Chimera and the Shrubbery
Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics
“Two guards out front as you’d expect.” Beetlebum scratched his tin head, trying to look over towards the tower whilst not drawing any attention to himself. “Come on, Jay, let’s leave it. There’s no way in.”
“We could bluff our way past them.” Jeremy watched with his optical vision magnified as the guards at the door mumbled dull conversation to each other. The moon was clouded, and the little light in the base came from the windows of the buildings. “But that’d leave witnesses we were actually inside the building at the time. It might get traced back to us.”
“I hate how it’s ‘us’ now.” Beetlebum sighed. “Even when- I mean if– we get inside, how are you planning to access these files, exactly?”
“You.” Jeremy hushed his voice as a pack of rowdy soldiers walked past, returning to their quarters for sleep. They passed on. “There’s no door you can’t unlock, no file encryption you can’t break, Bee.”
“And what if I’d have said no?” Beetlebum rasped haughtily.
“There’s no if. Come on.”
Jeremy strode towards the tower, and the guards, without skipping a beat. Beetlebum followed behind nervously. Just as they got close, Jeremy raised one hand quickly, and lowered it again. The guards recognised him from his bizarre mask and his veteran status, and they waved back. Instead of stopping to talk, Jeremy continued straight past them, moving quickly as if he was late for an important engagement.
When they were back out of earshot, the tower behind them, Beetlebum laughed. “So you chickened out in the end, then?”
Jeremy stomped his foot, and it met the ground below them with a ringing echo. “Not exactly.” He reached down into the sand, buried his hand for a few seconds, then pulled it back out, carrying with it a thick circular lid. Sand slipped away beneath them rapidly, gradually slowing to a stop and revealing a newly created black hole in the ground. “Twenty paces north. I thought this was right. The cooling vent, for the archive servers. I watched the automatons dig it up a week ago. It’ll lead us right inside the tower.”
“Hmph.” Beetlebum was reluctantly impressed.
Even in the dim light they noticed a thin shadow fall across them. “What are you two doing?”
Jeremy squinted, adjusting his eyes in the darkness. “Sasha?” He laughed in relief. “I thought we were busted! What do you want exactly? Isn’t it past your bedtime?” He poked a finger in her direction.
Sasha smashed her fists together in frustration. “You do not get to talk to me like that! I am not a little girl!”
“Woah, honey, keep your voice down, please..” Beetlebum hissed, glancing around nervously.
“What I am doing here, Jeremy, is going to the bar to tell you that I’m willing to keep quiet, for you- about what happened in the forest- on the condition that from now on everything we do is above board. No more secret missions.”
“Sasha, I’m sorry-”
“And yet I find you up to who-knows-what, digging up holes near the command tower! This is exactly what I’m talking about!”
Jeremy moved face to face with his partner. “Okay. I understand you’re annoyed. But keep shouting and I’ll pull your modulator out. Got it?”
Sasha squeaked, and her eyes fluttered. Her thin crease of a mouth drooped, and she stepped backwards. “I’m asking Vato for a new partner tomorrow.”
“Fine.” Jeremy couldn’t help feel a pang of disappointment, and he didn’t try to ignore it, or kid himself. He liked Sasha. Not many new recruits would’ve told a lie for him.
Sasha turned around to run, but turned back, unable to suppress her curiosity. “What exactly is it that you’re doing?”
“Checking the Council archives for information on our Guardian friends,” muttered Jeremy.
“You’re mad.” She ran away.
Beetlebum let out a quiet whistle. “Will she keep quiet about this?”
“Yeah,” Jeremy replied, trying to hide his sadness.
They dropped into the vent and carefully replaced the lid behind them, sealing them in the long black tunnel. The light at the end of it represented the server room at the bottom of the command tower. It took longer than either of them expected to wriggle their way to it. Their elbows and knees scraped painfully along, and they slowed down even more to minimise the sound.
Jeremy exited the far end of the pipe, which was inconveniently placed midway up the wall, and collapsed with a crash onto the floor of the server room. He gazed in wonder at the huge servers bolted to the walls of the round room, their lights blinking blue and green intermittently and thick bundles of wires sprouting out of them and coating the floor. Beetlebum then landed on top of his head.
“Watch out!” moaned Beetlebum as he climbed off of Jeremy’s head.
“Maybe say that before you jump on me?” whispered Jeremy.
“So what next? Your precious data could be on any of these servers.” Beetlebum looked around at the various doors nervously, as if expecting them to open at any moment.
