Their preparations made, their plan put into action, the group stand on the doorstep of Whole Body Grafts for their confrontation with Nakarand.
“I have to go shopping,” Tobias veered off as he spotted the shopping mall. The shopping district was a brightly lit open area of tiled mall under the massive skyscraper. It was here that Tobias headed, the group following close behind.
“What now?! When’s the appointment?” Bruce looked up at the tower soaring two hundred floors above their heads. As thick as the biggest hardwood trees, six supporting columns held up the entire building above their heads. Algernon wandered off to examine one of the supporting columns with a thoughtful look.
“I’m the Social Media officer. If I’m to be good stage dressing for you and Algernon, I need a camera,” He said distractedly as several cyphers attracted his eye, “It will do us no good to turn up on time and not do our best to manipulate the situation to our favour.”
A small drone camera floating on magnetic repulsion was an obvious purchase, but a compact surveillance set, spying grenade, a sleep-inducing injectable were also tantalising. Bruce’s protests were forgotten as he spotted a pair of information lenses, glasses that would tell you basic information about whoever you looked at.
“We need these,” Bruce pointed out the glasses and they were placed with the drone.
“Algernon, would you like any of this stuff,” Tobias turned to Algernon, who was knocking the column, following it with his eyes until it disappeared in the building ten metres above.
“Nevermind,” Tobias replied and placed the syringe in the pile of purchases.
As they moved away from the store, Algernon drew the group close, “I think I can bring down this building, or at least the top part where Nakarand is.”
“I do like your thinking,” Bruce nodded with approval as Tobias looked around at the hundreds of shoppers going about their business.
“And where would this building fall with its two hundred floors of innocents?”
“I was thinking the market square behind,” Algernon pointed out an open area of market stalls and crowds of shoppers looking for bargains, and Tobias shook his head.
“I appreciate your openness in sharing, Algernon. I commend the thought you’ve put into this and your ingenuity,” Algernon physically swelled with pride under the praise before… “However, we’re not here to start a war between Ruk and Earth. Can you put your ingenuity and godlike abilities into destroying our real enemy on floor 199? For one thing, we have no idea if Nakarand could survive such an event. They may be able to teleport themselves out of Ruk altogether at the first sign of danger. We need more information.”
“That’s where the glasses come in,” Bruce said, tapping his new acquisition.
“And for those, we need to get close.”
“But is it safe?” Algernon said, falling back on his old fears. No one answered him. They all knew this may well be a one-way trip.
“Still, I don’t think it’s as powerful as you think,” Bruce commented by way of changing the subject, “Why go to all the trouble of having only one avatar and getting others to do its work for them. Why wouldn’t it make a bunch of Avatars and do it all?”
“Why go to the difficulty of being involved in everything and spreading yourself thin when you can just get others to do your work for you?” Tobias argued from his own point of view, “Why do the miracles yourself when you can get your disciples to do them. Besides, we know that Nakarand can control several people at once. They did that in Nederland with the spiral eyes.”
“So can you,” Bruce countered, bringing Tobias up short.
“Not across recursion….not yet, at least.”
“Regardless, I think we have to go and see what it is, study it before we destroy it,” Peggy said as they started for the lifts to floor 191, the Showrooms of Whole Body Grafts.
“Please, never ‘it’,” Tobias complained nervously now that their destination was in sight, “By its name or them or even he or she if you prefer. It presumed Nakarand is a thing. As it is, we’re already assuming they’re not as powerful as we thought. This creature has intelligence and is motivated by needs and wants we don’t understand. So please, don’t underestimate them.”
“I’m not, “ Barked back Peggy, “I’m not assuming gender either.”
“What has sex got to do with it?” Tobias asked as the group spotted a tall, tastefully dressed woman in the latest of Ruk corporate fashion. Uen-Taru was waiting for them at the lifts with a small smile of recognition lighting her face.
“Uen-Taru! I’m so please you could join us,” Tobias, forgetting the argument for the impressive woman who had saved his life. He rushed over to welcome her into the group, then once close he leant in, “I was surprised to see your name on our website. How long have you been watching us?”
“What I want to know is how has she been watching us?” Algernon commented under his breath.
