- RSS Channel Showcase 7255072
- RSS Channel Showcase 4468450
- RSS Channel Showcase 9883251
- RSS Channel Showcase 7335097
Articles on this Page
- 11/08/10--05:53: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/08/10--06:19: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/08/10--07:01: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/08/10--07:50: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/08/10--12:27: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/08/10--14:09: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/09/10--18:30: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/09/10--18:56: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/09/10--19:22: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/10/10--08:28: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/10/10--09:24: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/10/10--10:13: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/22/10--12:39: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 12/17/10--20:07: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 07/02/11--08:17: _The Nucleus Inciden...
- 11/08/10--05:53: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 1
- 11/08/10--06:19: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 2
- 11/08/10--07:01: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 3
- 11/08/10--07:50: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 4
- 11/08/10--12:27: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 5
- 11/08/10--14:09: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 6
- 11/09/10--18:30: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 7
- 11/09/10--18:56: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 8
- 11/09/10--19:22: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 9
- 11/10/10--08:28: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 10
- 11/10/10--09:24: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 11
- 11/10/10--10:13: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 12
- 11/22/10--12:39: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 13
- 12/17/10--20:07: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 14
- 07/02/11--08:17: The Nucleus Incident Chapter 15
“Alert! The control point is being contested!”
The announcer's point was moot before the last word had even left her lips. Ankle-deep in what remained of the BLU Heavy, the RED Soldier admired the glorious crimson splatter on his shovel's blade. “Not today, maggots.” he chuckled, spitting over the side of the single, central control point at Nucleus.
Somewhere far below him, the harmonious ‘crack’ of breaking bones echoed. Looking over the edge, he could see that the pipes below the point had caught the hapless BLU Medic’s body. The dead Kraut would be dangling there like a discarded sock until respawn picked him up at the round’s end...and with only a few BLUs left alive, that wouldn’t be too far away. Arena...God, he loved it. The sheer hot-blooded intensity of it, the desperation that came from being moments between a few hours of oblivion or a glorious blood-stained victory...
“AUGH!” Soldier suddenly snapped back to reality as an arrow embedded itself in the floor behind him. His hand reached up to his ear, then quickly pulled away as the pain intensified. Blood on his fingers...warm, fresh...and not a filthy BLU’s. He glanced around quickly for the man who’d dared to make him bleed his own blood. But then something else whooshed past him, barely missing his other ear.
A chocked scream made him look to a nearby balcony, where the BLU Sniper wobbled around then toppled backwards comically, an arrow sticking straight up from his left eye socket. Then an unwelcome voice came from behind him; “What the bloody hell are you doin', standin' around like a bleedin' statue!? Stop playin' with yerself and keep movin'!”
Soldier shot a glare at their team's Sniper, resting the Direct Hit on his shoulder as he moved off the control point. Normally he wouldn’t have taken orders from any filthy, jar-throwing hippie. But there were still BLUs alive, and while they still were living in his world, he’d make it his sole purpose to crush every single one. One rocket was all it took to propel himself to higher ground, and a second finished off the sparking, smoking sentry gun that BLU’s Engineer had been fretting over. Another rocket barrage had the man running left and right like a wooden target in a carnival game, before Soldier finally put him out of his misery. Maggots, all of them. They were just insects, and he was the kid with a magnifying glass and a sadistic streak. Just with more explosions.
He searched around for his next target, dropping down from the slanted concrete roof and onto a balcony to reload. From up here, he could see just about everything. Engineer was wiping his brow and looking proudly at his Level 3 Sentry, Scout was running around looking for more heads to cave in. He saw the BLU Demoman collapsed in a pool of blood as Medic unleashed a Kritzkrieg, Heavy laughing maniacally as the pair headed for the point...and a momentary flicker in the air behind them.
Immediately he was in the air again, flames licking the heels of his Gunboats as he descended upon his prey. “Sneak up on MY team will ya, you scum-sucking...!”
The bat sent an arc of blood into the air. The BLU Spy’s body crumpled, his once-raised butterfly knife clattering along the floor and coming to rest against Scout's cleats. “Flawless victory!” crackled over the loudspeakers as the young man grinned proudly, giving the dead man's ribs a swift kick for good measure.
“How d'ya like me now, ya back stabbin' coward? Yeah, that's right! Ya don't, because yer freakin'...dead...!” Scout trailed off, his voice squeaking as Soldier cracked his knuckles, with a glare that could melt through steel. Dropping his bat and stepping backwards onto the point, the terrified young man tried to stammer out an excuse, before a loud metallic clank cut him short. Still on the bridge, Soldier looked up to see the machinery above the point had moved. The two gigantic rings had separated, and he could see right into the glowing blue and green core, which spun faster and faster as he watched.
Suddenly, a thunderclap ran through the base, the colors merging into a searing turquoise light that expanded explosively. Already deafened by the ringing in his ears, Soldier stumbled as the light blinded him, and something that he assumed was Scout pushed past him. His hands felt the edge of the bridge, the pit and certain death waiting below as he got to his feet. Squinting through the spots plaguing his vision, he could make out the silhouette of Engineer, his arms flailing wildly to direct the rest of the team back to their spawn before he himself went inside. The only thing Engie knew better than how to make some damn good ribs, was how to work with machines. And if this machine scared him...
Soldier broke into a run, but even with the second wave of adrenaline coursing through his veins, he struggled with the injuries from his multiple rocket jumps. He gritted his teeth; real men could deal with a few sissy bone fractures. But it was then that an excruciating pain suddenly shot through his head, the shock making him trip and fall flat on his stomach, his hands clawing uselessly at the concrete floor as his consciousness faded.
Someone grabbed his arm. And the last thing he heard was the spawn door slamming shut behind him.
Engineer fell right on his backside, his fingers losing their grip on Soldier’s jacket as he dragged him into the spawn room. His lower back ached as he slowly got to his feet, but he felt more concerned for the unconscious man his team-mates were now huddled around.
“Hey, he's not...DEAD-dead, is he? They keep respawn on even after we win, right?” Scout asked, wringing his hands. “I mean, the guy's crazier than a shithouse rat, but...aw man...”
“Rrm nrrt shrr...” Pyro scratched his head, and shrugged. “Mrrbe?”
“Figures, really...” Sniper took his hat off, solemnly holding it over his heart. “Crazy bastard. Gettin' 'imself done in loik that.”
“Vill ze concerned frauleins please step avay from ze patient?” The Medic said sternly, the others immediately taking a step back. The Doc only ever used that tone of voice when he was ready to get Heavy to play crowd control. Engineer squeezed in between Sniper and Demo as he unclipped the Medigun from his belt, pulling the handle with one hand and checking Soldier’s pulse with the other.
“...I did not ask for an audience...schweinhunds, blocking ze light...” Shaking his head and muttering in annoyance, he took a small flashlight from his pocket and pried open Soldier’s eyelid, shining the light into it. As he repeated the check with the other eye, still with no response, the mood in the room almost tangibly dropped.
Medic stroked his chin in thought for a moment. Then with one swift movement he reached into his pocket again, took out an empty syringe, and stabbed it into his patient’s hand before anyone could even think of protesting.
“OW! What in god’s name-get your filthy drugs the HELL away from me, you crazy Kraut!” Suddenly awake, Soldier pulled out the syringe as quickly as it had gone in, and leapt to his feet. Seeing what was about to happen, Heavy silently stepped forward and picked the man up by his collar, letting him dangle and struggle like an angry cat. “Put me down, Stalingrad! That's an ORDER! I'll grind your precious Herr Dok-tor into bratwurst and send him straight back to the Kaiser!”
“See, he is fine.” Completely unfazed by Soldier’s outburst, Medic adjusted his glasses, and calmly shut off the Medigun as he stood up. “Now. I vill require everyvone to report to ze infirmary - in alphabetical order - for a full medical exam. Unless somevhan has any idea vhat zat...zhing above ze point is and vhat it just did?”
Engineer suddenly felt everyone's eyes on him at once. He’d seen it coming as soon as that thing had gone off...big machine doing god-knows-what, and who’s the guy who’s always tinkering with the darn things? He coughed a little, stalling for time by wiping his forehead with a slightly greasy handkerchief. “Well...ah’m sorry t’break it to ya fellers, but ah’m stumped. That big wheel was mixin’ together the stuff comin’ in through those pipes, but as for what that stuff is and was meant to do, well...your guess is as good as mine.”
He shrugged. Most of the others looked worried, but Medic raised an eyebrow skeptically, and Spy gave a know-it-all smirk as Engineer looked at his feet. He twisted the square of cloth in his hands. He couldn’t tell them because he’d given his word not to, but that blue-green light looked familiar. Real familiar. The last time he'd seen light like that, he'd been looking into the eyes of a man insane from desperation; a man more than a century old, who'd died several times that very morning. He just wished he knew why that terrible light had come from that monstrous device hanging above the point.
“...Alright zen. I vill prepare ze eqvipment for taking ze blood samples.” Medic said far too cheerfully, eliciting a collective groan from the gathered men, but Soldier's impatient growl was even louder. The doctor looked at him like he would a piece of gum stuck to his boot. “Ah yes...Herr Soldat. Heavy, you may drop him.”
Heavy took the command all too literally, releasing his grip on Soldier's uniform and letting him fall to the ground like a sack of potatoes. He chuckled as he followed Medic through the concealed entrance to the team's living quarters and infirmary, leaving the military man to nurse his wounded pride as the rest of the team filed out.
“You gonna be okay, Solly?” Engineer asked, offering a hand and a friendly smile as Soldier stiffly got on one knee. “You took a pretty nasty-”
“Outta my way!” Soldier snarled, pushing him to one side as got to his feet, and stormed off down the waiting hallway. “Me and the kid need to have a little ‘heart-to-heart’...”
Engineer hurried after him. Usually it wasn't his job to worry about his team-mates; they'd come use his dispenser during battles, maybe talk a little about strategy or about home, and they'd be off and fighting again in no time. But he'd been looking at the point before that thing went off; he'd seen Scout kill that BLU Spy before Soldier could. And then that big machine had scared the heck out of him, and he’d been humiliated in front of the entire team, so it figured he’d be madder than a cut snake. He just hoped he could get there before Solly’s temper got the better of him.
“Son, you do realise that I could-no, I should wring your scrawny neck right here and now...” Engineer rounded the corner and saw Soldier pinning Scout to the wall, his hands in a tight grip around his neck. The younger man made a weak choking noise, a pleading look in his eyes as Soldier’s knuckles turned white.
“Solly! Leave ‘em alone, yer gonna kill the boy-!”
“But since you won us this round...” Engineer’s protests seemed to fall on deaf ears, but Soldier’s grip relaxed just slightly. “I don’t know if I should kill you, or kiss you full on the mouth.” Scout flattened himself against the wall in fright, not sure which fate would be worse.
“Instead...please accept this friendly but firm pat on the back.” Finally releasing his grip, he let the young man gasp desperately for breath before winding him again with a hefty pat. “You did good today, private! Don’t do it again!” He shouted over his shoulder as he marched towards the infirmary.
“What the hell is his problem!?” Scout coughed as soon as Soldier was out of earshot, rubbing his neck painfully.
“That’s Solly for ya. After what happened today, ah’m thinkin’ he figured he looked weak. An’ if there’s something that Solly hates, it’s weakness...‘Specially in himself.” Scout flinched slightly when Engineer gently patted him on the shoulder. “Now let’s get this here checkup finished before dinner’s ready. Don’t want Heavy to eat all the mashed ‘taters again.”
“Yeah, yeah...Soldier’s still a freakin’ crazy bastard, though.”
“Boy, didn’t your mother ever teach you to respect your elders?”
Medic took his glasses off, rubbing his temples with his gloved hands. Placing the medical record back into its folder, and putting the folder back in a neat pile with the rest, he leaned back in his chair and sighed. He’d spent hours trying to make sense of the results of his examinations, of the blood tests, of everything. Every possible abnormality he could test for, with the limited equipment he had, had come up negative. Normally he would have let it be...maybe re-test in the morning, if just as another excuse to plunge sharpened needles into exposed and trembling flesh.
But there was the issue of the sudden, strange symptoms that afflicted the team. For now, he could assume that it was due to their collective exposure to Nucleus’s core. But no kind of dangerous chemical he’d ever worked with, no radiation sickness he knew of seemed to match. And what left him particularly frustrated was there was no consistency between their individual symptoms. He’d been standing on the point, directly under the machine when it went off, and had felt strange for several minutes afterwards. He recalled that the English word for it was ‘goosebumps’...it’d made him shiver and squirm, like tiny spiders were crawling over his skin. And the feeling had returned several times throughout the evening.
And yet Heavy - he retrieved the Russian’s medical file - had experienced nothing even close to that. Instead he seemed lethargic, yawning almost constantly throughout dinner and leaving before he’d even had second helpings. Medic had later caught him snoring and resting his head on a partially-dismantled Sascha. Heavy adored his gun, often spending many quiet hours delicately cleaning and maintaining her, so seeing him asleep halfway through was more than a little worrying.
And the list of seemingly random symptoms continued as he picked up each file. The Pyro hadn’t taken his usual portion of food to his room, and mostly by gestures he’d complained of feeling nauseous. Soldier had severe headaches, and of course refused even simple painkillers on the grounds that it was weakness leaving his body. A very nervous Scout claimed he felt dizzy; something Medic would have dismissed as hypochondria if he hadn’t swayed slightly when he walked, and grabbed the door frame on the way out to balance himself.
Another file, and more notes; despite his usual suave demeanour, Spy’s skin had been feverishly hot to the touch when he’d rolled up his sleeve for the blood sample. And Sniper’s arm was covered in scratches, his skin itching but with no visible rash. At dinner Scout had subtly suggested he could have fleas, and nearly sparked a full-out brawl...whether their symptoms were connected to it or not, that machine had the entire team on edge. The only exception was their Demoman, who energetically recalled how he’d single-handedly taken out the BLU Soldier, and said he felt about ten years younger.
And then...he picked up the last file...there was Herr Engineer. He’d been arguing with Spy as they both waited outside his office, accusing him of knowing something about the machine, even though his own nervousness seemed to indicate he might not be telling the whole truth. Nonetheless, when his turn on the examination table came, he’d given his word as a Southern Gentleman that he didn’t know anything that could help in a diagnosis.
Medic had just nodded and made note of his single symptom; an almost constant thirst. But then, Engineer had been exposed to that terrible light not once, but twice. And yet it had been Soldier who’d collapsed, and now displayed symptoms much more severe...Medic clutched his head, his fingers grabbing his grey-flecked hair. None of this made any sense...but then, maybe he was trying to find patterns where none existed? They’d been at Nucleus for just three days, but it had been three days of solid fighting, and with delayed respawn. Survival was a much higher priority when you stayed dead until the end of the round...and stress was often an overlooked factor...
Medic sat up suddenly, only now sensing the large presence behind him; he’d been so deep in thought that he hadn’t even heard the door open. He turned his chair to look at Heavy, whose face was still smudged with grease from falling asleep on his dismantled weapon.
“Ees time to sleep, Doktor. Announcer says we move to new base tomorrow.”
“I am sorry, mein Heavy...” Medic shook his head, his fist thumping the top of the folder pile. “It is just...zese verdammter test results, zhey...”
“Doktor.” Heavy grabbed the back of Medic’s office chair, pulling it away from the desk. He felt a large hand on his shoulder. “Leetle papers can wait. Vas beeg day today, and ve must rest for beeg day tomorrow, da?”
“Ja.” Medic sighed reluctantly as he realised Heavy was probably right. If he left it until morning, things would probably make a lot more sense. “Ja, you are right.” He got up slowly, his spine making an unpleasant series of cracks as he straightened his back; the Medipack was murder on his lower vertebrae. Heavy’s smile turned to a worried frown, and he opened his mouth to say something before the other man waved his hand dismissively.
But Medic made no further protests as he held open the door, and followed him all the way down the darkened hallway like an oversized puppy. He was far too tired to argue. And the muscles in his back still ached terribly, even as he set his glasses on the bedside table and turned out the light, the sound of Heavy’s snoring already filling the room. At least he’d feel more flexible after a good night’s rest.
Now THIS is living, Soldier thought to himself. A variety of military surplus weapons, two crates full of ready-to-eat military surplus rations, and a basic shelter he’d rigged together with his own blood and sweat and a military surplus EZ-Pitch tent. Miles from the civilised world, it was just him, his trusty shovel, and the elements. And those god damned Nazis. He didn’t know where...but they were out there, somewhere. They were just scared of him and especially his shovel. It was that knowledge that had kept him going all these months, scouring the forests of Poland for any sign of them, supplementing his meagre rations with any unfortunate forest creatures that happened to cross his path.
Then winter had come, and heavy snow had stopped him from moving camp like he usually would, so he’d built a snow wall around the tiny forest clearing and waited for the Nazis to come to him. That had been almost two weeks ago. He’d kept himself sane by reading Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ to an audience of snow decoys...they were damn good listeners, but never really said much.
And now, staring at the glowing logs in the crackling fire, Soldier was getting bored. He smirked momentarily, imagining one of them was a Nazi’s ugly skull, and split it clean in half with his shovel. Shadows danced on the trees surrounding him as he hit it again and again; take that, you Nazi son of a bitch! Eventually those cowardly Krauts would show themselves, and then he’d get to crack some real skulls...
“Who’s that!?” A loud crack echoed from somewhere beyond the trees. He was stiff from the cold and his empty stomach ached, but after so long without a fight, nothing could dampen his bloodlust. He gripped the shovel’s handle with both hands, looking all around him and grinning excitedly. “Alright Fritz...you finally found me. But you’d better be ready for me, ‘cause I am gonna shove my boot so far up your ass your tongue will TASTE AMERICAN SOIL!”
Soldier swung his weapon in a wide arc, lashing out at the moving shadows. Somewhere close by, voices whispered. Unseen eyes stared at him, plotting against him. Raising the shovel above his head, he charged in the direction of the sounds with a roar, slashing his way through dead and leafless bushes, pushing his way through ice-covered brambles.
It was only when he finally emerged, scratched and bloodied, that he suddenly had no idea where he was. He searched for any sign of the enemy - any sign of anything - but saw nothing but identical trees, stretching for miles in every direction. Even if he looked right behind him, to where he’d come from, he couldn’t see the glow of the fire any more. Black trees, white snow, and the moonlit night sky formed a monochrome world.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, old friend.” he muttered. The shovel’s handle felt like solid ice as he gripped it ever tighter. “COME OUT AND FIGHT ME LIKE A MAN, YOU MAGGOTS!” his voice echoed.
And the forest roared back at him. Without warning he was surrounded by a wall of noise, a million voices smothering him, drowning him in sound. He couldn’t even hear his own screams as his weapon slipped from his grip; he tried to run, but slipped on the snow and landed painfully on his knee. His hands clutched his ears like he was trying to pull them off his head, clawing at them until his fingers were wet with his own blood, as he desperately tried to crawl away. He’d do anything, give anything just to stop the noise. Stop the noise. STOP THE NOISE!
His vision started to blur. He was fully immersed in sound, unable to breathe through the voices bombarding him as he collapsed onto a snowdrift. The numbing cold took away the pain, far away, along with every feeling in his body. The endless trees dissipated like smoke. The forest floor simply ceased to exist beneath him, letting him fall into the nothingness below.
But at least the noise had stopped. Thank God he thought, before he blacked out completely.
Heavy stretched his muscles as he sat up in bed, scratching himself under one meaty arm. His foggy mind drifted to the previous night’s events; he wasn’t sure why he’d been so sleepy, especially when Sascha needed his attention. She’d been working far harder than he had during their battle, mowing down BLU’s Scout and Demoman, and doing significant damage to the rest of the tiny men on their team. It had been a good day, but it was a shame it had ended so badly for his Doktor.
Smacking his lips sleepily, he mumbled “Good morning Dokt-” before he realised Medic was mysteriously absent. Suddenly more awake, he looked at his surroundings. “Doktor?”
He vaguely remembered falling asleep in Medic’s bed, but the lace-trimmed sheets indicated this was definitely not his Doktor’s bed, or his Doktor’s room. This was somewhere with pastel-pink walls and neatly arranged silk pillows, a fireplace in the corner, and porcelain figurines of apple-cheeked children on the mantelpiece. Warm sunlight poured in through the window; there were no windows in Nucleus, nor was there ever a room like like in any base he’d ever stayed in. It reminded him of his childhood, of his dear Babushka’s house with all its strange and delicate things that he shouldn’t touch. There was even - he sniffed deeply - the smell of delicious food from the kitchen.
He stood up, noticing his clothes were folded neatly and placed in a pile on a small wooden chair. But there was no sign of Sascha, and when he looked under the bed, the shotgun he kept there in case of emergency was gone too. His brow furrowed. Wherever he was, the place suddenly seemed more wrong than comforting, and suddenly stank of a cowardly trick by the BLU team. He cracked his knuckles, and went to open the door...he may be a Heavy Weapons Guy with no weapons, but those baby men couldn’t take away his fists.
“Good morning, mein snuggle bun~”
“Doktor...!?” Heavy found himself speechless. The door opened into a small kitchen, every surface sparkling in the early morning sun, and in the middle of it was a sparkling creature that looked a lot like his Medic. But Doktor would never wear a frilly pink apron, or be cooking sausage instead of downing his morning cup of coffee, or wearing such an overly-cheerful grin that it made Heavy shudder uneasily. Medic never smiled like that, not when he activated an Übercharge, or even when he got a lucky kill with his Bonesaw.
“Vhat is wrong, liebchen?” The strange Medic fretted, his cheeks flushing as pink as his apron, and his bright blue eyes sparkling with tears. “I am so sorry zat I left you...but you vere so tired, I just couldn’t vake you vizzout making breakfast!”
“Vell...I...” Heavy’s stomach growled loudly. He’d been so confused by his situation, he hadn’t even realised he was hungry. But he suddenly felt like he hadn’t eaten in days, and the huge pile of freshly cooked sausages looked terribly tempting.
“Oh, you are vasting avay! Come now, eat!” The Medic grabbed his arm and pulled him over to a small wooden table, and a chair that creaked dangerously when he sat in it. “I made wurst and sauerkraut - and do eat it all, Schnucki, you need to be big and strong!”
Heavy looked away as he winked an unnaturally azure eye, and heaped Heavy’s plate with mounds of cooked sausage and pickled cabbage. As hungry as he was, he still purposefully moved the sauerkraut to one side with the tiny, delicate fork he’d been given. Doktor would never forget that sauerkraut gave him gas; not after that one terrible night, he thought while shovelling more wurst into his starving maw.
This doll-like impostor Medic had failed terribly at imitating the real thing, Heavy thought. But at least he kept the food coming, bringing another plate of sausage with an unnervingly wide smile on his face. That was good, more was good...he was so hungry, he’d long since abandoned the fork and resorted to using his hands instead. More plates and more wurst came and went. And suddenly the terribly abused wooden chair beneath him collapsed, sending him to the floor, his fists still clutching his next mouthful of greasy sausage.
Heavy dropped the food, suddenly aware of himself and where he was again. How much had he eaten...? He couldn’t even remember; he’d forgotten all about finding Sascha, finding his team, finding Doktor! He got to his feet as quickly as he could, heading for the door.
“Do you not like my cooking, Heavychen...?” He turned around. The Other Medic’s sapphire eyes sparkled worriedly; Heavy could swear that they seemed to be getting more and more blue each time he looked at them. “I haff more wurst for my big, strong Kuschelbär...”
“Not now, Doktor.” The words were sour in his mouth...this wasn't right. He needed to get away from here, he needed to find something familiar in this strange place. But then his progress was halted, as he found himself stuck in the doorway leading out of the kitchen.
“Very vell, but it vill all go to vaaaa-aaaaste~!” The Other Medic answered in a sing-song voice, still cheerfully cooking up sausage and piling it onto the table almost robotically.
Heavy growled, his hands pushing against the wall either side, wood creaking and plaster cracking from his efforts. It had seemed more than wide enough just minutes before. Maybe it was the food? It made no sense, but then nothing here seemed to...it reminded him of a book the real Doktor had read to him one evening, about a girl in a blue dress who chased a white rabbit. She fell down a hole and into a place a lot like this, where everything was familiar yet strange. And as the cracks in the plaster started to spead, and his head bumped the top of the doorframe, Heavy realised with horror that this place was even closer to the book than he’d thought.
“NO!” he yelled defiantly, and with one last push and a shower of rubble, he was finally free. But the next room was still as pink and frilly as the last, and the garishly coloured reclining chairs and matching couch seemed to shrink before his eyes. He was still trapped; too wide to fit through the next door, so tall that even his stooped shoulders were pressing against the ceiling. The couch buckled and collapsed under his weight as he sat down, and still his growth didn’t slow, his legs pushing furniture aside and his arm knocking pictures off the wall as the strange sensation coursed through him.
And then just as suddenly as it started, the feeling stopped. “Ees not good day to be giant man...” Heavy muttered to himself, looking at the destruction around him...he remembered how the girl in the blue dress drank something to make herself small, but the kitchen was out of the question with the Other Medic still maniacally cooking away.
He sighed, wondering if he could break through the ceiling without seriously injuring himself, when something bright red and yellow caught his eye. At his huge size, it was almost like a grain of rice, but somehow he reached over to the coffee table and picked up the Bonk up between a massive thumb and forefinger. For once, he was thankful that Scout was always leaving his things around, the tiniest drop of sweetness landing on the tip of his outstretched tongue as he crushed the can.
The effect on Heavy was immediate. He felt like he was falling without moving as he shrank rapidly, and within just a few seconds he was grinning happily, back to his normal height. Then his face fell, and a horrible feeling crept up on him as he reached Scout’s normal height. Another second or two passed and he was shorter than Engineer, and still getting smaller as he ran desperately for the door. Table legs became skyscrapers, and the distance between him and freedom grew from feet to miles as he shrank. And to make matters worse, the Other Medic was moving out from the kitchen, calling his name, footsteps shaking the floor like earthquakes. A sausage the size of an aircraft carrier fell from the plate and landed with an earth-shattering impact, the shockwave throwing Heavy around like a child’s toy.
For the first time in a long time, he felt afraid. Cracking open an eye, he realised he was so small now that grains of dirt looked like boulders, and the air grew thicker and more difficult to breathe as he continued to shrink. He could never hold Sascha, or any of his weapons again. His team was gone. And even if Doktor was here, he wouldn’t notice him at this microscopic size. But one thought still occurred to him as he grew smaller and smaller still; what would it feel like, to shrink out of existe-
Sniper was back in that place again. Purple sand stretched out in front of him in every possible direction, punctuated only by the occasional rock or dead tree. Sure, he’d see other things out here; the occasional billabong, maybe a sand-blasted signpost still encouraging him ever forward. But they were so few they may as well not exist at all...he’d even turned around once, thought about going against the signposts. Maybe he’d end up somewhere different, actually be somewhere other than here. But the horizon behind him was identical to the one in front, bathed in the perpetual twilight of a sun neither rising nor setting, where the air never moves and the desert goes on forever.
He kicked a small rock next to his shoe, and started walking. That was all he ever seemed to do now, not like once upon a time, when he’d lived out his every fantasy in this place. He’d bagged the biggest game using only his bare hands, his body huge and muscular, his top lip adorned with a magnificent moustache that would make any sheila swoon. Just like everyone else. Like someone who didn’t need the crutch of ‘mechanical assistance’, like someone whose dad wasn’t ashamed of his scrawny, moustache-less son. If only in this place, he could be one of them, a dinkum Aussie. He could be one of the most beautiful, creative, and deadly people on the planet, not a bad joke on legs.
But times had changed, and the desert had slowly emptied as he found less need for fantasy. He'd been taught how to survive in the desert, and he’d learned what it meant to be a professional, to have a set of standards to live life by. He’d spent hours cleaning and maintaining his rifle, refining the patience and delicate movements needed to line up a headshot, a clean kill. He’d learned to love his job at the nature reserve; keeping the animal populations in check, picking off the occasional poacher, and maybe a few other people of questionable morals if the price was right. And then RED had come calling, and the last of his wild fantasies had crawled back under the unmoving sands.
There was nothing left now except the flickering shadows of memory, and the occasional inner demon stalking him in the corner of his eye. He kicked another rock spitefully, remembering when he'd first camped out in the bush. If only he hadn't eaten the wrong bloody kind of mushroom, or cactus or whatever the hell kind of vegetation he'd naively stuffed down his starving gullet, maybe he'd be able to have normal dreams. Or at least he’d be able to control where his subconscious mind ended up. The beach would be nice, maybe...still bloody sand everywhere, but at least there’d be the sea, for a change.
“Hmph. Anythin' other than bloody desert would be noice.” he grumbled, giving a particularly oddly-shaped rock a good, sharp kick. It rolled a few feet, leaving a long and wobbly trail in the sand. Sniper followed it at a jogging base, ready to give it an even harder kick, when the slightest of sounds made him stop and look down. The desert was silent, it’d always been silent. The only sounds here were ones made by him, or by figments of his imagination, and he couldn’t remember imagining a deep crack up the side of the rock. He knelt down for a closer look, and the crack grew and widened as he watched in awe.
“Wot...?” he gaped as something defiantly green appeared against the purple background...a tiny sprout, unfurling a pair of round leaves. He hadn’t imagined this, so where could it...? His hand shaking, he reached out to touch it. And the desert exploded.
Sniper threw his arms over his head to protect himself from the sudden showers of sand. All around him, spreading out in every direction, plants of all types burst from the parched earth. Trees groaned like ghosts as they rose fully-formed from the desert, branches sprouting leaves and growing heavy with ripening fruit. Vines snaked their way along the ground, spiralling around the new tree trunks and hanging from the flourishing canopy. Flowers of every colour burst from their buds and filled the air with sweet and enticing aromas. By the time he opened his eyes again, he was stood in the only patch of bare sand, surrounded on all sides by a dense, living forest.
“Holy dooley...” Sniper said breathlessly as he looked at everything, all around him. Had he, had his mind done all this? He’d been thinking of the beach, but this...this was literally like nothing he’d ever dreamed of. And looking down, he could see the rock - or seed as it turned out - that had started it all. What had once been a sprout was now a slender stem with long ribbon-like leaves, crowned with a flower that seemed to beckon to him with its psychedelic colours and a smell that reminded him of his mum’s baking.
“Well aren’t you a beaut.” He smiled, his fingers wrapping around the base of the stem. But what he wasn’t expecting was for the flower to grab him back, leaves wrapping around his wrist and pulling tight. “What the bloody hell!?”
The plant pulled his arm forward, bringing his fingertips closer to the desert soil. And Sniper screamed in fright as his fingernails twisted bizarrely, trying to bury themselves in the soil until he finally escaped the thing’s grasp. Gasping for breath, he stared at his hand...the nails looked brown and gnarled, like claws. And worse; his fingers were starting to itch, the skin turning into dry, cracked leather. He didn’t know how this was happening, how he could have suddenly lost control over his dreams and let this nightmare creep in. All he knew was he had to escape it.
He drew his Kukri - always by his side, even here - and started clumsily hacking at the vegetation to clear a path. But like the mythical Hydra, even more leaves and stems grew to replace their fallen brethren. The blade split a hanging vine in half, thick sap splattering his arm. Immediately a terrible numbness overtook the limb, the Kukri falling from his paralysed fingers, smothered by the growing vegetation as soon as it hit the ground. He screamed again as green leaves sprouted from his deformed fingers, the skin up to his shoulder hardening into bark, freezing the limb in place. As he tried to move his left arm, he found it was almost fully transformed already, scrawny twigs ripping through his shirt sleeve.
Sniper’s heart pounded in his chest. He tried to run, but found himself literally rooted to the spot. Tendrils that were once toes wormed their way out of his boots, plunging deep into the ground as he pulled and tugged uselessly. Climbing plants twisted their way around his legs and up to his chest, his ribs stretching and twisting into branches that tore gaping holes in his shirt. This really was a nightmare; he’d almost forgotten what they felt like. But he couldn’t feel much of anything any more, his head now permanently turned upwards, staring helplessly at the night sky as the bark crawled up his neck.
His breathing slowed and stopped, his cries of terror silenced as his mouth became just another hollow in another tree. His eyes were the only part of him still human now, darting back and forth as he continued to scream inside his own head. Wake up. Just wake up. Oh God. Someone. Please. Help me.
Medic squinted, trying to see his way through mist so thick he could almost reach out and grab a handful. He wasn’t sure where he was or how he ended up here, but it was like he was back in the center of Nucleus again, surrounded by blinding whiteness. Only this time there were no team-mates to guide him; here, he had only his instincts. And of course a surgical-grade steel blade, packed with RED technology that converted useless bodily fluids into precious Übercharge...
“Verdammt...” He murmured, his hand reaching for his Übersaw but grabbing nothing but mist-filled air. No weapons. No team-mates either, which worried him all the more. Once, he’d been more than able to hold his own in hand-to-hand combat. But as much as he hated to admit it, as he blindly stumbled his way through the fog, those days were long gone. After he’d resigned himself to a life of obscurity and boredom, being in control of the Medigun, in control of people’s lives, had re-invigorated him. And yet the ravages of time meant he was still hopelessly dependant on his team to defend him...Heavy didn’t mind, but sometimes he did.
Medic’s outstretched hand found something smooth and hard; the mist was starting to clear now. The wall in front of him had a thick coating of dust; disgusted as he was by the uncleanliness, he wiped his gloved fingers over the vague outline of a shape, revealing a familiar red circle and white arrow. He looked to where it pointed and saw a huge circular chasm, pipes lining the walls, the mist pouring into its depths like lazily flowing water.
