Monthly Archives: August 2018

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep4 – Act 4

Connie focused on the gun pointed in her direction. It was hard not to since the man behind it seemed all too eager to pull the trigger.

“Looks like we might be about to have some fun right now,” Val said. The swagger in her voice broke Connie’s gaze free from the threat of death that was pointing at them.

Val was smiling.

She was relaxed.

For a moment, Connie wondered if she knew the men who had found them, but then she saw the leers on the men’s faces. This wasn’t a friendly encounter, and it was going to end quite badly.

Connie smile and relaxed as well. Bad situations were her stock in trade.

“How many do you want?” she asked Val. There were a total of five men with rifles they could see in the passageway that led away from the bridge they were standing on. The corridor took a turn where the man farthest back was standing though, which suggested there could be more waiting around the corner.

Connie rather hoped there were.

“Three or four,” Val said, cracking her knuckles. “If that’s not being too greedy?”

Val clearly wanted to take a crack at all of them men in front of them. Or was it crack all of the men in front of them? Connie couldn’t picture things being resolved without a plethora of broken bones.

“That’ll be fine,” Connie said, gauging which of their opponents she would be able to get to first.

Since the men hadn’t opened fire the moment they saw Val and Connie, getting into striking range could have been as easy as letting the men come to them. Val’s words suggested she had something else in mind though, and as far as Connie was concerned, anyone who could appear out of nowhere in a forgotten dungeon in an inaccessible area of the Peruvian Andes was owed the benefit of the doubt in terms of being able to handle a bunch of half drunk guys who didn’t look like they could spell “gun” much less use one.

“Pretty girl thinks she can handle us?” the biggest guy said. “You can’t handle nothing, I’ll make you…”

Connie never got to hear what the guy was going to make Val do. There was a thundercrack that shook the bridge and swallowed the meaty, shattering sound of the leader’s rifle being slammed into his face hard enough to fracture his jaw into millimeter long bone fragments.

Val was standing beside him. She’d moved in the blink of an eye to close the distance and engage with their foes. Connie wasn’t sure how that was possible, but she wasn’t about to object to it either.

A band of disciplined men might have reacted properly to an enemy appearing in the midst. With coordinated fire, they could have caught Val with a few rounds and started to turn the tide in their favor. A bullet wound or two might not have killed her but it would certainly have slowed her down. Even a simple retreat might have bought them the time they needed, as the silver fire of the magic Val unleashed was sputtering out as fast as it had flared up.

The hired goons were not a disciplined fighting force though, which wasn’t surprising. They weren’t hired for for their skills or aptitude. Their value came from the facts that they asked no questions about their assignments and were willing to hurt, maim, or kill when ordered, without complaint. Even more importantly though, they were loyal, and would take that loyalty to the grave if need be (mostly because they knew they would wind up in the grave if they proved disloyal and being dead with their pride was better than being dead without it.)

Fortunately for them neither Val nor Connie were going to make them choose between loyalty and death. Unfortunately for the men, that wasn’t a kindness. Kindness was for later, when their lives were no longer endangered.

The leader with the shattered jaw blacked out from the pain and the severe head and neck trauma the strike to his face caused. He would recover but it would take over a year and he would never again be able to hold a gun due to the damage his hands suffered. While he recuperated, a missionary would visit him every day and read to him. Theirs would become a lifelong friendship which would eventually lead to the broken jawed leader taking up vows and living a life of service.

The rest of the men suffered similar fates, though their long term prospects differed based on their ability to take the chances life offered them.

The second biggest man fired his rifle the moment Val struck but it was pointing up at the ceiling. He hadn’t meant to keep it clear of his friends, but luck was on his side. It was somewhat less lucky that the unexpected recoil made him drop the rifle and that as he bent down to grab it he met Val’s rising knee with his face and then her descending elbow with the back of his head.

That took the fight out of him by virtue of shutting off his consciousness for a long enough period that the fight was quite over by the time he opened his eyes. He could, at that point, have risen and charged after them, but the head trauma and unconsciousness left him weak and nauseous to the point where laying down and trying not to fall off the swirling ground was an overwhelmingly agreeable option.

His recovery was faster, in part because he moved back home to be with his family, and spent long enough feeling lost and confused that he was willing to listen, at last, to what his grandmother had to say. The life that him found after that as a fruit seller lacked the action he desired as a youth, so he supplemented it by opening a boxing gym, though he never got in the ring himself, prefering to coach and guide people the way his grandmother had guided him back onto the path of charity of the soul.

The third, fourth, and fifth guards were all in range to strike back at Val after her initial onslaught and she only had two hands to brush their guns aside with. As Val had planned though, Connie was there.

As the guard to Val’s right rushed to get his rifle pointed at her, and not at his two friends, Connie stepped up and caught him with an open hand chop to the throat.

He tried to gasp for air but couldn’t. He tried to look for help, but his eyes were streaming with tears from the pain. He collapsed to his knees and shivered at the icy clutch of death that gripped his heart, but he didn’t perish.

The strike to his throat didn’t crush his larynx. In another moment he was able to draw breath, though that was the moment after Connie landed a crushing hammerblow to the his temple.

Val dispatched the remaining guards with simple Muay Thai kicks and elbow strikes, limiting the permanent damage she did, but ensuring that each blow would cause a debilitating amount of pain.

The three guards would recover and later try to find employment together, working as hired thugs again, until the youngest of them was shot. It was a wound that should have been fatal, the bullet passing through his left lung and grazing his heart, but thanks to a miracle of surgical skill, the young man pulled through. The other two were shocked to discover how much the cared for their young friend, and how little interest they retained in lives that could only end in violence. With their prayers answered by his recovery, the three fled across the Pacific and became the crew of their own fishing boat based out of Vietnam. The youngest married one of the locals and together they all formed an unusual but supportive little family.

“We should get going,” Val said once the five men in the corridor and the three around the corner were down.

“What is with these guys?” Connie asked. “Where did they come from?”

“Funny story that,” Val said, leading them downwards as best she could. “From what Tam told me, there were apparently people who found these ruins before you did.”

“Why didn’t they publish anything about their find? This whole place is a goldmine!” Connie said.

“Not for the kind of gold they wanted,” Val said. “See it turns out that hidden ruins that no one knows about are a great place to stockpile all sorts of illegal things.”

“But the treasures here are literally priceless!” Connie didn’t try to lower her voice even though she knew it would be far wiser to.

“It’s old pots and funny scribbles on the walls from what they can see,” Val said. “Or it mostly is. The catacombs they have some serious respect for.”

“The ones they put us in? Why’s that?” Connie asked.