“I’ve had cause to take an interest in this place for some time,” She replied cryptically as the lift was called, “When I saw your interest, I thought I might be needed here.”
Peggy’s crystalline box shifted form uncomfortably. “And what is your interest in all this? Why are you here?”
“I certainly know why I’m here,” Tobias bantered, very aware of Peggy’s suspicion at anyone from outside the group, “ And I know that Algernon wonders why he’s here.”
Algernon nodded in agreement.
“I’ve had my concerns over Whole Body Graft for some time, especially some of their recent advances.”
On the ride up to the 191st floor, Tobias quietly informed Uen-Taru about what they had discovered from Dram-Shara’s diary about using a creature of the Strange to make new products. By way of interference, Algernon hummed The Girl from Ipanema.
“A creature from the Strange, that would explain it.”
The elevator doors opened up onto a glittering double-height space the entire width of the building. Everywhere they looked were models highlighted by overhead lighting displaying what Whole Body Grafts could offer. One body with tiger-like stripes had wings like that of a butterfly. Another was a bodybuilders dream. A top-heavy body of cut muscle supported by legs looked spindly in comparison. Bruce, fully dressed in his ablative Ruk armour, compared his physique to that of the model. Though not as large or as cut as the model, he was sure that the artificially created muscle couldn’t perform as well as his work-hardened body.
“I could take him,” He said, satisfied as Tobias tossed the drone into the air and started a preamble about their visit,” Did you get permission for video recordings?”
Tobias smiled smugly at the question, “Of course not. It was all part of the plan.”
Several sales staff wandered the large space. One started towards the group. Tobias was ready with a brush-off when a man in a severe business suit stepped in and turned the sales assistant aside. Then, directing his attention to Peggy, he introduced himself.
“You would be Peg-Margret of Strange Cybernetics?” He asked with a slight bow.
Algernon noticed the red ring on his right hand straight away. A look at the gentleman’s surface thought confirmed who he was.
“Ah, you’d be the security chief, Mu-Duggan?” He asked, informing the other of his discovery at the same time.
“I am,” Mu-Duggan looked surprised.
“We like to know who we’re dealing with,” Peggy added.
“Of course,” Mu-Duggan recovered and now turned to Bruce,” Your security can remain here, I can assure you, your safe with us.”
Tobias took this as his prompt to intervene,” Bar-Karow is Security for the whole of Strange Cybernetics. He has input into the final form that Peg-Margret and Alga-Nune select and as such is vital to this process.”
Mu-Duggan looked uncomfortable with the idea of another security specialist in his space, especially an armed one. But, eventually, he led the way through a set of double doors into a meeting room with a gesture.
Designed to impress, this room was dominated by a massive board table with an inbuilt holographic display. Already waiting for the group were two individuals wearing white and green rings. Mu-Duggan introduced them as Teb-Shara, the white ring bearer of sales and Cara-Tem, a surgeon and green ring wearer.
Introductions made, Mu-Duggan left them to it, much to Bruce’s disappointment. Peggy now started up her part in the plan, distraction, and presented her list of demands to the representatives of Whole Body Grafts.
Instantly Algernon and Bruce started prowling the room looking for security, access points to the computer network and panic buttons. Bruce was frustrated that Mu-Duggan had left the room. He had planned to lock the door silently against them and then strike, taking down the three Whole Body graft staff members and stealing their rings. With Mu-Duggan gone, that left only a white and green ring, not high enough level to get through to floor 199 and Nakarand.
“I build intricate machines,” Peggy said, projecting several crazy and complicated machines with her hologram, “In a new body, I was looking for double-jointed long thin fingers. Vision able to be magnified would be highly useful for the same reason. Radiation and impact resistance almost essential….”
The surgeon was in a fever trying to add all of Peggy’s demands to the holographic model. In the meantime, Tobias drew the sales representative, Teb-Shara, aside getting the camera between him and whatever Bruce and Algernon were up to.
“Is the camera really necessary?” Asked Teb-Shara as it fixed at a point beside Tobias’ head, a staring black eye into nothing.