The clicking of his heels echoed, bouncing off the carved-out rock again and again. Somehow, he knew instantly that he’d seen this place before; somewhere far above was the central point of Nucleus and its rickety metal walkways. Ducking behind Heavy to avoid pipe bombs and sniper fire, he’d been pushed off by enemies or careless team-mates far too often since they’d been stationed here. But even though he’d been preoccupied falling to his death, not once had he seen a cave here. He’d never seen anything below the thick pipes that snapped his spine and shattered his skull. Just darkness, going on forever.
There was an ethereal sound as he approached the pit, like someone running a wet finger around the edge of a wine glass... The outline of something huge flickered in the air, and gradually becoming more tangible as he approached, revealing a spiral staircase twisting gracefully upwards. Tapping a translucent step with the toe of his boot, he found it was reassuringly solid, despite the strange shifting colours that made his eyes sting. Seeing nowhere else to go, Medic began to ascend, wondering why the bizarre structure seemed so familiar.
He continued for a few minutes, glancing upwards from time to time but catching no sight of an exit. Then suddenly, the answer hit him; a double helix! The same shape as DNA! Memories of Crick and Watson’s papers flooded back, all those sleepless nights he’d spent reading, trying to understand how the human body could tolerate horrific injuries and still live. He hadn’t found the answer in genetics, but those beautiful, intricate molecules had fascinated him nonetheless. The ‘steps’ of the staircase were nucleotide pairs; the building blocks of life itself, and he was climbing them. There was something almost poetic about it.
Then, from somewhere underneath him, came a sound like breaking glass. Medic’s train of thought ground to a halt as he looked over the edge, into the swirling mists below. Although the rest of the helix-shaped staircase still stood firm, the base was beginning to crumble. Steps shattering into showers of glass-like shards that plunged into the nothingness below. And the sound kept growing louder, more frequent... it was getting closer.
Medic ran, his heart no longer pounding from excitement, but from panic. The sound was almost deafening as it echoed all around him, bouncing off the walls of the pit. He stumbled as the step behind him suddenly disappeared. Then the step in front formed a web of cracks and shattered; his top half still hanging onto solid ground, he tried to pull himself up, but couldn’t get a grip on the slippery surface. Another step shattered beneath him and his strength finally failed, sending him falling and screaming into the-
Medic sat up with a jolt. He rubbed his eyes, gritting his teeth and growling in annoyance at Scout’s piercing scream. Out of one nightmare, straight into another. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he reached for his spectacles, cursing in his native German as he headed towards the source of the noise. The boy probably stubbed his toe, or some other minor injury....well, he’d give that little Schweinhund something to really scream about...
“WHAT THE HELL IS THIS CRAP!?”
Medic hissed through his teeth, the words stabbing like knives in his aching head. He really wasn’t a ‘morning person’ by any definition, but the thoughts of what he’d do to Scout once he got his hands on him were the most vivid he’d had in a while. He was going to amputate that stubbed toe. Slowly. Very slowly. Without anaesthetic. His hand twisted the doorknob and he flung the door open... to find nothing but an empty room. The doctor turned around, silently fuming and rubbing his forehead, adding with a BLUNT scalpel to his mental list.
“DOC! Aw man, I didn’t think I’d EVER be glad t’see you!” Whipping round, he looked at the still-empty room. He checked his glasses were still on his face. And then very slowly, he looked upwards to where the voice was coming from. Scout was sprawled on the ceiling, wearing nothing but his underwear and an utterly terrified expression, trying to cover himself up with a blanket. Silently, Medic turned to leave again, running his fingers though his grey-flecked hair. Gott im Himmel...he really was working too hard...
“Hey! HEY! What the hell man, don’t just freakin’ LEAVE! You gotta help me get down from here!”
“Go avay. You ah a hallucination caused by stress.” Medic waved his hand dismissively, stepping out into the hallway. “Get yourself down.” He quickly headed back towards his bedroom, leaving the obvious hallucination of Scout to rant and swear and shout “HELP!” at the top of his lungs. If he went to sleep in his dream, maybe he’d finally wake up back in reality. But he hadn’t gone more than a few steps when he bumped into another creation of his unconscious mind; their team’s Demoman. He almost laughed a little at the absurdity of the vision; the man was now a child, probably no more than 4 years old, but inexplicably still retained his facial hair.
“Ahdinnaewannae...bloodeh Scout...” Wearing a shirt that was almost falling off him, the child rubbed his single eye sleepily, dragging his bottle of scrumpy behind him like a teddy bear. He pulled at Medic’s pyjama trousers, swaying slightly. “...’ey, Doc...why’s everythin’ so bloodeh BIG this mornin’? An’ why do ah sound like ah’m some kinda...wee bairn or somethin’...”
“It is nozzing, I am just dreaming and you ah not real.” Medic answered bluntly, quickening his pace almost to a run. Freud would have had a field day analysing this dream. Then Soldier appeared around the corner, brandishing his shovel, forcing Medic to stop suddenly. He looked entirely normal... maybe he hadn’t completely lost his mind from stress yet, maybe there was still hope.
“Arrete!” The hope shattered as soon as Soldier opened his mouth and shoved him against the wall, the shovel’s blade pressing against his neck. It was Soldier’s voice, no doubt about that, but the language-!? “Qui va la, ami ou adversaire?”
“Vhat? Vait, nein-!” the shovel pressed against his jugular vein meaningfully, prompting a choking sound from Medic. This wasn’t real. Even though it felt real, any second now, he was going to wake up... “He-Herr Soldat...I cannot understand you...vhy are you speaking French!?”
“Quoi..? Soldier looked at Medic in confusion, and lowered the shovel slowly. He cleared his throat, and tried again. “Quoi?” The man clutched at his throat like he just drank poison. “QUOI-!? QUE LA BAISE FAIS VOUS FAITES!?”
Before Medic could react, Soldier had already swung the shovel round in a wide arc, smacking into the side of his face and sending him to the floor. He groaned weakly. Despite the throbbing pain of a swelling black eye, and the dizziness, and the ringing in his ears, he counted himself lucky. A blow like that should have taken his head off, but something seemed to have cushioned it somehow. He touched his bottom lip gingerly, blood leaking from where a tooth had broken. The Medigun would fix that in seconds, but now that he thought about it...how could he be bleeding in a dream? How could he feel pain in a dream? And why - he thought as he staggered to his feet - was Soldier looking at him like he’d just seen a ghost?
The shovel fell from Soldier’s hand with a clank. He reached his forward slowly, silently, like something was going to bite it off.
“V... vas...?” Medic muttered, doing nothing to resist as the man’s thumb and forefinger rested on his nose. He was still struggling to make sense of what just happened when Soldier pulled forward firmly, and his nose grew in length like Pinocchio's, his flesh stretching like taffy.
“SCHTOP! MEIN GOTT-OW!” Soldier released his grip, and his nose immediately snapped back painfully, like a rubber band. Medic covered his nose with shaking hands, his legs giving out from shock and sending him to the floor again. That couldn’t have happened. It was impossible. He touched his face, checking it, making sure it really was still part of him. “Vas... vas ist...!?”
“Hey, what am I, chopped liver!?” Scout yelled from a short distance down the hallway. There was a thumping sound as he banged his fists on the ceiling, trying to get the attention back on himself. “The FUCK is goin’ on out there? I wanna see! And what’s the hell’s with this kid starin’ at me, he looks like our freakin’ Demo and it’s really creepin’ me out!”
“Ah AM the Demo, ye radge bastard!” a childish voice came from Scout’s room. “And ah’m thinkin’ this is all YOO’RE fault! Ye prob’ly kicked tha wrong wee old lady or somethin’, an she put a gypsy curse on tha whole LOT of us!”
“Whaddya mean my fault!? Why don’cha come back an’ say dat when ya balls drop for the second time, pipsqueak? An’ quit laughin’ at me, this ain’t funny!”
Medic extended his hand, his mind still paralysed from disbelief. It looked and felt normal, but when he reached for the shovel Soldier had dropped some feet away, his muscles didn’t strain uselessly like he’d hoped. Instead, he felt like his arm was being pulled by some unseen force, stretching it to nearly twice its length to touch the fallen weapon.
“G-GOTT IM HIMMEL!” His eyes wide and his heart thumping, he scrambled backwards across the floor until his back was against the wall, his arm instantly snapping back to normal. He was shaking all over, his stomach churning horribly as he grabbed two handfuls of hair, too afraid to pull on it in case that stretched too. His voice was almost a sob as he rocked back and forth, closing his eyes and trying to just wake up. “Vhat has happened to me... !?”
And just when he thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, he looked up as the door next to him slammed open. A figure bathed in an unearthly glow set foot into the hallway, wrapped in some sort of cloth, billowing smoke accompanying its entrance. Medic shielded his eyes; through the blinding light, he could the figure’s arms were held above its head, as if in greeting. Soldier fell on his knees at the sight, his hands together in prayer, and began babbling in rapid French.
“Where is ze Engineer!? I am going to chop him up into leetle tiny pieces and serve them wiz zat disgusting cream gravy! I cannot WORK like zis! I cannot LIVE like zis!”
“Spy...?” Medic squinted; he could just about see Spy’s face through the light and smoke, smoking 4 or 5 cigarettes at once through gritted teeth. His eyes were bloodshot and filled with murderous rage, and understandably so. Every inch of his skin was glowing like a beacon, the light even penetrating his pyjamas and the various blankets he’d wrapped around himself. And for someone whose entire existence depended on sneaking around unseen...
“TOI!” Soldier pointed accusingly, suddenly back on his feet, his shovel clenched in his fist. “Comment osent vous imiter notre Seigneur Christ!?”
“Quoi?” Spy hesitated, a look of confusion breaking his suave facade for a moment. “...As much as I want to ask how you came to butcher my language wiz zat grunting American pig-mouth of yours, zere are more important things at stake.”
He dropped one of the cigarettes and stomped on it like it had personally offended him, and flicked open his butterfly knife as he stormed off down the hallway. “Ze Engineer knows something about zat infernal contraption! And I am going to gut him like a FEESH to find out what it did to me!”
A thought bubbled to the surface of Medic’s traumatised mind. Engineer’s room was right next to Scout’s...so why was Spy going the other way? A quick glance down the hallway answered his question; the door was open, and there was no sign of Engineer. So that left four team-mates unaccounted for. Engineer, Pyro, Sniper...and Heavy!
Medic leapt up and ran back to his bedroom; Heavy had fallen asleep next to him, but hadn’t been there when he’d woken up. He hadn’t thought anything of it in his half-asleep state. But now, with half the team turned into freaks and the other half unaccounted for, he could only assume the worst. Was he invisible? Had he evaporated into smoke? Or something else entirely? He searched under their bed, his elasticated arms pulling the blankets off it and throwing them to one side, his panic rising as he found no trace of the other man.
Medic stopped his frantic searching for a moment; he’d heard something, but it sounded both high-pitched and far away. It was impossible. There was no way it could possibly be... “Heavy?”
“Doktor! I am here! Look down!”
“Heavy!?” Medic’s heart sank as soon he looked to the bedside table. And yet he still felt a strange sense of relief; by all accounts, Heavy shouldn’t be alive. It was physically impossible for a human to survive at such a tiny size. And yet despite having shrunk to just a few inches tall, his team-mate was waving at him frantically as he knelt down.
“Thank you Doktor...” Heavy said as he stepped onto his gloved palm, his voice barely more than a squeak.
Medic brought the man closer to his bespectacled eyes. If it had been anyone other than Heavy, he would have been fascinated. But when he saw those tiny hands gripping his thumb for dear life, and the look of fear on the Russian’s face, all his questions about mass conservation and how clothes could shrink along with a person simply evaporated. The man who charged into every battle with utmost confidence, who laughed maniacally as his enemies ran from him, was scared.
“Vhat happened to you?” Medic blurted out. He knew it was a pointless question; he just had to fill the silence, before his own fear started creeping up on him.
“I do not know...I voke up and vas like thees.” Heavy gripped his thumb tighter and screwed his eyes shut; even though Medic stood up only slowly, the force was almost enough to send him flying. And the doctor had to strain his ears as he squeaked: “Doktor...vhat ve do now? I cannot lift Sascha like thees!”
“I don’t know.” Medic chuckled mirthlessly, but covered his mouth to stifle his giggles before tears could begin streaming from his eyes. This was insane. He was going completely insane. “I really don’t know. But I vill zhink of something.”
Medic looked straight up. The cry was muffled, but loud enough to carry through the layer of concrete that separated their sleeping quarters from the spawn room above. Something was going on up there. And judging by what had already happened that morning, it was nothing good. Really, he wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed and forget any of this ever happened, but...
“Doktor?” He looked down to see Heavy was looking at him, frowning slightly. He’d be risking a nervous breakdown if he went upstairs to face more of this madness, but if he didn’t, Heavy would probably never forgive him for abandoning their team.
“Hold onto somezhing.” he said, holding open his pocket with one finger. Heavy let go of his thumb and dropped inside, his head and shoulders sticking out of the top, and Medic broke into a run.
Spy pressed his back against the wall. Mon dieu, he’d touched it, he’d touched that horrible thing laying over there. And it was breathing, or trying to do something close to it, gill slits shuddering uselessly in the bone-dry air. Somehow, it was still alive. Mon dieu. He’d come up here seeking revenge, convinced it was that labourer’s fault that he’d had to wrap himself in cloth, just so he wouldn’t blind himself. And yet he’d found this. He closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look at it. But he could still see those eyes inside his head. Those unblinking globs of dark jelly, staring at him, pleading with him, even though he couldn’t bring himself to even look at the unfortunate creature.
His eyes snapped open, and looked to the door as it slid to one side. Sniper leaned against the doorframe to catch his breath, his Kukri in one hand, and something red and shiny draped over his shoulders like a cape. “You... would not believe... the kind of mornin’... that I’ve had... ” the man wheezed. “Bloody plants everywhere... had to cut meself out of my own bloody room, and then I found- holy dooley, wot happened to you!?”
Spy gritted his teeth as Sniper cackled like a hyena, trying not to turn away, since it meant looking at that again. “You imbecile, thees is no time to be laughing-!”
“I-I’m sorry mate...” Sniper snickered, wiping a tear from his eyes. “Yer all lit up loik a Christmas tree-” He stopped suddenly, staring straight ahead; so he’d finally seen it. His face turning pale, he ran over to it, the red thing slipping from his shoulders and landing in a pile on the floor. “TRUCKIE! Oh god, Truckie, just... speak to me, or something, come on mate... what the bloody hell are you doing, ya cowardly spook!? Get over here! Or at least call for the bloody Doc or something!”
Spy shuddered, his stomach churning horribly, his hands shaking at he lit another cigarette. He couldn’t forget that scaly skin, that webbed hand, the horrible choking noise as the Dispenser kept their former Engineer’s heart beating. After apparently respawning up here, he’d somehow managed to build one before he died a second time. And yet he couldn’t bring himself to do a thing, he couldn’t even look at it... at him.
“It’ll be alroight, mate.” Sniper showed no such fear as he lifted up Engineer by his underarms, leaning his back against the dispenser, turning him slightly to avoid crushing the delicate dorsal fin between his shoulder blades. “Where is that bloody Doc when you need him... !?”
Spy watched as tiny plants sprouted around Sniper. Seeds blown in by the wind or carried on clothes unfurled tiny leaves, and tried to take root in solid concrete. He took a long drag of the cigarette; the Engineer, the one person who could possibly provide an answer for this insanity, was now a monster. And as much as he tried to be professional, detach himself from needless emotions...it disgusted him, how he was too cowardly to do anything.
Moments later, the cigarette dropped from his lips, already smoked down to the tiniest stub. He stepped on it, his toe poking the pile of shiny red material that Sniper had been wearing. It twitched slightly. Then there was a stomach-churning squishing and crunching sound, and whatever was inside it started thrashing about violently. He jumped backwards to get away from it as the shape changed again to something long and thin, like a snake.
“Why don’t ya make yerself useful an’ bring Pyro over here?” Sniper growled at him.
“Zat is ze Pyro!?” He walked over to the pile cautiously, and picked it up between his fingers, like a soiled handkerchief. It was only now he could now see the dark mask and telltale soot stains that defined the fireproof suit; whatever was left of the Pyro was trapped inside it.
“Yeah. Far as I can tell, he keeps changin’ into different things, only he can’t get out.” Taking the suit from Spy, he let it rest against the dispenser. It jerked for a few seconds like a disturbing marionette, the thing inside it going through several vaguely animal-shaped forms as the men watched. For a split second Spy could see the outline of flapping wings, which morphed into flailing paws, and then disappeared completely. Then finally, like air pumped into a balloon, the suit filled out into a vaguely human shape.
“There we go. Feelin’ alroigt?” Pyro’s chest rose and fell erratically as one hand clutched his head, but he managed a weak thumbs-up. “You fully human now, or wot?”
“HUH.” Pyro grunted. Spy felt Medic bump his shoulder as he ran past, but barely reacted to it... something still seemed odd about the Pyro, or more odd than usual. His hands were much larger and his arms were longer, his whole body stretching the suit to its limits. Then he got up into a half-crouching position, his knuckles dragging the ground, and the pieces fell into place.
“Orangutan?” Sniper scratched his head, while Medic frantically opened the nearby cabinet and took out a large Medkit. “Close enough I s’pose.”
“Heavy, zere is a sterile syringe to your left. Give it to me.” Medic said quickly, hauling the Medigun out. Spy turned his attention to Engineer; he didn’t often look a man in the face as he died, but he could see the life fading from his inhuman eyes. The plunger of the syringe slowly rose from Medic’s front pocket as he tore Engineer’s shirt open. And before Spy could question how, it was already filled with adrenaline and stabbed straight into the dying man’s chest.
His body convulsed violently. Like a fish hauled to the surface, his mouth gasped uselessly, gills still trying to breathe water that wasn’t there. Then the calming red vapour of the Medigun washed over him, and Spy realised he’d been holding his breath as Engineer turned his head to face him.
“Zere.” Medic sighed, carefully pulling out the syringe and letting the Medigun seal the wound. “Ze human body vas not meant to survive such... extreme alterations. I do not zhink he vould have survived a second respawn.”
“Merde... ” Spy muttered, trying not to look unnerved by what he’d just seen, or by the fact that Medic was still talking to someone who wasn’t there, saying ‘Danke, Heavy’ as he took the handkerchief now sticking out of his pocket. He lit the last cigarette in his disguise kit, barely able to see the elegant white cylinder against his own glowing skin. It reminded him of that terrible light streaming from the central point. And with one man a monster and the other gone mad, his chances for getting answers were growing slimmer by the second.
“Oi, Doc. I know this sounds mental, but... this isn’t real, is it?” Trying to get the man’s attention, Sniper grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and pulled. There was a yelp of surprise, and he pulled his hand away like he’d been burned, Medic’s arm snapping back to its normal shape along with the material.
“I am afraid zat is not ze case, Herr Sniper.” Medic stated with complete seriousness. “Ze Scout is stuck to his bedroom ceiling. Ze Demoman is a child. Ze Heavy is in my right breast pocket. And zis black eye ze Soldier gave me vhile he vas screaming in French... ze pain is most definitely real.”
The cigarette stub fell to the floor, joining the others. One of them had rolled next to Sniper’s foot, a stray tobacco seed already growing into a fully-formed, flourishing plant. Mon dieu. This was impossible. This was insane. All of them had gone completely insane.
“So then I realised I was inside an egg or some shit. But it didn’t seem weird, ya know? Seemed like I was supposed to be in there.”
Engineer listened, giving the occasional nod. After a long morning, the team were crowded around the kitchen table, waiting for Medic to come back from checking the respawn system. Soon as he’d finished treating him, the Doc had gone to find out why he’d respawned like this, rather than fully human. Heavy had of course gone with him; at his current size, a stray arm or misplaced coffee cup could mean a trip through respawn, if the system could even pick up something so tiny.
“But the next thing I know I’m breakin’ out an’ I’m surrounded by other birds, ‘cause I look down at myself and I am a freakin’ bird. In the dream I mean.” Scout continued, still on the ceiling. Attempts to get him down had failed, but he’d found out he could actually stand up and walk, no different from the floor. It was like gravity was reversed for him somehow, his dog tags pointing towards his feet instead of hanging down over his head.
“Hey! Put a sock in it, Mother Nature!” Scout yelled as Sniper yowled, rubbing his side painfully. He’d leaned his metal chair too close to the wooden crates Demo was sitting on, and the branch sprouting from the wood had jabbed him in the ribs. “I’m tellin’ a story here! So anyway, I was in this nest-!”
If he’d still had lungs, Engineer would have sighed. Instead, there was a slightly louder rushing noise from the thick plastic tubes curling around his neck, as they took used water away from his gills. He’d rigged up a backpack from parts of an old dispenser; water from a small storage tank was infused with oxygen and healing vapour, and delivered back to his nose and mouth via an adapted oxygen mask.
“And yeah, they were all WAY bigger than me. It was like my egg hatched too late or somethin’. But then I hear this WOOSH! And the other birds are all CAW CAW ‘cause their ma just came home with dinner!”
It’d taken him a good hour or two to put together, too. Any other day and he’d have had it done in half the time, but even the lingering adrenaline and constant attention of the Medigun couldn’t trick his new body into thinking it wasn’t drowning on dry land. That was how he’d woken up; trying to choke out a cry for help as his lungs shrank to nothing, tearing at his shirt as gill slits opened on his neck, his mouth filling with blood as shark-like teeth forced their way out.
“An’ then there’s all this pushin’ and shovin’ and I’m just gettin’ thrown around everywhere. Then one’a them finally kicks me outta the nest, and I try flappin’ my wings an’ shit but I just keep fallin’. An’ then my feathers kinda...fell out, and I see I’ve got fingers again...”
He looked up at Scout, who was flapping his arms and gesturing wildly, and then back at the small chalkboard in his lap. Normally it’d tell everyone what was for dinner, or host the occasional crude drawing by Scout, but until he got his lungs back it was his only method of communication. With little to say, he’d been using it to try and connect together what had happened. There was that huge thing at the center of Nucleus, and the terrible light he’d last seen streaming from the eyes of a newly-revived Redmond Mann. And this, he thought, looking at the delicate webbing between his right hand’s fingers as he continued to scribble in shorthand.
“An’ then I finally hit the ground, an’ my back’s broken or somethin’, cause I keep tryin’' ta move but I can’t...”
And then there were the dreams. It turned out they’d all had them. Soldier had been first, trying to explain his in a language that turned out to be an obscure Italian dialect. Spy had given up on translating as soon as he mentioned nazis and screaming trees, but then Demo had chipped in with his own equally vivid nightmare. He’d been back in Scotland, a child again, and playing by the shores of Loch Ness. And when he’d dared to stray near the water the sky had darkened, and a dead, rotting, but somehow still moving Loch Ness Monster had risen from the depths and swallowed him whole. All he remembered after that was falling into a spinning vortex, and seeing visions of his late adoptive parents before he woke up.
“An’ then the whole freakin’ dream world flips upside down, an’ I wake up on my freakin’ ceiling!”
Engineer didn’t think he’d ever forget his own nightmare. He’d been back at Nucleus again, but everything was stained with damp or corroded by rust, water dripping steadily from algae-covered rocks. The entire pit beneath the central point was flooded with murky water, and he’d arrived just in time to see Soldier struggling and shouting for help, before something pulled him under the surface. He’d dived in to save the man without a second thought, swimming past pipes crusted with barnacles, so deep he thought his lungs might burst. Dim light seeping through cracks in the metal lit his way. Seaweed swished lazily as he swam past. But as he searched for his missing team-mate the plants grew denser and denser, until they formed an impenetrable underwater forest. One of them wrapped around his leg, more of them wrapping around his neck and tightening like a noose as his struggles entangled him further. His air quickly running out, he’d bumped into something. He’d turned and looked at Soldier’s ghostly pale face, dead eyes staring straight through him, and realised he was surrounded. The whole team. Dead, drowned, their lifeless bodies wrapped in shrouds of seaweed and debris.
“What a touching leetle story.” Spy chuckled, knocking ash from his cigarette. “You always were like a small bird of some kind. Fluttering from place to place, making far too much noise...”
“An’ ah suppose YOO had a more interestin’ dream?” Demo asked, swinging his feet. Even with the long sleeves rolled up, his usual red shirt was far too large, looking more like a loose dress. “Ever’one’s told theirs ‘cept yoo, Pyro an’ Engie. And they cannae talk, so tell us yoors!”
“HUH-uh-HUH-uh!” Pyro clapped his hands excitedly.
“Zat is none of your business.” Spy took a long drag of his cigarette. Even though his suave demeanor had returned, he’d also resumed his chain smoking as soon as Medic left the room.
“Aw, come on Spy. Everyone else is tellin’ theirs.” Sniper grinned wickedly. “And besides. If ya don’t talk, I might see if these ‘green fingers’ o’mine work on, say, the seeds in something someone ate... ?”
“You wouldn’t dare.” A confident smirk crossed Spy’s face. There was a tense moment of silence as the two men stared each other down. Then Sniper suddenly jabbed a finger at Spy’s stomach, laughing as he quickly dodged, then glowered and folded his arms defensively. “Alright! Have it your way, you filthy convict.”
“Ahem.” Spy cleared his throat as he straightened up, the others looking on in anticipation. “In my dream I was sat at ze table wiz ze whole team, and we were sharing bread and wine. Ze Engineer mentioned zat someone was going to betray us. And when ze wine was passed to me, I realised ze team were all looking at me, for I had become ze BLU Spy!” He took a drag of his cigarette as he paused. “Naturally, I attempted to say something to explain myself. But too late; for I had been discovered, and I was incinerated by a blinding light!”
“LAAAAAME!” Scout gave a thumbs down, as did Pyro. “Man, that dream SUCKED! No wonder you’d make the crappiest freakin’ superhero outta all of us. Or supervillain, bein’ you. I mean look at me; who else walks on ceilings? Only freakin’ Spiderman! Hell, look at Snipes, he ain’t even a hot chick but he’s practically Poison Ivy!”
“Oh Chroist. Leave me outta this one.” Sniper tipped his hat and put his feet up on the table.
“Hey, come on man! Pfff, you’re no fun. Hey Pyro, what about you?”
It was then that the door finally opened. Everyone turned to look as Medic stepped inside, carefully shutting it behind him and walking over to an empty chair. He didn’t say a word; just walked over to an empty chair, sat down, and held his head in his hands. The tension in the air was almost tangible as he stayed there for a moment, a haunted look in his eyes, his face pale. Engineer could see the man’s lips tighten as he organised his thoughts, trying to deliver whatever no-doubt-bad news he had. Scout gulped audibly.
“I...am afraid it is as I suspected.” Medic reached into the pocket of his white coat to bring out Heavy, letting him sit on the desk, still stalling for time. “I checked ze respawn printouts. I checked ze printout from ze base-to-base teleporter logs. I even went outside, just to be sure...it seems ze transfer to Teufort vent ahead as scheduled.”
Loud coughing echoed around the room as Spy almost swallowed his own cigarette. Engineer felt his blood run cold. But the others just looked confused. “So...we ain’t at Nucleus any more?” Scout spoke up, nervously biting his thumbnail. “A-a-ain’t that a good thing?”
Spy’s fist slammed into the table. “NO, you juvenile delinquent! It ees NOT ‘a good thing’!” He coughed violently again as he stood up suddenly, his chair falling backwards with a loud bang, making Soldier suddenly grab his shovel and look around. Seeing no BLUs, he instead stared as the Frenchman strode towards Scout, looking his upside-down team-mate right in the eyes. “Do you have any idea how ze respawn system works, boy!?”
Scout shook his head ignorantly, causing Spy to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Ze respawn system uses teleport scans, you imbecile. When ze teleporter is used, it saves a copy of ze person who went through. Zeir clothes. Zeir memories. Everyzing.”
“So whut does tha’ mean?” Demo asked impatiently, his heels thumping against the crate as he swung his legs.
“It means we are STUCK like thees!” Spy kicked the fallen chair, clutching the sides of his head like it was going to explode. Pulling at his mask, he’d have torn his hair out if it wasn’t in the way. “It means I am stuck like thees! PUTIN DE MERDE!”
The door slammed as he stormed out, still swearing loudly in multiple languages. Engineer stared blankly at the chalkboard. If their old templates had been replaced with these, that meant a quick fix was out of the question. He’d held onto that vague hope that someone at RED, or the announcer or whoever would have noticed what happened. But then...something really didn’t add up. He hadn’t even thought about them being teleported, especially since the layout for living quarters was the same for every base from Badlands to Yukon...
“What’re we gonnae do now?” Demo broke the silence, brushing away a tear trickling from his functioning eye. “Ah cannae even stomach me scrumpeh like this...” Pyro patted him on the shoulder as he gave a childish sniffle, wiping his nose on his arm.
“I vill find a vay to undo zis, Heavy.” Medic sighed tiredly as he leaned forward. He couldn't disguise the tinge of sadness in his voice, as he looked at the tiny man who’d once been his giant guardian. “Even if it kills me.”
The cogs in Engineer’s head had already started to turn. He didn’t remember packing up his things...he didn’t remember unpacking his things either, but his room was the same as it always was. He didn’t even remember stepping onto the god-damned base-to-base teleporter!
“Wait...aw crap, we’re at that two-fort place again?” A look of realisation suddenly came over Scout, and he slammed his palm into his face. “Aw, CRAP! An’ if I go outside I’ll... I’ll rocket into space or somethin’! This BLOWS!”
The answer hit him suddenly. He pulled a rag from the pocket of his overalls. He looked at the equations on the chalkboard, then back to the rag. After a short hesitation, Engineer started frantically erasing his hard work. Dang it, they needed to know!
"Jag kan förstå vartenda ord som den där förbannade Spionen säger...Men jag kan fortfarande inte prata engelska... !?"
“You think wotever you just said is bad!? This entire bloody base is made of WOOD! I won’t be able to move, or see or-” Sniper stopped dead mid-sentence as Engineer slammed the chalkboard onto the table. There were only three words written on it. In clear capitals, each word underlined. CHECK THE TIME.
“Check the wot?” Sniper blinked, and glanced at his watch. “It’s about lunchtime, I’d say... ”
Engineer shook his head frantically, and pulled over one of the printouts Medic had brought with him. Finding the part he needed, he tapped it so insistently his finger almost tore a hole in the delicate paper, then went back to the chalkboard. His heart pounded as he erased and re-wrote; TELEPORT WAS YESTERDAY.
“Vas... ?” Medic looked over the sheets of numbers, rubbing his eyes, before he paused on something near the bottom of the page. “Mein Gott, he is right! Ze teleport took place yesterday evening, but none of us remember zis happening... ve haff more zan 24 hours unaccounted for.”
“Ve vere asleep for entire day?” Heavy seemed deep in thought as he rested his chin on his knuckles. “Surely, ees not possible?”
Medic set the paper down. “If zat vas true, it schtill does not explain how ve and all our belongings are here at Teufort.”
So they’d lost a day. 24 hours either spent sleeping, or somehow blanked from their memories as something within each of them changed in bizarre ways. It seemed that whenever he thought he was getting close to solving what happened at Nucleus, fate threw more obstacles in his way.
Engineer scratched his neck where the collar rubbed against it and picked up his chalkboard as he walked out, webbed feet slapping the hard floor. After all this, he’d be damned if a little old missing day was going to stop him figuring this one out. He just hoped he still had his grandpa’s notes stashed somewhere.
“Ah’m fine. Really. Ye can leave.” Demo looked back at Pyro, who just tilted his head to one side. “Ah appreciate yer concern, but this i’nt the worst thing tae ever happen tae me. Not by a bloodeh long shot.”
Demo continued down the hallway, and though he could still hear Pyro’s odd knuckle-dragging gait behind him, he sighed and chose to ignore it. The wee firebug hadn’t stopped following him since the team meeting and his embarrassing breakdown. He didn’t need some bloodeh babysitter! He was still himself, still an adult on the inside, even if he did give in to some childish habits. He pulled his thumb out of his mouth as they entered Teufort’s courtyard.
“How’s the buildin’ goin’, Engie?” With those goggles and that face mask in the way he couldn’t really tell, but Demo was sure he smiled as he waved back to him. He’d never known a kinder man who still shared the same passion for blowing things up. “The ol’ hand givin’ ye any trouble?”
Engineer shook his head and gave an enthusiastic thumbs up with the Gunslinger, a tiny Combat Sentry beeping in front of him. There was a battle scheduled for tomorrow, and It looked like he had a plan, unlike the rest of the team. Heavy had been insistent on doing something to help out, even volunteering to sneak into BLU’s system of air vents and listening to their strategies. But Medic had said something about respawn and picking up small signals, and they’d argued until the Doc picked up Heavy and dropped him into a very deep pocket in his coat.
Demo carried on walking, past the door to their main respawn. It took some getting used to, everything being so much bigger. But he probably wouldn’t be doing any fighting anyway; he couldn’t swing his bottle of Scrumpy, his tiny wee hands fumbled the trigger switch on the Sticky Launcher, and he couldn’t even lift the Eyelander. So without him and Heavy, they were two men down. And it was unlikely that Spy was going to fight; last Demo had seen of him, he’d been stabbing his own pillow out of frustration.
The climb up to Sniper’s nest seemed to take twice as long since he was half his normal size, but after feeling his way through the leaves sprouting from otherwise dead wood he finally found the hatch at the top. Without Sniper around, the sprouts that emerged from the floorboards had withered and disappeared within minutes, and it seemed the same had happened with the wooden ladder.