“They’ve observed that if you stick someone inside the catacombs they eventually turn into living husks,” Val said. “Let them out after they’re fully turned and you’ve got a mindless but highly obedient workforce who can never answer questions or incriminate anyone.”

“That’s what they intended to do to us? Wait, that’s what’s happening to Joe and Tam?” Connie asked.

“Nah, the husking process is an effect of eating the glowing fungus down there. Without any other food, people trapped in the catacombs eventually turn to that and it turns them into the things you saw.”

“Can they be turned back?” Connie asked.

“Tam thinks so, but it’s not necessarily easy, especially not if the guys running this place catch wind of it. If they think these people can speak about what’s been done to them then the only option for keeping the husks silent will be to kill all of them.”

“How do we stop that from happening?” Connie asked. “We’re in the middle of nowhere and I’m guessing they have a lot more guys than those eight.”

“Yeah, there’s a small army here,” Val said. “Fortunately, we have an answer for that. Our first step though is to rescue Tam and Joe.”

The trip down to the lower bridge involved only three more brawls, but each one raised the time pressure they were under in Connie’s mind. Sooner or later, probably much sooner, someone would notice the pile of unconscious bodies they were leaving in their wake and then a general alarm would be raised.

For as amazing a fighter as Val looked to be, and even with her own bare knuckle prowess added to that, Connie was reasonably certain that they couldn’t beat an entire army on their own.

“You said you needed my help earlier?” Connie asked when they reached the right level for the catacombs.

“Yeah, Tam’s our info person and she’s a bit overworked,” Val said. “We’re hoping you’ll agree to join us and take some of the load off her.”

“I’ve already got a job though,” Connie said.

“So does she,” Val said. “Associates can pursue their own interests in addition to working for the Second Chance Club. Oh, though in your case? Your old job might not be something you want to go back to.”

“Why?” Connie asked, her eyes narrowing.

“You know how the private library you work for helped fund your expedition? Well, it turns out they were hoping you’d fail and declare this area clear of any interesting ruins.”

“That’s not quite how things work, but why would they do that?”

“They’re kind of in league with the cartel that’s running this place,” Val said. “The articles that you found that led you here? Those weren’t supposed to be published, but it happened and now they’re trying to limit the damage done to their operation.”

“They expected me to fail?”

“The coordinates you originally had were a bit off,” Val said. “Apparently they thought you’d give up before you went too far afield and found the stuff they didn’t want you to see.”

“Yeah, but I told them about our breakthrough,” Connie said. “I…oh…I told them that we’d discovered we weren’t at the right digsite, but that we’d find the right coordinates and that we’d be moving the exploration tomorrow.”

“And that’s when they sent in the goons,” Val said, leading them over the bridge to the vault.

“Note to self: resign with extreme prejudice when I get back,” Connie said.

“What does that mean?” Val asked.

“I’m not sure yet, I think I’ll just get creative when the time comes.”

“Looks like we’ll need a bit of creativity now,” Val said, stopping before the vault door. “I was kind of hoping this would be easier to open from this side.”

“Oh, it is,” Connie said.

“You can crack safes?” Val asked.

“It’s a hobby,” Connie said. “I’ve got a lot of hobbies.”

She stepped up to the vault door and with a dramatic flourish, pulled on its handle and watched it slide effortlessly open.

“The lock wasn’t engaged,” she said. “You can’t open it from the otherside if it’s closed but from this side all you’ve got to do is pull.”

“Darn,” Tam said. “I could have used a bit more practice time. How did it go getting here?”

“Only hit a few guards,” Val said. “Plenty left though.”

“Yeah, you said there’s an army of them, but we had an answer for that?” Connie asked.

“That we do,” Tam said and whistled.

From the quickness with which she stepped aside Connie was convinced to make room so the door would be clear. That proved to be a fantastic idea as a moment later a giant pack of wolves came charging out of the darkness and out towards the ruins Val and Connie had just snuck through.

Or not a giant pack of wolves but rather a pack of giant wolves. Or both? And were some of them a bit more bipedal than a wolf really should be?

“This is going to sound crazy, but were those werewolves?” Connie asked.

“Yeah, and funny thing, the army upstairs? They’re not packing silver bullets. I checked,” Val said.

“Let’s get you folks and the Living Husks to safety,” Tam said.

“But what about all of relics?” Connie asked, horror struck at the idea of the artifacts being collateral damage.

“Oh, most of the werewolves are archaeologists,” Tam said. “They’ll take care that nothing’s damaged too badly.”

“They’re what now?” Connie asked.

“Archaeologists, I mean anyone can have a hobby right?”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep4 – Act 3

Watching Connie climb up the natural chimney that lead out of the cavern they’d been trapped in, Val found herself wondering where a librarian had gotten muscles so amazingly toned. Not that lifting weights hadn’t done the same for Val, but if shelving heavy books could give definition like Connie had then Val wanted to look into the benefits cross training could provide.

Of course first they had to get home safely.

For a change they seemed to be off to a good start on that. Once they left the crevasse Connie and Joe had hidden in, they’d found a warren of natural and carved caves connected by irregular, time-worn tunnels. Avoiding the “zombies” as Connie called them proved to be easy. They tended to scurry away from light that Tam carried, rather than shambling forward like any other self respecting undead menace would.

With their travel unhindered, Connie was able to lead the rest to the exit to the higher levels of the ruins. She explained the significance of the various inscribed artwork as they went and made guesses as to each chamber’s purpose. That was mildly interesting to Val, but what really caught her attention was the well maintained vault door that sealed what Connie deemed to be the exit tunnel.

Someone far more modern than the original builders had remodeled the ruins to their own ends, which wasn’t too surprising. Val had a decent idea who might be responsible based on the briefing Tam had assembled and, if luck was on her side, she hoped she’d get a chance to meet them face-to-face before the current dungeon crawl was done.

“You doing okay up there Connie?” Joe asked in a whisper. He’d recovered from his fainting spell and looked horribly embarrassed by it, despite Connie and Val’s reassurances that it wasn’t his fault.

Extreme stress did nasty things to humans, both physically and psychologically. No matter how brave you were, even a relatively small shock could knock the wind out of your sails if it hit you right. That Joe was able to keep moving forward was a more important measure of his resiliency than anything else, but Joe had a lifetime of cultural programming that told him any sign of weakness proved him to be unfit as a man, and no rational argument was going to completely wipe away the effects of that, especially not while he was still under a life threatening amount of stress.

“I’ve been better,” Connie said, grunting as she grabbed another handhold and pulled herself up another foot in the natural chimney. “But been a lot worse too. We’ll call today a ‘5’ or so I’d say.”

