Well, to be entirely fair the decision isn't up to Joshua; he's not the leader of the branch, Xander is. But then, the story's not over yet. You may be pleasantly surprised. ;D
Anyway, here's today's chapter - the penultimate chapter of the first novel, as a matter of fact. :D This one's a bit longer than the others - as near as I can tell, just beneath the forum's maximum limit. :xp: But I don't see that as a bad thing - especially not since the previous chapter was so relatively short.
Anyway, here it is. Enjoy.
~ Chapter VI ~
Ten minutes later, the van peeled up a long street lined on either side by rusting metal warehouses. At Conrad’s word, Xander stomped hard on the brake and they pulled to an abrupt stop in front of a nondescript warehouse near the end of the street.
“What do we do if the creature itself is here?” asked Conrad, somewhat fearfully.
“Shoot to kill,” said Greg shortly, pulling his gun from his belt and checking the ammunition clip. “Aim for the head and don’t hold back.”
Xander gave Greg an even, almost warning look before turning to Conrad. “From what we’ve seen so far, the creature makes the host resistant to gunfire; with any luck, though, it will still be injured from our last encounter.”
“What if it also boosts the host’s healing capabilities too?” interjected Greg.
“Unlikely,” said Alain dismissively. “From what I’ve been able to tell from the bodies of its previous hosts, it doesn’t exactly make them resistant to gunfire so much as it increases the body’s threshold for pain. The host body can be nearly dead, and it wouldn’t know it. It will fight on until its last breath.”
“So, again, aim for the head,” said Greg.
Conrad gave him a cold look before sliding across his seat and throwing open the side door; Alain followed just behind him, and Xander climbed out of the driver’s seat and onto the pavement outside.
They emerged into a gentle misting rain that seemed to deaden all sound around them. When Xander spoke, his voice was oddly hushed. “Conrad, what can you tell us about the layout of the building?”
“There are three doors,” he answered promptly. “One facing us now, one around the left-hand corner, and the other around the back. The back door leads into a corridor, lined with offices and storage areas. Eight rooms in all. There’s another door at each end of the corridor leading into the main warehouse area; there’s a staircase along our right side, against the wall with no door. It leads up to a series of catwalks and maintenance ducts near ceiling, and there’s another staircase somewhere along there which leads to the roof.”
“Alright: Conrad, go with Alain to the back door and clear the corridor and offices. Greg, take the front door here and make your way to the catwalks. I’ll move around to the left and take the side door.” They all nodded understanding. “Alright. Let’s move.”
As the four men moved to surround the building, a lone figure watched them from just behind the nearest door. His pale blue eyes shone somewhat in the misty light, but the expression on his filthy face was blank behind his matted beard.
Three more figures appeared behind him, all of them with the same blank, staring expression. They seemed to hold back somewhat, as if they were afraid of the light sneaking in through the cracked-open door. They all had traces of dried blood around their mouths, and stared patiently at the creature in front of them.
A single guttural grunt seemed to be all they needed to hear. They turned suddenly, moving more like animals than people, each growling darkly as they moved into the shadows along the edge of the room.
Josh gazed resolutely out the windshield, focussing on the sound of the wipers as they shifted the rain from his field of vision.
Sara cursed in frustration. “Joshua, listen to me!” she was saying loudly. “You can’t do this!”
“Do up your seatbelt,” he snapped, ignoring her.
“Let me out of the damned car. You can just let me go home on my own. You don’t have to drug me.”
I have to,” he said quietly. “It’s too dangerous to let you remember what you’ve seen.”
She snorted derisively. “Even if I wanted to tell someone about Torchwood, and what I’ve seen, who would believe me? There are already plenty of conspiracy theories out there, what’s one more? You can’t tell me Torchwood have never been involved in any before, if you were really set up almost a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Look, it’s not just to protect us, you know,” said Josh angrily. “It’s for your own good too. Let’s say you’re right, and we leave your memory intact, and you go on with your life clutching to the secret of our existence. What if you say something, anything, even the smallest thing, that gets to the wrong ears? What if someone, some kind of alien criminal or threat, hears that you know something about Queensbridge’s source of defence? They could capture you, torture you, even kill you just to get to us.”