“Oi! Sniper! Yoo in there, mate?” Sniper didn’t usually keep the hatch locked outside of battle, but no matter how much he pushed it refused to budge. “It’s me, damn ye! Open up!”
“Bloody roots gettin’ bloody everywhere...” Sniper’s footsteps made the boards above his head creak as he approached. There was the sound of furious chopping for a few seconds, and the hatch swung open, an outstretched hand grabbed Demo’s and helped him up. “Sorry ‘bout that. Y’brought Pyro as well?”
“Aye.” Demo rolled his single eye. “The big daftie won’t leave me alone.”
“Ahhh, e’s just worried is all. Come on then, Py - bloody hell, you weigh a ton now!”
Demo sat down on a crate, and looked around at the room. He remembered when they’d last been stationed here. At the end of the day, either good or bad, he’d usually end up in Sniper’s nest. He’d drink some scrumpy, maybe a beer if it’d been a particularly hot day, and talk about anything. Or just listen to some music on the radio. And maybe, if they were lucky, there’d be wonderful smells coming from the courtyard as Engie added the finishing touches to the ribs he was smoking for dinner.
But now, a shady canopy of leaves obscured the vaulted ceiling, and roots snaked their way across the floor. Between them, seeds that had drifted through the open window to land on the seldom-swept floor had bloomed into a carpet of flowers. They were of every colour imaginable, filling the air with sweet and subtle scents.
“Sort of...nice, isn’t it?” Sniper smiled awkwardly as Pyro poked at a cluster of red and orange flowers. Walking over, he sat on a cluster of roots, the flowers surrounding him growing taller in his presence. Touching a bud lightly with his fingertip, it swelled slowly and opened. “It’ll all be gone come tomorrow. S’almost a shame.”
“Yeah...s’..s’beautiful, mate...” Demo tried to hide his coughing, almost dropping the small silver flask he kept behind the crates. The scrumpy still smelled and tasted like cheap cider at the strength of whiskey, but it seemed he really had lost his taste for it.
“But...just look at us, eh? A roight sorry lot, we are.” Sniper leaned against the window frame, squinting as he looked over at the BLU base. The sun was starting to set on the strangest day any of them had ever had. “Half of us can’t even foight. And the rest? A mer-man, a monkey and a bloke made of elastic. Heh. Sounds loik the start of a bad joke.”
“Uh-huh...” Demo could feel his eyelid starting to get heavy. Maybe it was the scrumpy, or maybe it was the smell of the flowers, but one root-free spot on the floor was starting to look very comfortable.
“I just hope Truckie and the Doc know what they’re doin’. There’s got to be some way t’fix this. Wotever it is.”
“Mm...s’right...” It wasn’t just him, it was comfortable. And it smelled of heather and wet grass, like the fields where he’d lit his first fireworks as a lad. If he listened closely, he swore he could hear the buzzing of the midges and the slow, steady hiss of a lit fuse. At the edge of his semi-conscious mind, he felt a long arm wrap around him and carefully lift him off the ground.
“Yeah, go ahead an’ take ‘im back to ‘is room, Pyro...s’gonna take a bloody miracle to pull through tomorrow.”
Radigan Conagher...what were you tryin’ to build...?
Engineer poured himself another cup of coffee, and jotted down some notes in his indecipherable shorthand. His grandfather’s legacy was spread out before him; everything he had ever dreamed up, designed or built was at his fingertips. He’d spent hours on these already, using specially angled mirrors to view the blueprints for the Frontier Justice, the Wrangler and the Gunslinger. And of course as per Mr. Mann’s instructions, he’d decoded the notes on the Life Extender Machine.
He retrieved a brown folder, stained with a coffee cup ring and slightly scorched by gunpowder. Despite its age, the words 'Maps Of Australium Caches' were still clearly visible. In his quest to extend Redmond Mann’s life, Radigan had managed to smelt an Australium alloy that released a vapour when exposed to electricity. A vapour that when collected and condensed, could breathe life into even the most ravaged body. But as the alloy decayed it lost its potency, and had to be replaced...which was what had happened to Mr. Mann’s machine. In desperation, RED’s scientists had rigged it to deliver what little was left of the concentrated Australium vapour, along with an electric shock to restart his heart.
He’d seen that glow in that insane man’s eyes, and again at Nucleus. He was sure they were connected, and he was sure that Radigan’s notes and diagrams would show how. Specifically, the ones he’d been unable to decode; no matter which way he looked at them, they didn’t seem to make sense. In fact, they didn’t even seem complete. He’d left them alone for all this time, thinking it was probably some pipe dream project Radigan had abandoned when Mr. Mann contacted him. But it was only now that he’d realised something unusual about the incomplete section: some of it wasn’t in his grandfather’s handwriting.
At first glance, the two sets of notes looked very similar. Both were written in a complex code, in the same colour ink and arranged in the same neat paragraphs. However, upon closer inspection, he’d found something was definitely amiss. The way they crossed their t’s, the way they wrote the number 4... if they’d been attempting to exactly copy his grandfather’s handwriting they’d done a pretty good job, but not quite good enough. But why? If someone else had found Radigan’s notes and attempted to add to them, why would they go through the trouble of mimicking his writing? That only left the possibility of a joint project, but Radigan Conagher was not a sociable man, and had been so protective of his inventions he’d had his blueprints buried with him.
Engineer stacked the piles of papers neatly to one side again, and leaned back in his chair to think. His chair creaked, joining the gentle rush of his aqua-respirator delivering fresh water to his gills, and the tick of his alarm clock to make an almost hypnotic rhythm. His mind cycled through the pieces of the puzzle again and again. It was all so incredibly frustrating. The incomplete notes... the light from the machine... the dreams... the missing day... the changes they’d all undergone... were they even connected at all? If each step he took brought him further away from the truth, was he even on the right path?
Reaching over, he plucked a nail from the wall in front of his desk with gloved, robotic fingers. Nostalgic feelings tugged at his heartstrings as he gently took the old family photo in his webbed hand. It was of him as a young man of 13, trying on the goggles that his grandfather had given to his father, and his father had given to him that very moment. Pa was laughing and smoking that ol’ cigar that never seemed to leave his mouth. “Jus’ you watch, he’ll grow into ‘em one day!”, he’d said, God rest his soul. As Engineer dried his eyes, he just hoped Pa couldn’t see him right now.
In his army days, he’d been a surgical artist. He'd done anything to get soldiers back on their feet again, creating abominations of stitched flesh and wired bones that shouldn’t have been alive and yet he made them live. He’d despised the Nazi party and their idiotic ideals of a tall, blonde-haired Übermensch, but he remembered the hushed talk of creating more literal super-men. Creatures that stretched and surpassed the limits of the human body. It had all sounded so exciting. And yet here he was, a joke of a man, a man who’s limits were stretched literally... like a child’s plaything...
Medic strained to open his eyes, and tried his hardest to keep them open as he sat waiting. Usually he’d take this time to check and double-check his equipment, and mentally prepare himself for the upcoming battle. But right now, he was struggling to shake off the lingering effects of inhaling the concentrated vapour from his Medigun. Last night it’d helped him sleep. This morning it had lifted his mood enough to save him from paralysing despair.
He’d had an unwelcome reminder of his own affliction when his shirt sleeve had caught on the doorknob, and he hadn’t noticed until he was halfway to breakfast. And once he’d freed himself, he’d arrived to find no sound of conversation, no discussion of battle plans. The mood was more suited to a funeral than a breakfast table; any hopes of just waking up and finding it had all been a dream were completely obliterated. But what seemed worse than any of that, was that Heavy still wasn’t talking to him after their argument. Medic had left a plate with scraps of scrambled egg and bacon next to the tissue box the man had used as a bed, and headed straight to the respawn room to dull his senses. And now all of them - except Heavy - were here, waiting for their inevitable defeat.
“Ah donnae care, ya big girl’s blouse.” Their Demoman folded his arms, his voice the only one above a whisper. Medic shook his head at the child’s foolishness, and switched the healing vapour of his Medigun to Soldier. The man had been uncharacteristically quiet since he lost the ability to speak English; probably the only change Medic actually welcomed.
Still looking at his feet, Sniper muttered something else to the Demoman, which just made him shout louder. “I donnae care! Ah’m gonna keep fightin’ as long as there’s breath in mah body! Even if ah jus’ pick up those piss jars o’yours and lob 'em at the BLUs! We’re still a bloodeh team! We can still fight! Even all o’you wee weepin’ lassies!”
“Mission begins in sixty seconds.”
“Zis is not a team, eet ees a circus freak show.” Spy scowled, his shoe grinding a cigarette butt into the pristine white floor. “Maybe if we are lucky, ze enemy will laugh themselves to death.”
“Well ah’m a black scottish cyclops, an’ ah never let that stop me! Ah’ll go over to their base and capture their briefcase MESELF if ah have to!”
“Mission begins in thirty seconds.”
“Not without me, yer not.” Sniper lifted his head. “I mean, we don’t know ‘ow long we’re all gonna be stuck loik this, so the least we can do is try...” He retrieved the Huntsman, which he’d been carrying on his back, and his face froze as he saw the hardwood bow had sprouted leaves. “...ah, piss!”
Spy covered his mouth as he snorted loudly. There was no trace of humor in his laughter as he doubled over, guffaws sounding more like sobs as he tried to catch his breath between them. Medic stood up, turning away from the unfortunate man to face Soldier’s back. His gloves creaked as he tightly gripped the handle of the Medigun... he didn’t want to fight, but he was under contract. If RED terminated his employment, he had nothing to go back to, not while he was still like this. And especially not while Heavy was still like this.
“...Three. Two. One. Fight!”
“Gehen Sie nach links!” Soldier indicated left with his arm. Medic turned and followed him onto the battlements, when he suddenly realised what he’d just said.
“...Sie sprechen Deutsch?” he asked as they dropped down onto some dusty boxes, and made their way across the bridge. The sound of gunshots and explosions were already building to a cacophony, but through his team-mate's growls he could hear something that sounded like ‘Jawohl’. They spoke the same language... Soldier’s stubborn self-reliance meant they rarely crossed each other’s paths on the battlefield, but maybe this could actually work.
“Sentry voraus!” A rocket left the level 1 Sentry outside BLU’s base spewing sparks and smoke, before it exploded with a small, sad beeping sound. Soldier grinned victoriously, charging into the enemy base. “MADEN!”
BANG. Medic suddenly woke up to the white walls of respawn, muttering and clutching his terribly aching head as he remembered what happened. “Schweinhunds...” It seemed so obvious now. The tiny sentry had been a distraction to delay their progress across the bridge, probably the most dangerous part of Teufort’s battlegrounds. And with their Sniper unable to use his bow, and unwilling to touch his precious rifle with its wooden stock, the BLU Sniper had been alive and free to line up a headshot.
Stupid, stupid... Medic sighed and unhooked the Übersaw from his belt as he left their spawn room for the second time. Herr Engineer was probably somewhere downstairs, guarding their Intelligence... he just had to sit and wait for a while, and he’d soon build up an Übercharge. Then they could smash through the enemy defences and maybe - just maybe - they’d capture the intelligence, and all this would be done with.
Suddenly, halfway down the sloping hallway leading to their basement, he heard an unfamiliar voice from somewhere up ahead. Immediately he stopped, ducking into an alcove and flattening himself against the wall. Now there were footsteps, getting closer; he couldn't let them see him. He closed his eyes, trying to press himself more and more against the concrete, and his body... responded. Biting his lip, Medic tried not to think about his internal organs, trying to ignore the bizarre sensations of his ribcage being squashed and his limbs flattened to an almost paper-like thinness. Mein Gott, what was his body doing? He wasn’t even thinking consciously about it, it was as if his flesh had gained a sentience of its own...
“Heh...not a single RED down here...” The BLU Solder chuckled. “Come in, Scout. You read me, over?”
Medic held his breath, not that his lungs could probably take in any air like this. He was thankful he could at least still close his eyes... he really didn’t want to know what he looked like right now. Probably like a character from the childish cartoons Pyro sometimes watched; run over by a steamroller or squashed by a piano, alive but pancake-flat. Surely, BLU had to move on soon... his lungs screamed for air, every part of him ached to return to normal... a few more seconds, and that would be it...
“Yeah yeah, I’m comin’ down ya big blowhard, over. What we got heyah?” The enemy Scout streaked past without even glancing at him, one hand on his earpiece. Medic gratefully took a gasp of air as he sprang back into human shape, then clamped his hands over his mouth. Scheisse.
“What the hell was that...?” The BLU Soldier growled suspiciously, looking behind him just as Medic ducked back into the shadows.
“Who cares? These sissy REDs ain’t got nothin’ on us. Their freakin’ Sniper can’t even aim straight!”
So, the BLU Scout and Soldier had both made it into their base. Herr Engineer probably had a Sentry already guarding their Intelligence, but with their current situation they needed to stall the enemy team’s advance by any means necessary. Medic glanced at the Übersaw still in his hand...taking on both at once would be suicide. He needed a distraction of some sort. Glancing round the corner, he could see they were both standing side-by-side with their backs to him.
“So did they build a sentry in there, or are these guys actually that dumb?” the BLU Scout chortled.
“Never underestimate the enemy, son. The toymaker’s away, but his little toys are all at Level 3. I’ll need you to drink that little radioactive sodie pop of yours, and run in there and dodge those bullets while I retrieve the briefcase.”
“So I eat lead, and you get to be the big hero!? Some kinda big, brave military man you ar-OW!” The Scout rubbed the back of his head, glaring at his companion. “The hell was that crap? Why’d you hit me!?”
“I can assure you, Private Twinkle-toes, that if I had hit you, you would not be ALIVE to complain about it!”
“OW! Ya just did it again, ya crazy-AGH! Oh, you wanna go? Is dat it? Those REDs not enough for ya and ya wanna fight a real man, huh? Well let’s go! Come on! I can take ya!” The Scout danced from side to side, beckoning his BLU comrade.
“What in god’s name has gotten into you, you spineless-hey!” He held onto his helmet as something hit the back of it, then looked to the Scout, who’s face had drained of all colour. “Was that YOU, private!? And why do you look like you’ve just seen a ghost!? ANSWER ME!”
“H-h...h-h-h-h...ha-HAND...!” was all the Scout managed to stutter out before Medic grabbed the backs of both their heads, and smacked them together with a ‘clunk’. He couldn’t help but chuckle slightly as the two unconscious bodies fell to the floor. It had been so childish of him to do such a thing, and yet he couldn’t help himself. Besides, it had proved rather effective...and he wasn’t even finished yet.
“Auf wiedersehen, dummkophs...” a sadistic grin crossed his face as he firmly gripped the handle of the Übersaw. Now this...this was the fun way to get an Übercharge.
“Bloody HELL! Missed again!”
Sniper threw his bow down in disgust. He’d already abandoned his usual strategy of carefully aimed headshots, but even aiming in the general direction of the enemy was fruitless. With the Huntsman bow constantly bending and deforming under his ‘green fingers’, the arrows pretty much had a life of their own, veering off to the side or just falling uselessly to the ground.
“Take THAT, fannybaws!” Even Demo was having more luck than he was, chuckling at the enemy’s cry of anguish and disgust as he dropped another Jarate down from the Nest’s window. “Bet that BLU Medic di’nt see that one comin’!”
Meanwhile, Sniper planted himself on a box in frustration, facing away from the sounds of battle. In response to his rotten mood, gnarled branches with dagger-like thorns twisted into existence and bore sickly, poisonous-looking fruit. It was strange, but he didn’t dwell on it for long, opting instead to give the useless bow a sharp kick. He sighed, wishing he could use his rifle. That thing was the closest he’d had to a friend, out in the bush. It kept him safe, kept him fed, and as long as he’d maintained it with utmost care it had never let him down.
“Sniper, mate! You’ve got tae see this! Pyro jus’ got cornered by their Demoman an’ he turned inta somethin’ small! Poor BLU bastard’s just scratchin’ his head, lookin’ at an empty suit...”
He couldn’t possibly risk using it, not with its wooden stock. Or worse, what if a seed or something got into it while he was up here? He couldn’t possibly replace that gun, he just couldn’t contemplate using anything else.
“HA!” There was a terrible scream from outside, and a heavy thumping noise. Demo cackled maniacally in response, wiping a happy tear from his good eye. “Aw mate, ye’re missin’ a great show! Pyro’s a sorta gorilla or somethin’ now, an’ he’s bashin their Demo inta the ground! GREAT JOB, LAD! I KNEW YE COULD DO IT!”
It was then that Sniper looked over, and suddenly realised the danger of sticking your head out of the window. “TAVISH, NO! THE BLU SNIPER’S GONNA-!”
BANG. The whole room went dark. But there was no blood, just a shower of leaves and splinters from the thick branch covering the window. The young Scot rubbed his miraculously still-intact head, and Sniper looked at his hand. He’d reached forward, trying to pull Tavish away from the window, and something just...happened.
“...THAT WAS BLOODEH BRILLIANT! How did ye do that!?”
“I...I don’t know...” Sniper flexed his fingers experimentally. He’d reached out, and he’d thought for a split second how that big branch over there would probably block a bullet. Squinting at it again through the darkness, he took a deep breath and tried to clear his thoughts. Don’t think of anything else. It’s just you and...the tree. You and the tree. Just breathe deep and...Chroist, this is bloody stupid...
He moved his arm. Wood creaked, leaves rustled, and the branch noisily shifted out of the way as it followed the movement of his outstretched fingertips. Sunlight flooded into the room. And immediately he whipped round, flinging open the hatch to the ladder and climbing down as quickly as he could.
“Oi! Where d’ya think YE’RE goin’!?” Demo shouted down after him.
“I’ll be back in a minute, I just have to get something!” The spawn door automatically slid open, and Sniper immediately flung open the supply closet. There, right where she always was, was his rifle. Every part of her had been replaced at least once...new stock, new triggers, new scopes...but somehow she’d still remained the same loyal old friend. Waiting, patiently, for him. The man reached forward with a quivering hand, screwing his eyes shut. Please. Not this time. He reached forward another inch or two, the tips of his fingers just barely touching the cold gun metal. Just this once. He was biting his lip so hard now, he could taste blood. Please.
He picked up the gun, and opened his eyes. No groaning wood. No vines twisting their way around her barrel like he’d imagined, no invading roots destroying delicate mechanisms. Exactly the way she should be...he grinned widely, chuckling a little. Then he laughed; for the first time in almost two days, he was starting to feel like himself again.
But even from down here, he could hear Tavish shouting “INCOMING!” at the top of his lungs. Sounded like BLU were starting to re-group, and with RED still several men down their chances weren’t looking good. But he clipped the strap onto his rifle, carrying her on his back as he ascended the ladder. If nothing else, after his terrible luck with the Huntsman there was bound to be a few revenge kills waiting for him.
This sucks. This sucks so hard it BLOWS. Shit, I am so bored. I wonder if I could steal Spy’s mask from up here? Man, that’d be funny. He’d probably kill me though. Still, dyin’ would be better than bein’ stuck up on the ceiling. Maybe. Maybe I should try lookin’ round here again, there were those two dead guys lyin’ on the floor a minute ago...
Scout finished his what must’ve been his 100th lap around the intel room. He knew Spy had been watching him go round and round like a goldfish in a tiny bowl, occasionally flicking a cigarette butt into the growing pile at his feet. But no matter how much he hated the backstabbing rat-bastard most of the time, he kind of felt sorry for the poor guy. That lady he said he was with probably fell for a guy who never showed his face, since that made him all mysterious and shit, but there was nothing mysterious about being a freak with a built-in nightlight. Poor guy didn’t really have much else but being mysterious and shit.
“So how you holdin’ up? I mean, I know the Doc’s completely stumped, but Hardhat looked like he had some kinda plan. That’s somethin’, right?” He looked up - or rather down - at Spy. “I mean, he’s gotta know how to fix this, he’s like a super genius or somethin’, wit’ alla those college degrees...”
The man said nothing, and just continued staring at his shoes, the one article of clothing too thick for his light to shine through. “...Silent treatment, huh? Well fine, last time I give two shits about you, Sunshine. I’m gonna go bat some heads, call me when ya get a lil’ less freakin’ miserable.”
Scout ran out into the hallway, weaving between the lights on the ceiling as he passed them. They’d been assigned to Teufort a few times, and nothing ever changed; it was always the same old fort with the same old intel in the same old basement. He knew this place like he knew the back of his hand, like he knew every dent in his bat. But other than his fond memories of cracking skulls, this place was boring as shit. Upside-down, though? It was actually pretty cool, almost like a whole new place. Maybe if he tried jumping he could get up...or down, whatever...to the other floor, where all the action was. He just had to get through here, and...
“OH GAWD! OHGAWDOHGAWDOHGAWD-OH CHRIST!” His heart hammered against his ribs as his grip slipped. Inch by precarious inch he managed to get his other hand back in place. He sighed in relief, then took a deep breath before screaming at the top of his lungs; “WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU GUYS!? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SOMEONE HELP ME!”
He’d forgotten about the courtyard. The courtyard that had no roof. And with no roof to stand on...his gaze slowly moved down, and a strangled whimper escaped his throat as he saw the endless sky gaping beneath him. Oh god. Oh shit. If he let go, if he fell dow-fell up, that was it. He was done. Finished. Dead. No respawning, just falling and falling forever until he ran out of air and his lifeless body drifted into space.
“Huhr?” A black gas mask appeared directly beneath him, tilting to one side in curiosity.
Aw CRIPES. That’s just freakin’ great. Scout thought as he looked at the BLU Pyro. It just had to be a BLU, it just HAD to be a freakin’ BLU! He acted quickly, and tried swinging his legs, just like on the monkey bars back in grade school. If he got enough... what was the word Hardhat used... momentum, he could get back inside!
“AH!” Or he could get his ass toasted, yelling as the the Pyro poked him with the end of the flamethrower, the tiny pilot light making the seat of his pants smoke. But despite the brief pain, it was just enough to make Scout pull his legs up the rest of the way, and tumble back into the intel room hallway. He rubbed his head where he’d bumped it on the sloped ceiling. “Aw, jeeze...agh...”
He looked up, straight into the barrel of the flamethrower, and froze. There was a sound like rushing air as the BLU Pyro clicked the trigger. “Huddah huddah huh!”
Engineer’s webbed fingertips brushed the smooth concrete of the large pipe. Water flowed invitingly over his feet, bathing them up to the ankles before plunging into the waiting pool in front of him. Maybe he was taking a risk, but at least it meant he was away from Spy. He’d left the spawn room a few minutes late, planted himself atop Engineer’s Dispenser, and refused to budge. Or stop smoking those damned cigarettes. He hadn’t said a word, either, when he’d tried to start a little friendly conversation using his chalk board.
Figures, really. He thought as he unclipped the aqua-respirator from his neck, and attached it to his belt. Of course Spy was having the most trouble adjusting, because what good was a Spy who can’t cloak? None of his disguises worked either; you could still see his ghostly, outline glowing underneath the fake BLU’s skin. He tested the water with an elongated webbed toe. It was risky, but while he’d been sitting there with the tobacco smoke making his eyes sting, he’d had an idea. However, until he could get a closer look at the respawn system, Spy would have to be content just watching his buildings.
Engineer plunged into the creek dividing the two forts, the sounds of battle becoming distorted and muted as his head dipped under the water. It was like a breath of fresh air for his gills, and made his dry skin tingle. He kicked his legs, and though his clothing dragged him back a little, he soon found himself floating effortlessly above the muddy floor. It made him a little uneasy, how natural everything felt. It was suddenly so easy to see down here, and he was instinctively adjusting his position in the water, the tiniest flick of a hand or foot keeping him mostly upright.
There was a splash. He glanced up, seeing the daylight dancing on the surface, and blood turning the water a brownish-red... blood from a freshly killed RED Soldier. He instantly looked away, trying not to think of the nightmare that still plagued his thoughts, but he could smell the blood through the water. It seemed to be everywhere at once, he could smell the blood, like some kind of... predator. He really didn’t want to get used to this, he thought as he caught himself running his tongue carefully over his pointed incisors. God, what would he become, if he stayed like this too long? Over time he might be less of a man, and more of... whatever this was. A monster? His mind went to his wife and baby daughter, and him coming home... could he even go home, looking like this?
Another splash from further ahead caught his attention. Without surfacing, he swam towards the opposite edge of the creek, his eyes vaguely making out a pair of boots and red trousers through the kicked-up mud. It looked like Solly. But then he’d just seen him die... not to mention he was coming out of the enemy base with no briefcase on his back. Grabbing the figure’s leg confirmed his suspicions; his fingers went right through the illusion of a boot, instead gripping a bony leg covered in fine material. The disguise flickered, momentarily showing him the look of horror on the BLU Spy’s face. Engineer grinned darkly.
The man screamed, losing what little air he’d had in his lungs, and thrashed furiously as the Gunslinger grabbed the bottom of his jacket. He could feel but not see the material tearing under his robotic fingers as he pulled the man towards him, his webbed fingers wrapping around the Spy’s disguised neck. The man struggled hopelessly as Engineer hindered his every attempt to break the surface and take in more air. Suddenly, everything was a painful, bloody blur. A fist collided with his nose, a pointed knee jabbing his stomach. Blinded and deafened by swirling waters and debris, his hand shot out to grab the Spy a second time, and his gnashing jaws found soft flesh to bury themselves in. He tore into the limb, sharpened teeth slicing through skin and clothing alike.
And then the world seemed to stop. The water felt like ice. Oh god. Oh god, what was he doing. He had his teeth in someone’s leg. His mouth was full of someone else’s blood, and he knew it wasn’t real but it was his team-mate’s face, it was Solly’s face still looking right at him. Oh god... what was he doing!?
Engineer was only vaguely aware of the pain as the Spy’s butterfly knife plunged between his gill slits, the blade tearing through them, blood pouring from the open wound. Floating to the surface, he watched silently as the injured BLU Spy’s disguise finally faded, and he dragged himself back into his team’s sewers. The world started to go dark around the edges, slowly fading until there was nothing but black and the sound of the Spy’s ragged breathing.
“M... monstre... !”
“I do not like zis arrangement any more zan you do Herr Soldat, but I can assure you zis vill vork.”
Soldier just growled in response. Their chances to grab the enemy’s briefcase were running out, and the only solution was to try something the enemy wouldn’t expect. Both of them would rocket jump straight onto the BLU battlements, avoiding the treacherous bridge and the Stickybomb-infested lower levels. It was just unfortunate that the best way for them to achieve such a feat was for Medic to wrap his elasticated arms several times around Soldier’s waist in - for lack of a better word - a firm hug. He hadn’t seen the man look this embarrassed since Heavy restrained him at Nucleus... and thank god Heavy couldn’t see them right now.
“Alright...” They moved up to the edge of the battlements. There was no time to think about how stupid all of this was. Apparently the sentry in their intelligence room was down, and Herr Engineer was nowhere to be found. This would be their last chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. “I vill count to drei, zen you vill jump straight over zere. Ja? Eins, zwei, dr-”
“Jawohl!” Soldier barked, immediately pointing his rocket launcher at the floor and blasting both of them into the air. The heat below was incredibly intense, making their boots smoke. In fact Medic could see licks of flame on Soldier’s heels as he went further and further away, onto the roof of the bridge, while he fell down...
“AUGH!” Medic crashed painfully into the boxes stacked outside their base. Groaning from the initial impact, he gave another yelp of pain as one of them fell right on top of him, pinning his legs. As the dust cleared, he gave a violent cough and laughed. He was a fool. This was hopeless, this whole thing had been hopeless from the start. Eventually RED would stop giving them second chances, and then...why were his arms still stretching?
Scheiße! That thick-headed idiot was still carrying on across the bridge, and his arms were still wrapped around him! Medic struggled and pulled as hard as he could, but it seemed like he’d tied himself in a knot. Soldier wasn’t even halfway across, and he was already at his limit, pains like muscle cramps spreading through his over-stretched arms. “HERR SOLDAT-!” Too late; he gritted his teeth and braced himself as his team-mate rocket jumped a second time.
The Medigun’s harness stopped his torso from stretching more than a little, so it was his trapped legs that were pulled further forwards, leaving the rest of him suspended in the middle, a human bridge between the two forts. Stars flashed in front of Medic’s eyes as he fought against the pain; he could hear his flesh making worrying creaking noises, like a rope pulled too taught or an over-inflated balloon. He was going to be pulled apart. He was just a piece of human-shaped elastic and any second now he was going to snap in two.
Finally, a loud SNAP. But no mess, no blood, just more pain as he slammed into the ground next to the enemy base. Friction burns stung the side of his face and blood oozed from his nose, but he was alive. He was alive and he couldn’t move. He could still feel the pain in his over-stretched limbs, so at least they were still attached to him... but opening a bruised and swollen eyelid he could see why they were paralysed. His arms and legs looked like limp spaghetti, still slightly longer than normal, and utterly useless. He'd over done it, he'd been stretched too far. He could be stuck like this. And now - he thought as a pair of familiar running shoes stepped in front of his eyes - I am done for.
Medic lay there silently, fully expecting to have his head bashed into a bloody pulp. Instead, there was a metallic clunk as the Scout’s bat slipped from his hand and rolled across the ground. He opened his eyes at the familiar sound of very large knuckles being cracked. “Heavy... !?”
It was Heavy - still in the pyjamas he’d been wearing when he’d shrunk. He’d somehow overcome his affliction, and seemed to loom even larger than ever. In fact as Medic watched, he could see him steadily increasing in size until he was more than twice his normal height, the top of his head stopping just above the BLU battlements.
“You. Tiny leetle eety-beety man.” Heavy boomed. The Scout just stared up at him, tears streaming from his eyes and his whole body shaking in terror. “RUN.”
Despite the pain still wracking his body, Medic couldn’t help but smile warmly as the Scout let loose a bloodcurdling scream and went tearing back into the BLU base. A gigantic hand slid gently underneath him. lifting him carefully off the ground. “Doktor, I sneak into pocket vhen you leave breakfast for me, zen hide over here vhen tiny BLU Sniper keel you.” Heavy grinned widely. “And now I am MORE giant man! Come, ve vill destroy tiny coward fort and take leetle briefcase!”
“YOU FAILED! The enemy has captured our intelligence!”
Heavy’s face fell. Medic’s heart sank, but even their loss couldn’t bring his mood down. Heavy was back, he was talking to him again, and he was no longer the size of a mouse. And now his partner could grow to such gigantic proportions, they’d be an unstoppable force on the battlefield, a two-man team who’d strike fear into the hearts of their enemies! The BLUs running away from Heavy’s gargantuan footsteps as he rode on his shoulder... the thought made him feel oddly tingly. In fact, he’d been feeling very strange for the past few seconds, like he was falling without actually moving.
“Heavy, ve ah... !” Medic trailed off as his throat went dry. This couldn't be happening to him. But how else could a discarded Scrumpy bottle be big enough for one of them to crawl inside? How else would pebbles look like boulders, and the victory calls of the enemy team sound like the roars of gigantic, ancient beasts?
“Doktor!” Heavy said suddenly, pulling his hand away from Medic just as he stopped shrinking. He stared at his palm in shock and confusion, wiggling his fingers. “...I touch you vhen I get small, and you get small as vell? Ees not possible!”
“I am afraid it is...” Medic groaned. Just when things couldn’t get possibly any worse, they'd both shrunk, and were by his estimates no more than three inches tall. Thinking of the tens of feet back to their base stretching on and on in front of them, practically miles at their tiny stature, he wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. "It vill take us days to get back to ze base...”
"Doktor is smarter than doktor thinks. Ve vill theenk of something." Heavy picked him up, cradling his beaten and bruised body against his chest. His face was as determined and stoic as ever as he faced the bridge, and began the very long trek back to the opposite side. "Until then, ve go together."
“I found ‘em...it wasn’t easy, but I bloody well found ‘em.”
Spy looked up as Sniper shut the door behind him. He could sense the relief flooding into the room; RED usually frowned upon walking around the base after ceasefire, and stepping into BLU territory was strictly forbidden, but they'd gone out as far as they dared to look for any sign of their missing comrades. There had been talk of desertion, of them escaping through the hole in the fence that Engineer had planned to fix the last time they were stationed here. Talk of ‘maybe we should join them’. But what awaited them on the outside, especially while they were still like this? Such foolish thoughts.
“Well? Where are they!?” their Demoman thumped a small fist against the tabletop with childish impatience.
“Yer not gonna loik this...” the bushman muttered, reaching into a dusty pocket and placing two tiny figures between the dirty plates and cups left over from supper. Sniper shuffled his feet awkwardly, still muttering as he pulled his hat down slightly. “...The doc popped ‘is charge an’ I saw the glow through me scope.”
“Y’mean now they’re BOTH bloodeh tineh!?” Demo stared at the miniature Heavy, holding a tiny Medic in his arms, and nearly knocked over the pair of them as his forehead thumped against the tabletop. “This is it lads...we’re doomed...we’re all gonnae shrink away until there’s nothin’ left of us!”
“SHIT, you mean dat shrinkin’ thing’s contagious!?” Scout flailed his arms in panic. “How do we know who’s next!? What if I'm next!? I’m too young to shrink! Oh gawd someone pass me a tape measure right freakin’ NOW I swear I can feel myself gettin’ shorter here-!”
“Calm yourself, boy. I am sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for zis. After all, it does appear that a few of us old dogs have learned some new tricks today, n’est-ce pas?” Spy dropped his cloak and smirked as jaws dropped all around him. Ah...after almost two whole days of hell, it was good to be the center of attention for the right reason again.
After a moment of silence, it was Sniper who stated the obvious: “Yer not glowin’ any more?”