With the primary exit blocked, it had been up to Tam to find them an option for escaping the cave complex. As far as Val could tell Tam hadn’t used any actual magic to do so. The spell to transport them through the shadows between the Second Chance Club in North America and a long forgotten cavern in Peru had left Tam ‘chilled’ in her own words.

To Val, Tam’s hands had felt as warm as they normally were but there was a slight frost that followed each puff of breath that Tam took. Val didn’t want to guess what other costs the spell had exacted. It was enough to know that Tam wasn’t at 100% and that she was relying on Val to carry the load until the mystic consequences of getting them to Peru wore off.

“Do you need a hand?” Joe asked.

“No applause please,” Connie said. “This isn’t as difficult as our star is making it look. She’s just a bit out of practice. And possibly still drugged.”

Connie rose another few feet as she spoke, putting her about twenty feet above them, and roughly half the distance up the chimney. Her movements were neither sluggish from drugs, nor particularly weak or uncertain though. Any claims of difficulty she made seemed to be for dramatic effect or to convince Joe not to worry about following her.

That was a kind gesture. The climb itself wasn’t trivial, and Val guessed it might have stymied either Tam or Joe. Connie was already extending her limbs far enough to show a visible strain while she climbs. Tam and Joe, both being shorter than her, would have had to extend farther and hold their weight at a more difficult angle. Connie’s angles weren’t optimal ones either, but she handled her movements and transitions with a reassuring ease, which was what Val had been interested in observing. Val could have gone first but Charlene was hoping to recruit Connie as a new associate for the club, and it was always a good idea to know what you could expect from your teammates.

“I think I’m right,” Tam said, as she examined the carving on the wall of the chamber they were  standing in. “This should lead up a bath chamber in one of the sealed areas of the ruins above.”

“We’re climbing up into a bathroom?” Val asked. “This is kinda big to be a toilet isn’t it?”

“Not a bath like that,” Connie said from above them. “We think it had ritual significance. The room you’re in is a memorial chamber. The ashes of dead were interred in the catacombs below the city. That’s basically where you are. Up here, the people would cleanse themselves and then speak their ancestors and offer them gifts.”

“Like a giant wishing well? Why not just come down here?” Val asked.

“The lower caves were a sacred place, we think,” Connie said. “Of course whenever we don’t understand what people were doing we assume it was had some religious significance. It could be that they just liked rock climbing a lot, and I’m using this chimney as the makers intended all along.”

“What happens if she falls?” Joe asked, trying to be quiet enough that Connie couldn’t hear him. He failed. It wasn’t his fault, Val thought, Connie just had fantastically good hearing.

“You all get to see how high I can bounce,” she said. “Put me in the betting pool for a good six inches on that one.”

“I’ll catch her,” Val said, offering Joe a reassuring smile.

“That’s a bad idea,” Connie said. “Not that I’m going to fall, but trust me you do not want to try to catch me at the bottom of a forty foot drop. I don’t want to kill the both of us if I slip.”

“I’d suggest not slipping then,” Val said. Connie was right, catching someone from a forty foot fall was an excellent method of producing two shattered bodies rather than one, but Val hadn’t come on the trip without a few mystic enhancements of her own. It wouldn’t be fun to act as a breakfall for Connie but it would be a lot more fun than letting her go splat on the hard stone.

“You’re in luck,” Connie said as she reached the top of the chimney. “Today it’s Connie 1, gravity 0. Anyone else want to try their luck against a fundamental force of nature?”

“I’m next,” Val said. “Tam, will you be okay down here while we get that vault door open?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m starting to thaw a little, and I’ll have Joe to keep me company.”

“We’re not going up too?” Joe asked, a mixture of worry and relief swirling across his face.

“I’m not in the best shape for a climb like that,” Tam said. “And I’d prefer not to be alone with the things down here.”

It was a gentle lie, arranged between Tam and Val with nothing more than small glances and nods. Joe’s fainting was, at least in part, due to the drugs his kidnappers had pumped into him. He was mobile but far from full strength and a relapse midway up the chimney would have disastrous results. At the time same time though, leaving him behind and alone wasn’t likely to end well either.

There was also a kernel of truth in Tam’s reluctance to make the climb. The shadow walk spell had taken a toll on her and the extra time to rest was something she would appreciate. Plus it would be easier for two people to scout the ruins than for four.

“You two hang tight then,” Val said. “We’ll be back once we’ve found a safe route out.”

“How long should we wait?” Joe asked. “In case you don’t I mean.”

“I need to spend a couple hours working on some sleight of hand tricks,” Tam said, pulling a deck of cards from a pocket that Val was reasonably certain had been empty a few moments earlier. “If they’re not back by then, we’ll give the chimney a shot.”

“I’ll be in touch if something comes up,” Val said, tapping the earring she wore before leaping up to start as high in the chimney as she could.

She held off using any of the enchantments she was carrying. It was fun to show off but there were enough dangerous people in the ruins above that she wasn’t ready to spend any of her resource if she didn’t have to, and even without magical aid she was able to ascend the forty feet in under half a minute. Far from Olympic time, she knew, but then Olympic times tended to be under more favorable conditions and by people more practiced in speed climbing.

“So, Tam said we’re in part of the ruins that are still sealed,” Val said. “How do we get to the other side of where the vault door is?”

“We’ll need to find the main path that leads down to the lower catacombs,” Connie said. “How does Tam know about this place though? We came here hoping to discover it based on some random notes I found that an 18th century monk wrote. No one thought there was anything here, and she somehow has the blueprints for it?”

“More like a rough sketch of the setup,” Val said.

“Yeah, but where did she even get that?” Connie asked. “I mean if this place is well known, then somebody would have published something about it. There’s enough here to explore and catalogue to justify a lifetime worth of grants.”

“She talked to the people in the city below the catacombs,” Val said. “It’s how we found where you were.”

“Wait, the what now?” Connie asked.

“It’s probably something I should explain later,” Val said. “The short form is; the world is stranger than most people know, and some of the strangeness wants it to stay like that.”

“So you’re saying there’s a city’s worth of human beings who’ve lived deep beneath the Earth’s surface for years? Generations? Millenia? And you somehow have their phone number?”

“No,” Val said. “I mean, they don’t have phones, obviously, and also they’re not human. More like lava people I think? We didn’t have a lot of time to go over that, and Tam was very clear that bothering them in person would be a bad idea.”

“Lava people?” Connie asked.

“Yeah,” Val said and waited for the inevitable cry of ‘but that’s impossible.’

“Hmm, ok, that makes more sense,” Connie said with a shrug.

“It does?” Val asked.