“We’re a small company, but we’re influential. We have quite the Allsong following, and I would think that Whole Body Grafts would appreciate that kind of exposure,” Tobias suggested and weaved into his words the thought that it was vital to the company’s welfare to get this group up to see the chief’s of Research and Development.
Peggy was doing the same with the surgeon. Her intelligence and knowledge allowed her to follow along, even provide positive suggestions on how the cloning and surgeries could be achieved.
“Ah, I know our R&D are working on such ideas…” Said the surgeon as he started to flounder in the theoretical propositions she was putting forward.
“Exactly my thoughts too,” Said Teb-Shara excitedly, Tobias smiling proudly behind him, “It’s essential they talk to R&D.”
“Well, we pride ourselves for being on the bleeding cutting-edge of technology,” Algernon added. Tobias nodded quietly behind him in admiration. The kid was learning.
Cara-Tem, the surgeon, looked from his associate to the collected executives of Strange Cybernetics, unsure of what he should do next. He was focused on helping Peggy, but there must be some company security protocol they were stepping over that Mu-Duggan would have disliked. Tobias reached out a hand with a casual gesture and touched Peggy, sending a jolt of The Strange. If she was their focus, she was the one that would have to tip the balance.
“Is there anything else you can show us?” Peggy added, showing the first note of boredom. It was a subtle communication quite unlike Peggy’s usual blunt commands. It suggested that Whole Body Grafts may not be the partners Strange Cybernetics were looking for.
It did the trick. Cara-Tem stood and gestured for the group to follow him. As one, they walked out of the meeting room, through to the back of the showroom to the elevators. Mu-Duggan was patrolling the showroom as the group moved past. A silent look from Mu-Duggan, a question as to what was going on. Cara-Tem nodded that he was fine, and the group filed onto the lift.
Floor 195 and the Research and Development labs. When they’d first made their plans, the group had never dreamed that they would be invited up so high in the building. Giddy with their achievement so far, they quietly followed Cara-Tem through a security checkpoint, past a group of patrolling venom troopers, down a hall marked with warning signs for Biohazards, Radioactivity, and Poisons before entering another meeting room.
This room was more every day, a place that regularly saw all night planning and development sessions. In the centre of the table was a holographic projector, but also a set of cups, spoons, jugs of hot liquid, and snacks of various types. At the table surrounded by tablets, another man waited, looking curiously up at Cara-Tem.
“Iphur-Kishi, may I introduce to you the executives of Strange Cybernetics. Iphur-Kishi is our Chief of Cybernetic Enhancements. He’s currently working on something very similar to what you’re asking for.” The whole group nodded to Iphur-Kishi, and one by one, noted the red ring on his right hand.
“Cybernetics, oh no, if I wanted to be cybernetic, I would have made it myself. No, no, no,” Peggy crystal box zoomed up into Cara-Tem’s face. Bruce used the moment’s distraction to jam the door shut with spoons off the table.
“Yes, a cyberneticist seems out of date,” Tobias added as Algernon noted the one camera in the room, “What about your brilliant chemist, Dram-Shara?”
Iphur-Kishi now looked uncomfortable, “I’m afraid Dram-Shara is not available. She’s on leave.”
“No, not cybernetics as such,” Cara-Tem agreed nervously, getting back to his reasons for being there, “Subdermal plating. Iphur-Kishi, if you could show Peg-Margret what you’ve been working on?”
Iphur-Kishi did just that as Cara-Tem and the sale executive, Teb-Shara, gathered around. Peggy and Tobias planted themselves as distractions for Algernon and Bruce as they went about securing the room.
Algernon eyed the snacks on the table. Selecting one of the stickier ones, he used his telepathy to lift the snack up towards the camera, pressing it into the lens where it stuck firmly. Bruce followed electrical lines to panic buttons and silently cut them. Even Uen-Taru, who had said and done nothing so far, fished from her jacket a cypher and twirled it casually around her finger.
The three executives were oblivious. Peggy pummelled them with scientific questions, theories and ideas, drawing out more and more of their very latest prototype research. This was her field, and Iphur-Kishi was engrossed in the concepts Peggy was putting forward while having to defend the resilience and durability of his cybernetics.
