Stevie hobbled up another flight of stairs. The door read 43. He still had two more floors, four more flights, 48 more stairs. Each stair was an agonising struggle. The scars on his chest seared with pain. He touched his hand to his t-shirt again, sure that he would see blood, but amazingly the tissue still held together. He cursed at Whisky for not letting him take the elevator – he would have reached Walter by now – but neither Whisky or the rogue agent had dared to enter. They knew something was about to happen and expected it soon. He needed to hurry.
He spat on the floor and saw blood spatter where it landed, but it was not his blood. The trail led up to the next set of stairs, up to the 50th floor. It must have been Phil’s blood as the agent had dragged him up the staircase. Stevie felt inclined to follow it, to offer help, but he was already at the top of his mountain. He pushed open the door with 45 printed on it and carefully let it shut behind him.
He checked the corridor for any signs of life. It was empty. At the corner a sign read “Laboratory” and an arrow pointed left. He leant against the wall a moment in an attempt to gain some strength and composure. He recited Whisky’s instructions once more and set off down the corridor. At the corner he edged his way closer so he could barely be seen. At the far end was another agent standing outside a door just as Whisky had said. Stevie stepped back and took careful aim. Shoot to kill. Don’t miss.
His hands were steady as he used his left palm for support. Textbook style straight out of the shooting range. The agent’s tiny head lay just above the tip of the gun. Stevie squeezed the trigger.
A quake-like explosion drowned out his shot. The building seemed to shudder on its foundations. Down the corridor the agent shot up off the floor. Stevie had only flanked him. Stevie fired another shot but missed and two shots ricocheted off the wall next to his ear. He fell back around the corner for cover his back against the wall. Footsteps echoed down the hallway. The agent was coming. No time to think. The tip of Stevie’s left shoe flew off and he reeled his leg in. The rapid steps were closing in. Without second guessing himself Stevie pulled off his shoe and struggled to his feet. He took one final breath and tossed the shoe out and took one step out and fired.
The agent fell limp and slid another 5 yards, coming to rest just at Stevie’s feet. Stevie looked over at his shoe. It was in tatters. The agent had put two bullets through it and another just over Stevie’s shoulder before Stevie had landed his own bullet in the agent’s head. He put another bullet in his head for good measure – these guys had a habit of coming back to life – he stepped over the corpse and headed for the lab.
Stevie tried to shake the ringing from his head but he realised it was in fact the fire alarm. Sprinklers had started from overhead. Stevie was quickly soaked, and the cool water stung as it reached his recent battle wounds. He trudged down the hallway at no real pace. He had lost the motivation of survival, the motivation to save Walter – now all he could muster was the strength to continue. One step at a time lest he remember that he needed to kill another agent, find Walter and escort him down 45 flights of stairs.
He neared the door and he remembered Whisky’s words. The desk at 10 o’clock. 3 steps and shoot. He saw no reason to sway from this information. He could not afford to account for a variable. He was completely open to the influence of fate; the idea that the burden of choice and righteousness no longer counted was relieving. It was everything appealing about suicide without the act itself.
He spied through the window and saw the desk as promised. Elsewhere the room was lined with beds that appeared to be occupied by people who were either unconscious or dead. He opened the door cautiously. His boot clicked on the hard floor. One. His heart began to race – his body suddenly caught wind that his mind was quitting. Two.He aimed his gun a foot above the desk. Three.
Like a wooden duck at a carnival shooting range the agent had popped up and Stevie was already firing. His first shot hit the agent’s weapon and sent it sailing away, the second landed in the agent’s shoulder, the third hit his abdomen and the fourth hit his chest. The agent was pinned against the wall as Stevie advanced but his gun clicked idly as he continued to fire.
The agent managed to heave himself off the wall and lunged for Stevie, ripping the collar of his shirt before falling over the table. Stevie was pulled down by the force and the agent grabbed at his neck with a vice like grip. Stevie cursed and spat, smashing the pistol against the agent’s head as he struggled to free himself. The agent weakened and Stevie scrambled away. He crawled along the ground looking for the other pistol.