“I’m afraid not. And it is quite a tale as to why.” Spy took a long drag of his cigarette. That was it... draw out the moment. Always make them wait. Do that, and they’ll hang on your every word. “Once ze battle ended I had an unfortunate run-in viz ze enemy Soldier. Zat madman was still out for blood when he entered our intelligence room, but my ethereal appearance had him paralysed with fear.”
“Yeah. So?” Scout perked up.
“I am getting to eet, you ignorant child.” He sighed in frustration. Of course some people just couldn’t appreciate good storytelling. “Ahem. Now...suddenly, ze Soldier raised his infernal entrenching tool above his head! And as he came charging at me like some kind of enraged beast, I created a flash of light zat completely blinded him, and returned me to my former glory.”
“Hey, dat ain’t fair, French Toast! Why the hell do YOU get cured an’ us guys hafta suffer!?” Scout yelled from his spot on the ceiling.
Immediately a chorus of angry voices filled the room as they demanded answers. But before he could even open his mouth, Spy suddenly found himself lifted off the floor and dangled upside-down by Pyro’s heavily muscled arm. Now in gorilla form, he barely fit inside his flameproof suit or mask, and grinned at him with yellowed fangs. He'd seen Pyro pounding the enemy Demoman into the floor like an oversized nail during the battle, but he hadn't quite accepted it until he'd witnessed the firestarter apparently recounting the incident to Soldier. The man had stood there and laughed as he gestured and grunted...and though that raised the question of how he could understand Pyro even when he wasn’t human, Spy had no intention of becoming part of another war story.
“SCHTOP!” The shrillness of the voice was like nails on a chalkboard, making one or two of the angry men stop to cover their ears. Their tiny Medic - standing up, his little arms folded - glared at them from the table. “Dummkophs. Ze Spy is not cured. Upon observing Heavy’s actions today on ze battlefield, I haff concluded zat-”
“PfffffHAHAHAHAAAA!” Unable to hold it in any longer, Scout clutched his sides as he laughed out loud. “Oh man, you sound like one o’dem Munchkins from dat movie! C’mon doc, sing a lil' song or somethin’! Ow!” Scout rubbed his arm where Pyro just punched it. Then, just as carefully, the giant ape set Spy down right side up, even brushing some lint from his lapel as a gesture of apology. With a silent nod, he let the doctor continue.
“...Danke, Pyro. I haff concluded zat zese...abilities may be dependant on subconscious thought razzer zan conscious. For example, ze need to protect somevhan, or to protect oneself. Perhaps, if emotions ozzer zan fear could somehow trigger zese sudden changes...”
“Loik me.” Sniper blurted out, suddenly looking embarrassed as he everyone's attention suddenly on him. He tipped his hat another inch to hide his flushed face. “...I mean...I was thinkin’ about usin’ me rifle, and...and what the old girl means t’me. I just ‘ad ‘er around for so long, I didn’t want to damage ‘er somehow. An’ since then, no more floorboards sproutin’ under me feet.”
Spy watched as Sniper extended his hand. There was a creaking sound as entwining branches emerged from the wooden floor beneath his outstretched palm. And as stupidly naive as it sounded, he himself couldn’t deny there was an almost magical aspect to it as leaves unfurled and buds opened into star-shaped flowers. Such ability was truly wasted on the filthy jar man, who added “Or not unless I tell ‘em to, anyway.” with a snaggle-toothed grin.
“Zen perhaps once ze change is triggered, it allows more control over our abilities...like an extra limb, or an extra sense... !” It seemed that Medic had just had an epiphany, pacing back and forth, trying to get his thoughts in order. Then suddenly, he grabbed the front of his tiny team-mate's shirt. “Heavy, I know how to un-shrink us! Could you sink back to vhen ze BLU Shcout zhreatened my life? And ah, keep your hand on me, bitte...”
A deeply thoughtful look crossed Heavy’s face. The team leaned in closer, and Scout jumped up and down frustratedly, to get a closer look at the action. Until finally, after a few tense moments, the Russian’s shoulders slumped dejectedly. “...Ees hard to remember, Doktor. Everything move too fast vhen ve fight.”
“Hey! HEY! Speak louder dammit, I can’t hear shit up here!” Scout interrupted as the pair discussed their options. Spy frowned. It was difficult to think with such noise, but he chose to ignore the boy. If they didn’t of a solution soon, they’d be down one very valuable team member come the next battle. And that could be any time, even tomorrow.
“Have ye tried stretchin’ yerself taller? Ye’d be a wee bit thinner maybe but that never did a man any harm...”
“Vhat?” Medic sneered at Demo, folding his arms again. “Hmph! Zat is razzer typical, coming from ze man who almost failed his last physical fitness exam...”
“Ah wuz DRUNK!” Demo threw his little hands in the air. Spy covered his eyes with his palm; it was hard to take the situation seriously when there was a child arguing with a man the size of a toy soldier. Their Demoman scratched his head with pudgy fingers as he tried to recall the incident, Medic raising an eyebrow and tapping his foot impatiently. “Or ah think ah wuz drunk...maybeh...”
“An’ now I can’t see shit! Down in front, rummy!” As Spy glanced upwards, Scout took a baseball from his pocket and hurled it at the back of Demo’s head. It bounced off and landed on the table with a thump, and a panicked Medic quickly ran behind the salt shaker, the ball almost crushing him as it rolled by. "Oops."
“YOU! NEVER... TOUCH... DOKTOR!”
Now it was the rest of the team's turn to run away, the circle of men scattering to avoid the plates and cutlery flying off the table. In the middle of the chaos, Heavy rapidly grew in size, surpassing even his usual height so he could make a grab at the fleeing, shrieking Scout. Spy peered through his parted fingers as the table groaned and collapsed under the Russian's massive weight, the others keeping to the sides of the room to avoid his giant footsteps as he gave chase. Mon Dieu. This team really IS turning into a circus, he thought to himself.
Medic, on the other hand, had let go of Heavy just in time as they both grew bigger. Now back to his normal height, he was nonchalantly cleaning his glasses. Spy approached him in an equally nonchalant manner, twisting his next cigarette between thumb and forefinger. Thank god for the coping mechanisms of the human mind, the little habits that acted as an anchor of sanity when the impossible was actually happening.
Spy cleared his throat. Act hopeful. Optimistic, perhaps. But absolutely not desperate. “Docteur...as utterly fascinating as I am sure this is to you, what does this mean for all of us? Is zere a cure?”
“It means zere is hope, Herr Spy. Vhich is more zan vhat ve had before.” Medic replaced his glasses, and looked around. “Even for Herr Engineer, zis could be very promising... vhere is Herr Engineer?”
Spy hesitated for a moment; he didn’t know? He turned and glowered at Sniper, who had retreated to the corner as the chaos unfolded. The man sighed frustratedly in response; “...Look, I don’t loik bein’ the bearer of bad news, alroight? Especially to some bloke who’s just a few inches tall and been trapped near the enemy base for three hours! An’...well...it just had t’be Truckie...”
“Ze Engineer did not come back after ze battle ended. Ze Soldier is still out zere, looking for him.” Spy said bluntly, ceasing his nervous habit and lighting the cigarette instead. He took a long drag; not for the dramatic tension, but for the nicotine to calm his nerves. “All zat we know for sure is he disappeared shortly after leaving ze intel room. No-one has seen him since zen.”
Soldier looked at his helmet, picking off a few of the dead leaves that had been floating in the water. He was soaking wet and bitterly cold, resting his back against the hard concrete wall of RED’s sewer, but he’d put up with far worse during his time in Poland. If that damn Texan saw him like this he’d probably frown and sigh and get him a blanket, saying what an idiot he was for being out all alone after ceasefire and in the water too. And he’d mutter a quick “Thanks Engie” as he accepted a cup of coffee, feel the warmth coming back into his numb fingers...until the cup turned back into his helmet, and he was back in the sewers again.
He hated this. All of this. He hated how he missed hearing Engie’s voice. He hated that he couldn’t open his own damn mouth and just speak English. But he especially hated that he couldn’t escape the voices any more. They were in the walls, under the floors, even by the water’s edge, and with the sounds of battle fallen silent they were louder than ever. It all started when he’d heard Medic speak that kraut language of his and he’d somehow understood, like he was speaking plain English. And then he’d started hearing other things, and Pyro’s muffled grunting started to make sense...
God, what if the Doc was right about the damn pills? The damn Kraut had tried forcing them on him before, when he recounted the glorious day he’d killed two hundred nazis and stuffed 4 feet of his own intestine back into his body before breakfast. But...they’d make the voices stop, maybe? No. No! He defiantly jammed his helmet back onto his head, and stood up to wade out into the cold water for the fourth time that evening. Once he got drugged up like some kind of dirty hippie, he might wake up one day and he’d be spreading peace and love and helping their Sniper tend his precious little flowers. He’d gut himself with his own shovel before that day came.
“Soldier.” Spy didn’t even flinch at the shovel suddenly resting against his throat. As usual the coward just looked down his nose at him, judging him, as if he was somehow superior. “I am here to relieve you of your duties. Ze good Docteur was quite insistent zat you do not catch pneumonia.”
Soldier opened his mouth to protest, but instead a few oddly-toned syllables tumbled out. He immediately clamped his jaw shut, to the apparent amusement of the other man. “Chinese?” the Spy smirked. ”Oh dear. I am afraid zat I took Russian as my fourth language. Now do run along and let a professional take over.”
Water sloshed inside Soldier’s boots as he stepped back into the mostly dry pipe. With one of the few things he was good at - yelling at his good-for-nothing team - taken away from him, he felt weak and useless. He’d sunk so low, he couldn’t even bring himself to use his Shovel to give the smug bastard a much-deserved fatal head injury. But then, if he couldn’t give Spy a lecture about respecting your superior officers while he slowly bled to death...it hardly seemed worth the effort. He left the Frenchman leaning against the smooth concrete, blowing smoke into the night air as he watched the fireflies dance over the water.
Make that smug AND lazy bastard... Soldier thought to himself as he left. The cold was making his old injuries act up; the deep-running scar on his left leg ached as he made his way upstairs, pausing every so often to shake the last of the water from his boots. Finally, his palm smacked against the handprint scanner in their main spawn room, and the concealed door to their living quarters slid open.
“Aw man, Py, you shoulda seen it! Dat BLU Pyro was chasin’ after me, ‘an next thing I know I’m running circles around ‘em! Literally! Like running down the wall and then back up the wall...man, I wish I could remember how I did it!”
Soldier quickly pushed past Scout, covering his ears as Pyro waved to him. No, he did not just say “Hi Soldier”, he was a monkey of some kind and therefore incapable of human speech. “Hrrk hrrk!” does not make sense to you. It’s all in your head. You just need to sleep. Run to your bedroom, lock the six locks on the door and try to forget about all of this.
“I found some half-eaten sandwich in the kitchen we should go eat it hey is that food do you have food I want food hey give it to me hey I want food I want food I want food food food food-”
Oh god, it was happening again. Even if he covered his head with a pillow, he could hear it. The squeaking and scuffling in the wall that somehow sounded like a lot of small things were talking all at once. And they were always hungry. He just wanted them to stop, he just wanted them to leave him alone!
“SHUT UP!” he tried to yell. But instead, a series of high-pitched sounds just barely on the edge of human hearing poured from his throat. Sitting up, his hand went to his neck. How could a voice like his, hardened over many years by almost constant shouting, even make a sound like that? Hell, even the Scout with his family jewels in a vicegrip couldn’t make a sound like that. Not that it even mattered, since he still couldn’t speak any GOD. DAMN. ENGLISH!
Soldier glared at the dent in the wall left by his bloodied knuckles. He was going to track down that Engineer and kill him for deserting this team, and he was going to do it like they did in the military: by firing squad! Repeatedly! Until that god damn cowboy knew never to run away like a god damn coward! He punched the wall one last time, kicked his door open with a shower of splinters, and headed back outside. He was going to give Spy a piece of his mind even if he started speaking Martian.
Medic clipped his belt into place, still running as he secured the Medipack to his back. Heavy was just a few feet behind him, feeding shells into his shotgun. Sasha was too big to fit through the narrow hallways, but like every RED team member, Heavy had his backup weapons stashed in his bedroom. He expected the worst; at 3AM it was far too early for any kind of fighting to start, but a single gunshot from inside their living quarters had woken both of them. Perhaps after seeing their strange abilities on the battlefield - and especially if they’d caught sight of Herr Engineer’s condition - the BLU team thought they were fighting monsters, and had come to slaughter them in their beds.
He gestured at Heavy to stop as they approached an open door; the scars on the frame indicated it had been forced open. Medic could smell the blood and gunpowder in the air as he drew his Übersaw. Beckoning quickly to Heavy, the pair rounded the corner, ready to face whatever was waiting for them.
“Ach...” Medic lowered his weapon as he saw the grisly scene in front of him. Herr Engineer was dead, his corpse slumped against the plain white wall, now stained by a large blood splatter. He nodded to Heavy, who began quietly checking the room for any signs of a BLU intruder, as Medic surveyed the scene. The blood splatter followed patterns he’d had the misfortune of seeing time and again in his army days, and picking up the pistol from Engineer’s lifeless hand confirmed his suspicions. Still warm, with traces of saliva on the barrel...a self-inflicted gunshot. Suicide.
But then, why had one of the large computers in the room been opened up? Punch cards littered the floor, and some of them inside the machine stuck out oddly from the rest, like they’d been inserted in a hurry. In fact, what room was this? Their team had been assigned to Teufort several times since the start of their careers with RED. The place was almost like a second home, and yet Medic only vaguely recalled coming in here once before...
“Doktor, there are no tiny BLU men here. Unless it was BLU Spy-!”
“No, Heavy. Ze BLU Spy...he takes far too much pride in his job. He vould not use a man’s own veapon against him vhen he has his own. But vhy Herr Engineer vould do zis to himself, I do not know...if he died he would simply respawn...” Looking at Heavy as he got to his feet, he noticed something over his shoulder, written on the glass panel of the door. ‘Respawn’. Respawn.
“Mein gott, no-!” he leapt to his feet and rushed over to the nearest computer terminal. That’s what this place was; the control room for Teufort’s respawn! The Engineer had been manually re-programming the system by switching the cards around, removing them, replacing them. “...Vhat vere you doing, vhat vere you trying to do...” The screen turned on as he hit the power button. There was a strand of twisting DNA, a full-body picture of Herr Engineer himself... and the words ‘ACCESS DENIED - SYSTEM LOCKED’.
“GOTTVERDAMMT NOCH MAL! VERDAMMTE SCHEIßE! VER.. .verdammte...” Medic almost fell to his knees, covering his face with one hand, and using the other to barely keep himself on his feet as the terrible realisation hit. Mein Gott. How could he have let this happen? He felt Heavy’s hand gently squeeze his shoulder. He could hear the rest of the team approaching with a sound like rolling thunder...how was he supposed to tell them...?
“Doktor... vhat happened to Engineer?” Heavy asked, Medic leaning against him for support.
“Heavy, I...I fear he may have attempted to erase his respawn data. If zat is true, zen Engineer is dead. He is dead permanently.”
“Get avay from him! Get AVAY, you Dummkophs!” Medic shouted angrily, shoving his way past his team-mates.
Soldier looked at the plastic cup he’d just dropped, the coffee slowly forming a puddle which shimmered under the almost blinding lights. The world seemed to swim as he looked back to where Engineer lay. He couldn’t tear his eyes away as the man’s flesh shifted and writhed beneath a patchwork of scales and mottled patterns and normal human skin. Blood leaked from his mouth with each gurgling, laboured breath. His whole body heaved and shook as he spat out a few deformed teeth. And more drops leaked from his gill slits, which sealed and tore themselves open again and again like old wounds.
“Somevhan get me an oxygen canister right NOW!” Medic fumbled with his Medigun, desperately trying to aim it straight.
Soldier blinked a few times. Heavy was using his body as a barrier, keeping the rest of the team away from the dying Engineer and frantically working Medic, when things started to fade. Their Demoman sniffed, using a translucent hand to wipe away the tears streaming from his eyes, until there was nothing left but echoes getting further and further away. He glanced back at the freshly spilled coffee and saw nothing but a stain. The room was empty, too, except for him.
A dream? No, a flashback. He’d come here sometime early in the morning for that god damn cup of coffee, and Engineer suddenly respawned like that, right in front of him. It wasn’t something he’d ever forget, despite how the memories of last night stopped dead right there, like the hours between then and now had never happened. He must have been marching mindlessly for hours when his bad leg finally gave out, and he dragged himself back up here to...he looked at the Medikit laying in his lap.
With a disgusted snarl, he threw it and the empty canister of healing vapour to one side, the attached plastic mask still fogged with his breath. He’d used Medkits on the battlefield before, but...god, he was as pathetic as that damn Kraut. In fact, Medic had been saying something at some point, when he’d come up from the infirmary exhausted and covered in blood. Something about Engineer using pieces of broken teleporters, and putting his old self back together like a jigsaw puzzle. He’d be damned if he understood what it meant.
Soldier stood up, heading outside for some fresh air. What he knew for sure, though, was who was to blame for this. He’d cursed that god damn machine above the point at Nucleus. He’d wanted to cut Medic into pieces when he’d said he couldn’t do anything to fix them. But really...it was his fault. He’d been the one stumbling around like a blind idiot. If it wasn’t for him, Engineer wouldn’t have stepped out into that light for a second time. He’d still be human, or as human as most of them still were.
“Fess...” Medic muttered as he caught a glance of himself in the mirror.
Carefully removing his gloves and placing them in the disinfectant solution, he let his bare fingers touch his face for just a brief moment. Was it his elasticity that exaggerated the bags under his eyes, that made every line and crease on his face seem that much deeper? But then, since when had he last had a full night’s sleep? It must have been before Nucleus. Before he became almost afraid of sleep, afraid of being woken up by more screams and gunshots and strange mutations.
Fetching a new pair of gloves from the correctly labelled drawer, they felt like lead weights on Medic’s hands as he dragged himself over to the nearest chair and collapsed on it. His limbs felt like wet cloth, limp and useless. He knew it was exhaustion, it had to be. But in the nightmares that plagued him when he tried to snatch a few precious minutes of sleep, he’d look in the mirror like he did mere moments ago, and his face would deform and melt. His body would lose all semblance of structure until he was an amorphous mass of skin and loosely contained organs, unable to do anything but scream inside his own head.
Such a thing shouldn’t be possible. But after seeing Herr Engineer in the respawn room, his genetic structure so destabilised that his entire body twisted and transformed as he watched... he was starting to fear for his humanity as well as his sanity. He’d already established that they were all still changing in some way; but who was to say when they’d stop? When he’d been trying to stabilise Engineer’s condition, his flailing limbs must have resembled a mad octopus, but at the time he hadn’t given it a second thought. Would they even notice as the changes crept up on them, until one day they were too late?
Medic looked up as Heavy came in, and shut his eyes. Then he looked again. No, it wasn’t just his eyes; Heavy had shrunk himself by about a foot in height so he didn’t have to squeeze past the narrow cabinets and other equipment that crowded the infirmary. But with his body retaining its usual proportions, he didn’t look quite real until he stopped in front of him, quickly growing back to his normal size. Medic covered his eyes with his palm...mein Gott, they really were getting complacent with their conditions...
“Doktor. Rest of team is outside.” Heavy said sheepishly.
“Tell zem to go avay, zen.” Medic waved his other hand dismissively. “Herr Engineer is in a stable condition but I...I mean, he is in no state to see anyvone.”
“Eet ees leetle Scout. He fall and land on tiny Spy.” There was a yell from outside, and the heavy thump of someone falling to the floor. A chant of ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ drifted through the silence of the room. “...Sniper and Demoman are here as vell...”
“Ach! As soon as ze dummkophs have novhan as zeir babysitter...” Medic got up - if nothing else, at least his elasticity meant his back was no longer a problem - and headed towards the door.
“At least I am not content wiz being a FREAK!” Spy shouted as he took a swing at Sniper, both men wrestling with each other on the ground. The Frenchman’s skin glowed a deep red like the embers of a fire, which intensified to a livid purple as a creeping stem wrapped around his right arm, pinning him. “Release me at once, you walking compost pile! Let us settle zis like REAL men!”
“Nah, I don’t think I will.” Sniper smirked. Spy’s expression quickly changed to a look of horror as a flower budded right next to his face, his whole body - even his clothes - turning a ghostly white. “I mean, that light yer givin’ off...my ‘pathetic little posies’ as you call ‘em seem to quite loik it...”
“Bushman. You wouldn’t dare-!” Immediately it burst open, in a cloud of yellow pollen that sent Spy into a sneezing fit, his eyes red and streaming. Sniper cackled at the man’s misfortune until his aviators were swiped from his face, a blinding flash from Spy’s fingertips making him cry out in pain and tumble backwards. The vines pinning Spy to the floor withered and died, letting him pull himself free.
“Have you two Schveinhunds finished your little playground fight?” Medic’s question was quickly answered as Sniper lashed out blindly at Spy, who dodged and grabbed the man’s arm between sneezes. “Vell it is finished NOW!” His temper finally getting the better of him, the doctor wrapped one arm around each of them, pinning their arms to their sides and forcibly pulling them apart.
“ ‘E startet id.” Spy sniffed, and violently sneezed again. “And takink advantage of by allergies...’ave you no honour, no - ACHOO! - decency ad all!?”
“Only because I said you looked loik a tomato after Scout fell on yer head. S’not my fault that yer a human mood ring or something now, ya bloody Spook!”
“Hey you, drama queens! It’s me and my busted arm we’re freakin’ here for! How about ya stop hoggin’ all the attention so’s I can get freakin’ fixed!?” Medic reluctantly let go of the pair, and instinctively looked to the ceiling.
“Down here, chucklenuts. Dat’s right, I fell off the freakin’ ceiling an’ broke my arm tryin’ ta run up the wall again, spare me the freakin’ lecture.” Scout frowned impatiently, cradling his limp left arm. He yelped in pain as Medic grabbed it rather more roughly than necessary.
“It is just bruised.” Medic said dismissively, watching Scout’s fingers twitch from his tight grip. The boy gasped when he finally let go, and he smirked in response; that should teach him to feign injury for sympathy. Although - he looked at the others gathered in the hallway - if that was the case, then why...? He gritted his teeth furiously as his mind added things up.
“...And I already told you concerned frauleins zat I vill tell you if and vhen Engineer shows any signs of recovery! Now GO AVAY! All of you! And do not bozzer me again unless you ah ZIS CLOSE to dying!” His thumb and forefinger were the tiniest fraction apart as he brought them close to Scout’s face, very nearly touching the space between his eyes. “Zis. Close. Understood?”
The young man nodded dumbly, and Medic slammed the door on his team-mates. His fingers pulled at his hair as he headed deeper inside the infirmary. Mein Gott. Bickering, whining, fretting over Engineer’s condition... what were they, mercenaries or children? But the more he thought about it, the more he realised he was... right, in a way. Herr Engineer was like a father figure to the team; another twisted soul who laughed while his machines tore apart his enemies, while still keeping 8 other misfit mercenaries from tearing at each other’s throats.
Medic sat down, surrounded by the beeping of machines and the gentle hiss of gas canisters. Their strange little world, now getting stranger by the day, was starting to fall apart. The one thing that had held things together for so long was being kept alive artificially. A pair of re-purposed dispensers had helped to slow the man’s constant and unstable transformations, but without pure oxygen his re-grown lungs were too small and fragile to sustain life. And his deformed gills were worse than useless, essentially open wounds on his neck.
It reminded Medic of his days in the army; the things he’d done to try and keep his patients alive, the perversions of nature he’d created in the process. But...the man in the bed in front of him was more than that. Engineer was more than just another interchangeable part of the great War Machine; he preferred checkers over the more cultured game of chess. He’d spend long, lazy afternoons either tuning his machines or tuning his guitar. He’d tell stories - especially the one about the pig - that made the team howl with laughter.
It frustrated Medic, how he was getting soft in his old age. He never used to be so sentimental. Back then, he’d have never hesitated for even a moment when it came to highly experimental surgery. He’d see them laying there and see not a person, but merely potential. Especially when he looked at a body as broken as this.
Engineer looked back.
Engineer flexed the fingers on his left hand one last time...he could feel Medic’s eyes on him, watching him expectantly. Gritting his teeth, his arm shook slightly as the webbing between his fingers slowly grew back, dark mottled scales forming on top of his hand and smooth frog-like skin beneath. As the transformation slowly crept up his arm, three slender needle-like bones pierced the skin, a translucent film growing between them as the newly-formed fin unfolded.
“Fascinating... !” The doctor adjusted his glasses, a grin spreading across his face. “And you say zat you feel no pain from zese changes?”
“Like I told ya, doc.” Engineer coughed hoarsely; Medic immediately handed him a glass of water so he could take a quick sip. Talking made his throat and mouth more than a little dry, since he was still getting used to having vocal cords again. “Thanks. Like I told ya, it don’t hurt at all, but it sure does itch.”
He chuckled to himself. The Doc hadn’t left his side since he’d started moving his lips; he’d only stopped his various tests and questions to call Heavy in, who quickly ran and called the rest of the boys in. There’d been so much fuss just over him, and then Medic had shooed them out and he’d spent a few quiet hours getting to grips with his new shape-changing abilities. In that short time, he already had it down to an art; right down from his head to his toes, no blood or pain. He’d been a little worried when his teeth changed to the same serrated, meat-tearing form they’d been before, but he hoped those predatory urges had been fixed when he’d hacked respawn.
The hardest part had been using his trusty but seldom used crowbar to force open the door. After that, he just had to retrieve the data fragments from his old busted-up teleporters, from back when he was still human. He’d fed those fragments into the respawn system, switched a few cards around so it’d let him piece them together, and he’d been about halfway done when it suddenly locked him out. And like the damn impatient fool he was, he’d done himself in so he could respawn instead of taking another look at it. By now, the system would have activated the rest of its automatic failsafes, and permanently closed the loophole he’d opened. That particular hope for making the team normal again was long gone.
But then, he wouldn’t want to put his worst enemy through the messy rebirth he’d endured. Laying here, he’d thought to himself that there had to be a better way. And over these last few hours, having little else to do but think as he got used to switching between his two forms, he might have just found that way.
“Doc...sorry to trouble you, but couldja send the boys in again? An’ maybe a pitcher o’ water...ah’m gonna be doin’ a whole lotta talkin’.”
“Ah you sure?” Medic looked at him skeptically. “Viz your lungs and vocal chords only just re-grown, you ah risking permanent damage to-” Engineer just waved his hand, cutting the man short as he took another sip of water.
“Ain’t nothin’ a lil’ cayenne pepper n’ blackstrap molasses won’t fix. ‘Sides, this is important. Ah think ah might be onto somethin’ involvin’ our predicament.”
Medic sighed, shaking his head and muttering to himself in German. But within a few moments he’d returned with the rest of the team, who shuffled awkwardly into the relatively small space. “Knock anysing over and I vill haff Heavy shrink every last vone of you.” he said threateningly, placing a jug of ice water on the bedside table. “Now...Herr Engineer?”
“The Doc said you thought’a some way ta fix us. Freakin’ FINALLY.” Scout threw his arms in the air, then folded them as Medic cleared his throat. “I mean, just ‘cause I’m not on the ceilin’, it don’t mean I ain’t gonna wake up dere again. What would ma say if she came in and saw me like dat!?”
“I ain’t got a cure for us yet, Scout...y’all need to learn a lil’ patience.” He took a sip of water to emphasise his point, leaving the Scout fidgeting until Spy punched him in the arm. “But ah think ah might be on to somethin’. An’ you boys have the right to know what this is, but...y’all have to swear that what ah tell you never leaves this room. Cross yer heart. You too Spah, ah can see you crossin’ yer fingers too.”
Scout returned Spy’s punch with a much harder one, the man turning a dark crimson as Engineer continued.
“Good. Now, I’m sure some of y’all have heard of an element called Australium... rarer than gold, more precious than diamonds, and only found in one place on Earth. That is, until my grandfather acquired one hundred pounds of it.” There were a few raised eyebrows. Scout started to ask where on Earth you’d find Australium when Spy silenced him with a hiss.
“See, he figured out a way to change the Australium. He mixed it up with other metals, an’ created the alloy that powers my Dispensers... the Medigun... even Respawn itself. All it takes is electricity, and it can rebuild an entire body. But in its pure form...” He reached carefully into his pocket, and pulled out a set of photographs, handing them to the gathered mercenaries. “...You can see what it did to my grandfather in just a few months. That stuff changes people. It makes them more than just human.” He took a big gulp of water, and a deep breath.
“An’ when that point at Nucleus opened up, ah knew ah’d seen that light before. Australium alloy. Tons of the stuff, all packed into that machine and decaying from exposure to electricity. It sure as hell ain’t the same alloy as what we have in our equipment, but it’s gotta be close... and ah’m pretty darn sure that’s what changed us like this. An, well... it might take a lil’ while, but eventually we might just have a cure.” He smiled.
“S... ’scuse me a minute...” Sniper muttered, leaving the yellowed photographs of Radigan Conagher on the side of the bed, and pulling the brim of his hat down to completely hide his face. He walked out silently, the floorboards sprouting under his heels again, and a rotten-looking apple dropped from a solitary branch with a sad thump.
“The hell is his problem?” Scout frowned.
Chapter 9 Sniper looked at the dusty soil beneath his feet. The evening light turned dull brown into a vivid orange, but it was still a far cry from the blood-red sands of the Australian Outback. Normally he tried not to think about it; but this was why he’d quietly slipped through the hole in the fence, and come all the way out here. RED never approved filings for off-base time, but he’d taken his trusty camper van a good few miles anyway, just driving through the desert without any roads to get in his way. Away from their base at Teufort. Away from any distractions or concerned team-mates coming to check on him. He needed to think, he needed to remember. He needed to be alone, just long enough to get things sorted in his head.
He kept his eyes on the ground as the the wind swirled around his ankles. He remembered his own tears making tiny wet spots in the playground’s dirt, when he found out he wouldn’t be going to school any more; having a cripple around upset the other children’s parents too much. They’d taunted him - the only scrawny and moustache-less kid - calling him ‘half-breed’. He’d even heard the neighbours passing whispered rumors about his mum having an affair with ‘one of the Abbos’... and hadn’t really understood, at the time. But despite everything, he didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want his mum to be his teacher as well, she was his mum.
And then years later he’d left, like an idiot, to try and prove a point. He reflected wryly on what he was doing now. And he remembered laying feverish on the ground near his makeshift camp after eating the wrong kind of fruit. He’d thought briefly of his mum crying, his dad saying what a failure he was, before his mind dived back into strange and terrifying hallucinations. He’d finally woken up late that night, to a crackling fire of Bloodwood branches and a voice telling him he should be dead. Back home, ‘the Abbos’ lived largely separately from the rest of society, lacking the rippling muscles and gloriously styled moustaches of true Australian citizens. But they not only saved his life, they taught him about the Dreamtime, about how all living things were connected together. But most importantly, they taught him how to survive.
He’d hunted game, both large and small, rationing his bullets by aiming only for the head. He’d soaked and pounded fruits and roots to make them edible. He’d discovered his totem animal: the crocodile. He’d painted his body with ochre and kangaroo blood and walked the Outback naked, finally comfortable in his own skin. He’d forgotten about the sculpted muscles and silky moustache he’d longed for. But once he laid eyes on those bloody photos, and it had all come flooding back. He’d found out it was some rock that made Australians Australian. The only exceptions were the Aborigines, who’d probably been living there so long it didn’t affect them any more, the half-breeds... and cripples like him. A bloody rock had made him an outcast and a freak in his old country, and now it’d made him an outcast and a freak in this one.
He took a step forward. Tiny sprouts were already gathering around his feet, bone-dry soil sliding off scrawny leaves. He felt strangely calm, even with the storm he could feel building inside of him. The water that eventually formed Teufort’s creek trickled somewhere deep under the soil, past long-forgotten seeds that might never have seen the light of day. Silently, they called to him.
Sniper took a deep breath. And the desert exploded.
It was all under his control this time. Even as he let every emotion, every feeling of anger and sadness and regret pour out through the soles of his feet and the tips of his fingers, a group of trees erupting like mushroom clouds. He pulled them and directed them with his hands, twisting them around each other until they grew so close, they merged to form a single living entity. Sprouting leaves darkened the sky with a sound like crashing waves, the growing wood creaked like the planks of a ship. And it was at his command that a flourishing branch scooped him up, taking him all the way around the twisting trunk as it made its way from the ground to the canopy far above.
Silently, he stepped onto a branch that was as wide as he was tall. Leaves turned towards him and flowering vines followed his footsteps towards the very edge, the bough creaking slightly in the wind. If he turned to the west, he could see two almost identical forts framed by the setting sun, just a small island in a sea of sand. And he was up here, maybe as high as 50 feet or more. Sitting on the very edge of this huge living thing that had come from him, from everything he’d been holding back. He reached out hesitantly, and touched the bark; it felt rough, little pieces flaking off beneath his fingers. One of the vines nudged his hand like a loyal pet, unfurling a pair of new leaves. All far too real to be just another dream.
The sun disappeared behind the horizon. As the hours passed, the milky way stretched across the sky like a river. The night-flowering vines opened their buds, filling the cooling air with enticing new scents. Sniper’s back cracked as he stood up, stretching his muscles, branches forming a makeshift staircase down the trunk for his long descent to the ground. But before he left, he made sure to give the whole thing one last, long look. Shame it’d all be gone tomorrow.
“And vhy, may I ask, do you insist on seeing him?” Medic sniffed, his fingertip silently scanning a tray of needles, until he selected a particularly long, particularly nasty-looking one. “Especially at zis time of ze evening...surely you should still be at dinner, Herr Soldat.”
