(If you want, buy their previous rampages for $2 by clicking on the covers below.)
“For the last time, this isn’t a crop circle.”
“But I see circles and these are what used to be crops.”
“It’s probably nothing more than the range of a centralized sprinkler.”
“Are you sure?”
“Enough to end this conversation.”
Cassidy takes her time putting extra clips in her jacket pockets and strapping a belt of shotgun shells to her waist. Standing among the knee-high plants, most of which are herbs for cooking, the mercenary cannot shake the feeling that they are staring at another trap. Erected in the middle of the field is a cylindrical building with a radio antennae and thirty satellite dishes on the roof. The hum of several generators can be heard from the other side of the structure, the sound occasionally replaced by the hiss of sparks. A rickety helipad comes off the far edge, the metal girders beneath groaning whenever the wind blows. Every window is blocked by drawn curtains, each floor having a different color that ranges from burgundy to eye-gouging fluorescent orange. There are bird nests on each floor, but the travelers see no signs of the owners. In fact, they gradually realize that they have not seen a single animal since they stepped into the large field. As the pair get closer, they stumble over the remains of an irrigation system that has been broken and left to rust. They follow the path to a discarded sprinkler tower, which shows signs of having been on fire at one point.
Lloyd cautiously taps at the entrance to make sure it is not electrified or booby-trapped, but nothing happens. The lack of danger amplifies his worry, so he politely holds the door open for his partner. Cassidy rolls her eyes before shoving him ahead and narrowly getting inside before the door slams shut behind them. They can hear the locks click and a pneumatic hiss emanates from every window frame. Looking around the lobby, they see an assortment of desks and chairs. Two collections of cubicles are along the back wall, the groups flanking a red-colored elevator. Signs pointing to a cafeteria, bathrooms, and stairs are hanging from the ceiling, but their lazy spinning makes it impossible to tell where they are supposed to be aiming. The central desk has a mannequin behind it, the faceless figure posed to look like it is answering a phone that is upside down in its hand. A slinky dress is sloppily draped over the statue, which sends a shiver down the pair’s spines. Taking another step inside, they stop at the sound of a dull whirr that comes from high above.
“Over here!” a young man shouts from one of the cubicles. He bangs on the plexiglass door and metal roof that prevents him from leaving. “My name is Billy and you need to pick me to get out of here. It’s the only way to reach the next level.”
“Don’t listen to him!” a young woman interrupts from her own prison. She presses her hands against the door, but pulls back when she hears something beep. “I’m Phoebe and it’s better to save me. I can lead you to the roof or wherever you want to go. He’s just a failed comedian while I’m an actual reporter. They put him in here because he isn’t funny. I’m only caged up because I asked Johnathan Custer a question that he wasn’t ready for. That’s what reporters are supposed to do, right? Proves I have more integrity than some court jester in a torn suit.”
“It wasn’t torn when I bought it.”
“Still not funny.”
“Well, I guess I should sleep with my contacts like you.”
“Go ahead. Beats your silly accents and addiction to stereotypes.”
“That hair color goes-”
“A blonde joke? Really?”
“I haven’t eaten in two days, so I’m not at my best!”
Lloyd and Cassidy try to ignore the prisoners, who continue yelling ridiculous insults at each other. Their attention repeatedly comes back to Billy and Phoebe since there are no other clues in the lobby, except for the constant whirring noise. There is nothing out of the ordinary about the shouting captors, neither of which look very dirty or show signs of abuse. Billy repeatedly scratches his short hair, making them wonder if he has lice, but it becomes clear that it’s nothing more than a nervous tic. He constantly laughs at his own jokes, sometimes before he gets to the punchline, which infuriates his fellow captive. Not to be outdone in terms of irritating quirks, Phoebe tries to win the argument by becoming louder and forcing her voice to become a higher pitch. Her suit is in better condition than Billy’s, but there are tears that show she was violently manhandled at some point. The woman punches the wall with enough force to shake the cubicle, which hints that whoever attacked her did not get away unscathed.
“Would both of you idiots shut up?” Cassidy asks in a mellow tone. Getting no response, she fires into the air and startles the prisoners. “We need to get into that elevator, so you need to tell us what to do. Sounds like we can only save one of you, but that’s pretty vague. How does this work?”
“I’m glad you asked!” a voice says from a loudspeaker. It is unclear if the stern and stuttering person is male or female thanks to the static. “These are rules made by Rosemary Pepper, who is me. There are two drones flying around the room. Catch the comedy one and Billy is saved. Catch the tragedy one and Phoebe stays alive. Attempt to break them out and the explosives behind their cubicles will go off. Try to break a window or escape our media empire and you will be gassed. Force the elevator doors open and you will fall into a shaft. Now, you must choice who lives and who dies. Can you live with such a decision?”
“Pretty sure you’re over a decade late with that question,” Lloyd replies with an amused chuckle. Staring at the ceiling, he finally spots the two drones hovering behind one of the large lights. “Have to admit that I’m surprised. This is a devious trap that would be a nightmare for anyone with a strong hero complex or a solid sense of morality. Even for people like us, it’s a tough one. We finally ran into an enemy that’s smart and cunning. I was worried that we’d be fighting dumbasses this whole time.”
“Do you think I did good, boss?” Rosemary asks over the loudspeaker. A distant voice responds, followed by a burp and a fart. “Sorry about that, boss. I had too much licorice this morning. Of course, it’s a viable breakfast. It’s food and I’m sure some fruit went into the strawberry kind. It’s just a little gas . . . why am I hearing my own voice? Did I leave this on again? Oops.”
