The face of a young man is displayed upon the front of the scouting orb. Judging by appearance, I presume the young man is somewhere in their twenties. He glances from left to right with a pale complexion, messy black hair, sunken eyes, and a pair of spectacles with square lenses. Scratching a scraggly stubble that has sprouted around his mouth, he lifts a white sheet of paper, stares at it, and then looks back up. His tired eyes gaze at something that reflects in his spectacles, casting a blue hue on his face.
With a yawn, he turns away and then says, “The suit is empty, huh. What the hell are we even paying that welder for anyway? He only worked, what, eleven hours, tops… I wish I only had to work that long. There’s a lot of this red vapor in here. I think it is supposed to have some kind of effect on those that breathe it in.”
He pops his neck, pushes his spectacles back into place, and reads the white paper for another moment. Placing the paper to the side, the scout begins rotating in place. “Hmm, hmm, hmm… anyone capable of speaking to me? I assume you all know English; I don’t think we assigned any of the international researchers to this locality. If we did, the woman who knows Hindi went home already, but the other translators are still here.”
The man reaches for something, his hand disappears from the picture, and returns with an item I recognize—a sandwich. “Eh, who am I kidding, Lincoln, Pierce, and I haven’t been able to get anyone worthwhile, much less any international researchers. If we were able to get them, we wouldn’t be working with those fruitcakes from the Hex Church,” he rolls his eyes, taking a big bite of his sandwich.
My eyelids slide open as the scout floats to the nine people infected by vermillion haze. The scout’s torch illuminates their faces. “...Yeahhh, you guys don’t really look that hot,” the voice says between chewing his food. “And two of you are like half-naked... Not bad, though; it’s the little things in life. Mostly because everything else cost money.”
‘This scandalous… scouting orb; what a lecherous scouting orb!’ 
The scouting orb glides about the room, the vermillion haze bending around its form as it floats about. It approaches the pit of intertwined roots and gazes into it. On the Arcade’s ceiling, I regard the colorful reflection of the scout’s light bouncing off the surface of the glassy roots. It reminds me of the cold mornings when the sun would beam through the stained windows of the worn church back in London.
The voice speaks again, washing away my nostalgic melancholy, “Don’t see any leaks; I assumed something must have gone wrong with the experiment. These are the only roots we’ve exposed; it sorta looks like someone dumped a bunch of salt on it... Yeah, but I’m not gonna lie, it would be super convenient if it fixed itself somehow.”
“H-hey!” Jessica’s voice shouts.
“Oh man, watch out; we got a talker!” the man in the scout says, spinning around. It darts over to Jessica, illuminating her figure. He tosses his sandwich to the side. “Hard to see in here, ain’t it? Hmm, ah! Hello, Officer, my name is Gary, and wow, you’ve got a creepy-ass coffin on top of you, y’know? Not to mention you look a bit scary, your eyes are totally red, and the veins around them are… kinda badass, actually! Hopefully, it’s not permanent, though.”
‘So this “Gary” lives in the scouting orb? Nay Terra explained moving pictures to me and showed me the people performing sign language. Those pictures never spoke back, however… I do not know, but it is more fun to just say he resides in the orb, though, I do not believe that to be the case.’
Jessica lies there, rubbing the veins around her eyes, her pupils quivering.
In the scout’s picture, I witness Gary add some powder to a white mug. He stirs the liquid in a mug using a silver spoon and then purses his lips. Placing the spoon to the side, he asks, “Listen, I’m just a desk jockey, for the most part, I don’t wanna hurt you or anything, but also I have a question, why are you here? Didn’t we already talk to your chief about y’all coming in here with or without permission?”
Jessica’s brows furrow. “I only came in here because we heard something! B-but, hey, now’s not the time to talk about those kinda little details! I need your help, somethings wrong with the others!”
“You don't have your cell phone or radio with ya?”
“N-no!” Her eyes turn away. “We left them in the cruiser.”
Gary sighs. “You’re a dirty cop, huh? Afraid they might see you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be? A bit paranoid, but I heard they caught one guy like that a few weeks back.”