“Yeah. Humans living exclusively underground for generations would have all sorts of problems, from fresh air, to viable food and water, to heat and pressure issues depending on how deep they were. Lava people probably don’t have to worry about any of that.”

Val watched as Connie inspected a section of the wall and slid it smoothly out of place, revealing it to be a long unused door.

Acclimating to the stranger aspects of working with the Second Chance Club hadn’t been too bad for Val, but that was largely because Tam and Anna had introduced her to the more fantastical elements they dealt with slowly. Connie didn’t seem to need any of that, or, Val wondered, had the crisis they were in rattled Connie’s hold on reality enough that anything seemed reasonable?

She watched Connie for signs of mania or dissociation, knowing that she might easily miss the clues due to her lack of training as a psychologist. Connie, for her part, was busy examining the carvings on the walls as they walked down a passageway that was flanked by empty rooms. She seemed normal, or at least what passed for normal in the short time Val had known her.

“I think the religious idea was right,” she said. “The carvings here look like they’re related to ones commonly found on tombs, which means this area we’re in was a reserved space, I think, separate from the rest of the living and work areas.”

They turned a corner to find a wide archway leading out to a large chasm. Once upon a time a bridge had spanned the chasm, but only a partial arch worked stone was left on each side, the center having fallen away completely. As methods of sealing one area of a complex off from the rest went, it seemed a pretty solid option.

“There’s another bridge below us,” Connie said. “That must lead to the catacombs Joe and Tam are in.”

“So we need to get to the other side to get down there?” Val asked.

“We could try climbing down, but I don’t like how the walls arc inward from here,” Connie said.

“Yeah, me either. Also, we don’t know if we can get out from that level either,” Val said.

“Only one way to go then!” Connie said and backed up a few paces.

“Wait that’s…” but Val didn’t get to finish speaking before Connie bolted forward like a shot.

It was an impressive leap by any measure. The gap in the bridge was wide enough that crossing it would have been impossible for most people. Where they would have fallen to their death though, Connie managed to make it far enough to hit the edge of the bridge and then grab on before falling back into the abyss below.

With a grunt and some annoyance at the pain, she began to pull herself up.

“Sorry,” she said. “It’s a bit farther than it looks.”

She was trying to protect Val. Val could see that. One person could sneak easier than two, and Connie looked to be the type who didn’t let others take on dangers when she could handle the danger for them. It was a nice thought. Val had a better one though.

With a few quick steps, she breathed in the scent of a spring meadow and bounded forwards with the proportional speed and strength of a jack rabbit. Her leap carried her across the gap, and down the far side of the bridge where she somersaulted to a graceful landing before scurrying back to the edge of the bridge and helping Connie get up safely.

“That was a good leap,” a man said in Spanish. “Maybe we can have some fun later?”

Val turned and noticed two important things. The man in the corridor beyond the bridge wasn’t alone, and he and his friends were all pointing their rifles at her.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 4 – Act 2

Connie wasn’t sure how she felt about being buried alive. On the one hand, it wasn’t exactly how she wanted to go. Too cramped and stuffy and no chance to say any last goodbyes. On the other hand, getting lost while on a secret archaeological dig was a pretty mysterious fate and, if she was ever found, there were so many amazing artifacts around her that she would be an instant celebrity.

“Something is moving out there,” Joe said. Joe had been hearing strange things every since they arrived at the dig site. He claimed that as a porter, site security was one of his responsibilities, and so he had to be extra alert. That didn’t explain why he spent half the night jumping at shadows, but also didn’t mean that he wasn’t occasionally right.

“More than one thing, I think,” Connie said. She didn’t want to panic the guy who was potentially the last surviving member of her expedition more than necessary, but given that they were holed up in a tiny crevice, deep within a hitherto unexplored cavern complex in the Peruvian Andes, and there seemed to be several zombies hunting for their blood, a fairly extreme amount of panic seemed quite reasonable.

Nails hard as steel scrapped on walls of the small passageway outside their crevice. Connie covered Joe’s mouth with her hand. The zombies, or whatever they were, didn’t seem to react to sound much but Connie wasn’t in the mood to take a lot of chances.

Inch by inch, in stuttering rasps, the scraping advanced, as though the creature dragging its claws across the stone was struggling through a great agony to move. It drew closer for several long moments before stopping and sniffing the air with a congested inhalation. Whatever it was looking for, it didn’t appear to find. Instead, it turned and began scraping away into the distance.

“What was that?” Joe asked, his face only saved from being ghostly white by the weird green illumination of the phosphorescent slime that grew in odd patches along the walls and provided the only light in the darkened caves.

“That was not our problem,” Connie said. “Whatever lives down here, was here before we arrived and will probably be here long after we leave.”

“Leave?” Joe held his voice below a scream but only with a visible exertion of will. “How are we going to leave? There’s no way out!”

“We got in, we can get out,” Connie said.

“Do you remember how we got here then?” Joe asked. “Because the last thing I remember was crawling into my sleeping bag and hoping I wouldn’t miss breakfast again.”

“Yeah, whoever, or whatever, took us did it in the middle of the night,” Connie said. “But, they kept us alive which means they want something from us.”

“Or they just want us to be lunch for whatever these things are,” Joe said.

“If we’re supposed to be food then we’d do just as good a job whether we were dead or alive, and dead would mean there’d be a lot less chance that we could get away,” Connie said.

She refrained from pointing out that there were several animal species which would only eat live food. If they were meant to feed things that were put off by the smell of carrion flesh then there’d be an excellent reason to leave them alive. That seemed unlikely enough that she didn’t need to worry Joe by sharing the information.

“Do we even know where we are?” Joe asked.

“In a cave,” Connie said, knowing it wasn’t a helpful response. “We can’t be far from the dig though.”

“How can you know that?” Joe lets his voice get louder, panic blinding him to the danger he was putting them in.

“They took us while we were sleeping,” Connie said. “I’m not a deep enough sleeper that they could have done that without drugs, and if we’d been drugged unconscious for a lengthy period of time we’d still be feeling it. Whatever compound they used has to be a short term thing. Also, I’m not starving. If we’d been out of it for days we’d be weak and hungry.”

“I just feel sick,” Joe said, his voice back to a miserable whisper.

“We’re going to be ok,” Connie said, patting him on the shoulder and giving him a confident smile.

“This doesn’t really feel anything like ok.”

“Believe it or not, I’ve been in worse scrapes before. There was this one time I fell through the ice in Antarctica and wound up trapped in freezing water beneath a glacier and surrounded by three giant squid.”

“What? Really?”

“Girl scouts honor,” Connie said. “Then there was the time I was skydiving and the plane I was on exploded before I got into my parachute.”

