Chapter 04: Once More into the Darkness

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Enzo felt like he was made of glass. Very brittle, thin, easily broken glass. The medical technicians had fitted him with three separate IV drips, each of them slowly leaking a different fluid into his bloodstream. He had no idea what they'd done, but they made the pain in his chest and head recede, brought it back down to tolerable. When the ache in his shoulder flared up again, he made them give him a shot of morphine. Two, actually: one in his shoulder, the other at the base of his spine. He'd fallen asleep after that, and when he woke up, he felt better, but still hungover. Everything had a slight ache to it and he could still feel the distant pulse of agony in his shoulder. It was back down to a tolerable level but he knew that wouldn't last.

Now he stepped into the chilled, brightly lit confines of a briefing room. He'd slipped into a black jumpsuit trimmed with silver, ready to get the show on the road. This mission was big and important, he could feel it. He studied the others, sitting around the table, and came up short. Greg, Drake, and Trent were all present, as was Hawkins, in his usual place at the head of the long slab of polished oak they'd taken to sitting around for these briefings. Enzo slid into his usual chair and crossed his arms, staring around the table.

"Where's the others?" he asked.

"Allan is still recovering," Hawkins replied. "And Genevieve is busy."

"And Callie?" Enzo pressed.

"She's helping Allan recover," Hawkins said. "Now-"

"Whoa, hold up. Since when do we have permission to hang out with our significant others all of a sudden? Is there some reason you want her-"

"Enzo," Hawkins said suddenly, "shut up. Now, as I was saying. We've had a big break. We've had a huge cache of data for a long time now, since before we recovered all of you. The problem was, it was all encoded, and we didn't have a cipher. We've had our codebreakers, both human and robotic, working on the problem round the clock, but it became obvious that we'd need the cipher. We found it aboard the Stygian, the vessel Allan was aboard last week. Now we've cracked their database wide open," he explained.

"What'd you find?" Greg asked, leaning forward.

"A lot of the data was redundant or useless. Most of it simply confirmed what we already knew: that all the cells were working together towards a larger goal. A lot of the data referred to the various experiments they were conducting. Interesting, but useless towards actually discerning their overall plan. However, we've found several references to 'ancient artifacts'. Unfortunately, we don't know what the hell they do or where they even really came from. Obviously, this is a problem. But we finally hit upon a bit of luck yesterday.

"There are another set of artifacts from the same era, but they do something different than...whatever the hell the other ones do: they serve as databanks. If we can get our hands on one of these other artifacts, we can discern what the first set do. I ran the information through the GA, it took about an hour of screaming and threatening, but I finally pulled it out of them that there are two such artifacts in their possession, being researched on isolated worlds. I'd ask them to bring both here, to me, but..." Hawkins chuckled, reached into his front pocket and pulled out a long, thin cigar. He lit up with a slab of brushed steel that Enzo had seen him use from time to time. It was an old, battered lighter, likely in the old man's possession for decades.

"But I don't trust them to do that. Fucking bureaucrats can't be trusted to get anything done quickly. So I'm sending you all out in speedships. Enzo and Greg are going to recover one artifact, Trent and Drake another. I want double coverage on this one, no fuck ups."

Hawkins took a deep breath, inhaling smoke and then blowing it out his nose. He stared around at each of them. His gaze lingered on each individual, and Enzo suddenly got the impression that he was somehow judging them all. Not a good sign, that meant something had changed. Hawkins let everyone know where he stood with them and vice versa, he was blunt like that. Enzo knew that if he didn't trust everyone in this room, at least to a certain degree, he wouldn't let them be involved with the missions they were running.

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