“Don’t get coy now. You know they’re all connected. Look, here’s the interface. Are you going to help?”
Beetlebum glanced at the keyboard that sat in front of the small interface monitor, and then at his own fingertips. “Do you think they can identify us by any filings we leave behind?”
“You’ve been reading too many detective novels.” Jeremy pushed him aside and began typing. The archives offered little computerised protection, and in moments the culmination of centuries of information lay open to him.
He pulled up a map of UFFJAH territory. On it were marked the capital cities, all of them with hundreds of secret files on important personnel, and events from far in the past. The territories of the three clans- Clan Dragomir, Clan Dobrosaw and Clan Argus- spread across the map in colours: black, red and yellow. Scrolling along a timeline into the past would animate these colours and show how the territories changed over time. Given that the United Front was supposed a completely stable entity, and infighting between the clans was reported to be nearly non-existent at this point, the colours changed a dramatic amount, even when only looking back over the past year.
“Stop messing about Jay. Get your data, and let’s get out of here.”
Right down in the south of the map was the expanding frontlines: Vato’s new base for Clan Dragomir. Oddly, the entire area was not sporting the colour of the clan, but instead an ambiguous shade of diagonal lines. The base had only just been established, so it was likely that there would be some time before it would be entered into the archives.
Not so far to the south- not nearly as far as Jeremy would have hoped- was a pool of dark green that stretched right across the map, filling the continent. This one was easy: the Chimera. Their land mass was easily three times that of the UFFJAH and ever growing. Jeremy shuddered. He had never seen the bigger picture like this, but it spoke clearly: the war was going badly. And this newly established base was far less safe than Vato had made out. They were in dangerously close to Chimera territory. Jeremy could only hope that the reward- the tonnes of invaluable minerals waiting to be mined- was worth the risk of riling their most hated enemy.
But: not his problem. He was here to dig up data on the forest, and there it was. Clearly marked on the map, just to the west of the base. Scrolling back in time, Jeremy could see it had been there for a long time; decade; centuries. The forest had been known about since the very formation of the UFFJAH. Dozens of addendums were attached to the location. Jeremy waded through the files. Bot after bot, Missing In Action. All in the vicinity of the forest. No investigation ever conducted. It was war, people went missing and were simply presumed dead unless they turned up. That was the way of it. Until right now, nobody had managed to connect the dots, that all of them had died at the hands of these Guardians.
“What the sparkplug?” Beetlebum irises widened to maximum, his eyes glued to the monitor. “You were.. right?”
“You expected any less?” Jeremy gloated. He regarded the data that clearly showed he was correct. Denver’s death, and that of all of those in the graveyard they had found, were clearly documented. The Guardians had been protecting their land for hundreds of years, at least.
And yet, aside from the multiple missing persons, there was no further data. Jeremy had wanted to know who the Guardians were, where they came from and whether there were any more of them. He frowned, his pink nose wrinkling in irritation.
Beetlebum still gawped. “I just didn’t believe-”
There was a beep. The main door to the room slid open. Beetlebum and Jeremy stared at each other, then, as one, they dropped to the floor and stayed crouched in the dim of the room.
Footsteps entered, and a torch activated. It began crawling across the floor, painting intricate shadows as it shone through railings and machinery. Jeremy and Beetlebum slid down into lying positions, hoping that the cover of darkness and wires would allow them to stay hidden.
The torchbeam settled over Jeremy’s foot, and slowly but surely crept up to his face, his long ears drooping in disappointment.
“Do you two know how silly you look?” Sasha let out a quiet giggle.
“You again!” shouted Jeremy, more in surprise than anger. “How did you get in here?”
“The front door, bozo.”
“Didn’t the guards see you?”
Sasha prepared to answer, but was cut of by a siren directly behind her. She screeched at the same time as a burst of red energy cut through her chest. She stumbled forward, her white facemask set aflame.
Jeremy watched as she collapsed forward onto a railing with a metallic clang, her eyes and his meeting. She lay still.
Guards filled the room. The main lights flicked on, revealing Jeremy and Beetlebum crouched on the floor, unable to process what had happened. Ten guns trained on their heads. Beetlebum raised his hands in surrender. Jeremy got to his feet.
“Breaking into Vato’s tower-”
“What kind of plot is this?”
“Throw both of them in the cells, right this second.”
“And this one? She’s one of the brand new reinforcements.”
The guard captain kicked Sasha, to see if she had any life left in her. After a pause, she squirmed on the ground, clutching the hole in her side with both hands.