“You’re being ridiculous, Josh,” she huffed. “You know I’m right. You said it yourself, that I’m no threat to Torchwood. You’re just afraid to stand up to Xander or Greg. You’re acting like a coward.”
He bristled slightly, but replied evenly: “It’s for your own good.”
“You don’t believe that.”
He didn’t answer.
“If it wasn’t for me, you guys could be dead - who was it that beat back that creature at Cornett’s apartment?”
Joshua shook his head. “You got lucky - we all did.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you owe me. If I hadn’t been there, or had passed out, that thing and its little friends could have killed you.”
He began to roll his eyes, but snapped them off the road and over to her instead. “What do you mean, ‘its little friends’?” he asked.
She folded her arms and sat back in her seat. “Those things, in the bathroom. They didn’t look like food to me.”
He shook his head again. “Well, Alain disagrees.”
“Just think about it!” she said hotly. “It wouldn’t make sense. You said you’ve been following this stream of killings for weeks now.”
She rolled her eyes, wondering if he was being intentionally slow. “So it obviously has no problem finding hosts to sustain itself, does it? So why would it come back to an old host’s home to scrounge for emergency supplies?”
“How should I know?” he asked, shrugging. “I don't pretend to understand the way alien minds work.”
She groaned in exasperation. If he hadn't been driving, she'd have grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Joshua, would you please think
?” she screamed. “You're being stubborn for the sake of it! There's only one reason I can think of for an animal - any animal - to go back to a den it knows has been compromised.”
He looked suddenly uneasy. “You don’t think those things were...”
“Hatchlings,” she finished. “Yeah, I do. Why else would it have tried to kill us? Over a meal or two of emergency rations? It wouldn't, it doesn't make sense - but it would
have tried to kill us if it thought it was defending its children.”
He nodded slowly, returning his gaze to the road. “And if those things are its offspring...” he muttered. “****. We took almost a dozen of them back to the lab with us.”
“You took hostages,” Sara said simply. “So it tried to kill us.”
“And if it tried once, it’s bound to try again.” He brought his wrist to his mouth and shouted into it. “Xander, this is Josh. Stop what you’re doing, now. We got it wrong, those things we found aren’t food - they’re offspring.” There was no reply. “Xander, are you there?”
Joshua cursed. He looked over at Sara. “What would you say to one more trip before I take you home?” he asked.
She reached behind her, smiling, and grabbed her seatbelt. “I’ve got all day.”
Xander stepped out of the rain and into the cavernous warehouse, dimly lit by short, wide windows near the ceiling. The main chamber seemed to be nearly empty save for a series of thick, widely spaced concrete pillars. The walls were lined by the odd pile of debris or equipment, all of them covered by thick blue tarps, some of them torn in places. Across the room he could just make out Alain steadily mounting the staircase against the far wall. They met each other’s gaze and exchanged silent nods; Alain continued as quietly as possible up the rickety metal stairs, and Xander moved off to his left towards the nearest door which, according to Conrad’s report, led to the back hallway.
By the time he reached the doorway, Greg had reached the catwalks and was visible only as a silhouette against the harsh grey light pouring in from the windows. Conrad and Alain had evidently split up to clear the rooms along the corridor - Conrad appeared a short distance away, his weapon held steady before him. He whirled it around to face Xander, then lowered it as he registered recognition. “All clear,” he said. “But there’s something wrong here, Xander. I found more of those things we saw at Cornett’s. They were in every room on my way down the hall. There are thousands of them here, easily.”
“Take a few more samples, just to be safe,” ordered Xander. “We may be able to learn something about--“
He was cut short by the sounds of gunfire down the other end of the hallway. With a quick gesture he ordered Conrad to return down the hallway and indicated that he would go around the other side through the main chamber. Conrad sprinted down the hall as instructed, and Xander pushed back through the door and into the warehouse.