Soldier bit his lip, but stood his ground. That god damn Kraut knew he had a... a thing about needles. Every time he came down here, Medic would make sure that anything involving them took an extra-long time, just to watch him squirm like a maggot. But he wasn’t going to give in, no sir, he wasn’t going to let the sick bastard have that satisfaction. He’d taken his fair share of bullets and shrapnel in his day, what was a needle but another little piece of metal? Even if it did make him nervous, the way the sharpened steel glistened in the light as Medic paused to admire it. In his overactive imagination, Solder could see the delicate drop of liquid hanging on the very tip, packed full of God-knows-what and about to be plunged into his body-!
“...Very vell.” Medic snapped the case shut, replacing it in his desk drawer. Soldier smirked, mainly at the hint of disappointment in the man’s voice, but also from a sense of relief. “But do make it qvick. And try not to touch or break anysing zis time, or I vill recoup ze expenses in blood donations.”
He could feel Medic’s eyes on his back as he marched towards the separate, private room that held Engineer’s bed. He’d rushed dinner, skipping out on any second helpings, but even if his stomach remained unsatisfied, he’d had more than his fill of conversation for one night. Most of the team had been glad to see the Sniper’s van gone from the lot out back. Scout said that Sniper'd been keeping the Australium thing from them because he liked being a flower-growing freak, and a few of the others voiced their agreements. Their Demoman had been silently staring at his food between small bites, but that was enough to throw him into a screaming rage, calling them cowards and back-biters.
Normally he’d have stayed as the argument quickly escalated; nothing got your blood pumping like a bare-fisted brawl. But the noise, and the noises from the walls, he just couldn’t stand it, he couldn’t block it out. There was only one man smart and trustworthy enough to help him, and that was Engie. He knocked on the door. “Permission to enter, sir!”
There was a brief pause. Finally, a muffled “Uh...permission granted...?” floated through from the other side. He turned the handle, taking off his helmet and stepping inside with a quick salute.
“Solly?” Engineer set his empty plate to one side, and grinned widely. “Well, ah’ll be damned! Ya really are speakin’ English again! Come over here an’ sit a while, why don’t ya?” Soldier grunted in response, dragging a small wooden chair across to the bed and sitting down, looking at his hands.
“...It’s good to have you back, Engie.” His fingers tightened. He’d only been able to speak English since last night, when he’d seen the only man he could still call a friend lying there in respawn, bleeding and dying. The first word out of his mouth had been ‘MEDIC!’, screamed at the top of his lungs. “The rest of the boys didn’t know what we were gonna do without you.”
“Aw, shucks, Solly. You know ah didn’t mean t’ worry nobody. Just... after somethin’ happened during the battle, ah had to work fast... an’ tinkerin’ with respawn an’ all, ah wasn’t about to risk someone else’s life in place o’mine.” Engineer cleared his throat, taking a sip of the dark, sweet-smelling concoction he had on his bedside table. “Hoo, that’s better. Nothin’ does a sore throat good like grandma’s old recipe... now, what can ah do for ya?”
Soldier blankly stared at the man for a moment. He hadn’t really thought about how he was supposed to explain he was hearing voices without seeming... crazy.
“Now don’t look at me like that.” Engineer continued. “You an’ me both know the only reason y’all came down here, even knowin’ Sawbones in a sour mood, is ‘cause you wanna talk. So let’s talk.”
“Well...you know me and the Doc. That Kraut wants to drug me up to my eyeballs, and I can’t trust any sadistic ex-Nazis even if they are a fellow RED.” Engineer nodded sagely and let him continue, though he struggled to find the right words. “But that thing that he said about us all still changing... he’s not even a real doctor, he’s probably full of shit, but...” Soldier stopped suddenly. Oh god, he could hear it, it’d been quiet in here but it was getting closer. He gripped the sides of his head as he finally blurted it out. “It’s these damn VOICES! I can’t get ‘em out of my HEAD! They’re everywhere, they’re even down HERE-!”
“Hey, calm down, jus’ calm down-! Solly!” Engineer reached forward and pulled on Soldier’s arms as he tried to cover his ears. “SOLLY! Listen to me for a gosh-darned second! What’re they sayin’? What do the voices say?”
“They don’t say ANYTHING, dammit! They just won’t leave me ALONE!” Soldier twisted his body, tipping his chair as he pulled himself free from Engineer’s grip. And just then, the ground shook beneath them, tipping Soldier’s chair all the way back and throwing him onto the floor. In the next room, Medic swore loudly amongst the clatter of falling equipment, and muffled yelling came from upstairs. He groaned and opened his eyes. An earthquake? No, he’d done enough rocket-hopping in his day to know what an explosion felt like, a few miles out into the desert by his guess. His mind immediately went to weapons testing, or the Russians finally deciding to invade, until he was faced with a more immediate problem. A pair of beady black eyes, staring right into his.
“C’mere, you son of a bitch!” he lashed out with his shovel, leaping to his feet as quickly as he could and trying to stomp on the scurrying rat. “Listen in on MY private conversations, will you!? When I ran out of canned beef rations I ATE vermin like you! And they were surprisingly DELICIOUS!”
“Solly, what in tarnation-!?”
The rat got away, scurrying behind a nearby cabinet, and Soldier suddenly realised that not one word out of his mouth since ‘c’mere’ had been in English. He understood what he’d been saying, but when he actually thought about it, he’d just been making high-pitched shrieking noises. He gripped the handle of his Shovel tightly, glancing briefly at his blurry reflection in the scratched and chipped blade... god, what was wrong with him?
“...Hey, Solly. What did the rat say?”
“It’s a damn rat, Engie.” Soldier frowned in annoyance. “They never say anything except ‘scared’ or ‘hungry’ or ‘food’. Wait...” He paused momentarily. Engineer chuckled behind his hand. “What did the RAT say!? Do you take me for some kind of idiot!? Stop laughing; that is an ORDER! I am NOT here for your amusement, Private Cowboy!”
“Ah’m sorry...” Engineer said, wiping away a tear of laughter from his eye, his other hand still clutching his side. “Ah jus’ figured it out. Ah was scratchin’ mah head after seein’ you talk to Pyro, but it all makes sense now... we all heard ya speakin’ French and German, but you can speak Orangutan too. [i]And[/i] Rat.”
“So the voices in the walls...?” Soldier asked slowly, staring at the spot where the rat disappeared.
“Yup. This place used t’be a farm, so it’s still crawlin’ with rats.” Engineer craned his neck as Soldier crouched by the cabinet, muttering a long string of complicated squeaks. The rat stuck out its head, scurried forward, and sat on its hind legs like a well-trained dog. Engineer chuckled again. “Well ah’ll be damned. Yer a regular Doctor Dolittle, Solly!”
“Doctor whatnow?” Soldier took out a piece of hardtack from his pocket. Looking straight at the rat, he tried squeaking a few commands - left, right, forward, stop.
“Dolittle. There’s a whole bunch’a stories, ah read ‘em all when ah was a young’un.” Engineer watched the creature follow Soldier’s every command, all the while keeping its eyes on the hardtack in his hand. “He had a whole bunch of animal friends. Maybe that means you could-”
“GRAAAH!” Soldier yelled suddenly, making Engineer flinch and the rat run back into its hole. Chuckling to himself, he took a big bite of the ancient cracker. 1942, a good year. Feeling the other man’s eyes on him again, he looked up, spraying crumbs as he spoke. “What? It’s a rat! Just because I speak vermin it doesn’t mean I want to be friends with it.”
“AGH! What the hell was that!? I said CATCH me, ya freakin’ dumbass!”
Scout glared at Pyro, who peered nervously at him through elongated fingers. He’d tried to run up the wall just next to their main respawn door, and come crashing down into a pile of hay like an idiot. As soon as he’d somehow managed to fall off the ceiling, he’d been trying to get back on it. Not that he wanted to stay up there, but because of what happened before the BLU Pyro turned him into a lump of charcoal. He’d run down the wall, across the floor, and back up the other wall to try and avoid the flames, like there was no up or down. If he could figure out how the hell he did it, then this freakin’ Fort would actually be fun again. Still laying flat on his back from the impact, he pointed up at the orangutan. “Bad monkey! BAD!”
Pyro made a soft whimpering sound, and with a sound like someone squeezing raw hamburger meat, changed shape. Aw, geeze. Scout covered his face with his palm. Damn Pyro just had to do that, he knew he couldn’t stay mad at him with those stupid-looking floppy ears and his tail wagging like crazy. He reached out and grabbed hold of the loose flame-retardant suit, pulling himself back into a sitting position. He sighed dramatically. “Why you gotta do dat, huh? Ya big dumb mutt.”
Smiling a little, he patted Pyro on the head, the snout of a shaggy black dog sticking out from underneath the rubber mask. “We should talk to Hardhat about gettin’ you a suit that like... changes into stuff when you do, huh? Wouldya like dat, huh Py? Who’s a good boy? You are! Dat’s right! You’re a good boy!” Suddenly realising he was rubbing Pyro’s belly, he quickly withdrew his hand. There was an awkward pause. The dog looked at him expectantly.
“...Uh...sorry...” Scout immediately pulled his hand away as Pyro licked it in forgiveness. “AUGH! Way to make this even MORE weird! Jeeze! Ugh-!”
He sat there for a minute, shaking the thick drool from his hand while Pyro smiled an open-mouthed doggy smile. What wasn’t weird about this place now? Snipes had always been weird, practically living in the attic and stinking of sweat and piss all the time. But now he was even weirder, and he’d kept that Australium shit from them ‘cause he wanted to stay that way!? Fuck that! Sure it’d kick ass for a while, but he had his Ma to think about; if he came home a wall-walking freak it’d break her heart. Most of his brothers were on the lam or in jail already...
“Well what’re you waitin’ for? I ain’t got no treat for ya, Fido.” He stood up, brushing the dust off his clothes. “But I might just let ya borrow another one o’ my comic books, if ya change back an’ catch me. For REAL this time, got it?”
Pyro barked enthusiastically, and Scout turned to face the wall as more stomach-churning squishing noises came from his team-mate’s direction... at least with the suit in the way, nobody had to see what changing into another animal actually looked like. Looking ahead, Scout tried to imagine the wall and floor as a single straight line, rather than another painful fall waiting to happen. He could do this. He could so totally do this. He held his breath and ran forward blindly.
Suddenly, he felt a shift in his sense of where ‘down’ was. Though his eyes were still shut, he could feel the difference beneath his feet as the surface changed from the floor’s well-worn planks to a wooden facade over concrete. His steps turned to hollow thuds; he had to keep going, he had to or he’d fall. He opened his eyes just as the angle under his feet changed: from where he was, the base’s vaulted ceiling looked more like a steep ramp. Gritting his teeth, he ran straight up it... and his sense of ‘down’ switched again. He stopped suddenly, his heart pounding, legs straddling the ‘V’ shape in the middle of the roof. Pyro clapped his oversized Orangutan hands, making excited grunting noises.
But before Scout could shout a single declaration of victory, the entire building shook violently beneath his feet. Far below in their living quarters, he could hear things falling and Medic swearing loudly. He screamed as the floor rapidly approached, shielding his head with his arms. He just wanted Pyro to catch him this time so he didn’t have to die because he couldn’t remember if they kept respawn turned on after battles and why hadn’t he hit the floor yet?
He opened his eyes again. He’d stopped, but he couldn’t feel any arms holding him...he could actually see Pyro off to the side, knocked over by the shockwave. In a dream-like state of disbelief, he rolled over onto his back to look up. There was nothing above him either, he was just... there. Between the ceiling and the floor, between up and down. And then just as suddenly as he’d stopped, he finished his descent, landing splayed on the floor again.
“W-w-what the hell was that!?” he stammered, shakily getting up so he could look at himself, make sure he wasn’t dead or dreaming...
Pyro bounced around excitedly, quickly shifting through the forms of various winged animals. Bats, birds, maybe even a bug of some kind that buzzed around inside the mostly empty suit for a split second before he went straight back to Orangutan. He grabbed Scout’s arm and swung him around as he danced, grunting and shrieking until the young man finally pushed him away.
The room swayed. His knees shook so badly they practically knocked together. But Scout somehow found the strength to look up through the gap in the roof. The sky was dyed a brilliant orange in the early evening light. And he could... fly...?
Pyro finally caught him as he fainted.
Sniper looked at the dusty soil beneath his feet. The evening light turned dull brown into a vivid orange, but it was still a far cry from the blood-red sands of the Australian Outback. Normally he tried not to think about it; but this was why he’d quietly slipped through the hole in the fence, and come all the way out here. RED never approved filings for off-base time, but he’d taken his trusty camper van a good few miles anyway, just driving through the desert without any roads to get in his way. Away from their base at Teufort. Away from any distractions or concerned team-mates coming to check on him. He needed to think, he needed to remember. He needed to be alone, just long enough to get things sorted in his head.
Very carefully, Sniper touched his palm to the concealed handprint scanner in their spawn room, the door to their living quarters sliding open silently. It was very early morning now, the sun just barely starting to peek over the horizon. After his little ‘exercise’, fatigue had suddenly hit him like a ton of bricks, and he’d collapsed on the thin foam mattress in the back of his van for a few hours. Growing six or so trees from seed to a fifty-foot monstrosity in a matter of minutes had been an amazing, almost cleansing experience... he just wished he knew why all the excitement seemed to have exhausted him. But one thing he knew for sure was the soft, warm bed downstairs was calling to his aching limbs.
He stopped suddenly. He waited for just a moment, listening carefully. There was a whooshing sound from behind him and his suspicions were confirmed, his expression turning sour and his fingers tightly gripping the doorframe. He really wasn’t in the mood for dealing with this. Bloody spook...
“You are a much braver man than I thought, convict. Your name around here, you may say, is merde.” There was the click of a lighter, and the smell of expensive, fragrant tobacco. “But then, keeping ze secret of Australium from the entire team like that, it ees not surprising.”
“I didn’t know.” Sniper growled, his knuckles turning white. “If I did know that bloody rock was more than just something you dig outta the ground, I would’ve said something.”
“Oh?” Sniper could practically hear the smirk on Spy’s face.
“Yeah. Believe it, or don’t.” Ya backstabbin’ weasel he added mentally, one foot stepping into the hallway in front of him. “I’m goin’ to bed.”
“...I must say, Bushman, I am surprised that I know more about your fine country than you do...”
Sniper’s blood ran cold. Surely, he couldn’t...he wouldn’t, would he? He took a step back, and turned around. Spy was hiding his emotions as well as his intentions; his suit was its normal red hue, his skin pale as alabaster. Sniper frowned; “...Do I look like a bloody Spy to you?”
“A Spy? You?” Spy sniffed derisively. “Oh, please. If you had attempted to smuggle out the slightest bit of information regarding Australium, they’d have thrown you into shark-infested waters before you even thought of leaving ze van you call home.”
“YOU WANKER!” Spy didn’t see the punch coming, but still let out a blinding flash before he fell to the floor. Even with his aviators protecting him this time, Sniper’s eyes burned, multicoloured spots flashing in and out of his vision. “You knew about that bloody stuff all along! And you wanted ME to take the fall, just to save yer own cowardly hide!?”
He could hear the man frantically scrambling to get away from him. “Don’t even try running. I can feel the seeds on yer clothes, on yer shoes... everywhere. You think I loik what that stuff has done to us? What it’s still doing to us? You think I loik being this way?” He grinned humorlessly. Images of tangled stems with knife-like thorns entered his mind. “Well...I’ll admit, it does have its advantages...”
A choking noise escaped Sniper’s throat. His hand went to clutch at his chest as his heart suddenly hammered against his ribcage, as though it had stopped and suddenly restarted. It felt like every bit of energy he had - including the adrenaline rush he’d been riding - was suddenly gone. He barely even felt the impact of the floor as his legs gave out under him. He’d sensed the seeds, he’d tried to call on them, that was all...
“You... are a complete imbecile.” he heard Spy muttering next to his ear. Gloved hands grabbed him under his arms, the other man pulling him up with an undignified grunt, throwing his limp arm over his shoulders. “Ze others may have been preoccupied, but I saw your little ‘art project’ out there, when it shook ze entire base to its foundations... I am surprised you did not drop dead, creating such a theeng...”
Sniper groaned weakly in response; he certainly felt like he’d just cheated Death. “And you are an even bigger fool if you think I could have predicted Australium doing thees to us.” Spy continued, his tone more of annoyance than concern as he dragged him into the waiting hallway. Carefully removing one glove with his teeth, the man snapped his fingers, and his hand lit up the darkened living quarters with a ghostly white light.
“Had I suspected for even a single moment zat zere was a connection...” Spy shook his head, muttering a few curses as he half-dragged, half-walked Sniper the last few feet to Medic’s bedroom. He knocked on the door. Muffled swearing came from within, and a second later it slowly creaked open.
Medic rubbed his eyes, still half-asleep as he very carefully rested his glasses upon his face. Bed-springs strained behind him as Heavy rolled over, the Russian giant making an uncharacteristically soft whimpering noise. His huge hand pawed at the warm spot where the other man had been.
“...Anozzah vone...?” the Doctor yawned. “Can it not vait until morning...?”
Spy’s hand wasn’t the only thing that had turned white, as the man he was supporting almost collapsed on the floor. “I’m afraid not, Docteur.”
Sniper spent the next few minutes drifting in and out of consciousness. He caught snippets of quiet conversation between Medic and Spy, about over-using their superhuman abilities...it made sense, he supposed groggily. All that energy to grow that huge thing had to come from somewhere, so why not him? Christ, he’d been stupid. Especially doing what he did well outside of the respawn field. From the look of things, he’d been lucky to end up here - in a bed sandwiched between a peacefully sleeping Engineer and a loudly snoring Scout - instead of the morgue.
He closed his eyes. No endless desert awaited his exhausted mind tonight. Instead, he was thankful to embrace the blissful oblivion of dreamless sleep.
“I frkk’n told you guysh, I really did fly! Jus’ ashk Pyro, he knowsh wasshup. He SHAW dat shit.”
Pyro nodded enthusiastically, placing a plate of food in front of Sniper. There was a certain amount of comfort in having the old routine back again, even though Scout was eating his pancakes on the ceiling, and Medic just reached all the way down the newly rebuilt table to pass Heavy the butter. And even though Pyro was currently an orangutan, the team still needed their breakfast, especially before a suddenly-scheduled battle.
“Hmph.” Spy sniffed at Scout talking with his mouth full, lighting his morning cigarette with an intensely glowing fingertip. “When zat day comes, peegs really will fly.”
“‘ey, shut up Fr’nchie!” Scout finally swallowed his overstuffed mouthful, and pointed a syrup-dripping fork threateningly at Spy. “Don’t make me dump this whole thing right on ya freakin’ suit, ‘cause I will!”
“Boy, if ah catch you wastin’ the food Pyro worked so hard on, ah’ll see that mah sentry makes ya fly alright...” Engineer scowled up at the young man as a drop landed on his head. But when Pyro offered him a napkin, he accepted with a friendly smile. “Much obliged. An’ quit wavin’ that dang fork around boy, yer gettin’ syrup everywhere!”
This was Engineer’s first time eating breakfast at the table for a few days, Pyro mused silently. The man had been too embarrassed to remove his breathing collar in front of the team, exposing his gills and his mouth full of pointed teeth. Pyro could relate to that. But it was good to have Engineer’s company in the kitchen again; his robotic hand made the fluffiest eggs you could imagine, but he was wise enough to leave the bacon to those who knew the exact amount of heat needed for optimal crispness.
“Herr Engineer, ah you completely sure you ah fit for ze battlefield today?” Medic set his fork down, watching carefully as Engineer poured another glass of water from the pitcher in front of him. “You seem... dehydrated?”
“Says the man who’s on his fourth cup o’ coffee.” Engineer chuckled. “Aw ah’m just yankin’ yer chain, don’t worry a thing ‘bout me, Doc. Ah mean look at Slim here, he was half-dead when ya’ll brought ‘em in last night an’ he’s ready fer fightin’ jus’ like always. Ain’t that right?”
“Wot?” Sniper looked up, then went back to miserably prodding his food. He barely gave a glance of recognition as Pyro filled up his ‘#1 Sniper’ mug with more decaf. “Oh, yeah. Yeah. Roight.”
Pyro had been the one to break up the fight over Sniper’s apparent betrayal; it was amazing how people forgot their differences when a 400lb gorilla was dangling them upside-down by their ankles. And then that morning, Spy had told them all that Sniper hadn’t known anything about Australium, and there’d almost been another fight over him not saying that earlier.
“Hey, I already apologised fer callin’ ya a cowardly, back-bitin’, kangaroo-fuckin’ rat-bastard! What the hell else do ya want, a freakin’ box o’chocolates or some shit?”
“Time for RED fighting RED is over. Today ve fight tiny BLU team.” Heavy said stoically, stabbing a few strips of bacon with his tiny fork as Pyro piled more onto his plate. “Leetle man needs to learn vhen to keep beeg mouth shut.”
For just a moment, there was no sound except that of cutlery against plates. But the team’s silence just seemed to annoy Scout further, until he finally threw his (thankfully shatterproof) plate to one side, storming his way down the wall and onto the floor.
He stopped just briefly in the doorway, to stick his middle finger up at the gathered men. “Seriously, fuck you guys! I’m gonna go practice flyin’, which by the way I CAN freakin’ do!”
“That kid needs to learn some god-damn respect.” Soldier growled.
“Next time, I make leetle Scout size of bug. He make less noise and mess, ve feed him crumbs... and if he is bad, zen I vill sqvash him. Ees good idea, yes?” Heavy held up his thumb and forefinger to show exactly how small he meant, then broke the nervous silence with a roar of laughter, slapping himself on the knee.
Pyro silently took one extra plate out from the oven, where it’d been keeping warm the whole time. The bacon was maybe a little burnt, and the eggs were a little dry from sitting around, but even if the others pulled faces and asked ‘How can you eat THAT?’, some people liked them that way. Especially with ketchup. It was a comforting ritual; take the plate from the oven, head down the hallway, and eat breakfast in peace while the others discuss battle strategies.
The door shut with a soft click. In a lot of ways, Pyro thought, today wasn’t all that different from any other day. But as far as differences went, being able to open the ketchup bottle with your feet was actually rather useful.
“And that should do it.”
With one last whack of the wrench, Engineer smiled and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief as the Level 1 Dispenser hummed into life. It hadn’t been long since the battle’s start, and the day was already starting to heat up. But that was the power of the Dispenser: on really hot days like this, they helped keep you cool. And as they’d found out during those miserable few weeks at Viaduct last winter, they kept you warm too. Hard to believe they contained the same element as that glowing monstrosity at Nucleus... just mix in different metals, and you either had a portable life-saver or complete chaos...
Finally, the metal frame shifted and unfolded one last time, and a gleaming new Level 3 Dispenser stood quietly surveying the courtyard. Proud of a job well done, the Texan reached for the bottle opener on his belt and opened his toolbox. Nothing wrong with a little light refreshment, he figured, even here on the battlefield.
“Need a dispensah here...” Those four words. They caught him off guard, like a sucker punch from his left side. Engineer’s eyelid twitched slightly and his smile twisted into a scowl at the sound of those four words.
“If ah told you once, boy, ah told you approximately two-hundred and fifty-four times...” he started, then looked to his side. Sniper was looked back with a pained expression, his body swaying slightly, his hand clutching his profusely bleeding shoulder. “Slim! Lord almighty, ah can’t believe ah thought you were Scout askin’ fer a- look, jus’ sit right here and ah’ll see if ah can’t take a look at it...”
Sniper grimaced, leaning his back against the metal surface as he sat down. Engineer apologised quietly as his hand went to the man’s shirt collar, gently pulling the blood-soaked fabric downwards. He needed to get a closer look before the healing vapour sealed the wound completely. If the round ended with the bullet still embedded in him, Sniper would have to respawn, or else have it surgically removed.
“Well I ain’t no doctor, but seems ya got lucky. That bullet went through this here muscle an’ straight out the other side. No need to worry ‘bout a thing, this lil’ beauty’ll take good care of ya.” He patted the Dispenser and immediately got back to work, gathering a supply of metal from the drawer and beginning his second round of upgrades.
“Yeah?” Engineer asked between steady wrench whacks. He had his suspicions that Spy wasn’t really French, and kept them to himself so not to cause trouble, but he’d never really given much thought as to why Sniper didn’t really look Australian. And then he’d seen the pain in the man’s eyes when he’d looked at those photos of Radigan. It was no wonder he’d barely said a word since he came back from wherever. “Anything ah can do for ya?”
“Well...it’s bleedin’ embarassin’, but...Spy said some things, an’ I think the others’ve been sayin’ some things too. About me bein’ happy, bein’ loik this.”
Engineer blinked behind his goggles, pausing in his work for a moment. “You mean, the way you look?”
“Wot? No, I meant... y’know, this.” Sniper held out his hand to one of the small, scruffy plants growing between the wooden boards on the wall. Immediately the leaves turned from a dried-out brown to vivid green, the boards creaking slightly as the plant nearly doubled in size, buds opening into pink and red flowers. The man pulled his knees closer to his chest, tipping his hat to hide his face in shadow. “They think I’m happy bein’ a freak. And... well, I think they could be roight.”
“Well, uh...” Engineer scratched his head under his helmet as he hesitated. He wasn’t really expecting that. “...ah wouldn’t go so far as t’call ya a freak. Ah mean lookin’ at what you have, an’ lookin’ at the rest of us...heck, ya could even call it a gift.”
“A wot?” Sniper gave him a disbelieving look.
“Well, it’s mighty rare ya see flowers out here in the desert... a man would be lucky to see a plant like that in bloom maybe once in a lifetime.” The BLU Scout, running into the courtyard with a terrified look, realised too late that he’d crossed the path of the sentry. Engineer grinned as the Level 3’s rockets turned the unfortunate BLU into red chunks. “Next time run faster, string bean.”
He turned towards Sniper again as he continued. “And that gift o’yours could be put to more practical uses. Ah mean this place used t’be a farm. so who knows what seeds could be buried ‘round here? If ah could get some kinda irrigation system workin’ we could have ourselves a neat lil’ vegetable patch. Maybe even a few fruit trees, too.”
“That doesn’t sound half bad, I s’pose.” Sniper murmured, smiling just slightly. A BLU Medic ran in alone, screaming in German, and ended up as the sentry’s second victim.
“Ah swear, these BLUs jus’ keep gettin’ dumber.” Engineer shook his head, opening up the back of the sentry and refilling the ammunition canisters. Satisfied with his work, he reached into his toolbox one last time to retrieve two bottles of Red Shed beer. But as he looked up, Sniper was already on his feet. “Sure ya don’t want one’a these, pardner?”
“Thanks Truckie, but I’d better get back on the battlements. If the wankah that shot me is still out there, I need to return the favor.” He headed towards the door, taking his rifle off his back as he went. “Noice idea, though, ‘avin a refrigerated toolbox t’keep drinks cold.”
“...Refrigerated?” Engineer looked at the beer in his gloved hand; beads of condensation were collecting on the brown glass. Taking it in his uncovered hand, he found it was ice cold to the touch, despite being in there since yesterday. He looked at the bottle in confusion, then at his toolbox as he murmured to himself: “This thing ain’t refrigerated...”
“Da, Doktor.” Heavy answered, revving his gun as he peered around the corner.
The sewer ahead seemed clear, but he’d been in enough narrow spaces to take a quick glance over his shoulder for Spies. He repeated the check two or three times as they continued through the dimly lit concrete pipe, shallow water splashing around their ankles. Even if they were just tiny BLU men, growing to 50 feet tall and tearing the roof off their base didn’t seem fair... but mainly, it didn’t seem fun. Instead, he’d opted for a simple strategy; sneak up behind them through their own sewers. Watch them run away from their own base and their own tiny briefcase, crying like babies. Heavy stopped suddenly as they reached the corner, forgetting all about his strategy. He hadn’t heard that tone in his Doktor’s voice since he’d come into their shared room at Nucleus, and found him on the bedside table, just a few inches tall. Now probably wasn't the best time for this sort of thing, but with the rest of the team coming in and out of the infirmary almost all day yesterday, it had been nearly impossible for them to have any time alone. And who knew when they'd get another chance? “Da. I did not vant to get in vay. Engineer needed help from Doktor."
“...I saw you vere staring at me vhile I vas treating Herr Engineer.”
Heavy stopped suddenly as they reached the corner, forgetting all about his strategy. He hadn’t heard that tone in his Doktor’s voice since he’d come into their shared room at Nucleus, and found him on the bedside table, just a few inches tall. Now probably wasn't the best time for this sort of thing, but with the rest of the team coming in and out of the infirmary almost all day yesterday, it had been nearly impossible for them to have any time alone. And who knew when they'd get another chance? “Da. I did not vant to get in vay. Engineer needed help from Doktor."“Vell, vhat I mean, is... you do not sink any differently of me?” Medic looked at the fingers of his hand. “I am sorry zat you had to see me like zat. I must have looked like a monster vhen I vas vorking, grabbing zings, working viz zese... grotesque appendages...”
"Doktor vas just doing job." Heavy faltered for a moment; although he usually understood what his Doktor was saying, his grasp of English was still far from perfect. His brow knitted in thought as he tried to find the right words, Medic looking at him, still expecting the answer he didn't want to hear. Instead, he just shrugged his huge shoulders, smiling back reassuringly. They'd talked about something like this before; about the inevitability of age despite respawn. He'd thought of the lines on Medic's face, battle scars earned through a life of hard work, saving the lives of others at any cost. "Doktor ees alvays Doktor. Vhatever happens to outside, inside is still the same."
“...I swear ta freakin’ god, you guys just gotta believe me... those REDs, they ain’t freakin' human! Their Medic had those HANDS, man! And their Heavy appeared outta freakin’ nowhere and then he was just HUGE and Spy said one of ‘em tried ta eat him!”
Heavy smirked and charged forwards. A BLU Scout. The same Scout as last time, the one who’d taunted and tried to kill his Doktor while he couldn’t move, like the tiny coward he was. He should have crushed him when he’d still had the chance, but once he got caught in Natascha’s grip, he’d die all the same. The Russian’s steps slowed as the water deepened, finally stopping as the level reached his waist. His eyes adjusting to the light, he could see the BLU Scout cowering... behind the enemy Heavy and his Medic.
There was a moment of extreme tension as both of them revved their guns menacingly. Both Medics glared at each other, like a cat seeing its own reflection, then ducked behind their respective meat shield.
“RAAAAAAAAAGH!” Heavy roared as thousands of dollars of custom-tooled cartridges buried themselves in his opponent’s flesh. But it took only a few seconds for the jolts of pain in his own bones and muscles to become less distant and much more real, his own blood staining the water around him a deep crimson.
Through the haze of adrenaline and Medigun vapour, time almost seemed to slow down. The enemy’s Minigun was much like his Sascha... really, it was almost identical. The BLU Heavy grinned at him; by choosing Natascha, he’d lost their fight before it had even begun. With him and his Doktor out of the way, there would be nothing to stop their Übercharge. But as something which was definitely not a bullet sped past Heavy’s ear, he found himself looking upwards, at what could be their only chance.
“Doktor, hold on to me! NOW!” pointing Natascha straight upwards, the bees’ nest clinging to the bridge overhead was completely obliterated in a hail of bullets. And just as quickly, the RED pair disappeared from the enemy’s - and the angry insects’ - view. Heavy heard Medic gasp as the muddy floor suddenly vanished from beneath their feet, the creek turning into an ocean as they shrank ever smaller.
“NICHT DIE BIENEN! AAGH! ICH HAB SIE IM AUGE! MEINE AUGEN! AAAAAGH!” The BLU Medic screamed, covering his head in a vain attempt to protect himself, as the BLU Heavy stomped and roared like an enraged bear.
Relief washed over Heavy as he treaded water, keeping himself afloat. But the feeling lasted for no longer than a moment as an enemy boot came crashing down; missing them just barely, the impact was still enough to send both of them tumbling underwater. He saw nothing but bubbles, heard nothing but rushing water and distant screams. His chest felt tight. He needed to breathe. Suddenly realizing he was upside-down, Heavy swam towards the light, to where he only hoped the surface was.
“DOKTOR!” he yelled, the first word out of his mouth after taking a much-needed breath. He smiled in relief as he heard a strangled gasp, and felt Medic’s chin rest on his shoulder, his team-mate's arms still wrapped tightly around his middle. Carrying the other man on his back, Heavy swam away from the commotion and towards a welcoming lilypad. Even though it was still going on all around them, at their size, the battle seemed much further away. He patted Medic on the back. "Ees Doktor alright?"
“I vill live..." Medic coughed, pressing the leaf beneath them with his hand. That familiar glint of fascination came into his eyes, and with Heavy's help he stood up slowly, marveling at their huge surroundings and the leaf that supported both of them without sinking. "But zis is amazing... ve are even smaller zhen before, less zhan an inch tall! Imagine ze possibilities, ze potential for micro-surgery could be vithin our grasp!"
A dragonfly passed overhead, its wingbeats sounding like a lawnmower at their tiny stature. Heavy sat down, the sunlight slowly drying his soaking clothes, and the Medigun healing his many bullet wounds as Medic pulled the lever again. If not for the briefcase still waiting in the BLU base, he would have been content to sit there all day, with the pleasant warmth of the healing vapor and the sound of Medic's voice...