“I… No! Why would you think that!?” she stammers, her mouth opening and closing. “There was a sign outside that said no cell phone, so I-I…”
“Oh, I forgot about that sign, can’t have private company business leaking into the public, y’know? Well, it was just a guess anyway, honestly, but it’s par for the course in the current social and political climate. Don’t worry, I won’t tell on ya—too much paperwork.”
“There’s nothing to tell!”
“Yeah, yeah, buuut still, I think we’re gonna have to…” The sounds of someone clicking their tongue, and flipping papers, echoes from the scout. “Damn, it's already Friday; I remember how much I used to love Fridays. Haven’t had a free one of those in a while.”
Jessica throws up her arms, frustration evident as she clenches her fist. “What are you talking about? I need help! Why are you acting like this is some kind of standard procedure, like it’s a fuckin’ dentist’s appointment!?”
“Yeah, I know how you feel. Consortium dentists are all about procedure... Anyhow, yep, according to Consortium impromptu procedure, it looks like we’re gonna have to detain you until after the world governments make their announcement to the public or whatever, which will be somewhere between two to three weeks. Secondly, I’d also like to know why this red vapor doesn’t bother you as much as the others.”
“N-no?” Jessica shakes her head. “Just, listen, they attacked me earlier bu—”
“Attacked you? Are they aggressive toward the uninfected or something?” Gary asks, raising his mug to take a sip. “That’s some classic zombie stuff if so, kind of like those freaky messed up crawlers in Anchorage. Sure hope it isn’t related, or we’ll have a problem.”
“Zombie!? Don’t fuck with me; this isn’t Anchorage! They don’t look anything like those things. They’re just confused. Just ask my friend in the welding suit! They are mute, but they’ll back me up!”
‘Do not speak of me!? Ah, I would also like to add that those people are far beyond mere confusion!’
The scout’s torch brightens me for a moment and then swings away. “...Yeah, there’s nothing in that welding suit; I already checked. I’d say you’re hallucinating, probably. Don’t worry; we’ll get you fixed right up,” Gary says.
“Don’t mess with me! There’s no way I hallucinated all that!”
Gary releases a sigh anew, and the scout floats to the area just above my belly. The needle extends from the base of the orb once again and starts to lower.
‘Nay!’ I shift my body slightly to the left as the needle slides near where the kiln’s shell was.
It rises back out and floats back to Jessica; a blue wall appears.
Achieved Novice Tenebrous Sneak [Grade 4]
Dismissing the blue wall, I hear Gary in the scouting orb say, “See. No blood or fluids. It's empty.”
“B-b-but no! That’s impossible,” Jessica stutters, her mouth half-open. “Wait, even if that’s true, what if there was someone in there!? Wouldn’t you have just stabbed them!?”
“I already checked, remember? Well, the auto-program did, but it rarely makes mistakes. Except for that one time.” He chuckles nervously, running his fingers through his greasy hair. “But, more importantly, I’m going to have to mitigate the threat you guys will pose to my Solicitors, so I’m going to go ahead and say… Sorry, it’ll only hurt for a moment, and when you wake up, you’ll be back to normal, trust me.”
“I’d trust a lit stick of dynamite more than I’d trust anyone who says something cliché as ‘trust me!’” Jessica says, attempting to lift the coffin atop her once more.
An orb rushes into the Arcade, sweeping the plastic blankets that cover the entrance upward. Through my vermillion vision, I can see that at its center, a bright red emanates. The scout also has a faint glow, but it is much less than this one. Even though it now appears a copper-red in my sight, I recognize it as the one I heard before the scout entered and the one I witnessed being eaten by the Dinosaur in the past—it is a clicker. As before, it has four evenly arranged antennas atop it and a dish that still looks like a frying pan to me at its base. More defining, however, is the two cogwheels that rotate like water wheels at both the left and right side.
The clicker rotates in a circle; its bright pupil like light reflects upon the thick vermillion haze. Spotting the nine indisposed people, the clicker rushes toward them without hesitation. The wheels on the left and right side of the orb start to spin, except unlike the last time I saw them, they turn counter to one another.
