Ever since the "apprehension" of Crowbar, operations for Heaven's Legacy had been executed like clockwork. In the last month alone, two hovercraft hackers and the entire system of drug dealers in this district had been caught or chased out. Crowbar's inside information wasn't always detailed or extensive, but it always provided results.
The informant wasn't just "dishing dirt" to hold up his end of the deal, though. Currently he was holding his latest "trophy" from the last of the local cocaine kingpins, twirling the plasma pistol around his finger. His original theft, the experimental alloy, remained on his other wrist in its chain form. "Yo, Leah," he said from his seat on the couch, "What's the next thing we're doing?"
Leah Cim put down the cloak-and-dagger camera he was working on and replied, "Until we have processed the information from Angie's reconnaissance flight and guarantee that this neighborhood is clean, we do not proceed with any missions."
"If I call a cleaner ship, would that make you feel better?"
Leah swiveled around in his chair with a hard look on his face.
"Sheesh, no need to get serious. I'm just saying why aren't we all out there?" asked Crowbar. "Why's it only Angie? You have your set of wings, and I have—"
"Because she wanted to stretch her wings by herself for once," Leah snapped in answer. "Would you begrudge her this luxury?"
Crowbar drew back in his seat quietly with flushed cheeks. "No…"
"Then wait. Besides," (he looked at his watch at this point) "she should be back any minute now."
"What makes you say that, Leah?"
"It was only a surveillance mission tonight, something that not even you would take more than two hours on."
Crowbar snorted before answering, "Oh, ha, ha. Just because I'm the only grounded guy…"
A flutter of wings sounded from outside, and a white feather floated through the window of the lounge.
"Speak of the—" It wasn't just because of Leah's lack of a practical sense of humor that Crowbar failed to finish this figure of speech; it was because the finisher and the new arrival were on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Pretty soon Angie walked into the lounge, her wings tucked in close to her body and the recording collar (well, more like an ornate necklace) in her hand. Despite having been out for nearly two hours (and been in flight the entire time, if her consistent performance record remained intact), her face still retained its softness.
Turning around in his swivel chair and seeing Angie's smile brought one to Leah's face as well. "How was your flight?" he asked. Business was before pleasure in his book, after all.
(Crowbar's book wasn't so orderly [or bulky] as the dictionary. Then again, he knew better than to have his cover fly open needlessly.)
"It was wonderful," answered Angie. "The sky was so clear and calm, and the stars were so beautiful…" She knew enough of Leah's habits to know to hand him the recording device before her descriptions.
"Glad you enjoyed it," he replied after her moment of bliss recall. By this time he had opened the device and retrieved the data chip. It wasn't long before it was inserted into his laptop. His fingers moved deftly over the keys as he brought up the video captured.
Getting up from his chair, Crowbar walked over to review the video himself over Leah's shoulder. (Angie took up the abandoned couch.) It was his duty at this point in investigations to provide a second set of eyes in the analysis. However, even he had to admit that the video feed looked clean of any suspicious activity. Hardly anything moved throughout the entirety of the film aside from a few cars, a white van, and three pedestrians on the sidewalk.
Nothing might have gone off in Crowbar's radar, but a red flag went up for Leah: the symbol on the white van marked a villainous group worse than all of their captured thugs put together. "Grab your supplies," he said upon rising from his chair. "We have new business to attend to."
"Why? What's wrong?" asked Angie.
Leah turned to her with a brief pause, replying to her query with another question: "No one looked up at you, did they?"
Even his more-than-normal serious tone didn't faze her as she answered, "Of course not. I made sure not to fly below the field of discernable vision, just like you told me, just like I have been."
"Well, we aren't taking any chances," Leah announced. "Our enemy is coming to our doorstep."
Now Angie was starting to understand the severity of the situation. She drew back a little, mumbling, "You don't mean…"
"Yes. Future Pharmaceuticals has begun investigating us."
"Wait, what's the big deal? So a legal drug company truck has started making rounds here, so what?"
Looking at Angie shaking in her seat was enough of an answer for him. "I can't go back there, I can't!"