“Wait, I thought you were an archaeologist, why were you skydiving?” Joe asked.

“People can have hobbies,” Connie said. “And I’m not an archaeologist. I’m a librarian.”

Joe blinked and sputtered in confusion, before Connie held up a hand to explain.

“I was a dual major,” she said. “I know. It’s super nerdy, but I really like doing research. Technically I guess I’m both, but since  it my library position that pays a salary which I then spend on things like this, I get to call myself a librarian.”

“That’s…that’s not how libraries work is it?” Joe asked.

“There’s a secret to getting the job you want,” Connie said. “It’s real simple – basically know the right people and invent it for yourself. I wanted to be a archeologist librarian, and with years of study, the right friendly contacts, and a ludicrous amount student loan debt, that’s what I became.”

“So how did you survive?” Joe asked.

“Far too much Red Bull and almost enough full body massages,” Connie said. “Plus I stretched out the course work over another year so I could fit everything in.”

“No, I mean the plane,” Joe said. “How’d you survive it exploding?”

“Oh! Yeah, that was fun,” Connie said. “Well, I guess it’s more fair to say it disintegrated after it hit another plane, so that bought me about a half second. Wasn’t enough to get into the parachute but at least I had enough time to see where one was.”

“Why didn’t you have it on?” Joe asked.

“Because I wasn’t supposed to be skydiving that day,” Connie said. “So we crash, mid-air, thanks to the other guy being an idiot after the shortest half second in my life, the fuselage rips open and Mr. Air Currents say that outside is the place to be. I’m falling, our pilot’s falling, all of the divers are falling, and all our stuff is falling. The divers of course all popped their chutes because they’re not stupid. I was close enough to get to one of the falling chutes and get it strapped on enough to be functional. It’s really good I was a theater kid, I’d never have been able to change that fast otherwise.”

“What about the pilot?” Joe asked.

“Well, I was the only one who hadn’t opened their chute, so I got to dive for him,” Connie said. “Again, we were seriously lucky there. Derrick looked like the photoshopped version of a supermodel. He could only break into the triple digits for weight by wearing a wet parka.”

“You caught him?” Joe asked.

“Of course,” Connie said. “I don’t leave people behind.” She bapped him on the shoulder. “Even ones who are screaming in my ear the whole time.”

Joe managed a weak chuckle at that.

“So how do we get out of here?” he asked.

“Well, we start with what we know,” Connie said. “We were looking for some ruins. These are probably them. The room we woke up in had all kinds of amazing pottery in alcoves and the walls have the most fantastic art. So odds are good we’re somewhere below the dig site we were working on.”

“That makes sense. That means we go up?” Joe asked.

“Probably not,” Connie said. “Or at least not right away. Whoever caught us, put us down here for a reason. I’m going to guess the reason for that is because we were poking around somewhere they had something to hide.”

“Why not just kill us?” Joe asked.

“As a guess?” Connie said. “We don’t look that important. Gerald’s the dig site lead. The people who caught us probably want to know what he’s told the outside world about what we’re doing. We’re useful as a bargaining chip or to get answers from if Gerald won’t talk.”

“That means they can come and get us whenever they want,” An edge of panic crept back into Joe’s voice.

“Yeah, which is excellent,” Connie said. “If they can get us, that means we can get out. And if they’re intending to use us for leverage then they don’t think that the zombies in here will eat us right away, so we’re probably safe to move around.”

“But if they left us here doesn’t that mean they don’t think we can get out?” Joe asked.

“Well, they probably weren’t expecting us to get out of the ropes they tied us up in,” Connie said.

“They tied us up?” Joe asked.

“Yeah, you were still out when I came to,” Connie said. “I figured you’d be happier waking up and not finding yourself hogtied. Then I heard the zombies.”

“Umm, thanks,” Joe said.

“Let’s see if we can find how to get out of here, shall we?” Connie asked.

“I think we can help with that.”

Connie regretted the punch that she threw the moment the words finished registering in her mind. Appearances to the contrary though, her nerves were a bit too high strung for her not to lash out at an unexpected voice coming from deeper in the crevice.

Tam wasn’t surprised by the punch. She knew she was playing with fire by making a dramatic entrance. Connie had to punch past Joe to reach her though so she had plenty of time to step back and continue speaking before things got ugly.

“Sorry, that was mean to startle you like that,” Tam said. “You’re Constance Cruz and Joseph Guilder right? My name is Le Li Tam and I’m here to help.”

Connie’s brain wanted to lock up but she kicked her mental gears into action and they spun up a match on the name she’d been given.

“The magician?” she asked. “Like from Las Vegas?”

“I haven’t played in Vegas in a little while,” Tam said. “But, yeah, that one. I brought a friend too.”

“Is this glowing stuff radioactive?” Val asked.

In the dim light cast by the green slime, Connie saw an Asian woman and a Latina woman pressed into the deeper reaches of the crevasse.

“How did you get here?” Connie asked, reasonably certain no one had been in the crevasse when she’d pushed Joe into it. “Does this lead to the outside?”

“Not exactly,” Tam said. “I think the only path out is to either go down to the ancient city below us, which is probably a terrible idea, or to go back up through the ruins above, which will have its own set of problems.”

“Can we maybe move a bit?” Val asked. “I’m getting a rock wedgie standing here.”

Connie started to walk backwards and felt Joe slump against her. He’d passed out and was a lot heavier than he’d been when he was recovering from their drugging and had been able to partially stand on his own feet.

With a grunt, she supported his weight and dragged him out to the cavern tunnel outside the crevasse. Tam and Val joined them moments later as Joe began to come round again.

“So, you’ve got a lot of questions,” Tam said. “The important ones are why are we here, and how are we going to get out. The answers are; to help you because we need your talents, and with as much stealth as we can manage.”

“Stealth? Was I wrong about the zombies?” Connie asked. “Do they want to eat us?”

“Well, they’re not zombies, but they’re not the problem,” Tam said. “It turns out there’s a small army just a few hundred feet above us in the ruins you were looking for, they’re all armed, all pretty cranky, and all ready to shoot anything that comes out of this place.”

“No! That would be terrible!” Connie said.”They might hit some of the relics!”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 4 – Act 1

For Anna, walking through the oncology ward was like walking through a whole night of bad dreams. As she passed empty beds and heard the quiet and all too familiar sounds of the monitoring machines at work a host of bad memories leapt out at her. They belonged only to her past, they held no claim on her anymore, but the echoes of old terrors and pains hadn’t faded away despite the decade that separated her from laying in one of those beds herself and hearing those monitors tick away her fading life.