Lightning gathers around the dish at the base of the orb. Vermillion haze swirls around the clicker as it comes to a stop. For the first time since I arrived, the nine people under the influence of the vermillion haze display movement. They scream, smack the walls or floor, and stand as if sensing something dangerous. The three against the wall charge the orb and the other six join them as soon as they get to their feet. Together they attack the clicker from all sides. But the two gears on the clicker come to an immediate halt, and all nine people freeze, their bodies convulse. I feel a small tingle from the orb, but something about the arc suit seems to sheath me from the lightning effects.
Smoke rises from the arc suit, and the nine people collapse, their bodies smoking from the clicker’s apparent attack.
“Leo!” Jessica shouts. “What the hell did you do, grease stain?!”
“Grease stain? Uh, we prefer the word, ‘programmer,’ ma’am,” Gary replies with a chuckle. “I’ll have to remember to tell Pierce that one later, but anyway, don’t worry, they’re just paralyzed. This isn’t like the electricity running through your house or anything.”
“They’re literally smoking!”
“I mean, yeah, but it’s not like, well, it’s not like if your dishwasher was broken because your girlfriend’s psycho mother ruined it after thinking it would be a good place to spy on you. Then later, you noticed the dishwasher light was on and thought it was just full of dishes because your roommate would sometimes load it, but forget to turn it on, so you... You know what, just forget you heard that.”
A small drop of sweat rolls down Gary’s cheek as the clicker whirls around. Its eye beams unto Jessica, and its cogs spin. Lightning springs forth, building around the dish.
I hesitate to assist Jessica; this has not gone as expected whatsoever. ‘What should I do!? I think several things in this room would greatly help my future endeavors, but this is not a simple predicament… I shan’t interfere yet; this is not an opportune time and I require a plan if I am to counter this threat.’
Gary’s scouting orb glides nearer to Jessica with what resembles an expression of empathy on his face. “Listen, I am not just being a corporate asshole; this is legitimately safer for both you and my solicitors. We have no idea what the effect of separating you from this vapor will be. It’s clearly influencing you in some way,” Gary says.
Her eyes peep at the metal bar propping up the coffin. She grits her teeth and yells, “Fuck you!” In two swift motions, she jerks the metal bar from its wedge and swings at the scout.
A cracking sound reverberates outward as the scout goes soaring. The scout strikes the clicker's dish, sparks of lightning shoot off into the corner, destroying a platoon of copepods. I command the copepods not to react to ensure they do not move. The scout hits the floor and rolls across the floor, coming to a slow stop a few feet from me.
The clicker reverses, its cogwheels slow, a dent in the dish’s bottom-left corner is evident. Jessica’s arms drop, her breathing is labored. The clicker stops a few feet later, releasing a shrill clicking sound. A few sparkles fall from the dish before a clang echoes.
I hear Gary hit something, “Shit! I'll give the clicker a second to cool down, but… the scout isn’t looking good.”
“You better pray Leo’s okay!” Jessica shouts, flinging the metal rod at the clicker with one arm.
Spinning in the air, the bar strikes and bounces off the clicker with a bang before the bar falls to the ground with a clang. The bar shakes and rolls off toward the Arcade walls.
“Looks like paralyzing you was the right call! Hitting the scout that hard shouldn’t be possible!” A clacking noise comes from the scout, followed by the sounds of a door opening. “Who? I’m in the middle of something important.”
The whispering of a woman comes from the scout, “Heads up, Gary, Barlowe is here, and he’s looking for you.” The sound of a door follows the woman’s words.
“God in Light, Ballbuster Barlowe is coming. I thought he was in a meeting today… He knows I’m in my office; he probably just sent her to throw me off my game.” Gary scoffs and then says, “I’m gonna mute you for a minute, Officer, so I won’t be able to hear ya if you say anything!”
“What?! That’s all you have to say!?”
“S-sorry, this is one of those, turn down the car radio because you can’t see well, kinda things.”
Jessica continues to yell, but Gary does not answer any longer.
‘This is my chance; now I must flee or take a risk!’ My eyes dart toward the arched exits that lead to The Lake, yet when I look back at the clicker from my low angle on the floor, I notice a handle on the base of the clicker. Musing, I recall the time I observed Lincoln and Pierce prepare one of these devices. ‘There is a hatch beneath the clicker. If I pull it, the dish will fall out; that should be enough, I pray, to remove most of the danger the clicker poses. At least I have never seen it attack by any other means before.’