"We won't let the capture you," Leah assured her, "but we are going back. We have to in order to prevent them from finding out about us and capturing you here."
"'We'? You mean we're all going on this one?" Crowbar's question had the tone of a child's Disneyland proposal.
Leah nodded in reply, barely needing two seconds to respond. "Prepare yourself and meet me in the foyer."
Crowbar's face lit up with the prospect of action. "Alright! I've been hankering for a job this big! He darted out of the lounge and made a mad dash to his room.
Now came the hard part: motivating Angie to go wouldn't be easy. Walking up to her, he began by saying, "I know you would never even think about going back there, but this time you aren't alone. You have Crowbar, and you have me." He placed both of his hands on her shoulders to reinforce this point. "We need to do this to give ourselves time to truly shut them down before they discover this place. If we can get them to worry more about themselves rather than us—"
"But these aren't like the criminals we have been dealing with," Angie told him. "They aren't disorganized cutthroats: they value failsafe security over money. It was a miracle that I escaped last time."
Leah couldn't help but smile at this last remark. "Apparently you've forgotten what we call ourselves, Angel," he said to her. "We are Heaven's Legacy; we excel at making miracles happen." A slight smile formed on her lips, and Leah could feel her body start to calm down. "As I promised, I won't let them capture you. You're more than some experiment, you are a person who needs the opportunity to stretch your wing and fly." He eased his hands off of her but held one out to help her up.
She took this offer and got to her feet. Her mellow smile matured as she said, "Tanks, Legacy."
There was no doubt that Angie would be going, but the look in her eyes told Leah that she was still a little apprehensive about the idea. He couldn't blame her and didn't want to influence her emotions. Only on this decision did he need to persuade her: in order for him to keep her safe, she had to stand up for herself.
"What's taking you two so long?" Crowbar called from the first floor. Pick up your pants so we can get going!"
The two left in the lounge smiled to each other before leaving to prepare themselves.
Another door opened before Leah. "I have cracked e-mails more complex than this ancient mess of encryptions," he muttered to himself. He replaced the fingertip on his right-ring finger hack tool and advanced further into the complex. Angie followed closely behind, wings curled in tightly.
Crowbar brought up the caboose of the infiltration train, spinning the pistol around his finger with a frown and a lazy look in his eyes. "Sheesh, even for a nerd fight this is boring. Does anyone even work here?"
"Not at night," Angie replied. "They rely on their network of cameras and security measures with their 'valuables', not manpower when it's this late at night."
"Wow, all this time, and you're still up and all this." (Crowbar had been brought into the loop on Angie's "relationship" with this facility during the initial approach.)
"Old wounds seldom leave without scarring," Leah informed him, flexing the joints in his hand. Turning to Angie he asked, "Are we close?"
Angie chanced a glance around them, again dipping into the memories she had kept bottled up for so long. She could feel the sweat return to her face, the physical manifestation of her past fear and nervousness from the last time she traversed these hallways. They had been left black after a lightning strike had cut the power to the facility. It was extraordinarily good luck that it had been her check-up day, as if it were divine intervention…
A hand on her shoulder brought her back to the present. "Yo, girl, he asked if we're close."
Stabilizing her fluttering eyes, she said, "Yes, yes, we're close."
Leah smirked to himself at how his daydreaming habit had rubbed off on her, but he kept it hidden so as not to mistakenly show amusement in her emotionally vulnerable state.
She did speak the truth, though. Even though every door in this hallway was evenly spaced with no features different from any of the others, she still singled one out. "Anonymity was one of their passive security devices," she explained.
"Vacuum sealing as well," Leah noted. "All of this thinking behind their security, and they still resort to these antique keypads." Still, he removed the alabaster tip of his left middle finger and began opening the outdated device with the revealed Phillip's head screwdriver.
Crowbar turned away with arms folded. "I still don't see why we don't just bust it open instead of taking forever to each keypad." The alloy, disguised as a chain around his wrist, quivered in agitation. It, too, was looking for some action.
The second screw fell away before Leah shook his head and said, "As I told you the last four times: the less impact we leave, the less likely that we'll raise an alarm."