But then a much, much bigger reminder that the battle was still on suddenly splashed down next to them. Oblivious to the fact that he’d just soaked his two miniature team-mates, Soldier finished off the frantically flailing BLU Heavy with two blasts from his shotgun. He then turned his attention to the BLU Medic, who tripped comically over his Heavy’s corpse and landed flat on his face. The man groaned as he got up on all fours, every inch of exposed flesh red and swollen from bee stings. He glared at Soldier, waiting for the shot that would finish him off.
“...So you think I’m gonna show you a little mercy, do ya?” Soldier smirked, putting away his shotgun and cracking his knuckles. “Well I’ve got a little surprise for you, nurse.”
Heavy held onto Medic tightly as the lilypad swayed dangerously, every stomp of Soldier’s boots threatening to throw them off. A strange yet familiar feeling surged though his body; if they were going to survive to capture the intelligence, they now needed to get bigger, and as quickly as possible. Like an elevator in fast-motion, the air rushed past him and his surroundings became a blur, the lilypad that had supported both of them crushed beneath his feet as he reached his full height.
Soldier gave nothing more than a cursory glance as they suddenly appeared behind him; he continued his bizarre dance, hips swaying from side-to-side and arms moving up and down, his movements drawing the swarm of bees towards him. The insects no longer circled the remains of their home, but instead circled around Soldier, forming a living barrier of buzzing bodies. He grinned proudly, his hands on his hips.
The BLU Scout - who until now, had been hiding in the water to get away from the stinging insects - stood and stared. His mouth hanging open, he visibly shook with fright as he extended a finger to point at the gathered REDs. “Y... y... you’re all freakin’ FREAKS!” he managed to stutter, then bolted straight into the RED sewers.
“Was... ?” The BLU Medic was back on his feet, and his Medipack’s residual effects had brought the swelling down enough that he could speak again. He looked at Heavy, and his confused expression turned to terror as the Russian grew a whole foot taller before his eyes. Heavy chuckled; Run home, little Doktor. Run and tell the tiny BLU team exactly who they are fighting.
“Sic ‘em.” Soldier smirked. The Medic ran, screaming in German, the swarm chasing him into the RED base.
“Jus’ ONE molotov cocktail? Please? Ah swear on me own mother’s life, ah’ll be careful where ah’m lobbin’ it!”
“Jus’ keep watchin’ my back fer Spies, alroight?” Sniper muttered. “Wankah over there already got me in the arm. An’ even if you are just a kid, that didn’t stop that cold-blooded bastard last toime, and it bloody well won’t stop ‘im now.” He fired a shot at the enemy battlements, but a quick sidestep by the enemy Sniper made him miss. Demo glanced at the man as he growled to himself, reloading and peering through his scope for another attempt.
“Ah donnae see wot else ah’m supposed to do with me scrumpeh, since ah cannae drink it.” Demo folded his arms, slumping against the sun-warmed metal and plastic that formed a makeshift shield on the RED fort’s battlements. He sighed, his finger tracing the pointed shape of a sticky bomb. He wished he had some crayons and paper. Especially red ones, for the huge, bloody piles of blown-up BLUs. “Could ye at least maybe...ye know, do somethin’ interestin’? Tie ‘im up with vines so he cannae move! Grow a rose bush right under his arse!”
“No good, mate. Whole BLU base is made of concrete.” Another shot missed. The frustration in his voice was becoming more apparent by the second. “An’ they don’t have any bloody little nooks and crannies like ours does. Any bloody seeds get on there, they just get blown off by the bleedin’ wind...”
“Well ye could at least bloodeh try! At least YOU have somethin’ ! Ah donnae have anythin’! Ah cannae even lift me own bloodeh WEAPONS!” Demo snapped back angrily. Met only with cold silence, he pulled his knees up to his chest to sulk. But as the minutes ticked by, he started to feel the pangs of regret. “...Ah heard ye talkin’ with Engineer... bits of it, anyway...”
“Yeah.” Sniper snarled as his BLU counterpart removed his hat and waved it at him mockingly. “Wot of it?”
“If he finds a cure...ye don’t want it, do yeh?”
Sniper paused for a moment. Then he suddenly dived out of the way, the enemy Sniper’s shot leaving a neat hole where his head had been. He caught his breath as he ducked behind the metal screen next to Demo, his hand clutching his chest like he’d nearly had a heart attack. “Don’t bloody distract me loik that!”
“Ye were only distracted ‘cause ah’m right! Ye DON’T want tae be cured!” Demoman grinned triumphantly, but his face fell as quickly as Sniper’s did. “Aw, mate...I didnae mean tae...”
“No. No, you’re roight. I don’t want to be cured.” Sniper pinched the bridge of his nose. “I couldn’t accept it meself, fer a while. But, y’know... now I have control... I can do incredible things. Amazin' things. Stupid things. I just have to close my eyes and I can feel it, the life in every sprout and every seed. It’s loik a whole new part of me, somethin’ loik a heartbeat, but...” Taking off his hat, he ran his fingers though his receding hairline, smiling a little. “...really, it’s loik nothing else.”
“Well then. When it comes tae gettin’ cured, ye can jus’ say no. Ah mean, I donnae even mind if ye grow that poncey wee garden with Engineer, long as there’s apples fer makin’ Scrumpeh.” Demo shrugged, then gestured to himself with his thumb. “Me on t’other hand, ye can bet yer right arse cheek ah’m gonnae be first in line! Ah swear whoever wished fer eternal youth was either crazy or jus’ plain stupid.”
“Well, there’ll be all the more cure for you if I don’t have any. But call my garden ‘poncey’ again and I’ll shove a cactus where the sun don’t shine.” Demo laughed uneasily. Sniper patted him firmly on the back, giving a wheezy laugh of his own as he got to his feet. “It’s a joke, Tavish. No worries.”
“Ah knew that! Least ah’m not gonnae be cryin’ next time someone eats a bloodeh salad. Alas, poor tomato, ah knew ye well!” Demo paused in his amateur dramatics, as Sniper stepped slightly closer to the edge of the barrier. holding his hand out in front of him. “...An’ where do ye think ye’re goin’?”
“I’m goin’ to take that smug wankah over there down a peg or two.” Following the movements of his fingers down to the slightest twitch, the wooden planks that formed the battlements creaked and grew slender branches. As Demo watched, they twisted together to form a thick, gnarled bough that could easy support a man’s weight. “You coming or wot?”
“Ye mean I can...!?” Demo could hardly move from excitement. Even if he couldn’t fight, he could be out there again? With the smell of gunpowder and sweat and blood, and pieces of the enemy sailing merrily though the air? It felt like [i]years[/i] since he’d seen battle, the very thought of it made his heart soar...until he noticed Sniper was about to step out without him. “Oi! Wait fer me, ye daft bastard! Of course ah’m comin’ with ye!”
Sniper smirked, pulling Demo up by the back of his oversized shirt, and onto the waiting branch. Across the Teufort bridge, the BLU Sniper was shielding his eyes and squinting, unable to believe what he was seeing. “Hold onto something. This moight get a bit bumpy.”
The branch reared like a cobra. Before the young Scot could ask “Hold onto wot?”, he’d wrapped his stubby arms around Sniper’s legs, and they were rushing towards the BLU base like an arrow. Their platform dipped and rose in serpentine patterns; the confused Sniper in front of them couldn’t hit them if he’d tried. And just as suddenly, they stopped, the momentum throwing him against the back of his team-mate’s legs.
“G’day, mate.” Sniper grinned. Though they were just a few feet apart, he peered down his scope at his enemy’s slack jawed face, like a kid looking at a particularly ugly bug.
“Jesus!” The BLU dropped his rifle with a loud clatter, flattening himself again the wall. “He was roight... Scout... and our Spy was roight too, you REDs really are mon-!” the rest of the word died in his throat as the branch grew closer, the end of the gun barrel gently nudging his forehead.
“I think you mean gifted.” Sniper’s finger moved to squeeze the trigger. Demo’s grip tightened in anticipation.
“I got it! I got it!” Suddenly, Scout rounded the corner with a blue briefcase strapped to his back, a barrage of rockets exploding uselessly against the wall. Turning and running backwards, the young man stuck out his hand, and the BLU Soldier pursuing him flailed his limbs uselessly as he fell upwards onto the ceiling. “Try and 'stand down' after that, Captain Chucklehead!”
Seemingly forgetting about the situation he was in, the BLU Sniper suddenly grabbed his rifle off the floor, aiming it squarely at Scout’s back. Demo covered his eyes. A shot rang out, and he felt something land with a heavy thump in front of him. He’d seen his share of horrors both on and off the battlefield, but he couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes. It was just too real... he felt scared, but he knew he shouldn’t be. He was a man! This was a war! He wasn’t a child, he wasn’t going to cry... !
“Tavish!” It was Sniper’s voice that finally snapped him out of his stupor. There was no body in front of him; just a briefcase. And Scout was alive, clinging desperately to the branch and trying to pull himself up. “Take the bloody intel and run! There’s more BLUs coming!”
Though it was half as big as he was, Demo somehow found the strength to lift the case above his head. A as fast as his little legs would go, down the branch and onto the battlements, laughing the whole way. He’d spent this long as a child, but it was only now he was finally starting to have fun.
“Man, Hardhat, that is still the coolest thing I have ever seen. An’ I don’t even mean the freakin’ temperature.” Scout grinned as he looked over the statue that stood in front of him, lightly tapping the slick surface with his finger. Just under the thick layer of ice, he could see the BLU Spy’s open-mouthed scream, his knife still raised high for a backstab that never happened. Even now, a few hours after the battle’s end, his frozen corpse stood as a monument to their victory.
“But, man...you could get around by skatin’! You could trap the BLU team in their own base with an avalanche! We could have Christmas in July!” He looked around at the other ice sculptures, each one slightly more complicated than the last, all of them slowly melting in the early evening light. “An’ you just wanna make freakin’...what is that anyway, some kinda duck?”
“It’s supposed t’be a swan.” Engineer answered, growing a few last delicate ice crystals into the shape of flight feathers.
Scout watched for a moment as he finished what he was doing. Hardhat had been acting kinda weird since the round ended; he’d patted Demo on the head, congratulating him on a job well done, and left a thin layer of frost on his hat. And then he’d looked at his hand like he was scared of it or some shit, and locked himself in his workshop for what seemed like forever. And when he’d finally come out, he’d been wearing the pair of fur-lined gloves he’d bought for that freezing-ass winter at Viaduct, and carrying his old water-breathing tanks on his back.
Apparently, the hoses that now ended at his wrists sprayed water, which Hardhat could control it somehow. Scout hadn’t even tried to understand his talk about precipi-whatever and the laws of thermo-something...he used water to make ice, and that was all he needed to know.
“I dunno...” Scout squinted, tilting his head to one side. “...Still looks like a duck. But seriously Hardhat, why don’cha just make some skates or some kinda sled and-”
“Now jus’ listen here, boy.” Engineer interrupted, giving him a meaningful look. “This ain’t one a’your comic books. This here can be mighty dangerous if y’all don’t know how to control it. Ah mean, what if ah reached over to t’shake your hand right now, and you ended up like Frosty here?” An uneasy, sinking feeling crept into Scout’s gut as the man gestured towards the slowly defrosting spy.
“What if ah went back home to visit, an’ hadn’t found us a cure yet? What if ah tried to hold my baby daughter, an’...” Engineer sighed, moving his goggles up onto his forehead and leaning against his creation. “...Ah don’t know when ah’ll be able t’fix this, Scout. Ah will fix it, that’s fer damn sure, but with all of us still changin’ so fast, it ain’t gonna be easy. Fer now, the best we can do is just try and understand this stuff. Control it. So we don’t hurt anyone we don’t mean to.” His gloved hand shattered a few delicate crystals as he turned to leave the courtyard. Scout watched cautiously as he paused.
“...Ah think ah might’a seen some barbeque leftovers in the freezer.” He smiled over his shoulder. “Ribs, sausage, maybe a lil’ pulled pork. Not as good as as fresh, but it’ll go down real nice with some ‘tater salad and a beer or two. Should be enough fer everyone if ya come get it quick.”
“Uh...” Scout hesitated, his eyes darting around. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll come down real soon. I just got somethin’ I gotta do first.”
Engineer just shrugged, the main respawn door snapping shut behind him. Scout looked at the sky, and frowned.
He took a minute to think, something he normally didn’t have the patience for. Hardhat had been talking about changes...and man, had there been changes. Spy almost got his head cut off by Soldier when he waltzed in wearing blue, having spent the whole match pretending to be the enemy Spy. He jogged down the stairs - even this deep in thought, he could never walk anywhere. And there was Medic, who’d been grinning as he told the team how he protected Heavy from a sticky-bomb trap, and survived with hardly a scratch. It painted a pretty disturbing picture in his mind, thinking of the Doc wrapping himself around Lardass like a freakin’ Christmas gift...
He shook his head, keeping his pace as he turned and headed down the long hallway. C’mon, focus, dammit! This wasn’t about those jokers, this was about him. Sure, he’d passed out after it happened yesterday but...he was so sure. Something inside him just said yes, you can fly.
He just couldn’t remember how, and he’d tried everything he could think of. Thinking happy thoughts sure didn’t freakin’ work. Jumping off the battlements just ended with an embarrassing trip through respawn. And when he’d tried to cap the intel, he’d stuck his tongue out at the BLU Soldier, insulted him right to his stupid face, done everything to try and get himself good and scared. None of it worked, not even a little.
But now that he thought about it, during those few precious seconds between the ceiling and the floor...he hadn’t been thinking about anything. His mind had been totally clear. And he needed to do it again, he needed to. He’d never had a feeling like this; there was something amazing inside him, pounding in his heart and racing through his mind and just fighting to get out.
He took a deep breath, and ran. Nothing else mattered but the sensations. The cool air rushing past his skin, the dust making his eyes sting, his feet pounding the dirt. He lost himself in it, feeling every one of his muscles strain as he pushed himself harder, further, faster. He could see the light at the end, waiting for him. The doorway framed the setting sun.
Come on... A foot missed a step in slow motion, landing on air and then back on solid ground. Come ON!
The light almost blinded him as he broke free from the corridor, and the whole world fell away as his feet left the ground. He gasped as he remembered to breathe. He slowly, carefully outstretched his arms, in case it somehow broke the spell. He took rapid breaths of evening air, slowly taking in the utter nothingness beneath him and all around him, until his frantic gasping turned into laughter.
He clutched his stomach, inadvertently turning a somersault. Looking down at the floor, he waved his arms and kicked his legs to try and right himself, his movement as uncontrollable as a balloon without a string. He panicked. And he fell to the floor, taking a breathless moment just to feel something there, something real, like the handful of dirt that slowly slipped through his fingers.
Scout looked at the sky, and grinned from ear-to-ear.
The kitchen was filled with laughter and song, and the lingering smell of sweat, booze, and barbeque sauce. A fairly typical victory party. But right now it was also something normal for them to hold onto; something firmly anchored in reality, so they wouldn’t lose themselves in the sea of strangeness and uncertainty. The last few days had brought them closer than the past year. The Respawn system made death meaningless, but after Nucleus, they’d been given something to fear: change. And even if they followed Engineer’s lead, by grabbing their new abilities by the horns and wrestling for complete control, there was no telling when - if ever - the changes would stop.
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Demo thought to himself as he looked around. After he’d captured the briefcase and won them the round, there’d been pats on the head aplenty, toasts were made to his health, and then he’d slowly realised that he’d never seen the rest of the team drunk. He’d always been too drunk himself to remember, but now he was the only sober man in the room. And to him, that was even stranger than Medic stretching his arms to show how big the explosion he survived was.
“I am telling you, ze explosion filled ze entire hallvay-! Scheisse...” Medic grumbled as he accidentally spilled some of his beer, clumsily grabbing for a cloth to wipe it up. “I do not even know vhy I am drinking zis, it is like...like water, compared to das Bier in Deutschland...” he trailed off in German, picking at the ‘Red Shed’ label with his fingertip. "Heavy, warum trinke ich das hier...?"
“Because ees good time! Ve have good friends, ve have good food!” Heavy smiled. It would take all the booze they had to get him truly drunk, but he definitely seemed more relaxed as he looped his arm around Medic’s shoulders. “And tonight, tiny BLU team is eating...how do you say, dessert of humiliation?”
“Ah think you mean humble pie, Big Guy- dangit, Slim, don’t go stickin’ that in everyone’s food! Wait yer turn!” Engineer frowned, grabbing the wayward branch that was trying to spear a sausage link. Spy cackled as if this was the funniest thing in the world, as the man shook his head and took a bite of the sausage, muttering about them not even being done yet.
“Told you he’d bloody well notice. We’ll prob’ly ‘ave to wait longer now, ya bloody spook.” Sniper sighed, his face slightly red from embarrassment, and the many empty beer bottles scattered around the place.
“Well ta mère.” Spy spat back, taking another swig of beer as he paused for a rebuttal. Instead, Sniper just looked at him, confused. “...Zat means ‘your mozzer’.”
“Wot?” Sniper chuckled. “Really? ‘Yer mum’? That’s the best you could come up with?”
“No. Zees is.” Spy smirked wickedly, grabbing the front of the other man’s shirt, pulling him closer. Sunglasses knocked askew, Sniper froze as he looked into Spy’s eyes, until he finally decided to push the other man away.
“Wot the bloody hell was that all abou-” He looked down at his shirt. Where Spy’s gloved fingers had been, blue colour was spreading like ink stains, changing the red hue to a rather familiar blue. Spy covered his mouth as he snorted. “Oh, really bloody clever. This was moi favorite shirt, too...”
A sudden crash made everyone turn around. “SPY IN OUR MIDST, MEN!” Soldier swayed from side-to-side; his chair flat on the floor, his finger pointed, and murderous intent in his eyes. “You goddamn cowards never...” He paused to belch loudly. “...never learn, do ya!?”
Demo dived under the kitchen table and watched as chaos reigned. Soldier gave a terrible roar as he charged forward and slammed Sniper’s head onto the tabletop, holding him in a headlock so tight he could’ve twisted the Australian’s head right off his shoulders. His face turning as blue as his shirt, Sniper waved his hands frantically, and clumsy vines tried and failed to wrap themselves around his opponent’s ankles. It wasn’t until Engineer jumped on his back that Soldier finally let go, landing heavily on the floor.
“The hell’s goin’ on in here? You guys had a scrap and didn’t invite me? Or is this one’a them gay parties?” Demo could only hear the smugness of the smirk on Scout’s face; all he could see were his legs and socks, dyed yellow with dirt. Pulling out a chair, he sat in it and leaned backwards, sniffing the air. “...An’ what the hell smells like burnin’?
There was a collective cry of anguish from the gathering. Engineer was the first on his feet, grabbing a pair of tongs and elbowing people and chairs out of the way. Demo covered his eyes as Scout’s chair clattered to the floor... and stared as the young man somehow remained seated on thin air.
“Thanks fer turnin’ that down, Pyro...are ya sure ya don’t mind eatin’ the burnt ones? Ah mean, ya basically saved our dinner.” Pyro just waved his hand with a friendly ‘ook’, swaying rhythmically from side-to-side; Demo couldn’t really tell if he’d actually been drinking, or if he was just going along with the others for fun. But he was now tugging on Engineer’s overalls, pointing excitedly and clapping his hands as Scout leisurely reclined on nothing.
The cooking tongs slipped from the Texan’s hand, landing on the floor with a clatter. “Well I’ll be damned...”
“What?” Scout’s smug smile widened, revelling in being the center of attention, every eye in the room staring at him. “Oh, ya mean this? It’s only a little somethin’ I like to call freakin’ flyin’!” Extending his arms like wings, he slowly floated up to the ceiling with an almost zen-like serenity. Then to the sound of cheers, he did an aerial lap of the room, hi-fiving anyone who was tall enough to reach and drunk enough to care.
Demo sighed, ignoring the spectacle and taking an untouched and slightly warm beer from the table. Taking a sip without really thinking about it, he recoiled at the bitter taste and spat it out. Every day brought more changes, for everyone except him. Still useless, still hopelessly frozen in time, still without a taste for scrumpy or cigarettes or anything else that used to make him happy. In some ways he supposed he should be thankful, but instead he just felt cheated. Who wouldn’t want to fly? Or have an army of plants at your fingertips? Or any of the other ways the rest of the team had fun with their abilities, however temporary they were...
“Attention RED team!” Scout dropped like a stone as the announcer’s voice crackled over the speakers. Spy laughed loudly at his misfortune, until Sniper silenced the man with a sharp elbow to the ribs. Demo simply grabbed a pulled pork sandwich, chewing a mouthful idly. He mused how messages like this compared to the sauce-covered meat; pre-made, chopped up and served when needed. “Congratulations. Your mission at [Teufort] has been completed: your next mission is to capture all control points at [The Well]. The teleporter activates at [8AM]; do not fail me.”
The team groaned in unison - complaining about teleporting with a hangover or having so little time to pack their things - all except one. Demo looked at his sandwich, his thoughts not clouded by alcohol for once ... a base transfer without the usual one day’s notice? Something about it made him a bit uneasy, reminding him of their transfer from Nucleus and the 24 hours missing from their memories. But as Engineer started handing out portions of ribs and sausage and the team’s spirits lifted, he quickly shrugged it off. Maybe the BLU team had surrendered after seeing what they were capable of doing. He yawned, his eyelids growing heavy as he curled up in a comfortable corner of the room... whatever happened, after a good night’s rest he’d be prepared for anything.
“Ah jus’...ah jus’ don’t like it, ye ken? This place i’nt like the last time we were here. Somethin’s here that weren’t here befoore... aaaaand it’s watchin’, watchin’ all of us. Ah can... feel it. In me bones or... someshitelikethat...”
Medic nodded, watching as Demo finished the glass of high-glucose orange drink, the perfect sugary disguise for a weak dose of sedative. He carefully picked up his team-mate, laying him down on one of the infirmary’s beds, gently slipping a pillow beneath the child’s head as he drifted off to sleep. He sighed as he looked at his unconscious team-mate; a cherubic picture of innocence, so unlike the man he once was. And he is getting worse, he thought as he picked up his notes. His mind was regressing to a more child-like state, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, nightmares of the boogeyman appearing as hallucinations.
Even with his careful calculations, sedating such a young child was a risk, but Medic had assured himself it was for the best. They’d arrived at Well and Demo had leapt into the shadows, swinging his fists in pursuit of his unseen foe. He claimed it was watching him, watching all of them. No matter where they were, no matter what they were doing, he’d see it in the corner of his eye. He’d even refused to sleep, staying up all night patrolling the hallways with a flashlight, trying to chase it down. Such delusions could drive a man completely mad, not to mention the rest of the team. Paranoia could spread like a disease; he’d even caught himself squinting into dark corners, just in case something really was there.
He shook his head as he clipped on the Medipack’s harness; he couldn’t lose his mind, not now. He didn’t have time. He shut the infirmary door behind him and headed upstairs to their main spawnroom. The battle would start in a matter of minutes, and the sooner they got it over with, the sooner Herr Engineer could continue his search for a cure. The door slid open, and walked straight into their Sniper, who didn’t even flinch as Medic bumped against him.
“Doc, about Tavi- I mean, Demo...”
“He vill not be joining us on ze battlefield today, Herr Sniper. I haff given him somezhing to help him sleep.” Pushing the man aside, he wasted no time in locking the Medigun onto Heavy, and sat down.
It was only then he noticed the incredible tension in the room; after their Demoman’s sudden mental instability, there had been talk of who might be next. And as he sat there amidst the silence, he noticed how everyone kept glancing at Herr Engineer, tightening a bolt on his inactive Combat Sentry with an intense scowl on his face. There was an audible metallic creaking from the tiny turret, that grew louder as Engineer turned the nut tighter and tighter. The Gunslinger made a worrying whirring sound as it was pushed into overdrive, an ugly vein standing out on the Texan’ sweat-drenched neck as he tried to tighten the connection just one more notch, until...
“AH, FUCK THIS THING!” Something finally snapped. The team visibly jumped, every face an expression of disbelief at Engineer’s sudden outburst.
“Jesus Christ, Hardhat, what the hell was that!?” Medic rubbed his temples; of course it would be Scout who spoke up, rather than leaving the matter alone. “You’ve had a freakin’ stick up yer ass since last night, an’ yer lecture about great power an’ great responsibility or some shit-”
“Prepare to attack the enemy’s control points.” The PA system interrupted.
Wordlessly, Engineer kicked the remains of the sentry out of the way, and took off his boots and socks. Scout opened his mouth to finish, but the Texan was already unbuttoning his shirt, throwing it to one side on his way out. Scales spread out from the dorsal fin between his shoulder blades, slowly covering his back as he quickened his pace.
“Mission begins in 60 seconds.”
Scout immediately ran after Engineer, with an annoyed shout of “Come on you guys!”. Soldier was quick to follow; with a few precious seconds of Overheal still coursing through him, he had enough time to rocket jump ahead of the team. And their numbers still dwindled as they went on; Sniper headed upstairs, his trusty rifle strapped to his back. Spy cloaked and headed off to places unknown, and Engineer dived straight into the water just as his gills opened. That left only three of them attacking the control point directly; Pyro, Heavy, and Medic himself. But as his Übercharge meter slowly ticked up to 80% and beyond, he felt his confidence grow.
“Mission begins in 30 seconds.”
“I am fully charged!” Medic couldn’t help but grin. An Übercharge on Heavy was one thing, but if he was twice, or even three times his normal size? The enemy would run screaming! They’d beg for mercy! They’d bow down to their obvious superiors, and surrender on the spot-!
“Hey, Doc! Ain’t the BLU team supposed to be down here? I don’t see nothin’!”
“Zere are two entrances to ze point, Schweinhund... ” Medic muttered through his headset, and glared up at Scout, who was floating just above the cargo crates that separated RED territory from BLU. He’d been enjoying that daydream. And an unpleasant series of cracking, stretching sounds reminded him why he’d needed to escape this bizarre reality, as a giraffe’s head wearing Pyro’s mask peered over the top of the box. He took a deep breath to steady himself. It was eight against nine, but all they needed was one Übercharge, one demonstration of their abilities, and it’d be all over. He stared intensely at the still-closed gate in front of them. Heavy’s gun revved loudly.
“Three. Two. One.”
The sirens blared. The gate slid open. And like an animal released from its cage, Heavy charged out with a roar, just as the BLU Heavy and his Medic charged out from the opposite side. If they’d been hiding round the corner, they couldn’t possibly have come out so quickly, could they? But he’d have to deal with Scout and his lies later; he had a job to do.
“GO AND GET ZEM!” He pulled the lever on the Medigun, and the world turned red as the Übercharge surrounded them both, protecting them from the enemy’s onslaught. But despite the incredible feeling of invincibility that came with the charge, Heavy actually started to back away. He saw his partner’s mouth move, but the sound of the two identical Miniguns and the surging energy deafened him. It wasn’t until the Übercharge wore off that he heard the bullets bouncing off the enemy Heavy... schweinhunds, countering their Übercharge with one of their own...
“DOKTOR!” Medic looked up; Sascha was making that terrible click-click-click sound. All $400,000-worth of custom-tooled cartridges wasted, all because Heavy didn’t follow their plan. He felt the anger rising in his chestc; why did he back away? Why didn’t he just grow bigger like he’d said, he could have just stepped on them! But then Heavy turned to him, and he suddenly saw the fear in his eyes. “RUN! NOW!”
The Russian fell forwards with a gurgled cry, and Medic found himself frozen to the spot as he finally laid eyes on the enemy. This wasn’t an Übercharge, this was something else entirely. The BLU Heavy’s skin had the shine of highly-polished silver, his eyes glowed like molten steel, and his face was still and devoid of any emotion. And behind him, the BLU Medic had the most horrific grin, the forced smile of a man gone mad. And yet Medic was sure he was the one gone mad as the man waved to him, then disappeared feet-first through the floor of the control point, as if it wasn’t even there.
Drawing his Übersaw, he ran. He ran down the ramp, squeezing his rubber body into the smallest space he could as more bullets rained down, embedding themselves in the concrete. His whole body shook; this couldn’t be real. This had to be another nightmare. It was either that or he was seeing things, he was losing his mind just like their Demoman. He clutched his head, a buzzing sound like television static filling his ears. He could see someone looking down at him, a man in a blue suit... the enemy Spy? But he couldn’t make out his face, the way it kept shifting and changing gave him a headache...
The dark, quivering blobs that could once have been eyes stared right through him. The creature’s head split open from ear to ear, forming a jagged grin as a tar-like substance poured from its open ‘mouth’ and pooled on the concrete floor, dripping on to him. Then its long, brittle twigs of fingers grabbed his wrist, and pulled him into unconsciousness.
Medic woke up slowly and painfully. His back ached from being on a cold, hard surface for so long, and the bright lights above stung his eyes. Reaching around for his glasses, he found them next to him, laying on the black and white checkered floor. He sat up quickly; he remembered he’d been on the battlefield. He remembered a ghost Medic, some kind of robotic Heavy, and a Spy with no face. And now he was back in the infirmary, and on the floor no less. Had he fainted somehow? Or maybe this was just a continuation of the same nightmare, and he’d wake up any moment in his bed.
Getting to his feet, he walked over to his desk, opening the drawer and flipping through the files within. If this was real, his notes should still be here, exactly the way he left them. He selected one of his more recent folders, detailing the changes the team had experienced since the incident. Everything from the early symptoms to their latest new abilities had been carefully written down... and covered with crayon. His fist tightened around the page, crumpling the childish drawing of a house and a smiling sun. Taking out another page revealed more drawings, becoming less and less recognisable as he went on, until they were just meaningless scribbles.
“SHCOUT!” He threw the folder to the floor in disgust. Such a juvenile prank... he’d find the boy and make him re-write every page, even the ones he hadn’t defaced. He headed towards the door, casually glancing at the BLU Spy walking along the ceiling, and turned the doorknob. Not only was it locked, but his mind suddenly registered what he’d just seen, and he felt his breath catch in his throat as the footsteps came closer. It wasn’t real. It was a hallucination or dream of some kind. If he didn’t turn around, it would go away. He just had to find the key, it was supposed to be in his pocket-!
“Looking for ziiiiis?”
The crazed cackling of a madman mingled with a sinister hiss and an all-too-familiar French accent, creating one single voice which sent shivers down his spine. A gloved hand dangled the infirmary’s only spare key in front of his face. He grabbed it. The BLU Spy pulled back, turning him around to face a grin far too wide for any human face, stretching a blue balaclava that’d been torn into pieces and shoddily stitched back together. Medic’s shaking fingers slipped, losing their grip on the key.
“You don’t want eet?” the Spy giggled, opening his huge mouth like a snake unhinging its jaws. The doctor could only watch as his one means of escape disappeared down the creature’s throat, a vaguely key-shaped lump outlined against the Spy’s scrawny neck before he finally swallowed it whole with a loud gulp.
“V-vhat...vhat are you... ?” Medic’s voice was barely a whisper as his throat constricted in fear. But he somehow found the strength to draw his Übersaw, pointing it at the monstrous BLU as he ran to the right, knocking over a table of surgical implements and ducking behind his desk. His heart felt like it was trying to escape, his breathing ragged. Quickly, he looked over his shoulder, and screamed as the Spy’s head and torso suddenly hung down in front of him. The BLU’s feet were still on the ceiling over near the door, his whole body stretched and twisted, long fingers covering his face as he cackled madly at his own joke. Medic’s weapon slipped from his hand, the wickledly grinning face just inches from his own. “Mein Gott, vhat ARE you!?”
“Moi... ?” The creature pursed his lips and fluttered his eyelashes innocently, his eyes seeming to double in size as they sparkled un-naturally. “I am just ‘ere to ‘elp you...after all, I am ze Docteur...”
A nurse’s hat complete with blue cross symbol materialised in mid-air and landed on the Spy’s head, defiantly remaining there even as his neck twisted like rope, looking thoughtfully at him while upside-down. Medic tried to recoil as a overly long, almost alien finger pressed the center of his forehead. His limbs felt numb; he was frozen in fear, unable to do anything but gasp and gaze into his tormentor’s eyes with their pupils like pinpricks.
“And my diagnosis ees you may be feeling... down?” The Spy pulled his finger away. A tingling sensation shot through Medic’s body, his stomach lurching violently. Then suddenly, his surroundings shot up around him like he’d been thrown down a chasm, growing to nearly twice the size they were before.
“Vhat!?” Scrambling to his feet, Medic looked down at himself and up at everything else. His chest tightened in panic. He’d shrunk; reduced to just half his normal size in less than a second. His mind raced; he’d thought only Heavy could do such a thing. Surely, this couldn’t be real... but he’d felt that tingling before, that sensation of falling as he grew smaller... ! “H-how are you doing zis!?”
“I’ll try and make zees veesit as short as possible. But don’t worry, zees weel only take a leetle while... ” Medic’s cry of terror became nothing more than a squeak as he suddenly shrunk again, and again as soon as the word ‘little’ left the BLU Spy’s lips.
The world seemed to spin around him, the sudden height loss making him dizzy, as he realised what was happening. The words: the Spy’s carefully chosen words triggered the changes, somehow. He covered his ears to block them out as he ran, but his disorientation made him stumble and fall, and he could feel that monster’s grin, bearing down on him as his hands slipped. No! No, not again-!
“Just a tiny inconvenience, I assure you!” The Spy’s cackle rang out like a pack of mad hyenas, scooping up his diminutive victim as he shrank to the size of a mouse. One hand restrained him, holding him down on a smooth wooden board, while the other darted around the room, stretching and bending at odd angles as it searched through cabinets and drawers. “You may feel juuuuust a prick... ”
Medic screamed. Pain flashed colours in front of his eyes; excruciating, white hot, spreading through the whole of his left arm. His eyes watered as he forced himself to look at the oversized needle, like a sword penetrating his palm. His fingers twitched, damaged nerves shooting uselessly. He knew what this was now; he was a specimen pinned to a dissection board. This couldn’t be a dream, not with such pain as this, not with blood pouring from his mutilated hand. But whether this was real or not wasn’t important. He had to block out the pain, try to focus on what he was doing, as he knew that needle wouldn’t be the last. He remembered from his school days; there’d be three others, one for each limb. He needed to get out now.