Now the security was disabled, Algernon watched Iphur-Kishi to determine the best way to take out the executive. He had the sleep-inducing cypher and, after a moment’s careful study, decided it would work well against him. He carefully palmed the syringe to Bruce and nodded at Iphur-Kishi. On his next lap of the space, Bruce leant forward and injected the cypher into Cybernetics chief.
“As you can see, our subdermal implants are invisible until required, de…deploying…instant…” Iphur-Kishi stuttered, slowed and eventually face-planted onto the tabletop. Bruce’s movements had been so smooth and quick, Cara-Tem and Teb-Shara didn’t suspect a thing.
“Oh, um…must be working too hard,” Teb-Shara said, moving towards the door, “I’ll just go find some…”
“I suggest you not bother. Sit down. Relax,” Tobias said from beside Iphur-Kishi, where he’d only just pocketed the red ring. The Strange weaved through his words and Teb-Shara swayed where he stood.
“You have it covered,” Teb-Shara agreed amicably as he slumped into a chair by the door.
Noticing his companions unusual change of mind, Cara-Tem backed up now alert, “Hey, what’s going on here,” He backed up right into Bruce, who brought his crowbar down on the surgeons head with a crack. Cara-Tem slumped unconsciously to the floor.
“What did you do that for?” Teb-Shara asked groggily.
“A small misunderstanding,” Uen-Taru stepped up and clicked a button on her cypher. Instantly Teb-Sharu was fixated with the device. His eyes cross, and eventually, with a flutter of eyelids, he too fell unconscious.
“Nice!” Tobias celebrated, snatching up the other two rings and distributing them amongst the group. To Algernon, he gave the red, to Bruce the green, and he kept the white. At the same time, Bruce was propping the executives up in chairs and binding them into the place with gaffer tape. Algernon arranged the chairs, so they looked away from the camera, their faces and hands obscured.
“Straight to Nakarand?” Peggy asked as Algernon replaced the sticky snack in front of the camera lens with a piece of paper held only by telekinetics.
“Yes,” Both Bruce and Tobias said in unison.
“But is it safe?” Algernon asked.
Bruce unjammed and latched the door to lock as they left, a grim expression on his face, “Not from us!”
The door shut, and the room was silent except for the falling paper revealing the room once more and the three executives deep in conversation.
Heading back the way they’d come was pretty easy. They met no one who questioned them about being unchaperoned until they reached the checkpoint. Here Tobias stopped the group and went ahead.
“You know it’s just occurred to me that I’ve not once got to know the everyday worker of this wonderful establishment.” He said, walking up the security desk and turning his camera on the guard, “You sir, I was wondering if you’d leaned me a moment of your precious time. I promise I won’t keep you long.”
“Are we on camera? Is this going on the Allsong?” The guard looked up excitedly, straightening out the wrinkles in his uniform.
“If that’s okay…” Tobias smiled and gestured for the others to casually walked past and call for a lift. He kept the guard busy chatting until the lift arrived and the group piled on. A wave from the lift and his concluded the interview.
“I appreciate you talking to me today. Keep an eye out on the Allsong. We upload new content every week.”
Floor 199, the first of the four mysterious unlisted floors and the one they expected to find Nakarand. The lift doors opened onto an ordinary-looking foyer, though the air did hold a strong briny smell of the sea. At a desk, three workers in disposable coveralls stood watching as the group left the lift. At one end of the foyer, double doors, at the other a single door. Bruce started for the double doors as Peggy went to intercept the workers.
“I’m sorry, are you suppose to be up here?”
“We’re here to see Dram-Shara. I understand she can be found on this level. We’ve been given access by Iphur -Kishi.”
Through the double doors, vat after glass vat was bubbling with pink fluid. A man checking read-outs on the vats stood to look at Bruce, his red ring visible.
“Bel-Tamar?” Bruce guessed and stepped forward as if he belonged.
“And you are?” Bel-Tamar replied before Bruce’s crowbar slammed down on his skull, and he collapsed into a heap knocked out cold.
Outside, the maintenance group were getting interested in what Bruce was doing.
