It seemed only yesterday Traft saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
Unfortunately for him, the light blinded him when he was pulled from the gel-filled Womb by hands sleeved in blue latex. He could still recollect expanding his lungs to breathe until he was turned over and lightly smacked on his back, spewing chunks of the vat’s gel that had filled his lungs. A few more smacks drained the gel but left his lungs raw and burning as they swallowed oxygen for the first time.
The surgical masked brunette female who wore the blue latex held him up. The indention of her smile beneath the blue surgical mask and her wide blue eyes didn’t cure his burning lungs, nor did soothing words spoken in her alien language.
Traft almost believed it would, too. Almost, since his small brain was so vulnerable.
He should have known better that her happy expression could hide an important human feature: unpredictability. Because being placed under another blinding light his nose and mouth was covered with a clear synthetic mask, forcing oxygen into his lungs. As his lungs expanded and he swallowed air, panic switched to calm.
Only for a whopping three clicks.
If that much.
A shadow blocked out the light. A single eye blazed red. It buzzed. And hummed. And unfolded its four appendages shaping itself in a large claw.
Traft’s shrieks were muffled under the synthetic.
Long needles grew at each end of the appendage and a click later drilled into Traft’s arms and legs. And if four shots weren’t enough to sting the flesh, something very small and very cold crawled onto his cheek.
It twitched to life and scratched its way across his skin and located his ear and slipped inside.
Traft’s muffled shrieks switched to screams.
The bright light winked out, leaving dark spots in Traft’s vision. The brunette reappeared, now unmasked, and placed a warm blanket over him and spoke more soothing words—more lies, Traft was sure of it—in her alien language with a wide grin under her nose. She touched his forehead, spoke a few more words, as four glass walls grew around him.
She placed two foreign objects beside him. One with two bubbles atop an oblong green head and a tongue stuck out between its lips chimed “Ribbit” from an unseen speaker while another harbored long whiskers, a twitching nose, and a stretch of long ears grown from its blue skull. It held a carrot in one of its hands.
Both did not move.
They only gazed at Traft with wide eyes and smiles.
Like the brunette.
As fear still played a tune, Traft’s screams turned into cries and soon sleep arrived, pulling him into the dark.
And somewhere, deep in the darkness of Slader Corp, Traft could swear he heard voices.
Musty air filled his lungs, a swallow of vintage history, as he stepped inside.
He moved the Wintergreen Life Savor around in his mouth.
Then flicked a switch on his weapon.
Light blasted back darkness. And if one holomercial wasn’t enough already:
No, I don’t wish to order the warranty, Traft mentally snapped the holomercial off, thank you very much. How had he forgotten to disable the company’s welcome message when he ordered it?
He blamed it on a non-caffeinated state.
He blinked, cutting off the holomercial for the second time. “Gods who ride in the spheres, does it not e—?”
<—on your next order. Don’t wait. Don’t hesitate. Don’t allow this special to fly away!>
“Apparently not.” He blinked a second time and waited.
Traft lifted his boot to move forward. “Okay. Finally—”
Traft grumbled. “Nimbus, please help?”
Silence once again.
A permanent one.
He used his fingernail to loop another Life Savor. Dropped it. Cursed. And angled his light to quickly snatched it up before the five-second rule ended. He crunched the one already in his mouth, then swallowed. He popped in the other, keeping the wintergreen sensation continuous without flaw on his taste buds.
Another voice slipped down the hall.
He slipped his weapon off his shoulder.
The hallway showed no sign of a door and no sign of a keypad for an entry. The path stretched until he strolled past an elevator and slipped through a door leading to a stairwell. His boots echoed during decent to the next floor.
Multiple keypad outlets littered the walls, but none glowed neon.
Gods only knew how long the building had been vacant of its predecessor. Clawdious never gave him that info, no history lesson of the day, just emailed him his orders and sent him to recover the bodies.
He glanced at his bracelet. The fire emoji silently flickered.
The target wasn’t far.
Traft’s light shoved away more darkness as he slipped into another stairwell, descended, and in twenty boot steps he stopped, cocked his head and twitched his left ear.
Behind him, movement and a giggle.
He reversed his light.
He stood there a few clicks longer before starting off again.
The hallway took a hard right and a ramp covered in anti-slip material descended him toward another stairwell. Midway down another hallway a sound tapped his hearing.
And the floor vibrated.
Traft swung around, his weapon at the ready. Light splashed the view as the vibration increased its intensity and a metallic whirr spoke behind the walls. As if it rained sleet made of metal behind the walls, a storm crashed and its reverberation swarmed the hallway as it passed by, slipping around a corner, slipping away until diminishing.
“You get that, Nimbus?”
“Any ideas what the hells that was?”
