to sound suitably dashing and suave.
  448.     "Voiceprint assessment," a robotic voice informed me.  "Scanning.  Incorrect match.  Please try again."
  450.     I must have tried ten more times before I was just about ready to smash the damn headset into pieces against the floor.  
  452.     Before I could, XB9 yelled at me to give him the radio.  Sighing, I complied.
  454.     "Id smews wike cabbage down hewe!" he shrieked into the headset, his pronunciation regressing temporarily to toddler level.
  456.     "Incorrect match."
  458.     He tried again.  And again, and again, and again, more and more tearfully and incoherently each time.  At last he threw the headset down and stomped on it with his little hooves.  When he discovered that he wasn't nearly strong enough to break it, he launched into a full-blown tantrum, jumping up and down in infantile rage.  He bared his tiny fangs and bawled, his little wings fluttering uselessly.  
  460.     His bizarre childish outburst certainly didn't help my concentration.  My overworked, overloaded brain was racing like a demented merry-go-round.  It couldn't end like this.  It simply couldn't.  I'm no fatalist, but I knew damn well that if we tried running our way to safety, we would just die tired.  Not with only two minutes left until detonation.
  462.     I had one last stupid idea floating around in my head.  Turning to address the Sphere, I asked: "Does this city have any safeguards to prevent collapse?"
  464.     It was a moronic question, of course.  Its first action upon hearing of a threat to the city was to turn three of us into baby horses.  Why the hell would it have any useful response?
  466.     The sphere glowed warmly.  "Affirmative.  In case...of an impending structural failure, a repulsion projected to reinforce the ceiling.  While this feature...will only extend survival by six hours, it can...nonetheless allow a safe evacuation, as dictated in the Book of--"
  468.     "This repulsion field," I interrupted.  "Can you turn it on?"
  470.     "Checking repulsion...field power reserves," the Sphere stated, still with that goddam painfully slow voice.  I could feel each second drain away, and it made me want to scream.
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