"This coming from the dude with no fingerprints…"
By this time the number panels had been completely removed. Turning completely to Crowbar, he hissed, "If you want to handle this delicate operation yourself, be my guest." He moved aside and allowed access to the bare panel.
Cracking his knuckles and grinning, Crowbar chuckled. "Thought you'd never ask." The alloy melded into a ball in his hand as he stepped up to the "naked" panel. All of the electronics were exposed, a miniature playground almost built for the billions of nanobots he held. "Go play, boys," he said as he held the ball up to the panel.
Like a rolling wave crashing onto a beach, the metal sphere surged into the circuitry. Small sizzles could be heard as the inner workings were assaulted. Leah was skeptical as to whether the alarm wouldn't be touched, but Crowbar was visibly more confident in his trued-and-true crew. What they lacked in size they made up for in an efficient, delicate touch.
All at once they rose to the surface. Some rose more than others, forming a checkmark pattern on the rectangular metal face. "There we go," he crooned, holding out his hand to collect the liquid metal. "Door disabled, and it'll take 'em a solid week to work out all the kinks. None of this black bandit's burglaries were ever bungled by these guys."
"Even the one where we caught you in the grocery store?" Angie asked.
Crowbar could feel himself blushing at this comment, but the smile stayed on his face. Only because it was her would he let her get away with it. She needed the laugh in this place.
"Shall we continue?" questioned Leah impatiently. He tried the door to success and pushed through it to the room beyond. Crowbar and Angie followed behind closely.
The smell they encountered was not unlike what Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory must have been like. Bones, blood, saltwater, and mysterious chemicals produced an almost palpable odor of murder and mystery. Computers, test tube-laden tables, and cages of all builds lined the walls. Within the cages were figures just as diverse!
"And I thought my life sucked," remarked Crowbar.
"Barbaric," was Leah's response. "Men of science treating living human beings like prisoners, like monsters!" The bare bone skeleton in one of the cages prompted him to say, "And they don't even clean the cages out once the occupant has deceased! What age is it for these men? The Spanish Inquisition, the Holo—"
"If I wanted pity from the first guests in ages," a voice out of thin air snapped, "I would have asked for it upon arrival."
Both of the boys looked around in astonishment. To the best of their eyes, everyone in the cages was asleep for the night. "Who said that?" Crowbar questioned.
A grinding sound echoed from the bones as the skull angled itself towards them. Two red lights lit up in the sockets as the voice sounded again: "Me, geniuses; although more of us should have woken up after all the bickering you were doing."
Leah stepped back in astonishment with his hand pensively on his chin; Crowbar leapt back with shock slapped on his face; Angie was the only one who kept calm enough to speak. "Hello, Raphael."
The skeleton's demeanor seemed to shift as the angle of his skull moved. The rest of the bones shook as the entire construct stood up, dressed in little more than a tattered rag of a shirt. "Well, if it isn't our little angel fallen back into this hell. Here I was thinking we'd never have to see you again from these cages."
"You seem to have gotten used to your new body," Angie complimented him. "Your movements are much more fluid than when I left."
Blinking back into the present and walking into the conversation, Leah asked, "You know him, Angie?"
"Angie?" Raphael bent down his skull to appear to grin. "Well, I guess it's better than Project Nevaeh; more normal-sounding."
"Yes," Angie answered to Leah, "He was a new experiment when I left: NG010."
Raphael growled at the codename. "My name is Raphael Ethan Per; not NG010, not Project Magneto."
"I'm sorry, it really has been a while."
"Indeed. Project Hell-Spawn escaped the year after you did (the kind-hearted brute). No bad news about him to this day. In your places, they 'adopted' another genetic misfit. You remember Codename: Reverse-Incubated Lifeform? The scientists and the boys called her CRIL, but you called her—"
"R-I-L?" A light went on in Angie's eyes.
"Ariel, I'm guessing?" Leah hazarded a suggestion.
Raphael nodded. "One in the same. The newer guy keeps her company, Codename: R-I-L-Evolved."
"A male mermaid?" inquired Angie. "Ariel has a boyfriend now?"