The agent had slid off the desk and was managing to stand up. Stevie was still sliding along the floor as he checked under the beds that lined the lab. He pulled himself to his feet at the other end of the room and the agent did likewise. The two stood, battered and long lost to the world, facing each other for one last round. Stevie pointed the pistol at the agent.
“I know the firearm didn’t travel that far.” He stepped towards Stevie ominously, lurking towards Stevie. “You don’t have it. You don’t know where it is.”
“Hey fuckface,” croaked a foreign voice. A man was sitting up in the adjacent bed, “I know where it is.” He pointed the gun at the agent who was already reaching out in desperation and fired. The agent fell to the bed, finally defeated.
Stevie limped over to his saviour cautiously. The man turned and Stevie felt a flash of recognition but it still took a moment to recognise him. “Manny Holdsworth?”
“I know what you’re thinking: the make-up artists do miracles to get me on screen.” He smiled like a true TV presenter but a severe cough shook the glint from his eye. “What’s your name, friend?”
“You here to rescue me, Stevie?”
“Figures. I thought they might have sent a bigger army though – or are you the last man standing?” Manny began to work his way off the bed.
“There were three of us. Are you OK to walk?”
Manny groaned heavily as he lowered his legs to the ground.Stevie moved around the bed to support him. “I think I’m OK. Take this,” He handed Stevie the pistol, “you know how to use it better than me.”
Stevie stepped back, his hands on his head as the adrenaline settled. He finally had a chance to take in the room’s surroundings. The beds lining the walls had shapes of bodies under the sheets but the majority were covered head to toe. There was hospital equipment and monitors attached to each, though most displayed as little signs of life as the occupants. “What is this place? Are these people...are they dead?”
“Most of us are. These are the test subjects for the Machine. Average lifespan on this thing is 2 days – at least that’s what I was told by Darren – but he’s dead now. Walter holds the record at 2 weeks and his output is extroadinary.”
“Output of what?”
“Happy Juice. The shit that they plan on selling. This is what I was trying to uncover last night with my father but I never knew it was a torture machine. They took us in after the show and I haven’t seen dad since.”
“He was out in the rally today. They had him selling the stuff.” Stevie remembered the punch he delivered to the jolly old man and felt a hint of guilt. Manny didn’t respond, he looked vacant. “Where is Walter? I’m supposed to get a key off the agent – the guy you killed.” He walked over to the limp body and tried to turn it over, but it overbalanced under the shift of weight and fell to the floor with a thud.
“Walter’s hooked up right now. He’s always on that thing, hours at a time. He told me he stays on longer because it means the others get more time to rest. Who knows what the lifespan must have been before he came in.”
Stevie lifted the card from around the agent’s neck. He had flashes of those movies where the dead came back to life at the worst moments. He hurried to put some reasonable distance between himself and the monster. “If it’s after Happy Juice shouldn’t it try to inspire happiness?”
“They say it extracts the happiness – like donating blood. You can only give so much.”
The image that Stevie had in his head was chilling. He knew that Citadel Inc was capable of evil but he never considered this. He stood up and turned to the far end of the room. “Through there?” Manny nodded. Stevie felt a sense of hope in having another person with him, someone strong enough to carry himself and possibly help with Walter. He had bottomed out and he was lucky to survive. Now there was a hope again.
“Listen, Stevie, I know Walt’s been awful strong for so many people in here but don’t think that the machine hasn’t worn him down.” Manny said as they headed for the door.
“Actually, I’ve been expecting to carry him out of here anyway.” The door was heavily reinforced, and there was a slight hum coming from inside.