“So much for an intelligent enemy,” Cassidy says as they listen to Rosemary fumble with the microphone. An ear-wrenching screech echoes throughout the lobby before the loudspeaker goes dead. “The one we catch is the one we save. I say we go through that door and use the stairs. We can free these two on our way out. It isn’t like this is going to take more than a few hours.”
“I like that plan,” Lloyd declares as he heads for the door. He grabs the handle and jumps back when it falls off the solid wall. “Maybe we needed to bomb it? Really hope a creepy hand doesn’t drag us back to the entrance. Seriously though, I think we have to play the game. I vote that we save the guy because people would expect us to save the woman. She’s probably booby-trapped, which is a phrase that came out wrong. I’m just going to stop talking now.”
Cassidy pats her friend on the shoulder as she heads for the central desk. “Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. Think I saw something under here as we passed by. Now, my plan is simple. We catch the drones at the same time. In theory, if you do that then both prisoners will be saved. Either you have a problem with that?”
“I’m not much of a fan,” Billy admits while raising his hand. He jumps back when a drone races by his cubicle. “What if Phoebe and I draw straws or flip a coin? There has to be some way to make a decision. We could even vote.”
“Or you can just save me,” the woman replies with a sneer. Taking a seat on the floor, she watches their potential saviors pull out a pair of butterfly nets. “It really comes down to who you think will help you the most. With me, you get experience, mild loyalty, and contacts. People here still like me even though they call me a traitor. I’m sure I could talk you into wherever you want to go. Not to mention I could interview both of you and get a real scoop. The country needs to know about the two who threaten President Custer. So, we each have something that the other wants. Billy will simply run out of the building and cower in the fields. You get nothing from him.”
Cassidy silences Phoebe and makes Billy yelp when she throws a coffee mug at the other woman’s cubicle. Rubbing her temples, the mercenary considers saving the more tolerable young man, but feels that she has to try for both. Standing next to Lloyd, she tracks the drones that are no bigger than a pigeon. They dart behind furniture and soar toward the ceiling, making it impossible to reach them until they come back into the open. When the partners split up, the drones move to the middle of the lobby and hover. Without fail, the machines escape when their pursuers return and go back to flying in random patterns. Losing their patience, Lloyd and Cassidy give chase and try to herd their elusive prey into the same corner. They trip over chairs and knock over tables, the frustration-fueled pursuit ending with the friends crashing into each other. The machines making a circle around the groaning pair, their mocking movements continuing as they move out of reach.
Muttering curses and tossing her net away, Cassidy takes the shotgun off her back and flicks the safety off. She aims at one of the drones and follows it, her finger rubbing against the trigger instead of firing. Walking closer to the middle of the lobby, the mercenary waits for the machine to get lower and holds her ground when it buzzes the top of her head. Knowing that it is trying to bait her into shooting, Cassidy calms down and slowly turns in a circle to keep her eye on her target. She hears the second drone coming behind her, but ignores it until the other one makes a sudden charge. At the last second, she drops onto her back and fires to hit both of the machines in one blast. For the first time, she notices a crying mask sticker on one and a laughing mask on the other, the symbols too small for her to see without stopping the device. The realization causes her to worry as the drones crash into the floor and burst into flames.
“I don’t think we were meant to save either of you,” Cassidy announces as a red light spins above the elevator. She watches the prisoners pound on the walls, both of them glaring daggers at her. “I’m sorry. How could anybody know which one they were going after until they stopped a drone? The symbols were so small and on the underbellies. Hopefully, taking them both out will confuse the system and set you free. Wait, why can’t we go in through one of the side walls since-”
Cassidy’s words are cut off by the sound of spinning blades, which come from Billy’s cubicle. The young man leaps onto a shelf-like desk before the floor opens and lets in the deadly trap. On the other side, Phoebe gasps for air and scratches at the walls, a vent in the back wall pumping out a mist-like gas. Not wanting them to suffer, Cassidy loads her shotgun and takes aim at Billy’s cubicle, but stops when she remembers the explosives. Lloyd spins her around an instant before the desk falls away and drops the screaming comedian into the giant blender. They no longer see or hear Phoebe, her body masked by all of the poison that is flowing throughout her cell.
“And now you must live with all this guilt!” Rosemary announces with a laugh. She clears her throat and hits a button, which does nothing more than make a loud beep. “You see, boss, the trick is that there was no way to save either one. Both traps were set to go off if either drone was stopped. One would simply wait five minutes for the person to leave, so they go on thinking they made a mistake. I hear my voice echoing again. Oh, for fuck’s sake! Can somebody give me a label gun or something?”
“That makes me feel better, but only because I’m angrier,” Cassidy growls as they head for the elevator. She is about to hit the button for the next floor when Lloyd suddenly steps back into the lobby. “What’s wrong? There’s nothing else we can do here. Are you afraid that this is a trap too? Sounds like the person is supposed to move on to something, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Just a weird thought,” the serial killer admits while getting back on. He fills his paintball gun and draws his machete, the look on his face betraying his anxiety. “It’s just that it was a very sadistic entrance test. Even by my standards that was sick and disturbing. So, what kind of people are on the upper floors? I mean, they would have had to do the same thing and they wanted to be a part of this. So, what do you think we’ll have to deal with?”
“Remorseless killers,” the mercenary casually answers. Checking her handguns and counting her ammunition, she jumps at the sound of a distant crash. “All we have to do is stick together and fire at anything we don’t like. Not the best strategy, but we’re trapped in a tower with these people. Honestly, I don’t think it will be that bad. What’s the worst that can happen here? Oh, stop cowering in the corner, you big baby.”