"Riley, by the sound of it," Leah added.
Crowbar listened to their conversations from the background, not believing his ears. Here they were talking to a skeleton about mermaids. Coming down here was like walking into a fairy tale. Angie was one thing: a human with wings grafted to a modified set of elbow blades and a slightly bigger bust to compensate for the weight. Hardly any realistic theories could be conceived for the rest of them, however, and it was about time someone called them on it. "Alright, I know the whole 'anything is possible' thing; but this is ridiculous! How are you able to move, let alone talk?"
"I was expecting that question out of him," Raphael replied, indicating Leah, "but I guess being around Angie long enough to construct his own wings deluded his skepticism. Still, I suspected that question would come up sooner or later."
"As much as I would like to listen to that story, now isn't the time," Leah informed them, looking to his watch. "We need to get at least one of you out of here, a solid crippling of their research."
"I nominate myself," suggested the skeleton. "You aren't getting the mermaids out of their tank easily, and I'm the only one self-sufficient in existence and not going to go insane and rip your head off."
Leah couldn't dispute this, and Crowbar wasn't willing to look around and find out if his words were true.
The decision was left up to Angie. "Alright, you can come with us," she told him. "But I don't see—"
"Excellent." Raphael detached his hand at the base of the arm bones, dropping the hand to the tile floor. A swift kick sent it through the bars. One piece at a time he disassembled himself to hand off each part to Angie. Soon only his spine, skull, and ribcage remained behind bars.
"I was going to say, 'I don't see the keypad to open your door'."
Heaving a sigh, Raphael explained. "It's an arbitrary computer code. Not even I know what it is. Those foolish doctors made my vision too good, but they made their security even better after you left."
Suddenly, as if on cue, the lab was flooded in red light and drowned in the sound of a siren. The lights in the skull leered at the other boys as the voice demanded, "Did one of you idiots trip the silent alarm?"
Angie looked horrorstruck by the news. "There was a silent alarm?"
"They installed it after Project Hell-Spawn escaped during his midnight examination. (Seriously, whose bright idea was it to examine him at the time of the eclipse?) By the time the real alarm sounds, the security forces have already arrived on the scene and stormed the building from all entrances. Now I'm going to be punished, and it's going to be your fault!"
"We have no time to point fingers," Leah shouted. "We have to get out of here!"
This was easier said than done. "How do you think we're going to do that, genius?" asked Crowbar. "Most likely the computers have locked down in this alarm, and my bots can't function in this level of noise!"
"Perhaps I can be of assistance."
All four of them turned to the unfamiliar voice, to the figure none of them had noticed or even seen before.
"Ugh, don't tell me you were sloppy enough to be followed," groaned Raphael.
"What makes you think this is our fault?" shot back Crowbar. "None of us have ever seen this person before; right, guys?"
"I don't show myself freely and bestow my blessing to everyone," the tall, dark woman replied coldly. "However, I find myself in need of assistance in a matter I by myself can't fix."
Arms crossed, Crowbar didn't look too happy about being insulted. "Can we at least know who we're working for?"
The mysterious woman bowed slightly with hand to her chest in an introductory gesture and replied, "You may address me as Lady Ink. I provide order and structure to the Book of Stories, the tome of any and all tales that have ever been told."
Crowbar rolled his eyes. "Great, we're being recruited by some librarian."
Keeping her composure but showing obvious displeasure, Lady Ink said, "Apparently you need proof of my power." She strode through the group in her formal black and red dress and approached the cage containing Raphael. Both of her hands she placed on one of the bars. Closing her eyes, she gave it a heave and almost effortlessly tore it off of the cage! The end was placed against the ground as she held it like a staff.
Angie stood blinking in disbelief at the taller woman's finesse in dismantling the prison (partially though it was). Not one of the other New Generation test subjects had even bent the bars, let alone loosed one.
Raphael was left equally speechless, Leah was also impressed, but Crowbar still wasn't convinced. He grabbed the bar next to the missing one and gave it a heave. The bar remained rigid. Placing his foot against the next bar, he tried again to pry his loose. Again he failed. "Okay, this one isn't rigged."