The BLU Spy’s hand drew nearer, a fresh needle glinting in the harsh artificial light. Stretching quickly, he wrapped his right arm around the one that pinned him down, using all that remained of his strength to pull it free. He succeeded, but found himself blinded by pain, hot blood still pouring from his gaping wound. Wielding the dissection pin like a fencing sword, he struck out nonetheless; an inhuman screech confirmed he’d hit his mark. He took off running, leaping onto a nearby workbench and ducking behind a translucent bottle of alcohol solution. Daring to peek out from his hiding place, he saw the Spy’s face changing, becoming more grotesque as he pulled the needle from his finger, the minor wound healing instantaneously. Mein Gott, what kind of monster was this?
“Where aaaaareeee yooooou... ?” Darkness poured into the creature’s eyes. His fingers lengthened and sharpened to become claws. And his teeth became like daggers, a thick black tongue licking over them, the spine-chilling hiss in his voice becoming more apparent as he grabbed a syringe. “I just want to give you a little ssssshot that’ll make you feel aaaaaall better... ”
“Zhank Gott...” Medic stood rigid against the bottle, and slowly pulled out his injured hand from under his other arm. The bloody hole was already starting to heal; if not for the Medipack’s passive effect, he could have already died from the blood loss. Then his breath caught in his throat as the bottle neighbouring his was moved aside. Scheisse, he shouldn’t have said a word. Now that thing knew exactly where he was. Slender claws gently moved the bottle on the opposite side; the creature was toying with him. It was the cat, playing with its prey before it struck the final blow, and he was the mouse.
He was doing to die. He was going to die alone, tiny, and scared in this strange place. But instead, he chose to run.
“There you are, you annoying runt! Irritating insect!” Bottles and beakers shattered in streams around him. He weaved between glass shards that turned into towering ice-spikes as he shrank smaller and smaller, until they finally surrounded him, trapping him. “Zees may be your mind, but zees is my world!”
Suddenly, Medic found himself enveloped in darkness. There was suffocating warmth all around him, stifling, compressing, when he realised it was his tormentor’s hand crushing him on all sides. Seeing a pinprick of light between the fingers, he managed to squeeze his flexible body through the tiny gap, desperately hanging onto a claw that was almost as wide as he was tall. What was it the Spy had said? ‘This may be your mind’? All of this, the pain and the blood, was all inside his head? It was a long shot, but pulling himself on top of the fist, he cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, only hoping the monster would hear him.
“Zis is starting to get a LITTLE irritating!” He narrowly dodged the creature’s oversized palm as it came to slam down on top of him, clinging to its jacket sleeve. He had to get closer, he had to try again, he had to imagine his tormentor getting smaller in time with his words. If they really were inside his mind, there must be something he could do. And with an inhuman growl, he was given that opportunity as the Spy lifted him up, towards its face. Its dripping maw opened like a stalactite-lined cave beneath him, its tongue extended like a monstrous serpent.
With nothing left to lose, Medic swallowed his fear as he yelled; “Compared to vhat I haff faced in ze past? Zis is just a SMALL problem!” The creature’s eyes turned pale, the pupils shrinking back to pinpricks. He tightened his grip, continuing his verbal onslaught as he plummeted downwards. “You are nozzing compared to zat! You are tiny! Insignificant! Meaningless! Vhy don’t you just disappear?”.
He let go of the Spy’s arm, hearing it shriek in anger as it shrank rapidly, grinning as his confidence grew. Not only that, but he could feel himself shooting up taller, the usual sharp tingling sensation felt more like a pleasant tickle, slowly fading away as reached his usual size. But as the sensation was soon replaced by with something stranger and much more unpleasant, like a kind of pressure building inside him, he began to suspect that something was wrong...
“What’s ze matter, Docteur? Getting too full of yourself!?” Medic gasped as the Spy suddenly sprang back to his full height, snorting and wheezing between bouts of insane laughter, almost crying with sheer amusement. “Deed... deed you really theenk you could use my own treeck, against me!? Mon Dieu, you are even more stupid zan I zought!”
“Vhat-AGH!” Medic clutched his abdomen in pain. And to his horror, he could feel his stomach growing rounder and fuller beneath his gloved hands. He could hear the material stretching, his belt creaking, the buttons of his white coat about to pop as they struggled to contain his girth. “Vhat is happening to me-? Vhat are you doing to me!?”
A faint hissing sound, at the very edge of his hearing, answered his question. It was coming from inside him, he was filling up with air! That monster was blowing him up like a balloon, giggling and viciously poking his bloated midsection. Unable to take the abuse, his belt snapped, and the creature danced and pirouetted left and right to avoid the buttons as they pinged off one by one.
“Ah, such beautiful museek...and soon, ze crescendo!” the Spy said with a grand, sweeping gesture. Medic tried to respond, but not even a groan of pain escaped his lips, just a drawn-out squeak as a small amount of air hissed though his mouth. His clothes were tearing at the seams, the Medipack clattering to the floor as the pressure filled his entire body. The air was reshaping him, changing him from a man to a helpless rubber ball for his torturer's amusement. “Zat ees when you explode of course, mon ami.”
Explode!? The puffed-up remains of his limbs flailed uselessly, his feet no longer touching the ground as the creature rolled him onto his front, claws digging threateningly into his exposed flesh. It hurt, mein Gott it hurt. The pain was almost indescribable, like every nerve was being pulled in all directions at once. But his one consolation was that it had to be over soon; his elasticity had to be nearing its limit. With his clothes ripped apart by his massive body, that creaking sound in his ears couldn’t possibly be fabric; it was his skin that was stretched tight. His body couldn’t possibly take any more, not to mention his mind, teetering on the precipice, staring deep into the chasm of insanity.
Tears poured from his eyes, the incredible pressure forcing them permanently open. Unable to look away or even to blink, he had no choice but to watch as the demon in the blue suit hummed a merry tune, selecting an especially sharp needle. But in his helpless state? His impending, gory death was practically a relief, his own uncontrollable laughter filling his head as the monster of mercy drew closer. Yes! Let him explode! Let his ravaged body rupture like a festering boil, let his horrifically abused organs paint the walls red! Just let it end, make it stop... stop ... please ...
There was no bang, no explosion, no bloody mess. Instead, Medic fell gratefully to the concrete floor of Well, the cold steel of a butterfly knife finally, lovingly embedded between his shoulder blades. The battle still raging all around them, he smiled as he watched the BLU Spy’s form flicker, disguising as a RED Medic as the real one sank into temporary oblivion.
Spy watched from the corner, holding his breath until his counterpart cloaked, disappearing from his view. He’d disguised as the enemy plenty of times, imitating every little habit and gesture to blend in perfectly among their ranks, but something about the BLU Spy had unnerved him from the moment he’d set foot in the building. The way those sunken, haunted eyes had stared into their Medic’s... the unfortunate man had been completely paralysed, his eyes wide open and his body un-moving, a look of sheer horror on his face. Until finally, his attacker grinned, one hand pushing his head down so he kneeled before him, the knife severing the spinal cord in a single, swift motion. No scream, barely a drop of blood...a kill almost too clean. And he’d escaped, chuckling, wearing his victim’s identity not like a disguise but like a second skin.
He checked his watch, the faintly glowing bar slowly increasing, as Soldier charged past. He’d had doubts about dusting off his rarely used Cloak And Dagger to try and capture behind the enemy’s lines, but his instincts had paid off... just not in the way he had expected. Instead, he was using it to hide undetected, trying to suppress the rising panic as Soldier’s rocket barrage exploded uselessly against the enemy Heavy’s silver skin. They weren’t the only ones with “gifts”? The incident at Nucleus had somehow happened twice, apparently un-noticed by both companies? But then, it seemed the Announcer herself had been largely replaced with pre-recorded messages, and his generous paychecks were paid directly into his multiple off-shore accounts by computers. Who knew if there were any real human beings watching them any more, if anyone from RED or BLU would ever notice what was going on...
His cloak fully recharged, Spy ran forward, dodging the shrapnel from his team-mate’s unwitting but welcome distraction. Flattening himself against the opposite wall, it was growing increasingly difficult to maintain his professionalism, to not give in to fear, as the metal giant calmly reached forward and picked up Soldier by the throat. Bone and cartilage crunched and snapped, blood spurted between powerful fingers, and a lifeless body fell to the ground as he released his grip. Silent and almost robotic in his duties, the BLU Heavy gave Soldier little more than a cursory glance before moving on, the capture point now under his team’s control.
“Time has been added.”
Spy dropped his cigarette with shaking fingers, extinguishing it with his heel. He stared at the burnt-out stub, trying not to make comparisons between it and what the enemy would do to him, if he was discovered. He opened his disguise kit, selecting another cigarette and unfolding a mask. A paper-thin piece of cutting-edge technology, nearly useless against a metal monster, a sickly creature with some kind of hypnotic ability...and a ghost. He couldn’t help but smirk a little as he selected the BLU Medic; he wouldn’t seem out of place appearing from thin air. Maybe he could turn this whole thing around, use the enemy team’s superhuman abilities to his advantage. He’d just have to be careful when choosing his prey. And hearing a grumble from the balcony ahead, he may have just found it.
Still cloaked, he glanced around the corner, and his heart soared. The BLU Sniper’s back was fully exposed, his eye pressed to his scope... such a beautiful sight. A man so completely distracted wouldn’t know what hit him until he suddenly woke up to sterile white walls. But he had to exercise caution; if he didn’t wait, if he didn’t analyse his target for signs of superhuman ability, he could end up with a face full of acid or a psychic bullet through the heart. And yet, as far as he could see, the only thing setting the Sniper apart were some tattoos, just barely visible under the excessive arm hair so typical of Australians. Unable to wait any longer, he flicked open his butterfly knife, and raised his arm for a backstab... superhuman abilities or no, he’d die just the same...
There was a sickening crunch as the bones in Spy’s arm broke, his knife embedding itself in the floorboards beneath as he lost the feeling in his hand. The BLU Sniper grinned horribly; beads of saliva dripped from his chin, his lower jaw jutting out, predatory fangs overlapping his top lip. Yellow eyes hungrily looked him over. And the creature’s nostrils flared, taking deep sniffs right next to his neck, his whole body shuddering as a sound somewhere between a growl and a purr emanated from its throat.
But with the adrenaline coursing through him, making the excruciating pain from his useless arm seem miles away, Spy managed to twist in the creature’s grip, snatching up his knife with his left hand. He slashed at his attacker in a wide arc, the illusion of the BLU Medic disappearing like smoke as blood splattered and the BLU Sniper howled in pain. Falling heavily against the wall, he could see his enemy’s shirt slashed open, fingers with sharp, pointed nails clutching at the open wound across its chest. Those markings weren’t tattoos, but stripes, the hairs themselves forming the pattern, forming a dense carpet of brown and black under the creature’s clothes. A half-human animal. And the human aspect was diminishing as he watched, muscles bulging and re-arranging under its skin, its cries of pain deepening as its ribs cracked and expanded. Powerful hands, paw-pads emerging from thickening fingers, tore away the remains of the BLU Sniper’s shirt.
Clutching his arm and trying to push away the encroaching pain, Spy dragged himself into the corner. The creature fell to its knees, its back arching as its spine visibly shifted under its skin, a long and pointed tail tearing through fabric like wet paper. He tapped the display of the Cloak and Dagger... the device gave off a few weak sparks, and the cloak meter flashed on and off in its death throes before it faded to black. The BLU Sniper was still caught in the painful transformation, still screaming. Not like a wounded beast, but in a way that was still far too human... he still had time to escape.
Spy pulled out his disguise kit so quickly he almost tore the delicate silk pocket, then almost dropped this precious last resort as he realised his hands were gone. A glitch with his watch? But it was completely dead... and the effect was quite odd, not cloaking him all at once, but spreading like his arms were being slowly immersed in invisibility paint. Was he doing this? Bending light around himself, or matching his own colours to the background like a human chameleon? All he’d done was really want to disappear, just think about disappearing and - yes! He was completely invisible, with no need for one of those unreliable watches-!
A very animal-like growl snapped Spy out of his momentary euphoria. The creature’s skull had begun to change shape, canine teeth lengthening to match its dog-like snout. He still needed to get away, he couldn’t stay here and watch as his enemy changed from man to mindless killing machine. But as the creature clutched its head and roared, in his own mind he was back in the respawn room just a few days ago. Watching as their Engineer suffered the same inhuman transformations, watching as his eyes pleaded with him. Unable to even touch him, to help relieve his pain in any way... a prisoner of his own cowardice. Watching his enemy writhe there on the floor, clawing at itself as fur sprouted from its skin, he looked at the knife in his hand. A quick cut to sever the spinal cord, that was all it took. A clean, practically painless kill. He owed nothing to this creature. He was simply being professional, it was a mercy killing, a good assassin never let his target die messily...
Blood sprayed in a wide arc again, splattering the wall. His knife slipped from his blood-soaked fingers, slowly rolling to a stop. Spy hardly felt the teeth in his neck as his jugular vein was torn out, the blood loss and shock sending him into an almost dreamlike stupor. Of course... it could still smell me... he mused as the creature viciously tore into his belly, watching as his own guts spilled out , twisting like slimy rope. Even unintentionally, at least the creature had given him the mercy he would have given it, had he only acted more quickly. Invisibility, at a time like this... ? Fate was cruel indeed...
The creature’s claws reached deep inside Spy as his consciousness faded, pulling out handfuls of gore, greedily wolfing down a chunk of still-warm liver. Even though he’d managed to evolve, he’d still found himself at the bottom of the food chain.
“Time has been added.”
“What!?” Scout glared up at the nearest loudspeaker, stopping somewhere near the ceiling, inside the BLU base. He’d been expecting the others to steamroll all over the other team, and had been hovering over the next control point for the past few minutes. After all, why walk when you can fly? And why wait to capture when you can go on ahead? It was supposed to be an instant win; Spy would be camping out the last control point with his Cloak and Dagger right about now. But thanks to the other guys not doin’ their freakin’ jobs, it was him who ended up lookin’ like a freakin’ idiot! He pressed two fingers to his earpiece, angrily shouting down the microphone; “We lost the middle point already!? The hell is goin’ on out there, you guys?”
Nothing but static answered. Scout gulped nervously, feeling like his stomach just dropped the whole ten feet between him and the ground. What the hell was going on? It couldn’t be the damn earpieces, Engie designed those freakin’ things himself, so tiny you wouldn’t even know you were wearing them. He’d only kept his old one because it meant the other guys couldn’t mute his frequency. Yeah, it had to be someone screwing up, it just had to be. There was no way BLU could come up with something to counter a team of god-damn superheroes! But he still couldn’t ignore that bad feeling in his gut; he was a guy who acted on instinct, and right now his instincts were telling him to screw capping the point and get the hell out of here.
“AGH! What the-!?” Covering his head in fright, Scout’s instincts were re-affirmed as something suddenly embedded itself in the front of the BLU base, just inches from where he was floating. Something fell out of the crater as he turned around, dropping to the floor and harmlessly rolling along... although it was a bit charred, he recognised the white leather, the distinctive pattern of stitches... a baseball?
“GOTTHEBALLBACK!” Something blue streaked past, leaving a trail of dust, and no baseball. The wall of the enemy base cracked, leaving another crater as a pair of feet impacted it at hyper-speed, lithe body twisting in the air as it jumped off the wall. And a pair of running shoes smoked as they screeched to a stop, the BLU Scout grinning up at him. Somehow, it looked like his whole body was moving even though he was standing still, a flickering TV image made real. Even his voice sounded distorted, like there was more than one BLU Scout yelling up to him; “Well if it ain’t the freakin’ FLY BOY! Bet ya think you’re hot shit, don’cha, floatin’ up there like freakin’ Superman!?”
Scout stared down at his counterpart. The smug bastard was moving fast, but not like any Bonk! effect he’d ever seen. Shit. The freakin’ BLUs have powers too!? This was bad, real bad. He should be wetting his pants right about now. And yet, he grinned widely; Oh man. This is AWESOME! I have a freakin’ nemesis, just like in the comic books!
“WOAH!” Scout quickly dodged to the left as the baseball sped past him again, more debris falling from the abused wall as it completely embedded itself in the smooth concrete. If it wasn’t for his quick reflexes, the freakin’ thing would’ve gone right through him. “HEY! We gonna do this right, or what!? Trash talk comes first, THEN you try ‘an kill me!”
The BLU just grinned, becoming nothing more than a streak of colour as he shot forward. As Scout watched dumbfounded, he ran straight up the wall - He stole MY freakin’ trick!? - and with a sound like a cannon, left another impact crater as he kick-flipped off it. Scout’s body reacted faster than his mind could; he suddenly felt a crushing weight, like his whole body was made of lead. Something clipped the side of his head as he dropped like a stone, the sensation less like falling and more like something was pulling him to the floor. The ground cracked beneath his feet as he landed, and he fell forward, winded by the weight of his own body. He wondered for a moment how Heavy dealt with being so... heavy, his opponent skidding to a halt some distance away.
“Owww... shit, man...” Every bone in his body ached in protest as he stood up slowly, his personal gravity thankfully returning to normal; he really didn’t want to do that again. But as he felt the blood trickling down the side of his face, and realised the BLU Scout just took a chunk out of his ear with a wooden bat, he figured things could have been a lot worse.
“SHIT!” he yelled, narrowly avoiding another potentially-fatal blow by tripping over his own feet, but the BLU Scout was already laughing wildly as he came charging at him a second time. Without even thinking about it, Scout shot into the air like a rocket, cheating death yet again. But how the hell was he supposed to hit this guy!? Maybe if he got him someplace less open, he’d be more likely to smack into a wall, or something...
“Hey, Speedy Gonzales! Catch me if ya can!” Scout shouted as he flew towards the central point’s lower entrance. A glance over his shoulder confirmed the BLU was following him, running on the water like it was just different-colored ground, jumping over the stationary train cars in fast-motion. All he had to do was get inside and they’d be surrounded by concrete and train cars and metal walkways, and that BLU bastard would slam right into them. A sharp mid-air turn and he was headed for the middle point... and ended up slamming straight into something himself, stars flashing in front of his eyes as he collapsed in a heap. Who the hell put a big red rock on the freakin’ point... ? The rock moved, seeming to sprout a red rubber arm and a gloved hand to pick him up, before shaking Scout to his senses.
“Pyro?” The smoked glass circles of the rubber mask looked right into his eyes, and he had no idea how, but they looked afraid. They weren’t even eyes, but he could see the fear in them... and the reflection of something big and blue with glowing eyes standing across the walkway, growing bigger as it came rushing towards them. “LOOK OUT!”
Scout closed his eyes, held his breath, and stuck out his arms to both sides. He knew it was useless, he was just gonna be a greasy smear on the BLU-owned control point. But the familiar feeling of dying and respawning failed to come. Instead he felt like he had some kind of rope attached to each hand, only they were like a part of him, somehow responding to the slightest movements of his arm. He’d had the same weird feeling on Teufort’s battlements, just briefly, when he’d stuck the BLU Soldier to the ceiling. And he opened his eyes to the other Scout filling the air with a stream of curse words, which got faster and faster as his arms and legs pinwheeled uselessly in mid-air. Looking to his other side he saw the BLU Pyro, eyes glowing like windows to a furnace, flames flaring from small tears in his rubber suit, rubber gloves squeaking in frustration as he tightened his fists. It would have been a terrifying sight, if he hadn’t been floating above them like some kind of zeppelin.
“Woah. You seein’ this, Py!? I got these chuckleheads right where I want ‘em!” Scout grinned, the two infuriated BLUs bumping together like a pair of balloons as he pulled their invisible strings. He laughed, putting on his best Southern drawl as he mimicked their Engineer; “Yew go ahead an’ get that lil’ ol’ Backburner, and we’ll dun have arrselves a lil’ bar-bee-cue!” Pyro just shook his head in response, grabbing him suddenly in a tight hug.
“What the hell’s got inta you, ya crazy-!?” Scout started to protest, trying to push the Orangutan off him. But suddenly, the answer hit; Pyro didn’t have his Backburner. He didn’t have his Flamethrower either, and Pyro never abandoned his weapon of choice. The few times it’d been knocked from his hands, he’d seen the poor bastard get blown up, run over, and chopped into pieces just to try and get it back. If he’d left it behind... he looked up at the BLU Pyro, the fire pouring from his body forming tendrils that flailed and turned the air around the point into an oven. Shit. Scout felt like he’d just sunk through the floor; what use was a flamethrower against another Pyro, especially one who controlled fire... ?
“YOUTHINKYOUGOTUSFLYBOY!?” The BLU Scout yelled, breaking his long chain of profanity with a grin, rotating slowly in mid air, but rapidly gaining speed. In just a few seconds, his speedy counterpart was a human tornado, pulling the BLU Pyro into the vortex. The floating firestarter greeted his team-mate with open arms, his flames drawn into the spinning air. “GETTALOADATHIS!”
“COME ON!” Scout didn’t hear Pyro transform over the roar of combusting air, but he felt something small cling to his shoulder as he jumped off the point, just as it was obscured by a towering pillar of flame that scorched the ceiling. Great, just great... new freakin’ powers, and what do they get me? Only a huge-ass FIRE TORNADO. he thought, looking over his shoulder at the vortex of flames right behind them. Not only was it was following them, it was close enough that he could feel the heat burning the back of his neck. He could still hear the BLU Scout in the center of it, laughing like crazy even as he roasted like a Thanksgiving turkey... had the whole enemy team gone freakin’ nuts!?
After what seemed like miles of flying he finally shot through the lower exit, back on the RED side, back in the relatively cool outside air. Flames belched from the doorway like the mouth of a dragon, the huge blast of hot air throwing off Scout’s flight pattern and sending him to the floor. He spat out a broken tooth as he sat up, unloading his pistol into the wall of fire as the the taste of blood filled his mouth; he wasn’t going to just lay there and wait to die. He just hoped Pyro managed to get away, somehow.
Then suddenly, 200 tons of fully-automated steel plunged straight into the inferno, the train’s horn cut short as the front end exploded in a shower of molten metal. Whatever was left of it immediately de-railed, wheels spraying fountains of sparks as they ploughed through part of the wall, more sounds of tortured metal coming from within the central point building. And when it finally stopped, it left an eerie silence, broken only by the crackle of flames and the occasional piece of falling debris.
“Holy shit...” Scout said breathlessly, crossing himself. It was an old habit, something he hadn’t done since he was a good god-fearing little Catholic boy. But given what just happened, he was surprised he hadn’t fallen to his knees and started speaking in tongues. They were gone. Both superpowered BLUs, dead, by either sheer dumb luck or act of God. Then again, it didn’t mean a damn thing if they still killed- “Pyro? Is ...izzat you?”
He hadn’t noticed until now, but there was a little Salamander clinging to his shoulder. And it was real weird-looking, not like any he’d ever seen; its body was firetruck red, but its head and legs were a sooty black. It stared into his eyes with its dark, glassy lizard eyes... and nodded in response.
“Aw, man, Py... losin’ ya weapon and ya suit in the same day?” Scout smiled, petting the tiny creature on the head with his finger as he got up. “Heh. That sucks. Well, things can only get better from here, I guess. I mean... we... kinda won. Sorta. For now. We should prob’ly go defend the next point though, right?” Pyro nodded, as meaningfully as a Salamander could. Then suddenly, there was a loud sizzling noise, followed by a deafening crash, as part of the train fell to the floor.
There was no way. There was no freakin’ way. A huge hole suddenly appeared before Scout’s eyes, burning right through the wrecked train from within. Molten metal dripped from an emerging humanoid figure, burning the ground wherever it dropped. It was only recognisable as the BLU Pyro from the bubbling remnants of the fire-retardant suit clinging to its back, dripping to the floor, forming long sticky strands with each step. Red-hot molten glass wept from the eyes of a melting rubber mask, and under that, there was no face. There was only fire; a body made entirely of living embers, feather-like tendrils of flame fluttering in the breeze. It clutched a girder in its glowing fists, super-heated steel dripping between its fingers as it swung it towards him...
“JESUS CHRIST!” Scout jumped backwards, feeling Pyro fall from his shoulder. He looked around to see where the Salamander went, but was forced to take to the air as the BLU Pyro dragged its massive weapon along the floor, taking another swing at him. Scout’s hands shook as he tried to take aim, and unloaded a whole Scattergun clip into the creature’s chest. But the pellets liquefied before they even hit, dripping like water off the monster’s body.
The BLU Pyro dropped the girder - now almost completely melted through - and picked up a handful of red-hot metal, winding up the pitch. Scout pulled out his bat almost reflexively, sweat gathering on his brow as he prepared to hit the home run that’d save his life. Then from somewhere below, there was a sound like someone squeezing a bag of meat, and a full-grown Elephant suddenly slammed head-first into the fiery creature. Pinned to the end of a nearby train car, the paint instantly started to peel and burn from the incredible heat... but it was the smell of burning hair and meat that floated up to Scout.
“PYRO, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOIN’!? FREAKIN’RUN! ... Just... just freakin’ run... !” Scout trailed off. Oh God. Oh Christ. Pyro was letting himself get cooked alive, changing and squishing through a menagerie of animals, constantly shape-shifting to replace his burnt flesh. All so he wouldn’t die yet, freakin’ killing himself just so he could get away... “...Crazy bastard...”
The BLU Pyro’s hand shot forward, gripping the shifting mass of animal parts where its throat probably was, flesh and bone melting and smoking beneath its fingers. Scout bit his lip and flew as fast as he could towards the RED base, the door snapping shut just as a gunshot rang out.
“Doc! Oh man, am I ever glad to see you-!”
Another perfect headshot. Right between where its eyes were supposed to be, lava-like blood splattering. It didn’t kill it outright - he’d seen Scout and poor Pyro fighting that thing - but it was enough to make it stumble and fall into the water. Steam screamed from the depths of the moat, the water boiling instantly as it plunged in, the blackened remains of the burning creature floating on the surface like charcoal.
Wordlessly, Sniper reloaded his rifle and peered through his scope, far away from the BLU team and their new ‘gifts’, peering through an open window at the very top of the base. It was amazing how accurate your shots could be when you were fighting against monsters and madmen. He’d already taken down a blood-stained, tiger-striped beast that came charging out from the central point. He hadn’t even realised it used to the enemy Sniper until the dead body changed from animal to human, right before his eyes. And then there was that thing he’d just shot, that used to be the BLU Pyro...
No. He couldn’t let his mind wander from the task at hand... but, Christ, could that be him one day? His power over plants just kept growing stronger. He’d gone from branches sprouting uncontrollably from the floorboards, to feeling the potential for growth in every seed, in just a few days. That very morning, he’d been daydreaming about home, and somehow sprouted a flower with petals the colour of Outback sand, filling the air with the sweet, coconutty scent of Anzac biscuits. It had to be too much, all of this happening in such a short time. At the rate this was going, he could wake up one day with green skin and an inexplicable need to sunbathe. Or worse, he thought, the vivid nightmare of the desert still all too fresh in his mind.
“Alert! Our control point is being captured!”
Piss. Scout was still down there; he’d seen the little runt shoot back into the base mere moments ago, and normally he would have left it at that. It wasn’t his job to stand on control points, he was more valuable taking down incoming enemies... but he sighed as he took the Tribalman’s Shiv from his belt. The ridged pattern on the back of the wooden blade morphed into dangerously curved thorns as he turned to leave. I must be bleedin’ mad, doin’ this...
“Urkk-!” He cried involuntarily, suddenly finding his chin resting on another man’s shoulder. The smell of blood and antiseptic stung his nose, and his breath caught in his throat as he realised whose shoulder it was.
“Shhh...” The BLU Medic whispered in Sniper’s ear. Fingers clad in thick rubber gloves stroked through his hair, making every muscle in his body tense up.
Sniper took a labored breath, another choking noise escaping his throat as his mind struggled to grasp the reality of the situation. The BLU Medic had somehow managed to sneak up on him, stabbing him through the gut with... oh God, he could feel something moving in there. Waves of pain coursed through him as he tried to pull himself away, catching sight of the Medic’s translucent forearm, hand and wrist buried in his abdomen. He retched as the man aggressively thrust forward, penetrating deep into him, impaling his whole body on his arm without a single drop of blood. Exploring fingers worked their way past his intestines, agony flaring like fireworks as they brushed past his liver, a fingertip delicately tracing the shape of his kidneys. He felt the man smirk into his neck as they ran themselves along his spine - from the inside - making his helpless body twitch like a puppet.
“Ah... dein Herz... it is beating so fast for me...” The Medic said almost breathlessly, cupping the rapidly beating heart in his palm, his body pressed so close to Sniper’s it was like he was trying to climb into him. “And such strong lungs... so much like his...”
Sniper coughed violently, biting his own tongue until he tasted blood. If just for a moment, the sharp pain distracted from the excruciating sensations in his chest. That BLU bastard wasn’t going to let him die yet. Vines emerged from he wooden floorboards and twisted slowly around the handle of his fallen Shiv. He just had to get it off the floor, just a little closer to his hand... but it slipped as he let out a strangled scream. The Medic’s other arm plunged into his chest, his body slowly disappearing, the bloodstained white coat fading away until only his psychotically smiling head remained. Sniper closed his eyes, waiting for it to end.
BANG. Falling heavily to the floor and gasping for breath, his lungs still convinced they’d been torn into by a madman’s hands, it took him a moment to realise it really had ended. The BLU Medic’s entirely solid corpse lay on the floor, a neat bullet hole right through his head. He kicked the body as hard as he could between coughing fits; such a precision shot would make any professional proud, if he hadn’t wanted that twisted bastard to suffer just as much as he did.
“You really need to pay more attention to your surroundings, Bushman.” Spy calmly slipped his Ambassador back into his jacket, lighting a fresh cigarette as he looked down his nose at his team-mate. His pointed shoe knocked the now-empty canister to one side as he stepped forward, offering his hand to help the other man up.
Sniper declined; swatting Spy’s hand away with a growl , he grabbed his Shiv and started running. The point hadn’t been captured yet, there might just be time to stop BLU’s relentless advance. Jumping down behind the point, a series of twisted roots sprouted from the floorboards, letting him slide the rest of the way to the concrete below. Behind him, he could hear Spy taking the stairs, and saw Scout floating just above the point, facing away from him. “What the bloody hell are you doin’? Stand ON the point, you wanker!”
“The enemy has received additional time!”
Scout dropped to the floor instantly, the point now under BLU control, and Sniper could do nothing but stare. He was dead. A gaping, bleeding hole right though the middle of his chest, his heart torn out and discarded a few feet away, like a piece of trash. It looked like the BLU Medic’s work, but he’d just seen him die... and where did that pool of blood suddenly come from? Scout looked like he’d been dead a good few minutes, and yet he’d been floating there just a second ago...
“EURGH! What is zees?” Spy complained loudly. Sniper turned around, and watched as the man wiped a thick, black fluid from his jacket lapel. Then just as suddenly, more of the same fell onto his hat, fat drops with an oil-like sheen gathering on the brim and splashing onto the floor. He looked up, and immediately wished he hadn’t; an entire web of the stuff covered the ceiling directly above the point. And in the middle of the web was an enormous spider, the size of a full-grown man, abdomen patterned with blue pinstripes. With a series of cracking noises, the creature’s human-like head turned a full 180 degrees, a multitude of black eyes staring hungrily at both of them. It grinned, revealing a mouth with two especially long, hollow, venom-injecting fangs.
“Bonjour~” said the BLU Spy, cheerfully.
“I really don’t know how to thank you enough, mes amis.” The creature dropped from the ceiling. The men hardly had time to notice that its spindly rear legs had snapped the thick support threads, before the whole web dropped like a net. “Disposing of zat annoying Medic on our team, who dared to ruin my fun vis your Scout...”
Ignoring all concerns about his suit, Spy tried to pull the sticky webbing off Sniper as he desperately reached forward for help, but his team-mate’s cry was silenced as the web smothered him completely. The substance hardened within seconds, losing its greasy sheen, making an ugly black statue of what was once a man. Turning on the creature, Spy pulled out his Ambassador and fired. But the weapon changed as soon as he pulled the trigger, flowing between his fingers like molasses and falling uselessly to the floor. Drawing his knife as the monster approached, the diamond-shaped blade reared up at him, the point opening up to hiss at him angrily. He threw the thing away, staring in disbelief as the silver scaled snake slithered away, dragging the balisong’s foldable handle behind it like some kind of clattering rattle.
“But why waste time frightening a poor, ‘elpless leetle bunny when I can take on a truly worthy opponent?” The BLU simply laughed at Spy’s confusion as its arachnid body melted into a formless mass of tar. Dripping claws brought a single cigarette to a mouth full of jagged teeth, and with a sound like a blocked drain, it took a long drag.
Spy took a step backwards as his enemy exhaled a thick, fog-like smoke. And immediately he froze in place, suddenly aware of the nothingness behind him. Merde. This couldn’t be real, he knew that much. Nothing could be so powerful as to bend and change reality to its own will. He was being drugged, or hypnotised, just like Medic. But whatever this creature’s mind-tricks were, he was already in too deep. He took a quick glance down to make sure, but he could feel the gaping chasm just inches away, sucking in every bit of heat, a small pebble echoing as it bounced off its walls. It couldn’t possibly exist, and yet every one of his senses was telling him it did. He frantically tried to recall the yellowed pages of the Gentlemanne’s Guide to Surviving Capture and Interrogation, specifically the part on torture. Make a safe place in your mind, retreat into a fantasy or a fond memory, just go there...