The room was now flooded with people, at least four dozen of them, all of them shuffling slowly forward. Most were moving towards both himself and the door at the other side of the room, but a large group were also moving towards the bottom of the staircase up which Greg had disappeared moments before. The gunfire was coming from the other end of the chamber, where Alain stood beneath the frame of the open door. His shots were soon joined by Conrad’s; Conrad provided cover fire while Alain burst from the doorway and moved swiftly along the edge of the wall. He was firing on the group just ahead of him, who would reach the steps before he did. After a moment, Xander realised what he was doing - he was pushing them back, try to clear a path for Greg, who had just appeared on the staircase with his own weapon drawn, to get through to safety.
Xander began firing himself, moving sideways along the back wall towards the other doorway, which Alain and Greg were already moving towards at the same time. When they were within earshot, Xander shouted at them to press forward - if they were forced out the side or back doors, they would have a much harder time getting back around the outside of the building to get to the van. Greg stepped furthest forward, forming the point of triangular attack as the four of them pressed towards the door through which Xander had come not minutes before.
They managed to make it past the staircase before a sudden movement overhead caught Xander’s eye. Before he had a chance to call out it was on top of them: one of the creature’s had dropped down from the catwalk above and landed right on top of them. Conrad went sprawling backwards, but managed to hold on to his weapon; Xander opened fire blindly, and heard Alain’s gun going off as well. But the creature ignored them, and lunged instead towards Greg, who's back had been turned and who alone hadn’t noticed its arrival. The creature jumped onto his back, its mouth open in a silent screech of rage and its teeth heading straight for the back of Greg’s neck. But it had overestimated the distance between them, and instead of landing squarely on Greg’s back the pair of them went sprawling forward. Greg managed to twist and land on his shoulder rather than on his head, which probably saved his life - the creature’s weight came down on him a fraction of a second later. He threw his hand forwards, aiming the butt of his weapon at the creature’s face.
His attack met with its target, but the creature was unphased. It lunged forward again, its teeth digging into Greg’s shoulder. The others opened fire on it as one, and it broke its hold on Greg and rolled forward towards its allies, blood covering its face and hands.
“Fall back!” shouted Xander. Conrad began to move steadily backwards, maintaining fire. Xander did the same as Alain rushed forward towards Greg, heaved him up by his unwounded shoulder, and began dragging him awkwardly back towards the corridor behind them.
Outside, a black sedan tore down the street and hurled around the warehouse, coming to a halt at the side of the building. Sara was out of the car almost before it’d stopped moving, and Joshua didn’t even bother turning off the engine before jumping out himself. They could clearly hear the sounds of gunshots from inside, and Joshua drew his own gun.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked as Sara made to follow him towards the warehouse.
“With you, to help!” she said incredulously.
“Really? You carrying a pistol in your purse that I don’t know about? Tell you what, though; pull the car around beside the van - we may need to make a quick getaway, and we can’t all pile into the van; takes too long. Don’t block her in.”
“Then what?” she asked. “Just wait for you to come back outside?”
“That’s right,” said Josh. He gave her a gentle shove towards the car. “Go, now!”
Alain, half dragging Greg behind him, had already made the shelter of the hallway, and Xander hoped he had enough sense to try to get outside rather than take shelter in any of the offices along the corridor. He let off two more rounds, then chanced a look behind him. A small line of the creatures had broken off from the main group and were heading towards the hallway in pursuit of Greg and Alain. Xander turned to face them, and squeezed off another few rounds in their direction, hoping to draw their attention. It was no good. He fired again; once, twice, three times - and on the fourth, his gun gave an ominous click. He futilely squeezed the trigger a few more times before looking around hopelessly.
The staircase was only a few metres away. Xander shouted to get Conrad’s attention, then indicated that they should move up. Conrad nodded, backing slowly towards the staircase. Xander reached to Conrad’s waist as he passed, pulled an ammunition clip from his belt, and exchanged it for his own.