That she came bearing good news gave her strides purpose and strength but there were too many full rooms she had to pass by for her to retain any illusion that the second chance she carried wasn’t just as needed by so many others.

“The Garcias will be happy to see you,”  Chantel, Anna’s primary contact among the nurses, said.

“Getting to present news like this is it’s own reward,” Anna said. “I feel like you should be the one to give it to them though.”

“I think Maria will believe it more if it comes from you,” Chantel said. “I’ve had to tell her that a shot wouldn’t hurt too much one too many times now.”

They arrived at a room where a family had gathered around a young girl who was hooked up an IV.

“Auntie Anna!” Maria said as soon as she caught sight of Anna’s white hair. “Did it come in yet?”

“Maybe,” Anna said, allowing a heartfelt smile to crack the frown that had clutched her lips. She waggled an envelope without looking at it, before smiling again and passing it over to Maria directly.

“Is it good news?” Sylvia, Maria’s mother, asked.

“Yes,” Anna said. “Maria’s tumor matched the genetic profile they were looking for. She’s a viable candidate for the gene therapy treatment.”

There was a round of cheers from the family, excepting only Syvlia who was too overcome to speak. She turned to sit on the bedside chair, covering her eyes, as silent sobs of relief shook her shoulders.

“This means I’m going to get all better right? So I can take ballet then, can’t I?” Maria asked.

“Get well is still going to be a journey, it’s still going to take a lot of work and being really brave to get well” Anna said. “But this is like putting you in a race car!”

“What about a motorcycle?” Maria asked. “You said you ride a motorcycle, and you beat your cancer, so I want to be like you!”

“You’ll have to ask your mom about riding a motorcycle,” Anna said. “But I think we can arrange for some ballet training sooner than that.”

“How soon?” Maria asked, with just as much patience as a healthy six year old would have shown.

“I don’t know mom,” Anna said, turning to Sylvia, who had recovered but was still torn between crying and smiling, “Think you can spare her tomorrow afternoon?”

“What? So soon?” Sylvia asked.

“Well, the Bolshoi is only going to be in town for a couple of days,” Anna said, to which Maria squealed in delight.

Plans immediately began to be formed around seeing the world famous ballet company, which let Anna step out of the room with Chantel to give the Garcias time to absorb the happy news they’d been given.

“It’s days like this that make it worth it,” Chantel said, the proximity to the Garcia’s joy putting a warm smile on her face.

“I wish I could do the same for everyone here,” Anna said. “No one should have to fight a battle like that.”

“Yeah, but remember, we are fighting it,” Chantel said. “I don’t come in here every day because I have a ward full of people dying on me. I come in because little by little we’re beating this thing. I’m not going to lie, some days we don’t win, and those are hard. But every year we make things a little better. Used to be nobody walked out of a place like this. Now? It happens more often than it doesn’t, and that matters. Each time we win it matters, and each time we lose we grieve, but we keep moving forward and someday we’re going to kick cancer’s ass so hard that it won’t be any worse than getting the sniffles.”

“The future you see is wonderful, I want to be a part of it,” Anna said. “Until then though, if there’s anyone else like Maria who needs some help getting through all the red tape and financials, don’t hesitate to call me ok?”

“Of course,” Chantel said. “I already got my second chance, gotta make sure to share the love as much as I can.”

***

Zoe was waiting for Anna in the parking lot, the rental car purring as Zoe pulled it into place just as Anna reached the sidewalk pick up point.

“You look a little more relaxed,” Zoe said. “I take it Maria was happy with the news?”

“It’s hard to say if the treatment was the real winner, or the backstage access with the Bolshois,” Anna said. “Thank you for setting that up.”

“Thank you,” Zoe said. “It’s nice to get to use my connections for something good for a change.”

“One little signature and you could be doing this sort of thing all the time,” Anna said, buckling in as Zoe pulled away from the curb.

“It’s tempting,” Zoe said, traffic parting for her as though she were a visiting head of state. “You’ve made a wonderful case for the virtues of your club.”

“But not wonderful enough?” Anna asked, knowing the answer but curious as to the reason.

“Perhaps too much so,” Zoe said. “Your damnable honesty is wearing off on me. I’m finding it harder to deceive myself than it used to be.”

“What deception can you no longer cling to?” Anna asked.

“When I worked for PrimaLux, I convinced myself that what I did was what anyone would have done. That my actions were right and necessary for the circumstances I was in,” Zoe said. “There was just enough truth in that to shield me from the deeper reality. I didn’t have to see that I was happy to play the game and destroy those who could present a challenge to what I held because I value myself above all else.”

“That doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive with giving to others,” Anna said. She sought for a feeling of disappointment but her heart knew Zoe well enough after months of companionship that there was no surprise in Zoe’s refusal to join the Second Chance Club. All that rose from the depths when Anna looked into her heart was a subtle pleasure at seeing Zoe’s growing awareness of her own desires and truth.

“Yes, but while I find acts like helping Maria delightful, I know it’s not what calls to me,” Zoe said. Her easy tone spoke of confidence and certainty, but she had worn those feelings as a facade for so long that they were as true as any other element of her persona. In a few lingering pauses though, Anna could hear the whispers of worry that crept in the shadows of Zoe’s mind.

“Have you decided what lies ahead for you then?” Anna asked. Zoe had drifted after the fall of PrimaLux, content for a while to watch life as an outsider after Anna had cracked the foundations Zoe’d built a career and life upon.

“I enjoyed being your rival for the brief time we fought,” Zoe said. “So I think that’s what I’m going to do again.”

There was a sly undercurrent to her words. It carried both an unspoken challenge and a wordless hope.

“Interesting,” Anna said. “I suppose you could pick up the piece of PrimaLux, weld them back together into a small and yet no less dangerous entity, but I believe you’ve moved past that.”

Zoe was silent but her smile confirmed Anna’s statement.

“You want to form your own club then?” Anna said. “One that will outshine the Second Chance Club and all the work I do?”

“You’ve shown me how rewarding helping people can be,” Zoe said. “I can do the same, but I need to be helping my people. I don’t mean to own them. I mean for them to be my people because the effort comes from me, because I have chosen to include them in the world I’m building.”

“And what about those you chose to leave out?” Anna asked.

“To win, I can’t leave out anyone who needs me,” Zoe said. “The people aren’t what is important to me though. Their happiness is simply the coin I can collect to compete with you.”

“And what happens if you should win?” Anna asked. “Will that be the end of your good works?”

“I can only win once we are both passed on,” Zoe said. “So yes, once I am gone my works will end and a final tally can be made. It won’t balance out what I did for PrimaLux, but that won’t take away from the victory I intend to claim.”