My gaze drifts to Jessica and the coffin. ‘I did promise to remove the coffin, and I am uncertain when I shall discover another Kiln. Most of all, if I leave it and it really is the source of Acerb, this predicament may just repeat later. I shan’t have a better opportunity to fight a clicker than with a room that is engulfed in the vermillion haze. Aye, I shall do it. I just need to, pull the handle, remove the base plate, and then assault it from the inside.’
The scouting orb shakes. “No! They told me if I broke another scout, I’d have to come in for the next dozen Sundays!” Gary’s voice shouts. The scout quivers. “Come on. Come on! Get up, ya little metal bastard!”
A spark shoots from a crack in the little scout. There is a chink, about the size of a coin, in the scout’s armor along with and a circular crack around the same size, through both of which I can discern a blue glow within. ‘Aye. There is not a real person in there, so I could perhaps… break it? I shall try without being noticed.’
My body unmoving, I push the cattail out the side of the arc suit’s neck. In the vermillion haze, it resembles a molten eel swimming through a sea of ruby water. I spread the tendrils and then grip the edge of the chink and wiggle the tendrils. This would give me a tad more space to operate.
The scout wiggles as I loosen the crack in the armor. “Looks like I got some movement,” Gary says.
A booming voice comes from the scouting orb. “Gary! Maintenance says your scout is malfunctioning!”
Gary coughs, spitting a mouth full of liquid. “Ah! N-nothing boss, uh, Senior Barrister Barlowe, just a small glitch at Locality Central’s Tortoise.”
“I thought I told you to rename it Locality Central’s Turtle; it’s not a tortoise, Gary!”
“Well, the paperwork already went through, so they won’t change it…” I can hear some hesitation in Gary’s voice as he continues, “Heyyy, Senior Barrister Barlowe, it-it was intentionally ironic, y’know? Like, ‘haha’ it’s actually not a tortoise, but you probably expected it to be… is-isn’t it funny?”
“It’s not funny. It’s confusing,” the man, I presume is Barlowe, grunts. “It’s dangerous to subvert a Solicitor’s expectations.”
Gary and Barlowe continue their conversation when the piece of the scout’s armor detaches. I engulf it and flatten the tendrils, winding it into the depths of the scouting orb. Some oily red liquid spurts from the hole; this indicates the cattail is being heavily damaged somehow. Vermillion haze pours into the coin-sized hole attracted to the damaged cattail. I still have control, so it must be repairing faster than it is being abused.
Barrister Barlowe sighs, the annoyance in his tone becoming more and more evident. “Listen, I’m sending three clickers to your Locality from Locality Roosevelt’s Light, Gansevoort’s Brisket, and Liberty’s Star.”
‘More clickers; nay, that shan’t be necessary!’
As if mimicking me, Gary replies, “That’s really not nec—”
Barlowe interrupts Gary. “I don't care what you think is necessary. I’m doing this for the Consortium’s sake. Locality… Locality Central Tortoise...” he groans before resuming, “...it and its suspected proprietor have a lot of potential. You heard about Junior Solicitor Preston?”
‘Preston? The man from the ape enclosure with the other people Emily, Colin, and Mark?’
“Yeah, yeah, after he got that disease or whatever, he awoke a few hours after getting infected.”
‘Into the Beta…? He got infected by the black haze and got into the Beta. That might explain Gentleman Ape’s disposition as well; why he is experiencing the evolution thing.’
“That’s right!” The sound of someone hitting their fist against a table and then screaming, “Our contract with the Feds is the priority for the next couple of weeks, but after that, we’re gonna have a crew move on your Locality and siphon the vapors! There’s a lot of capital trading hands, so do your job, or I’ll personally see to it that the Consortium drives your ass out of Chicago, and something tells me a little smartass like you will be nothing but monster shit and a pair of glasses when things start happening!”
‘Thou shan’t siphon any such thing!’
My cattail wraps around something, and I squeeze, the sound of glass shattering rings out. I can hear the shouts of Barlowe and the cries of Gary from the other side of the scouting orb. I pray the shouting was a coincidence and not their mortal cries. The scout’s picture of Gary blackens, and glowing blue liquid leaks from the base of the scout.