The world shattered around him. For a few moments, Spy was suspended in a void of endless white. But the pieces gradually came back together, a solid floor materialising beneath him, his gloved fingers finding dew-covered grass as he landed with cat-like agility. And plank by plank, brick by brick, the slanted roof and shuttered windows of his childhood home materialised in front of him like an explosion in reverse. He took a deep breath, gathering his thoughts. He didn’t know if that monster’s influence would eventually catch up with him, or if it would get bored searching for this little enclosed area of his mind. But for now, it was a perfect Summer’s day on his little island of familiarity, his safe place, unchanging and incorruptible. Mama’s flowerbeds were in full bloom, the blossoms gently nodding in the breeze. If he listened closely, he could hear her in the kitchen, humming as she cooked lunch.
He frowned, pushing the door cautiously open with a fingertip. The place was just like he remembered, from the white-painted cabinets to the ever-present vase of flowers on the table, to the smell of his mother’s apple tart. Even with her back turned to him, he could see she was as young and beautiful as when he was a child. And always, always busy. Her home-made pastries provided a much-needed boost to their meagre income. He casually picked up a butter knife, catching a brief flicker of something out of place before his reflection appeared in the metal. Ultimately, it was one’s experiences, one’s memories that defined oneself. Playing alone in the house and in the garden, he’d grown up with little need for emotional attachments, a healthy imagination, and an incredible eye for detail. Taking aim, he threw the knife at the back of his mother’s head.
The blade embedded itself in her skull with a dull ‘thunk’, sticking rigidly out from her caramel-coloured locks. The Gentlemanne’s Guide put great emphasis on being alone in your safe place. Your own memories and perceptions could easily be turned against you, unless you completely isolated yourself. Thick black blood began to ooze from the BLU Spy’s wound, its head twisting round to face him. “How dare you do that to your own MOTHER!”
His foe transformed quickly, its face stretching and morphing into a curved beak, his mother’s dress forming tattered wings. Painted nails curled into talons as the creature leaped at him. Spy threw himself to the floor, and his mother’s china shattered as his monstrous counterpart plunged straight into an ornate wooden cabinet. He picked up the same tiny chair he’d sat in years ago, but felt its weight change in his hands, becoming light, flimsy cardboard as soon as he brought it down onto the BLU Spy’s head. How can this be happening? was all he could think as he reached for the hatstand, only for his hand to collide with a hanging sheet. Moments ago it’d been real, but now it was just a painting on a stage background. All around him, furniture was suddenly cardboard and plywood. All false. All useless.
Spy angrily tore down the fabric in front of him; this was supposed to be his world, he was supposed to have the upper hand! He immediately turned on the BLU Spy, still bent over in the broken remains of the china cabinet, chuckling to itself. His hands tightened around its neck as he furiously dragged it to its feet.
“Fils de salope-!” he growled as he found himself looking into a pair of button eyes and a stitched-on mouth. The low chuckling rose to an insane cackle as he dropped the straw-filled decoy, and looked around for his real opponent. “Come out and let us settle thees like gentlemen, you cowardly disgrace of a Spy!”
“What’s ze matter, Moinseur Rouge... ? Does ze truth hurt?” The BLU Spy materialised from the shadows like the Cheshire Cat, grinning as he opened a leather-bound book. “Eet ees razzer impressive, zis web of lies you ‘ave created. Not a seengle soul would ever theenk zat ze mysterious Frenchman is Swiss. Ze land of efficient watches and offshore banking never was zat romantic.”
Spy felt his blood boil as he watched the monster pause, to lick its thumb and turn the page. How could it possibly know-!?
“You were a student in Paris, and began to live a double life as an infamous art thief, for nozzing more zan ze excitement... ‘ow pathetic. You learned to change your identity and resist interrogation in case you were ever caught. Not surprisingly, you were. And when you stole from a certain Administrator’s private collection, you chose to join RED instead of facing your punishment like a man.” The book snapped shut, and the creature smirked horribly. “A common thief wizzout a seengle hour of formal training in ze art of espionage, and yet you call me a disgrace? Oh Moinseur Rouge... what would everyone theenk, if they knew your entire existence was simply a performance?”
The BLU Spy rolled around in hysterical laughter, clutching its sides, taking wheezing breaths between snorts. The curtain was rising on their performance, revealing an audience of shadowy figures. They twisted as Spy looked at them, becoming his parents, his old friends, even his team-mates. All of them looking at him in a mixture of disgust and pity. Spy clutched his head as all those eyes drilled into him, and scores of horrible thoughts and possibilities suddenly invaded his mind. They know. They know you’re a liar, they know you’re a thief and a scoundrel and a fake. Your life wasn’t good enough so you had to invent one, and now they know, they all know...
“So many painful memories, so many lies, all on deesplay for everyone to see... if I only I could ‘elp you, mon ami... per’aps lighten ze load a little...” The creature giggled, hiding its grin behind clawed fingers as it saw Spy’s pained expression. Casually, it tossed the book it had been reading into the fireplace, the title ‘Memories: 1964-Present’ quickly consumed by the flames. “...Ah, doesn’t zat feel so much better... ?”
A strange feeling overcame Spy, and he found himself desperately searching the first few rows of the audience, as the figures started to fade. There had been eight men there, with front-row seats to their unfolding drama. Eight men he knew. Eight men who were important somehow. But their names and faces were slowly consumed by flames as the book burned, the memories crumbling away like burned paper as his mind reached for them. That thing was making him forget... not just the web of lies he’d spun, but everything...
The monster chuckled, another book materialising in its hand, another book thrown to the flames. Oh god. He could feel the years slipping away from him. His suit looked comically large on his suddenly teen-aged body, and as his memories and experiences were undone, so was he. Another book burned. His world shook around him, cracks appearing in walls and ceilings as his mind started to come apart. And he shrank even further as he ran forward, a teenager now just a child tripping over adult-sized clothes. More than two decades of his life had simply ceased to exist. Desperately, Spy clawed his way out of his suit. He had to stop this, before there was nothing left... but he emerged just in time to see more memories go up in flames.
More violent tremors shook his inner world, sending the mirror above the fireplace crashing to the floor. Memories make you who you are, he thought, picking up a mirror shard in his stubby fingers and looking at his face. He’d been reduced to nothing but his earliest memories, his body no more than 4 years old, his shirt now looking more like a nightgown. One last book - that he suddenly found himself gripping close to his chest - was all that stood between him and complete non-existence. With so little to hold it together, his safe place was rotting away around him, and there was nothing he could do to fight it. The monster’s jaws were opening wide, the yawning chasm ready to consume him completely. Tears welled up in his eyes, his tiny body wracked with sobs.
“I really don’t know how to thank you enough, mes amis.” The creature dropped from the ceiling. The men hardly had time to notice that its spindly rear legs had snapped the thick support threads, before the whole web dropped like a net. “Disposing of zat annoying Medic on our team, who dared to ruin my fun vis your Scout...”
Sniper reached out, trying to pull Spy out of the way. But the whole thing had already landed on top of the man, hardening just as he pulled out his Ambassador. He pulled out his Shiv; “Alroight, come on then! I’ve killed bigger spiders with a rolled-up newspaper than the loiks of-” he stopped mid-sentence. His Shiv was flailing around in his hand, a knot in the wood trying to be an eye, the blade morphing into serrated jaws. He tightened his grip, determined to fight against the living wood... but there was no life in it. The wood was dead, it’d been dead since it was cut from the tree. It couldn’t be moving unless he fed life into it, and yet he could feel it wriggling around in his grip. As he dropped it, it turned into an ugly, saw-toothed fish... still made of wood, with a handle instead of a tail...
“But why waste time frightening a poor, ‘elpless leetle bunny when I can take on a truly worthy opponent?” It laughed, its arachnid body melting into a formless mass of tar. Sniper closed his eyes for a moment. And like spreading branches, his extra senses reached out all around him, feeling the potential for growth. Shutting out the searing white noise from the wooden planks all around him, he focused on the pinpricks of light from the tiniest things, sweeping like galaxies under his feet, forming constellations above ground. Seeds stuck to the bottom of pointed shoes. Sawdust had settled on a set of broad shoulders. And splinters of wood, probably the shrapnel from a missed Scattergun shot, clung to shirt sleeves and jacket lapels, peppering a very distinctive balaclava. The BLU Spy, standing exactly where that monstrous spider was.
With a sound like a blocked drain, the illusion took a drag of its cigarette. Its whole body dissolved into thick smoke, and the world changed.
Walls and floorboards tore themselves free, breaking apart, the pieces floating away as they vanished into thin air. Patches of red dirt blossomed beneath his feet, spreading like giant bloodstains. And above his head, the sun rose to the top of the sky, turning the air stiflingly hot. Sniper wiped the sweat gathering on his forehead; if he closed his eyes, he could feel that everything around him was still the same... so that was it. That was the Spy’s game; he got deep inside your head, changing everything your senses told you. And as he looked at himself, he realised that bastard was even changing him. No matter how much he tried to fight it, he just kept getting shorter and scrawnier, until...
Oh, Christ. He was a kid again, and on the playground no less. He could already hear the taunts of his childhood bullies. Old nightmares crawled out of the depths of his mind, twisting themselves into the shapes of his former classmates, and their taunts of ‘cripple’ and ‘half-breed’, but... no. Sniper closed his eyes, and smiled; No. His palm closed around something that wasn’t there before, something he alone had willed into existence. He wasn’t a bloody kid. Not any more. This part of his life was long since over. He’d spent years wandering the desert in his dreams, and slowly he’d grown to understand. It was his mind that made things real. Whether it was creating a sense of self-worth, or the seed he now held in the palm of his hand, only he controlled his perception of reality. In the past, he’d been content to let his imagination decay, leaving his inner world to become a desolate wasteland.
But that was changing. And he could feel the change through him like electricity, the illusion of a body the Spy had spun around him becoming little more than an empty shell. His fingers reached forward and dug into his former chest from the inside, stretching and tearing at the restrictive skin until he could finally take his first breath. The human-shaped cocoon was left behind as he emerged, stepping out onto the purple sand. The fluid covering his bare skin slowly cooling in the twilight air, Sniper could see things clearly now. His classmates has returned to formless nightmares, their strings pulled by a distant puppeteer. Slowly, they closed in around him, but he held his ground. His fingers toyed with the seed he’d created. Psychedelic flowers forced their way out of the desert soil.
And finally, he dropped it, a gigantic tree shooting into the starry sky and taking him along for the ride. The shadows gave chase, spiralling around the trunk like a plague of locusts, stripping it down to the bare wood. A thick branch twisted in front of Sniper, its growth keeping pace with his barefooted steps as he turned left and right. Where are you, ya bloody spook? he thought, a flurry of brambles tearing apart his pursuers. More of them were coming at him, fanged mouths parroting his father’s lamentations at having a cripple for a son. But an odd-looking fruit shaped itself into a steel blade as he grabbed it, and the new Kukri sliced through them with ease.
The BLU Spy had to be getting desperate. It was digging deeper, trying to find something that’d get to him, even picking up old snippets of overheard conversation. A shadow Scout floated up next to him - “I dunno man, he just doesn’t look like one... ain’t Australians supposed to be all buff an’ manly an’ shit?” - and his Kukri made quick work of it. Fragments of the illusion fell away like dust motes, and slowly re-formed themselves into the familiar shape of the enemy Spy, running away from him. It took hardly a thought to bring trees springing up from the sand, an impenetrable wall surrounding his enemy as they twisted together.
“What’s the matter, mate? I thought you said you wanted a worthy opponent.” Sniper smirked; the trees parted to let him in, and sealed the entrance behind him. A single branch extended, his hat hanging on the end of it, and he put it on without a word as he watched his opponent’s struggles. The BLU Spy frantically clawed at its prison, its shape changing fluidly as Sniper thwarted every attempt at escape. A menagerie of various limbs helped it grapple its way to the roof of the prison, only to be stopped by sword-like thorns and enclosing branches. Trying to squeeze its body though cracks proved equally fruitless; Sniper had the invader completely trapped.
Finally, the weakened Spy dropped heavily to the floor. It took wheezing breaths through sharpened teeth, its pinprick eyes glaring at Sniper as it snarled; “You theenk you’re so good, don’t you!? Trapping me ‘ere, like an animal... if ‘alf of me wasn’t busy fucking around weeth your leetle friend, you would be nothing more zan a mindless cabbage!”
“Wot?” Sniper glared down at the BLU, who just giggled insanely at its own stupid plant joke. A pair of vines twisted around his enemy’s neck, tightening their grip as he tightened his fist in anger. “I don’t know how you can have your filthy fingers in Spy’s mind as well, but you’ll bloody well get out. Now.”
“A good magician never reveals his secrets...” The creature grinned, melting out of the vines’ death-grip and re-forming itself a few feet away. It waved one scrawny arm, and Sniper was suddenly looking through a floating screen. It was slightly curved like the surface of a bubble, and the scene within looked far too real to be just another trick. It was more like a window into a world he didn’t recognise... until he saw Spy. “But zees time, I weel make an exception, mon ami.”
Sniper stared, transfixed, as his team-mate’s nightmare unfolded in front of him. The house in the countryside was very different from his own desert-like mindscape, but it seemed the BLU Spy was trying the same trick in a different mind. Without the extrasensory anchor on reality that he had, the little flickers of plant life telling him all three of their bodies were standing perfectly still, Spy had no way to fight back. He was completely isolated from anything but his own mind. And it was his own mind that was corrupting his memories, making his inner self shrink away until nothing but a pile of clothes remained...
“Quite the show, isn’t eet?” The BLU Spy smirked, suddenly appearing next to Sniper as his gut twisted uneasily. That couldn’t be it, could it? Spy always found a way to weasel his way out of things... “Eet would be so easy to bring ze full force of my wonderous gifts down upon ‘is pathetic leetle mind. Like useeng a sledge ‘ammer to crack an egg.”
“Not if I ‘ave anythin’ to say about it. OI, SPY!” Sniper pressed his hands to the thin barrier that separated their minds. The pile of clothes moved as a young child struggled to free themselves, and he thumped his fists against the rippling surface, doing everything he could to get his team-mate’s attention. The BLU hissed furiously, inhuman appendages trying to pull him away as a look of realisation came over Spy’s face.
Sniper waved his arm. Twisted saplings exploded from the sand, wrapping themselves around the creature’s randomly shapeshifting body and pinning it to the ground. He wasn’t sure if Spy could hear him as he squinted into the fire, but he shouted nonetheless; “Come on! Yer a bloody spy! You can see he’s just playin’ yer own mind against itself!”
Spy braced himself, and plunged both hands into the fire. The other half of the BLU Spy finally caught on, his arm stretching to swipe at the child, but he’d caught on too late. Spy had already plunged his hands into the ‘fire’, only to find it was just fluttering strips of red and yellow paper. He’d retrieved the books, his memories intact but out of reach the entire time. He was an adult again, angry and fully armed, pressing the barrel of his Ambassador to his BLU counterpart’s head.
Then everything happened far too quickly. Acting as one mind again, both BLU Spies panicked, slithering out of their former victims’ grasps and diving straight into the translucent barrier. Their hands touched first as they tried to re-unite themselves, a last-ditch attempt to escape. And everything went horribly, horribly wrong.
Like a dam bursting, their mindscapes flowed into each other, creating twisted hybrids of plants and furniture. Below were varnished planks of sand, and patches of twilight desert scarred with wood grain. Above was a broken patchwork of starry sky and painted ceiling. The two worlds spiralled around each other chaotically to the sound of screaming, but he couldn’t tell if they was his screams or Spy’s. As soon as the barrier broke down, their thoughts, their memories, their selves had met in a violent head-on collision.
The result was almost beyond comprehension; inside their merging minds, their bodies were becoming one, muscle and bone exposed and bleeding as flesh melted into flesh. He couldn’t stop it. He couldn’t even think about stopping it, he was thinking thoughts that were only half his. He felt Spy’s heart beating right next to his own, two stomachs heaving as they saw the world through four eyes. Conflicting memories writhed like mating snakes, people and places changing, sounds and smells flowing together. Their fears and aspirations smashed uncontrollably into each other.
Even the slightest thought shattered under the incredible stress, but one single thing emerged from their clashing minds; they couldn’t possibly survive this. Whatever would be left in the aftermath wouldn’t be Sniper or Spy, but some insane, twisted, pathetic creatures. Both of them too unstable to live, or just driven utterly mad by their own scrambled brains...
The BLU Spy crumpled, a look of complete shock crossing his face before it collided with the concrete.
“An’ tha’s whut ya get fer toochin’ that!”
Demo glared at the man, giving him a good hard kick. His head still felt like it was full of cotton balls, thanks to that bloody Medic and his drugged orange drink. The Doc had tried to keep him quiet because he didn’t want to know the truth, but he’d been determined to find that thing that was lurking in every dark place, and bash its ugly head in. And if the BLU Spy got in the way of his pursuit, and tried to capture their bloody point... well, it was nothing a scrumpy bottle to the kneecaps couldn’t fix.
“Ugh... wha’...” Demo groaned and clutched his head; he’d been fighting off the after-effects of the sedative as he dragged himself out of their barracks and into the main part of the base. Now that feeling of tiredness and nausea was back with a vengeance, and had brought a terrible ringing in his ears along with it. He could hear his own heart pounding. His vision started to blur, the dim lights above his head suddenly blindingly bright and yet so much further away. Everything seemed much further away, too far away...
Two gunshots rang out somewhere in the distance, and he watched as the bodies of Spy and Sniper fell, slowly sinking through molasses-thick air. The BLU Spy’s body flowed as he moved, pieces breaking off and re-forming like a lava lamp. Is it you... who’s been watchin’ all of us... ? Demo thought vaguely as the Spy approached; the creature’s face was just a series of shifting ink blobs, but he was sure it was grinning at him. He could feel its shadowy fingers curiously probing the edges of his mind, gently worming their way in until they found something interesting. Something very interesting, he felt the creature think.
Demo’s breath caught in his throat. That was what it was looking for? He’d never really thought about it before, but now that he was aware of it, he could see it much more clearly in his mind. Something like a door... a door inside his head, reinforced and locked tight. And the Spy was standing right in front of it, examining every inch like some kind of priceless treasure, until it suddenly jammed a corkscrew-shaped claw into the lock. At that moment, a terrible realisation hit, seeping out from edges of the door like smoke.
Oh god. That was what it was for. It wasn’t locked to keep intruders out; it was locked to keep something in. Something his mind had tried to shut away for its own safety. Something wild and terrible that had appeared shortly after the Nucleus Incident. Even an overactive imagination and the twisted logic of a Scrumpy-poisoned mind hadn’t been able to handle it. His own mind had shut it away for its own safety. As the BLU Spy forced its way past his defences, it was starting to leak out.
There was nothing he could do to stop it. The power completely overwhelmed him. There was no time to scream, or even to think. His body and mind unable to contain it, the sudden release of energy escaped any way it possibly could. Rushing out of him like lightning, and grounding itself in the nearest possible conductor; the BLU Spy, one finger still in the lock.
Distantly, Demo felt his body hit the floor. Then, nothing.
“The enemy has received additional time!”
“Fall back, men!” Soldier yelled, holding onto his helmet with one hand as he prepared to rocket jump back towards his team-mates. “I-want-every-single-one-of-your-sorry-asses defending my Control Point!”
Blasting himself into the air, the man landed with a sickening crunch. But the pain from his fractured ankles barely registered through his sudden, barely-contained rage. There were no teammates. The only sign of human life was a lonely level 1 Dispenser, hastily erected and completely abandoned by Engineer. It gave a quiet ‘click’ as it generated more metal, and tendrils of healing vapor winding themselves around Soldier’s broken bones as he took a rare moment to think. He’d been mowed down by that Commie robot the BLU team called a Heavy, been impaled on a baseball bat by their Scout, and even buried alive by a god damned Ghost Medic. The bastard Kraut had come out of the floor, grabbed hold of his ankles, and the next thing he knew he was 6 feet underground... but was that going to stop him from fighting? No; he’d beat the enemy hordes with his own severed leg before he’d just give up!
“You are all pathetic, spineless COWARDS!” he yelled, glancing at the spawn door behind him. In response, there was the sound of a struggle behind the closed door, which turned to shouting as the door slid open.
“NEIN! Fass mich nicht an! FASS MICH NICHT AN! BITTE! NEIN!” Medic shouted, struggling in Heavy’s grasp as the man tried to pull him out of the spawn room. His elasticated arm stretched to its limits as his boots screeched along the tiled floor.
“Doktor-” Heavy started with concern, and grunted as Medic desperately kicked him in the gut. Determined to free himself, the German’s breaths came in frantic gasps as his left hand fumbled the Ubersaw. Heavy moved to stop him, but Medic had already unclipped the weapon from his belt, the tip of the blade resting on the Heavy’s chin.
“Lass... lass mich allein...” Medic’s voice shook. He was visibly sweating, his eyes fearfully darting around, searching for some means of escape. Like he doesn’t recognise his own damn team, Soldier thought, tilting his helmet to hide his disgust at the tears running down the German’s face. “Let go. Let go of me now.”
“DOC! DOC, YOU GOTTA COME QUICK!” Scout’s voice came floating through from somewhere near the back of the spawn room. “They just- Spy an’ Sniper just respawned, an’they ain’t... oh god, oh god, whadda we gonna do...”
Soldier sighed as he leaned against the Dispenser. As he stared blankly ahead, the metal door distantly slammed shut. God, it was worse than he’d thought. They really were spineless cowards. When the odds were stacked against them, their team had always fought until the last man fell; even Medic had never gone down without a flurry of syringes and slashing saw blades. And then he’d seen the Doc panicking and blubbering like that, and it hit him; if the BLUs had broken his spirit, their team didn’t have a chance in hell. Not now, or ever again. As much as he hated the man for his dubious past, his fixation with needles, and how he’d tried to sneak drugs into his food, a team without a Medic was as good as dead...
He flinched suddenly as he felt a large hand on his shoulder, and whipped round to point the Direct Hit squarely in the middle of Heavy’s chest. “What in God’s name do you think you’re doing, sneaking up on me like some kind of Ruskie Spy!? If the rest of the team weren’t busy with their little pity party, I’d blast you straight to Kingdom come!”
“Comrade does not shoot comrade.” Heavy said darkly, his thick fingers giving Soldier’s shoulder a threatening squeeze. Determined not to show a moment’s weakness, he gritted his teeth against the pain. This seemed to amuse the man; he smiled as he released his iron grip, then gave Soldier a steely glare. “I do not like you, tiny American man. But the others... they have lost their spirit of fighting. Ve are all that is left of RED team, da?”
“Da.” Soldier frowned. He still hadn’t worked out how to make his ‘gift’ turn off, but with the BLU team on their way, he had no choice but to swallow his American pride. "Got any ideas?” he asked, the English words twisting themselves into Russian somewhere between his brain and his mouth.
“Perhaps, I have one idea.” Heavy continued in Russian, a smirk breaking through his serious demeanour. “Hold still. This may feel strange.”
Soldier opened his mouth to ask what the hell ‘this’ was, but stopped as he felt the strange sensation spread outwards from Heavy’s fingertips. It had a kind of tingling warmth to it, like sinking into a hot bath, renewing his strength and re-invigorating his tired muscles. But before he could lose himself in the feeling, something grabbed hold of him - all of him at once - and pulled. He stumbled backwards in shock, almost knocking over the Dispenser as it shrank down to waist height. The tremendous room seemed to close in on him, his helmet knocking the halo-shaped walkway above, the loud ‘clang’ finally bringing him to his senses.
“Ees good day to be giant men!” Heavy’s laughter boomed as he let go, the sensation slowly fading away as realization dawned on Soldier’s face.
The room hadn’t shrunk at all; they’d grown, and to almost twice their normal size! The Dispenser he’d been leaning against moments ago now barely reached his knee. The revving of Heavy’s enormous Minigun was like a battalion of tanks. The Direct Hit was the size of a canoe, and yet Soldier hauled it back onto his over-sized shoulder with little effort. He grinned; if it hadn’t grown in size along with the rest of him, he could have held it like a shotgun! Those BLUs didn’t stand a chance against their two-man army; they’d come running in, and he’d crush every single one of those maggots. Literally; under the heels of his massive boots, until their insides squirted out like thick mustard!
Then he saw one of them; badly injured, the lower half of his face wrapped with filthy bandages. Soldier sneered at the creature as it shuffled towards them; some unfortunate bastard, shoddily patched up by an incompetent BLU Medic. It was practically a mercy killing, but he smirked as he took aim at the enemy Soldier. No matter what the target, a giant crit rocket should still leave beautiful carnage in its wake.
He fired. The oversized rocket exploded in mid-air, the explosion so close it singed his eyebrows. And before Soldier could begin to wonder what went wrong, there was a shriek like a jet engine, and the wall of sound smashed into him. So loud it went beyond hearing and straight into feeling; every bone shook so violently it threatened to crack. His vision blurred. He was vaguely aware of blood dripping from his nose. Punch-drunk from the sonic assault, Soldier could only watch as the BLU slowly advanced through the roaring silence, his fingers slowly tearing away the bandages that still clung to his destroyed face. His cheeks were completely torn away, his lower jaw dislocated and hanging loose. Soldier could see his counterpart’s ribs creaking as they separated, the man’s jacket ripping open and his entire upper body expanding to make room for his monstrous lungs.
Then he exhaled, in a soundless scream that shattered Soldier’s right arm and sent the crumpled remains of the Direct Hit flying into the wall behind. Heavy collapsed in a heap. And Soldier looked down to see the whites of the Russian’s eyes turned completely red, a thin trickle of blood dripping from the corner of his un-moving mouth. Soldier grit his teeth and grabbed one of the grenades from his bandolier, looping his shattered thumb into the ring-shaped pin as the enemy drew closer.
Heavy’s pooling blood was lapping at the sole of his boot as he threw the grenade. He’d wanted exactly what any true RED would want; to bring their team back from the brink of defeat. He’d put that much faith in his team - in a man who was technically an Enemy Of The State - that he’d really believed they could win. The two of them against an unimaginably powerful enemy, standing together as brothers in arms... but in the end, all that Ruskie bastard had done was give the BLUs a pair of bigger targets.
Damn it. Train must’ve destroyed their generator. Engineer thought, his Gunslinger gently tapping on the metal hatch above his head.
At least the water’s pretty dang clean here, he mused, his fingers carefully examining every inch of the twin doors. Teufort’s muddy creek had been a thankful escape from the heat, but every breath had filled his mouth with grit and floating debris. Well’s concrete trenches were so clear he could spot a BLU from a mile away. A place like this should be the last place he’d start seeing things that weren’t really there. And yet his mind twisted the dancing shadows into the undulating seaweed from his nightmares, long tendrils threatening to strangle him, wrapped themselves his body like a slimy shroud.
The Texan forced his metal fingers into a tiny gap. He should have far more to be scared of than figments of his fearful imagination; he’d seen a translucent BLU Medic dive into the water through the floor above, his ghostly body disappearing into a solid wall. He’d felt the earth-shaking crash as Well’s omnipresent train was torn from its rails. Muscles twitched beneath his scaly skin as he gripped the other door with his flesh-and-bone hand. He’d emerged from the water only once before, and stared straight into a pair of eyes that glowed like balls of plasma. His efforts sent streams of bubbles through the water as his body thrashed, slowly forcing the passage open. He’d come face-to-face with the BLU Engineer, and the son of a bitch just reached forward and efficiently ended his life. With his clothes and skin still soaking wet and raw electricity crackling through his counterpart’s veins, a single touch was all it took to send him straight to Respawn.
He had every reason to be terrified. And yet here he was, taking his first breath of air inside the BLU base as his lungs re-formed. His bare feet lost their webbing as he hauled himself out of the water, the remnants of his dorsal fin retreating into his spine as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. Changing from one form to another had been hell when he’d first woken up in the infirmary; his flesh seemed to have a very indecisive mind of its own, and it’d taken incredible effort to control it. Now it felt natural. And from what he’d seen of the others, he wasn’t the only one; Heavy regularly shrank himself to squeeze through the many tight spaces in their living quarters. He’d caught Spy making a wall-mural of one of his French girls, the colors flowing from his fingertips without a trace of paint. And Scout... the boy’s feet hardly touched the ground any more; he even levitated in his sleep. He needed to know more.
His BLU counterpart was close by. He could hear the man at work on his machines; the shriek of a drill, a light tinkling noise as a screw dropped to the ground. Engineer drew his pistol, calmly stepping out to face his nemesis... and froze in place. It’s just a Dispenser, he reassured himself distantly. But the sight of the tortured machine was enough to physically sicken him; multicoloured wires poured from gaping holes in the chassis. Parts of the insulated casing carefully removed, others violently torn away, patched with whatever scrap metal was available. The display needle flicked wildly between ‘empty’ and ‘full’. A drawer that had been welded shut burst open as he watched, spraying chunks of metal and sizzling oil. And yet the BLU Engineer barely moved at the sound; he remained crouched in front of the machine like it was some kind of shrine, his breathing heavy, his head bowed to its overloaded Australium heart. The man’s hands reached for a pair of flailing live wires, and a look of euphoric bliss crossing his face as the raw energy coursed into his body. It made sense now; his mutations had advanced so far that his body needed the electricity. He’d been using his own Dispenser, opening it up to feed his addiction and then messily patching it to cover his shame. So that’s how he does it, Engineer thought distantly, as he raised the Southern Hospitality above his head.
He brought it down once, twice, as cold and methodical as building a sentry, even as blood arced and splattered onto the walls and ceiling. The weakened man raised his arm to block the next blow, the confusion and fear all too apparent in his eyes. He didn’t even try to fight back; Engineer quickly lost count of the blows as they rained down upon his enemy, each one exacting a small part of his revenge. For his painful death, for every one of his team-mates’ tortured screams. For the very existence of the BLU team, for what they used to be, what they’d become, and how he’d come to see too much of himself in them.
He’d been fighting this for so long. Too long. He’d struggled, alone, against a rising tide of new senses and predatory instincts. He’d smiled and joked with the others even as his flesh secretly and silently writhed beneath his uniform, beneath his skin, as he struggled to maintain a form that could pass for human. And now it was Teufort all over again; everything he’d repressed for so long was erupting from every pore, and he could only watch as his monstrous body uncontrollably tore into his enemy. Claws sprouted from his fingertips and ripped away the BLU’s skin like soft dough, inhuman sounds erupting from his throat as his teeth found the meat beneath. He was tired of fighting it. So tired, it almost felt good to give in.
And now something was approaching him, sneaking up on him. He looked up from his kill. The sensitive barbels on either side of his face could detect its scent, even out of the water: another predator. MINE! He lashed out instinctively, baring his teeth in a gurgling roar, and charged forward just as he saw the blue dot trailing up his body, to center itself on his forehead.
Spy’s fingers fumbled a cigarette. He’d spent so much time inside his own head. Too much time, far too much. He’d calculated every movement he made in his efforts to keep up the illusion, the poise and finesse that was so expected of the gentleman he seemed to be. His very existence had been his masterpiece. His web of lies had been so beautiful. He’d cared for it, maintained and expanded it, never breaking a single thread. And then the whole thing was suddenly pulled from under him, plunging him into the acid bath of reality, until even that was taken away and he was left clinging to the precipice of oblivion.
He couldn’t bear to look back at the ruins of his inner world; it was like the center of the sun or a black hole, the yawning, all-consuming chaos. If he looked within for answers, he’d surely go insane. Maybe he was already insane. His perception of the world had changed so drastically in such a short time, and yet he couldn’t imagine it ever being any other way. Even here in the often-overlooked Respawn Control Room, the colours swirled like galaxies, infinitely beautiful and hopelessly confusing. He didn’t dare set foot outside; he knew, somehow, that out there they’d blind him completely. Even with his eyes closed, he could ‘see’ them somehow.
It was no wonder Sniper had tried to close himself off from the world, surrounding himself in an impenetrable cocoon of tangled branches. He was seeing this too, experiencing all of this the same as him, and that was a fact. Their minds should have been damaged beyond repair and yet somehow they’d been forced to adapt, supporting each other in a life-saving connection that threatened to drive them both completely insane. Spy finally lit the cigarette, letting it rest between his lips without bothering to inhale; the idea had come from nowhere, fluttering past like a scrap of burned paper. It made little sense, but he couldn’t help but feel like something outside of themselves had intervened, something that wanted them to live at any cost.
He remained un-moving, simply staring at the wall. Something suddenly had everyone’s attention, but why should it be any concern of his, in the condition he was in? Nonetheless, a certain someone, who was still keeping his own eyes in darkness, reached into him and practically forced him to turn his head. After half-heartledly looking over him before retreating back into his own inner turmoil, something had kicked their Medic back into full-on professional mode, shouting at the others to clear some space and move back. He squinted through the continued assault on his senses, out of his own curiosity this time. And with a numb realisation that spread right across his shared mind, he saw Engineer had not finally respawned, as he'd expected. Instead, laying on the floor, was the tiny body of their Demoman.
Spy inhaled the cigarette smoke, letting the firework flares of nicotine in his system drown out everything else for a few precious moments. Maybe that was why they'd survived; the BLU Spy's final, sadistic parting gift to them, letting two grown men live as freakish siamese twins, joined at the mind, while a child died in front of them.
Maybe not, Sniper distantly finished for him.