“My best part in your life will be as an enemy then?” Anna asked, unsure of the answer she was hoping for.

“No,” Zoe said. “As a rival. I…you are not someone I want to be enemies with.”

“Have a left you afraid of me?” Anna asked.

“I’m not afraid,” Zoe said, “Except of losing you.”

“I’m not sure we can ever be just rivals,” Anna said, and saw a flash of worry ripple across Zoe’s face. “I have friends I am close to, people who are dear to me, but there are only a few that I’m able to invite into all the parts of my life.”

“Is that what I am to you?” Zoe asked, her voice softer than it had been.

“I think I would like to see if you are,” Anna said. “If you’re inclined to be both rivals and something more?”

Zoe relaxed and allowed a sunny smile to lit on her lips.

“I believe I am,” she said. “Being your rival inspires me to be more than I am and whatever our ‘something more’ might be, I think I’d like to discover it with you.”

***

Anna was late the next morning getting to the Second Chance Club’s staff meeting. That proved to be fortuitous as it meant that Tam had the extra time she needed to assemble the presentation they were reviewing.

“Sorry,” Tam said, and clicked ‘Send’ to deliver the slides to everyone else’s laptops. “I got derailed on this for a bit dealing a bank standoff.”

“That sounds dangerous to tackle alone,” Val said, starting to review the slides.

“Oh, this was in Montreal,” Tam said. “I just gave some of our members who were on site the info they needed to talk the hostage taker down.”

“That is part of the reason I asked you all to come in to day,” Charlene said from the speaker phone in the center of the table they were sitting around. From the background sounds, she was still in Puerto Rico helping with the rebuilding efforts to restore power to the island.  “I’ve been tasking you all, and Tam especially, too much lately.”

“Thanks,” Tam said. “But it’s ok. The work we’re doing really can’t wait.”

“That is also true,” Charlene said. “But it doesn’t mean you need to do it alone.”

“I’ve been bringing in the Club’s members on as many projects as I can,” JB said.

“They’re a resource we will continue to need to utilize,” Charlene said. “Ultimately however, we need more than they can provide. That is why I’ve been searching for candidates to form another team of associates.”

“We’re going to bring on another Tam?” Val asked. “Is there really anyone like that anywhere though?”

“No, not another Tam,” Charlene said. “You all have unique gifts and talents. None of you are replaceable. There are however different options for how a job can be done, and other people who can help carry the load that you’ve been shouldering so far.”

“Have you found any promising candidates yet?” Anna asked. The prospect of having some more free time than they’d enjoyed in recent months wasn’t entirely unappealing in light of the new phase her relationship with Zoe was entering.

“I have, her name is Constance Cruz, and I believe she can help relieve the strain Tam is under,” Charlene said. “There’s only one problem. As of noon today, she was reported missing from the dig site she was working at in Peru. In fact no one was found at the dig site at all when their supply van arrived. Just their tools and supplies. Everything else and everyone else was gone.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 3 – Act 4

There were two hours left until Anna arrived with the former citizens of Bright Springs. Statistically speaking, there was almost no chance that a disaster would occur the moment they arrived. Tam was sure of the math on that. She was just as certain though that whatever strands of magic had led to the Mare Luna Estates being the townsfolks new home weren’t going to ground themselves out harmlessly without a bit of help.

“How are these people moving in here tonight?” June asked. “There haven’t been any sales yet. Are they just going to be squatting in the houses until everything  gets put together properly? Will everything get put together properly?”

Tam didn’t fault her for asking. Werewolf or no, June still had to consider the property value of her house if she was going to put three kids through school.

“That would be my fault,” Jimmy B said. He’d joined them as soon as he could but between being farther away and not quite as fearless a driver as Tam was, he’d lagged a good bit behind them. That the delay also meant he wasn’t on the front line for facing the werewolves and didn’t have to enter the scene until any hostilities were resolved was, almost certainly, just a side benefit.

“You talked with the developers?” Henry asked. Tam could see the incredulity in his eyes. Housing developers were difficult to get ahold of under the best of circumstances, and should have been impossible to contact after business hours closed, not to mention the various other parties that would need to be brought in to complete a deal of that scope. Jimmy B had a gift though.

“Yeah, Marty sends his regards,” Jimmy said. “I guess they’ve been having a hard time moving this units, so getting the houses offloaded all at once like this is going to keep him afloat through the balance of the year and beyond.”

“When did you start putting this together?” June asked.

“Around 6:00 I think?” Jimmy said.

“This morning?” Henry asked, astounded.

“Oh no, that would have been easy,” Jimmy said. “Tam gave me the call around 5:30 tonight.”

“But that was only a few hours ago,” June said. “Real estate doesn’t move that fast.”

“It helps to have friends in the right places,” Jimmy said. “And a real estate lawyer on speed dial.”

“Can you work some more of that magic and see about getting the basic supplies they’ll need?” Tam said. “We can worry about clothes later, but food, water, soap, towels, toilet paper…”

“Already ordered and on a truck,” Jimmy said. “I need to check in with some folks, but it should get here just before they do.”

“Excellent, then that leaves paying a visit to Tartarus Technologies,” Tam said, and picked up her racing jacket.

“I’m with you,” Cynthia said, standing to join her.

“Thank you for all this,” Tam said, addressing Henry, June and the kids.

“We haven’t done anything though,” June said.

“You listened,” Tam said. “That counts for a lot.”

***

The Tartarus Technologies grounds weren’t just landscaped. Every green and growing thing on the lawn leading to their research building was sculpted and constrained, wires choking off the growth of trees, hedges trimmed into perfectly regular shapes which might have held artistry if they weren’t drenched in an omnipresent sense of constraint and control. Nature was allowed on the premise only in servitude to the will of its corporate master.

“Who are you here to see?” the guard at the checkpoint leading into the facility asked.

“Kevin Weist,” Tam said, naming the facility’s Director of Research and Development.

“Ms. Greensmith?” The guard asked after finding their name on a name on the approved guests list for the evening. That should have been enough but he looked at the bike and Tam’s passenger for a long moment.

Tam paid no mind to how strange she and Cynthia appeared, she was certain weirder people had shown up at the facility before, and instead nodded at the fake name.

“Mr. Weist is in the main building,” the guard said and passed them through. His job was not to question the whims of his superiors just to do what the system told him to do.

There would be photos of their arrival. Those photos would, sadly, be lost in a hard drive crash in two hours. Tam didn’t have any particular reason to secure her identity against Tartarus but given PrimaLux’s track record she didn’t see the need to take any chances either.

Weist wasn’t waiting for them at the door, which didn’t surprise Tam. He wasn’t aware they were coming. She could have included him on the meeting that she booked for them, but something told her he would have been conveniently unavailable if he caught wind of who wanted to see him.