Conrad had already started up the staircase, and once his boss had began his own ascent it became harder for him to get a clear shot. He hesitated for a moment, then turned and ran full pelt towards the summit. Once there, he looked down again in time to see another figure, barely discernable in the twilight down below, come marching into the room from the side door. A swooping sensation rose in his stomach as the figure opened fire on the creature’s from behind, and he realised it must be Joshua. The creatures paused, and in their hesitation Xander managed to make it to the top of the stairs. Standing on the other side of the staircase, he too opened fire on the creatures below.
Unsure what to do, the creatures began to wail indistinctly. Xander yelled down to Joshua, who bolted across the room, giving the cluster of creatures a wide berth, and bounded up the stairs to join them.
“The things we found at Cornett’s, they’re not food,” he said without preamble. “They’re offspring. The creature was protecting its young, and now it’s the young’s turn.”
“There are more of them here, too,” replied Conrad. “Thousands of them, lining the walls of the offices downstairs.”
Joshua nodded grimly. “Makes sense. Where are Alain and Greg?”
“Downstairs. Greg’s been injured. We need to get down there, give them some cover - I’ve run out of ammo once, so Alain can’t be far off, and Greg dropped his gun when he was attacked.”
Joshua nodded understanding. “If we can get them outside, Sara’s waiting with the van and the car for a quick getaway.” He turned to head back down the staircase - only to find his path blocked by the creatures, who seemed to have regained their persistence and begun pursuing the three of them upwards.
“The roof!” shouted Xander, leading the way down the catwalk. Conrad followed right behind him and Joshua took up the rear, letting off a few rounds as the first of the creatures reached the top of the staircase.
Sara sat in the driver’s seat of the car, her heart in her mouth and her mind spinning. The sound of gunfire seemed to have died down, but there was still no sign of Joshua or any of the others. She got out of the car and looked over the roof towards the building, but she couldn’t see anything. She swore in impatience and panic. “Come on Josh, where the hell are you...?”
Just as she said it, she caught sight of movement on the roof of the warehouse. She looked upwards, moving around the van to avoid it obstructing her view.
Joshua, Xander, and Conrad were standing with their backs to her, steadily moving backwards towards the edge. She couldn’t see what they were looking at, but she could see that their weapons were drawn and they were firing at whatever it was - and she could see that Alain and Greg weren’t with them. She swore again, and launched herself back into the car. She scrambled around in the glove compartment, looking for some kind of weapon. There was nothing. She felt tears of frustration well up in her eyes, but she forced them back as she pulled herself out of the car and ran, full speed, into the warehouse.
She hesitated at the doorway, but the warehouse itself appeared to be empty. She looked around hopelessly for a moment, then spotted two doors on the side wall. She threw a cautious glance at the metal catwalks above her that must have ultimately led to the roof, but they were abandoned. She could hear gunfire from above, followed by shouts and screams - but she couldn’t tell if they were friend or foe. After another second’s hesitation, she bolted across the room and towards the door nearest her. She expected to be attacked at any second, imaging in her mind’s eye the man from Cornett’s apartment appearing from the shadows and launching himself at her and tearing her apart the same way he’d murdered Camryn. But there was nothing - she reached the door unscathed and still quite alone. She pushed through it and almost stumbled over Alain, who was kneeling near Greg’s head and nursing a nasty gash in Greg’s shoulder. Sara forced herself to look away from the wound and at Alain instead.
“Are you alright?” she asked, falling to her knees at Greg’s feet.
Alain nodded distractedly. “Where are the others?”
“The roof. I saw them from outside. They were firing like crazy, but nothing seems to stop these things...”
Alain nodded again. “The creature makes the host body almost impervious to pain, and ignorant of injury. They’ll march forward for as long as they possibly can, regardless of injury. If the body can possibly function, they’ll carry on.”
“How, though?” asked Sara.
