Maria had no idea where to go within the ventilation system, she only knew she had to go somewhere, and so she went. She passed a dozen more ceiling vents, all within offices or interrogation rooms like the one she’d woken up in. She tried her best not to think about the implications of everything she’d seen and been told by Ellia, and tried even harder not to think about what she’d done to Ellia, both in the past, and presently.
She was beginning to lose hope of ever getting anywhere useful when she came across an interrogation room with an active restraint field. In the room were four armed guards and a man in a suit. The man had thick brown hair with hints of grey, light blue eyes, and a thin goatee. His hair was in a different style than it had been, and his clothing was entirely different. He’d shaved, but… Maria had no doubt. This man was Loriol Ninia, or whatever his real name was. And in the restraint field… was Lolanene.
“I ain’t sayin’ shit to y’all. Yer lady friend was already in here earlier. Didn’t tell her shit, ain’t tellin’ you shit neither!” Lolanene’s voice was rough, hoarse and strained, but she was here, she was alive.
The man smirked as he leaned on the table, standing. “You fail to realize the predicament you’re in.” His voice was that same deep, gravelly smoothness she remembered. “You see, Ms. Castelliona, we already know everything we need to know. Not talking now won’t help you or your friends. It’ll just make things… painful for you.”
“Whatever. Do what ya want to me. Ain’t like I got a choice in the matter.”
Ninia smiled “Oh but you do, Ms Castelliona. You see, your compatriot, Ms. Carlena has escaped containment. If you tell me what you know about her escape plan, I can be… persuaded to help you out. Not freedom, you see, but… a chance for survival. What do you say?”
“I say ya can go fuck yerself.”
<No he can’t…> Mirideth’s text was followed with a colon symbol and a round bracket symbol. Maria didn’t understand what the symbols meant.
“I don’t know anything about Maria escapin’, and if I did I wouldn’t tell ya. And if she’s out, y’all are essentially just waitin’ to die at this point anyway.”
Ninia chuckled softly “Is that so?” He turned back to the armed guards in the room, “Open fire.”
All at once the vent lit up with blinding light, the sound of sizzling heat and groaning metal filled the air. Maria was already moving, her claws extended and ripped through the vent, dropping her below the line of fire. As she dropped and flipped herself upright, and swung her tail toward one of the shining chrome rifles, the blade of her tail cleaving straight through it, and the man’s arm behind it. Screaming joined the cacophony of noise as Maria leaped past Ninia and onto the next armed man. She tore through him in the blink of an eye, and moved on to the next, ripping him open easily, one more, and it was over. The room was covered in blood, as was Maria.
She turned to see Ninia, who had fallen backward onto the table and was in the process of standing back up, and Lolanene, who was just staring in shock. Maria stepped over to Ninia and shoved him back onto the table after sheathing her claws. “Hello, Loriol.” She said, menace in her voice.
“H-hey. Listen, we can work something out, right?” His voice was strained and his face was full of terror.
“Shut up. I’m going to ask you some very important questions, and you are going to answer them. Truthfully. Understand me?”
“Y-yep. Yeah. I’m all ears.” He smiled nervously.
“Are you Loriol Ninia?”
“Not exactly no uhhh… that was a cover. I was only Ninia for maybe three years, utilizing connections made for intelligence ops across that district of Xia IV, as well as beyond. My name is uh.. It’s Helolak, Helolak Vanderbrind.” He was sweating profusely, and his entire body was shaking with fear.
Maria wasted no time between questions. ”Why did you brainwash Niarith Velnazranak?”
“She was convenient. She was a criminal, and would be able to report useful intel for me. Was gonna use her as a uhm.. As a sorta field agent y’know? But then you came along to save her, that… fucking thing inside her… the one that shot me... that plan didn’t work out.” He swallowed “W-wait that thing’s in you now isn’t it?”
Maria felt a surge of anger “How the fuck do you know that?”
“You know how. You stole your file from the woman you eviscerated.” Helolak spat.
Maria felt her grip loosen slightly. “I... she forced it. I didn’t want to do that.” Her grip tightened again, “Don’t you dare act like you’re somehow superior to me you piece of shit. What did you do to Niarith? Tell me right the fuck now.”
“You know what I did. I used various techniques, subliminals, hypnosis, brainwashing, drugs, to make her obedient to me.”
Maria lifted Helolak by the shirt and slammed him back down on the table. “You’re stalling, you Void taken motherfucker! Get to the point. That didn’t work, we got away. So how and why was she still sending you reports with that name you gave her?!” She struggled not to just extend her claws and end the man.