She signed in herself and Cynthia at the main desk and collected their badges before claiming a space in one of the boardrooms.

***

It was late at night, far past working hours, so when Kevin Weist got a high priority meeting reminder telling him that he had fifteen minutes to be in Boardroom A, he at first dismissed it as a glitch.

Five minutes later it reappeared and he read it but dismissed it again, thinking someone had entered the wrong time for a meeting the following day.

Five minutes after that, the meeting reminder appeared again but this time when he tried to dismiss it his computer froze and a woman’s voice said “don’t keep us waiting any longer Weist.”

Boardroom A was on the ground floor, but Kevin managed to make it there before the final five minutes ran out. When he caught sight of Tam and Cynthia, clad in motorcycle gear, with their helmets on the table, waiting for him, he pulled up short.

“What is this? Who are you?” he asked.

“Zoe Skillings and Claudia Goodwin sends their regards,” Tam said and was delighted to see the names of the former Director of PrimaLux security and Vice President of R&D still held weight with their subsidiaries.

“We’re not affiliated with PrimaLux anymore,” Weist said.

“No, you’re not,” Tam said. “Which means you’re also not affiliated with their investment backing anymore either. From what I can see in your ledgers you haven’t been operating without anything like a sustainable amount of revenue since Tartarus was founded, and the investment nest egg you did have is pretty well dried up isn’t it?”

“Our accounts are not publicly available,” Weist said.

“It’s adorable you think that,” Tam said, “But it doesn’t change that you’re out of money and scrambling for anything that might let you keep the lights on until about next Thursday or so I believe?”

“Why are you here?” Weist asked. “Is this a buyout offer?”

“A midnight buyout?” Tam said. “That would be fairly classic I suppose, but, no, we’re here about another matter. You are primarily a bio-tech researcher company, which means you have access to all sorts of legitimate specimen samples, so can you tell me why you’re stealing cows?”

“I’m sorry, what?” Weist asked.

“Cows,” Cynthia said. “Several have gone missing from local farms. It’s caused at least one that was on the edge to close, and we’ve got tire tracks from the most recent one which match the tracks for your fleet trucks.”

“Why would we steal cows?” Weist asked, genuine confusion clouding his face.

“Bio-weapon research?” Tam said. “I know that’s not on the official corporate prospectus but it didn’t take much digging to find that you have a number of bio-weapon programs currently under development.”

Weist looked back and forth between the two women, his night turning into one of the few nightmares that hadn’t been plaguing his sleep recently. The weight of the failing company bore down on him, crushing his resolve, and his instinctual refusal to acknowledge Tam’s claim crumbled with it.

“No,” he said. “It can’t be them.”

“Are you sure?” Tam asked.

He rose and went to the door before saying “Come with me.”

Tam and Cynthia were treated to an elevator ride down to an unmarked sub-basement. When the doors opened, a broad and well lit lab was laid out before them with a few techs still inside, behind partitions which could stop an armored tank from breaking through. The techs inside were clad in the sort of environment isolation suits that made Cynthia curl her toes in jealousy.

Weist spent the next fifteen minutes pointing out the security features, their backups, the backups to the backups, the failsafes for when all the backups failed, and the monitoring systems which monitored the monitoring systems that ensured everyone was following proper protocols every second of the day.

“This is not the kind of work someone plays around with,” Weist said.

“What sort of plagues are you developing?” Tam asked.

“All of them,” Weist said. “Potentially. Our focus is actually on developing cures, but we can’t do that without active test specimens. Typically those are laboratory breed mice, but we also work with bird specimens and chickens. Cows however do not fit within the control requirements for the research we’re doing.”

“Why not?” Cynthia asked.

“Because we can’t guarantee that we can keep control of sick animals of that scale in this facility and without the guarantee of keeping the animals isolated we can’t risk exposing them to the pathogens we’re developing treatments for.”

“And no one’s cutting corners thanks to the budget woes?” Tam asked.

“No,” Weist said. “We’d never get FDA approval to move onto a new testing stage unless we could show that we conformed to the proper standards.”

“And what about the products which don’t require FDA approval?” Tam asked.

“Well for those we have a different…” Weist trailed off as the answer came to him, “facility.”

“Need to make a phone call?” Tam asked.

***

They arrived at the Tartarus Technologies Agricultural Products Research Center less than thirty minutes later. Unlike the main corporate office, the Agricultural Products building was little more than a renovated farmhouse and barn tucked away on an open patch of land in the Vermont woods. It had a few cars in it’s small parking lot, a hen house which was presumably full of sleeping hens, and glowing cows.

“Should those be doing that?” Cynthia asked, pointing at the frankly adorable bovines that shone with various pastel lights.

“I’m going to guess that this is their big new breakthrough?” Tam said.

One of the researchers picked that moment to exit the farmhouse and, seeing Weist advancing with a murderous look in his eyes, exclaimed “Wait, boss, I can explain everything!”

***

“And could he?” Anna asked.

“Not well enough to keep from being fired,” Cynthia said.

“Apparently the Agricultural Products division’s great idea for keeping the company solvent was to diversify out into performance enhancing drugs which could escape detection by the current suite of monitoring tests,” Tam said.

“It’s a sadly lucrative market,” Anna said. “But, glowing cows?”

“They were testing the effects on cows before they went to human trials,” Tam said. “I don’t know why they picked cows, maybe it was just intuition that something was wrong in the formula? Or maybe just desperation? In any case, the stolen cows began mutating. Fortunately the mutation is a fairly benign one, unfortunately it rendered the cows useless from a testing perspective and difficult to dispose of.”

“It sounded like they were still hoping to figure out what went wrong from them too,” Cynthia said.

“So what will become of the cows now?” Anna asked.

“They’re going back to their owners,” Tam said. “Weist thinks they’ll spark some tourism and there’s probably a few papers to be published around them. Tartarus won’t be the ones to get the credit there though. They’re essentially bankrupt now.”

“Yes, I mentioned that to Zoe,” Anna said. “I believe some new investors will be stepping in tomorrow before their experiments need to be shut down and destroyed.”

“Sounds like Zoe’s getting a bio-tech company at a bargain price then,” Tam said. “Was she setting us up for this?”

“I’m not sure,” Anna said. “I’ll have to ask her at the ballet next week.”

“Would she tell you something like that?” Tam asked.

“I believe she would,” Anna said. “That’s part of what we’ll be working out I think.”

“Wasn’t she your mortal enemy a few months ago?” Cynthia asked.

“Yes, but everyone deserves a second chance,” Anna said.