"Then stand aside," commanded Lady Ink, sweeping him aside and handing him her makeshift staff. She took hold of the now-tested bar and gave it a clean jerk. This time the bar came off just as cleanly and gracefully as before. "Satisfied?"
"I believe our client-to-be has proven herself," Leah flatly stated.
There was still a question that Angie felt needed asking. "What will we be doing for you, exactly?"
Lady Ink handed the other broken bar to Crowbar (Raphael sneaked through the hole created in his cage in order to reassemble himself completely) before she said, "I must make sure that you can hear and understand first." By the way she looked up, it was obvious that she was referring to the alarms still blaring. A snap of her fingers caused a spark, and the security measures shut off in response. (It remained something of a mystery that the mer-people hadn't been woken up in the ruckus.)
"But what about the security forces?" Angie nervously questioned.
Her answer was a glance towards the door and Lady Ink's words: "The lock has already been fixed."
"No way!" raved Crowbar, dropping the metal rods in his hands. "There is no way that you could have—"
"Do you really want to challenge her?" Raphael asked, getting back to his feet. "You don't know what else she's capable of doing."
Crowbar folded his arms over his chest and turned away, grumbling to himself the whole time.
"As I was saying," Lady Ink began again, "your mission will be to assist in repairing the Book. My brother and I cannot linger long enough to do any good before we are forced to leave."
A groan could be heard to this as Crowbar placed a hand on his face. "Great, more impossibilities. We're supposed to play librarians ourselves, only fixing books from the inside? What kind of idiot do you take me for?"
"An idiot who turns his brain off to possibility," answered Leah. "Obviously this woman has powers that can't be understood in an instant, but we should give her the benefit of the doubt that her story checks out. She is helping us with this job, so we shall take the one she's offering us."
"I hope you know what you're getting us into," sighed Crowbar, "because I don't."
A smile at last came onto Lady Ink's face. "Excellent. To aid your quest, I shall bestow upon your group a gift." Lifting her hand, she brought the two prison poles into her grasp. Her other hand brushed against them like an artist's classic tool. Her breath eased out of her as she closed her eyes and regained seriousness in her face. Delicately the metal bars were shaped like clay, like a smatter of paint between her brush and palette.
Once it was properly softened, her delicate touch turned deliberate and severe, solidifying the steadily reducing mass the more she made it take shape. A few sparks escaped the steel like the embers from a blacksmith's hammer strike. No time was needed for the cooling in this case, and soon she held out the finished product to Leah Cim. "I present to you the Construct, Angle."
Leah looked in scrutiny at the gift, a flat metal shard in the shape of an L. It was a beautifully crafted piece of single steel metalwork, but it just didn't seem impressive for all of the work she put into it. He knew the old phrase about looking gift horses in the mouth, but…
"Well, if you aren't going to take it, I will!" Raphael said. He clenched the Construct in his bony fist. As soon as he held it to his face, it gave off a faint glow and began to expand! Some coloring returned to it, and one of the extensions became more triangular in shape. By the time the transformation ceased, it had become a scythe!
"The Construct changes to suit whoever holds it," Lady Ink explained. "If it is damaged or broken, it will no longer transform until it is repaired."
Sharp rapping against the door interrupted her. "It seems time is short," she said. She held out both of her hands before her and created an oddly-colored portal. "This will transport you all into the book. Everything will be made clear to you once you are inside."
Leah and Angie needed no convincing before they ran into the portal. Crowbar begrudgingly followed, hand over his eyes in disbelief at what he was doing. Raphael stared at the portal with a hint of intrigue in his skull. "I didn't think that I was leaving through this door, but I believe it is time to get going." He placed the blade of the Construct scythe on the ground. It flashed again before shifting into a two-wheel scooter. (Little alteration was needed, so the change time was shorter.) A foot on the base and a push against the tile saw him through the portal.
With her newest champions on their way, Lady Ink turned towards the locked door. The forces on the other side were beginning to cut their way through with plasma cutters. "Such a mess these children make," she muttered to herself before disappearing.