“I don’t mean physically. I mean...” Manny trailed a little. Stevie swiped the passkey “It’s how he held on; he is set on that...that woman and...” Stevie pulled the heavy door with considerable force. It took all his might but it began to slowly open and the hum died down like an engine recently killed. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him but he can’t-”
Manny’s head exploded with a deafening bang. Stevie was frozen in a moment of time that seemed to last an age. A gun slowly revealed itself from behind the door and he let go of the door. The design of the door forced it to slam itself closed again under its own weight effectively pinning the leading forearm and hand that wielded the weapon. Time sped up in a vacuum of consciousness and Stevie pulled his piece and shot a hole in the wrist. The gun fell to the floor but the door shot open forcefully as if there were ten men pushing from the other side. Stevie was knocked to the floor.
He scrambled to back and turned to face the door. An agent came out menacingly but Stevie fired again, the bullet going straight through the agent’s neck. He staggered like a prize fighter who was tagged on the chin for the first time, unable to find his legs again. Blood spurted from the hole in his neck in excessive fashion and he could not focus his eyes on Stevie. It would have been cartoonish if not for the sickening gurgling sound.
The agent took to more wayward steps and fell to the ground beside Stevie. The back of his neck had a corresponding exit wound, it looked as though one of the vertebrae n his neck had been nicked.
Stevie fell back in exhaustion. He couldn’t go on. How many more were there? How much time did he have before reinforcements came in?
Almost as if it was a best efforts answer to his question a second explosion shook the building. They’re going to bring it down. Stevie lifted himself up in what felt like his fifth wind. He stood up and tried to remind himself that his exhaustion was not an excuse. He was able so he had no choice but to be willing.
He tried not to look at Manny’s dead body as he walked back to the door but he stole a glance despite himself. The once familiar TV identity was now nothing more than a lifeless replica with a hole in his left eye. Stevie swallowed a lump in his throat that wouldn’t pass. He swiped his passkey again and heaved open the door.
The room was small, the majority of the space taken up by the machine. It was a grand looking device with monitors and tubes attached that fed out through to the back of the room. Walter was sitting strapped to the machine, unable to budge. He had needles in both arms and a large metal device hovering over his head. The beep of the cardiac monitor and Walter’s soft, laboured breathing repelled the unnatural silence of the room.
Stevie hurried over and held up Walter’s head, “Walter! Walter!” Walter could only manage a groan in reply but his eyes rolled back around and he focussed on Stevie’s face. Stevie unstrapped Walter at the arms and legs, “We’re getting out of here, Walter, I’m here to rescue you.”
“Stevie.” Walter croaked. He cleared his throat with some effort. “Don’t let them put you on. I can stay here. I can do one more session.”
“Nobody’s doing anymore sessions.” Stevie unstrapped Walter’s head and lifted the metal dome. Walter let in a huge gasp of air as he was freed from the machine. He fell to his hands and knees coughing and spitting. He crawled over to the door and rest himself up against it. Stevie gave him some time to relax.
Walter had looked dead when he was on the machine but he seemed to come back to life as he sat there. “Stevie? What are you doing here?” he asked, almost managing a smile.
“Don’t worry. We’re leaving now.”
Stevie shrugged. “Through that door would be a start.”
Walter struggled to his feet. Stevie helped him push open the door and it slammed shut behind them.
Walter looked down and saw Manny. “Manny?” he said weakly. “But why...”
“Walter!” a shrill scream came from the far side of the room. Stevie instinctively raised his weapon and found himself pointing it at Lucy Blues. She ran over to Walter and gave him a hug, wrapping her arms around his neck like a schoolgirl. “It’s so good to see you! You look good!”
Walter smiled as she released him. “Well you do usually see me on the machine doing a session.”
“You’re right. You’re so brave you know. You don’t know how many people you are helping.” Lucy looked as though she was about to cry all of the sudden. “There’s so many sad people who need your help.” She gave Walter another hug. Stevie did not like what he was seeing. Lucy was in business attire, a charcoal suit with a skirt, but she looked frazzled. Her hair was not tied down and her eyes were slightly bloodshot. She caught Stevie’s gaze, “Hello.” She said, sniffling unattractively as she tried to regain her composure.