“Aagh, okay, fuck, okay! The conditioning I had put into her was intensive, more than she’d be able to break by sheer force of will, or even that fucking thing inside her. She managed to force her way to the surface, but she’s still treading water in it, so to speak. She loses control, often. She’s just programmed to not let you know it’s happening. Any time she’s been on the VRnet, part of what she’s been doing has been sending me the very reports you now have.” He was breathing heavily in a mixture of pain, fear, and anger.
Maria could think of only one other question. “Why?”
“N-now see that’s… that’s a complex question, I rea-” Maria kicked him in the leg as hard as she could. Which turned out to be very hard. A loud snapping sound filled the room as Helolak’s knee caved in backward. Blood pooled on his pant leg immediately as he screamed. It sounded more like an animal than a human. He passed out seconds later.
"Shit! I didn't mean to do that! Heaven and Void what the fuck do we do now?" Maria was pacing back and forth, trying to ignore how her body had no physical response to her panic.
"Could maybe let me outta this field?" Lolanene said.
"Yes, right." Maria made her way across the room. "Good to see you're okay, Lolanene."
"By some definition of the word, anyway. How the fuck did we get captured?"
Maria examined the restraints, and found the same emitters hers had had. "We did it voluntarily. It was the only way to save your life."
Lolanene looked shocked "Fuck me in the dark… You did that for me?"
Maria shifted her power generation to her wrists and killed Lolanene's restraint field, catching her as she fell and carefully setting her down. “Of course. We weren’t going to just let you die. If we had done that to save ourselves, we wouldn’t be worth saving.”
Lolanene just stared for a few moments, then stepped forward and hugged Maria tightly. “Maria, yer like a sister to me. I mean that.” she sniffled “A terrifyin’ sister that can tear people apart in seconds, but a sister.”
“How cute.” Helolak sounded pained, weak, but he was awake again. Maria shoved Lolanene behind her, just as a bright flash of blue light hit Maria’s left arm, heating the metal to a glow.
“You. Did not. Just try that.” Maria said, anger clear in her voice.
He aimed his pistol right at Maria’s head, half-laying on the table, breathing heavily. “Next one goes right through your brain, bitch. Don’t try anything.”
<I’ve got this, darling.>
“Oh and if that thing makes any kind of move at all, I’ll kill you.”
“So what are you intending by keeping us here?” Maria asked.
“Stalling for time. Someone’s gonna come in here eventually. And when they do, you’ll be back in custody. And you won’t escape this time. We’ll make damn sure of it.” He smiled, though it might have been a pained grimace.
“I don’t suppose you’d answer my question now? If I’m to be captured anyway, why not let me know?” Maria relaxed her stance, carefully keeping Lolanene behind her and quietly opening the compartment in her back which held her file, and Commander Meltrusia’s gun.
“Sure, why the fuck not? I did it to make sure even if she escaped, my work wasn’t in vain. I decided to use her for intel on things going on outside Xia IV, and tried to get you too. She’s not the only one, either. She’s part of a network of sleeper agents I’ve created over time. Not official of course, but it’s helped me do my job better than anyone else. Gotten me promoted, prestige, it’s made me rich.”
“You Void taken son of a bitch… I will fucking end you…” It took all of Maria’s self control not to rush him and tear him apart.
“Sure you will. You can try, but you’ll just get shot.” Helolak smiled.
The door to the room opened, and a guard stepped into the room. They looked around at the bodies, and the situation before them as the door closed again. Their face was hidden behind the dark faceplate of their armor. Helolak sighed in relief.
“Thank fuck, somebody came!” He didn’t take his eyes off Maria.
“Not here for you, bastard.” Niarith said, taking off her helmet.
Maria felt a rush of panic as she realized what was about to happen.
“Ah, Agent Marengo, welcome to the party.” As Helolak said the name, Niarith’s body reacted, jolting as if shocked by electricity, then settling into an attention stance, hands behind her back, a very un-Niarith like smirk on her face.
“Glad to drop in, Boss.” Her voice was different, deeper, smoother. “I see the prisoners have been busy.”
“How did you, uh, get here?” Helolak asked.
“Oh, I escaped on my own and took down a guard. Came here hoping to free Lolanene after figuring out where she was. Glad you stopped me, Sir.” Maria loathed the smirk on Niarith’s face. She loathed Agent Marengo. She needed a distraction. And so she extended her claws.
Helolak tensed, ready to fire, but Lolanene stepped out from behind Maria, with Meltrusia’s gun, aimed directly at Helolak himself. “I wouldn’t.” She said.
Niarith picked up one of the fallen guard’s rifles, aiming at Lolanene. “You’re gonna want to put that down.”