“I don’t know, exactly,” answered Alain. “It could be heightened adrenaline, or decay of the pain centres of the brain. I honestly don’t know.”
Sara was only half listening. Her eyes had fallen on the gun on the floor at Alain’s side. “What if you could hit the creature itself, instead of just shooting at the host?”
“That would be wonderful, yes, but the creature lives at the base of the brain. It’s impossible to attack it directly at a distance.”
“Not impossible,” she said, reaching across Greg’s prone figure and snatching the gun from the floor. “Will he be alright?” she asked.
“He’s lost a lot of blood, but if I can get him back to Torchwood, he’ll be just fine - even if I could get him back to the van, he’d stand a better chance; I have emergency supplies there.”
“The warehouse is clear. I just crossed it from the van myself. All the creatures must be on the roof. Can you get him back alright by yourself?”
“I think so, yes, but... where are you going?”
She rose to her feet, Greg’s gun feeling cold and surprisingly heavy in her hand. “To find the others. I have an idea. Go, quickly, before they decide to split up and look for you.”
As Alain half dragged, half carried Greg across the warehouse towards the vehicles outside, Sara marched up the staircase against the wall. She felt remarkably calm as she made the top of the stairs and almost instantly saw the path that would lead her up further and onto the roof. She could still hear what sounded like three guns, but their fire was becoming more frenzied. She launched down the catwalk and bounded up another, shorter staircase and into the fresh, misty air of the room. She didn’t have to look far to find the others - they stood to her right, facing her, though she wasn’t sure they’d seen her. She ducked back behind the door as a stray bullet hit the pavement a few feet in front of her. She steeled her resolve, gripped the gun firmly in her hand, and took a deep breath.
Time seemed to slow as she pushed out from behind the cover of the doorway and into the open. Without a moment’s hesitation, she began pulling the trigger wildly, and felt the gun force her arms upwards and back as she did so. A few of the creatures seemed to stumble forwards, then turn their blank gaze onto her. As more of them came to a halt and turned towards her, the others realised she was there. She pulled the trigger again; her shots went wide, but they drew the attention of more of the creatures; one of her bullets lodged itself in the neck of a creature still shuffling towards Conrad, and it went down in a scream of pain.
She felt a rush of pride mingled with excitement - she had been right. “Aim for the back of the neck!” she screamed, continuing to fire aimlessly at the small crowd slowly shuffling towards her now, instead.
They seemed to waist no time. Sara threw herself to the ground as the three of them opened fire, this time aiming for the exposed necks of the creatures now facing away from them.
One of them hit home, and a tall woman with lank brown hair let out a scream of pain before falling forward. The creatures nearest her let out similar cries, stumbling slightly in their march. One of these took a shot himself, and more of them screamed. As more went down to Torchwood’s weapons, even more seemed to stumble and call out in anguish. The three men began claiming ground as their opponents fell one by one, succumbing to each other’s pain and collapsing regardless of whether or not they were shot.
Within seconds, it was over. The sound of gunfire ceased, and silence pressed in on her ears. She looked up as the three of them reached her, Joshua bending down to help her up.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“I’m fine, thanks to you guys,” she said. She looked to Xander. “Alain and Greg made it out, they’re at the van now. Alain says Greg lost a lot of blood, but that he should be alright.”
“How did you know where to hit them?” asked Conrad.
“They live near the base of the host’s brain, remember? Shoot it in the head, or the back of the neck, and you hit the creature instead of just the host.”
Xander smiled. “Well done,” he said gratefully. “Conrad, go with Joshua downstairs, and gather the creature’s offspring. We’ll need to... contain them.”
Joshua smiled at Sara before leading the way back towards the door. Xander turned back to Sara. “Torchwood Five owes you a debt of gratitude, Ms. Wallace,” he said. “You saved our skins today. Thank you.”
Sara nodded, smiling. “You still want to drug me, or are you going to let me go?” she asked.
He smirked back. “I think we can work something out.”