I yank the cattail back into the arc suit as swiftly as I can—the clicker swings around just as the last inch of cattail wiggles into the arc suit.
The clicker’s bright metallic eye gazes at Jessica; I motion toward a platoon of copepods and then point at the ceiling above the clicker. A copepod platoon hurries into action. While they scuttle toward the clicker, I push the cattail back through the side of the arc suit's neck; I also poke my finger through the hole and start noiselessly releasing the helmet from the rest of the arc suit.
With the opening in the suit’s neck wide enough for the shell to glide through, I drift from the opening, inching closer toward the clicker.
A harsh click resounds, the clicker’s cogwheels commence spinning rapidly. The clicker’s dish moves around as if preparing for another assault. I halt, I am now in place just a few feet below the silently floating clicker. The smoking, crimson cattail slithers within the vermillion haze; its aim is where the dish fastens to the clicker. ‘Aye! One swift movement Constance, and then either find its weakness or flee.’
The cattail’s tendrils unravel, spreading wide. ‘Platoon drop!’ I point and command the copepods above the clicker to drop upon it while I spring into action.
With the cattail, I yank and pull with all the force it can produce in its lower strength form. A shrill clicking reverberates throughout the Arcade. The dish detaches from the clicker, sparks shoot from the clicker’s base. The clicker’s inside is revealed—thousands of copper cogs spin at different speeds, not even an inch of space goes unused by the gears and cogs. As the dish floats through the haze, striking the ground, my eyes set upon a blue, glowing glass canister. A needle runs through the tube, sucking the blue liquid into other areas of the clicker. I recognize the liquid; it is the same one I saw Lincoln use to activate a device and the one Lorcan injected into his arm weeks ago.
Leaping to my feet, I shove my arm into the grinding cogs. A deafening, sharp click from the clicker’s interior is so great that I can feel the vibrations upon my shell. My arm is shredded. The Vermillion haze from my surroundings repairs my arm as quickly as the cogs may shred it. I wrap the cattail around the exterior of the clicker once so that it may not fly away and then bend it in an arc, shoving it into the cogs as well.
The copepods join me and rush into the interior of the clicker. More loud clicks reverberate, I can actually see the mechanism that is producing it. It looks like a small copper hammer with the Consortium emblem engraved in it, and then a brass block the hammer strikes to produce the noise. It is powerful, and each beat makes me flinch.
With the cattail in the clicker, an oily substance is driven between the teeth of the cogs. The clicker attempts to flee, but some of the cogs have begun to stick or stall. Still, the clicker shoots upward, and my arm is yanked from it. The cattail maintains its grip while the clicker strikes the ceiling with a bang. The clicker drops, I have to jump from its path as it hits the top of the coffin. An antenna is snapped in two. I seize the antenna, shoving it into the cogs of the clicker. A crunch sounds as the cattail reaches the blue liquids and encircles its casing.
The tendrils separate, squeezing the canister with all its might. At the same time, the clicker revolves in circles rapidly. The copepods are sent spinning away while I swing in circles with the clicker at the center. My predicament is similar to someone tying a stone to the end of a string, gripping the end of the string, and then spinning in place; I am, of course, the stone.
I soar over Jessica’s muddy figure, only to glimpse her seemingly gawking at my burning figure with a half-opened mouth. I then sail over the smoldering shapes of the nine people under the influence of the vermillion haze. The third time I pass over them, I think I see one of them blink and their eyes tracking me.
My legs strike a column, severing them at the knees. ‘Good lord! What is this situation?!’ I notice a thick blue haze flowing up the cattail. ‘The canister must be leaking! Consume the liquid, break the glass, anything!’
Exerting my will and fortitude upon the cattail, the sound of splintering glass echoes. My vision halves when I hit the floor, and half of my face is ground off by the tiles of the Arcade. A metallic thud resounds. My shell bounces off a column and then across the tile floor. Sharp pains shoot through me until I strike something soft, bringing me to a halt.
“Guh!” someone yelps while at the same time a blue wall appears.
Achieved Novice Feline Whip [Grade 3]
Blunt Damage to Shell: 9 Durability