I’m scanning, sir… but something is jamming the frequency, not allowing me to read it.
He placed a claw on the wall, felt a slight vibration tingle the tips of his fingers.
Traft crunched his Life Savor, popped in another.
The emoji continued to flicker.
It was very close.
The path took another hard turn and Traft stood about twenty boot steps from a spot of a glow of an orange spot on a wall.
A shadow winked out the genesis of the color for half a click, a shift in the room’s air space and another wink as something dark and furry plopped out of the hole onto the floor. Another few furry objects followed, all following the leader, and eight beady eyes gazed up at Traft.
Wet noses sniffed the air and small heads tilted backward as they twitched their long whiskers and wiggled their long tails.
“Kilgor, good to see you again,” the voice echoed in the hall.
“Nice pets,” Traft said. “Too bad I didn’t bring any glue traps.”
The voice chuckled. “Very amusing. You always love making jokes.”
“Gotta pass the time somehow.” He crunched down on his Life Savor.
“Well, since you’re here, don’t just stand there. C’mon inside.”
The rats moved out of the way to allow Traft a pass. A wheel in the wall spun with a whine and the orange widened just enough for Traft to squeeze through. He felt like he stepped into another world. Or, better put, the only room in the entire building remodeled. The walls were splashed with color and a few abstract-looking paintings hung. The place reflected a strong similarity to the Oval Office with tall windows sitting behind an oak desk, an overview of the colony. Two flags sat on both sides of the desk, at opposite corners of the room. One harbored the design of a black arachnid over white, while the other harbored crossed scythes, both black, set over blood red. Sitting behind the desk peeking out of a hooded cloak was Maximus Slader.
“Sorry, the door is defunct. My computer is having issues today. It may have a virus.”
Traft sniggered. “Must be in the water.”
“Much like those corpses in the river, huh?” he chuckled.
“So,” the chair squeaked as Maximus reclined and placed his feet on the desk, “you here to retrieve another one of my kiddos?”
“I would have figured Clawdious has enough of my blood to run the Troughs by now.”
“I wouldn’t know. I don’t question Clawdious.”
“You should. Then you could persuade the old guy to stop sending you my way.”
“I don’t question the job. Why wouldn’t I stop coming here? I enjoy every visit, Maximus.”
“I’m sure you do, since you seem to leave with the winnings.”
“Guess I’m lucky.”
“You may not have luck by your side today, old friend.”
“I’m betting I do, old friend.”
“Kilgor, you’re just like a clone. You do as you are told.”
“Much like you do to Barrabas and Kimberly?”
Maximus’ left eye twitched. The corner of his mouth rose. “Yes. They are loyal. They’re soldiers. They follow orders. The scar on your left ear should be a reminder of that.”
“I guess you could say that.” Traft’s twitched his ear, sniffed, and shrugged his shoulders. “But I am also a loyal soldier.”
“Yeah, guess you’re right.” He sighed. “Well,” he slipped his feet off his desk. “It seems you continue to arrive her unannounced. Not a fan of the pop-in, Kilgor.”
“Sorry, just my style, Maximus.”
Maximus stood. “So it is. I grow so very tired of it, Kilgor. Usually you are efficient when it comes to collecting your bounties, flying under the radar and snatching my children when I am not looking. Not today. I made sure your scanner led you to this room. Today things will be changing. You’re not getting another one of my children. Ever again. You won’t walk out of here alive.”
“I’ll be the judge of that, thank you very much.”
Maximus forced a smile through a scowl. “Indeed, you will.”
Behind Traft, there were footsteps.
“Who’s that?” the small voice asked.
Traft turned to face not only a little girl sheathed in a light blue dress, which was the only thing nice about her, save for her pitch black eyes and dark grey skin, but five more just like her. Cloned just like her.
“That, my little dears, is a good friend of mine,” Maximus introduced.
“You running an experiment I don’t know about?” Kilgor asked.
All small faces gazed at Kilgor. “Does he like to play games?” one asked.
Maximus’ eyes flicked at Traft. “Always. He loves them. Make him feel at home, children.”
She grinned, pulling her lips away from a palate of ivory points. “Sure thing.”
“I’m sorry I cannot stay, Kilgor. Please, accept my apologies. You may see me again…” a spot on the wall spiraled open. “Or not.” And he was gone.
“What shall we play?” one girl asked another.
“Let’s play Pin The Tail On The Traft.”
Each child squealed with laughter and clapped their hands.
Then pulled very long knives with very sharp blades.
They took a turn and chanted:
“Pin the tail…”
“…On the Traft.”
“If he hollers…”
“….If he screams.”
“If he cries….”
They circled the goblin badger.
“….Make him pay.”
They all grinned ivory.