“Look, our boss is with your boss. We’ll go join him.” Tobias said, leading Peggy back to see what Bruce had found. They walked in to hear Algernon ask, “ Has anyone yoinked his ring yet?”
“I assume that privilege is all yours,” Tobias replied as Peggy examined the vats.
“Cloning tanks,” She said, said finding a tablet that Bel-Tamar had dropped“ Six Venom troopers and six Venom workers. With this setup, they could churn them out.”
While Tobias and Bruce gaffer taped Bel-Tamar and hid him in a corner, Algernon hacked the tablet, and Peggy started fiddling with the vats. Not so much that they’d notice a problem, but enough that this group would be useless to Nakarand. The tablet was a font of information, including invoices for vats, modification to venom workers and production logs that stated, “All mature product was sent into Nakaranad.”
“So, Nakarand is a place now?” Bruce asked as Algernon accessed ring management on the tablet. Dram-Shara was still marked as being on 199, her life signs faint.
“Dram-Shara is here and not really here,” Algernon noted. It was then he saw Iphur-Kishi, Cara-Tem, and Teb-Shara, also listed as on floor 199, “I better hide our rings or Mu-Duggan…”
Mu-Duggan’s marker was outside a meeting room on floor 195.
“We might have a problem…” Was all Algernon was able to say before alarms started ringing, “Mu-Duggan found the others. We’ve been sprung.”
“Well, then let’s go!” Tobias exclaimed, ready to run out the double doors.
“Rain, the purpose of alarms is to make the guilty panic,” Algernon said, turning back to the notes on venom worker production.
Tobias stopped in his tracks and thought, “That was very insightful, thank you.”
“For several years, they’ve been making venom workers for Nakarand, though only in the last six months has production increased.” Algernon thought of the photographs of the Dustman he had from London 1896 and Crow Hollow. He wondered if the Dustman was one of these modified venom workers.
With the tablet, they returned to the foyer. Taking precautions, Peggy flipped her hologram to that of Bel-Tamar. Now that the alarms were going, the maintenance crew would not be put off with mere words.
“You will stand down!” Peggy roared before the staff member could finish their sentence. They backed up behind their desk, completely submissive to the one they saw as the superior being.
The group crossed the foyer to the small second door and found what they were looking for. This room was sparse and huge. Whole floors had been stripped away to accommodate the creature that it held. Taking up most of the room, a giant flabby worm-like creature pulsed, its skin moist even in the dry environment of the tower. At one end, a ramp let straight into a chomping mouth lined with tiny rasping teeth.
Peggy swept the room looking for an access panel or interface of some sort and found nothing. Algernon started pulling out his weaponry, including a nasty disrupting grenade cypher he’d save for just this moment. Bruce trained the Level ten Stranger-killer gun they’d received from Rimush, the golem on the hide of the worm. He put on the glasses they’d picked up in the mall and received the following information:
Strengths: Tough skin, superior armour, regenerative healing properties
“It’s Nakarand all right,” Bruce informed the others as he spotted Tobias walk directly down the ramp and into the creature’s mouth, “Rain!”
“Rain, don’t go in there.”Algernon pocketed the grenade and ran.
“What! You idiot, Rain! “ Peggy growled deep in her crystalline structure and also floated after.
Inside the worm, it was much larger than outside. A massive tube made of the same thick brown skin reminded Peggy of the images she’d had from the Spiraleyed in Nederland. A warm moist place, smooth and slick, and it made her crystalline box shudder as it had then. A sourceless blue light lit everything in the same dull glow. Bubbles of white fluid floated through the space. When Algernon went to interact with one, it burst and splattered his hand with pale blue droplets. He could feel the fluid burn his skin, and when he went to brush it off, he found it had turned into blue-tinted dust. Spiral dust.
There was no gravity, and Tobias found that with a thought, he moved through the space. He quickly shot ahead of the others, all his thoughts fixed on what was ahead when he realised he was no longer moving. Turning back, he could see Algernon reaching out, using his telekinetics to pull him back.
“Let me go, Algernon.” Tobias said, flipping through the air to face his friend, “ You and Bruce try to kill this thing out there. I have to be in here. I have to follow this and find out where it leads.”