“Uh, Lucy this is Stevie. He is a police officer here to help me.”
“To help you what?”
“-Escape, Dr Blues.” Stevie said, shortly, “And I should add that we haven’t got much time.”
“Escape?” Lucy was confused. “From who? You’re not leaving are you, Walt?”
“The building is ready to collapse. There are agents out trying to kill us and the if you haven’t noticed Walter is being tortured to death.”
“Trying to kill you, maybe,” Lucy retorted. “And Walter is here on his own free will, aren’t you?”
Walter did not respond immediately and Stevie was getting extremely frustrated. “Free will? Are you insane? Look around you. People are dying here. People are dead.” He gestured at the disfigured head of Manny Holdsworth for clarification.
“These people are volunteers. Don’t you see what Walter is achiev-”
“He was shot trying to escape! How is that volunteering? Walter?!”
“We are on the brink of evolution here. The human race is about to reach a new pinnacle. Walter help me open this door.” She stepped past Stevie and swiped her pass key to enter the machine room. Walter obliged, avoiding Stevie’s bewildered look.
“I don’t think I should do another session.” He said softly, pulling the door open again. The two of them entered and Stevie stood at the opening struggling to keep the door ajar.
Lucy walked to the back of the machine and ejected a large capsule with a pale blue liquid inside. “Is this today’s?” She asked. Walter nodded. “It’s not as much as the last few days. I thought we were reaching a new standard.”
“Well Stevie shut it down early.”
“Shut it down early? Are you kidding me? You were almost dead!”
Lucy took a sip from the flask and her face flushed with an unnatural joy. She squealed with delight, “It’s still so good!” She turned and gave Walter a kiss on the cheek.
“Why are you here, Dr Blues? You’re not here to save Walter at all. You’re just here for the juice.”
“I’m here for Walter.” She replied with a smile. She looked like she was losing control. Her eyes darted to Stevie’s right hand and back. Stevie tightened the grip around his weapon.
“Lets’go, Walter. We need to get out of here. Dr Blues can come if she likes.”
“You can’t leave yet.” Lucy was struggling to maintain control. Stevie could sense she was about to act recklessly, a policeman’s sixth sense. He only hoped Walter would trust him.
“Don’t even think about it, lady!” Stevie boomed, raising his pistol. Lucy froze still. “Walter we need to get the fuck out of here!”
“Stevie! Wh- what are you doing?”
“We can’t trust her Walter. She isn’t here to help. She is one of them.”
“She’s not.” Walter stepped closer. “She’s the only one who helped me through this. Without her I would have given up. I would have been one of these bodies lying here.”
“She didn’t do it for you, Walter,” Stevie said, still staring at Lucy, waiting for her to give him an excuse. “It’s her machine, her technology, her profit. She’s fucking hooked on this stuff and she needs you to keep pumping it out. She won’t let us leave and it’s only a matter of time before more fucking agents come in.”
“Stevie you don’t understand. These people need my help. I wanted to do this. It’s my right and my duty.”
Stevie could not believe what he was hearing. “You’re fucking kidding me! Who fed you this shit. You don’t owe shit to anyone. And if you think you’re helping just look at this woman. She is high as a kite. That’s not happiness, Walter.”
“Stevie put the gun down. I trust her.” Walter pleaded. He stepped tentatively in between Stevie and his target. “Lucy tell him why you’re here. You’re here to help.”
Lucy nodded, “We need to get out. I agree with you, Stevie.”
“Stevie.” Walter said, putting his hand on the gun. “Trust me.” He gently removed the gun from Stevie’s grip.
Stevie suddenly felt a horrible rush of fatigue. “You’re making a mistake, Walter.”
“No, you’re making the mistake,” Lucy said. She took the gun from Walter’s hands before he could react and she shot Stevie.